The twenty best films of the 2000’s
There’s no way around it. When it came to movies, the 2000’s were one gigantic shoulder-shrug of a yawn of a bore. Clearly, the past ten years weren’t a total dud or making a list of best movies would be pointless. But still the question remains. On average, why was going to the movies in this decade so much less fun than it was in the last ?
After a healthy amount of coffee and deliberation, I’ve decided the only plausible explanation is a curse on directing talent. The two living giants, Scorsese and Spielberg, didn’t embarrass themselves – well, not too much (The Terminal, Gangs of New York) – but also never rose above lightly entertaining popcorn fare. The whiz kids to watch in the 90’s – Tarentino, Fincher, and O. Russell,for example – haven’t really given us a reason to keep watching, apart from some standout set pieces here and there. P.T. Anderson came close, but as much as I enjoyed There Will Be Blood, I can’t fully get behind a movie that intentionally throws in the towel two-thirds of the way through. The Coen brothers produced one of the decade’s few masterpieces (No Country for Old Men), but aside from that, they’ve been flailing around for the better part of the decade, too. The most interesting creative force in Hollywood during the ’00’s was a screenwriter (fancy that), but as soon as Charlie Kaufman got behind the camera, he laid one of the biggest eggs of the decade (Synecdoche, NY). And it’s hard to name any new directors in the 2000’s that stood up to take the reins. Setting aside the idea of supernatural hexes, what’s the deal?
I never thought I’d say this, but it seems TV was hogging all the talent. Nothing on the big screen came close to what we saw in our living rooms. The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Friday Night Lights, The Office, Arrested Development, and many more: listing them now, it’s hard to believe it all came in such a short span of time. While Hollywood churned out live-action cartoons and the indies were stuck in indulgent esoterica, television – of all places! – became the real engine of visual narrative innovation. While it’s normally thought of as the outlet for short-attention spans, TV was actually the more patient medium by far the last ten years. Hollywood’s opening-weekend ADD refused to tolerate anything that didn’t break records out of the gate, preferring to seek safety in the arms of sequels, remakes and “reboots”. This has led to a more fractured, bipolar moviegoing experience than we’ve seen in a while; there seems to be no middle-ground between tentpole spectacle and art-house irrelevance. I can’t see how that’s anything but unhealthy for the future of film.
Enough doom and gloom. At the risk of completely contradicting everything I just said above, there were still plenty of reasons to actually head out of the house in the ’00’s. Below is a completely subjective – and yet utterly infallible – list of the movies that moved me the most in the ’00’s. Be sure to check out the honorable mention list at the end, and feel free to tell me how incredibly smart, handsome, and correct I am in the comments.
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Quirk. Twee. Whimsy.
These are a few of my least favorite things, at least in the world of film. As soon as I spot these adjectives attached to an indie, I set my mental movie calendar to “Skip”. And then…there’s Amelie. It’s chock-a-block with enough adorably wacky scenarios, charmingly kitsch production design and manufactured eccentricity to make even Wes Anderson reach for his revolver . Yet, here I am, helpless against its cutesy-poo powers. I’m not sure if it’s due to the hypnotic effect of Audrey Tautou’s oversized eyes or if I’m more forgiving of foreign precociousness, but I still find a lot to love about this, dare I say, quirky little film.
(19) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Director: Michel Gondry
While he’s one of the most aggressively original music video directors of all time, I’d never accuse Michel Gondry of being a great movie director. Something about the long-form gets lost in translation, and I always feel like his films are less than the sum of their admittedly inventive parts. However, even he couldn’t get in the way of a classic Charlie Kaufman script and a surprising amount of chemistry between Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet. Like all Kaufman’s texts, it deals with a ton of heady Big Ideas: Love, Memory, Loss, and The Permanence of Personality. Yet it never forgets to entertain, and just as you’re getting bored of playing with the puzzle, you discover you were much more emotionally invested in the outcome than you realized.
(18) Monster’s Inc.
Director: Pete Docter, David Silverman, and Lee Unkrich
Picking between Pixar flicks is a fool’s errand, but here goes. It’s not as jaw-droppingly gorgeous as Wall-E or Ratatouille, it’s true. It’s probably not as funny as Finding Nemo, or as exciting as The Incredibles. And if Toy Story 2 weren’t made in 1999, it’d beat it by a nose. But no single element in anything Pixar has done in the ‘00’s tops the relationship between Sully, Mike and Boo in Monster’s Inc. And it doesn’t hurt that the ending is one of the greatest in movie history.
(17) Grizzly Man
Director: Werner Herzog
Not only do opposites attract, they also often make for damn good movies, and you’d be hard pressed to find a more diametrically opposed pairing than this. Timothy Treadwell loved nature to the point of reckless incaution. Werner Herzog fears nature to the point of an unseemly loathing. The mixture of Herzog’s brooding voiceover and Timothy’s comical cluelessness make this one of the funniest documentaries ever made – until it’s not. While Herzog lets Treadwell hang himself with his own rope, he never treats his ideas – or his tragic end – with anything less than respectful curiosity.
