Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Speaking of Cinema's Top 20 Films of the 2000s

To kick off Speaking of Cinema, six of us compiled our individual top 20 films of the 2000s lists to come up with what we as a group feel were the highest points of cinema in the last decade. Obviously, we feel that filmmaker Christopher Nolan did a good job, as three of his films made the cut. Paul Thomas Anderson's two films both made our list as well, as did two films written by Charlie Kaufman. Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman are the only actors to appear in two leading roles on the list. Other than those guys and a few supporting factors, what these films have in common lies in that they are all truly great examples of filmmaking in the 2000s.

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. -Catherine Krummey

2. The Dark Knight (2008) - The Batman franchise began in 1989, courtesy of Tim Burton. In 1995, Joel Schumacher stepped in, created two additional films that watered down what Batman was about and made it rather cartoony. Just when all hope had vanished, out comes director Christopher Nolan with Batman Begins, a film that did the hero’s origin some justice. At last there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and everyone seemed to be eagerly anticipating the arrival of its sequel, The Dark Knight. All of the film’s elements worked together coherently and cohesively; the whole was even greater than the sum of its parts. This movie broke all sorts of box office records, and with good reason. Just as a movie can succeed or fail based on its script, it’s also dependent on the cast, which was stellar. Very notably, the introduction of Heath Ledger, starring in what some call unarguably his finest role before his untimely death. His performance made The Joker very three-dimensional, and so much more than a mad-man. The installment was a successful film that helped usher in the era of the darker comic book heroes, and I think that really appealed to audiences this decade. People want to see someone that they can identify with, a flawed human being who tries to be moral in a morally corrupt society. The plot of the film circled around that concept of morality, making it not “just another comic book movie.” -Maria Morales-Beale

3. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) - Wes Anderson’s Salinger-esque family dramedy was first introduced to me by my older brother back in 2002. It would also mark my first introduction with any of Anderson’s work and it is considered to be by its many fans, the best place to start. The Royal Tenenbaums stars a veritible who’s who of actors portraying a ragtag group of characters, a family full of geniuses fallen from grace. Lying, cheating, secrecy. You know, the usual family stuff. As is true with all his films, this one is all about the details. From the clothing to the sets and the music, each delicately designed. Though it’s more than just bells and whistles and cleverly written quirks, there is an inherent sadness to the script. There is depth to these characters that will leave you with a slight case of your own melancholy, wondering why this family can’t just seem to reclaim its former glory. A true testament to the timelessness of the film is that so many other “quirky family dramas” have come after it and each has never quite been able to live up to its reputation. I think that Anderson’s body of work has definitely placed him in the position to be this generation's Hal Ashby. All the while my hope is that this cult classic will continue year after year to lead many (myself included) to the declaration: "I always wanted to be a Tenenbaum." -Zach Dillon

4. 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. -CK

4. Once (2007) - With the vitality and authenticity of a live musical performance, John Carney’s music-based romance Once perfectly encapsulates the ineffability of human chemistry and the all-too-familiar notions of unaligned destinies and missed opportunities. Set largely in Dublin’s city-center, and shot on a shoe-string budget with hand-held cameras, Once dispenses with the frills of the average romance and strips to its tender core the time-honored tale of guy meets girl. The guy (Glen Hansard of The Frames) is a busker who works in his father’s vacuum repair shop. The girl (Czech pianist Markéta Irglová) is an immigrant musician and street vendor who happens to have a broken vacuum. After his songs catch her attention on the street, the pair set about making music together, all the while pushing each other to move forward with their stalled lives. Just as any great musician must be vulnerable with his audience, the essence of Once lies in the sheer vulnerability between Hansard and Irglová, a quality that was only enhanced by the fact that the two were truly falling in love during the film’s production. The result is perhaps the most sincere portrait in recent memory of making music, and falling in love in the process. -Ben Dillon

6. No Country for Old Men (2007) - Most book adaptations end up being inferior to the source novel, and only a select few end up being considered good movies. Even more rarely does a direct adaptation of a novel end up being hailed as a great movie. No Country for Old Men manages to not only be an amazing movie, but even manages to stand toe-to-toe with its source novel, which in itself was terrific. Most of the credit for this goes to directors Joel and Ethan Coen, who also wrote the screenplay (as they do with almost all of their movies). Toning down the comedy end of their "dark comedy" style, the Coens were able to create a movie that is both breathtaking and philosophically adept. This isn't to say the Coens were the only part of the movie that worked. Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem and Tommy Lee Jones all turn in amazing performances, and no actor or performance ever feels out of place (even Woody Harrelson manages to slide into the film easily). One part noir-thriller, one part ideological musing, No Country for Old Men never once feels overlong or overwrought, and ends up being one of the best movies of perhaps the greatest year of the decade for movies (2007). -Ben Wood

7. 21 Grams (2003) - Alejandro González Iñárritu has worn many hats: writer, composer, producer, editor and director. None of those roles seem as vital as his directing of 21 Grams, which won the Special Distinction Award at the Independent Spirit Awards (it was ineligible for other categories at the ISA due to its budget) and led Iñárritu to earn Oscar nominations for interwoven storylines on a global scale with Babel. 21 Grams is a picture of interwoven stories that is subtle and complex. A story where three lives come into collision, perhaps its taglines best describe the film’s core: How much does life weigh?/How much does love weigh?/How much does revenge weigh?/How much does guilt weigh? Paul Rivers (Sean Penn) is an ailing mathematician drawn to Cristina Peck (Naomi Watts), who loses her family in a hit-and-run accident. Ex-con Jack Jordan (Benicio Del Toro) relies on religion to help redeem him from his sins. Loneliness and desperation permeate all characters, even the supporting cast that includes Charlotte Gainsbourg, Melissa Leo and Danny Huston. Paired with handheld camera-work, viewing 21 Grams is sure to make for an emotional cinematic experience. The cast is superb. Even the lines, “Did you know that eating alone could cause kidney damage? And that's bad,” can easily trigger a response upon viewing - and it won’t be Sean Penn you’re paying attention to but Rivers. -Ameena Mohammad

