I’ll follow Tom Hall’s lead and call this my “Incredibly Personal, Completely Subjective List of the Best Films of The Decade.” Consider it a snapshot of my taste right now. Conspicuously absent are several filmmakers who made great films this decade but who, for whatever reasons — my age? critical backlash? the weather? — didn’t make the final cut. Check back in another ten years and things will likely look much different.

The ground rules: Feature-length films of any genre. One film per director, although I don’t think the list would look too much different without that qualification (Denis, Jia, and Costa would probably get in another film or two). I went by theatrical release date, mostly because there are quite a few 2009 festival releases I haven’t yet seen, and that just doesn’t seem quite fair.

1. Beau Travail (Claire Denis, 2000)
Quite possibly my favorite film of any decade, Beau Travail constitutes a genre unto itself. Equal parts literary adaptation (Melville’s Billy Budd), contemporary dance piece, psychological character study, formalist experiment, postcolonial analysis, and music video, it is also on my short list of Truly Beautiful Things.

2. The Son (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2002)
The format they established in The Promise and Rosetta — hand-held cameras, natural lighting, the famous “back of the head” shot, and moral questioning along the lines of Dostoevsky and Bresson — made the Dardenne brothers the most influential art-house filmmakers of the decade (judging by the slew of imitators that land in festival lineups, at least). The Son is the one I keep returning to, though. Olivier Gourmet as a wounded carpenter: the conceit is six feet thick with metaphorical implications, most of them valid and compelling, but it’s his body — the sheer, muscular physicality of it — that drives the film’s momentum.

3. Still Life / Dong (Jia Zhang-ke, 2006)
Jia is, for lack of a better word, the most “important” filmmaker of the decade, I think. Each of the seven features he made documents globalization by examining some small corner of China. Watching his movies is like watching helplessly as a museum is looted. There’s an urgency to his project, as if he’s reluctant to put his camera down for too long or risk losing his tenuous grasp on a nation’s culture and history and humanity. I consider Still Life and Dong, made and released simultaneously, a diptych — each benefits from the juxtaposition. Together, they’re Jia’s best, most complex, and most compelling work.

4. Colossal Youth (Pedro Costa, 2006)
Any of the Vanda Trilogy films could fill this spot. But Colossal Youth was the first I saw and, so, it left the deepest impression. I remember thinking, only 30 minutes in, “Well, I didn’t know the cinema could be this.” Like several other directors on this list (Denis, Jia, Godard, Lynch, Varda, Zahedi), Costa is also significant for his contributions to the evolution of digital filmmaking, which is surely the real story of film in the first decade of the 21st century. More here.

5. What Time is It There? (Tsai Ming-liang, 2001)
My favorite Tsai films, What Time is it There? and Face, probably won’t be the ones he’s best remembered for (my money’s on the more sexually transgressive The River and The Wayward Cloud), but his treatment of grief — the strange tangle of pain and desire, shame and beauty — is what he does best. I watched parts of Time over and over again in 2004, after my mother- and father-in-law died suddenly, and years later it still brings me great comfort. More here.

6. Syndromes and a Century (Apitchatpong Weerasethakul, 2006)
After being frustrated by a first screening of Claire Denis’s L’Intrus, I was offered a useful insight by my friend Girish: “The line separating narrative film from the avant-garde is pretty arbitrary, really.” Apitchatpong has erased the line completely, and God bless him for it. I mean, just watch this clip. Not for all tastes, obviously, but there’s a magic and beauty in those few minutes that many great filmmakers will fail to achieve in a lifetime.

7. Cafe Lumiere (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2004)
Hou’s films were more groundbreaking in the ’80s and more ambitious in the ’90s, but he has perfected his craft and refined his taste to such a degree that I find him almost impossible to write about or discuss: he makes these perfect little objects full of soul and wonder. That Cafe Lumiere was inspired by Ozu never interested me much, except that it gave Hou an excuse to deal with a father/daughter relationship. The trailer I’ve linked to is almost ruined by the music, but it includes my favorite moment from the film: the shot of the father picking out the potatoes from his meal and giving them to Yoko.

8. In Praise of Love (Jean-luc Godard, 2001)
Suddenly it occurs to me that a good number of the films on my list are obsessed with history, memory, power, and image-making, which I’ll blame, in part, on my having spent the first half of this decade in a graduate English program. But it’s a reasonable obsession, right? Certainly it’s nothing new for Godard, whose first feature of the 21st century borrows techniques from the films he made 40 years earlier (I love equally the first-person interviews in Masculine/Feminine and In Praise of Love). Also, this film ranks high on my list simply because I got to see it projected on 35mm at a multiplex in Knoxville, Tennessee.

9. Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004)
For the longest time, Waking Life seemed destined to fill the Linklater spot on my list, but after rewatching it and Before Sunset recently, I realized that the latter does all of the things I most love about the former — it delights in human curiosity, engages with life, and champions the creative imagination — but it does so in a form (the romance, generally speaking) that tends to degrade those qualities in its characters. It’s quite a feat.

10. RR (James Benning, 2007)
At the start of the decade I could have counted on one hand the number of avant-garde films I’d seen. Now, it would take, like, fifteen or twenty hands, which is a start, I guess. More here.

11. Birth (Jonathan Glazer, 2004)
There Will Be Blood is finding its way onto many Best of the 00s lists, but Glazer gets my vote for Kubrick Heir Apparent. More here.

