The 50 Best Films of the 2000s
The Best Films of the 2000s. A list like this is rather ridiculous to make at such a time, as reading other’s lists compulsively has simply made me seek out dozens of other films I’ve either never heard of, or have yet to get around to. Plus, it in no way factors in other films from this year even, ones that haven’t even seen a proper distribution yet, never mind foreign films that won’t see the light of day for another 2 years likely. So really, what I’m saying is, I probably should have waited to make this epic list until, oh, 2014. But I’ve got the bug, so here goes, just keep in mind that A.) It is in no way definitive, and is subject to change at any given notice, and B.) Hindsight is a beautiful thing. This is why there is no mention of a Requiem for a Dream, or even Memento (as much as they still hold value). Films from this year and last are admittedly lacking in this list, partly due to quality and partly due to the fact that they haven’t been given the luxury of hindsight. Keep this in mind, and as always, enjoy.
(Oh, and I expect plenty of discourse here… Do your worst.)
50. Coraline (2009)
Dir. Henry Selick
To kick things off in a massive list such as this, I usually like to pick a wild card, if you will, for the lead-off spot. If that sounds like faint praise, it isn’t intended to be. While there might be better, more meaningful films out there, they probably don’t have a fraction of the invention that Coraline displays at any given moment, whether it be a quietly creepy trip with a circus of mice, or a rapturous flight through an impossibly beautiful garden. Henry Selick’s masterpiece of stop-motion animation is so visually innovative that it completely makes up for the Alice in Wonderland clichés of the main plotline, however well executed they may be. However, it’s most lasting impression comes from the technology at play here, notably it’s revolutionary use of 3-D. While everyone else is playing in some kitschy little sandbox, Selick transcended a once-dead parlor trick and used the technology to add a whole new layer to his artistic palate. Coraline shows the possibility of an almost universally abused trend, proving that the most talented artists can see potential where there was none. A stunning theatrical experience if I’ve ever seen one.
49. Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (2004)
Dirs. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky
I emphatically cannot stand the music of Metallica. So when faced with a 140 minute documentary about the people of said group, on the surface that sounds utterly painful. Leave it Berlinger/Sinofsky, though, to take what was once intended to be a glorified EPK to craft a poignant documentary about a snapshot in time for a once unquestionably influential band, faced with backlashes of the personal and public kind. What happens is in fact quite fascinating, but it’s the tone the filmmakers take with the material that makes it so fascinating, distancing itself completely from the fame of the individuals in question, and instead narrowing its lens into something of a domestic drama. This is, after all, a documentary about a family, one that seems hell-bent on destroying itself in the name of something greater, chasing a peak that may never come again. It’s heartbreaking and honest, and yes, it’s about Metallica. I can’t speak for fans of the band, but I’d imagine it’s just as remarkable for them as it was for me, though it may be a tad disheartening to see such idols completely stripped of their mystique.
48. Amelie (2001)
Dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet
There was a time where this film would have been in the Top 10, but alas, time passes, films have been seen, and little ‘ol Amelie rests innocently in the fringes, just lying there cute as always. The film’s hopeless optimism has perhaps lost a bit of its luster from when I was 17, but all that aside, it remains one thing for sure; this film is GORGEOUS. It’s just stunning, even to this day. The colors pop like no other, the characters perfectly framed as if every shot was a painting, and a melancholy tone that remains impossible to not to be swayed by. There are some groans, but they are still far outnumbered by the beautiful little moments. They always were the beating heart of this film, from the imagining of locals having sex in their homes to the protagonists homemade video montages crafted for her hermit neighbor. Jean-Pierre Jeunet may have hit his peak with the masterful The City of Lost Children, but Amelie hits something elusive to many like myself who find the idea cloying and opportunistic; it *gulp*, makes you feel genuinely good watching it.
47. Volver (2006)
Dir. Pedro Almodóvar
Volver is indeed a film that grows with each viewing, and while many may argue that it’s a lesser Almodóvar film, I believe it has one thing propelling it forward than just a career “best-of” showcase; Penélope Cruz. She truly captured one of my favorite performances of the decade, infusing just the right amount of matriarchal power with subtle femininity; she burns through every frame of this beautiful film. It’s not Almodóvar’s most epic triumph, but it does contain everything he is great at, and Cruz may just be his greatest asset.
46. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
Dir. Alfonso Cuarón
Alfonso Cuarón had a spectacular decade. From his formation into a great artist with a unique voice with Y Tu Mamá También, to the technically spellbinding Children of Men, he certainly proved diversity to be his greatest strength. So when it came down to it, I knew I had to pick one of his films for appreciation, and I believe it’s the one that shows what he does best; telling a story. Harry Potter “3” not only single-handedly destroyed anyone else’s chance to reach these kinds of heights within the franchise, but transcended what franchise films in essence mean. They are there to make money, and in some ways, people don’t really give a damn if it’s good or not when it’s a property this hot. (As it stands, this installment is by far the weakest grossing of the series… Surpise, surprise.) But when a filmmaker as gifted as Cuarón (or Christopher Nolan for that matter, with The Dark Knight), can take a fun film series, one that has no chance at surpassing what was intended to live on page, and make a film that stands proudly on its own; I believe that is quite possibly a greater triumph. More importantly though, this is the film that truly captures what Harry Potter as a series is supposed to convey. It’s a film that truly feels immersive in magic, but somehow spends equal time with the confusion and angst of adolescence, as well as a mounting dread that paranoia can only fuel. In this, it’s almost a perfect synthesis of his other two films this decade; only this one I’ve managed to watch countless times more.
45. Man on Wire (2008)
Dir. James Marsh
A story about a flamboyantly arrogant man walking on a tight-rope made me cry. This is the unexpected power of James Marsh’s directorial style, an equal blend of exploratory documentary and Errol Morris dramatizing done with particular artistic license. It’s a beautifully crafted film, anchored of course by its charismatic subject, Philippe Petit. He paved the way for this film with Wisconsin Death Trip, another very notable film in its own right, but Marsh’s synthetic documentary style reached a peak with this film, and somehow felt more truthful and honest than any number of purely “fact-based” documentaries released this decade. I suppose Marsh might feel that there is no such thing as an objective film, so take liberties wherever you can if it makes a more compelling watch.
44. Dancer in the Dark (2000)
Dir. Lars Von Trier
You want to know how difficult this film is? I saw it in theaters in 2000, have since owned it, but have yet to re-watch it. Aesthetically, it’s remarkably easy on the eyes, Von Trier’s most pleasing, if you will, foray into the Dogme 95 style he helped craft. But shit, is it brutal; and how each aspect of this film has forever been burned into my brain. The lead performance by Bjork is simply a revelation, and it’s a shame that Master Von Trier scared her away from any future endeavors… She’s a natural. However, that is merely a testament to the power of this revisionist musical, and still stands as the best narrative film the great Lars Von Trier produced this decade (though Dogville is of particular note as well).
43. Head-On (2004)
Dir. Fatih Akin
Head-On, Fatih Akin’s beautifully complex cross-cultural study is anchored by Sibel Kekilli‘s barn-burning performance, one that resonates as one of the best this decade has seen. Former porn stars proved fertile ground for adventurous auteurs this decade (as evidenced also by Soderbergh’s masterful The Girlfriend Experience), but this performance stems from another place entirely, not necessarily letting that fact call attention to itself, but somehow enlightened because of that context. Regardless of that kind of analysis, Head-On is a stunning slice of sociological filmmaking that announces a true talent whose best work is hopefully yet to come.
42. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)
Dir. Steven Spielberg
It’s time for me to finally put an old grudge to rest here… I have long considered the ending to A.I. to be quite possibly the worst ending these eyes have ever seen. It’s tacky, unnecessary, and audience-demeaning, putting a nice, neat bow on top of a wonderfully oblique package.