(16) United 93
Director: Paul Greengrass
I could’ve easily picked one of the Bourne sequels for the mandatory Greengrass spot, but United gets the slight edge only because its daring isn’t limited to the camerawork. It’s a sobering experiment in evoking emotion with the most minimal of tools. The film utterly abandons any conventional notion of character, plot, or context, and yet leaves the viewer destroyed by the end. And it does so without stooping to cheap manipulation of any kind. No politics, no exposition, no explanation: just an event as experienced. And it’s an experience you’ll try hard to forget. As many others have said about it: It’s an incredible film. It’s masterfully constructed. I hope I never have to see it again.
(15) Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Director: John Cameron Mitchell
A campy musical about a transgendered glam-rocker done wrong would usually fall smackdab in the middle of Not My Thing territory, but I loved Hedwig – the character and the movie – from the first few frames. John Cameron Mitchell, brilliant behind and before the camera here, takes a Technicolor defibrillator to a near-dead genre and revives it for at least a few more years. But be warned: if you don’t want to spend the next few days humming songs about botched sex changes, the GDR, and Plato’s Symposium, then you’d be advised to avoid it.
Director: Spike Jonze
It could’ve gone so wrong. Kaufman and Jonze could’ve turned this über-reflexive script into a masturbatory Mobius strip of ironic navel-gazing and meta-jokes that would’ve pleased few people other than the filmmakers. In other words, they could’ve made Synecdoche, NY. But thankfully, Adaptation is a surprisingly poignant look at the creative process, sibling rivalry, and love, culminating in a damn clever satire of the Hollywood lowest-common-denominator mindset.
(13) Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
Director: George Clooney
It may seem odd to say that a man as wanted by women, as stalked by paparazzi, and as sought after by directors as George Clooney gets no love, but when it comes to his directing talents, it’s true. Confessions had the help of a bizarre memoir and a Charlie Kaufman script, but even factoring that in, it’s one of the most audacious directorial debuts in film history. Yet you rarely hear about this accomplishment. The sheer amount of technical mastery and storytelling panache on display is intimidating. The guy was clearly paying attention on all of those sets. And that he followed it up with the phenomenal Good Night and Good Luck shows he’s not just a one-trick pony.
(12) Ocean’s Eleven
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Someone get Soderbergh a copy of Sullivan’s Travels. The more he aims for the Important and Relevant (Traffic) ,or Daring and Experimental (Bubble), the more I want to see him do Silly and Fun. After all, it’s what he does best, and this lightweight caper is Exhibit A. Well, actually, that’d be Out of Sight, but this Rat Pack re-imagining isn’t far behind.
(11) To Be and To Have
Director: Nicolas Philibert
Forget the fact that this doc is often described as sweet and adorable. To Be and To Have packs a deceptively powerful emotional punch. An unobtrusive glimpse into a French one-room schoolhouse, it’s one of the most intimate and revealing looks at childhood and education ever conceived. Oh, and yes, it’s pretty frigging adorable to boot.
(10) Let the Right One In
Director Tomas Alfredson
No, not that teenage vampire movie, I’m talking about the good one: not the one where the girl is little more than a swooning prop for the vampire hero, the one where the girl is the vampire that comes to the rescue. Let the Right One In is more about atmospheric unease and social ostracism than marketing tie-ins and Tiger Beat covers, and maybe that’s why it’s still relatively unknown outside the arthouse. That’s too bad, because it’s by far the best vampire movie in decades.
Director: Christopher Nolan
“The whole movie’s backwards!” That premise sounds like it promises an unbearably gimmicky flick. But Nolan turned what could’ve been little more than an amusing parlor trick into a surprisingly moving look at how the lack of something we all take for granted – continuity and coherence – can turn anyone into a monster.
(8) Children of Men
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Most of the talk around this dystopian thriller centers around Cuaron’s technical prowess, his ability to elicit oohs and awws simply by not shutting off the camera. But I think what’s more impressive is how incredibly here-and-now its terrifying future seems. It may be set in 2027, but Children of Men never forgets our humanity – and all the good and bad that implies – is timeless.
(7) Donnie Darko
Director: Richard Kelly
All evidence points to Donnie Darko and director Richard Kelly being a classic case of “Trust the art, not the artist”. His DVD commentary reveals intents and interpretations foreign to most fans, and his director’s cut ruins the original by swapping out the mysterious for the obvious. I also think it’d be best if we didn’t waste time trying to explain Southland Tales, a movie that will live on as a classic only if you put the word ‘camp’ in front of it. But even if it’s a lucky one-off, Donnie Darko is still one of the most unique and compelling movie experiences of the 00’s. Its bizarre charm eludes easy classification; I don’t envy the marketing guys who had to sell what is basically a metaphysical coming-of-age psychological thriller set against a satirical backdrop of Reagan America. It’s the kind of late-comer cult classic that makes the secondary market more than a dumping ground.
