The Back Row Manifesto’s Incredibly Personal, Completely Subjective List of the Best Films of The Decade (2000-2009) will be unveiled over the course of the month of December (and now on into January). Think of it as a sort of misguided advent calendar without the little chocolate surprises. Either way, thanks for reading and please check back every day over the next few days for the full list. The introduction to the list can be found here.
Remember your first trip to the movies? I do. In November of 1973, right around my third birthday, my dad took me to see my first movie, Walt Disney’s Robin Hood. I loved it (still do, despite the fact that now, in my old age, Pinocchio and Dumbo are probably my favorite Disney films) and the experience of seeing an animated, family feature was formative for me, as it has been for generations of film lovers before and since. Times may have changed, but the movies still provide that sense of wonder, still retain their place as America’s great escape; progress may have changed the movies, but the collective act of seeing a movie on the big screen remains a vital, formative cultural experience for most of the nation. And in the 2000’s, no filmmaker, no actor, no studio, no one, nothing, nothing has been more influential on the lives of young moviegoers than the films created by Pixar Animation Studios.
Brad Bird’s The Incredibles
Originally a division of George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) called The Lucasfilm Computer Graphics Project, 1986 saw Lucas sell this company to Apple co-founder Steve Jobs (who had recently departed Apple) for $5 million. Jobs, who invested another $5 million of capital into the company, changed the name to Pixar and, banking on Pixar as a computer company, with the signature Pixar Image Computer being able to render high resolution images for medical and government functions, began efforts to sell as many machines as possible. But while the hardware business was a flop, it was an employee, John Lasseter, who began making animated shorts on the system to showcase the computer’s unique abilities…
John Lasseter’s 1984 Short Film The Adventures Of André and Wally B, produced at the Lucasfilm Computer Graphics Project, which would later become Pixar
As the animation department caught on in the world of advertising, Pixar began expanding upon a long-term partnership with Disney, who made a $26 million deal with the fledgling company to create animated films. The first project was Toy Story, which went on to be a global phenomenon and in 2006, after a long contentious relationship built upon billions of dollars of Pixar success, Steve Jobs sold Pixar to Disney for $7.4 billion in Disney stock. John Lasseter assumed his rightful place as Chief Creative Officer of Pixar and Disney, and Pixar was able to retain its autonomy as a separate entity under the agreement, which preserved Pixar’s corporate identity and culture in Emeryville, CA. Nice work if you can get it.
I am placing Pixar in the number two slot of my Best of The Decade list not because they created a great film here or there, or because the studio’s commitment to quality proved consistently excellent in a community like Hollywood (which is traditionally scrambling behind the curve of their audience’s tastes and interests), or because of the revolutionary process of animation that Pixar developed, re-shaping animated film for our lifetime. No. Instead, I think it is important to recognize that Pixar created four, that’s right, four, animated masterpieces in ten years, a staggering accomplishment when you consider that these four films also grossed a collective $2,483,000,000 in world wide box office and were directed by three different Directors (Brad Bird having directed two of them). For all of the agonizing I do about Hollywood and the business of movies and the studio system and the shitty storytelling and the pandering and the corporate middle men working their damnedest to find the lowest common denominator, it is also important to always be intellectually honest and tell the truth, So, here goes; When we look back at the 2000’s, The Incredibles, WALL*E, Ratatouille and Up will be eternally remembered as four of the greatest movies of this decade. And rightly so.
Brad Bird’s Ratatouille
Pixar’s commitment to storytelling, developing great stories first and making them into gorgeous works of animated art, places them head and shoulders above the overwhelming majority of American films of the past decade; these are ambitious spectacles that never pander to the baser instincts of the audience and that always value a humanistic appreciation of the outsider, of the wide variety of differences in experience, passion and ability. Forced to choose between a film like WALL*E or the adventures of a farting ogre and his minstrel donkey, I know upon which side of the fence I sit.