What needs to be said now is this; this is Spielberg’s best film. Not because it’s a stunning tribute to the late Stanley Kubrick; not because his stamp is all over the film. It’s because no one else but Spielberg could have ever pulled it off; it’s his masterpiece. Kubrick would never have been able to pull off such a graceful emotional touch with the film and its star, the uncannily amazing Haley Joel-Osment. Kubrick’s vision would no doubt have been stunning visually and its social commentary may have even been sharper, but the film is firmly grounded by the strong emotions it elicits, making the allegory that much more intricate and dour.
As it stands, this film is ranked here because of its ending, something I can never reconcile. However, a confession must be made. Any time I watch this film, I see the beautiful fade out at the bottom of the sea, and I swiftly turn the DVD player off, giving myself the ending I feel the film deserves. Each time I do this, I can honestly sit and say that this is one of the visionary and poetic films I’ve ever seen. No more grudges, I simply choose to be nothing but appreciative of this amazing film, and make my own ending.
41. Junebug (2005)
Dir. Phil Morrison
Junebug is one of those films that I feel unfairly got lumped into with the “precious indie-twee” crowd that included such dreck as Little Miss Sunshine and Juno. Though there are things that certainly reflect such misunderstandings, i.e. a humorously dysfunctional family, but where the other films simply thrive on all things cute, this film somehow plays that cuteness as a sort of reflection of a simple Mid-western life clashing with the urban one. Junebug of course announced the arrival of Amy Adams, and while she is always a pleasant figure, constantly enlivening even the most cookie-cutter of films, she has never even approached the kind of simple grace she achieves here. What could have been another precious and slight-minded indie staple turned into a subtle nuance not seen in cinema very often; the small town Mid-western housewife. Any other film would have either posed such a character as the subject of criticism or satire, or simply reflected at how mundane they might very well be. However, Phil Morrison proved to be the logical successor to Alexander Payne, the rare filmmaker that truly celebrates a certain sect of the American populace, and attempts to capture the very mindset of such a character, proving they can be as uniquely fascinating as any other.
40. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)
Dir. Julian Schnabel
Few films this decade were as emotionally devastating, while proving as tender as The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Many would claim it is a bit manipulative in its emotions, but in telling a story such as this, a bit of pompousness is more than called for; it even reflects the life being displayed. For the first 30 minute, you’d be hard-pressed to find films more innovative and visually captivating film in the last 20 years. Schnabel and Director of Photography Janusz Kamisnki take this time to embellish the idea of seeing out of only one idea with a bag of stylistic tricks, but somehow it never comes off labored or artificial. Coupled with a beautiful narration accompanying this visual feast, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is one of the most effective melancholy films I’ve ever seen, and further proves, along with Schnabel’s other triumph Before Night Falls (#51 if you must know), that he is a natural visual storyteller. Plus, he knows how to use the music of Tom Waits better than anyone I’ve seen yet. That’s an art in and of itself.
39. Adaptation. (2002)
Dir. Spike Jonze
A script treatment that was nearly impossible to live up to in imagination, Adaptation certainly had its work cut out for it on film. Somehow though, Spike Jonze and master conspirator Charlie Kaufman made this film into more of a puzzle than I would have ever imagined it being. Simultaneously a heartfelt and deeply personal glimpse into the writing process, as well as a scathing condemnation of everything that entails is quite heavy material for what actually ends up being a remarkably funny and warm film. That’s not to say there isn’t some real intellectualization to the subject here; at times it’s almost maddeningly dense, especially in its uber-meta third act. Through all of this though, Kaufman’s incredibly unique vision truly unspooled into new depths with this film, as did Jonze’s direction; this is currently the high-water mark in his growing maturity as a filmmaker. As for Nicholas Cage, well, this is the kind of performance that he graces us with every once in a blue moon, and the kind that keep us apologists waiting with bated breath. In fact, I’d argue it’s his finest performance to date. Oh, and spoiler alert: Kaufman is far from absent on the rest of this list.
38. Morvern Callar (2002)
Dir. Lynne Ramsay
Morvern Callar is a prime example of a film with a big plot, one that seems perfect for over-emphasizing, yet comes off as a sort of meditation, as if stubbornly calling attention to every little detail that surrounds the events in question. It’s certainly a film about pure atmosphere and there certainly isn’t a film on this list with a hipper soundtrack, that’s for sure. That’s another thing; how is it that Ramsay included a thread such as a mix-tape listened to by the protagonist that documents her entire journey that somehow did not bother me at every turn. Thus is the impact of this film, a breathtaking follow-up to Ramsay’s even-better Ratcatcher; this is a film that eludes any pre-conceptions. Two viewings in, I’m still not sure what to put my finger on, but it has a guttural impact that few can imitate. Furthermore, Samantha Morton’s performance seals that she can be described as possibly the greatest actress of her generation. No living actress says more with less than she.
37. You, The Living (2007)
Dir. Roy Andersson
I have already written in great detail about this film on this site, so I will keep it brief. What has been said about this film is mostly in response to its predecessor, Songs From the Second Floor, specifically that both belong in the same space as one another. While this is true stylistically, You, The Living registers one a slightly more personal, emotive scale, while retaining the prior’s scathing humor throughout. However, even if the consensus is true, I’d be just fine with seeing another 5 of these from Andersson. I don’t know of another filmmaker that is more surprising than he with satire. If you don’t believe me, watch the scene with the dog being dragged while workers in a kitchen look onto the proceedings with casual indifference. The range of nuanced humor during that single scene is astonishing, and yet gloriously low-brow at the same time.
36. Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)
Dir. John Cameron Mitchell
John Cameron Mitchell proved himself a remarkable new voice in queer cinema this decade, as this one goes hand in hand in my opinion with Shortbus, a cinematic experiment that feels fresher by the day. Why Hedwig then? It’s the perfect cult film; a film so incessantly fun that it makes it all the more rewarding when you’re in tears by the end. The new Rocky Horror? Absolutely not, no matter what tired old hack is trying to market it that way. And it’s simple really – this film does not suck. But beyond that triviality, Hedwig and the Angry Inch under the surface is a very personal and provocative study of sexual identity in an age where the surface seems more accepting of such a thing, but in truth turns a blind eye to it just the same. Cameron Mitchell adapts his own musical with just the right blend of staginess and cinematic flourishes, such as the beautiful little animated touches throughout. But how can one talk about Hedwig without approaching the essential element here: it contains the greatest music ever composed for a film musical. I’m sorry, but every single song here kicks fucking ass. Cameron Mitchell just went and crafted the definitive rock opera, Tommy be damned.
35. Wall-E (2008)
Dir. Andrew Stanton
Pixar operates on another level. It’s becoming quite tiresome for people to be surprised by their artistic growth, but it’s been clear from the days of Toy Story 2; Pixar does not make children’s films, so it’s time to approach the output of an entire studio as if viewing, say, a Coen Brothers film. Seeing a Pixar logo is an auteur’s stamp, and while there are subtle differences between the primary directors, the studio works with a touch rivaling only the works of Miyazaki and early Disney films in their cohesiveness in the animation realm. Even though it is well-documented and appreciated at this point, few sequences have been more rewarding than the near-silent first act to Wall-E, a brilliant piece of melancholy and loneliness that would not feel out of place in a film like Silent Light, not to mention a tent-pole Hollywood summer release. While the latter half of the film does not reach such impossible heights, it manages to shift gears effortlessly, much like its spiritual forbearer, 2001: A Space Odyssey. And c’mon, I dare you not to get misty-eyed at the Hello Dolly sequences. No one knows how to place an audience like a flute like Pixar.
34. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Dir. Andrew Dominick
Where the hell did this film come from, and why has it not achieved some mythical status yet? A revisionist Western to rival the best of them, Dominick’s film seems to be as concerned with upholding a great American myth as it is eager to tear it down, and the thread that keeps that line teetering is the unbelievably brilliant performance by Casey Affleck. This performance still feels like a revelation, not only because of the performer, but because the film is left with an uneasiness that never lets up, one that does not seem interested in just telling a tall tale. I have yet to see Dominick’s first film, Chopper, but I believe it’s safe to say that this is the arrival of an important filmmaker. There is so much infused in each frame that it practically demands multiple viewings, and it’s impossible not to soak in the atmosphere. The cinematography, courtesy of the great Roger Deakins is reverent to past Westerns, while infusing the meditative qualities of a Malick film, and coupled with a masterful lead performance (Pitt is quite good too, but let’s face it, it’s Affleck’s film), you are left with an enigma of a film that becomes another link in the James myth.
33. Caché (2005)
Dir. Michael Haneke
That moment. Everyone who’s seen this film or really any other by Haneke knows that moment, the moment that air gets sucked out of your lungs, but refuses to just make you jump and get it over with. Caché contains Haneke’s most assured use of this moment, and it also remains his most dread-filled film to date. On the surface, Caché is quite slow, some might regard it painfully so, and its effects aren’t necessarily as immediate I purport it to be in speaking of “that moment”. After all, Haneke is a filmmaker with a master’s touch, not unlike the filmmaker he’s most often compared to, Alfred Hitchcock. Haneke certainly tends to veer towards more shocking territory, but in Caché he found his most effective outlet yet, a (relatively) simple tale of voyeurism and scrutiny, and how it ripples through relationships all around. The important thing about the film is that it never lets up, and never grants you a release that would make everything come together. Even through the end credits, which mimic the opening in its unwavering normality, the viewer feels more unsure than ever, as if they in fact were the subjects of the voyeurism at display here. Kudos, Mr. Haneke, I still feel your film’s hand on my shoulder.
32. Talk to Her (2002)
Dir. Pedro Almodóvar
And here we are, Mr. Almodóvar’s arguably finest film, a film that so perfectly synthesizes the elements that define his entire oeuvre that it practically screams “greatest achievement”. Talk to Her is distinctly Spanish, a film that ranks among the finest the country has produced, while feeling a bit more universal than some of his films are used to feeling. However, while accessibility is indeed at a very high with this film, nothing is sacrificed. Talk to Her is one of Almodóvar’s most touching films, a film of pure emotion, but yet never misses a beat interjecting humor into the midst, including some dazzling surrealist touches that evoke a great deal of Spanish cinema. Talk to Her stands as another brilliant film in a nearly impenetrable canon, but even so, it further helps solidify Almodóvar as one of the premier formalist filmmakers working today. He’s so good it’s becoming boring to even debate him anymore.
31. The Man Without a Past (2002)
Dir. Aki Kaurismaki
There were few films this decade that were as joyfully constructed as The Man Without a Past, essentially America’s first exposure to a great Finnish director. The humor is bone dry, yet the film is filled with such warmth, from the vibrant use of colors to the characters themselves, that it hardly fills the role of a satire, where such dryness is usually reserved. The comparison of Kaurismaki to Jim Jarmusch is certainly apt, from the perfectly framed shots to the slighty stilted staging of actors. However, while Jarmusch radiates cool with every frame, Kaurismaki’s world is gloriously unhip. Its protagonist falls in love with a Salvation Army worker after a bout with amnesia, and dwells within a shanty town struggling to remember what his life might have been. However, the love Kaurismaki has for his characters is infectious, and the level of detail in the humor is subtly hilarious. I must admit I’m not as well versed in the director’s works as I’d like to be, but it’s nice to see his name becoming a bit more of a presence as of late. On a side note, I hope his other films have this damn good a soundtrack too.
30. The Squid and the Whale (2005)
Dir. Noah Baumbach
On the surface, Baumbach’s film seems deeply indebted to the films of his friend and frequent collaborator Wes Anderson, and my initial reaction to this film was indeed transfixed on that. However, while the actors’ deliveries and general style seem similar in many ways, The Squid and the Whale is far more brutally honest and scathing than an Anderson film. It comes from a place that needs such unconventional staging and slight artifice to simply not let the weight sink it down. Jeff Daniels in particular gives the performance of his career, as the erudite patriarch of a dissolving family, one that seems to be solely driven by his critical side. And Laura Linney infuses the perfect blend of motherly concern and selfish honesty that could only come from a woman finally feeling her day in the critical spotlight after years of hiding behind another. Baumbach’s film is so densely layered it’s almost impossible to believe it rings in under 90 minutes, but that’s the beauty of it all. He lays the pieces down in a series of details, and lets the audience infer the many ways to connect them. It’s a beautiful, haunting piece of personal filmmaking, one that unmistakably feels now like a Noah Baumbach film. Maybe it’s just the film I desperately want Wes Anderson to make.
29. The Return (2003)
Dir. Andrei Zvyagintsev
The Return is practically a call-to-arms for the Russian filmmaker Andrei Zvyagintsev, one that announces itself loudly, much like Tarkovsky’s debut Ivan’s Childhood did for another era of Russian filmmaking. However, for all its out-of-the-gate maturity and spectacularly cinematic mise-en-scene, The Return is a deeply heartfelt and quiet film about the dynamics of family and budding maturity. Tarkovsky’s presence is certainly felt throughout this film, but Zvyagintsev’s is quite a bit more straight-forward in execution, owing not so much to memory and the notion of self, instead feeling more like a realistic application of Tarkovsky’s dreamlike observations. Zvyagintsev’s characters are of the ilk that say much more in movement and expression than in speaking itself, and that silence plays as much a part in family as the loud moments do. The Return contains a coda that’s shocking, but certainly fitting. The most confident debut films end with a bang – how else do you get the world to notice you?
28. No Country For Old Men (2007)
Dirs. Joel and Ethan Coen
The best film the Coens released this decade, and one of the rare times the Academy arguably got it right. The rest has really been exhausted about this film. It just really is that great. That’s the Coens for ya.
27. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Dir. Guillermo Del Toro
Indeed, much has also been spoken about this film, so I shall make this brief as well. Guillermo Del Toro certainly has showed a vast amount of promise in his career, as I’ve honestly enjoyed every single one of his far-too-entertaining genre films (I mean, really, did Blade 2 really deserve to be that much fun?), but after his very impressive 2001 feature The Devil’s Backbone, it was clear Del Toro was operating on a similar level to a Peter Jackson, or even to some extent a Steven Soderbergh. A couple for them, one for me. So while the fact he had a film like Pan’s Labyrinth in him was far from a surprise, but watching it for the first time nevertheless had a feeling of wondrous shock, much as intended in introducing as imaginative and immersive a world as he did. Beautiful and wholly unique in execution, and suitably gruesome and grim, without ever eschewing heart, Pan’s Labyrinth is certainly one of the great achievements in auteur cinema in the 2000s.
26. The Five Obstructions (2003)
Dirs. Jorgen Leth and Lars Von Trier
Thus, when it comes down to it, here we have the great Lars Von Trier’s best film this decade; and what an assuming pleasure it remains. The Five Obstructions focuses on a diabolical game created by the most mischievous of modern filmmakers, Mr. Von Trier himself, one that essentially challenges a mentor and idol of his to desecrate what is to Von Trier a very sacred film. It is an intellectual challenge for the ages, one where Von Trier sets terms, or obstructions, on these remakes of Leth’s film The Perfect Human. In this documentary, we see two very fertile minds explore what it means to create, for better or worse, and exists as a very charged argument as to whether art should exist exactly how it is originally displayed; or does it continue to evolve much like a human being does? Leth rises to the challenge with great gusto, and sometimes he makes some very painful discoveries, as seen specifically in a piece done in Bombay, but it’s absolutely captivating to truly watch a great filmmaker work from the ground up and see where any and all outside influences come from. Much to Von Trier’s dismay, Leth rises so high to the occasion that he creates one brilliant, thoughtful piece of short cinema after another, so much that Von Trier argues he’s missing the point of the therapy session it was intended to be. Choosing which of Leth’s films resonates most is difficult, but I’m particularly fond of the striking animated sequence he was challenged to create.
