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A Decade of Top Tens

Was this really the best movie of '06?
by David Cornelius

Readers often don’t realize that a critic’s year-end top-ten lists are hardly set in stone. Often, the list is a snapshot of the day he/she wrote the column - one day earlier or later, and a movie listed at number six could very well find itself instead at number three (or eight, or whatever). The top pick is usually more solid, but even then, if a year produces two or three movies great enough to vie for the honor, the number one spot could very well not be as definitive a choice as it might seem.

And then there’s the whole “passage of time” thing. Some movies age well, others don’t, and as the years roll by, favorites begin to grow in stature or slip away like a lost memory. Multiple viewings can reveal great treasures originally overlooked - and flaws that begin to irk.

To celebrate the end of the decade, I thought it would be interesting to look back at my best-of lists from years past and see which ones hold up, which ones fall apart, and just what I’d change if I had to do the whole darn thing over again.

2000: 1. “Chicken Run” 2. “Traffic” 3. “Almost Famous” 4. “Yi Yi” 5. “The Virgin Suicides” 6. “The Contender” 7. “Panic” 8. “Cast Away” 9. “Best in Show” 10. “Mission: Impossible II”

OK, to answer your first question: yes, I really did think “Mission: Impossible II” was one of the year’s best movies. This was the first top ten list I ever published, arriving online just a few months after I started in the business (for a now-long dead website, in case you’re wondering), and it’s here I started a habit, for better or worse, of including some less than fashionable choices. It might not be trendy to like “M:I 2,” but that doesn’t make it a bad movie. Indeed, while I’m now able to own up to some of the cheesier aspects of the film and think it’s the weakest of the franchise (and definitely wouldn’t include it on a top ten list these days), I still greatly enjoy it as a slickly made actioner.

As for “Chicken Run,” that still stands, no question. Nearly ten years later, it holds up perfectly as one of the best of all animated films - dare I say I like it even more than Aardman’s Wallace and Gromit?

The rest of the list looks fairly solid - although I’d definitely move “Yi Yi” up (time’s been very good to it) - except for “Panic,” the William H. Macy-as-a-conflicted-hitman drama of which I remember far too little. Did I really love it that much, or was I just eager to champion a smaller film?

2001: 1. “The Dish” 2. “In the Bedroom” 3. “Black Hawk Down” 4. “A Beautiful Mind” 5. “Memento” 6. “Heist” 7. “Gosford Park” 8. “Shadow Magic” 9. “Ghost World” 10. “Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius”

Every time I think I goofed by naming something as lightweight as “The Dish” as the year’s best, all I have to do it sit down and watch it, and I fall in love all over again. The movie’s so elegantly constructed, unquestionably the best of the post-“Full Monty” “quirky small town” comedies. The whole thing hinges on character, which allows the laughter to never feel contrived, the tension always feel earned. I just plain simply adore this one.

Indeed, the whole list seems just about right. “Black Hawk Down” might get bumped up a spot if I were to attempt a do-over, as would “Jimmy Neutron,” which wowed me the first time and has only improved over the years, even though many adults dismissed it as mere kiddie fare. And I’m still quite proud of myself for having stumbled upon “Shadow Magic,” a lovely drama that’s stuck in my memory much more than “In the Bedroom” and “Ghost World” (although those movies hold up just fine, too).

This was my first year with a runners-up list (which I’ve omitted here for space reasons). Of those, the only one I’d try to squeeze into the top ten now would be “Ocean’s Eleven.” I somehow failed in 2001 to realize just how pitch-perfect it is, very much liking it, but not loving it. My original review seems too hung up on a few minor quibbles to notice its overall elegance, a mistake I’ll chalk up to inexperience.

2002: 1. “Catch Me If You Can” 2. “One Hour Photo” 3. “Son of the Bride” 4. “Chicago” 5. “The Emperor’s New Clothes” 6. “Reign of Fire” 7. “About Schmidt” 8. “Gangs of New York” 9. “Minority Report” 10. “8 Mile”

Some rather interesting choices here, it seems - and I don’t just mean “Reign of Fire,” a totally dopey fantasy-actioner that I still defend today. Yes, it’s goofy, cheesy, completely ridiculous in its efforts to take itself seriously, and probably doesn’t belong one bit on a year-end list. But it’s also a brilliant adventure with some surprising emotion in the corners, and I love it.

I’m amused that two smallish works - “Son of the Bride” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes” - landed spots above some of the bigger Hollywood fare, but looking back at how much I enjoyed both pictures, I’m not surprised. I’m fond of both, and wouldn’t remove either from their spots today.

I remember being utterly bowled over by “One Hour Photo,” although, oddly enough, I haven’t watched it since. Same goes for “About Schmidt.” Kathy Bates hot tub jokes aside, I’ve barely thought about it in the past few years.

Not so with “Catch Me If You Can,” which remains one of those movies that’s impossible to turn off if I ever run across it on cable. It’s arguably Spielberg’s best effort of the decade (overlong finale and all). DiCaprio and Walken are absolutely wonderful, but so is Tom Hanks, whose whip-smart performance remains underappreciated.