12. In the City of Sylvia (Jose Luis Guerin, 2007)
I can’t decide if I should feel guilty for loving this film as much as I do. Formally, it’s as perfectly controlled as any movie I can name. Guerin has made a little cinematic fugue here, discovering new rhythms and dissonances as he returns to and transforms images — hair blowing in the wind, a hand sketching faces, a man with a limp trying to sell a lighter, two people walking. But, really, this movie is about the pleasures of watching, and parts of it (the cafe sequence, “Heart of Glass,” the final five minutes) just make me smile like an idiot.

13. The Fog of War (Errol Morris, 2003)
I spent the majority of my spare time between 2001-2006: 1. researching and occasionally writing a doctoral dissertation about the American Left and the Cold War, 2. swallowing bile. I’m sympathetic to the complaints leveled at this film, but I have watched The Fog of War at least a dozen times, and it’s the only Iraq/Bush-era documentary that comes close to representing my deeply-felt ambivalence about the “American Century” that came to an end ten years ago. I was pleased to find this clip on YouTube because it’s my favorite section of the film. You see McNamara’s prevarications, his pride and shame, but most of all you see the ironies contained in that poisoned word, “efficiency.” Did Hannah Arendt ever write about spreadsheets?

14. Inland Empire (David Lynch, 2006)
I wonder if other cinephiles of my generation have had this experience? After discovering Blue Velvet as an undergrad and declaring Lynch The Greatest Director Ever (cough, cough), I matured, turned my back on him, and declared him That Overrated Director Who Is Loved Only By Pot-Smoking Undergrads. So, in 2007 I rewatched all of his films, ending with Inland Empire, and concluded that he deserves neither title. Rather, he is just exceptionally gifted at making a particular type of film. I’ll stand by my comments from two years ago: “My Damascus experience came midway through the first season of Twin Peaks, when I found myself suddenly and unexpectedly overwhelmed by the deep sorrow that pervades the Laura Palmer story. While watching Inland Empire again last night, it occurred to me that one reason I’m completely unconvinced by all of the critical praise being heaped on the Coens’ treatment of evil and violence in No Country for Old Men is because violence — real, non-metaphoric violence — is always sorrowful and tragic. Lynch seems to have been born with a peculiar sensitivity to that fact, and has spent his career perfecting the formal means of articulating it.”

15. When It Was Blue (Jennifer Reeves, 2008)
It’s easy to forget that, for the better part of a century, the experience of cinema was created by projected light, fast-moving gears, and strips of celluloid. And then you see something like When It Was Blue, and you hear two projectors running behind you, and you’re occasionally blinded by the brightness of the bulbs, and you ask yourself, “What am I seeing? How did she get that image on that frame of film?” More here.

16. The Gleaners and I (Agnes Varda, 2000)
Last year I saw, within just a few days of each other, Agnes Varda and Terrence Davies introduce and discuss their latest films, The Beaches of Agnes and Of Time and the City, both of which are autobiographical essay films. And I’m still struck by the juxtaposition: Davies the bitter nostalgist versus Varda the curious anthropologist. Varda is my hero. At 80, she’s as alive to the wonder and potential (and the sorrows and ironies) of the world now as she was 55 years ago, when she first picked up a camera. The Gleaners and I makes me want to be a better man.

17. In the Bathtub of the World (Caveh Zahedi, 2001)
In 2000, Caveh shot at least a minute of video a day and then assembled it into this remarkable film. Ironically, there are no clips from this YouTube-anticipating project on YouTube, so, instead, I’ve embedded a clip from The World is a Classroom, his short contribution to the post-9/11 collection, Underground Zero. More here.

18. Bamako (Abderrahmane Sissako, 2006)
Life on Earth (1998) is my favorite of Sissako’s films, but Bamako was the first I saw and it left me teary-eyed and speechless. The court scenes are didactic and on-the-nose — deliberately so — but it’s all that life going on around the court that makes the film work. It all culminates in one of my favorite scenes of the decade, as an elderly man sing-speaks his testimony to the court, an act of astonishing beauty that also exposes the absurdity of the proceedings.

19. Heartbeat Detector (Nicolas Klotz, 2007)
This is the only film by Klotz I’ve seen, and, frankly, I’m surprised to find it on my list. I’d anticipated including a Haneke film instead (Code Unknown, probably, or maybe Cache), but Heartbeat Detector is the film I found myself most eager to revisit. The first of two Mathieu Amalric performances to round out the top 20. More here.

20. Kings and Queen (Arnaud Desplechin, 2004)
I considered cheating here by naming two films, this one and Hong Sang-soo’s Woman on the Beach (2006). While their styles and ambitions are quite different, I’ve decided I like Desplechin and Hong for basically the same reason: their movies constantly surprise me in small but significant ways. On the Kings and Queen DVD, Desplechin recounts a story about Truffaut’s frustration with a screenwriter. “How do you expect me to shoot a four-minute scene that expresses a single idea?” he asked. “I want every minute of film to express four ideas!” Desplechin has taken that as his motto, and you can see the results in each of his films, which are consistently messy, ambiguous, and haunted — Kings and Queen especially so. I mean, just try to summarize Louis Jennsens’s (Maurice Garrel) deathbed letter to Nora (Emmanuelle Devos). Watching a scene like that, I actively envy the imagination of its creators.

And ten more (alphabetized) that just missed the cut
Battle in Heaven (Carlos Reygadas, 2005)
Code Unknown (Michael Haneke, 2000) [ more ]
Distant (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2002)
Fat Girl (Catherine Breillat, 2001)
Good Night, and Good Luck (George Clooney, 2005)
Hamaca Paraguaya (Paz Encina, 2006)
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Alfonso Cuaron, 2004) [ more ]
I’m Not There (Todd Haynes, 2007)
Los Muertos (Lisandro Alonso, 2004)
Woman on the Beach (Hong Sang-soo, 2006)