The Best Films of the ‘00s
Film essay by: Witney Seibold
I’m a little late to this particular game; mot critics and opinionated ‘bloggers already made this list back In early-to-mid January, but a combination of meditation and sloth has me finally cobbling together a list of the best films of the decade.
This is an exciting moment for me. While I did come to love movies in the 1990s, I was still a student when the decade ended. I landed my first film writing gig in 1999, with a review of “Lake Placid” for the Santa Monica Mirror (which can be read here: http://www.smmirror.com/Volume1/issue6/lake_placid.html). I love making my year-end lists, but this is the first time I have come to the end of a decade, having paid attention to film the entire time. I saw countless films in the last ten years, from new releases to classics, and have written hundreds upon hundreds of reviews and essays on them. It is now time to encapsulate where I have been in my semi-professional career as a film reviewer, and try to find what the best films of the last ten years have been.
Here then, is what I could come up with in chronological order (the first two entries notwithstanding). I present to you, from my humble experience as a writer and filmgoer, the best films of the decade.
1) The films of Michael Haneke. “The Piano Teacher” (2001), “Time of the Wolf” (2003), “Caché” (2005), “The White Ribbon” (2009).
If pressed to name the most important filmmakers to have risen to prominence during the last decade, Haneke tops the list. Often criticized for being nihilistic and downbeat, Haneke actually makes harshly realistic films about people with natural, everyday, disturbingly common mental illness. While his films often depict violence and cruelty and desperation, Haneke is clerly less interested in the gory mechanics of violence, or in shock (like, say Lars Von Trier), and more in the way our psychology and philosophy motivate us in hidden ways. “The Piano Teacher” is about a woman (Isabelle Huppert) who is not even savvy enough to know that she is suffering through all manner of sexual anxieties. “Time of the Wolf” depicts a world gone mad in a post-apocalypse situation, when we, the audience, never learn what the disaster is. “Caché” shows how we change our behavior when we think someone may be watching us. And “The White Ribbon,” which I named the best film of 2009, is an essayic dissection of fascistic groupthink.
2) The films of David Gordon Green. “George Washington” (2000), “All the Real Girls” (2003), “Undertow” (2004), “Snow Angels” (2007).
Another one of the most important filmmakers to have risen to prominence during the last decade, David Gordon Green is an earthy, humorous, tragic lyrical poet who can see past all the usual melodramatic baloney, and give us a calm realistic truth behind childhood, love, family, and tragedy. In all of his films (even the out-of-character stoner comedy “Pineapple Express”), he manages to find that balance between a calm real-life humanity, and a beauty of filmic excellence. In “George Washington” we are given the lives of young children living in the low-rent areas of South Carolina, and is one of the best and more believable depictions of childhood anywhere. “All the Real Girls” captures the awkwardness and joy and fear and stupidity and exhilaration of true love. “Undertow” is at once an exciting chase film, and a look at maturing and the connections we have to our family, however unfortunate they may or may not be. “Snow Angels” is a slowly horrific look at how small town relate to tragedy, and where that tragedy really springs from.
3) The films of Charlie Kaufman. “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” (2002), “Adaptation.” (2002), “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004), “Synecdoche, New York” (2008).
How did such a strange, offbeat writer become such a powerful force in Hollywood? Here is a screenwriter who adapted an autobiography that was, presumably, full of lies. He tried to adapt a book about an orchid thief, and ended up writing a treatise on himself and how much trouble he has as a writer. He wrote the most unconventional romance ever put to screen in a memory-erasing fantasy about fickle people. And he directed his own screenplay about an aging writer who seems to be living in several layers of reality simultaneously. While often dour and incomprehensible, Kaufman and him screenplays have managed to emerge as a powerful artistic force in an industry that often disallows this level of idiosyncrasy.
4) Almost Famous (2000)
Cameron Crowe is the master of a certain kind of halcyon nostalgia, managing to make memories feel dear and loved rather than pat or sentimental. In his best film since “Say Anything,” Crowe recalls a fictionalized version of his own youth as a teenage rock critic on the road with an up-and-coming rock band, and the joys and perils that come along with such a journey: he begins to idolize the band who doesn’t necessarily have his best interests at heart, he is exposed to drugs and sex (to mixed results), and he falls hard for an emotionally damaged groupie. This is a film that knows the way smart teens talk, the way music actually functions in our lives, and explores growing up in a fresh, wondrous, possibly dangerous, and always envied lifestyle.