Perhaps it was overshadowed by his work in “Road to Perdition,” which appears on my runners-up list and probably should’ve gotten the bump to the top ten. The same, perhaps, goes for “Ice Age,” which, limp sequels aside, is still a heck of a cartoon.

2003: 1. “Finding Nemo” 2. “28 Days Later…” 3: “Lost in Translation” 4. “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” 5. “In America” 6. “American Splendor” 7. “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” 8. “The Last Samurai” 9. “Bad Santa” 10. “Open Range”

Just look at those first five. Great films all; I wouldn’t change a thing. “Nemo,” of course, is utter perfection - Pixar was always magnificent, but “Nemo” wouldn’t be beat as the studio’s best until the recent one-two punch of “WALL-E” and “Up” - while the next four offer a dazzling variety of genres with equal amounts of quality. Did anyone expect “Pirates” to be that great?

The second half of the list is more problematic - while definitely solid movies, I haven’t given much thought since to “Splendor,” “Master and Commander,” or “Samurai,” while “Santa” and “Open Range” have stayed with me immensely. “Santa,” of course, is a deliciously crude ballet of profanity and obscenity, while “Open Range” is certainly the decade’s finest western. For the life of me, I can’t imagine why those two would land at the bottom of the list, when they clearly deserve higher.

A few runners-up could just as well fit in here, namely “Cowboy Bebop: The Movie” and “A Mighty Wind,” both of which have grown on me recently. Other picks weren’t so lucky: what was I thinking when I said I liked the somber Civil War drama “Gods and Generals” and the Coens’ awkward “Intolerable Cruelty” that much?

(For those of you wondering: No, I never thought the “Lord of the Rings” films were worthy of best-of status, but my admiration for all three movies has since grown and grown and grown, especially with the release of the extended versions, which help sweep away many of the problems I had with them upon their initial releases.)

2004: 1. “Million Dollar Baby” 2. “Hero” 3. “Collateral” 4. “The Aviator” 5. “Broken Wings” 6. “Kill Bill: Vol. 2” 7. “Fahrenheit 9/11” 8. “Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War” 9. “Super Size Me” 10. “Hidalgo”

I’ll start with the obvious (well, obvious to me, at least): I left off “The Incredibles,” and immediately I regretted it. I have no recollection why I thought it was the best choice at the time. Clearly I was very, very wrong.

Perhaps I was worried it wouldn’t leave room for “Hidalgo,” a breezy cowboy romp that I felt - and still feel - deserves a top ten spot. It’s one of those films that went overlooked by most of the population and unliked by the rest, but oh, how I love it so.

I’m happy to be reminded of “Broken Wings” and “Tae Guk Gi,” two imports that didn’t get enough attention at the time. On the other hand, the appearance of Michael Moore’s film is clearly a sign of the times; these days, I’m convinced “Super Size Me” is the better documentary. And the listing of “Kill Bill, Vol. 2” while “Vol. 1” was absent the year before is a sign of… well, I’m not sure, but I don’t think it’s because the second half is that much better than the first. (Most likely, my appreciation for the films didn’t kick in all the way the first time around.)

The rest? Can’t argue. “Million Dollar Baby” is probably my pick for the second best film of the decade (number one’s coming up soon), “Hero” is my all-time favorite martial arts flick, and “Collateral” is still one hell of a thriller, Michael Mann at his best.

2005: 1. “Oldboy” 2. “Yesterday” 3. “Munich” 4. “Batman Begins” 5. “Dragonhead” 6. “Murderball” 7. “Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith” 8. “Lord of War” 9. “The Girl In the Café” 10. “The 40-Year-Old Virgin”

A peculiar list, as I realize I haven’t seen seven of these movies since I first viewed them. (The frequently replayed, as you can probably guess: “Batman,” “Sith,” and “Virgin.”) Would I still pick “Oldboy” today? I’m not sure - my failure to rewatch it stems not from a lack of love, but from a lack of desire to be completely overwhelmed. It’s a powerful experience, full of cringes, not exactly the sort of good time you get by watching Steve Carell wax his chest for the umpteenth time. (Then again, “Virgin” falls apart in the third act, a truth I was unwilling to admit back then.)

“Yesterday,” meanwhile, has almost completely faded from memory. I know I was moved by the drama within, but if I were to revisit it, would it still move me? And what of “Lord of War,” with its snarky politics and sinister humor? I remember the inventive poster art far more than the story it advertised. Have I shied away from the grim tales of “Munich” and “Dragonhead” because I’m avoiding their suspense, or because I didn’t like them as much as I thought I did? Or, better still, am I picking to rewatch “Sith” over “The Girl in the Café” because I like it more, or because the Lucas universe is more familiar to me, an easier pick for throwaway background noise?

The runners-up list doesn’t offer much in the way of possible replacements, with one major exception: like “The Incredibles,” I immediately regretted leaving the teenage superhero comedy “Sky High” off my list. I’ve watched that film far more than any in this top ten, and for a reason: it’s a brilliant little movie, unassuming yet so cleverly designed.

