This is not a 100 best films of the decade, or a 100 most important or influential films. That kind of list would have to be drawn from a huge collation of lists covering wide areas of film. Naturally I can’t claim to have seen the definitive 100 best films of the decade, but I have seen hundreds of films from the last 10 years, many of which have disappointed me – although I credit myself for avoiding films I’m pretty sure I’d hate on the assumption that sitting through them would be a worse experience than unknowingly missing out on a possible masterpiece. That’s you I’m looking at, Transformers. Or rather, not looking at.
The best I can do is offer 100 films which I consider to be essential viewing for anyone with a robust interest in cinema and the medium’s many possibilities. These are the 100 films which have touched, astonished or hooked me to the point of obsession. It’s a very personal list, filled with the directors, writers and actors I love. For a decade largely dominated in the mainstream by CGI-laden blockbusters, super-hero films and gross-out comedies, I’m happy to announce that my list features none of these selections. The nearest for consideration were the excellent but overrated The Dark Knight, which fell just outside my 100, and The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, which was certainly a staggering achievement but ultimately too drawn-out and self-aggrandizing for my liking.
The exact ranking of the films is more of a template and not to be taken as a rigid order – afterall, out of 100 truly great films how can one really be measured as better than another? Suffice to say I believe those in the top 50 are greater in some way than those in the last 50. And the top 20 is pretty much my fixed selection of the films I consider to be the very best of the decade. Until I catch up with all those other superb films I’ve yet to see and the whole thing changes …
100 Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)
In his 50th year as a filmmaker and at the grand age of 83, Sidney Lumet made this mesmerizing thriller about two brothers botched robbery of their own parents jewellery store. Told with a non-linear, multi-angled structure, the tension is cranked up as the inept robbers become increasingly desperate in their attempts to cover their tracks. Another gem to add to Lumet’s incredible back catalogue and a first-rate cast of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke and Albert Finney into the bargain!
99 Grizzly Man (2005)
Always a filmmaker exploring the crazy limits of human endeavor, it’s no wonder Werner Herzog took the story of bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell to heart. Treadwell spent 13 summers with the wild bears of Alaska until he and his girlfriend were killed and eaten by one in 2003. Herzog narrates in his own intense style, weaving together recovered footage from Treadwell’s own video camera with interviews from his family and friends to paint the portrait of man eventually destroyed by his own dangerous obsession.
98 Inland Empire (2006)
For those not sufficiently weirded-out by Mulholland Dr, David Lynch offers Inland Empire, a 3 hour assault on the senses, blurring the lines between fiction and reality on the Hollywood backlot. Shot entirely on digital video, Inland Empire still retains the eerie aesthetic that is totally unique to Lynch. This is probably his strangest film, which is really saying something, and it certainly won’t win over any new fans. But more fool them – the cinema of David Lynch is as good as it gets and the stranger the better.
97 Far From Heaven (2002)
I had already immersed myself into the world of Douglas Sirk before seeing Far From Heaven, so it’s difficult to say how I would view the film had I not been aware of the debt owed to its source material. The sumptuous autumn colours, rousing score and near-melodramtic performances perfectly evoke Imitation Of Life and, in particular, All That Heaven Allows. But Haynes delves deeper into the themes of racism and homosexuality which Sirk could only use as subtext in the 1950’s, making this uniquely a period piece for the 21st century. And Julianne Moore can do no wrong in my book.
96 Dirty Pretty Things (2002)
One of the great underrated thrillers of our time, Dirty Pretty Things submerges itself into the desperate world of immigrant workers, who live on the expendable peripheries of society. Chiwetel Ejiofor (in a startling screen debut) and Audrey Tautou (riding high from Amélie but proving her great range) are excellent as the mismatched pair of immigrants who plan to sell a kidney in exchange for passports. Stephen Frears continues to prove himself as a director of great insight and energy.
95 Panic Room (2002)
Wrongly rejected by critics who were perhaps expecting another film as ambitious as Fight Club, this home-invasion thriller is a tightly controlled excercise in isolated terror. Made on a huge studio set à la Rear Window and with plenty of Hitchcock touches, Fincher adds his own unique flourishes with seemingly impossible tracking shots. Panic Room is Fincher’s taut study in suspense and a small masterpiece compared to his bloated Benjamin Button.
94 Battle Royale (2000)
“At the dawn of the millennium, the nation collapsed. At fifteen percent unemployment, ten million were out of work. 800,000 students boycotted school. The adults lost confidence, and fearing the youth, eventually passed the Millennium Educational Reform Act—AKA: The BR Act…” And so the scene is set for every bitter teachers revenge fantasy. Takeshi Kitano plays the wronged teacher who masterminds the ultimate youth challenge scheme, where a group of schoolchildren must fight to the death on an isolated island. A fantastically violent and controversial sci-fi thriller, this is Lord Of The Flies with detonating neck collars and submachine guns.
