The Back Row Manifesto's Incredibly Personal, Completely Subjective List of the Best Films of The Decade (2000-2009) will be unveiled over the course of the month of December. Think of it as a sort of misguided advent calendar without the little chocolate surprises. Either way, thanks for reading and please check back every day over the next few weeks for the full list. The introduction to the list can be found here.
Two lovers sit inside their car near the Blue Rock Springs Golf Course on the 4th of July, 1969. As they sit and talk, a car drives past them on the isolated road and, after a few minutes, returns, parking behind them, headlights glaring in the rearview mirror. Without warning, time slows down; a man arrives at the passenger window and opens fire on the couple, killing the young woman and horribly wounding the man. Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man wobbles on the soundtrack and, in a flash of light and blood, it is over quickly. No motive, no suspect, not a trace.
This scene, a re-creation of the second confirmed attack of the Zodiac Killer, provides the opening sequence of David Fincher’s Zodiac, a film that stands as a monument to obsession and frustration and one of the most important crime movies ever made. While the shadow of The Silence of The Lambs has towered over the genre for the past eighteen years (just look at the slate of Ashley Judd crime films of the 1990’s or even the ironically named Copycat from the same period for proof of the formula’s legs), David Fincher turns the usual crime-movie-by-numbers on its head by dealing not only with an unsolved crime, but by obsessively laying out in brilliant detail the wide array of dead ends, false leads, rumors, guesses and unsolvable puzzles that are the foundation of the Zodiac case.
David Fincher's Zodiac
Fincher breaks the case into its constituent pieces, focusing not on the cinematic tropes of “an investigator on a personal mission” or a “the life and methods of a serial killer”, but the day-by-day, year-by-year accumulation of details that ultimately lead us nowhere. Fincher also wisely refuses the temptation to assign psychological motivation to his main characters, Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) the San Francisco policeman assigned to crack the case, and Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a newspaper cartoonist whose proximity to the details of the case and love of puzzles drives him to obsess over the facts of the investigation (it is the real-life Graysmith’s book that provides much of the film’s point of view). Instead of making the story about the relationships between the characters, their reasons and desires, the film focuses its time on watching them slide into the unknowable, all of us down the rabbit hole together.
But, as anyone who follows such grim news must know before walking in to see the film, the Zodiac Killer remains at large, his crimes now over forty years old and unlikely to ever be resolved. And yet, their strange and spectacular nature, and the way in which they dominated the news cycles of their time, makes them one of the most fascinating cases in the “true crime” universe. Fincher not only doesn’t fail the material, he gets to the heart of their attraction with deep and purposeful storytelling that is supported by some of the best “period” filmmaking in modern cinema.
More than anything else, it is the way in which Zodiac is told that makes it such an important film and a contender from film of the decade; unlike, say, Hitchcock, who would give the audience all manner of information about the killer before providing a spectacular, thrilling finale punctuated by moral purpose, Zodiac breaks down information and the process of investigation into its natural stages, allowing information to arrive as it really came, in fits and spurts, over long periods of time, all of it cryptic, much of it still unknown. Behind every door could be a killer, every face on the street might be that of the Zodiac, and not to ruin the fun, but we’ll probably never know anyway.
So, why make a crime film about an unsolved crime full of unsolved clues, inauthentic suspects, red herrings, approached by introverted investigators and obsessed amateurs that we hardly get to know? For me, this is what makes Zodiac such an important movie, a move about process, about failure, about uncertainty, about important questions that never get answered, that is, a movie about the reality of human experience wrapped in a shiny, movie star bow. That it is also gorgeously photographed only wonderfully performed lends to the tension between the “facts” of the real life case and the glossy power of cinema to describe the world. There may have been other films this decade that provided more satisfaction and good feeling, but none of them turned the way we experience life and the movies on its head like Zodiac.
23. Quiet City by Aaron Katz
22. Mutual Appreciation by Andrew Bujalski
21. Frownland by Ronald Bronstein
20. Marie Antoinette by Sofia Coppola
19. Up The Yangtze by Yung Chang
18. Platform by Jia Zhang-Ke
17. Tarnation by Jonathan Caouette
16. Lilya 4-Ever by Lukas Moodysson
15. Far From Heaven/ I'm Not There by Todd Haynes
14. Sideways by Alexander Payne
13. Into Great Silence by Philip Gröning
12. Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner by Zacharias Kunuk
11. There Will Be Blood by Paul Thomas Anderson