The ballsiest performances, craziest effects and most unforgettable lines (“I drink your milkshake”) of the decade.
OK, I'm cheating, it's three movies. But how can you separate one from the others? Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings, from the J.R.R. Tolkien books, is an amazement that no epic released in the past 10 years can equal, much less surpass in size and scope. Hobbits, wizards, dark lords all roamed fictional Middle-Earth as Frodo (Elijah Wood) labored to destroy the One Ring in Mount Doom. Gollum, the spindly, scary, schizoid, computer-generated villain, voiced by Andy Serkis, entered the global conversation. At decade's end, that conversation shows no sign of stopping.
Clint Eastwood, 80, blew through the decade on a creative high, directing the diverse likes of Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters From Iwo Jima, Changeling, Gran Torino and Invictus. But the 2003 film that I believe stands with his 1992 Western masterpiece, Unforgiven, is Mystic River. Everything Eastwood knows about filmmaking and living is poured into this fierce drama about friends who grew up together in working-class Boston. Now, driven by guilt and anger, their bonds are severed. Tim Robbins and Sean Penn, at his brilliant best, deservedly won Oscars for their acting. But it's the startling power and intimacy that Eastwood invests in this tale that takes a piece out of you.
Martin Scorsese finally won his Oscar for this crime classic that some felt was too old-school to be profound. Watch it again, doubters, and this time pay attention. By casting Leonardo DiCaprio as a cop pretending to be a hood and Matt Damon doing the opposite, Scorsese hit us with harsh glimpses of how corruption starts in childhood. Damon's character was hooked at 12 when a local hood (Jack Nicholson in full Jack glory) bought him off with groceries. This uncompromised vision of a society rotting from inside remains a triumphant bruiser of a film. Even in a decade when Scorsese scored with Gangs of New York and The Aviator, The Departed was his personal best.
The late Heath Ledger helped define the decade as the Joker in The Dark Knight. But for me, the Ledger role that will endure is Ennis Del Mar, the married Wyoming ranch hand daring a forbidden love (it's 1963) with rodeo rider Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) in Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain. The Taiwanese director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon walked volatile ground with this adaptation of Annie Proulx's story. But Ledger gave the film its soul. He didn't just know how Ennis moved, spoke and listened; he knew how he breathed. Seeing him inhale the scent of a shirt hanging in Jack's closet is a scene that pierced your heart. This landmark movie did the same.
Of all the Pixar miracles studded through the decade, The Incredibles still delights me the most. It's not every toon that deals with midlife crisis, marital dysfunction, child neglect, impotence fears, fashion faux pas and existential angst. Created by Brad Bird, the film advanced animation by forgoing the usual talking animals and focusing on humans — in this case, a family of retired superheroes. A short, sassy ball of fire named Edna Mode (Bird does her voice, hilariously), the guru of fashion insults, designed the indestructible costumes. Skeptics who thought the movie was too PG-dark to be a mainstream hit can eat their words now. The Incredibles didn't ring cartoonish, it rang true.
Set in 1980 in West Texas, where the chase is on for stolen drug money, No Country for Old Men — which won a Best Picture Oscar for the Coen brothers — was a literate meditation on America's blood lust for the easy fix. Javier Bardem also took home a golden boy for playing Death in the form of a killer with a stupendously bad haircut. Adapting the novel by Cormac McCarthy, the Coens worked fresh territory by tackling good and evil with a rigorous fix on the complexities involved. With their gallows humor always in evidence, the Coens crafted a movie that carried in its bones the virus of what we've become, a movie that forced us to look into an abyss of our own making.
Is Canadian director David Cronenberg the most unsung maverick artist in movies? Bet on it. I could have picked 2007's Eastern Promises to prove my point. But I'm going with 2005's A History of Violence — both films starred Viggo Mortensen at his best — because it just slammed me with its subversive wit. Things look normal in the small town where a reformed hit man (Mortensen) runs the diner and runs home to his hot wife (Maria Bello). Then the past shows up. Cronenberg knows violence is wired into our DNA. His film showed how we secretly crave what we publicly condemn. This is potent poison for a thriller, and unadulterated, unforgettable Cronenberg.
There was no better movie this decade to get lost in — with or without controlled substances — than David Lynch's dark, dazzling mood piece about an amnesiac (Laura Harring) and a wanna-be actress (Naomi Watts) who link up to solve a murder in the city of bruised angels. Smart viewers didn't worry about negotiating the plot. They just surrendered to his film's visionary daring and swooning eroticism. OK, some just got off seeing Watts and Harring rub titties. But as identities shifted and the world was thrown out of balance, Lynch cemented his rep as a cinema poet. You can still discover a lot about yourself watching Mulholland Drive. It grips you like a dream that won't let go.
I thought director Alfonso Cuarón's film of P.D. James' futuristic political-fable novel was good when it opened in 2006. After repeated viewings, I know Children of Men is indisputably great. A hypnotic Clive Owen starred as a resistance leader pinning his hopes on the last pregnant woman on Earth. Is it possible to capture the terrible absence of a world without children? Cuarón did it. No movie this decade was more redolent of sorrowful beauty and exhilarating action. You don't just watch the car ambush scene (pure camera wizardry) — you live inside it. That's Cuarón's magic: He makes you believe.
Two years after first seeing There Will Be Blood, I am convinced that Paul Thomas Anderson's profound portrait of an American primitive ? take that, Citizen Kane ? deserves pride of place among the decade's finest. Daniel Day-Lewis gave the best and ballsiest performance of the past 10 years. As Daniel Plainview, a prospector who loots the land of its natural resources in silver and oil to fill his pockets and gargantuan ego, he showed us a man draining his humanity for power. And Anderson, having extended Plainview's rage from Earth to heaven in the form of a corrupt preacher (Paul Dano), managed to "drink the milkshake" of other risk-taking directors. If I had to stake the future of film in the next decade on one filmmaker, I'd go with PTA. Even more than Boogie Nights and Magnolia ? his rebel cries from the 1990s ? Blood let Anderson put technology at the service of character. The score by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood was a sonic explosion that reinvented what film music could be. And the images captured by Robert Elswit, a genius of camera and lighting, made visual poetry out of an oil well consumed by flame. For the final word on Blood, I'll quote Plainview: "It was one goddamn hell of a show."