As far as I’m concerned, the 00s were a bit of a golden age for indie, off-beat, and foreign cinema. Although moviegoers were forced to endure a neverending flood of CGI-heavy big-budget adaptations and re-imaginings, the real action was mostly below the radar. Directors like Paul Tomas Anderson, the Coen Brothers, David Fincher, Guillermo Del Toro, Alejandro Gonzalez, Spike Jonze, Wes Anderson, Alfonso Cuaron, and J.J. Abrams brought us a steady stream of original plots, three-dimensional characters, and innovative filming techniques.
But for the best film of the decade, we have to go all the way back to 2000. That’s the year an obscure elderly B-list yakuza-movie director from Japan released his last, most personal, and (by far) best film. Banned in both the U.S. and its country of origin, Fukasaku Kinji’s Battle Royale managed to be a metaphor for both Japan’s ongoing identity crisis and America’s decade of fear and division. It was also a pulse-poundingly exciting, heartbreakingly beautiful movie.
The plot of Battle Royale sounds like Lord of the Flies in reverse: a posse of military guys kidnaps a class of 15-year-olds, sticks them on a tropical island, gives them weapons, and orders them to fight to the death. This synopsis is what leads many who haven’t watched it to dismiss the movie as a teen gore-fest, but nothing could be further from the truth. Battle Royale is a deep, moving story about trust, friendship, social rebellion, and growing up. The film takes a startlingly optimistic view of human nature; although they have submachine guns and are ordered to kill or be killed, most of the kids refuse to fight (some even commit suicide to avoid doing violence to their friends). Again, Lord of the Flies in reverse.
To an American audience, the brutality of the fascist military and the division and fear that the deadly game creates among its teenage participants can’t help but foreshadow our nation’s experience in the Terrible 00s. And to Japan, the concept of being forced to kill one’s classmates is a dark metaphor for the cutthroat entrance-exam system that Japanese people are coming to hate and reject. The central question asked in the movie – “What should an adult say to a child in this day and age?” – is the question many Baby Boomers are asking themselves as they pass the generational torch. Thematically, Battle Royale has something for everyone.
The film also has some of the most memorable characters of all time. The arch-villain – a fascist high school teacher tormented by a daughter who hates him – is played by the legendary Takeshi Kitano (the “Japanese DeNiro”) in what is probably his best performance of all time. A secondary villain, the psychotic Kiriyama (Ando Masanobu), puts Javier Bardem’s character from No Country for Old Men to shame. The heroes are equally unique, from the dashing rebel hacker Mimura (Takeshi Tsukamoto), to the revenge-driven badass survivalist Kawada (Yamamoto Taro), to the surprisingly devious girl-next-door Noriko (Maeda Aki)…and, of course, the indomitable protagonist Nanahara Shuya (Fujiawara Tatsuya). Once you get past the idea that “this is a movie about teenagers with submachine guns,” you realize that Battle Royale is – I am not exaggerating – the greatest on-screen epic since Star Wars.
This movie is what motivated me to learn Japanese (which led to my move to Japan). It is the only movie since Return of the Jedi whose ending made me stand up and pump my fist and shout in exhilaration. In short, if you haven’t seen it, see it. Your decade will not be complete until you do.
Runners-up: Lost in Translation, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Wall-E, Punch-Drunk Love, Children of Men
Worst of the Decade: The Boondock Saints, Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, 2046, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, The Matrix: Revolutions