You just can't kill cinema



Brokeback Mountain

Spirited Away

Oil be damned: Daniel Day-Lewis displays his unique ability to be huge without being hammy in Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood

THE NOUGHTIES:WHAT WAS the biggest surprise cinema put our way in the first 10 years of the new century? Well, you could argue that it was the same shock the medium delivered in each of the previous four decades: despite all predictions to the contrary, the theatrical exhibition of movies survived. Indeed, the business thrived, writes DONALD CLARKE

This summer, thanks to financial leviathans such as Terminator Salvationand Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince(hey, nobody is saying the films are all good), total box-office takings were bigger than ever before.

Television failed to kill movies. Video failed to kill movies. Internet piracy – not to mention all the other diversions available online – has also failed to annihilate this most stubbornly resilient of art forms. Film-makers will, it is true, tell you that it is now more difficult than ever to negotiate financing for movies that cost between $3 million and $15 million. But you couldn’t say that the current recession has crippled the movie business.

So why do people keep going to the movies? You can find an answer in one of the decade’s oddest and most lucrative cinematic phenomena. Last year, an enjoyably silly romp entitled Mamma Mia!became the most successful film of the decade at the Irish box office (and the second-biggest ever in this country). Throughout the world, fans travelled in their hordes to view the good-natured Abba musical and, unconcerned by Pierce Brosnan’s atonal squawking, sang along while dancing in the aisles. The communal experience is of a different hue when you are sitting quietly beside men in berets watching pointy-headed flicks such as The White Ribbonor Mulholland Dr,but the desire to experience art (or uncomplicated entertainment) in a public space remains indestructible.

SO CINEMA DIDN’Tdisappear. A few other dogs refused to bite this decade. Predictions that the collective trauma following 9/11 would lead to a diminution in movie violence and a rise in warm-hearted musical comedies proved – the Mamma Mia!aberration noted – to be without foundation. Indeed, the biggest film of the decade in the US turned out to be the gloomy, violent (though brilliant) The Dark Knight.

Meanwhile, after four decades of stop-start, the 3D process finally managed to engage with cinemagoers’ brains and, in so doing, persuaded exhibitors to introduce the necessary digital projection systems. Beamed in from satellites as wads of software, movies could, in 10 years time, have nothing to do with celluloid or those lovely flat cans. Film is dead. Long live films.

There will be rows: Donald Clarke’s top 20 films

1 There Will Be Blood (2007)A discordant, monumentally sombre tone poem from Paul Thomas Anderson that may have sobering things to say about money and religion, but is mostly about the blackness of oil, the oddness of noise and the unique ability of Daniel Day-Lewis to be huge without being hammy.

2 Hidden/Caché (2005)Michael Haneke, at 67, one of the directors of the decade, asks questions about everyday deceit, French post-colonialism and the limits of perception. He offers no answers, of course.

3 Spirited Away/Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (2001)Hayao Miyazaki, Japanese master of animation, nods towards Lewis Carroll with his spooky, funny coming-of-age fantasy. Already established as a classic in its genre.

4 Mulholland Dr (2001)What does David Lynch’s lush, surreal tale of doppelgangers and decadence in Hollywood really mean? Is it about godlessness? Is it about a hatstand?

5 Let the Right One In/Låt Den Rätte Komma In (2009)A jobbing director, Tomas Alfredson, takes a best-selling Swedish novel and turns it into one of the most singular vampire films ever. Despite its fantastic elements, the picture stands as a sober essay on the wretchedness of childhood.

6 In the Mood for Love/Fa Yeung Nin Wa (2000)One of the key directors of the 1990s, Wong Kar Wai began the new decade with this elegant, poignant romance – a kind of Hong Kong Brief Encounter– and then lost his way somewhat.

7 Far from Heaven (2002)This autumnal melodrama – in which Julianne Moore copes with a gay husband in 1950s America – manages to pay homage to Douglas Sirk while still retaining its own unique power. Perhaps only Todd Haynes could have pulled it off.

8 Hunger (2008)If it were possible to excise all the political insinuations from Steve McQueen’s study of Bobby Sands’s last days – and, of course, it isn’t – then the film would still have worth as a deeply unsettling exercise in pure cinema.

9 Pan’s Labyrinth/El Laberinto del Fauno (2006)Guillermo del Toro proves that fantasy movies can accommodate psychological depth in his Spanish civil war parable.

10 Brokeback Mountain (2005)Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal play two robust cowboys in love. Ang Lee’s picture is so raw and affecting you hardly notice it breaking fresh ground in the American mainstream.

11 Lost in Translation (2003)Sofia Coppola takes Bill Murray to Tokyo, where he encounters beautiful numbness and Scarlett Johansson.

12 The White Ribbon/Das Weiße Band (2009)Sombre, monochrome study of moral corruption in early 20th-century Germany from Michael Haneke.

13 Wall-E (2008)This transcendentally brilliant animation confirmed Pixar as the studio of the decade.

14 Oldboy/Hangui (2003)Savage revenge drama from a director at the vanguard of the Korean new wave. Features footage of an octopus being eaten alive. Nice.

15 I’m Not There (2007)A film about Bob Dylan that proves as allusive and amusing as the most fecund of his songs. Perhaps only Todd Haynes could have pulled it off.

16 This Is England (2006)Shane Meadows, Britain’s best young director, tackles skinhead culture in the 1980s.

17 A Serious Man (2009)Better than No Country for Old Men? Yes. The Coen brothers’ Jewish comedy (above) shows both their comic and philosophical tendencies to stunning effect.

18 Team America: World Police (2004)So ronery! It was a flop on release, but the South Parkteam’s Hollywood satire gained traction as the decade progressed.

19 A History of Violence (2005)Vague and hard to classify, David Cronenberg’s thriller now looks like the buttoned-up Shaneof its era.

20 Primer(2004) Astonishingly knotty time-travel drama made for next to nothing. Director Shane Carruth has yet to reappear.

Visit Donald Clarke's Screenwriter blog to give your reaction to the list.