Let me begin by saying it was not difficult for me to find ten movies I would be eager to share with friends and strangers. My problem was the opposite: I struggled to narrow thirty or so films down to the best ten, which allowed me to spend way more time on this than probably should’ve. I wasn’t especially concerned with deciding which films were “best”—a designation I find a little silly given the subjective nature of art. I began by making a list of my favorites and then tried to rank them based on which films had the most artistic power for me. If I can’t get a movie out of my head days after seeing it, that’s an effective piece of art. If I go back to watch a movie over and over again and enjoy it each time, that’s an effective piece of art. If I’m emotionally moved by fictional worlds, that’s effective art. And then there’s humor: something I consider more challenging than anything else, partly because laughs aren’t enough. A film has to do more than just funny, and movies that get me to laugh out loud are rare enough as it is.
Along that road, WALL-E wound up near the top after the dust cleared because I was moved to love and tears and laughs by cartoon robots and a cricket. I was certain Happy-Go-Lucky would be my favorite film this decade because it challenges me and haunts me and teaches me about human living. However, WALL-E captures the spirit of our decade—the moment when people stopped to notice and acknowledge the earth’s deterioration, thinking for perhaps the first time that our planet was a living organism that could be (and would someday be) killed. But the environmental slant is as distant from the film’s power as the “Buy N Large” spaceship containing what’s left of humanity is from earth. WALL-E is about love, hope, perseverance, and a trash-compacting robot who teaches the future of our species what it means to be human.
I watched Happy-Go-Lucky in preparation for the Oscars—for James’ annual gala and dollar-per-category pool, to be precise. I try to watch as many nominees for best screenplay as possible, which is how I encountered this film. I was enchanted on first viewing—mesmerized by the life behind the language and interactions of the characters, especially Poppy. Sally Hawkins had scored a well-won Golden Globe for becoming Poppy a month earlier, but Happy-Go-Lucky cost me a dollar on Oscar night. Still, I wrote about it on this site for the Play-it-Again feature because I couldn’t get it out of my head and had already watched more times than was natural. I’ve seen it more since then.
1. Happy-Go-Lucky, Mike Leigh, 2008
2. WALL-E, Andrew Stanton, 2008
3. Broken Flowers, Jim Jarmusch, 2005
4. Roger Dodger, Dylan Kidd, 2002
Roger Dodger, like many on these lists, is a movie better seen than summarized. A big city bachelor—Campbell Scott in the role of his lengthy career—takes his teenage nephew (Jesse Eisenberg) on an educational night on the town, instructing him on the art of women and winning time. Like Eisenberg’s acting style and many of the movies on my list, I find it awkward, honest, engaging, surreal and hilarious.
5. Up, Pete Docter, 2009
Up is simply wonderful, the best film of 2009 I’ve seen. I first saw the preview during Dark Knight and told my fiancé I knew I’d like it, a fact that frustrated me at the time. The old man/young man bond can be as powerful as any in art: one I know I’m susceptible to. Most cases, as in Up, the age/youth routine can be predictable and cliché in some ways but surprising and beautiful in others. Further, the film tapped into the memory of a novel I loved as a grade-schooler (The Twenty-One Balloons). I even remember it taking place on the island of Krakatoa. I liked it a lot, but it didn’t make me cry the way Up did. I was in the theatre trying to stop myself from crying less than 10 minutes into Up, and the crying wasn’t for something awful or tragic but for something that felt real and overwhelming and magnificent . . . during the opening credits! And then the movie started. I cried for stuff that happened later on, too. I’m not ashamed, I swear.
6. Pineapple Express, David Gordon Green, 2008
This made me laugh out loud. It still makes me laugh out loud, and I’ve seen it enough that it shouldn’t.
7. American Splendor, 2003, Shari Springer Bergman
American Splendor changes the rules of realism in film. Hello fifth dimension. Or sixth? I don’t know; but we (well, Buster Keaton and Bugs Bunny) waved goodbye to the fourth wall (between audience and art) long ago, and this movie effectively removes the others so that the film enters the sort of white space it uses as the backdrop for these frame-bending scenes in which the real-life human subjects of the story (Harvey Pekar and friends) discuss the success or failure of the film’s effort to re-create their reality. The story itself is even better.
8. Juno, Jason Reitman, 2007
Many misunderstand the Diablo Cody story, imagining her to be some fallen stripper who quirkily happened to write a brilliant story. Reality is the inverse. Cody is a quirky writer who happened to spend a year stripping. Juno is not the result of a luck-happy accident; the film is crafted by delicate editorial eyes and superbly talented and accomplished actors. The cast seems to have a sense of humor about their character’s situation, even Jennifer Garner—the ever-serious nervous breakdown in waiting. Scenes centered on she and Jason Bateman capture the dog days of monogamous living as well as the scenes starring Bateman and Ellen Page display the awkward excitement of the unknown. The most obvious signal of this film’s expertise to me is the meaning. I’m sensitive to didactic, moralized art—can’t help myself from resisting when I suspect I’m being set-up for persuasive rhetoric—but I want art say something that matters, and this film manages to offer a powerful meaning for consideration without tripping my sensors along the way.
9. Lymelife, Derick Martini, 2008
Lymelife is the kind of movie I’d recommend to anyone. Alec Baldwin is money as the entrepreneurial father, husband and philanderer. The surrounding ensemble (Timothy Hutton, Emma Roberts, Cynthia Nixon, Jill Hennessey, Kieran Culkin) make all the interactions feel so real and intriguing that the fascinating father-son relationship between Baldwin’s and Rory Culkin’s characters is just one plotline among many.
10. (500) Days of Summer, Marc Webb, 2009
I wish I’d watched (500) Days of Summer again before writing this. I mentioned it in class the other day, and I find myself remembering the split-screen, expectation v. reality sequence all the time. These scenes brilliantly capture something genuine and resonant happens in the film: the guy doesn’t get the girl. And there’s really no good reason he doesn’t—no obvious deflection point at which he forgets the birthday or stumbles into saying the dumbass thing. In fact, his slip-ups are his charm, as in reality. If you’ve ever chased the pretty girl (or guy) who knows she’s the pretty girl (or guy), this movie will hurt in all the right ways, especially when Joseph Gordon Levitt and his reflection are alone in the bathroom trying to sort out what the word “casual” means while Zooey Deschanel is stripping in his bed.
Nick Roos is an adjunct instructor at the University of Northern Iowa and a fiction workshopper without peer.
Previously on You Aught to Know: Tony Girard