45. The Cove (Louis Psihoyos, 2009)
Generally speaking, I don't much care for "message" documentaries. The Cove is the exception to that rule. The Cove deals with the Japanese slaughter of dolphins but not from the pedantic perspective you might expect. Rather than preach, the movie plays out like a great heist movie. Specifically, the movie shows the efforts of a group of activists to break into a guarded Japanese cove where it is believed dolphins are killed. Similar to Ocean's 11 each character has a specific role to play in the infiltration: camera men, drivers, free divers, etc.
The film focuses on Rick O'Barry, who had been the trainer on the Flipper TV show. That experience with dolphins led him to a life of activism. O'Barry and director Louis Psihoyos mastermind the effort to investigate what happens in the cove in the Japanese fishing town of Taiji. Often it is easy to be put off by hard line activists on any side of any issue, but O'Barry (and most of the other infiltrators) come off as informed, intelligent and reasonable. The Cove is one of the most exciting and affecting documentaries I've ever seen.
As The Cove is one of only two documentaries making my Top 101 - along with #71 In the Shadow of the Moon - I feel I'd be remiss if I didn't mention a few of the other great documentaries this past decade. Below are my Top 10 best documentaries not on the Top 101:
10: Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog, 2008)
A compelling study of the eclectic set of characters that choose to live and work in Antarctica.
9: Wordplay (Patrick Creadon, 2006)
A quirky documentary about the creator, players and world champions of the New York Times' Crossword puzzles.
8: Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2005)
The story of a nature loving activist who chose to try to live among wild bears in Alaska.
7: Murderball (Henry Alex Rubin/Dana Adam Shapiro, 2005)
Murderball is a compelling study of the paraplegic sport of full contact wheel chair rugby.
6: Super Size Me (Morgan Spurlock, 2004)
Spurlock's unique style as a documentarian is so effective that he was given his own TV show, 30 Days, to continue his madcap experience experiments.
5: Man on Wire (James Marsh, 2008)
Fascinating documentary about a man who illegally crossed between the towers of the World Trade Center...while walking on a wire 110 stories in the air.
4: The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (Seth Gordon, 2007)
The story of the effort to set the world record high score in King Kong told hilariously as high tension sports drama.
3: Tyson (James Toback, 2009)
James Toback's documentary is a fascinating study of the psyche of one of the most controversial athletes of the century.
2: Lost in La Mancha (Keith Fulton/Louis Pepe, 2002)
Lost in La Mancha fascinatingly tells of Johnny Depp and Terry Gilliam's quixotic efforts to get a Don Quixote movie made.
1: No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (Martin Scorsese, 2005)
Martin Scorsese's Bob Dylan documentary was one of the hardest cuts to make from the list.
44. Iron Man (Jon Favreau, 2008)
Iron Man is one of the most enjoyable film experiences of the decade. Carried on the strength of Robert Downey, Jr.'s exceptional lead performance, Iron Man is unique among comic book movies. Rather than the mopey self-important heroes of Spider-Man or Batman, billionaire industrialist Tony Stark (Downey) has fun being a superhero. The entire cast helps support this with wonderful chemistry and interplay. Jeff Bridges makes for a worthy mentor-cum-adversary. Downey and Paltrow have magnificent chemistry. Removed from the self-important movies she's been doing this decade, Paltrow seems to be having fun again. The actress who was so charming in Shakespeare in Love returns in each crackling scene with Robert Downey, Jr.
Beyond the great acting, Iron Man works on a number of other levels. All of the dialogue works thanks to a witty script that loses the self-serious air that permeates the genre. The production designs are spectacular: from the set designs to the costumes everything works. More importantly (and unlike fellow 2008 summer release The Dark Knight), the action is easy to follow because director Jon Favreau competently constructs each scene. Absent are the jump cuts and choppy editing present in far too many action scenes these days. I look forward to seeing where Downey and Favreau take the character when Iron Man 2 is released this May.
