Our journey through the most recent completed decade hurtles onwards, to the year when cinema was finally freed from the iron grasp of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. This year was certainly the most difficult so far to narrow down to just five films, with a plethora of high quality films released. There’s a nice little list of also-rans underneath my five choices so as not to spoil the overwhelming tension you are no doubt experiencing as you wait to find out which five films I’ve chosen.
“Are we like those bored couples you feel sorry for in restaurants? Are we the dining dead? I can’t stand the idea of us being a couple people think that about.”
Michel Gondry’s surreal and slightly sci-fi tale of a couple erasing each other from their memories tells us so much about sadness, loss and relationships. It won Gondry, Charlie Kaufman and Pierre Bismuth the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in the process, as well as serving as a timely reminder that Jim Carrey is a brilliant serious actor when he wants to be. Eternal Sunshine isn’t simple to understand, it isn’t chronological, its characters (even the strong supporting cast) constantly reveal new layers of complexity; in other words, it pretty much urges you to watch it through a second and even a third time, for fear that you’ve missed out on something valuable. Though disorienting, the film continually brings us back to its message: that humans need love and companionship and that, however fleeting the attainment of that may be, we are better off having it (and remembering it) than never experiencing it at all. No matter the pain, memories are sometimes all we have. Without them, as Gondry shows us, we are not really us.
“I’m not threatening you mate. It’s beyond fucking words. I watched over you when you were asleep and I looked at your fucking neck and I was that far away from slicing it.”
Paddy Considine is awesome. We know this. Everyone accepts this as one of the key truths of current British cinema. Shane Meadows is also pretty damn good. He gets a lot of plaudits from critics and ‘ordinary viewers’ alike, so we know he’s one of the most talented men in British cinema too. Partly why we know both of these things is Dead Man’s Shoes, a visceral psychological examination of one man’s personal war in the sleepy town of Buxton. These men, we see, bullied his disabled brother. And Paddy didn’t like that. Not one bit.
Considine is captivating as he inflicts his terrifying revenge upon them, Meadows manipulating the audience from the get-go into a tumult of anxiety and conflict. Yes, these people are drug dealers, but do we revel in their misery? Do we feel that this is all merited? What the hell would I do if someone like this came after me? The setting is so recognisable to British viewers (particularly Northern monkeys like myself) and the style so effective that the film feels horrifyingly real.
A modern British classic that paved the way for This is England, Meadows builds upon A Room for Romeo Brass (and the muddled Once Upon a Time in the Midlands) and applies his style to a different genre, producing a film that you felt only he was capable of making. Fortunately, Considine has since used experiences like this when he stepped into the director’s chair, resulting in the brilliant Tyrannosaur.
“I think I’ve just lost my faith at this moment, so I no longer believe in God or hell. As I don’t believe in hell, I’m not afraid. And without fear I’m capable of anything.”
A semi-autobiographical tale of Catholic child abuse and the long-lasting trauma this inflicts upon those involved. What’s not to like? Exploring how his characters’ sexual identities are shaped by their earlier lives, visionary director Pedro Almodóvar is almost, almost, at his best here. It’s in his top five, anyway, which puts it at a higher level than most directors in Hollywood could ever hope to achieve.
Gael García Bernal – or, to give him his full title, the annoyingly-attractive-even-when-dressed-like-a-woman- Gael García Bernal – stars as Ignacio, who visits struggling director Enrique and forces him to confront their supposed past. Fiction and reality become blurred. We question who is who, we are fooled, we are unsure where the truth and fantasy diverge, if at all. The acting, from all involved, is outstanding to the point that we end up wishing that it didn’t feel so real.
Make no mistake, watching this film is an unsettling experience. Not just because of its depictions of prostitution, drug taking, transvestitism (I had to wikipedia that term) and child abuse, but also because there is layer upon layer of complexity here and you won’t come out of the other side feeling optimistic. The abundant sex is never gratuitous, the consequences always much more impactful than anything we see on screen. A film to treasure, for here we see a great director creating meaningful art with great actors that enthralls us from start to finish. And that, really, is all we can ask for in a film.
