As the Oscars approach in 2010, and I furiously watch the remaining films from 2009 that may or may not be nominated, I realized that we’ve just closed out a decade of filmmaking, and it was one that has shaped my high school, college, and beginning of my adult life. I decided to compile 50 films that influenced this era of my life in some way or another.
50. Shaun of the Dead
The best comedic zombie movie until Zomieland decided to steal its thunder. Simon Pegg discovers a zombie invasion halfway through the film, and his first instinct is to use old records to fight them off. I still can’t listen to “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen without thinking of bludgeoning zombies with a pool cue.
49. Hotel Rwanda
One of the most intense films I’ve ever seen, Hotel Rwanda follows Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle) through war-ravaged Rwanda as he struggles to save the lives of fugitives in his hotel.
48. Slumdog Millionaire
Bridging the gap between Hollywood and Bollywood, Slumdog Millionaire is part gameshow, part love story, and part coincidental luck for our young hero, Dev Patel.
47. The Ring
Before you die, you see the ring. I was terrified of this film in high school, and it was one of the first mainstream techno-horror movies. Also, it set the bar for creepy kids with Samara’s waterlogged hair-in-the-face look. This was the last movie that gave me nightmares, and I love it for that.
46. 28 Days Later
I guess if you don’t call them zombies, and call it a disease (The Rage), then the infected can be freakin fast! A new zombie movie for a new generation, and a killer soundtrack to boot. The English are doing it right.
45. The Wrestler
Micky Rourke’s comeback film. An agonizing story about loss, aging, and passion. I think I even shed a tear during his final scene, with “Sweet Child ‘O Mine” playing in the background. Never thought Axl Rose would trigger that emotion.
Pixar, you can do no wrong. A fun tale about fine dining involving an inept teenager and his beloved pet mouse (Patton Oswalt). I never thought a movie that showed rats cooking food in an expensive restaurant would be not only accepted, but loved among children and adults alike.
43. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Before Sherlock Holmes and Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr. was a washed up drug addict. His return to cinema was sparked by this film, a witty murder mystery costarring Val Kilmer and Michelle Monaghan. Just Downey’s narration alone is enough to make this movie worthwhile.
42. Requiem For A Dream
Here’s an uplifting tale. Whether it’s cocaine, heroin, or pills, we see the effect drugs have on four individuals in a depressing downward spiral. Seeing this one time is all you really need to get the picture.
41. The Darjeeling Limited
Wes Anderson does it again with a journey through India by train. Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, and Adrien Brody are the three brothers trying to reconcile their differences in a quirky, colorful landscape. And yes, most of the soundtrack is played through Schwartzman’s iPod dock.
A cast of only four: Jude Law, Natalie Portman, Julia Roberts, and Clive Owen. This is what happens when relationships fail. I found myself disgusted with all four by the end, but I could relate to all of their actions.
39. V For Vendetta
A graphic novel adaptation that actually worked (yes, this is a jab at The Watchmen). Hugo Weaving and Natalie Portman (I know, this is the third Portman film in a row) take on an Orwellian Great Britain in this dystopian story, packed with mystery, action, and lots of cool masks.
38. 24 Hour Party People
Manchester: the birthplace of Factory Records (Joy Divison, New Order, Happy Mondays) and rave culture. We follow Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan) as he spearheads a musical revolution, while maintaining his role as a complete douchebag to his wife, friends, and bands on his label.
37. The Royal Tenenbaums
Wes Anderson’s break into the mainstream, this colorful family is filled with big name actors, great music, and outrageous costumes (how about Ben Stiller’s jumpsuit?). It even makes things like incest, attempted suicide, and terrible parenting come across as light speed bumps in an outrageously wild family.
Sugar-coated in a cute garbage-sorting robot, Pixar subtly shows us what the world is going to look like in a few hundred years (Earth covered in garbage, and obese Americans living on space cruise ships). I don’t know how they do it, but I even thought the robot romance was cute.
35. Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Kill Bill Vol. 2
An epic revenge tale, Tarantino delves into his martial arts passion. Uma Thurman has it out for David Carradine, and won’t let any of his assassins stand in her way. Lots of swordfighting, hand-to-hand combat, and arterial spray.
