What makes a good movie? That’s a question that any movie critic will get asked many times. And while we all go to the theater to be entertained to one degree or another, how a film does that is all a matter of interpretation and personal taste. Because everyone’s life experience is singular, your response to any artistic endeavor will also be unique. But a critic gets paid for his opinion, and we have the audacity to think that opinion matters.
In compiling a list of the best films of the past 10 years, and in order to apply some logic to paring down the list to a select few, I have applied three criteria: Originality, re-watchability, and lasting power. In other words, the following movies separate themselves by their uniqueness in an industry geared toward formulas and sequels, their ability to reward the viewer even after several viewings with their depth and intricacy, and finally, a capacity to tell a story that stands the test of time. “Gone with the Wind,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” and “Pinocchio” were great movies when they were released 70 years ago, and they still are. Ten years and nearly 1,500 movies later, here are the dozen movies that for this humble columnist best fit those criteria (in no particular order):
“Apocalypto”: This visceral Mayan epic depicting the plight of Jaguar Paw’s capture and escape from a terrifying tribal enemy is epic moviemaking at its most raw, exciting and moving. Mel Gibson was robbed of the accolades this film deserved.
“Millions”: Not enough people have seen this little gem about a young Brit who finds a satchel of money that lands on his cardboard fort by the train tracks. As clever as it is charming and deserves to become a holiday classic.
“The Dark Knight”: How could this film beat out such worthy superhero contenders as “Spider-Man 2,” “Iron Man,” and “Batman Begins?” Two words: Heath Ledger.
“Once”: Barely nudging out the terrific “Almost Famous,” this amazing film about an Irish brusker who meets and creates music with a piano-playing kindred spirit from the Czech Republic is that rare film that doesn’t feel like a movie at all.
“Pan’s Labryinth”: In a decade that saw some incredible foreign films, Guillermo del Toro creates a chilling tale of a young Spanish girl who escapes the brutality of her army captain father by entering a world of fairies, fauns and giant frogs. Haunting, heartbreaking and unforgettable.
“Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World”: Russell Crowe’s performance as a British sea captain is equal to his role in “Gladiator” and this is a more complete saga about camaraderie, courage and nobility on the high seas set in the early 19th century. The visual detail and aural power of the Blu-Ray version will knock you off your moorings!
“Minority Report”: No director had a better decade than Steven Spielberg, and this is the legendary director at his best. A dazzling display of credible, futuristic technology coupled with a creative, action-packed crime drama and a terrific cast led by Tom Cruise.
“The Incredibles”: Any number of Pixar films could have made this list (“Up” might still be too new to judge its durability), but no other animated film covered all the basics: action, comedy, drama and then threw in social commentary and some musings on family dynamics setting it apart.
“The Pursuit of Happyness”: Heroic fathers don’t get a lot of screen time, making this true story about Chris Gardner (Will Smith, who’s never been better) overcoming countless obstacles to achieve his ambitions, with his five year old son in tow, all the more memorable and moving.
“Children of Men”: Lots of films were set in an apocalyptic future, but few of them reached this level of intensity and depth. Among the many spectacular details with Clive Owen as the harried protagonist is the decade’s best birthing scene.
“Doubt”: This masterpiece based on the stage play was the best film of 2008. The story about a stern nun who accuses a charismatic priest features powerhouse performances that breathe truth into every word of the riveting, thought-provoking script.
“The Lord of the Rings Trilogy: No “Best of” list would be complete without this stunning, exhausting, and superb treatment of J.R.R. Tolkien’s seminal novels. And it’s not cheating to pick all three since Peter Jackson and crew filmed the films together and released them (mercifully) separately. It’s hard to argue with over $3 billion in worldwide grosses.