Thursday, January 7, 2010

Catherine's Top 20 Films of the 2000s

A moving relationship piece that asks the question, "Would you erase me?" A quirky dramedy about one of the most interesting families to ever grace the big screen. A French film about a girl ready for adventure. Another dramedy, this time about an IRS agent with a narration problem. A movie about a guy, a girl and some really great music. A film with six incarnations of Bob Dylan. An epic action saga about a bride seeking revenge. A biopic about one of the pioneers of television journalism and his war of words with a senator from Wisconsin. Yet another dramedy, this time about finding a place in the world and all the people you encounter on that journey. A documentary about walking a thin line. Another movie with an equally important question, "What came first, the music or the misery?" A coming-of-age tale filled with love, laughter and rock 'n roll. A bohemian musical that upholds the ideals of truth, beauty, freedom and love. A lush, period-romance from Hong Kong. A documentary that takes aim at the MPAA. A colorful look into one man's life and pudding obsession. A low-key Western about a famous Missouri outlaw starring a famous Missouri actor. A buddy cop flick that intentionally flips the genre on its head. The directorial debut of the most original screenwriter of this decade, or possibly any other. A low-key thriller from one of the most prolific filmmakers of the decade.

Those are my top 20 films of the 2000s, in a nutshell.

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) - Very few movies are lucky enough to receive widespread praise, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is one of them. Which is a tad baffling, as the film does not fit into the standard mode of storytelling nor does it end in a way that could be considered 100% clear. Part of the beauty of Eternal Sunshine lies in that aspect though; each viewer can have his or her own interpretation of various parts of the film, which I think is one of the best ways for any film to really connect with its audience. When watching Eternal Sunshine, not only do you connect with and care about the characters, but you have seen a film that has honestly made you think. From Charlie Kaufman's Oscar-winning script to Michel Gondry's direction to Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet's leading performances to Jon Brion's score, the film is definitely deserving of the praise it received in 2004 (when it was released) and the praise it continues to receive, most notably on some of the other "Best of the Decade" lists being published.

2. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) - As my introduction to both filmmaker Wes Anderson and actor Luke Wilson, I will always have the highest regard for The Royal Tenenbaums. Now, having seen all of Anderson's films, from 1996's Bottle Rocket all the way up to 2009's Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Royal Tenenbaums remains my favorite, just ahead of Rushmore. Anderson, just ahead of Charlie Kaufman, Paul Thomas Anderson, Sofia Coppola and Christopher Nolan, has also become my favorite modern filmmaker. The main reason for this is his great attention to detail, which is made evident in The Royal Tenenbaums in everything from the murals on the walls of the Tenenbaum house to the way a group of soldiers passes by in the background when Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Richie (Luke Wilson) appear on screen together for the first time. This decade, Wilson has gone from winning me over in this, Bottle Rocket and a small part in Rushmore to pretty much being the biggest disappointment of the decade for me in terms of actors. His performance as Richie Tenenbaum is truly the highlight of his career; every other role he's taken on this decade is just disappointing. 2005's The Family Stone was a step in the right direction, but he followed it up by continuing his string of misses. The quiet intensity that Wilson was able to gather to play Richie almost appears to be a fluke, making me wish beyond all hope that Wes Anderson would hire him again in the 2010s.

3. Amélie (2001) - For me, Amélie is safely nestled near the top of the list (mainly) due to its cast of true characters. From Amélie herself to Raymond Dufayel (a.k.a. the Glass Man) to Hipolito, the writer, and everyone in between, co-writer/director Jean-Pierre Jeunet's cast of characters is truly one of the most original groups to grace the big screen this decade. Paired with some of the most clever lines - in French or English - of the decade, I couldn't help but fall in love with Amélie. On top of the great characters and dialogue, this film also introduced a personal appreciation for great narration. Between this, Magnolia (which came out in 1999, but I saw it for the first time in the 2000s), The Royal Tenenbaums, Stranger Than Fiction, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and the TV show "Pushing Daisies," my appetite for great narration both grew and was satisfied this decade. As Amélie's narrator suggests, I too would like to have someone shouting witty lines to me. Thanks to this film and those others, in a way, I feel like I do.