25. The Headless Woman (2008)
Dir. Lucrecia Martel
If you have read this site, I will avoid any further deconstruction of the film, as it has been well-covered here. That being said, after time has passed and this film has settled in, it remains just as haunting as before, reflecting very much like Haneke’s Caché, in that is has its way of really planting itself inside your brain and not letting go. What it all means is quite subjective of course, but I am quite sure that it is bound to have some sort of emotional trigger in the viewer, albeit a slightly uncomfortable one most likely. The Headless Woman is a brilliant exercise in surrealism, and certainly deserves to be placed in great importance to the developing New Argentine Cinema movement. Might I also add this film has finally made its way to DVD, so please, view in a darkened room as soon as possible.
24. George Washington (2000)
Dir. David Gordon Green
In the same vein as The Return, David Gorden Green’s debut George Washington announced him as the heir apparent to Terrence Malick, a filmmaker who truly understands the small-town identity, and one that thrives on noticing all the little details others neglect. Malick himself even noticed, producing Green’s own Undertow a few years after, but George Washington is to date Green’s masterpiece. Few films show such patience with adolescent characters, letting the audience discover their identities in just the manner and pace children discover themselves. Green uses a predominately African-American cast brilliantly, shining a light on a culture that is, to say the least, often unexplored in film. It’s this kind of attention and focus to the people oft-ignored that proves time and again Green’s greatest asset as a filmmaker, something hopefully regained in the future, not lost forever to the studio stoner comedy. In many ways, George Washington is Green’s Killer of Sheep; a debut film that is almost too perfect right out of the gate for a career to live up to. Green is by all means still an interesting filmmaker, but George Washington will always be his defining moment.
23. Birth (2005)
Dir. Jonathan Glazer
Ah, the beautiful black sheep of the bunch, one I’ve yet to see a single shred of goodwill towards to this very day. Yes, Birth is almost uncomfortably forward in its subject matter, and yes, it’s absolutely smug to boot. Like the aforementioned A.I., Birth also seems haunted by the ghost of Stanley Kubrick; only without an official stamp of approval, it seems the world isn’t ready for a successor. (Come to think of it, I don’t think they were ready for A.I. either… Ah well, thus is Kubrick’s legacy.) Glazer’s film is not what you’d call subtle, but it is wonderfully mysterious, evocative down to the very last frame, and never taking the turn you think it might. What begins as a commentary on death and grieving, and that time never completely heals all wounds, ends as an exploration of class struggle, sexual maturity, and above all, existentialism. Make no mistakes, Birth is not the Nicole Kidman-does-Lolita exercise many made you believe it was. Pretentious is always the buzzword for dense, formalist works such as these, but perhaps Glazer’s masterpiece never stood a chance; everyone always feels a need to simplify the things they aren’t ready to explore themselves.
22. Mysterious Skin (2004)
Dir. Gregg Araki
It turns out after a very false start that I am indeed of fan of Gregg Araki’s films, from his wonderfully “irresponsible” debut The Living End to the skewed-sitcom dynamics of Splendor, but let’s still never forget the infamous The Doom Generation, a disastrous “cult” film I still can’t get behind. This all being said, I still cannot fucking believe he made as eloquent and beautiful a film as Mysterious Skin. To this day, it still feels like the second coming of a filmmaker of vastly hidden brilliance. Mysterious Skin is largely known these days for (re)introducing a young actor by the name of Joseph Gordon-Levitt to the indie film scene, and what a barn-burner his performance is indeed. Araki announced himself to the film world through a couple of films warmly embraced in the movement of New Queer Cinema, and if Mysterious Skin had been made hand in hand with a film like My Own Private Idaho, it would’ve been received as a landmark in American independent cinema. In 2004 through today however, it exists as a well-received blip on the radar, but few films this decade have the guttural emotional impact that this film has. Telling the story of two young boys molested by their coach, each receiving this event in vastly different psychological ways, Araki maintains his sense of flair with controversial material, but more importantly, shows an incredible depth of feeling for these characters and their circumstances. Much can still be said about the complexities of this film and its contribution to Queer Cinema, but for now, I will end with saying that this is not just one of the best films of the decade, but also one of its most important. Here’s to hoping Mr. Araki shows his sensitive side once again.
21. Syndromes and a Century (2006)
Dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Having just viewed this film for the first time, and seeing it defiantly creep up little by little as I compile this, I can only assume this film will occupy an elevated stature. For the time being, however, rank could not possibly matter. This film is as graceful as cinema gets, each very moment and detail seemingly plucked directly from a memory or dream, with no intermediary actually staging it to capture on film. There is a sequence in Hirokazu Kore Eda’s brilliant After-Life where a team of filmmakers painstakingly recreate a memory chosen by the newly deceased as a way to create an eternal impression of one’s existence in a carefully chosen way it will be seen forever. Syndromes and a Century essentially feels like a feature-length film of this concept, a film so delightfully nonsensical that it feels more and more like a dream as it progresses. Allegedly, Weerasethakul crafted the film as an ode to his parents’ courtship, but by no means does this film adhere to such a concept. This was something I learned well after watching the film, and taking something entirely different from it, but that’s exactly what’s so captivating about this film; its ability to transform with the viewer, not vice versa. This is a film so deliberately and meticulously crafted that it nearly feels like an accident; exactly like a dream.
20. Far From Heaven (2002)
Dir. Todd Haynes
A film so gorgeous I once had a film professor jubilantly, uncharacteristically, exclaim “doesn’t it just make you want to lick the screen?” Thus is Haynes’ brilliant reimagining of the 1950s melodramas of Douglas Sirk, so accurate to the very last detail, from costumes to the exact right shade of lipstick at any given moment. Lest you think it’s simply an exercise in period style, however, Far From Heaven still miraculously feels so contemporary, as if these social problems never really went away, they just became masked in different ways. Tackling in particular race relations and homophobia with poignant honesty, Haynes and radiant star Julianne Moore take the melodrama much as Fassbinder did to shine a light on issues that always lie beneath a false veneer. Moore has never been better in a career nearly full of highlights, as is Dennis Quaid in a demanding deconstruction of masculinity from a society that requires it to prove one’s worth. The film’s visual style is what takes one’s breath away the first viewing of this film, and rightfully so, but multiple viewings have merely amplified the subtleties of this film, one that feels certainly the warmest of Haynes’ films.
19. Little Children (2006)
Dir. Todd Field
Little Children is the film American Beauty should have been. Oh, why waste time even creating that argument? Both exist in the realm of sharp suburban satire, but Little Children exposes so much more lurking beneath: societies’ uncomplicated stance on pedophilia, fear of losing masculinity as a stay-at-home dad, projection of one’s personal demons onto an exposed “demon”, and most of all, the rekindling of lust and passion in a life seemingly devoid any such things. Make no mistake, Little Children is a jam-packed film, one that flirts dangerously close to a Social Problem film, but the beauty lies in the details, the things left unsaid. Field stoically adapts Tom Perrota’s novel (who also co-wrote), one that dares to even trump the novel when it comes down to it, by actually amping up the ambiguity, asking far more questions than in answers. But lest this paints a dour picture of a film, it must be said that Little Children is unquestionably one of the funniest films I’ve seen this decade as well. By including an omniscient narrator (ingeniously realized by Frontline narrator Will Lyman), the characters with infinite complexity are given the Petri dish/Vonnegut treatment, distanced to magnify the intricacies of suburban life. A cold social experiment? Perhaps, but Field digs deep with such eloquence that it never crosses a line into cruelty. Field seems very comfortable in his inspiration of his late mentor Stanley Kubrick (starting to see a trend amongst some of the films here?), and like the late master, Field always seems to love his characters, always searching for their secret motivations. Little Children still remains vastly underappreciated, but I can’t say that I saw a more pointed and relevant satire this decade.