43. District 9 (Neil Blomkamp, 2009)
Originally, Fox hired Peter Jackson to oversee the creation of a movie based on the video game series Halo. Tasked with finding a director, Peter Jackson chose South African director Neil Blomkamp to head up the potential big budget franchise on the strength of a short film Blomkamp made called Alive in Joburg. Alive in Joburg dealt, much like District 9, with the lives of alien invaders sequestered in apartheid South Africa after arriving on Earth. When the Halo film fell apart because of studio drama, Neil Blomkamp decided to go back to that original story and expand on its ideas. His choice was rewarded with a best picture nomination.
The first stroke of genius in District 9 is the casting of total unknown Sharlto Copley in the lead role. Copley, a writer, director and producer by trade, gives one hell of a performance in the lead role. Copley's character, Wikus Van De Merwe, is tasked with leading the effort to move the ghettoized aliens of District 9 to District 10, removed from the population of Johannesburg. His character transitions believably from something of a nebbish pencil pusher to a desperate man to something more...
There's so much more in District 9 worth talking about, from the stellar special effect to the beautiful cinematography to visceral and exciting action scenes, but it's best to leave each of you to discover the secrets of District 9 on your own.
NB: I do just want to say that District 9 had some of the most creative marketing I've seen for a movie leading up to its release. The mystery of District 9 was played up and subtle advertising (complete with phone and internet 'viral' marketing that sold the premise as real) helped complete the picture.
42. Atonement (Joe Wright, 2007)
Atonement features the single greatest camera shot of the entire decade; it is, perhaps, the greatest of all time. British soldier Robbie Turner arrives at the beach at Dunkirk and the camera follows him as he as walks and talks with a commanding officer. As Robbie continues to walk along the beach the camera follows him, past the soldiers preparing to escape mainland Europe back to England. Along the way the camera sometimes leaves Robbie: focusing on a man atop a grounded ship here, on a soldiers' choir there and various other little moments leading up to the evacuation of 300,000 individuals. The shot lasts nearly five minutes and was accomplished, in part, by having a marching band play so that all of the actors and extras could time where they're supposed to be. It is simply breathtaking to watch.
Of course, Atonement is about more than one great shot. At its core are two principal plots: a love story and a story of guilt. The love story deals with a young woman, Cecilia (Keira Knightley), from an aristocratic family that falls for the son of the family housekeeper (James McAvoy). Both are wonderful in the roles and the chemistry between the two shines through. Upon finally growing the courage to act upon their feelings, the two are torn apart because of the misunderstanding of Cecilia's young sister Briony. Briony in the film is played by three different actresses (each depicting the character at a different age). Each is effective and memorable in her own way, but the standout of the group is young Saiorse Ronan. Ronan (also great as the lead in Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones) crafts Briony in a way that is loathsome, but at the same time somewhat understandable - it is her lie that tears the couple apart. The other actresses, Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave, are left to redeem the character, to help her find atonement.
Director Joe Wright has done great work in all respects here. The adaptation is pitch perfect: Wright, and writer Christopher Hampton, understand that the adaptation process is about capturing the spirit and the core of a novel, not the page by page recreation that literary snobs seem to demand (only to decry the film's inferiority, of course). Wright also found great success this past decade adapting Pride and Prejudice in a manner that, while upsetting Jane Austen purists with changes, brought the story to life in a compelling and approachable way. Atonement, beyond the Dunkirk shot, is phenomenally well made. Every shot in the film is vibrant and beautifully lensed.
41. The Incredibles (Brad Bird, 2004)
Brad Bird, who also made Ratatouille and the prodigiously underrated The Iron Giant, has a gift at using broad appealing animation to get across subtle points. On the face of it, The Incredibles is the action story of a family of superheroes tackling a nemesis. But at a deeper level, Bird has something to say about modern society. Mr. Incredible is forced into retirement, and an absurd desk job, not because of ineffectiveness or age, but because of tort law suits in the aftermath of his heroic deeds. All of the voice actors, especially Craig T. Nelson, are wonderfully cast and give pitch perfect performances.
