The decade isn’t really over yet: there was no “year zero,” which means that the year 2000 was the two-thousandth year of its calendar, and that this year is the 2010th, the last of the third millennium’s first decade, not the first of its second. But I’ve seen so many “ten best films of the decade” lists already (thanks partly to the last issue of Film Comment, which has over a hundred of them), that I feel helplessly encouraged to throw together my own.

But first, as we wind our way to the Oscars, for what it’s worth, here are my five favorite films of 2009. (There are only so many great movies made in a year, o Academy Award givers.)

1. The White Ribbon (dir. by Michael Haneke, Germany/Austria)

2. A Single Man (Tom Ford, USA)

3. A Serious Man (Ethan and Joel Coen, USA)

4. Goodbye Solo (Ramin Bahrani, USA)

5. Coraline (Henry Selick, USA)

The White Ribbon is a brilliantly cast, acted, photographed, and paced dissection of the social fabric of a pre-WW1 Protestant German village. But it’s also about the ecology of authority and social control that, in different permutations, underlies any social order — and about the impossibility of coming to know that ecology without a gap or question mark at the heart of the inquiry, that gap here represented by the teacher who is the not-fully-reliable narrator recounting the events years later. And while it largely conforms to Haneke’s grim, cerebral and joylessly clinical vision of humanity, there are moments of compassion and tenderness that transcend that – which is something I don’t remember from his previous films, though it’s possible I’ll forget what they were here as well. (As an antidote to that vision, I recommend seeing The Last Station, if only because that film’s Slavic anarchist earthiness does provide a feel for a possible alternative to repressed, authoritarian pre-war Germany.)


Of the others, A Single Man is beautiful: it’s well paced and mesmerizing in its structure (of flashbacks, etc.), with Colin Firth and Julianne Moore both brilliant in it. And while the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man was hardly their most popular or critically acclaimed film, I was moved by its weird Twin Cities Jewish apophatic atheological vision, which in retrospect probably permeates their other work as well, but here it seems more personal and more believable. Coraline was brilliantly imaginative; and Goodbye Solo just very good.

Of the ten Oscar nominees, Avatar was certainly the least ignorable phenomenon (as you might have noticed here already) and the greatest contribution to the medium. Had I seen The Hurt Locker, I suspect I might be rooting for it. I’m most surprised by District 9‘s nomination, which gives me a little soft spot for it, despite my bewilderment.

Now, in rough order, the films I judge to be the

12 BEST FILMS OF THE DECADE (SO FAR):

Talk to Her (Pedro Almodóvar, Spain)

Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, USA)

I’m Not There (Todd Haynes, USA)

Volver (Pedro Almodóvar, Spain)

Spirited Away (Hiyao Miyazaki, Japan)

There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA)

The Edge of Heaven (Fatih Akin, Germany/Turkey)

Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, Spain/Mexico/USA)

The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, Germany/Austria)

The New World (Terrence Malick, USA)

21 Grams (Alejandro González Iñárritu, USA/Mexico)

The World (Jia Zhangke, China/Japan/France)

Best documentaries (whatever that means):

Man On Wire (J. Marsh, UK)

Up the Yangtze (Y. Chang, Canada)

Grizzly Man (W. Herzog, USA/Germany)

The Corporation (J. Abbott & M. Achbar, Canada)

Why We Fight (E. Jarecki, USA)

Best first film:

Up the Yangtze — Similar in many ways to veteran Chinese director Jie Zhangke’s more artful Still Life (Zhangke also made The World, listed above), Chinese-Canadian director Yung Chang’s documentary may be, to my mind, the better film in terms of its raising questions about the largest hydroelectric megaproject in history. It’s a slow but engrossing meditation on China’s entry into the world economy, where a cruise ship full of western tourists becomes a kind of class-striated Titanic of the inevitability of change in Chinese society. Seeing the two films back to back, alongside The World and Manufactured Landscapes, would make for a kind of artful masochist’s introduction to contemporary China.

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