I haven’t seen every movie that’s worth watching, and I doubt I could legitimately rank the great movies according to a single value scale, without being unfair. I started with about 40, and it took forever just to whittle it down to 10.
Most gimmick movies hardly rise above their gimmick, but Memento successfully pulls it off. Memento is a mesmerizing tale that depends on YOUR memory, and takes full advantage of the distinct nature of cinema with multiple narratives. Guy Pearce has never surpassed his role as “Leonard Shelby from San Francisco.” A breakout hit for Christopher Nolan that unleashed a career full of great movies.
9. Lord of the Rings
Peter Jackson has successfully forced Hollywood to reconsider two genres: the epic and fantasy. The former was judged too expensive and passe, and the latter was judged as unmarketable, but this entry has shattered both myths. Personally, I thought the second of the trilogy was the best (probably due to the slow and steady buildup to the powerful climax at Helm’s Deep) given that the 1st was more of a setting up and the finale had 1 too many denouements. The Lord of the Rings is clear proof that even the unfilmable (i.e., ponderous fantasy literature) can be caught on cinema and even surpassed.
I was familiar the reputation before walking in the theater, and staggered out afterward with the realization that Irreversible had to be the most shocking film I ever saw. More importantly, it’s the most profound of the top 10. Irreversible is also backwards oriented but for a different reason than that of Memento. The director Gaspar Noe demonstrated the power of cinema by forcing the audience away from his/her detached position with brutal scenes and show how razor thin the difference is between civilization and savagery. It took me a long time to understand why people walked out on the movie at certain junctures – it meant the film was very effective in implying how we are a party to cinematic violence. To this date I have not watched it again for several scenes remain branded in my memory as if I saw the film yesterday.
7. Kill Bill
Quentin Tarantino already made his name with three great movies prior to Kill Bill, and the 7-year gap was worth the wait. In Kill Bill, Tarantino crafts the best revenge tale since… ever. A love letter to Cantonese action films of the 70’s, cyber punk anime of the 90s, Kill Bill shows strong women basically emasculating male characters. Uma Thurman totally nailed the role as the Bride, and her yellow leather outfit is identical to what Bruce Lee wore in his last film. Just like in every other Tarantino film, there’s a quick pop culture analysis that turned out to be my favorite of them all. Tarantino’s subsequent films (Death Proof, Inglorious Basterds) have yet to match the transcendental standards established by this entry.
6. City of God
The smashing debut of the director Fernando Meirelles. City of God is spread across 3 chapters, beginning in the idyllic, golden age of the sixties (scenes/backgrounds heavy with sepia tones) in the slums, to the hard drugs of the seventies, and ends in the stark, near monochromatic palette of the early eighties. The story is an unflinching look at urban crime that follows the life of two thugs and one ambitious youth, Rocket, who dreams of becoming a photojournalist. This film struck me as the rawest film of the decade – for it portrays the gun totin’ youths of the cidade de deus (city of god), a housing project on the outskirts of Rio de Janerio.
5. The Incredibles
More Ayn Rand than Atlas Shrugged, more Fantastic than The Fantastic Four, the satirical and subversive Incredibles is the best Pixar of em all. At first I thought Monsters Inc. couldn’t be topped and then this came along. On the surface, it’s a superhero film, but at the core it’s about marriage – the marriage of Mr. Incredible and Elastigal as they raise their children in anonymity. As opposed to most movies for kids that’s strictly about kids, the Incredibles is about adults and moreover, it shows children what adults are supposed to do. Director Brad Bird cemented his legacy with the Incredibles, and voiced a fantastic character in Edna Mode – the bigger than life runt who designs the outfits for superheroes.
4. Children of Men
Another brilliant entry into Alfonso Cuaron’s legacy, Children of Men is the first adult science fiction film in 80 years and also turns out to be one of the best of the last 25 years. Clive Owens plays an embittered man who is forced in the role of a protector of this pregnant woman who’s carrying the first baby in 18 years. A harrowing tale of a sterile, bleak future and dystopia on the brink of self-destruction, Children of Men also holds out a promise of hope, despite (and perhaps precisely because of) its ambiguous ending.
3. No Country for Old Men
NCFOM was a near-perfect film that took an unflinching analysis of the insidious American love of violence. The Cohen brothers proved their mastery of the craft with this haunting film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel. Javier Bardem’s stunning performance as Anton Chigurh, wielding that cattlegun, rivals Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker as the decade’s iconic villain.
The best film on adult relationships since Eyes Wide Shut regarding infidelity. The premise deals with whether honesty is truly healthy for intimate relationships – especially when lust is lurking around the corner and threatens relationships. Clive Owens easily shone brightest in a star-studded cast, and Nichols’ steady direction never contrives the pace into condescension or melodrama.
1. The Dark Knight
With The Dark Knight, the comic book genre has finally come of age in a near-perfect marriage of crime noir & superhero mythology. Nolan pushed the boundaries he set in the excellent reboot, Batman Begins, and amplified the neo-realism of his worldview of Gotham City. Heath Ledger set the bar for all future portrayals of the Joker with his “agent of chaos” version.
Runner Ups: Primer, Amelie, AI, Pan’s Labyrinth, Waking Life, Oldboy, Eternal Sunshine of Spotless Mind, Traffic, The Wrestler, WALL-E, Man on Wire, Let the Right One In, Sideways, Prestige, Requiem for a Dream, Hero, FLCL, Cache, Funny Games.