Charlie Kaufman’s autobiographical tale, showcasing an insecure Nicolas Cage writing himself into his own script, while also playing his more outgoing and successful brother. Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper are a superb supporting cast in hunt of the white orchid.
33. Almost Famous
As a teenager, Cameron Crowe had a stint following the Allman Brothers and writing for Rolling Stone. This is his story, a unique coming-of-age tale about rock and roll journalism and life on the road. And man, Penny Lane. Every teenager’s dream girl.
32. Man on Wire
A wacky French tightrope walker gets it into his head that he’s going to walk from the top of one of the World Trade Center tower to the other. This documentary is almost too outrageous to be real, and encourages you to follow your dreams, no matter how crazy they might be.
31. Into The Wild
Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch) is an idealistic college grad who donates all of his money to charity and departs with no possessions across the country determined to live apart from society. His idealism leads to his tragic demise in the Alaskan wilderness. I even gained some respect for Eddie Vedder for his awesome soundtrack.
30. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
A tribute to Jacques Cousteau’s marine archeology films of the 1950’s, this dry comedy showcases Bill Murray at his finest: an aging, sarcastic and depressed explorer struggling with a son he never knew he had. As with all of Anderson’s work, it’s loaded with colorful costumes, family relationships, and a great soundtrack (Portuguese David Bowie?)
29. The Motorcycle Diaries
Before Benicio del Toro showed the rise and fall of Che Guevara in his bland 5 hour epic, Gael Garcia Bernal played Guevara in his pre-guerrilla On The Road phase. A compassionate doctor, Guevara travels across South America by motorcycle, driven by the urge to revolutionize the way the governments treat poverty.
Pixar, pixar, pixar. Move aside Disney, because we have a new champion of family-oriented stories. In Up, a widowed man (Ed Asner) decides to follow his dream to travel to Peru by tying thousands of balloons to his house and flying there. Talking dogs, rare giant birds, and an annoyingly cute boy scout fill the supporting roles.
Woody Harrelson kills zombies with a banjo, drives a huge hummer, and is driven by a terrible Twinkie addiction. This film is a blast to watch, and the cameo is one of the best I’ve ever seen in modern cinema. Also, fighting zombies in an amusement park? Amazing.
26. Waking Life
Richard Linklater tackles lucid dreaming in various animated philosophy lectures. The main character jumps from topic to topic, each one an independent outlook on the concept of lucid dreaming, while trying to wake himself from a seemingly neverending unconsciousness. I’ve also heard theories that this entire film takes place in the seconds before death.
25. The Departed
Scorsese’s triumphant Best Picture, with a star-studded cast (Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, Leo DiCaprio, Alec Baldwin, Mark Wahlberg). This police vs. mob story shows the double-edged sword of undercover infiltration on both sides of the law. Action-packed, and full of surprises.
24. No Country For Old Men
Javier Bardem is the most sinister assassin portrayed on film, with the terrible haircut to boot. The Coen Brothers adapt this Cormac McCarthy book into a cat-and-mouse chase through Texas and Mexico, while Tommy Lee Jones proves to us what the film’s title means in his hopeless effort to bring justice.
23. Mystic River
Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon, and Tim Robbins are three childhood friends haunted by a horrible event from their past. After the death of his daughter, Penn is determined to catch the killer, even if it deteriorates his relationships with his old friends in the process. Clint Eastwood (directing) and Dennis Lehane (writing) are a powerful team.
22. Gangs of New York
Daniel Day-Lewis is Bill “The Butcher” Cutting, a native New Yorker who puts the Irish immigrants in their place in nineteenth century America. Leo DiCaprio becomes Scorsese’s new golden boy as Bill’s apprentice. The brutality of the gangs is accentuated by the absence of guns. So yeah, knives, maces, axes, you name it. That’s why they call him The Butcher.
21. Battle Royale
Imagine a 9th grade class in a futuristic Japan that must pay for their bad behavior with a fight to the death on an isolated island. Everyone is given a random weapon, from a crossbow to a taser to a pair of binoculars. Last one left alive wins. Okay, good luck!