18. Ratatouille (2007)
Dir. Brad Bird
Clearly, no one makes more consistently delightful, endlessly re-watchable films in current times than Pixar, and they are beginning to develop such a distinct touch that directors are now becoming noticeable, each providing a unique voice to each film. Thus, my favorite is unequivocally Brad Bird. Beginning his feature animated career with the estimable The Iron Giant, Bird helmed the masterful The Incredibles for Pixar, but of course, his finest achievement to date is the surprisingly subtle and simple Ratatouille. It is no surprise that Ratatouille seems to be one of Pixar’s least commercially successful ventures (though, come on, it still made a ton), but that’s because it really has no marketable buzz-worthy thing. It actually just turns out to be a great piece of storytelling, devoid of any huge social statement or moral. So why the hell does it bring me to tears nearly every time? Its message is simple; sometimes you become so critical of things you forget what joy brought you into this position in the first place. Sure, I’m a bit of a critic, but I think this says much more than a message to that narrow “profession”. Ratatouille genuinely captures the joy of creation, the feeling that can sometimes infuriate to impossible levels, but the feeling that feels like real purpose, not just some hobby. Ratatouille is what every family film should strive to be, but really, it just doesn’t come off as that even once. It’s just classic storytelling with a very distinct voice. About a rat voiced by Patton Oswalt. Even better.
17. Yi Yi (2000)
Dir. Edward Yang
That Yi Yi has remained such a surprisingly vital presence in world cinema for almost ten years now is testament to its quiet purpose and beautiful scope, and has proven to be just one of those lasting films that sucks just about anyone in at first glance. Edward Yang’s final and greatest cinematic achievement, Yi Yi is in the tradition of Ozu, a family drama seen through both the great and minute details, quite encompassing yet still ambiguous. Yang leaves just enough open for interpretation in his portrait of three generations of a Taiwanese family, enough to capture just a snapshot of any given moment in their complicated lives. Yi Yi is the great understated family drama of the decade from a director whose importance is still growing to this day.
16. High Fidelity (2000)
Dir. Stephen Frears
Sure, there are definitely some aforementioned films that I would indeed call “better” than High Fidelity, but none, and I mean none have been as immensely re-watchable as this film, and for better or worse, it’s a masterpiece in its own right. Adapting Nick Hornby’s wonderful novel, Stephen Frears, along with writer/star John Cusack, D.V. DeVincentis, Steve Pink and Scott Rosenberg, succumbed to that dreaded desire to relocate the setting from London to Chicago, an important factor of the book’s success to say the least. Yet, Frears and team succeed beautifully in making Chicago into a living, breathing character, not just a place-setting for a record-store owner. This film is just overflowing with details, and those just nerdy enough to satisfy the character’s themselves.
I indeed have a particular affinity with the subject material, and have often identified myself greatly with the protagonist, as well as supporting characters; I must say, this film is remarkably researched when it doesn’t even have to be. But really that adds up to an environment one can really trust and believe, which in turn makes its focus on the intricacies of romantic encounters and relationships that much more sincere. Plus, you’ve got a cast overflowing with their personal best performances, from the part John Cusack was born to play, to an amazingly still-hilarious performance by Jack Black. That this film has had a lasting impact on me is an incredible understatement; hell, I sincerely doubt I’d be recounting this exhaustive list for you without it (so yeah, blame them, not me). All these years later though, what remains is to some a period piece, a captured moment of a very specific culture seemingly on the fringe of extinction (still is, in fact), but done in a way that never panders to an idealistic view. These are characters that thrive on their appreciation (and harsh criticism) of others’ work, and somehow taps into the very nature of what it is to be a fan, and how that will fall into every facet of one’s life. Favorite albums, films, books; these things matter as the protagonist would argue, not for their superficial merit, but because they speak volumes for one’s sense of identity.
15. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Dir. Michel Gondry
Certainly one of the decade’s great successes; a brilliant film that has a merciless beat of imagination throughout each of its frames, but one that taps into an impossibly large cultural pulse without ever diminishing its genuine heart, nor its deeply philosophical intellect. Eternal Sunshine is where Charlie Kaufman further advanced his often painful philosophies, but felt enriched somehow even more by adding a director so in tune with childlike abandon that his thoughts are given an impossible beauty that was always hiding between the lines. True, Gondry and Kaufman had collaborated once on the fun, if slight, Human Nature, but Eternal Sunshine has the feeling of a first collaboration, a go-for-broke spirit that seems to embrace all the little ideas that others would most likely abandon in maturation. Gondry, as always, makes his visions float on like a gorgeous candy-colored dream, but in Kaufman’s screenplay, his DIY, handmade surrealism is given its greatest asset, turning from pure wonder to exploratory psychoanalysis. The subconscious, Kaufman’s favorite subject, is never ignored in this film; it’s in fact made into its own character, as if the Being John Malkovich climactic chase were drawn into a feature-film, only made even more painful to face. A film like Eternal Sunshine under any other guidance, would either turn too soupy, or would owe more than its share to someone like Bergman, at the risk of becoming too confrontational. Somehow, Kaufman’s screenplay and Gondry’s direction never stray too far, as everything is given a great deal of care, managing to paint exactly the picture of what human relationships can be. I don’t know a soul who cannot relate.
14. Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
Paul Thomas Anderson is so infuriatingly great, that he more than resembles the other titans of cinema, the Brothers Coen. As I would have said at the beginning of the decade of those two, Mr. Anderson has a gallingly perfect track record. Then the Coens made Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers… Finally! Proof they are human! Punch-Drunk Love, by all accounts, seemed at one distant point as if it were destined to be the first hiccup of P.T.’s career. Instead, it remains my favorite film of his, one that’s quietly his most humane and creative achievement yet. There Will Be Blood, the consensus favorite of Anderson’s decade, is indeed a magnificent film, one that did not make this list, but one deserving of great mention nonetheless. But Punch-Drunk Love is a film so deliriously in love with cinema that it announced any entirely new perspective for a prodigy director.
The casting of Adam Sandler, in a positively revelatory performance, is far from a stunt. In fact, Anderson takes the persona that is Adam Sandler and places him in a situation not terribly far from those of his man-child films, but yet grounds them in a way that become flawed and slightly creepy instead of mere slapstick. It’s also a film of constant movement, a pace that feels deliberate in visualization, but has a mile-a-minute pulse throughout, eliciting the exact feeling of neuroses it is exploring. That, however, is also very much what contributes its being somehow one of the most romantic films I’ve seen. Not because it’s sweet, which it indeed is, but because it grips that unsure feeling of what it is to be infatuated with someone, warts and all, and seizing that very awkwardness that seems like it should just weigh one down. Punch-Drunk Love feels alive in a very complicated way, and completes a very important bridge for Anderson’s career, one that can still surprise no matter what the expectations may be.
13. The Best of Youth (2003)
Dir. Marco Tullio Giordana
If Yi Yi is the great understated family drama of the decade, then The Best of Youth is the great epic, overstuffed, Godfather-esque family drama of the decade. The Best of Youth is very much in the tone of a mini-series, as opposed to stand-alone film, but its roots are far from episodic television, at least in what that used to entail. Giordana’s six-hour epic follows a family in much a way as many, through many generations and decades, spanning an entire lifetime; in this regard, it feels nowhere near as daunting as its runtime may lead you to believe, as it breezes through its duration. However, what The Best of Youth offers is a haunting quality that other films of its ilk tend to sacrifice for scrupulous detail. Sure, it gives a grand cultural backdrop, touching on many very important events that the characters somehow become entangled in, but never feels forced, as if the characters were somehow lucky enough to find themselves a part of every major cultural movement in their lifetimes. (This is not Forrest Gump is what I mean.) This film, again like Yi Yi, is entranced as much by the little, inconsequential details, as well as the major ones, showing that the moments you can’t quite put your finger on can sometimes shape an identity perhaps even more than major life developments. The Best of Youth features some heart-rending sequences of enormous beauty (one in particular involving a jukebox comes to mind), and it is those that give the film its haunting quality. There are so many what-ifs that hindsight can bring in life, and it’s up to the person whether to let those become regrets or not. The Best of Youth is captivating for so many reasons, but I suppose this is what sticks with me most, the idea of how regret threads through a family as easily as love can.
