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You thought you were finally finished with all those year-end 10-best lists? Not so fast. Just in case you hadn’t noticed, a decade just ended. This can mean only one thing: The 10 Best Films of the Decade.
Unlike my recent essay on 2009 movies, with its tucked-in Top 10 list, this piece will not attempt to cherrypick movie trends or provide an Olympian overview. Let’s just say that, as was also true of 2009, the past decade offered up many films eminently worth seeing and many more that were not. The most notable movies were predominantly from overseas but, in general, even in America, the best work came from independent-minded filmmakers working on the margins of the industry. In other words, it’s still possible to make great movies, but that greatness is largely untethered to any widespread movement, school, renaissance, or resurgence. In an industry increasingly inimical to risk – and this despite the fact that Hollywood just enjoyed its most lucrative year ever – artists are increasingly anomalies.
But I promised not to get too high-flying here, so let’s make our descent to the decade’s alphabetical best. Initially, I planned to create two separate lists of 10 each: One for English-language films, the other for non-English. This would enable me to sneak an extra 10 movies into the pantheon. But I decided not to ghettoize the films in this way. During awards time, foreign-language movies are too often treated as lonely stepchildren. In my list, all movies – whatever their language of origin, whether they be drama, documentary, or animation, or some hybrid – belong to the same happy family.
In 1995’s “Before Sunrise,” Richard Linklater cast Ethan Hawke as Jesse, an American train passenger who convinces a young French woman he has just met, played by Julie Delpy, to disembark with him in Vienna and share his last night in Europe. In “Before Sunset,” we meet the same characters nine years later as Jesse passes through Paris on a book tour. Taken together, the movies are exquisite, but “Before Sunset,” with its undertone of longing and melancholy, is peerlessly romantic. As in some of the French New Wave classics by Truffaut and Godard, language itself here, as it pours out of these two in great gusts and digressions, is a sensual thrill.
The best Romanian filmmakers are among the most remarkable in the world right now, and none more so than Cristian Mungiu. In this masterpiece, set in small-town Romania in 1987 at a time when the waning Ceauşescu regime was still potent, a college girl (the great Anamaria Marinca) covertly arranges for her friend’s abortion. The consequences of this illegality, in a society where all human activity appears to be monitored by the state, are sorrowing.
Joel and Ethan Coen are perhaps the most polarizing of contemporary American filmmakers, but in this adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel, they had their greatest critical and popular success. (It won the Academy Award for best picture of 2007.) It’s about the human response to death and dying as embodied in three men – a thief-hunter (Josh Brolin), a lawman (Tommy Lee Jones), and a terminator (Javier Bardem) – and it has an allegorical power that at times is close to biblical.
Roman Polanski drew deeply on his boyhood experiences as a Jewish child being hunted down in World War II Poland in this poetically stark adaptation of the wartime memoir of Polish pianist and Holocaust survivor Wladyslaw Szpilman, played with unerring grace by Adrien Brody.
For pure unalloyed pleasure, few Hollywood movies of the decade could touch this bittersweet Alexander Payne film about an oenophile (Paul Giamatti) whose crankiness is the thinnest of veneers covering his sadness. It’s a comedy about how we all make it, somehow, through life, and it’s so sharply observed and deeply felt that, in the end, it also seems, of all things, wise.
This is the best film from the world’s best animator, Hayao Miyazaki. A 10-year-old girl, moving to the suburbs with her parents, discovers a tunnel leading to a world that might have astounded even Lewis Carroll. Miyazaki creates wondrously mysterious effects in almost every hand-drawn frame.
Laurent Cantet’s 2001 movie about a husband and father, suddenly unemployed, who pretends he has a lucrative new job, seems doubly prescient these days. As the harrowed, deluded protagonist, Aurélien Recoing gives a withering portrait of a man who is trying to do right by everybody – and nobody. Although set in a very different time and place, this film has some of the spookiness of a Hawthorne story.
Filmmaker Ari Folman was a 19-year-old Israeli soldier in the 1982 war in Lebanon, from which he fashioned this one-of-a-kind animated memoir that, in the end, unforgettably breaks into live-action footage of the sorrows of war.
Alfonso Cuarón’s road movie is about two frisky Mexican teenagers (Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal) who team up with the wife (Maribel Verdú) of one of their cousins. Exhilaratingly comic and sexy, it registers, finally, a note of rapturous melancholy.
Abbas Kiarostami is Iran’s greatest director and this is, arguably, his finest film. A documentary filmmaker from Tehran, posing as an engineer, arrives with his crew in a remote mountain valley in Iranian Kurdistan to record the impending ritual funeral ceremony of an ancient woman near death. The slow deliberateness of Kiarostami’s style is so rich and lyrical that the imagery seems suspended in time forever.