20. Children of Men
For an unstated reason, the future of the human race has been halted due to the infertility of every woman on Earth. When Clive Owen finds a pregnant woman, he must protect her at all costs from the violent warfare going on all around him, as well as the militant government. There are two shots in this film that last for 15 minutes without cutting away. Watch the special features about them. It’s unbelievable.
19. Inglourious Basterds
In Quentin Tarantino’s rendition of history, Hitler is taken down by a group of Nazi scalpers led by Aldo the Apache (Brad Pitt). His nemesis is Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), a hilarious Nazi general with a penchant for sniffing out Jews. It’s self-indulgent, violent, and the funniest film Tarantino has ever made.
Brad Pitt again, this time as Mickey, the Irish boxer. Guy Ritchie’s finest film has interwoven storylines involving hoards of characters centered around a diamond heist. The humor and action are a step above his debut, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and Pitt’s indiscernible dialogue makes him one of the most colorful characters I’ve seen on screen.
17. The Dark Knight
A decade list wouldn’t be complete without The Dark Knight. It set the bar for superhero films, with the late Heath Ledger playing a believable and sinister Joker. A psychopath with no fear of death, his tongue snakes around his lips as he describes how he got the scars on his face. Christian Bale and Aaron Eckhart are superb costars. It’s going to be hard to make another Batman film after this masterpiece.
16. Lord of the Rings Trilogy
Nerds unite! As an avid fan of the books, I’m pretty equally obsessed with the films. It would be unfair to rank one of the films above the others, so all three hold their place as the fantasy epic of the decade, equivalent in popularity and production to the original Star Wars trilogy. As I write this list, I’m watching an annual LOTR marathon in the freezing rain of January. Endless replay value.
My favorite documentary of all time, Dig! follows the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre on their respective paths of success and self-destruction. Entertaining and ultimately heartbreaking, this is what happens when drugs, success, and creative control collide.
14. Sin City
Frank Miller’s graphic novel is brought to life by Robert Rodriguez and an unbelievable cast (Bruce Willis, Micky Rourke, Clive Owen, Jessica Alba, Rosario Dawson, etc). Three different storylines, all shot in black, white, and red, cast a noir-esque feel over everything. It’s even more powerful with whispery internal dialogue.
13. Pan’s Labyrinth
When reality is bleak (a violent Spanish civil war), a young girl (Ivana Baquero) retreats into a fantasy world filled with giant frogs, talking faunas, and creepy hairless cannibals with no eyes. A strict dichotomy between what is real and what is fantasy, Pan’s Labyrinth is the escape everyone would wish for when confronted with the reality of totalitarian violence.
12. Donnie Darko
The trendy Jake Gyllenhaal flick that made room for Tears for Fears and Frank the giant bunny in indie pop culture. Skewing reality and time travel, the storyline of Donnie Darko can be interpreted in many different ways. The dream sequences with Frank are super creepy, and the supporting cast of teachers and self-help promoters (Patrick Swayze included!) seem eerily out of touch with Donnie and his troubles.
Gus Van Sant’s biography of Harvey Milk is a revolutionary true story of the struggle for gay rights in San Francisco. Starting on a small scale, Milk manages to establish the gay community in the Castro district of the city. He eventually gains enough power to be the first openly gay elected official. His tragic death makes him a martyr for his cause, and an inspiration for gay rights in America.
10. Vanilla Sky
The Tom Cruise film everyone loves to hate. Vanilla Sky (an adaptation of the Spanish Abre Los Ojos) is an insightful look into the future of technology, and what can be perceived as reality or fabrication. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot without revealing the twist, but there’s a good amount of Sigur Ros and Tom Cruise with a deformed face. What more could you want?
Amelie (Audrey Tautou) is the innocent girl that every guy is in love with and every girl wants to imitate. She plans out an intricate puzzle to win the heart of a photo collector after finding his lost album. She’s creative, warm-hearted, and selfless. The film has not only a great soundtrack and colorful cinematography, but also interesting characters like the “glass man” and the brutish grocer. I’m also fairly sure this film started the “roaming gnome” trend.
8. Let The Right One In
In the frigid snows of Sweden, a strange young girl moves in next door to Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) who has a peculiar habit of staying in during the day and drinking blood to survive. It’s the story of how a vampire would survive in today’s society, trapped in the body of a twelve year old girl. As Eli (Lina Leandersson) and Oskar become close friends, he learns about the hardships of her lifestyle and what that means for their relationship.