12. Before Sunset (2004)
Dir. Richard Linklater
The prospect of Richard Linklater providing an update on his characters from my then-favorite film of his, Before Sunrise, seemed like a complicated endeavor to say the least. On one hand, as a viewer, sure, I’d love to see them in different intervals in life, sort of a fictional version of Apted’s Up series. On the other, the wonderful ambiguity that left hanging over the original film as they parted ways was such a beautiful, romantic moment that it left far too much to ruin by revisiting. Leave it to Linklater to give us his most mature and honest film of his career, a heartbreaking one by most measures, but one that trumps even that final scene in Sunrise in pure romantic abandon. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy exude immense wisdom in reprising their roles, the kind of wisdom that can only come from understanding heartbreak and regret on their own terms. The beauty of Before Sunset’s screenplay, and the performances of the actors, lies in what can always be heard in the silences, the little revelations waiting to burst out, but cannot out of eternal appreciation for a moment that was seemingly destined never to come. Before Sunset can hardly be enjoyed with as much innocent romanticism as its predecessor, but yet comes out feeling a much greater appreciation for the idea of true love, once it’s stripped of its youthful ignorance. Only once these characters learned love and sacrifice in their own way could they possibly know the importance of that meeting in each respective life.
11. Mulholland Dr. (2001)
Dir. David Lynch
Is there even a debate as to the importance of this film, quite possibly the most passionately discussed and questioned film of the decade? Mulholland Dr., in all its confounding glory, is certainly the most successful of his “nightmare” films, and yes, it was most certainly born of the remains of an aborted TV pilot. What really makes Mulholland Dr. truly special however derives not from the “what does it all mean?” elements, but from the way Lynch can meld those moments into a surprisingly tender and illuminating emotional core that gels the whole psychosexual, nightmarish realm together. Mulholland Dr. is so many things rolled into one; at its heart, it remains very much a brilliant vignette film, and that’s how it’s likely to remain on first viewing. It’s a film that can indeed be taken simply on its surface through that initial exposure, from the haunting, yet comic, first visit to see “The Cowboy”, to the unusually captivating industry satire of the audition scene. Through and through, Lynch’s greatest achievement with this film lies in its star, the luminous Naomi Watts, who gives a performance like none other in the history of cinema, one that harkens back to an era of movie stardom that seldom exists anymore, mixed seamlessly with as frank and revealing a psychological examination as you’re likely to find. I imagine this will be a film debated for generations to come, much like Lynch’s own Eraserhead and Blue Velvet have become, and Lynch somehow never fails to surprise even his most ardent followers. Mulholland Dr. is a film that means far too many things for far too many people to sum up in a lame paragraph such as this, but I just urge any viewer to look beyond the mind-fuck elements just a little bit, and see the beating heart underneath. After my 6th or so viewing, I began to realize just how gorgeous this film truly is, and yet, with this sharpened eye on the emotional impact this film is capable of, I think the puzzle just got even more intricate.
10. Songs From the Second Floor (2000)
Dir. Roy Andersson
Roy Andersson waited 25 years, a Terrence Malick-level absence, to follow up his last feature, Giliap. In this interim, Andersson spent his years making commercials for Swedish television, even receiving glowing praise from the country’s greatest artist, Ingmar Bergman, who declared Andersson to be the greatest living commercial director. Through these commercial spots, he slowly honed his now-signature style bit by bit, as if gathering pieces for a greater puzzle. All this I know now… But as of a few months ago, I viewed this film feeling that unmistakable sensation of being introduced to something new, that I was in the presence of a true visionary.
That I consider Songs From the Second Floor one of the funniest films I’ve ever seen seems to categorize the film as something I’m not sure it’s intended to be. It is indeed that humorous, but it’s not the kind will elicit gut-busting hilarity at every given moment (though there are those too). It’s the kind that seeps in deep, perhaps not even ever producing a visible outward smirk, but filled with such wit and ideas that you lose yourself in the imagery and imagination, and slowly see the world around you under that satirical guise. Nonetheless, it’s much a comedy in the tradition of Tati or Bunuel, the very acute sociological satire that feels more prescient by the day (especially this film, which seems to focus on a major economic collapse). These elements are not there simply to point and laugh at; instead, the miserable characters that dwell within this monochromatic wasteland are handled with such care and sympathy, that it’s hard not to really feel for their desperate plight. Watching a man hook himself around an employer’s legs just to beg to keep his job is comically desperate at first, but as the shot lingers, and the employer begins to walk away with the man still attached, the comedy alters in a way I just can’t describe. Each scene is filled with such precise detail and movement within that it never feels that the camera remains rigidly still all along. Songs From the Second Floor is indeed filled to the brim with moment after moment I wish to recount for you, and I have barely touched on the profoundly imaginative technical side; but in the end, all I can add is that Songs From the Second Floor is Andersson’s masterwork, and indeed, one of the funniest films I have ever seen. Its importance has yet to peak, I would venture to guess.
9. Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)
Dir. Bela Tarr
You know that feeling I just described? That feeling of seeing something completely unique through eyes that had thought they’d had a pretty decent grasp of what to expect out of film? Yep, this one too. Werckmeister Harmonies may not have introduced its director, Bela Tarr, to the rest of the world, as he’d been making one beloved art house film after another, notably the 450 minute beheamoth Sátántangó, but it nevertheless seems to embody everything the great Hungarian master is about, in a user-friendly size.
I recognize my fault already, however. I’m trying to detail this film in some narrow critic-quote way, but frankly, there’s so much that can simply not be said about this film. It’s a stunning thing to behold, full of one impossibly evocative image after another, filled with such overwhelming emotions, though one cannot put exactly into words why that is. Each shot is filmed in hazy stark black-and-white, with each lasting roughly 10 minutes apiece, from lighter-than-air tracking shots (those that Gus Van Sant have painstakingly spent the decade reproducing) to painfully still ones. It’s a film that demands the world out of a viewer, but if one can let each image slowly seep into one’s subconscious, the result is one of the most unique and haunting pieces of art ever witnessed by these eyes. There is a feeling of otherworldly mystery behind each of its stunning images, even moments of resplendent beauty have a feeling of uncertainty behind them, such as the first glance of a whale anxiously awaited by a town with very little to anticipate (and yes, that description is probably less obscure than what’s actually on screen). There are others that are more outwardly brutal as well, like the invasion and desecration of an asylum that climaxes with an image so sad I can hardly recount here.
Really what I’m saying here is that a film this challenging and obscure is certainly not for everyone, and hell, I can hardly blame those that may not care for its intricacies. It’s also a film though that has made an indelible impression on me, and that’s purely what I ask of cinema anyhow.
8. A History of Violence (2005)
Dir. David Cronenberg
David Cronenberg is one of cinema’s finest treasures, and A History of Violence could very well stand in the end his greatest achievement, a film that acts as a culmination of a whole career’s worth of ideas into a single statement, but giving those ideas a humanizing touch that had rarely been so felt. Viggo Mortenson delivers a performance of such unique intensity that it acts as sort of a male doppelganger to Naomi Watts’ performance in Mulholland Dr; a performance so demanding that it comes as much a shock to the audience as it does the supporting characters when discussing the potential identity and personal history behind this Tom Stall, All-American man.