5) Ghost World (2001)
Terry Zwigoff directs this modern-day “Catcher in the Rye” about the power of teen alienation, and the way our own insistent idiosyncrasies can both section us off from the rest of the world, but also give us the power to move on. And he does so in a stylish and quirky manner that makes us really want to be on the outside, and the resent our own desire to live on the outside. Thora Birch plays a teenager, recently graduated from high school, who wants to so something offbeat with her life, but doesn’t know what. She resents her best friend (Scarlett Johnasson) for wanting to do “usual” things like get a job and rent an apartment, and ends up having a sort-of affair with a weird older man (Steve Buscemi) who likes old records, and is generally a misanthrope. The film ends on an ambiguous note which I saw as a leap forward and a painful letting-go. It’s a film about the first sep of growing up, and how we try to take our character with us.
6) Waking Life (2001)
Richard Linklater gave us probably the single most offbeat animated film of the decade with “Waking Life,” a stirring, shimmering rotoscoped oddity that is more about talk and philosophy than it is about action. Ostensibly taking place within a dream, “Waking Life” drifts from subject to subject (mostly, but not always, from the eyes of Wiley Wiggins) as they talk to the camera and each other about the nature of dreams, existentialism (the late, great Prof. Robert Solomon gives a lecture), government conspiracies, and odd experiences they had. Watching this film is like having a dream: you are a little off-balance, oscillating from fear to joy very quickly, unsure as to what will happen next, and to whether or not what you’re experiencing is a dream or your waking life.
7) Mulholland Drive (2001)
Originally conceived as a pilot for a TV series, David Lynch’s Hollywood phantasmagoria was eventually abandoned by ABC, refinanced by Canal +, and completed in its current form as one of the best films of the decade. It follows a fresh-faced young actress (Naomi Watts), in L.A. for the first time, and her relationship with a mysterious amnesiac (Laura Elena Harring) who may or may not have a connection to the underworld. It’s a mystery movie, an examination of shifting identity in the wake of an emotional trauma, and, more than anything, I feel, a dissection of the myths of Hollywood Dreams. There is a scene in a jazz club where people sing and play instruments, only to reveal that all is tape-recorded. Is that not a perfect encapsulation of life in Los Angeles? All is gorgeous music. All is heartbreaking art. And all is 100% fake. Lynch does it again, and is more compelling than ever. This film has topped most critics’ lists of the single best film of the decade.
8) Spirited Away (2001)
In the circles of feature animation, the name of Hayao Miyazaki is uttered in hushed tones. He is certainly the reigning master of the craft, and “Spirited Away” is his best work of recent years, if not his best film. In a world of increasingly CGI-animated, ultra-marketed, over-designed “funny” animal films, Miyazaki’s painstakingly hand-drawn epics are a cold, bracing breath of fresh, clean air. At once fearful and sweet, his films managed to capture that old trope that Hollywood constantly talks about but rarely manages to produce: awe. His tale of a young girl who finds her parents turned into pigs, and employment in a mystical bathhouse her only recourse, is singularly imaginative, appropriately dark and frightening, and surprisingly calm and restrained. It’s a perfect movie.
9) City of God (2002)
Fierce and violent, wrenching and gorgeous, Fernando Meirelles’ epic crime drama is as good as anything Scorsese could make. Exposing he corners of the favelas outside of Rio De Janeiro, “City of God” is a harsh look at one of the single more harsh environments on the planet. The slums are overrun by immensely powerful gangs, drug dealers, and other violent criminals who get their start on the road to iniquity when they’re still children, sometimes as young as 6. This film functions as a document of a place andtime, but also as a stirring crime drama. This is a frightening parallel world made all the more convincing by Meirelles’ immediate filmmaking, and, or course the fact that these places are real.
10) All or Nothing (2002)
British theatre director Mike Leigh is often considered the most important pioneer of “kitchen sink realism,” that is, a brand of working-class drama that shows the actual, toast-munching, lager-drinking, grocery-store-working, honest human beings of Britain’s ugly superblocks. And rarely has he dome it better than in his underrated 2002 drama “All or Nothing” about a put-upon cab driver (Timothy Spall) and his common-law wife (Lesley Manville), and their inability to say how much they love each other, and the desperate need they have to hear it. It’s not by any stretch a funny film (Liegh is capable of humor as seen in “Topsy-Turvy” and “Happy-Go-Lucky”), but when the tears do come, you can’t help but weep alongside these bared, frustrated souls.
11) Tarnation (2003)
Jonathan Couette, ever since he was a teenager, kept a video diary. He related to the camera some surprisingly candid things about himself, his family and his sexuality. We see the deterioration of his mother’s mental state, and his struggle to come out in a particularly repressed area of Texas. This is a documentary film that cannot help but show the most exposed, raw areas of the human soul, and the power each of us has to rise above and redeem ourselves from the mires of circumstance.