4. Stranger Than Fiction (2006) - I went into this movie expecting to be disappointed - it had a lot going for it with the different take on a literary-based story, but I wasn't sure that Will Ferrell could pull off the humor of the film without being too over the top. I was worried that it would overshadow the story or any good performances from the supporting cast - Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah and Tony Hale. But, Adam Sandler did it in Punch-Drunk Love and Jim Carrey did it in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, so I was at least willing to give him a chance. Like Sandler and Carrey, Ferrell was really able to pull it off. He managed to bring the character of Harold Crick to life, successfully maintaining the balance of his calm persona with a few freak-outs due to the stress involved with his situation in the film. Ferrell was just as great as his co-stars, under the direction of Marc Forster, who really proved himself as a jack-of-all-trades this decade. In addition to this, he directed Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland, Stay, The Kite Runner and Quantum of Solace. The script, written by Zach Helm, has to be my favorite aspect of the film, as the dialogue is all at once witty, poignant and biting, especially the narration delivered by Emma Thompson. I have her closing monologue from the film transcribed and posted on the wall in my room. "And we must remember that all these things, the nuances, the anomalies, the subtleties, which we assume only accessorize our days, are effective for a much larger and nobler cause. They are here to save our lives. I know the idea seems strange, but I also know that it just so happens to be true." This film, especially when paired with the others on the list, has become just one more thing that helps to save my life upon repeat viewings.

5. Once (2007) - I'm pretty sure there isn't a movie out there - in this decade or any other - that has done such a perfect job of capturing the moments people share in passing, through music, through conversation, through life, through love. The credit for that goes to both filmmaker John Carney and the chemistry between the leads, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová (who have since formed the music group The Swell Season). I think it would be fair to say that Once wouldn't be nearly as good without those two. The story combines realism and a completely fictional story that keeps you enthralled and, if you don't know any better, wondering if this could be some kind of documentary. And to top it all off, the music is really great - Oscar-winning, even. With Moulin Rouge, I thought that the movie musical had reached its peak as far as any revolution went, but as it turns out, I was wrong. Once is what you get when my two favorite genres collide - they took the musical and combined it with the genre of low-key dramedies that I've fallen in love with over the past decade.

6. I'm Not There. (2007) - I'm a pretty big fan of Bob Dylan, so going into this, I knew there was a fairly strong chance I would enjoy it. I love I'm Not There not only for its subject matter, but for the way filmmaker Todd Haynes perfectly weaves those otherwise disconnected stories and characters. Separately, I think they would all be interesting to see (even the Richard Gere one - and I'm not a fan of his at all), but I think the storytelling is even more compelling by mixing them all up. If I had to chose a favorite, I think the Heath Ledger-Charlotte Gainsbourg storyline would be it. I'm not saying this with any sentimentality about Ledger's death soon after the release of the film - I saw this movie a couple of months before he died and thought the same thing. Gainsbourg gives a very underrated performance. They both give raw, emotional and honest performances, and their scenes can be beautiful and heartbreaking at times. Cate Blanchett also gives one of the strongest performances of her career (and that's saying a lot) as Jude, the incarnation of Dylan that probably most closely resembles the man himself. Blanchett disappears into the character and embodies Jude/Dylan in everything from the speaking voice to the distinct mannerisms. To say she was robbed at the Oscars that year would be an understatement.

7. Kill Bill (2003-2004) - Kill Bill is the reason why I started getting into action films and Westerns. (While the film was released in two parts, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, it was originally intended to be one film.) Like most of writer-director Quentin Tarantino's films, Kill Bill crosses genres and borrows or pays homage to the great films of the genres it represents. Not only do his films cross genres, they transcend them. Kill Bill could be categorized as an action film with infusions of the samurai and Western genres, but it really is more than that. At its heart lies a tragic love story, which owes its heartbreaking moments to the performances of Uma Thurman as the Bride and David Carradine as the titular Bill. Along with the mixture of great dialogue and a gaggle of epic kick-ass females, that aspect of the film really sealed the deal for me. It also made me wonder if other action films, which I had cast off for the most part, could do that - simultaneously embrace and rebel from the stereotypes and archetypes associated with the action genre and its subgenres. I think that's truly the mark of a great film and a great filmmaker - they make you want to keep watching and exploring the wonderful world of cinema.

8. Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005) - Good Night, and Good Luck came out when my interest in journalism was probably at an all-time high. If you add that up with my appreciation for George Clooney (who co-wrote, directed and co-stars), the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography by Robert Elswit, the bravura leading performance of David Strathairn, the strong work from the amazing supporting cast (in addition to Clooney, there's Frank Langella, Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Clarkson, Jeff Daniels and Ray Wise), and a truly compelling based-on-real-life story (scripted by Clooney and Grant Heslov), you could say I was destined to love this movie. I was very impressed with Clooney's directorial debut, 2002's Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, so I had an inkling that he was capable of making a film that would receive higher praise. One thing I do think may have helped is that it combined two areas that Clooney is obviously passionate about in real life. First, due to his chose profession and experience, he knows what he's doing when it comes to making a film. Second, as seen by his political involvements, he is also very passionate about human rights. At its core, that's what Good Night, and Good Luck is about - a man (and the people behind him) standing up for what's right.

9. Away We Go (2009) - The last year of the decade brought a surprise to my top 20. Fresh from his awards season contender Revolutionary Road, Academy Award-winning director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) brought us Away We Go, the story of Burt and Verona's (John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph) trek to find a place where they (and their unborn baby) belong. This is the lightest fare to come from Mendes (his other films are Road to Perdition and Jarhead), but that doesn't mean that the film doesn't come with moments of drama. This film had me both laughing and crying multiple times throughout. The emotional response is mainly due to a fantastic script by Dave Eggers and Vandela Vida, and the terrific performances of Krasinski and Rudolph, who appear in every scene of the film. All of the supporting players are great too, but I found myself most enthralled by the couple Burt and Verona meet up with in Montreal, played by Melanie Lynskey and Chris Messina. That scene set to "Oh, Sweet Nuthin'" by The Velvet Underground is perfectly heartbreaking. Away We Go does a terrific job of balancing heartbreaking, heartwarming and hilarious moments.

10. Man on Wire (2008) - Man on Wire is without a doubt one of the best documentaries I've ever seen, in addition to making the cut when it comes to my top 10 films of the decade and having a place as my favorite film of 2008. The story captures you, and what makes it great is that it really happened. Whether you fall for the quirky persona of Philippe Petit, whose enthusiasm and mannerisms are great, or your breath is taken away by director James Marsh's combination of archive footage, reenactments and first-hand accounts of Petit's stunts, this documentary is just as entertaining as any other fictional thriller, especially if you don't (or are too young to) remember what happened. The two documentaries included in my top 20 - Man on Wire and This Film Is Not Yet Rated - were chosen not only because they are great films, but also because both viewing experiences were an important part of my attendance of the True/False Film Festival this decade.

11. High Fidelity (2000) - The line, "What came first, the music or the misery?" spoken by Rob Gordon, John Cusack's character in High Fidelity, really could've been a headline for my life this decade. That line, other music-related lines and "other pop hits" really are the main reasons why I consider High Fidelity to be one of the best films of the decade. Music, and more specifically, music in movies, provided a strong soundtrack to my life in the 2000s. Along with High Fidelity, Once, I'm Not There, Almost Famous and Moulin Rouge all played heavily into my love of movies and music, both of which grew exponentially this decade. Without High Fidelity, there would have been no Belle & Sebastian in my life, which would have made for a truly miserable experience. In addition to the great music, you also have John Cusack's only memorable performance of the decade, and great supporting performances from Jack Black, Todd Louiso, Lili Taylor and Tim Robbins. If the movie consisted entirely of conversations between Rob, Barry (Black) and Dick (Louiso) in the record store, I would still love it - just three characters, talking about music and life.