I make no secret of my admiration and affection for the work done by Pixar. The Incredibles marks a transitional period for the company. Prior to Brad Bird's superhero spoof, the company had made great kid's movies that held a broader appeal (Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc, A Bug's Life). After the success of The Incredibles, Pixar began making great movies that also appealed to children (Up, WALL-E, Ratatouille). It is a subtle distinction but it's one that has helped Pixar mature into being the finest and most consistent studio working today. The Incredibles is hilarious and exciting, but it also works as an effective satire on 1950s Americana.
Runner-Up: Blood Diamond (Zwick, 2006)
Runner-Up: Open Water (Kentis, 2004)
Runner-Up: Cinderella Man (Howard, 2005)
Runner-Up: Tigerland (Schumacher, 2000)
Runner-Up: Best in Show (Guest, 2000)
Runner-Up: Letters from Iwo Jima (Eastwood, 2006)
Runner-Up: Saw (Wan, 2004)
101: Big Fish (Burton, 2003)
100: State of Play (Macdonald, 2009)
99: Marley & Me (Frankel, 2008)
98: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Fincher, 2008)
97: Sunshine (Boyle, 2007)
96: 8 Mile (Hanson, 2002)
95: 21 Grams (Iñárritu, 2003)
94: The Hurt Locker (Bigelow, 2009)
93: Y tu mamá también (Cuaron, 2001)
92: Breach (Ray, 2007)
91: Away from Her (Polley, 2007)
90: Stranger Than Fiction (Forster, 2006)
89: Old School (Phillips, 2003)
88: The Queen (Frears, 2006)
87: Garden State (Braff, 2004)
86: Miracle (O'Connor, 2004)
85: Banlieue 13 (Morel, 2004)
84: The Fall (Singh, 2008)
83: Spider-Man/Spider-Man 2.1 (Raimi, 2002/2004)
82: The Last King of Scotland (Macdonald, 2006)
81: Pineapple Express (Green, 2008)
80: Into the Wild (Penn, 2007)
79: Juno (Reitman, 2007)
78: Cast Away (Zemeckis, 2000)
77: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Burton, 2007)
76: The 40 Year Old Virgin (Apatow, 2005)
75: Michael Clayton (Gilroy, 2007)
74: Friday Night Lights (Berg, 2004)
73: The Descent (Marshall, 2006)
72: In the Loop (Iannucci, 2009)
71: In the Shadow of the Moon (Sington, 2007)
70: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Black, 2005)
69: No Country for Old Men (Coen/Coen, 2007)
68: Superbad (Mottola, 2007)
67: Insomnia (Nolan, 2002)
66: The Road (Hillcoat, 2009)
65: Defiance (Zwick, 2008)
64: Up in the Air (Reitman, 2009)
63: Eastern Promises (Cronenberg, 2007)
62: Finding Nemo (Stanton, 2003)
61: Låt den rätte komma in (Alfredson, 2008)
60: Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (Verbinski, 2003)
59: Forgetting Sarah Marshall (Stoller, 2008)
58: Hot Fuzz (Wright, 2007)
57: Moon (Jones, 20009)
56: Collateral (Mann, 2004)
55: Munich (Spielberg, 2005)
54: The Visitor (McCarthy, 2008)
53: El orfanato (Bayona, 2007)
52: Hellboy II: The Golden Army (del Toro, 2008)
51: Adaptation. (Jonze, 2002)
50: Gangs of New York (Scorsese, 2002)
49: (500) Days of Summer (Webb, 2009)
48: Catch Me If You Can (Spielberg, 2002)
47: 3:10 to Yuma (Mangold, 2007)
46: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Cuaron, 2004)
45: The Cove (Psihoyos, 2009)
44: Iron Man (Favreau, 2008)
43: District 9 (Blomkamp, 2009)
42: Atonement (Wright, 2007)
41: The Incredibles (Bird, 2004)