MCN Columnists
Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

The Best Film of the Decade

As the aughts near a close, we’ll be seeing more and more lists dedicated to the best films of the decade. It’s only natural; as film fans and writers, we love to put things in lists. I like making lists, looking at other lists, having discussions about how stupid or smart a certain film writer might be because of a film that is — or isn’t — on their list.

Some folks get apoplectic at the idea of putting art into some kind of hierarchy; I say we do it all the time in our heads anyway, constantly comparing one great film to another because there are different levels of greatness. We don’t walk out of a terrific film and then forget about it; making lists and discussing them helps us pinpoint which films we liked and why.

I’m still working on my decade list. I know which films are going to be on it, more or less; it’s just a matter of seeing the films that will come out in the next two months and deciding on a limit to give myself. Should it be top 10?  Top 20?  Top 100?  I know one or two Desplechin titles will be on there, ditto Moodysson, Todd Field, Fincher and the Andersons.  I’d have to find room for Linklater’s Before Sunset and Van Sant’s Elephant and Paranoid Park, not to mention Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream.

Side-note: I think another reason people have been anxious to talk about their decade list has been that this year has been a relatively mediocre one. It’s certainly not the worst ever, but there have been only a handful of films so far that have compelled me to tell my friends and you, my dear readers, about.  By the way, best year of the decade?  It’s tough, but I think I’d go with either 2000 (Requiem, High Fidelity, Wonder Boys, Almost Famous, Virgin Suicides, Together, Quills, Dancer in the Dark, Traffic, George Washington) or 2007 (There Will Be Blood, The Darjeeling Limited, Zodiac, No Country for Old Men, 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Michael Clayton, Margot at the Wedding, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Into the Wild, Assassination of Jesse James…)

But the one thing that has never been difficult in my many long discussions and meditations about the subject is figuring out which film to put at the top. I think there’s a lot to consider when it comes to choosing such a film because I think political and social issues should be given some weight as well as one’s own personal, emotional connection to the film and its characters.

My film of the decade was an easy pick: Spike Lee’s 2002 masterpiece 25th Hour.

25th Hour is the most culturally relevant and important film of the past ten years; it floored me on a cerebral/emotional level as well as a cinematic one. Not only does this film tell us about where we are as a people post-9/11 — and where we might go afterwards — it also pulls us by our lapels and confronts us on a human level.  It is a great story, told in the best possible way.

Based on the film’s synopsis, one wouldn’t expect a transcendent movie experience; it’s about Monty Brogan, a former drug dealer’s last day of freedom before he goes to prison for seven years.  But the film is so much more than what the plot purports to be about.  It’s about friendship: Monty’s relationship with his two best friends Jacob and Frank, one an introverted private school teacher and the other a typically high-strung and narcissistic Wall Street trader; it’s about love and trust: Monty’s relationship with his long-term girlfriend Naturelle, who may or may not have ratted him out to the cops; it’s about family: several moving scenes that Monty shares with his father James, a pub owner who traded in alcohol for club soda.

But this is just a surface reading of the film.  In the background – and often in the foreground – is a film about so much more.  There may be no greater ode to New York City in the history of film, recognizing its faults and flaws while holding it up on a pedestal.  The relationship at the heart of the film is between Monty and the city of New York. There is the famous “fuck you” scene in the bathroom of James’ pub in Staten Island, where Monty looks in the mirror and goes into a long monologue about all the different races and ethnicities of Manhattan and how much he hates them all.  But, of course, he doesn’t truly hate them; he hates that he’s going to miss them when he goes to prison.  And what writer David Benioff does so well is set up a scene that is ostensibly about hate, but is really about love for a city that is able to give a home to such diverse people.

Then there is, of course, Spike Lee’s decision to make the aftermath of 9/11 a specter looms, haunting the film and its characters. People point to the scene of Jacob at Frank’s lower Manhattan apartment, where they have a discussion while standing at a large window; on the other side of that window is Ground Zero. But there are hints of that angst everywhere, from Frank’s character fretting over the employment numbers (which of course, is more relevant now than ever, but more on that later) to taped cut-outs of the NY Post cover that read “Wanted: Dead or Alive” with a picture of Osama bin Laden that is hung up in several places throughout the film, including Frank’s office.

The conversation that Jacob and Frank have in Frank’s apartment is largely forgotten, though:

Jacob: You know, the New York Times says the air is bad down here.

Frank: Oh yeah?  Well fuck the Times, I read the Post.  EPA’s says it’s fine.

Jacob: Well, somebody’s lying.  (beat)  You gonna move?

Frank: Fuck that, man, as much good money as I paid for this place.  Hell no.  Tell you what, bin Laden could drop another one next door and I ain’t moving.

