Unless you’re capping out at, I don’t know, say 200, there comes a point in assembling these best-of-the-decade lists when it feels like you’re just blithely eliminating one masterwork after another. You get giddy. You get guilt-wracked. Another publication I did one of these lists for also asked me for a list of the decade’s best filmmakers, which made the process somewhat easier. There are those prolific artists whose work is so solidly masterful, who provoke us, move us, and entertain us so consistently, it becomes tough to determine which of their movies deserves championing above the rest. In the end, rather than any one movie, it’s the body of work that seems important.
No single movie from Gus Van Sant made my best-of-the-decade list, but Van Sant himself sure as hell ranks high on my list of the decade’s best filmmakers. Have a look at this chronology: Gerry (2002) Elephant (03) Last Days (05) Paranoid Park (07) Milk (08). The first three supposedly constitute some sort of “Death” trilogy, the second and third of which dramatizing real-life events still fresh in our collective memory—the Columbine shootings and the suicide of Kurt Cobain, respectively. Yet the fourth also revolves around trauma and life lost, and also plays games with our sense of memory and chronology, with that tricky notion of time’s arrow flying in a single, steady direction. Even the fifth tells the story of the pioneering, openly gay San Francisco politician Harvey Milk as though it were a heady escalation of events inevitably leading to a shocking and untimely demise. All of these films are death-haunted, yet all of them burst with life, colour and humour, with youth and friendship, with erotic discoveries and woozy mysteries, with the pleasures of losing oneself in the rumbling undulations of skateboarding toward the crest of a half-pipe, or the overwhelming rush of an alliance of previously neglected or oppressed mass having their voice heard loud and clear for the first time.
Van Sant’s rare among American filmmakers in that from fairly early on he’s managed to straddle the increasingly disparate trajectories of highly personal, challenging filmmaking and mainstream filmmaking—only Steven Soderbergh, who gave us movies ranging from Che (08) to Ocean’s Eleven (01) over the course of this last decade, and Richard Linklater, who slid seamlessly from Waking Life (01) to School of Rock (03) to Before Sunset (04), seem equally capable of playing both ends of the system with flair. What distinguishes Van Sant from even these esteemed peers is the dexterity with which he’s able to make these transitions and the extremes he embraces, from the incorporation of avant-garde formal play to the unapologetic populism of the triumphant biopic. His work defies our cynicism about Hollywood and the ever-looming death of the movies. May his next decade be even more dazzling.