My Decade in Movies, Part I

With the decade coming to a close, there has been a frenzy of list-making from bloggers and reviewers alike, ready to name the best films or documentaries of the last decade.  Although such lists often have ideological functions or merely serve to show the “hubris” of the list-makers, as Jeffrey Sconce points out, there is some value in list-making, in using lists to tell a story about the last year, the last decade, or even the last century.  Although it is easy (albeit worthwhile) to criticize organizations such as the American Film Institute for championing middlebrow, white-bread entertainment, these list-making practices persist, whether in blogs, the pages of newspapers or magazines, or in the syllabi to the courses we teach.  As A. O. Scott points out, list-making allows for a fascinating dialectic between the “consensus masterpieces” that tell us something about our cinematic past and the subjective tastes that may prove more idiosyncratic but may also allow us to see a certain moment in the history of film (or audiovisual) culture in a different way.  It is the curatorial power of the list-maker that can map relationships between films in order to make sense of our cinematic past.

With that in mind, I’m resisting the impulse to pick a “10 Best” list for the last decade, following Sconce’s observation that such lists are often arbitrary and subjective.  There are hundreds of films from the last decade that I haven’t seen–including, I’m somewhat embarrassed to say, the Lord of the Rings trilogy–so any claims toward universality aren’t very convincing here.  So instead, I’ll discuss an extended list of movies that had some significance for me and that may also say something about film culture in the last decade.  Perhaps not surprisingly, I wouldn’t have predicted that many of the films on my list would stick with me so many years later.  Others that I listed as favorites have faded from memory, a phenomenon addressed by Dan Callahan in his review of the last decade.   The full “list” is below the fold in a semi-chronological order shaped by my own memories of seeing or reviewing them.

  1. Like Callahan, my list would likely begin with Mulholland Dr., a film that seems to dominate many of the “best of” lists from the last decade.  It’s a film that left me feeling breathless when I saw it in the theater on two consecutive winterly nights in a Champaign, Illinois, multiplex.  As Callahan notes, the film contains numerous evocative, powerful set pieces, including Rebekah del Rio’s performance of Roy Orbison’s “Crying.”
  2. Just a few weeks after Mulholland Dr., I saw Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, an animated meditation on dreaming, representation, cinema, and even the nature of reality itself. I’ve revisited the film once or twice since, and the film’s episodic, dreamlike structure holds up well, especially the sequences featuring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy and Caveh Zahedi.
  3. Because my dissertation focused on time-travel films and explored, to some extent, how digital technologies were causing us to rethink definitions of memory and subjectivity, I began the decade with more than a passing interest in films that depicted memory (or time travel) in creative, engaging ways.  So much time has passed that I almost forgot that Memento, Chris Nolan’s calling card about an amnesiac seeking revenge for his wife’s death (told backwards chronologically) came out in 2000.
  4. Shane Carruth’s Primer was one of the smartest films about the hubris associated with time travel that I’ve ever seen and got me started thinking about low-budget and DIY films (many of us are still waiting for his follow-up).
  5. Agnes Varda treated time and memory in two powerful documentaries, The Gleaners and I, a film about drifters who survive by gleaning small amounts of crops from farms, and (in what may be my favorite film of 2009) The Beaches of Agnes, a meditation on Varda’s life and career.
  6. Another film from 2000 that I admire, almost purely as entertainment is Curtis Hanson’s adaptation of Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys.  I’ve always found it to be one of the more likable depictions of life as a professor, and the performances from Michael Douglas, Robert Downey, Jr., and Tobey Maguire help carry the film.
  7. I should probably mention Life and Debt, at least briefly, a documentary that explores the effects of globalization, especially as they effect Jamaica, if only because it’s the first film I saw after defending my dissertation (in a theater in Toronto, Ontario, no less).  But it’s also important because it helped spawn a wider personal interest in documentary and helped set the stage for a number of documentaries that powerfully engaged with the effects of hypercapitalism in witty, inventive ways, including Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and The Corporation, while helping me to see some of the weaknesses of Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story.
  8. It seems likely that two of the events that have shaped the last decade most powerfully are the September 11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina.  For the most part, I’ve been left cold by films that address these events, but Spike Lee has made two, and arguably three, of the films that best engage with the emotional and political implications of these events.  25th Hour became a metaphor, for me, for the shock many of us felt after 9/11.
  9. When the Levees Broke offered a magisterial, epic take on a hurricane that came close to physically destroying an entire city but also showed its spiritual resilience.  More crucially, Lee was attentive to the racial and class politics of both events in a way that few other filmmakers could have been. His Inside Man moved like a heist thriller but also subtly engaged with the politics of race in post-9/11 New York in a witty way.
  10. Although it would be impossible to list all of the “political” documentaries that shaped my thinking over the last decade, one of my most vivid memories is of watching Michael Tucker’s Gunner Palace at a preview screening at Atlanta’s Midtown 8 theater.  The fact that I wrote multiple entries taking apart the film suggests that it had a powerful effect on my thinking, both about documentary and about war.  His follow up, The Prisoner: of How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair, although lesser-known, might be even more important.  The film has stuck with me as a powerful representation of the Iraq War’s post-invasion descent into chaos while giving many of the soldiers who fought a human face and voice.
  11. Michael Winterbottom’s Road to Guantanamo took documentary reenactments to new levels while also offering a powerful indictment of the pursuit of terrorists in Afghanistan.
  12. Errol Morris’s The Fog of War offered a subtle critique of the Bush administration case for war and a powerful history of the increasing mechanization of warfare through the eyes of one of its chief architects, Robert McNamara.

I’ll add a few more films in a follow-up to this entry.


  1. Mike Everleth Said,

    January 3, 2010 @ 10:39 pm

    Love the personal aspect to your list. I find it more interesting than most lists I’ve read. But, even better, I always knew I saw a fascinating — and sad — documentary about Jamaica years ago with my girlfriend (now wife), but could never remember the title. Now I know what it was! You’re the only person I’ve seen recall it.

  2. Chuck Said,

    January 3, 2010 @ 10:41 pm

    Erin Donovan mentioned it on one of her lists. Otherwise I might have forgotten it.

  3. Caveh Zahedi Said,

    January 4, 2010 @ 7:38 am

    Hi Chuck,

    What time travel films would you recommend?


  4. Chuck Said,

    January 4, 2010 @ 2:51 pm

    Hi Caveh. This is a difficult question for an academic to answer (plus it has been a long time since I thought about these films), but a short list would include Primer, La Jetee, Twelve Monkeys, Time Bandits, Conceiving Ada, Donnie Darko, Groundhog Day (not quite time travel, but close enough), Run Lola Run, and The Sticky Fingers of Time.

    In fact, I really wish that I’d put Donnie Darko, in particular, on this list.

  5. Chuck Said,

    January 4, 2010 @ 2:55 pm

    By the way, thanks to Andy’s Anachronisms with its relatively thorough list, I found all of these films rather quickly. I have to wonder how much different my dissertation would have been if I had these resources available when I was writing it.

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