12) Oldboy (2003)
The second part of Park Chan-Wook’s ultraviolent Vengeance trilogy plays like a lurid TV melodrama version of “Titus Andronicus.” It is a delirious and ridiculous and ridiculously violent story of incest, insanity, and, of course, bloody calculated revenge. More than a cheap Asian schlock-fest, “Oldboy” manages to transcend its material, and become a tragedy on par with Shakespeare’s more playful moments. Yes, I just used the words “playful” and “tragedy” in the same sentence. “Oldboy” is a playful tragedy.
13) Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)
I’ll try not to go one at length about Peter Weir’s film too much, as I have already written a lengthy essay on it (which you can read here: https://witneyman.wordpress.com/2008/02/21/master-and-commander-the-far-side-of-the-world/), but I will say that this is a quaint epic of wonderment and fun and historical accuracy that draws you in with its ability to make otherwise fantastical period material seem everyday and accessible. It’s a film that welcomes you inside and makes you feel at home with people you feel like you know. Ever wanted to spend two and a half hours on a Napoleonic battleship with intelligent and resourceful sailors? This is your chance.
14) Gozu (2003)
According to the Internet Movie Database, director Takashi Miike made 45 films and TV specials from 2000-2009. Miike is probably the single most prolific film director since the days of silent movies, and each one of his films seems to bear his certain mark of hyperkinetic superviolence or extreme gore, or perhaps just a solid dash of mindfucking. None of his film, though, is more solid and more out there than his 2003 masterpiece “Gozu.” Part yakuza crime thriller, part Lynchian labyrinth, part horror film, part sexual hysteria parable, “Gozu tells the story of a young lieutenant in the yakuza asked to kill his insane mentor, only to have him die in a car wreck, and the body mysteriously vanish. All of the surreal machinations required to retrieve the body will put you in a strange state of baffled calm, so by the time our hero is being licked in the face by a cow god, you’re kind of astonished and accepting.
15) Saraband (2003)
A sequel to the miniseries “Scenes from a Marriage” and Ingmar Bergman’s final film, directed at age 85, is a masterpiece. “Saraband” is, perhaps predictably, about the twilight of life, and the constant grind that time can have on our relationships and on our wounded souls. Reuniting Erland Josephson and Liv Ullmann, decades after their divorce, they must deal with the drama and threats of suicide floating around their at-risk granddaughter. There are still simmering remnants of bitterness between the elderly couple, but also a large amount of regard and sweetness, and, ultimately, the nearly accidental ability to heal. No one made films like Bergman, and his final was no exception.
16) Lost in Translation (2003)
A small slice of life. Two American strangers find one another in the unfamiliar world of Tokyo. She is recently married and in her 20s. He is a working actor in his 50s. They have little in common, but share an ineffable bond than, in many ways, can be called love. Sofia Coppola’s film can be called, at once, classic in the David Lean vein (strangers meeting in a foreign place to fall in love), and undoubtedly crusading and modern in its tone and beauty and themes (age vs. youth, and the true nature of a pure romance). Not a film about action, but a gentle, beautiful opera of emotion.
17) Kill Bill (2003, 2004)
Although action films will continue for ages to come, I feel that Quentin Tarantino’s nearly-four-hour revenge epic “Kill Bill” is pretty much the final word in all current action tropes. It’s a melting cauldron of every single kung-fu flick that Tarantino has seen, with huge melted lardy chunks of most of the other exploitation movies mixed in for good measure. It follows a woman (Uma Thurman) who is on a quest to kill the five people who put her into a coma years before. The fights are beautiful and solid and the most exciting ever put to film. “Kill Bill” may be accused of hailing style over substance, but such accusations are groundless. The style is the substance in a Tarantino film, and he’s such a powerful, powerful stylist, that the substance sticks in your craw, and worms around in your pop culture brain for ages to come.
18) Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005)
Artist Miranda July is a gentle, gentle soul, and a happy, happy person. She made a film in 2005 which depicted a man setting himself on fire, a stalled romantic relationship, little kids using dirty words, and teenagers engaging in largely anonymous sex play, and yet is was one of the sweetest and hopeful films to come from the 2000s. July plays a video artist who feels that her work is not good enough, and who is trying to start up a relationship with a bitter divorcee (John Hawkes). While her antics may seem creepy, this ismore a film about how we are constantly full of hope, and are, in small ways, expressing that hope for the world to see.
19) Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008)
I need say little about these films, as the internet is overrun with ‘bloggers and geeks expressing why they are the awesomest films ever made. I will say this: Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” was probably the first superhero film with a multimillion-dollar budget and A-list stars to take the practical concepts of being a sueprhero kind of seriously. No mere expository backstory, “Batman Begins” actually bothers to ask basic questions behind the pop-culture icon of Batman. Why be a batman? Why bother being a superhero? What is the moral standpoint of such a man? “The Dark Knight,” while not quite as fresh as the first film (and how can a sequel ever be?), continues to ask the important questions of superhero-dom in the face of a true nihilist (an unforgettable Heath Ledger). Also on this line could be included two other superb films that accurately explore the practical realities of superhero-dom, while also being gorgeous and entertaining extravaganzas: Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man 2” (2004) and Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man” (2008).
20) Once (2006)
Have you ever wanted to see two people fall in love on screen? Now you can. Glen Hansard is a talented street musician. Markéta Irglová is the émigré who takes a shine to him. She’s married. She’s poor. They share a common passion for music which equates the unspoken passion they clearly feel for one another. The songs are gorgeous and honest and seem to carry an honesty that one doesn’t often get from a lot of modern day pop music. A film about the importance of creation and music in a world of remixes and instant gratification, “Once” is an emotionally-charged stroll through our more loving inner places.
21) Half Nelson (2006)
Ryan Fleck has presented us with a realistic and complicated drama of stirring power and difficult answers. Ryan Gosling explodes onto the scene in this movie, playing a drug-addicted inner city high school teacher who seems capable of saving the life of one of his very at-risk students (Shareeka Epps), but is all-too-aware of the fact that he himself – due to his drug use, and, it could be said, less than professional regard for her – poses a threat to this girl. How do you help a girl when you are a threat? How do you confront those you know are putting her in danger? And, as a student, how do you take the special attention of an older white man? Is he just enacting on liberal guilt? Pervy attraction to you? You drug connections? This makes the premise to “The Blind Side” look churlish in comparison. This is a film that pushes through every last difficult decision with masterful aplomb.
22) Zodiac (2007)
One of the best crime dramas of the decade, if not the last 25 years, David Fincher’s “Zodiac” is a meticulously stylish examination of obsession and death and how the need for closure can act us to behave beyond all reason. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a newspaper cartoonist who, over the course of several years, becomes increasingly obsessed with tracking down the ever-cooling trail of the notorious Zodiac Killer. Mixed in with his search are the police of several districts, bitter reporters, and flamboyant lawyers, all unconvinced that he will ever succeed. In addition to being a gripping drama, “Zodiac” is also one of the most gorgeous films of the decade, capturing its meat-and-potatoes 1970s workspaces more effectively than any other film.
23) The Wrestler (2008)
While much has been written about the performances (especially of a thought-to-be-washed-up Mickey Rourke) and the story, what impressed me the most about Darren Aranovsky’s “The Wrestler” was this: it bothered to take itself seriously. No winks, no hints at irony or distance. “The Wrestler” makes sure we feel about Randy “The Ram” Robinson the same way he feels about himself. It makes sure we feel that pro-wresting, often the butt of jokes, is a difficult and admirable profession with its own structure of fame and hard work. It makes this hard-working, not-necessarily-too-bright wrestler seem like a tragic hero. It explodes and revels in the myths of masculinity that we, of a certain age, grew up with.
24) The Hurt Locker (2009)
This may be dangerous to include in this list, as it was made so recently, but I find myself thinking more and more about Kathryn Bigelow’s powerful war parable. Not since the 1970s have I seen a film that was so damning of the war experience, so sympathetic to the solider, so psychologically accurate as to the drug-like nature of extreme living, and the ineffable sense of duty that draws us back to places we know we hate, but also come to rely upon. Jeremy Renner plays his role as if he is equal mixture maniac, hero, a man out of his depth, and a young man who is prematurely aged by the powerful violence he constantly lives.
And, a list of 21 films of the last decade equally worthy of note and praise, and films that you would do well to see.
1) Va Savoir (2001)
2) Lagaan (2001)
3) 13 Conversations About One Thing (2001)
4) The Pianist (2002)
5) Talk to Her (2002)
6) Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)
7) Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
8) May (2002)
9) American Splendor (2003)
10) Big Fish (2003)
11) The Triplets of Belleville (2003)
12) Bowling for Columbine (2003)
13) Shaun of the Dead (2004)
14) Brokeback Mountain (2005)
15) The Squid and the Whale (2005)
16) Idiocracy (2005)
17) Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
18) A Prairie Home Companion (2006)
19) No Country for Old Men (2007)
20) Into the Wild (2007)
21) Let the Right One In (2008)
Honerable mention: Cremaster 3 (2003). How can one ignore this gorgeous, surreal, oddball three-hour museum-only odyssey?