2006: 1. “Superman Returns” 2. “Casino Royale” 3. “Stranger Than Fiction” 4. “The Departed” 5. “The Descent” 6. “Monster House” 7. “Tickets” 8. “The Notorious Bettie Page” 9. “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” 10. “Snakes on a Plane”

Ah, yes. This list. Hmm. I received plenty of weird looks that year, but it doesn’t matter. I’m right on this one, folks.

Let’s start at the top. “Casino Royale” is the cool kid in school, the big franchise flick you’re allowed to love; “Superman Returns” is far from beloved, at least in all the geek circles. I love both films immensely, and picking which one gets which spot was far more taxing a choice than it should have been. I ultimately when with my gut and picked “Superman.” My gut was right. Since 2006, I’ve watched it dozens of times, loving every minute of it every time. I’ve seen “Casino Royale” several times, too (and loved it each time), but it doesn’t quite compare to the sense of wonder that washes over me whenever the Man of Steel steps into action. Many geeks love to hate on this movie, but that’s because many geeks don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.

There are a few respectable entries further down the list - Scorsese’s Oscar-winner “The Departed,” the modern horror classic “The Descent,” the much-loved “Monster House” - but there’s also “Fiction,” a dramedy that baffled more audiences than it charmed, despite being absolutely wonderful, and “Bettie Page,” with Gretchen Mol in a brilliant performance too few people actually saw. As for “Tickets,” well, the anthology drama has sort of slipped from memory; perhaps these days I’d replace it with runner-up “Brick,” or maybe “Inside Man,” or perhaps even “Cars,” the one Pixar film many grown-ups didn’t like, despite it being pretty darn fantastic.

This leaves us with two more questionable entries I’m still defending today. “Dead Man’s Chest” took the “Pirates” franchise from admired to unloved, and I never understood why. The movie’s just as adventurous - and just as daring - as its predecessor, a big, bold ball of weird pretending to be a summer blockbuster. As for “Snakes on a Plane,” well, if you still don’t get it, I suppose you never will.

2007: 1. “There Will Be Blood” 2. “Once” 3. “Meet the Robinsons” 4. “Gone Baby Gone” 5. “No Country For Old Men” 6. “Grindhouse” 7. “Stardust” 8. “Ratatouille” 9. “Chalk” 10. “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End”

Perhaps because the retrospection gap is closing as we approach decade’s end, I can’t see much wrong with this list at all. “Blood” is my pick for the decade’s best film, and “Once” and “Robinsons” would surely be fairly high up on any decade-ending best-of list as well. All three are bona fide favorites, inviting multiple viewings, improving with age.

The rest of the list is just as spot-on, mixing the obvious choices (“No Country,” “Ratatouille”) with smaller fare (“Gone Baby Gone,” Stardust”). “Grindhouse” seems like it was picked because of the theatrical experience, and yet it holds up splendidly at home, even when bastardized into two separate movies. And there’s another “Pirates” movie, a choice with which few others might agree, but oh, how deeply I love that series.

My only possible nit-pick would be “Chalk,” an indie comedy I admired greatly, but was it really good enough to knock “Hot Fuzz” or “The Lookout” out of the top ten? I’d like to think it was.


I never formally published a year-end best-of list for 2008, due to various scheduling restraints. But I promise you, if I did, it’s pretty likely you wouldn’t like it too much. It’d go a little something like this:

1. “WALL-E” 2. “Appaloosa” 3. “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” 4. “Cloverfield” 5. “Kung Fu Panda” 6. “Quantum of Solace” 7. “The Incredible Hulk” 8. “Man on Wire” 9. “Sixty Six” 10. “Dear Zachary”

Yes, that’s really “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” you see there in the number three spot. All the hate for the film that’s spinning around the internet is a bunch of hooey; it’s quite the cinematic marvel, absolutely worthy of a spot in the Indiana Jones franchise. From the opening notes of “Hound Dog” to the whimsical, romantic epilogue, I smile all the way through this movie, and can’t wait to watch it again.

Then there’s “Quantum of Solace,” which got slapped around by fans just for giving them exactly what they wanted - that icy “Casino Royale” attitude, only moreso, and with bigger action. To me, it was another brilliant addition to the series and a sign that Daniel Craig might be the best thing to happen to 007 since the Aston Martin.

“Cloverfield” and “The Incredible Hulk” gave us two doses of monster movie genius. “Man on Wire” and “Dear Zachary” allowed truth to be more involving than fiction. “Sixty Six” made me giggle, and still does. So does “Kung Fu Panda,” an animated wonder that allowed itself to be more than just another talking animal adventure. “Appaloosa” is the best western since, well, since “Open Range.”

And then, of course, we have “WALL-E.” Could anyone complain about that one in the top spot?


I haven’t yet made my top ten for 2009, and even if I did, I’d be reluctant to comment on it here - not enough time having passed and whatnot. I’m sure that when I do get around to making that list, I’ll start second-guessing it the very next day.

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originally posted: 12/31/09 09:32:45
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