It’s been an unusual decade; I spent much of it hunched over spiral notebooks and laptop computers in libraries and cafés and at kitchen tables here and in France while writing a book (remind me to mention the bathroom, in a house in Normandy, that I rigged out as a nocturnal study), and didn’t maintain my usual diet of cinephilic delights. Which is why, though few who issue their best-of-decade lists can claim to have seen all releases, many have likely seen more than I have this time around, so I’ll put an asterisk to the adjective above and note: the twenty-six best movies I’ve seen (and will resist the temptation to issue a separate list of the best films I haven’t seen). The top ten are in order; the remaining sixteen are grouped according to incidental connections.
1. “Eloge de l’amour” (“In Praise of Love”) (2001, Jean-Luc Godard): Lives up to the promise of its title: one of the most unusual, tremulous, and understated of love stories, as well as the story of love itself; a depiction of history in the present tense, as well as a virtual thesis on the filming of history; a work of art, as well as the story of the work at the origin of art; Godard’s third first film, thus something of a rebirth of cinema.
2. “The Darjeeling Limited” (2007, Wes Anderson): As ever with the films of Wes Anderson—the best new American director of the last twenty years—love and death, comedy and tragedy, comfort and adventure, understanding and opacity, style and substance fuse in a modernism of personal and reflexive cinema and a classicism of grand and subtle literary emotion.
3. “The World” (2005, Jia Zhangke): The best new non-American director of the last twenty years, here revealing, at great risk, China’s, and his own, painfully ambiguous place in the world.
4. “A Talking Picture” (2003, Manoel de Oliveira): The great September 11th movie, from a spry ninety-five-year-old who sees not only the century’s long view but seemingly encompasses Homer’s.
5. “Regular Lovers” (2005, Philippe Garrel): Or, Nixon in China: The events of 1968, depicted by one of its cinematic heroes as an intimate epic—and, with a self-deprecating fury, as a lovely but unsustainable burst of youthful lyricism.
6. “Sobibor, Oct. 14, 1943, 4P.M.” (2001, Claude Lanzmann): This discussion with Yehuda Lerner, who took part in the uprising against the extermination camp’s guards, is as profound a dialogue on the morality of violence as the cinema has seen.
7. “Fengming: A Chinese Memoir” (2009, Wang Bing): From one of the decade’s two best new directors, as well as its best new nonfiction filmmaker. If I had seen Wang’s “West of the Tracks” in its entirety, I’d have put it here instead; I saw only about a third of its nine hours, but this feature, converging recent Chinese history with the sufferings endured, at the hands of the regime, by one free-thinking couple, does quite as well.
8. “Knocked Up” (2008, Judd Apatow): Suddenly, all contemporary comedy seemed old-fashioned. From Lubitsch through the Farrelly brothers, the funniest guys in the room were behind the camera; Judd Apatow discovered, or rediscovered, the trick of the great silent clowns—to put funny people on screen—and to make it personal. (If Eddie Murphy had, say, directed “Norbit” in addition to starring in it, it would likely find a place on this list too.)
9. “Moolaadé” (2005, Ousmane Sembene): Women, resistance, and centuries of oppressive tradition, seen with the fiercely clarifying wisdom of age. The subject is genital mutilation; the phalanx of respected women eager to do the dirty work is truly frightening.
10. “The Other Half” (2007, Ying Liang): The other of the decade’s two best new filmmakers, the one who does dramas, bringing a laser-like analytical eye to the crossroads of private life and oppressive authority. His anger builds to an apocalyptic outpouring with few parallels in the history of cinema.
After the jump, sixteen more.
·“Saraband” (2003, Ingmar Bergman): Emotions of shattering power; family, memory, death, and the black sun of a creative force that not only won’t die but consumes anyone it can attract.
·“Woman on the Beach” (2006, Hong Sang-soo): A filmmaker dramatizes, with a scathing and comic self-deprecation, the egocentric romantic turbulence on which his art is nourished.