7. The Fountain
Darren Aronofsky’s fantasy epic is one of the most underrated sci-fi films ever made. It follows Hugh Jackman as a botanical doctor struggling to find a cure for his ailing wife (Rachel Weisz). Within this storyline, Weisz is writing a novel about a hero’s quest to find the Tree of Life (also played by Jackman) in ancient Mexico. In a third parallel, Jackman is a futuristic space traveler (or is this his “infinite” self?) catapulting to a nebula in order to save a tree he is studying. All three storylines struggle with the prospect of death, while Weisz encourages Jackman to accept death as an inevitable state of being. It is beautifully written, visually amazing, and Clint Mansell’s soundtrack is grandiose. Too many people have written this film off for the wrong reasons. It’s absolutely stunning.
6. Big Fish
When Tim Burton stepped out of his dark, pseudo-horror mold to make Big Fish, he created a colorful world full of giants, Siamese twins, and towns with grass instead of roads. Albert Finney plays the elder Edward Bloom, an old man on his deathbed trying to reconcile his relationship with his son (Billy Crudup). His younger persona is Ewan McGregor, involved in unbelievable tall tales. At the end of the film, when Crudup comes to realize his father had been telling (mostly) the truth all the time, there is a tear-jerking tale, told this time by Crudup, in the style of his father. Big Fish is a beautiful movie, and I think it’s Burton’s best work.
The groundbreaking film by Christopher Nolan that follows Guy Pearce backwards as he tries to seek revenge while living with short-term memory loss. He tattoos clues on his body about locations and names, searching for his wife’s killer. Joe Pantoliano is the cop trying to help him, but can he be trusted? The ending has a superb twist that trumps most other surprise endings I’ve ever seen.
4. Mulholland Dr.
What a weird movie. When I first saw David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. I didn’t know what had just happened. Was it a dream? What’s with the cube? Who is that cowboy? What’s with the guy behind the dumpster? Scenes in this film are downright creepy, and there’s a loose plot involving an aspiring Hollywood actress (Naomi Watts) and the sinister inner workings of the industry. Like many movies already listed, there is a struggle between what is reality and what isn’t. Are we sensing a theme yet?
3. There Will Be Blood
Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is an oil tycoon in early 20th century America. He knows how to turn a profit, and has no moral qualms about using his son, religion, or innocent landowners to do so. Paul Dano plays the naive young preacher Eli, trying convince Daniel to turn to religion. Without seeing the big picture, Eli is abused by Plainview’s greed, along with most of the other townsfolk. This is the portrayal of the ultimate villain. Daniel Day-Lewis shows absolutely no compassion or sympathy for other human beings. He calculates his action so that every move he makes will result in profit. The very last scene shows the length Plainview will go to simply get his point across.
2. City of God
The gangs in City of God, based on a true story in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, make Scorsese’s gangs pale in comparison. We follow Rocket, a young photographer, as he grows up watching his brother rob milk trucks in the village. When his childhood friend Lil Ze starts killing at a young age and takes over the local coke ring, tensions rise in the city. Though stylized, the characters are based on real people, and the fighting is still going on in the slums to this day. We can only find solace that our beloved narrator has had the chance to live through this horror and document it in photo journalism. There aren’t many more films out there that are this intense.
1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
This masterpiece by writer Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondrey is the most realistic look at a relationship I’ve ever seen depicted on film. Jim Carrey is an insecure Joel Barish, wallowing in his loneliness and sporadically writing in his journal. Kate Winslet is the spontaneous Clementine Kruczynsky, bringing unpredictable flair to Joel’s life. In a unique twist, Clementine has the memory of Joel erased after their relationship ends, so Joel decides to do the same. In Joel’s unconscious mind, we follow their relationship backward, through the breakup, the building tension, the arguments, and nights out. We see Joel pine for Clementine as his best memories of her are wiped away. In a world where this concept is not so far fetched, it calls into questions the substance behind a relationship, and what it would mean to simply cut someone completely out of your life in an instant. Seeing this film right after the end of a rocky relationship made it that much more meaningful, and I haven’t seen a movie since that I loved this much.