On December 30th, Roger Ebert revealed his Best Films of the Decade. (This also sparked quite a disagreement among his readers about which ten years constituted 'The Decade', so for clarification, I consider it 2000-2009.) Ebert describes his selection criteria thusly, "All of these films are on this list for the same reason: The direct emotional impact they made on me. They have many other qualities, of course. But these evoked the emotion of Elevation".
Using that same criteria, below I list the ten films from the past decade (out of 927 I've seen) that have had the strongest emotional impact on me, caused me to think the most deeply, and have challenged me to be a better human being. These are not necessarily my favorite films, the films I most enjoyed, or the films I expect to still be watching ten years from now (you can look forward to another Top 10 list for those). There might be spoilers for each of the movies I list, so read with caution for movies you have not yet seen.
10. Shaun of the Dead (2004)
I hated this movie. It is one of about ten movies I've ever seen that I wish I hadn't; the images are just too gruesome to bear. However, if I pretend that more than half the movie didn't happen, I'm left with some good humor, and one very interesting socially critical question: if zombies took over your neighborhood, would you even notice? This movie is quite dextrous in showing that in many ways, we've already become zombies. We are slothful, exhausted, slow-moving, ill-tempered, and driven mostly by our need to consume. The society exemplified and lampooned in this film is one of the living dead, in which we get up, go to work, come home, and repeat the process, ad nauseam, with neither joy nor purpose.
9. Lost in Translation (2003)
The plot is quite simple. Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray meet in Tokyo and help pass the time together while they each wait for their exit. The film shows that in a city of millions an individual can still feel lonely and isolated, and that when presented with a chance for a connection, however unorthodox, we should seize it.
8. The Final Cut (2004)
In the near future, babies are implanted with video cameras that will record everything they see for the rest of their lives. Upon their death, the deceased might be honored with a video tribute to their life, pieced together from their own recorded footage by a skilled editor (e.g. our protagonist, Robin Williams). Like most movies that pose interesting ideas, this film wastes most of its time on a contrived plot (Williams has seen something he shouldn't have); to that end, The Final Cut does entertain. But the most thought-provoking moment comes when the antagonist, Jim Caviezel, describes how Williams's profession has corroded sincerity. People can no longer act without fear of being recorded, mis-represented, cast in someone else's postmortem drama. To ensure positive representation, they must each demonstrate a perpetual façade. In our contemporary society, we come closer to this dystopia each year, as cameras become smaller, cheaper, and more prevalent, and their footage more deeply imbedded in all aspects of our culture. Smile, you're on somebody's tombstone.
7. Code 46 (2004)
Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton star in this futuristic tale that, like Fahrenheit 451 and Equilibrium, focuses on an agent of the state (Robbins), charged with rooting out subversion, who eventually sympathizes with those he is trying to implicate. As science fiction, the movie is interesting, but as a drama it is excellent. Robbins and Morton fall in love, but in comparing their genealogies they learn they are too closely related to legally mate. In fact, Morton has been genetically engineered to experience pain when physically intimate with Robbins. But they are in love, and pursue the relationship anyway; and Morton stands by her choice, despite the agony she feels when they are together. In the future, love (or at least its physical expression) really does hurt. To top it off, there are various elements of tampering with memories and re-indoctrination (akin to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, released the same year) that force our two lovers to reconsider their relationship from altered perspectives. The film is quite tragic, but well conveys that any opportunity to love is not to be wasted, even if disaster looms.
6. Secretary (2002)
There's someone for everyone. Would you bless a relationship that, by your standards, was unhealthy? Many who oppose homosexuality (not just gay marriage, mind you, but acting on homosexual impulses) would certainly not approve such a union. Anyone who has witnessed an abusive relationship, especially where a woman is battered by her partner, would also likely withhold consent. In Secretary, Maggie Gyllenhaal, desperate for a job, accepts the eponymous position from attorney James Spader. Spader is eccentric, cruel, and perhaps dangerous. Gyllenhaal is depressed, alienated from her family, and prone to cutting herself, for the over-used yet still believable reason that it's the only way she can feel anything at all. Through a series of bizarre interactions, they eventually fall into a sadomasochistic relationship that seems destined to destroy them both. Yet they ultimately build a love together that they could not find elsewhere; the violence subsides to a degree, and we are left witnessing them in a world of their creation, where they define their own normalcy.
