as i said before, top 10 lists fill me with anxiety. how do you balance “legit” vs. what struck you emotionally? i can tell you my 3 favorite movies of all time: rushmore, joe vs. the volcano, 2001: a space odyssey — but are they the best movies of all time? even i know joe would never make it onto a top 50 or top 100, let alone a top 10. but it hits me in an emotional place that is nearly unmatched among the hundreds of other “great” movies.
having said that, even deciding which of my favorite 25-30 movies belong at the top was damn near impossible. if i redid this list tomorrow, maybe 2-3 would remain the same. but films i axed for fear of reprisal (ratatouille and spider-man 2 spring to mind) would likely pop up.
here we go.
10. memento / 2000
started out the decade with a bang, didn’t we? the movie that put chris nolan and his brother on the map is a work of incredibly intricate creativity. conceiving a wholly unfilmable premise (a man who cannot retain short-term memories searching for his wife’s murderer) and then playing it straight? nice work. but then concocting an entire structure and editing philosophy to work in delectable sync with that premise? i don’t love the word “genius” but dammit, here it applies. if you’ve never seen it (or saw it once and couldn’t follow), give it a rental. it deserves your close attention.
9. me and you and everyone we know / 2005
miranda july is a little-known performance artist slash writer slash filmmaker. this movie is a gem: one of those inherently sweet, quirky comedies that will linger with you because it’s so damn honest. somehow she manages to make anxiousness, awkwardness and disillusionment seem really cute. but not in an irritating way. call it a slice of life; not quite a series of vignettes, not quite a strong narrative, it’s a lovely little take on people and who they are in relation to other people. it should really be higher on this list.
8. the squid and the whale / 2005
along with me and you, my other favorite movie from 2005. there’s something about jeff daniels’ performance that reminds me of my dad. the guy was nothing like daniels’ pretentious, stoic and overbearing patriarch. maybe it’s just the beard (though my dad was cleanshaven). but unlike some of noah baumbach’s other scripts, these characters are pretentious but the movie is not. it’s got a genuine heart that wants to hug jesse eisenberg and tell him everything’s gonna be all right. stellar performances all around. it made me not hate brooklyn so much.
7. pan’s labyrinth / 2006
safe to call this the “sleeper” on this list. which is odd. guillermo del toro’s carefully crafted world is so rich in detail and so specific – it’s the kind of imaginative creation that feels authentic because you can feel that it’s real to him. but ultimately, this is a tragic and beautiful tale of a girl trying to save her mother from the all-too-real monsters of war, violence and tyranny. translation: i’m not normally into elves and shit. but this movie rules.
6. wonderboys / 2000
if i recall, the boston globe review compared curtis hanson’s adaptation of michael chabon’s novel “a lazy saturday afternoon” and they meant it in a good way. i’ve never shaken that description, because it’s perfect. driven by michael douglas’ inspired and rounded performance as a wayward (and often stoned) writer/professor, nothing about wonderboys ever feels forced or inorganic. it just carries you along on an odd little adventure built of many moving and interlocking parts: a novel on screen (featuring a dynamite score headlined by a fantastic, oscar-winning song by dylan). robert downey, jr. is especially spot-on, the beginning of a solid run for him that continues to snowball.
5. kill bill (vol. 1 and 2) / 2003-4
kicks ass. what’s more to say? okay, you got me. vol 1 is all about the glitz, the glammer, the pop-and-movie-culture mashups, the over-the-top-comical body/blood effects, the showmanship of the anime sequence, the tarantino-by-way-of-scorcese music beds, and the killing. oh, the killing. but a perfectly paced final 2 minutes sets you up for vol 2, a surprisingly thoughtful backstory and satisfying conclusion. will tarantino make anything as good or better than these 2? has he already? who knows. but these are the films that made me want to go back and watch pulp fiction and the others again. hey. the guy’s a tool. but he’s a really talented tool.
4. adaptation. / 2002
true story: at the end of my first viewing of adaptation in harvard square, a guy just a few rows behind me said: “hey, you laughed at all the right parts.” newsflash, that guy’s a douche. but in a way, he exemplified the spirit of spike jonze’s and charlie kaufman’s winding tale. it’s highbrow, oh yes, but never spares in swiping at all things highbrow. is it as much of a puzzle as other kaufman scripts? in a way, no. these are genuine fabricated characters and that paradox is hilarious and effective. watch it again as a commentary on hollywoodization. if you already watched it that way, watch it again as a commentary on translation of art from one medium to another. if you already did both of those, watch it and remind yourself that you like nic cage even if he frequently pisses you off.
3. eternal sunshine of the spotless mind / 2004
so many charlie kaufman scripts, so few spots on the list. (honestly, synecdoche belongs on this list, but having only seen it once, i felt that would be cheating.) up until this point, you weren’t sure charlie could make you cry. sure, he’s brilliant and outlandishly creative, blah blah blah. but where’s the heart? well. it’s here. and maybe we have michel gondry to thank for that, i don’t know. but jim carrey puts in my favorite rendition of charlie kaufman here, tapping into the heartfelt loneliness more than the self-hatred (see john cusack, nic cage and phillip seymour hoffman for the latter). so you root for carrey when he falls in love with kate winslet — but even better, watching their love in reverse allows you to unravel the joy in love and the magic of its promise. wait, that all sounded really fruity. jon brion’s score is rad.
2. the royal tenenbaums / 2001
as mentioned above, rushmore is one of my favorite movies of all time. it was unlikely wes anderson was ever going to manage that again. and with tenenbaums, he didn’t. but it deserves placement in the argument. i describe it as “chekhov in the city” and that makes sense (in an early scene, the young margot is reading chekhov, so clearly wes and wilson were honing in on that vibe.) the movie isn’t carried by any one particular member of its all-star ensemble cast — but its heart comes from gwyneth paltrow’s margot, who is at once sad and wry, depressed and oddly euphoric on occasion. plus, the entire movie is highly, highly quotable. you’ll notice that music has a huge impact on me (positive i’m not alone in that regard) and they hit a home run with the brooding-mixed-with-joyful soundtrack. the theme color is pink: pretty yet fading, ultimately soft and comforting.
1. punch-drunk love / 2002
fact: i was so disappointed with magnolia that i despised pt anderson after watching it for the first time, nearly a year after its release. but mostly, that was due to a long build-up before i saw it and therefore impossibly high expectations. fact: i love the goofy, bizarre, vulgar adam sandler movies as much as the next guy who came of age during the 90’s. fact: the two teamed up to create a truly oddball gem of a movie built around an impossible love story, a ragtag pile of story turns, tricks and quirks, a jon brion pastiche score culled from rewired songs from nillson’s disastrous popeye music — AND IT WORKS. it works on all levels. it frankly has no right to work. but adam sandler is fantastic, basically translating his early film persona into an arthouse hero desperately in need of psychotherapy and anger management (btw, anger management sucks). and, unlike the dangerously-close-to-self-serving magnolia, it’s only 90 minutes long! i love this movie. i fucking love this movie. and that’s why it wins the #1 spot.
but as you well know: ask me in a week, and i just might make the case for spider-man 2.