Wow.  That is an awful lot of information that is conveyed in four lines of dialogue; not only about the characters (reading the Post rather than the Times and what it says about both of these guys) but also about the world around them.  It’s a reminder of the pseudo-patriotism some folks felt, as well as the skepticism that still runs rampant today about what we are fed by the media or the government.  Those shots of Ground Zero, though, are still haunting today because the truth of the matter is that not much has changed; there’s still a giant hole in the ground.

That scene also has a discussion between the two friends about Monty and what will become of him. It’s interesting that in the scene, Frank talks about Monty’s car being “paid for by the misery of other people” since that’s essentially how Frank earns his money too, betting on whether or not folks will have a job. Just a few scenes before we hear Frank explain how the unemployment numbers will effect inflation in two sentences. Watching those scenes of Frank and the other Wall Street traders waiting breathlessly for the unemployment numbers that affect their jobs to come out was definitely discomfiting at the time, but it’s downright prophetic now.

There are also great scenes that tell us about the ridiculous Rockefeller Laws in New York, which subtly explain how prisons get overcrowded — referred to later when Monty explains how he won’t even get a cell.  There’s a wonderful scene with Monty being told how to survive in prison by his Russian mob boss employer. Then there’s the whole subplot of Jacob dealing with his complicated emotions about an attractive high school student, which is about the strange student-teacher dynamic and how easy it can be for even law-abiding citizens to potentially break a law. The scenes with Jacob show us how we’re all one slip-up from ruining everything, just like Monty does. Jacob is lucky to show enough restraint, but the experience will scar him forever to be sure.  It’s also an interesting parallel to how Monty met his girlfriend when she was still a high school student, which may explain Jacob’s jealousy or his desire to live a life like Monty.

There is, of course, the bravura ending. It is, easily, one of the best ending sequences of the decade (although, the best last line of a film this decade belongs to Before Sunset). We get this grand portrait of how Monty’s life could be if he decides to run away rather than go to prison; how he could drive off the desert and find a small-town to live out his remaining years, but he could never see his friends or family again. It’s an idealistic portrayal of how one could live one’s life on the run, but more than that: it’s a New Yorker’s idealistic vision of living a simple life West of Manhattan.

The idea of New York as a prison isn’t exactly foreign to people who live here; we’ve all had dreams of moving away somewhere where nobody could find us.  Monty’s imagining of this is familiar to all of us; maybe we could just move to the desert and be a bartender rather than live in New York, trying to get rich to keep up with everyone else.

There is the big discussion of whether or not Monty goes to prison in the end or whether he does in fact run away.  We’ll never really know, but we could argue both ways. The important thing is that this day we’ve just witnessed is the last day of Monty’s life as he knows it. No matter what happens, prison or running away or killing himself, Monty’s life is over one way or another.

The film wouldn’t be what it is without the performances, of course.  Every part is played to perfection by a truly stunning ensemble cast that includes Barry Pepper, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Anna Paquin, Rosario Dawson and Brian Cox. Edward Norton, however, is the glue that holds it all together as Monty.  Norton has the distinct honor of being in two films that are the best of their respective decades (this film and Fight Club for the ’90s), but his performance in 25th Hour is not showy in any way. Most of the film he’s reactive to the larger than life personalities around him, but he’s active when it counts in certain moments.

It’s interesting to see how Barry Pepper interacts with Norton in the film and how different it is than when he’s with other characters. Pepper’s Frank is the alpha male at all-times … except when he’s interacting wit Norton’s Monty.  Norton doesn’t need to say a lot or to say it loudly, he just commands every room with his presence and the look in his eyes. It’s one of the best performances of the decade and one that makes me long to see Norton return to exciting filmmaking like this.  But a large debt is owed to the rest of the cast, who provide ample support and give Norton a chance to react in such tremendous ways.

I know that there are a lot of folks who will disagree vehemently with this choice, who were put off by the film seven years ago and who still hate it today. But for me, this is a film that hits the mark on all levels. But I think almost everybody can appreciate the context of the film and how much it tells us about the world we live in today.

It’s a film of its time, but it’s also timeless. It’s about how life has forever changed for us after 9/11.  It’s a film that alludes to the credit crisis that hadn’t happened yet. It’s a film that recognizes the importance of living your life. It’s a film that is made with precision and humor and poignancy. It’s a film I could talk about for hours and days and pages upon pages. If you haven’t seen it, it’s the best written, directed and acted film you’ll see anytime soon.  It’s a film that should have been nominated for every conceivable award.

This is the film of the decade.

– Noah Forrest
November 9, 2009
Noah Forrest is a 26-year-old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

The opinions expressed in these columns are the writers and do not neccessarily reflect the opinions of Movie City News or any of its editors or other contributors.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon