The twenty best films of this decade were determined by polling all the major and continuing contributors to Reverse Shot in the publication's history.

All These Memories
Kristi Mitsuda on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Few contemporary films manage to span the critical and popular culture divide to capture the collective imagination in electric, unifying ecstasy, but Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind makes the feat look easy. Did any other film this decade communicate on such an emotionally immediate level to both crowds? To some extent it probably could’ve succeeded purely on the fumes of its brilliant premise, so tapped into a universal yearning—nearly everyone has at some point dreamed of erasing the pain of heartbreak by expunging an ex from memory—that the layers of built-in resonance might have easily been squandered. Lucky for us that Eternal Sunshine encapsulates a perfect storm of talent coming together, raising a sci-fi rumination on memory, love, and loss to the heady heights of modern masterpiece.

Eternal Sunshine is an affecting experience unmatched by screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's previous endeavors, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, brain-teasing meta-explorations of identity and storytelling. Although the premises of this one-man screenwriting brand's earlier films seem to promise forthcoming reckonings of life-altering dimensions, the works ultimately fall short because he refuses emotional engagement; his self-conscious attachment to arched-brow skepticism and cleverly schematic unfoldings play like cop-outs, only accruing soulful vibrancy thanks largely to the ministrations of the director (Spike Jonze) and actors involved (Cameron Diaz in Being John Malkovich, Meryl Streep in Adaptation).

But Eternal Sunshine radiates authentic feeling. Structured around Joel and Clementine’s lost love and desperate attempts to first obliterate and then revive it, the film is possessed of an unshakably plaintive quality. It successfully refracts the common denominators of romantic relationships through an inventive prism, so the ritual of, say, tossing out pictures of an ex-lover, along with other detritus of a dead relationship, is here transmogrified: Lacuna, Inc., has Joel round up the offending artifacts and then presents each in turn to him as he concentrates, strapped to a brain-mapping device which collects data later to be referenced in the eradication of the memories triggered.

This isn’t to suggest Kaufman doesn’t begin to backslide into the rabbit-hole gimmickry of which he’s so enamored; as Joel seeks to save at least one memory of Clementine from the destruction of Lacuna’s trigger-happy technicians, the episodic scenarios grow increasingly outré, and the film starts to slide off the rails in a manner similar to the screenwriter’s other output. But its sincerity and measured sentimentality keep it centered. As memories literally slip away from Joel, midstream, his natural reaction to preserve the fleeting beauty no matter the attendant anguish bespeaks his regret and longing; his internal dialogues with Clementine turn into a sad goodbye lament. And come the conclusion, rather than resorting to his usual pessimism, Kaufman leans in the direction of hope, if tenuously so, in the fitting way of the fragile brokenhearted which are Eternal Sunshine’s subjects (perhaps a first step in freeing him to go for broke in his own open-armed directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York, a movie of matryoshka-doll intricacy encompassing life’s confusion, death’s inevitability, and everything in between).

In turn, director Michel Gondry moderates his sensibilities in sublime fashion in order to serve and elevate the film. His movement into mainstream moviemaking after years of directing commercials and celebrated music videos for the likes of Björk and the White Stripes emblematized a larger cinematic shift as a host of defining filmmakers of the MTV aesthetic (among them, Jonze and David Fincher) started rising to prominence, each showcasing in his movies a particular brand of visual pyrotechnics. Gondry’s predilection for lo-tech, handcrafted special effects are especially well-suited to Eternal Sunshine’s human-scaled, sci-fi love story; his eschewal of CGI wizardry in an era increasingly reliant upon the technology affords even the most out-there of the film’s sequences—such as Joel’s infantile regressions, conveyed via old-school forced perspective—an unexpectedly intimate, tangible quality.

Gondry’s previous collaboration with Kaufman, Human Nature (also the French filmmaker’s feature debut) flails because his trademark penchant for the weird and whimsical seem taxed by the feature-length format; that film’s love quadrangle featuring a feral man and hair-covered woman comes off as cloyingly cutesy and cardboard-stiff rather than otherworldly animated (as per Björk’s “Human Behavior,” perhaps the most iconic of the director’s videos). Gondry reins in these instincts for Eternal Sunshine, balancing his fondness for artfully artificial props and studio sets by shooting on location and incorporating natural light and other elements. Such small touches add immeasurably to the tenor of the film; when Joel wakes to the pale, grey winter light in the opening sequence, his mood and mindset are conveyed immediately. And as he later stands under a street light, snow flurries swirling around him upon his (second) first meeting of Clementine, love’s beginnings are rendered magical.

But Eternal Sunshine truly lives and breathes because of the fullness of its lead characters, expressively rendered by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet. In their emotionally naked performances, they conjure an achingly credible current of tenderness and antagonism; both actors inhabit the roles so fully that the characters’ desires and frustrations feel as known to us as a lover’s. Carrey’s eternally ashen-faced and haggard Joel seems to be suffering from Clementine’s absence as one would experience withdrawal from caffeine or alcohol. And the way Winslet’s Clementine in the introductory scenes (not yet aware she and Joel are former flames) obliviously, instinctively insists on invading Joel’s personal space—moving her body so close to him that he visibly winces, both on the train and later in her apartment—works on multiple levels, establishing both her aggressive, extroverted persona as well as subconscious physical familiarity with Joel (her body recollecting intimate knowledge of his even if her mind can’t).

Secondary characters are flawlessly cast as well. New boyfriend to Clementine and Lacuna employee, Patrick (a stalkerish Elijah Wood), steals Joel’s memorabilia and deliberately seeks to recreate déjà vu moments in a pitiful attempt to coax her into falling in love with him, but instead provokes such cognitive dissonance in Clem that she lashes out in tears and agitation. And a subplot involving co-workers Mary (ditzy-adorable Kirsten Dunst), Stan (Mark Ruffalo, a geeked-out teddy bear), and Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson, gentle-seeming as ever, the better to foil expectation), which at first seems merely a light-hearted distraction from the turmoil of the main thread, adds another dimension to the story; the climactic revelation that Mary’s sweet, schoolgirl crush on Howard stems from a darker, damaging history—she herself underwent the procedure to erase the doctor from her memory—feeds back into the pained core of the primary narrative.

Eternal Sunshine can’t help but play off and speak to viewer projections, the experience becoming something of a psychic playground as it touches off emotional echoes and leads you down a hall of personal reveries. Even though the movie’s sentiments—boiling down to the notion that love finds a way—border on the banal, Eternal Sunshine thrillingly eludes clichés and revels in the specificity of its characters and locales. It finally lays itself bare, vulnerable and cautiously openhearted as its protagonists. In a parallel universe, its creators might’ve wandered off track to assume a more distanced stance, as befitting the knowing, hipster-irony of the times; instead it extends an empathic sensitivity that holds all of us in its embrace.

Go to #12.