New(er) Classics.

The end of another year (and, perhaps more notably, another decade) is upon us, and as always at this time of the year, I find myself looking back and evaluating my “progress,” as it were. But as this is a movie blog, I’ll save self-analysis and retrospection for my personal blog, and instead take a brief look back on the decade in film.

One hears the term “instant classic” thrown about quite a bit in criticism, but when considering which films will, in later years, be looked back upon as seminal or important movies to define and mark the first decade of the twenty-first century, everyone has a different opinion as to what those films will or should be. Having read several film critics’ end of the decade lists for the most notable films of the past ten years, I wondered what ten movies would make up my personal list. What films released from 2000-2009 were the best films in my estimation? What films stick with me? Which do I watch repeatedly? And which do I think will eventually be considered “true classics” in their own rights?

Try coming up with your own list, and you’ll see how truly difficult it is to pare down to a mere ten. In the meantime, I offer my best effort at listing my ten favorite movies of the “aughts” (these are in no particular order, other than the order in which they occurred to me).

1. Brokeback Mountain. Yeah, it’s the gay cowboy movie to some (and the people who label it so are generally those who refuse to actually sit down and watch it). But it’s so, so much more. It’s one of the most emotional love stories ever put to film, twisting the prototypical “star-crossed lovers” trope to great effect. A beautiful film, and the performances, particularly that of the late (and dearly missed) Heath Ledger as stoic cowboy Ennis del Mar, are stunning. One of the biggest mistakes the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has made in its eighty-plus year history was in awarding Best Picture of 2005 to the deplorably overwrought Crash instead of this breaktaking piece of art.

2. The Incredibles. Dare I say it? The “aughts” was THE decade for groundbreaking animation, films that are not only technically superior, but well-written, moving, hilarious, surprising achievements in movie-making. In a decade including such future classics as the imaginative (original) Shrek and Ice Age films, the cheeky brilliance of Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, and this year’s wonderful stop-motion duo of Coraline and Fantastic Mr. Fox (not to mention Disney’s much-heralded return to its hand-drawn roots in The Princess and the Frog), however, the shining stars of the animation world are the innovative folks over at Pixar. And while it’s difficult to choose one Pixar film to represent the best of the studio in the first decade of the 2000s, I have to say that my choice would be Brad Bird’s examination of the private lives of superheroes, The Incredibles. I would even go so far as to say that The Incredibles is, without a doubt in my mind, the best superhero movie produced in a decade filled with some damn good entries into the genre (The Dark Knight, Iron Man, Spiderman 2): a seamless blend of story, action, and amazing vocal performances resulting in one of the most engrossing, entertaining films of the past ten years. Honorable mentions to some of my other favorites in the Pixar pantheon: Finding Nemo, WALL-E, Monsters, Inc., Ratatouille, and this year’s wonderful, moving Up.

3. Children of Men. When I went to see this film in the theater, I did not know what to expect (other than two-plus hours of ogling at the delectable Clive Owen). And I was blown away (almost literally; the volume of the sound effects reached almost painful levels at times). A bleak, determined, and intensely moving portrayal of an apocalyptic future in which women are no longer able to conceive–a premise that seems, at first glance, to be devoid of hope, yet the film is ultimately filled with it. Owen is a revelation as a man who takes on the burden of protecting humanity’s remaining hope for propagation, guiding a miraculously pregnant young woman to safety in an England gone to hell. The film can be difficult to sit through at times, but it’s worth it to get to the redemptive finale. Yes, I cried. And still do, every time I watch it.

4. The Harry Potter series. I am a huge fan of J.K. Rowling’s book series, and with few exceptions, I believe the makers of the six films released in the series thus far have done a remarkable job of condensing the material into a heartfelt adaptation of Rowling’s intent, with the third film, The Prisoner of Azkaban, perhaps the highlight of the first six movies. The casting of the magical residents of Rowling’s world is spot-on, and the three young actors comprising the core characters of Harry, Ron, and Hermione have really grown in these roles into wonderful, effective performers. For sheer entertainment value, and escapism at its best, you really can’t beat a Harry Potter flick. Hopefully, the upcoming two-part adaptation of Deathly Hallows will continue along the same vein and bring the series to a satisfying conclusion.