(6) Almost Famous
Director: Cameron Crowe
Growing Up. Rock N’Roll. Obsessive Love: Almost Famous distills all of Cameron Crowe’s fixations so efficiently that you’d almost think it was his intent to create a two-hour almanac of his obsessions. It’s not surprising that it sums him up so well, since it’s loosely based on his own experiences writing for Rolling Stone as a teenager. The film is lathered in sentimentality and nostalgia, but the pitch-perfect script and across-the-board fantastic performances ensure that any emotion is earned. Even if Crowes’ reputation seems to rest mainly on this and Say Anything, they’re singular enough to make that fine by me.
(5) Wet Hot American Summer
Director: David Wain
“You taste like a burger. I don’t like you anymore.”
“Just writing in my gournal.”
“I want you inside me.”
Those are only a few of the dozens of bizarre phrases that the cult-like devotees of WHAS shout back and forth at each other, confounding the uninitiated. In a decade when TV was tossing out groundbreaking comedies left and right (The Office, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Arrested Development, Freaks and Geeks), movies were content to sit back and ape Judd Apatow and wear out Will Ferrel’s welcome. But there were a few bright spots, and this little-seen spoof of 80’s teen comedies was one of them. Veering between surrealistic slapstick, sophisticated cliché deconstruction, and Dada-esque comic set pieces, it was misunderstood by critics and ignored by audiences on its release. But I think it’d be hard to name a more gleefully original or out-and-out hilarious comedy to hit theaters in the ’00’s than Wet Hot American Summer. Scenes like the one below, where Paul Rudd’s too-cool-for-school character is also too cool to clean up after himself, are one reason why:
(4) Bowling for Columbine
Director: Michael Moore
Before he became predictable,
Before he became a whipping boy,
Before he started smoking his own dope,
Before he became a litmus test of your lifestyle…
Michael Moore was the guy who rescued documentaries from the PBS ghetto of pompous irrelevance where they were doomed to die a respectable death. Granted, after a decade of Nick Broomfields and Morgan Spurlocks and Kirby Dicks and all the other assorted narcissists-cum-propagandists, the somnolent stylings of Ken Burns and Co. can start to look a lot more appealing. But Bowling was where that front-and-center style met its maker; the broad canvas of a feature film was used as a Socratic bounceboard to question how the American experiment of Empire and Plunder had unforeseen consequences inside our borders as well as out. Moore would soon drop the interesting questions in favor of prepackaged answers, but, for a while, he was the most interesting thing at the movies.
(3) You Can Count on Me
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
On the surface, You Can Count on Me seems to be a movie of modest ambition. It’s a low-budget domestic drama with a cast of four and little in the way of epic conflict. Yet, its main focus – family and what to do with them – is about as universal a theme as you can imagine. The near-perfect script is complemented by career performances from the leads, lending it an emotional resonance that belies its small stature. There’s not a dishonest moment in the movie. After such an impressive debut, I was looking forward to seeing playwright Kenneth Lonergan grow into an accomplished filmmaker. But given the nightmare that post-production on Margaret has become, I can see him retreating back to the relative safety of the stage and leaving Hollywood for good. Oh well, our loss.
(2) Requiem for a Dream
Director: Darren Aronofsky
I’m probably one of the few people outside of Aronofsky’s immediate family who would put this film at number two, but that’s why it’s my list. There are simply few movies that have affected me to such a profound degree. Simultaneously the most viscerally persuasive anti-drug PSA ever made and the most insanely kinetic tragedy ever conceived, Requiem succeeds because it does what great films are supposed to do: it stays with you long after the lights come up.
(1) No Country for Old Men
Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
Every time I watch No Country for Old Men, I’m rendered slack-jawed and awestruck in the presence of A Thing Well Made. The Coen brothers have never been slouches, but it takes a lifetime to work up to the kind of sheer craftsmanship on display here. But it wouldn’t be my top pick if it were only a technically brilliant, tightly-wound thriller. There’s a sense of unease that lingers long after Anton Chigurh’s face fades from memory, evidence of a thematic undercurrent much more unsettling than a psychopath’s tool kit.
Critics, and even fans of the film, have talked about its unrelenting nihilism, but they’re getting their belief systems confused. It’s more existentialist than anything else, the kind of crime flick Camus could get behind. The message is covered in a candy shell, but ultimately NCFOM is an intricate meditation on chance and choice, and learning humility in the face of a clearly indifferent universe. Even the seemingly invincible Chirgurh isn’t immune to the random workings of simple, dumb luck – or fate, if you’re feeling philosophical. Cormac McCarthy and the Coens aren’t saying life is meaningless. They’re saying that it’s often absurd. That’s not nihilism—that’s reality.
Just Missed the List
At a certain point near the outer edges, list-making – even just as subjective numbering – becomes an exercise in random dart-throwing. I could’ve made a case for any of the following movies to make the bottom half:
About Schmidt, Before Sunset, X-Men 2, All the Real Girls, Minority Report, The TV Set, Capote, There Will Be Blood, The Bourne Ultimatum, Anchorman, Shaun of the Dead, The Dark Knight, Wall-E, Brick, A.I., Little Children, Lost in Translation, Quiet City, In the Mood for Love, Mulholland Drive, Michael Clayton, Where The Wild Things Are