Cronenberg has spent a career studying the psychology of behavioral and sexual motivations on screen with his characters, and it’s typically been under the umbrella of the horror genre, or “Body Horror” as critics have dubbed it. A History of Violence still at heart feels deeply indebted to Cronenberg’s favorite genre, as it features a spate of gloriously over-the-top violence and gore, but has never felt more surprising, due to the very grounded material it’s dealing with. The plot is comic book material (literally, being based on a graphic novel), and much of the suspense comes from traditional comic storytelling, with seemingly clearly-defined heroes and villains. Ed Harris appears as is stepping into Peter Lorre’s shoes, and William Hurt gives the most entertainingly grandiose and supremely over-the-top performance of the decade, but that these elements are placed atop such a profound family melodrama is what makes A History of Violence so special indeed.
There are so many layers to discuss in this film, especially when discussing psychoanalysis, that it seems entirely possible to write more than a few essays detailing them (indeed, I wrote a couple myself in film school… care for a transcript?). That Cronenberg could spend equal time with truly intellectual territory as he does pulpy entertainment is testament to his skill as director. A History of Violence proved a rare modest hit for the director, and while it’s rare for such a film to strike on a popular level, Cronenberg has never shied away from the action side of cinema. After all, it’s got something for everyone; a sweet family drama, cute love story, bone-crunching violence, mystery of mistaken identity, dirty marital sex, much dirtier stairwell sex, and more bone-crunching violence. Who could ask more?
7. Spirited Away (2001)
Dir. Hayao Miyazaki
Spirited Away is, in my opinion, the estimable Miyazaki’s finest achievement, and one that remains so heartening to see make such an impact to this day, spanning generations. Working consistently on a level that practically makes him a Pixar unto himself, Hayao Miyazaki has shifted through so many myths and genres in his career that in many ways, Spirited Away seems less surprising than other films of his on its surface, existing as a natural culmination of many of his favorite themes. What gels all this together though is a beauty like none other in modern animation, and a natural gift for telling a story through a child’s eyes that feels like the child inside Miyazaki never left himself.
Spirited Away has so many breathtaking moments that everyone seems to have a favorite (mine remaining the poetic train ride in the spirit world), and that is testament to the amount of colorful imagination at display here. Rarely does a fantasy world feel so unique and childlike without succumbing to cheap symbolism at any point, and even rarer still is the film that treats childhood with the reverence toward discovery as it should. It’s a film that feels joyous without abandon at the times when childhood can be, but also as frightening and confusing as it can seem as well.
Miyazaki crafted a fairy tale for the ages, feeling as universal as any of the greats, while interjecting enough of a touch that feels distinctly of this age. If anyone was still making the infantile argument that Anime isn’t to be taken seriously, they certainly weren’t after Spirited Away.
6. I’m Not There (2007)
Dir. Todd Haynes
Many of Haynes’ films have always felt in some ways like an essay on semiotics, always the smartest cat in the room, positively charged for intellectual discourse afterwards. I’m Not There on the surface, and certainly in its reception, feels like the headiest of all Haynes’ arguments, a deconstruction of a Great American Icon, while never actually naming the man in question. Of course, the man is Bob Dylan, and oh, yes, he employs six actors filling those shoes at different intervals of his life and career. I’m Not There is an abstract film, and one that definitely rewards those who know the circumstances surrounding the man in question’s life and career, whether it be personal details that contributed to his myth, or cultural movements that propelled him into being. Bob Dylan remains very much a myth, a man that has shaped his image from the very beginning in so many different forms that it seems nearly impossible to pin the real one down.
This is what one can gather from the first viewing of the film, as well as marvel at the bravura performances, in particular by the late Heath Ledger, and of course, the unofficial actress-of-her-generation, Cate Blanchett. I’m Not There is a visual essay that feels remarkably well-researched from a historical and filmic standpoint, and it does stand tall as the smartest film in the theater.
On second viewing, however, I was stunned, stunned by the emotional response that it incurred in me, realizing that this film had so much more to say than mere semiotics about the nature of celebrity and what it is to be an artist. Real adoration and understanding run through every moment of this film, and segments previously felt less cohesive than others’ the first time around are given a fresh new pulse the second, as the Ledger and especially the Richard Gere/”Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” episodes do. Haynes decodes the Dylan myth as an intrinsically sad one, but rarely delegates those emotions in an outward way, much as the man himself has all along. There has never been a film that so studiously deconstructs an American myth while also caringly upholding it, existing as another piece of the puzzle for a constantly evolving and, like it or not, important artist.
5. Russian Ark (2002)
Dir. Aleksandr Sokurov
Russian Ark is known for precisely one thing, its grand parlor trick; the entire 99-minute film is one take. Whereas others have tried this same gesture (Time Code comes to mind), Russian Ark does not implement a homemade quality to it, or one celebrating minimalism. It’s in fact one of the grandest, most ornate and pompous films I’ve ever laid eyes upon, and it dares even to attempt to encapsulate an entire history of Russian civilization through a journey through St. Petersberg’s hallowed Hermitage Museum. But it takes a rare artist indeed to take such a parlor trick and make it an absolutely vital mechanism in which to detail such a grandiose, obscure thing.
Sure, Russian Ark is not going to replace any Russian History textbooks, nor does it aim to; instead, it attempts to encapsulate the feeling of Russia, the immense history that creates such a strong national identity, through a tour of its art. Now, this film is anything but a simple categorization as I fear I have just given… It’s an exercise in cinematic hypnosis, drifting in and out of rooms and eras with little regard to chronology or proper context. We see this film through the eyes of an omniscient “interviewer”, who strolls along the massive museum with help of a “guide”, who exists free from any particular era. He is dressed in black, and speaks with the locals of the museum, each room holding another abstract piece of Russian lore. The rooms can lead anywhere from a solitary woman having an intimately profound connection with a particular piece of art, to a quietly surreal confrontation with another patron. Russian Ark is indeed a Rorschach test, and one that even on that level feels like quite a lot of work to analyze. It more than pays off in the magnificent scope of the film; truly, I don’t believe there have been this many intricately choreographed extras since the days of DeMille, or of course, Eisenstein, and the set dressings and costuming given to this existing environment are ornate, to say the very least.
The gift this film truly brings is that of real promise in cinema; both on the technical side as well as the sociological. Somehow, after viewing this film (the more the better of course, given the seemingly infinite level of detail), I feel as if I understand a culture quite foreign to myself better than before, just as it attempts to understand itself; through the power of art.
4. Synecdoche, New York (2008)
Dir. Charlie Kaufman
The 2000s were truly Charlie Kaufman’s decade, I hesitate to think of a more influential figure in cinema this decade (and a writer no less!), but closing it out with his directorial debut feels almost as if a certain chapter has finished for him. That’s because Synecdoche, New York comes across as the most wildly ambitious and soul-cleansing artistic exercise I could possibly imagine from such an inventive source, but there’s one difference this time; there’s no one else to interpret his ideas. This is, for better or worse, pure, unadulterated Charlie Kaufman, let loose into the wild.
Synecdoche, New York is an extraordinarily painful film, not one without its humorous charms mind you; after all, this is a Kaufman film we’re speaking of. The humor this time around, however, is not concept-driven as it has been in the past, but comes firmly steeped in dark pathos, not terribly far from the kind of “comedy” you’d find in a film like The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. The film’s humor comes from the absurdity of protagonist Caden Cotard’s futile ambition to encapsulate every minute detail of a life that he can no longer properly lead himself, as well as his crippling hypochondria. Cotard is played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, giving the performance of his career, with such quiet delirium that one has a hard time judging whether they sympathize with or loathe this protagonist. Thus is the complexity he brings to the role, as do Dienne Weist, Samantha Morton and Kaufman regular Catherine Keener.