12. Almost Famous (2000) - I am a sucker for Cameron Crowe's films, from the great (Almost Famous, Say Anything) to the mediocre (Elizabethtown). Almost Famous has a lot to do with that, as it was the first movie I saw of his that I absolutely fell in love with upon first viewing. He crafts truly iconic moments in his films. It started with Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) with the stereo and the line, "I gave her my heart, she gave me a pen," in Say Anything; it continues with Jerry Maguire's passionate sing-along to "Free Fallin'" by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and all the memorable one-liners from the movie; it keeps going with Russell Hammond's (Billy Crudup) iconic "I am a golden god" scene and a very memorable group sing-along to "Tiny Dancer" by Elton John in Almost Famous. As far as writing films that do a perfect job of blending cinema and music, Crowe is a "golden god."

13. Moulin Rouge! (2001) - I was 15 when Moulin Rouge! came out, and in true teenage girl fan spirit, I had the entire soundtrack to the film memorized before I even saw the movie. I had enjoyed seeing Nicole Kidman in various films growing up, and I really liked (and still do like) writer-director Baz Luhrmann's take on Romeo + Juliet. I hadn't really seen many of Ewan McGregor's films, but I was in love with his voice and his accent. I fell in love with the film on the spot, and can probably still entirely quote it word-for-word. It made the musical something that both reflected the past of filmmaking and revolutionized it, much like the Bohemian revolution depicted in the film. The amazing use of color in the costumes, set design and visual effects were truly something to behold, and the reimagined versions of the pop and rock songs used to provide the musical numbers were truly awesome. That version of Madonna's "Like a Virgin" gets me every time I see or hear it. While my love for this film has a lot to do with how much I loved it when it was first released (I even saw it twice in theaters), I can still watch it and be moved and entertained.

14. In the Mood for Love (2000) - Director Wong Kar Wai's films always seem to operate with the most gorgeous, lush uses of color. In the Mood for Love is no different, and perhaps is the best example of this, through its set design, costumes, makeup and, most importantly, cinematography by Christopher Doyle and Mark Lee Ping-bin. The film's two leads, Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, give excellent performances to fill in the lush backdrop. Their performances are all at once restrained, emotional and brimming with passion, much like the film itself. It is, stylistically, probably the most beautiful film released this decade. In the Mood for Love is reminiscent of the beautifully shot film noirs of the 1940s and '50s - it doesn't hurt that the story takes place in the early '60s. When describing the visual tone of this film, and of Wong Kar Wai's work as a whole for that matter, I usually say it's what film noir would be in color. As a huge fan of the genre, that is probably the highest compliment I can give.

15. This Film Is Not Yet Rated (2006) - I'm not exactly sure why I've always felt so strongly in my feelings against artistic censorship, but I really have felt this way for as long as I can remember. The semester in college before I saw This Film Is Not Yet Rated, I even did a final project and paper in one of my classes on censorship. When I first heard that this film would be shown at the True/False Film Festival and the director would be in attendance to receive the True Vision Award, I was more than ecstatic. When I finally attended the screening, I was impressed, to say the least. Director Kirby Dick really went after the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and its ludicrous ratings system. (For those who don't know, the MPAA is the group that decides if a film gets a G, PG, PG-13, R or NC-17 rating.) Not only did he interview filmmakers who have had difficulties with the MPAA, he actually teamed up with a private investigator to attempt to figure out more about the mysteries of the organization. This Film Is Not Yet Rated took my feelings about the MPAA and film censorship and ran with them, and for that I will always love this movie.

16. Punch-Drunk Love (2002) - Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson won me over after I watched the opus that is 1999's Magnolia. I couldn't wait for his next film, which wound up being Punch-Drunk Love. I know that a lot of people would have picked There Will Be Blood over Punch-Drunk Love as the seminal P.T. Anderson film of the decade. While I agree that There Will Be Blood was also a very good film, I favor Punch-Drunk Love because the combination of the quirky love story, the pudding thing, Adam Sandler's alternately quiet and intense performance, the great supporting performances (Emily Watson, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Luis Guzmán), the use of color and Jon Brion's brilliant score will always tip the scales at least a little bit against an intense story, intense performances from Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano, and a great score by Jonny Greenwood.

17. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) - As one of the most under-rated films of the decade, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is nearly perfect in every aspect. As a girl from Missouri, you could not believe how excited I was when I first heard that a famous actor from Missouri (Brad Pitt) would be playing a famous outlaw from Missouri (Jesse James). Pitt so fully embodies James - the mystery, the paranoia, the charm - that it's almost uncanny. Casey Affleck gives an equally affecting performance as Robert Ford - the combination of the awkwardness and the determination is truly a sight to see. These two performances do a perfect job of creating the tension building up to the titular climatic moment in the film. Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, Sam Shepard, Garret Dillahunt and Paul Schneider all give strong supporting performances as well. All of the roles are well-acted, even down to the glorified bit parts given to Zooey Deschanel and Mary-Louise Parker. The pitch-perfect tone of this film is created through the performances and three additional aspects - the great narration by Hugh Ross (from the adapted script by writer-director Andrew Dominik), the gorgeous cinematography by Roger Deakins, and the permeating original score by Nick Cave (who also cameos in the film) and Warren Ellis.

18. Hot Fuzz (2007) - I immensely enjoyed 2004's Shaun of the Dead, a different take on the zombie genre that served as the breakout hit for director Edgar Wright and stars Simon Pegg (who co-wrote the film with Wright) and Nick Frost. The three men reunited in the same capacities for 2007's Hot Fuzz, a different take on the buddy cop genre. As if that wasn't good enough, the movie also brings Timothy Dalton (James Bond, The Beautician and the Beast) in as a potential baddie. The film references in Hot Fuzz are also enough to make this cinephile smile - everything from Point Break and Bad Boys II to the 1996 version of Romeo + Juliet. (Somehow I've managed to reference the Baz Luhrmann version of Romeo + Juliet twice in my list. I can die happy.) After the never-ending list of spoof films (Scary Movie, Date Movie, Epic Movie, etc.) that seemed to dominate this decade, it was refreshing to finally see it done right in both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. The movies combined a sense of the great Mel Brooks spoof films while managing to still be somewhat respectful of the genres they spoofed. Yes, I may even own a pair of aviators due to this film, as part of a movie night that involved "Hot Fuzz-y Navels."

19. Synecdoche, New York (2008) - My love for screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is quite immeasurable, so you can only imagine my excitement when I heard that he would be making his directorial debut. Synecdoche, New York also gave regular supporting actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman a rare chance at another lead (the previous one - 2005's Capote, won him an Oscar), and since I'm a fan of his as well, I was pretty excited. As it was a Kaufman tale, I was prepared to expect the strange or the bizarre, and I figured that since he was in "full control" in the director's chair that it might be more-so than his previous films. Of course my assumptions were correct, but it was still very much comparable with the films he previously wrote. He created an at-times puzzling look into the reflective nature of theater, cinema and art as a whole that is both thought-provoking and entertaining. Hoffman was perfect as Caden Cotard, and Samantha Morton was a revelation as Hazel. Jon Brion again provided a perfect score (this is his third appearance in my top 20).

20. The Prestige (2006) - In the purest sense of nerd-cool (I know that may not make sense, but bear with me), I had to see The Prestige for one reason: it pitted Batman (Christian Bale) against Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). Scarlett Johansson, Michael Caine, Rebecca Hall, Andy Serkis and David Bowie round out the cast. Then you have Christopher Nolan, who was probably the most prolific director of the decade; four of his five films released in the 2000s - The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Memento and Batman Begins (not included: Insomnia) - have a place in my top 100 (all four also make the top 50 cut). Nolan has crafted the best thrillers of the decade, and this is at the top of the heap. Of course he didn't do this alone - all of the performances were very convincing and Wally Pfister's cinematography just adds another layer to this complex story. To realize that The Prestige came between what, for my money, are the two best comic book movies of all time, much less the decade - you know you have the work of a burgeoning master of filmmaking on your hands. If this is the beginning, I can only imagine what's to come. 2010's Inception looks like a very good start. (More on that here.)

My full top 100 films of the 2000s list can be found here.

More of Speaking of Cinema's Top 20 Films of the 2000s lists can be found here.


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