“Mr. Harken, this city needs its news. And you are going to deprive them of that because I have breasts? Exquisite breasts? Now, I am gonna go on, and if you want to try and stop me, bring it on. Because I am good at three things: Fighting, screwing, and reading the news. I’ve already done one of those today, so what’s the other one gonna be?”
Perhaps the most quotable film of all time, Anchorman is pretty much the foundation for the likes of Steve Carrell, Paul Rudd and Will Ferrell receiving top billing in Hollywood comedies and Judd Apatow producing everything ever since. Building on the success of Old School, Ferrell teamed up with fellow SNL staffer Adam McKay to write this tale of a sexist, outrageous news team in 1970s San Diego. One of the best satirical movies of recent decades in my view, Anchorman spoofs 70s America in the same way Austin Powers skewered 60s Britain – exaggerating aspects of the culture yet maintaining a realistic, recognisable feel that only serves to make it funnier. These are characters we can all recognise and, unfortunately, attitudes that we have probably all experienced too. Watching the news team attempt to woo new girl Veronica Corningstone will be familiar to anyone old enough to view the film – their juvenile and misguided efforts doubtless drawing parallels from some poor fool we know/knew growing up. The cameos from the comedy elite of the period are thick and fast, most notably in an insane brawl that parodies West Side Story, and the outlandish lines and quips come even thicker and faster (that’s definitely a thing – I’m making it a thing).
Cinema snobs (film critics in general, to be fair) will tell you this isn’t a great movie, or a great comedy, or that it doesn’t quite work, or it’s juvenile. It may well be that those watching it for the first time twenty years from now will wonder what all the fuss was about, and why their dads keep quoting it to each other. This is my generation’s Animal House. I will defend it to the end. Anchorman works through a bunch of excellent comic actors taking a middling-to-good script and, through outstanding delivery and excellent rapport, making it work (well, 60% of the time, it works every time). Watching the deleted scenes on the DVD will show you just how great their improv ability is, a fact that both Hollywood and the major networks picked up on straight away.
“Only time and the evolution of consciences will decide one day if my request was reasonable or not.”
For anyone to watch this film and not experience a gamut of emotions is surely impossible. This is a film that reaches out of the screen and grabs you, leaves you open mouthed at its central performance and deeply touched on a human level at the power of its story. That the film has its basis in real events makes it all the more enthralling.
Javier Bardem has been the darling of the English speaking cinematic world since his turn in No Country For Old Men. This is unquestionably his best performance though, bringing to life Ramón Sampedro, a Galician man who becomes quadriplegic after an accident. That Bardem is restricted to lying motionless for the majority of his screen time yet still turns in one of the most astonishing performances of the decade tells you all you need to know about the subtlety of his brilliance. The supporting cast, not least Belén Rueda and Lola Dueñas, are excellent thanks to the outrageously good direction of Alejandro Amenábar. Probably best known by English speakers for The Others (underrated), Amenábar established himself with Open Your Eyes – the vastly superior original of Vanilla Sky – and this is his first Spanish language film since that release seven years earlier. He hasn’t worked much since either (only middling 2009 Rachel Weisz vehicle Agora) so I remain hopeful that when he next makes a film, it will approach these dizzying heights again. This is stunning filmmaking, deeply uplifting yet haunting; a masterpiece.
Good but not quite good enough
So here are the ones that made the not-so-shortlist, the longest thus far in the series. So many of these were desperately unlucky to miss out that I’m already practically apologising to them for omitting them:
The Motorcycle Diaries, Collateral, Team America, Ong Bak, The Bourne Supremacy, Million Dollar Baby, The Aviator, Napoleon Dynamite, Downfall, Dodgeball, Mean Girls, Kill Bill Vol. 2, The Machinist, The Incredibles.
You can find more of our revitalised Decade In Film articles so far here, from 1963-2004.