93 A Mighty Wind (2003)
A Christopher Guest comedy is always something to celebrate and A Mighty Wind just pips For Your Consideration as his comedy of the decade. Almost a folk riposte to Spinal Tap, here Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer are legendary trio The Folksmen, preparing for a reunion concert. The song parodies are spot on and remain brilliant in and of themsleves. As always, the supporting cast of Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Fred Willard, Bob Balaban and Parker Posey are exceptional.
92 Dead Man’s Shoes (2004)
Something of a godsend to 21st century British cinema, Shane Meadows makes uncompromising films deeply rooted in the neglected underbelly of society. His films are often powerful character studies in the best tradition of the British social-realism scene, but his best film is this unflinching thriller with a style which creeps up on its audience and eventually strangles them into shocked admission. Paddy Considine has a commanding presence as the paratrooper returning to avenge the death of his disabled brother. The Peak District has never looked so fascinatingly sinister.
91 Corpse Bride (2005)
Another dark romance from the mind of Tim Burton, lovingly rendered in excellent stop-motion. This has all the hallmarks of classic Burton – wildly comic, weirdly poignant and fully embracing his love for 19th century gothic horror. Although it’s not amongst his very best work, (that would be Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Big Fish and Sweeney Todd for my money) Corpse Bride is almost a greatest hits package that can’t fail to delight any Burton fan: Danny Elfman once more provides songs and score, most of the Nightmare Before Christmas crew return, Michael Gough and Christopher Lee add vocal support and, of course, Johnny Depp takes the lead. The saturated blue colours lend a haunting beauty to a world populated by gaunt, rotund and skeletal grotesques. For those weary of certain all-too-saccharine animated films, Corpse Bride is the perfect macabre antidote.
Apart from his distinctive and much-imitated delivery, James Mason has always stood out for me in films because his performances evoke a conflict of interests – his characters are at the same time fascinating and charismatic whilst also mysterious and unsympathetic. It makes him all the more unlikely as a Hollywood star and, looking back at his career, few actors could claim such a number of polarizing lead roles. Even when playing the archetypal British villain in Hollywood, notably in The Prisoner Of Zenda (1952), Julius Ceasar (1953), 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954), and North By Northwest (1959), there’s a depth of character that stands out as something mysterious and sinister. In Hitchcock’s North By Northwest, there are hints that the villain Phillip Vandamm is in a relationship with his henchman, suggesting hidden depths of guilt and pretence under his suave and controlled exterior.
Once established as a reliable supporting actor in America, his first significant leading role was in A Star Is Born (1954), where he played opposite Judy Garland as a violent alcoholic who ultimately drowns himself – a pretty demanding role for any film, let alone a Hollywood musical! Mason was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar and won a Golden Globe for the film.
His definitive film role came with Lolita in 1962 and it’s hardly surprising that Mason was Stanley Kubrick’s first choice for the role of the sophisticated paedophile Humbert Humbert. About as controversial as a mainstream film could be in 1962 (even though Kubrick raised the age of Lolita from 12 in the novel to 14 for the movie) Mason still won plaudits for his intense portrayal and it’s now impossible to imagine any other actor successfully tackling the dark complexities of this part. A similarly obsessive role came in Michael Powell’s Age Of Consent (1969), playing a jaded painter opposite a young Helen Mirren.
A few interesting collaborations with Sidney Lumet followed, including the bleakly atmospheric spy thriller The Deadly Affair (1966), Chekhov’s The Seagull (1968) and the acclaimed courtroom drama The Verdict (1982), but Mason’s later films were largely supporting roles, offering neither the depth or intrigue of his 50’s and 60’s work. His last great film was The Shooting Party (1985), which put Mason at the centre of an impressive cast including John Gielgud and Edward Fox and, appropriately enough, concerned a landowner whose very existence and way of life were becoming obsolete. Mason died in 1984, before the film’s release.
Of all his Hollywood roles, perhaps the most interesting was that of Ed Avery in Bigger Than Life (1956), a family man who agrees to take part in an experimental drug treatment for his life-threatening illness, the result of which turns him into a dangerous psychotic with serious delusions of grandeur. The character serves to critique the dangerous trappings of conformist suburban life, a topic that may have been close to Mason, given that he also co-wrote and produced the film. A remarkably scathing movie for its time, Bigger Than Life took a typically perverse view of 1950’s suburbia from director Nicholas Ray and it may have been too much for contemporary audiences to take because the film was a flop, although it’s now increasingly being recognised as a masterpiece. It stands as a fitting monument to Mason’s bizarre career as Hollywood’s ultimate un-romantic lead.