The Top Ten (or so) Films of the Decade: #10 Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Gondry, 2004)

FILM Eternal Sunshine Of the Spotless Mind (2004) (Left-Right) Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey   Momentum

Ten years, ten movies. I’m not sure how this process works for everyone else, but for me, it starts off very easy, then grows very difficult, and, in the end, becomes very easy again.

When I first started thinking about which films I was going to honor as my favorites of the past decade, I jotted down a completely off-the-cuff, rough-draft list of ten movies– and as it turns out, the final list is extremely close to that initial, knee-jerk response. But before I could arrive at that conclusion, I had to very deliberately think through all the movies that weren’t on that first list. Among the films that I very seriously considered for this list are David Cronenberg’s subversive drama A History of Violence; Jim Jarmusch’s oddball mystery Broken Flowers; Guillermo del Toro’s nightmarish fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth; Zhang Yimou’s lavish epic Hero; and Edward Yang’s contemplative masterpiece, Yi Yi. 2008’s Speed Racer was one of the first films I thought of for my first list, and the one that it took me the longest to cut– a misunderstood, soon-to-be cult classic, and a sheer pleasure over which I feel no guilt.

But the ten films I’ve selected– and will be counting down over the next few weeks, leading up to the end of 2009– are, in the end, very easy and natural choices for me, movies I’m fairly positive I will still be watching, considering, and loving in another decade’s time. Whether any of them will become classics, I can’t say; all I can say is that they’ve already become favorites.

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#10 on my list, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a complex movie about simple things. Beneath its broader themes– memory, fate, the passage of time– it is a movie, ultimately, about two people and one relationship. Though the film is a science fiction, it is rarely spoken of that way, by either its many admirers or its few detractors: It is, more essentially, a romantic comedy, and perhaps even more essentially than that, a simple romance.

That stands out as the most special thing about the film, even more than director Michel Gondry’s richly imagined visual details, more than the sheer uniqueness of the story, more than the excellent performances. Not as open-ended as the music videos on which Gondry made his name nor as esoteric as his wonderfully weird follow-up, The Science of Sleep, Eternal Sunshine is a film that never quite leaves the atmosphere and heads into outer space: Always, it is a movie about two people, one relationship. And like so much science fiction, its central theme is something completely, particularly human; Eternal Sunshine defines romance in terms of work, sacrifice, selflessness, and bearing one another’s burdens.

That makes it an almost altogether anomalous film. I’m not sure that you could find any Hollywood romance as noble as this one, any indie relationship movie as sincerely good-hearted as this one. Its imagination is not tempered by irony, but, rather, is reenforced by virtue.

A small thing that always makes me grin: Kate Winslet’s hair color is called Blue Ruin, a Tom Waits reference. Thematically, this might mean nothing, but it is evidence of supremely good taste.

But this isn’t a movie about little things; though it focuses on just one couple, its themes are universal, and, for two hours, all of time and space seem to revolve around this one disentegrating relationship. The resolution is hopeful but also hard; the film itself, a true joy, a work of art forged by the meeting of imagination and heart.

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