5. Rambo (2008)
Sylvester Stallone is a great actor, and I don't care what the Razzie Awards say (Stallone has been skewered year after year). His movies have been lumped together with those of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris, and Jean-Claude Van Damme, but he is more than an action star. His performances as John Rambo, Rocky Balboa, and Freddy Heflin (Cop Land) are three titanic roles, all convincing, interesting, sympathetic, and thought-provoking. In an interview promoting Rambo, the fourth in the series, Stallone said that he hoped to make the most violent war movie ever, to puncture our modern desensitization and again remind us of the horror of war. Rambo is too glorious to really succeed as anti-war, but it does convey with absolute clarity that weaponized conflicts are brutal and capricious. The final battle sequences will be unwatchable to many; at moments I can not believe what I am seeing, it is so graphic. When Rambo lets off steam, armies die. According to the interview Stallone gave, the conflict portrayed in the film was (sans John Rambo) contemporary with and just over the border from the film's shooting (extras in the movie received death threats from the very people they portrayed). The movie also bookends Rambo's emotional journey as forgotten soldier, trying to find peace in a world constantly using him as a blunt weapon.
4. Mulholland Drive (2001)
This and Lost Highway are David Lynch's masterpieces of confusion. The film's chronology is paradoxical, so I won't attempt to describe the plot. The movie is sexy, disturbing, and emotionally rigid from start to finish. Naomi Watts and Laura Harring, happy lovers by the film's midpoint, are twisted and remade by the film's end such that they have never met, are in different bodies, are enemies, are dead, and/or have been blotted out of existence. If the first half is a dream, the second half is a nightmare from which our heroines do not wake.
3. Match Point (2005)
Jonathan Rhys Meyers gives what is perhaps the most evil performance I've ever seen. Movies are ripe with villains who are eeevil, but seem to lack our sense of morality and remorse. In my opinion, these villains (most movie villains, actually) are better classified as 'insane'; their understanding of reality is fundamentally at odds with ours. But Meyers's character knows better. He has a sense of morality, deliberately and diligently violates it to disastrous result, exhibits guilt for his actions, but does not repent. That is pure evil. His selfish and cowardly choices do well to instruct us that at no point is it too late to beg forgiveness, because so long as we draw breath, we may yet cause further suffering.
2. Requiem for a Dream (2000)
This movie is the ultimate Saturday Morning Special, warning us to steer clear of addiction in all its forms. The film specifically focuses on drugs and food, but could be broadened to include any compulsory desire. The four main characters, played by Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly, and Marlon Wayans, each struggle with their own impulses, pawning their belongings, their bodies, and their health in pursuit of vices we are shown in graphic detail. The soundtrack, by the Kronos Quartet, is magnificent, leading us down the dark path from Summer, to Autumn, to Winter . . . and the film ends. There is no Spring for our characters.
1. Pride & Prejudice (2005)
There has to be something positive on this list. I love this movie. The writing is excellent, as are the performances. Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen are wonderful as the quarrelsome Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. It is the rare romance that allows the two leads so much screen time together, and with such emotional palpability. This movie renews my faith in love and delights me every time.
Superguy: Behind the Cape (2000)
This movie doesn't qualify for the list, because it never received a theatrical release, so I'll give it an honorable mention instead. Superguy: Behind the Cape is a mockumentary about a superhero, his origins, his powers, his feats, and his follies. I like superheroes, and so could see past the movie's minimal budget and rough feel. Within the context of the superhero genre, this movie asks all the mundane, realistic questions ignored by superhero action movies: Who pays for the damage caused by the hero? How much vigilantism will the police tolerate from someone who helps and means well, but is clearly operating outside the law? Why should the hero get to decide which city to protect, when there are people in need everywhere? At one point, a reporter, having scored an exclusive interview with the hero, asks him, "How dare you sit here?", condemning him for even accepting the interview request when he could be saving lives. Each moment spent in idle chatter is another life lost, from the reporter's perspective. Superguy replies that if he doesn't take some time off, he'll go crazy. But as non-superheroes, we're not satisfied with that response; we expect super determination and super endurance from our heroes. So, even though this film is really only about superheroes, it's also about our icons and hero worship, how we box in those we admire and take ownership of them, feeling we have a right to expect more from them than they from us.