·“Colossal Youth” (2006, Pedro Costa): Modernization and bureaucracy confront poverty without pity. Loamy popular tradition and timeless legends have their pathologies too, and Costa unearths the ironies and contradictions of progress and its simulacra through his careful, loving work with the residents of one poor Lisbon neighborhood in ferment.
·“Le Monde Vivant” (“The Living World”) (2003, Eugène Green): Green, an American in Paris whose work seems like the dream of a virtual love child of Robert Bresson and Elaine May, dresses a faux-medieval legend in baroque language, classic romanticism, modern clothing, and prophetic virtue.
·“L’Enfant (“The Child”)” (2005, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne) The ostensible street realism of the Belgian brothers’ story of betrayal and crime doesn’t merely rise to a Bressonian pitch of redemption—it poses Bressonian questions throughout and offers sharply modern, secular answers.
·“Wake Up, Mate, Don’t You Sleep” (2002, Miklós Jancsó): At age eighty, the most controlled choreographer of the nineteen-sixties and seventies cuts loose with a contemporary historical fantasy that includes himself and his screenwriter, Hitler and Stalin, and a moment with Beethoven’s universalist dream that is one of the most touching scenes of the decade.
·“Cassandra’s Dream” (2008, Woody Allen): Few aging directors so cogently and relentlessly depict the grimly destructive machinery of life, and every time the word “family” is uttered, the screws tighten just a little more.
·“Gran Torino” (2008, Clint Eastwood): Few actors have taken themselves out with such a rueful bang.
·“Frownland” (2008, Ronald Bronstein): A punk-like ferocious rage contained in a chamber-music-like precision; film stock run rugged like cold stone, light turned cruel; humiliation and degradation portrayed with tenderness and, ultimately, surprisingly, hope. Dore Mann’s agonized performance is one for the ages.
·“Hamilton” (2005, Matthew Porterfield): Beside “Eloge de l’amour,” this is the movie I’ve watched the most times this decade. The twenty-six-year-old director has a preternaturally precise and poetic camera eye as well as tenderness for and understanding of the complexities of everyday lives.
·“Funny Ha Ha” (2003, Andrew Bujalski): Mumblecore is real (neither more nor less so than, say, Italian Neo-Realism or the French New Wave—the fact that the term raises questions doesn’t mean that those questions have no reasonable answers) and Bujalski started it. He raises personal cinema to a new height, by way of an aesthetic that blends control and improvisation in delicate, tenuous balance. A remarkably analytical sensibility.
·“Hannah Takes the Stairs” (2007, Joe Swanberg): Love and money among the young and bright; Bujalski co-stars as the one artist in a production-office bullpen who is on the verge of a breakout, which doesn’t make things go easier with Hannah (Greta Gerwig, in a performance of astounding inventiveness), who may even be smarter and wiser but is still seeking her place in the world. No less than Bujalski’s own film, a picture of a generation.
·“Sex Is Comedy” (2002, Catherine Breillat): The most frightening, disturbing, and seemingly plausible view of the emotional cost of artistic realism in an age of erotic freedom.
·“La Captive” (2000, Chantal Akerman): One of the heights of modernist melodrama; it’s as if, thanks to Proust, Akerman, a master of the tableau, discovered a third dimension. The joy of discovery is palpable, shot by shot, and she had young actors, notably Sylvie Testud and Stanislas Merhar, who seem to be savoring it equally.
·“Where is My Romeo?” (2008, Abbas Kiarostami): I haven’t seen “Shirin,” and if this short film is any indication, it would be here; but this short film, constructed on what is said to be the same principle, deserves it, too.
·“14th Arrondissement” (2006, Alexander Payne) (in “Paris, Je t’aime”): “Sideways” is terrific, but Payne’s short film offers both emotional poignancy and profound cinematic smarts in an amazingly clever and original sketch.
I’d welcome word on what else you think belongs here, and what you think doesn’t.