Synecdoche is soul-crushingly personal, and acts as the airing of every insecurity and grievance Kaufman has somehow not yet found a way to place in his screenplays. Synecdoche can be almost overbearingly meta at times, as the play in question keeps unraveling into further and further depths, but this is an absolute necessity to the film’s intent, as it reveals the nature of creation itself, albeit personifying the achingly frustrating aspects of it. There are also surrealist touches throughout the film, but as opposed to the ones found in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, these do not come with a lovingly symbolic attachment; they are just as obscure as the thing Cotard is aiming to create. They seem to just be, often acting as the ever-present obstacle always getting in the way. Cotard’s mission to create life through art spins so far out of control that there is no boundary anymore as to what the distinction between the two is anymore; which is of course the predominant feeling this film gives you. By the stunningly bleak but quite bittersweet end, we feel as if we know the film’s creator more intimately than ever before, but yet, which parts was he choosing to omit for us? As with Cotard’s creation, trying to encompass everything that is life into art is impossible, and is furthermore impossible once the idea starts to shift, then shift some more, until the skeleton of what was originally intended is lost forever. I’m really just typing at this point, this film’s intricacies are quite honestly something that can be discussed for eternity in my eyes. Kaufman, however, is a natural at eliciting this kind of response out of people, and with a particular affinity towards Beckett and Joyce this go round, he created, once again for better or worse, his Ulysses. It’s hard to imagine a purer distillation of the human psyche.
3. In the Mood For Love (2000)
Dir. Wong Kar-Wai
In the Mood For Love is cinema that absolutely adores its medium, and it wants to show you what it can do. Wong Kar-Wai’s greatest film is a romance of the grandest kind, between two lovers who tip-toe around the prospect of a forbidden affair, ya know, the kind of film that’s been made since the dawn of cinema. Few though have been the very definition of evocative quite like In the Mood For Love, a film that practically dares you not to stare entranced at each meticulously painted frame. That each frame appears as though you could plant it on a canvas and display proudly in any museum is probably still an understatement to the brilliance of craft on show here.
For 98 minutes, Kar-Wai and cinematographer Christopher Doyle create an atmosphere so sultry and inviting that a forbidden romance could really be the only outlet for discussion here. It’s also an environment so stylish it couldn’t possibly be anything but a falsehood, as really all affairs are to some extent. The way smoke billows in the air in a way that pays no mind to ventilation, the way mirrors are angled just precisely to accent the way someone moves across a room just so, the color of hallways accenting a costume in an impossibly perfect manner; this is pure artificial cinema, plain and simple, one that pretends film noir never went away. But yet, there’s no crime, no mystery, other than of course that of the two leads, the far-too-beautiful Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, and their motivations.
Wong Kar-Wai’s cinema is always wonderfully artificial, an idealized world where everything is gorgeous and perfectly manicured, but In the Mood For Love is the finest approximation of that idea yet. His Chungking Express was enough to shake modern cinema to its core with its brash newness, but Mood stems from a matured artist, one whose confidence in a very specific signature overflows with charisma. We in fact are being seduced by him and Doyle by just watching this film, possibly the sexiest bit of cinema I’ve ever witnessed. It’s hypnotizing and utterly perfect.
2. The Triplets of Belleville (2003)
Dir. Sylvain Chomet
Every once in a blue moon, you are lucky enough to see a film, or read a book, or hear a piece of music that feels nothing short of a revelation. Now, upon first viewing of this film, I indeed felt that, as if I’d seen the second-coming of animation. What seems impossible, however, is that each subsequent viewing never loses that feeling; if nothing else, it’s gained that sense of revelation over time. There isn’t a single film released this decade that is more joyful, or entertaining, or funnier, or more inventive than The Triplets of Belleville. I thought hand-drawn animation was supposed to be dead; then Sylvain Chomet went and re-invented it.
At barely 80 minutes, Triplets feels criminally short, but only because I for one never really want to leave this world of Chomet’s. Chomet, rising to the esteemed title of Great Animator, fills every one of his frames with immaculate detail; the comically throbbing muscles of a gaunt bicyclist, a race being stopped due to a likely beheaded accordion icon, the quiet-then-thunderous lapping of ocean waves set to an operatic score, the list can go on. There is so much to soak in with this film, which is indeed by all accounts a musical. Sometimes it’s a proper musical, with characters breaking out into song at certain intervals, but most of the time, it’s a musical of sounds and movements. The way the mother shuffles her feet, the way her dog goes wild at every passing train, the way crowds of people sound as they move through a crowded metropolis; each sound has a rhythmic quality to it, and as with many great pieces of music, there is rhythm and tone to the silences in between as well.
The Triplets of Belleville feels indebted to the great masters of animation, from Chuck Jones to Tex Avery to even John Kricfalusi come to think of it, but none more so than to the cinema of Jacques Tati. The comedies of Tati and his on-screen alter ego M. Hulot are embedded all over this film, so it comes as no surprise that Chomet’s next project comes from an unfinished screenplay by Tati himself. Judging by The Triplets of Belleville, he will have absolutely no problem in filling the master’s shoes, but Chomet is no mere follower either. While it may be an immensely entertaining film, few films felt more dangerous than Triplets in many ways. It seems to exist completely on its own, with few daring to even attempt following it. When technological advances are forcing even live-action films to become cartoons, Chomet’s film feels alive and cynical in a way that rejects the norms of what film means in the 2000s. It just so happens to be a cartoon itself.
1. The New World (2005)
Dir. Terrence Malick
How can I possibly begin to convey what I feel for this film, my favorite of any decade? I will begin with the circumstances upon my first viewing: Terrence Malick had already been one of my favorite directors, as his trio Badlands, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line existed on a plane that few ever approach, a distinct touch like none other in cinema. So the prospect of seeing a film of his on the big screen for the first time, while utterly surreal it being in a Cinemark multiplex, was something I was highly anticipating. I was rooting for this film, in other words, despite its mostly underwhelming reviews. Thus, the film begins, with an immediately calming view of a tree…moving…it’s a reflection on calm water, and the camera is being guided with such great care across its surface. That was the last time I consciously realized I was watching a film, that is, until about 90 minutes in, when a couple abruptly walked out of the theater. This effect was like none other, as there had never been a moment in my life I had felt a transportation this strong from cinema before.
The New World has changed my perception of what film is capable of, and manages to continue to evolve for me every time I view it. It’s sumptuous in a way that doesn’t even feel like humans made it, and never once did I feel as if this weren’t pure truth being shown for me and only me. I can’t help but gush poetically and well, cheesily about this film, and the power it holds. This is indeed the film about John Smith, John Rolfe, and Pocahontas, and it does indeed focus a great deal on how this country came to be, a moment of discovery that was far from peaceful. I can’t say I’m surprised this film has been criticized for its historical inaccuracies, but my argument remains, who is to say? This film never alleges to be fact, but captures a feeling of the unknown, of discovery in such a way that history takes a distant backseat to allegory here. Not that it’s a revisionist exercise by any means; it’s not even attempting to call attention to itself in such a manner. It’s a film about something much grander, much harder to pinpoint, and that is of course the human condition, its direct relation to nature, and the thought that human existence is always about discovery, an attempt to understand the people and cultures and ideas that have not yet been explored. It’s about a love for being alive, while also learning the negatives of civilization, the elements that inevitably disrupt the order of nature. The film is seen through the eyes of Pocahontas, played by Q’orianka Kilcher, a debut performance so immensely moving and haunting that I quite honestly don’t think I could ever accept her in another role. It’s quite possibly the most perfect performance in all of cinema, one of pure grace and innocence, and her presence dictates everything the film has to say about the potential of humanity.
Much can of course be said of the actors, and I must also note the remarkable performance by Colin Farrell, but in the end, I have no use in dissecting this film, no desire to know how it was made. For the first time, I have no critical opinion on the film. I cannot take any objective stance to this film, nor have any real opinion on the quality of acting or cinematography. It has become a contributor to a philosophy on life, a presence that consistently makes itself felt, and something that will forever drive me as an artist and human being. I can confidently say that The New World has made me view the world around me in a different light, and its transformative power continues to inspire me with each viewing. I can’t wait to see where it leads in the decades to come.