5. Pan’s Labyrinth. I’ve already admitted it: I’m a sap; I cry regularly over movies. And yet, I cannot remember crying so intensely at a film as I did at the end of this beautiful masterpiece. Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 fantasy about a young girl’s escape from the harsh realities of the Franco regime in 1940s Spain is masterfully executed on multiple levels, from the nuances of young Ivana Baquero’s performance, to the haunting music underlying the scenes, to the magnificently rendered special effects, and the cinematography alone is worth watching the film–so insanely gorgeous, it blows your mind. But it’s the story that really pulls you in. If you haven’t seen this one, you’re missing a cinematic treasure.

6. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. This re-envisioning of Roald Dahl’s classic 1964 children’s story is much closer to the source material than the 1971 adaptation starring Gene Wilder, and is therefore much darker than its film predecessor. I’ve never been a huge Tim Burton fan, in large part because I find his work to be sometimes deliberately off-putting; that kind of determined artistry for the sake of (at the expense of?) “art” bothers me. Yet in Charlie, Burton has found source material that actually welcomes his particularly oddball approach to filmmaking, and in his hands, the movie becomes an almost psychedelic wonderland, mainly due to Johnny Depp’s whacked-out, pitch-perfectly perverse performance (try saying that five times fast).

7. Little Miss Sunshine. The quirky little comedy that could (and did). This movie works for one reason: the adorable Abigail Breslin, who gives a delightful performance as Olive, an aspiring beauty pageant contestant and the most normal member of a whacked-out family of overachieving losers, drug addicts, and suicidal manic-depressives. Not exactly the most heartwarming family tale, but a hilarious and deeply-affecting look at the dynamics of a strange family in the midst of strange circumstances and the way in which those obstacles (including an unexpected tragedy) bring them together. Whenever I think my family is filled with nutbags of the highest caliber, I watch this film and realize anew that we’re not quite there yet (though we’re close).

8. Elf. This movie has issues, true. And it’s the hardest one to defend placing on a list such as this. But I believe this film will become a Christmas classic in the future. And for some, like me, it already is. A Christmas Story, Home Alone, and White Christmas are not the best-written, best-acted films in the history of Hollywood, yet they are perennial holiday favorites nonetheless. So, too, do I think Elf will be revisited and loved for decades to come. Frankly, I was shocked at how much I really loved this movie upon my first viewing, as I am far from a Will Ferrell fan (who, with the exception of Stranger Than Fiction, generally does not impress me with any particular skill as an actor other than the ability to screech at the top of his lungs and run around like a dizzy Labrador Retriever in his films). But this story of a 30-year-old man, raised by elves at the North Pole, who travels to the strange world of New York City in order to reconnect with his indifferent human father, abounds with the innocent joy that truly makes Christmas “the most wonderful time of the year.”

9. Good Night, and Good Luck. The first indication, I think, that there was more to George Clooney than the ability to crinkle his eyes suggestively. The man whom some have labeled this generation’s Cary Grant crafts a tense, brilliant, true-to-life docudrama of the early days of television journalism, depicting Edward R. Murrow’s fight to expose the inflammatory political tactics of Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch hunt in the early 1950s. David Strathairn turns in a relevatory performance as Murrow, and you gotta love the retro black-and-white cinematography–a return to the good ol’ days of classic cinema, for sure.

10. The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Are these my favorite movies? No. When it comes to fantasy, I prefer the sincere innocence of Harry Potter and his ilk to the artfully framed, richly mythologized Middle Earth series. Yet my preference for one over the other does not negate the fact that Peter Jackson produced an ambitious, fully-realized, intellectual, breathtakingly beautiful trilogy of films. These films mark a glorious return to the painstakingly structured epics of classic moviedom, much in the vein of films like Ben-Hur and Lawrence of Arabia in scope (a welcome return, in my opinion–I’d begun to wonder if some filmmakers, by and large limiting their work to less than two hours, had just given up on audiences. Not all of us have the attention span of a fruit fly, you know). I’m not a Tolkien fan, but there’s little doubt these three films won’t be marveled over and enjoyed for many, many years to come (and who knows? I may yet come to appreciate Frodo’s epic journey through repeated viewings. It’s happened before).

**

Here’s hoping the next decade provides even more future classics for our viewing pleasure!

Happy New Year, everyone, and may your 2010 be filled with joy, adventure, good popcorn, and just a little cinematic magic.

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