After a month of Cinematical expertly digging through one genre after another and nailing down the best entries in each one during the last decade, it seemed like there was an important cache of contributions that might not get the recognition they deserved: breakthrough performances or films. Such a designation crosses the boundaries of genre, sometimes happens in a film less deserving of praise, or otherwise finds itself overlooked. But after poring over the list of so many thousands of movies made in the last ten years, I've put together a svelte collection of superlative contributions which I believe qualify as the breakthroughs of the decade.
(It should be noted that we aren't pretending that these actors and filmmakers never made movies before the ones we're celebrating here. Rather, these are the moments in their career that they crossed over and introduced themselves in a way that audiences could no longer ignore.)
The acting awards come first, not because they're less important but because those contributions came in some cases in films less worthy of longevity or adulation.
For example, Shia LaBeouf has since become one of the decade's biggest stars, but his turn as the lead in Disney's Holes (2003) gained him a visibility among grown-ups and moviegoers that his earlier turns on TV never did. Meanwhile, Brian Helgeland's A Knight's Tale (2001) remains one of my favorite films of the decade, notwithstanding its deservedly low rank qualitatively, but it was responsible for launching not only Heath Ledger's career proper, but Paul Bettany's as well.
Other noteworthy or standout turns include Ellen Page's performance as a potential pedophilia victim in Hard Candy, Will Ferrell's turn as Frank "The Tank" in Old School, and The Rock (now back to Dwayne Johnson) as a boundlessly charming bounty hunter in The Rundown. But special mention must be made of Sacha Baron Cohen, who emerged from his popular but still modest HBO series to become a megastar overnight for Borat, easily one of the funniest movies of the last ten years. His inventiveness and commitment to character rivals that of iconic chameleons like Peter Sellers, and the film's success made him an indelible figure in our cinematic landscape.
Directorially, I'm just going to go chronologically rather than try and assign certain films value higher or lower than others. To wit:
1. Amores Perros (2000) – Although the most constant comment I heard about this film is "don't watch it if you love dogs," Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's film is a lot more than a meditation on the cruelty shown to our canine companions. Working from a script by Guillermo Arriaga, with whom Inarritu worked two more times (so far), the two of them create a unique portrait of modern life in Mexico that combines the sublime with the mundane, the violent with the beautiful, ultimately creating an unflinching, undeniable portrait of humanity in all of its myriad forms.
2. Memento (2000) – Christopher Nolan became one of the first new auteurs of the decade with this film, a tricky, labyrinthine journey through the fading memories of a man who's hunting for the murderer of his wife. Guy Pearce brilliantly brings to life both the character's determination and confusion, but it's Nolan and his brother Jonathan who flipped storytelling itself upside down with the film's bass-ackward structure, creating a singular tale of obsession and self-delusion while establishing themselves as a filmmaking force to be reckoned with.
3. Monster's Ball (2001) – Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton had long since proved themselves masterful performers by 2001, but director Marc Forster showed audiences that he was a more than suitable helmsman for anything they could do – and indeed, almost anyone could do – with this tale of interracial reconciliation and romance. Berry won an Oscar for her performance in the film, but it was Forster's delicate touch that turned an otherwise overstated racial screed into something more subtle and substantial, and set the stage for the rich and varied filmography he has built in subsequent years.
4. Lost in Translation (2003) – Sofia Coppola turned a '70s suicide tragedy into no less tragic but a certainly more tangible coming-of-age chronicle with The Virgin Suicides, but with Lost in Translation, she took platonic (or at least mostly-platonic) love and told a surprisingly universal story about finding small connections in a place where it seems like all of the big ones are blocked. This was also a major-league breakthrough for actress Scarlett Johansson, but with this film, Coppola emerged from the shadow of her famous father and demonstrated that the family name still meant more than drunken nostalgia (be if for Francis' films or his wine).
5. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) - Prior to Eternal Sunshine, Michel Gondry was best-known as the director of a bunch of Bjork videos, or maybe the guy responsible for the second, decidedly less spectacular adaptation of a Charlie Kaufman screenplay (Human Nature). But his shaggy, handheld style was absolutely perfect for the fourth, an epic chronicle of a deteriorating relationship filtered through science-fiction convention and a devastating character study. Jim Carrey has seldom been more compelling than he is as the film's beleaguered romantic, while Kate Winslet provides the right notes of whimsy, indifference and regret as the girl who got away until she got into his head.
6. Dawn of the Dead (2004) – It seems impossible to imagine that anyone who started their career remaking one of the most famous films in horror history would earn the descriptor "visionary," but that's just what happened to Zack Snyder. Equal to if different than George A. Romero's 1978 film of the same name, Snyder's revisionist take amped-up the gore but kept a cohesive and compelling sense of dread, not the least of which because his glossy style miraculously managed not to lose substance in the process. Admittedly the film is less "magnificent" than some of his later ones, but as a top-notch purveyor of muscular, massively-entertaining thrills, Snyder's road to becoming a visionary started with a startling vision right here.
7. Shaun of the Dead (2004) – Hipsters, of course, already knew Edgar Wright from his excellent work on the BBC series Spaced. But by the time he brought that same visual flourish and attention to detail (storytelling and character) to film, he'd matured, and Shaun of the Dead is a virtual celebration of how grown-up it can be to make believe. Seldom do homages truly pay tribute to the sources of their inspiration without blatantly ripping them off, but Wright manages to thoroughly and lovingly evoke the intelligence of Romero's Dawn of the Dead while updating it with an energy that feels completely contemporary.
8. The Bourne Supremacy (2004) – Not since bullet-time has cinematography so quickly been assimilated into pop culture and understood as Paul Greengrass' shaky-cam approach to filming action. Superior to its predecessor in every way, the second Bourne film fleshes out the character's mysterious mythology in ways both provocative and powerful, thanks both to Matt Damon's delicate, dexterous performance in the title role, and director Greengrass' visceral, exhilarating visual style, which certainly prompted a few nauseated trips to the bathroom but also redefined the energy of action films for years to come.
9. Brick (2005) – There aren't a lot of neo-noir films that don't immediately get tiresome from overuse of the conventions that essentially extinguished the genre in the first place, but Rian Johnson's writing-directing debut exudes a charm and intelligence that lasts long after the last mystery is resolved, the hard-boiled dialogue begins to soften, and the hero comes to terms with what he's been chasing. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Brendan, a high school kid who infiltrates an increasingly odd world of criminals and lowlifes while trying to figure out what happened to his ex-girlfriend, and Johnson effortlessly balances his anachronistic conceit with clever, compelling character development and a mystery that truly makes you want to stick with it to find a solution.
10. Borat (2006) – Yeah, Sacha Baron Cohen was already honored for his performance in the title role, but Larry Charles, a writer and executive producer on shows like Seinfeld, Entourage, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, transformed himself – and movie comedy – into something new, unpredictable, and even transgressive with this pseudo-documentary about a doofus Eastern-Bloc TV host who comes to America in search of Pamela Anderson. While some of the set pieces are the stuff of classic Curb episodes, Charles enlists Cohen to find the charming center to Borat's bigotry, in the process allowing his interviewees to lower their defense and offer a deconstruction (or at least an unflinching document) of the secret and not-so-secret prejudices that still dominate American culture.
Runners Up: Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001, John Cameron Mitchell), In the Bedroom (2001, dir. Todd Field), The Station Agent (2003, writer-director Tom McCarthy), Oldboy (2005, dir. Park Chan-Wook), Kung Fu Hustle (2004, writer-director Stephen Chow), Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004, writer-director Kerry Conran), District 9 (2009, writer-director Neill Blomkamp)