The other minor miracle of these particular Pixar films is that they are not sequels or franchises, not based on comic book characters or children’s toys, are not musicals and are generally not designed primarily as delivery systems for ancillary businesses and licensing; a Ratatouille Happy Meal was never in the cards (although The Incredibles did just fine with the products, I’m sure). While other Pixar films were cash cows for the new cross-platform business of children’s films (Cars and the Toy Story franchise spring to mind immediately), these four films had a special quality, a purpose as cinema and as film first, that allowed the movies and the characters to instill meaning through their narratives instead of being primarily a delivery system for chicken nuggets and action figures. And while it may seem faint praise to congratulate a series of films that made 2.5 billion in box office for not being overtly commercial, it is the credibility of each film as a film that, underlined by that box office number, reveals the true brilliance of Pixar’s vision; great, worthwhile, artfully made movies can bring in audiences and simultaneously transcend the universe of shit that surrounds them.
Andrew Stanton’s WALL*E
Not that the Pixar oeuvre is without its controversies. While much was made of a film like The Incredibles endorsing the conservative value of exceptionalism, of the powerful individual utilizing his powers to the best of his ability, it was clear that cultural critics were missing the point of all Pixar films; everyone is exceptional. Who watches a film like The Incredibles and relates to the actions of the villain, Syndrome? Obviously, millions of people saw something of themselves in the story of an exceptional family, which is why the studio’s unique ability to make audiences not only invest deeply in their stories but feel deeply and passionately about their characters’ dreams and desires is the key to the success of their films. And while most films of this genre play down to the kiddies while keeping the adults interested with pop culture winks and humorless clichés, Pixar’s films, and especially WALL*E and Up, create an ageless narrative on the screen, one that addresses, at a very primal level, the experience of wonder and being alive.
Pete Docter and Bob Peterson’s Up
These are big ideas for animated films, but don’t be fooled; the intent and purpose of these movies is to create classic cinema that will endure long after the pop culture references fade into obscurity, after the celebrity voices are no longer recognizable and long after the technology of the movies changes forever. The idea of making great films for children and families is an inspiration to someone like me, someone who wants to see important cinema flourish across future generations, who wants his own son to be able to discriminate between a great film and a cheap amusement. Maybe a film like WALL*E will offer my son a gateway into the films of Chaplin and Kubrick? Or maybe, the pleasure of Pixar’s films will simply inspire him to love the experience of watching movies with his opinionated, long-winded dad. I can’t predict the fate of anyone, but I do believe that in The Incredibles, WALL*E, Ratatouille and Up, there is hope for popular entertainment, for the development of a discerning audience. Nothing would mean more to me than to see Pixar continue to bring these beautiful films into the world. We’re living in a golden age for animated storytelling in this country, and Pixar is leading the way. We should sit back, content, and enjoy every frame of it.
23. Quiet City by Aaron Katz
22. Mutual Appreciation by Andrew Bujalski
21. Frownland by Ronald Bronstein
20. Marie Antoinette by Sofia Coppola
19. Up The Yangtze by Yung Chang
18. Platform by Jia Zhang-Ke
17. Tarnation by Jonathan Caouette
16. Lilya 4-Ever by Lukas Moodysson
15. Far From Heaven/ I’m Not There by Todd Haynes
14. Sideways by Alexander Payne
13. Into Great Silence by Philip Gröning
12. Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner by Zacharias Kunuk
11. There Will Be Blood by Paul Thomas Anderson
10. Zodiac by David Fincher
9. Beau Travail/ 35 Shots Of Rum by Claire Denis
8. The Diving Bell And The Butterfly by Julian Schnabel
7. Time Out by Laurent Cantet
6. Mulholland Dr. by David Lynch
5. Climates by Nuri Bilge Ceylan
4. The Piano Teacher by Michael Haneke
3. The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu by Cristi Puiu/ 4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days by Cristian Mungiu