The first movie I covered for CityBeat was The Aristocrats, way back in the summer of 2005. A few months later, over enchiladas, I told David Rolland and Kelly Davis that I wanted to be the paper's sole film critic, and two weeks later, the job was mine. Since then, I've had a byline in every single issue. I've reviewed hundreds of films for CityBeat and seen hundreds more.
I've learned an enormous amount about film, about criticism and about myself along the way, and I've been given enormous latitude in terms of what we cover (thanks, Dave). The list below comprises what I believe to be 10 of the best films of the last decade, in no particular order:
1. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (2007): Set in the waning days of the Ceausescu regime in Romania, Cristian Mungiu's film is about a young woman who helps her friend get a back-alley abortion. The subject matter is distressing enough, but Mungiu lets his actors really work, using takes long enough to make audiences squirm.
2. Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010): Banksy makes a movie about a guy making a movie about Banksy. Is it a prank? Is it art? Is it brilliant commentary about the nature of art? Is it meta? Yes, yes, yes and yes. At least, I think so. Certainly, it's insightful, intelligent and hysterically funny, working on any number of levels that you think you understand but can't quite be sure of. Just like all of Banksy's work.
3. Happy-Go-Lucky (2008): Sally Hawkins is fearless in Mike Leigh's film, playing Poppy, a British schoolteacher who's so entirely dedicated to making the lives of the people around her better that you just want to clobber her. But her drive isn't always healthy. She makes bad decisions and doesn't always face up to life's hardships. And Leigh throws her a curve in the form of Eddie Marsan's Scott, an angry, racist, bitter driving instructor, the polar opposite of Poppy and someone whom her actions will impact in ways she never would've hoped for.
4. The Lives of Others (2006): Lots of people, me included, were shocked when Pan's Labyrinth didn't win the 2006 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Then they saw Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's movie and understood why. Taking place in East Berlin in the Wall's final years, the film tells the story of a secret police officer who rethinks his priorities when he's ordered to spy on a playwright and his girlfriend. It's a tremendous look at the sacrifices people must make for the greater good, even if it costs them everything.
5. No Country for Old Men (2007): The Coen brothers made an almost perfect adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's amazing novel and also managed to legitimize Josh Brolin as a real actor. He's a good ol' boy who stumbles on a drug deal that went wrong and walks away with a bag full of money, which puts bad guy Javier Bardem on his trail, who in turn is being pursued by aging lawman Tommy Lee Jones. The narrative structure goes in directions you don't expect; it's brilliantly shot and wonderfully acted and it earned a slew of Oscars, highlighted by Javier Bardem's walk to the podium.
6. Pan's Labyrinth (2006): Guillermo del Toro broke so many rules with this fractured fairy tale. Set in Spain in 1944, a little girl escapes into a fantasy world when her mother marries a nasty fascist in the Spanish army. You don't always know what's real and what's in her head, but her imaginary world is often even more terrifying than what she has to face in the real one.
7. A Serious Man (2009): The Coens again? Absolutely. This dark comedy is one of their best. Michael Stuhlberg is a Jewish college professor in the 1960s who watches his life unravel and has to wonder if it's just bad luck or if he's a modern-day Job. The Coens never overplay their hand and never give you a straight answer, which is, of course, what religion is all about.
8. There Will Be Blood (2007): I drink your milkshake. Paul Thomas Anderson couldn't have made this tale of greed and corruption without Daniel Day Lewis, and Day Lewis gave him the performance of a lifetime. It's an epic look at how pathetic a person can become and, in the case of Day Lewis' Daniel Plainview, how poorly his success suits him.
9. The Pianist (2002): No matter what you think of Roman Polanski, it's tough to find fault with his semi-autobiographical holocaust film. Adrien Brody plays Wladys-law Szpilman, a classical pianist who survives the Nazi invasion of his city, though everyone he knows and loves is murdered and his own humanity is seriously threatened. Extraordinarily well-made and often very difficult to watch, this deserved all the Oscars it won.
10. Brokeback Mountain (2005): Ang Lee's film was a trailblazer, exploring a secret, decadeslong love affair between two cowboys, played by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. Ledger will always be remembered for his turn in The Dark Knight, but his work here is even better.
There were a few films that made my short list but not the final cut. Here they are: Wall*E, Of Gods and Men, Another Year, Atonement, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Inglourious Basterds, Knocked Up, Moon, Synecdoche, New York, The Tree of Life, The Visitor, Up, The Wackness, Winter's Bone and The Wrestler.
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