7. 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. -CK

9. Memento (2000) - “Now... where was I?” ponders protagonist Leonard Shelby at the end of this modern neo-noir/mystery classic. This is a film that was released so early into the aughts that I feared it may be forgotten come decade's end. Its place on our list means that this small, low-key gem has not soon left our minds. As I’m sure it did most, this film introduced us to what would become one of the decade’s freshest and most creative filmmakers, Christopher Nolan. Cleverly written and non-linear in structure, the film unfolds literally from end to beginning. We follow a man whose wife has been murdered, an attack that also left him with a form of amnesia that leaves him unable to make new memories. Having to piece the puzzle together from clues that he has tattooed on his body, we view the film almost from Leonard’s perspective. In its creative use of non-linear structure (a technique that by now is well-worn, but one that serves this story perfectly), we meet each character and piece together the clues at the pace of the main character. Inventive storytelling that leads to an unforgettable finale. -ZD

9. Stranger Than Fiction (2006) - Stranger Than Fiction was a very memorable film with a very simple plot, which kind of plays with the idea of God, life and death. One of the things that really makes the film memorable and worthwhile, is seeing Will Ferrell in a slightly a-typical role, turning humor on its head and taking on a more serious façade. He stars as the predictable and straight-laced Harold Crick, an accountant who allows his talent with numbers to take over every aspect of his life. He compulsively overanalyzes all he does, and to his detriment. Once Crick starts to hear a mysterious voice in his head narrating his life, he comes to realize that he is the star of his own story. Harold has mixed emotions of fear and sadness; not only is he soon to be “killed off,” but he has the revelation that he hasn’t truly lived his life. This movie was a definite success in that it was something that a person could identify with. When you’re caught up in a career and a world that’s constantly changing, you can forget about taking part in the little things that really make life worth living. In a matter of days, Harold’s life drastically changes, but on his own terms and unafraid of death. He pursues a romantic interest, he begins doing all the things he always wanted to, proving that life is what you make it. The film in its entirety is really a meditation on life. -MMB

11. The Prestige (2006) - In the 2000s, many established directors had "comebacks": the Coen Brothers, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, etc. When it comes to directors just starting to make a name for themselves, however, none were more successful than Chris Nolan. He managed to resurrect a franchise that many thought was dead (Batman Begins), he created a film that is better when you start at the end and work backwards to the beginning (Memento), and he created a film that reinvented what the superhero movie could be (The Dark Knight). With The Prestige, Nolan created a film that, although lower profile than his Batman escapades, is just as powerful as his other films. Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman are terrific as two magicians who sacrifice almost everything just to one-up the other. Michael Caine and David Bowie do wonderfully in their somewhat small supporting roles. Most of all, The Prestige succeeds by being a film about sleight of hand that manages to, at times, seem to contain sleight of hand. On the first viewing, the viewer is never sure where they should look to find the answers to what's happening, much the way a magician is able to distract those watching their tricks. Even on subsequent viewings, The Prestige is able to sustain a steady, suspense-building mood, even when the viewer knows what happens in the end. -BW

12. There Will Be Blood (2007) - Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson returned to us late in the decade after a five-year absence, boasting his most ambitious and far-reaching effort to date. Loosely adapted from the Upton Sinclair novel Oil, the story follows an oil-man on his quest for greed and power in the early 20th century, featuring Daniel Day-Lewis in a complex performance that has and will continue to be described as iconic. The sweeping cinematography by Robert Elswit calls to mind the groundbreaking work set forth by Stanley Kubrick. The film also includes a nod or two to John Huston’s seminal 1948 look at greed, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (which P.T. Anderson reportedly watched every night while making this film). This wholly American character study will be talked about for years to come, if for nothing else than its audacious and violent ending which still divides and puzzles its fans as well as its detractors. -ZD

13. Adaptation (2002) - It's not often that you get to see a director and script as perfectly suited for each other as Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman's script for Adaptation. Jonze's frenetic and imaginative style perfectly meshed with Kaufman's fractured pseudo-autobiographical tale of book adaptation and mental blocks. In addition, we have Nic Cage's performance, which very well may have been the best performance of his career. Playing one neurotic writer is hard enough, but to pull off two as seamlessly as Cage did deserves not only praise but also awe. He may do a plethora of big-budget shlock to pay the bills, but with the right script, Nic Cage is among the best at portraying neuroses. Easily the best film Spike Jonze has made (although his short film with Kanye West, We Were Once a Fairytale, deserves a mention as far as strange ambition goes) and perhaps the most straightforward affair Kaufman has ever written, Adaptation is as unique a movie as you will find. It simultaneously reminds many viewers why they love movies and that Nic Cage isn't just "that guy from the National Treasure movies." -BW

13. Lost in Translation (2003) - Lost in Translation managed to do three pretty amazing things. First, it put Scarlett Johansson on the map. Yes, she was in some movies before this, but it wasn't until Lost in Translation that she became a household name. Second, it proved that Sofia Coppola is a talented director and wasn't just riding on the coattails of her father. Third, and perhaps most amazingly, it resurrected the career of Bill Murray, who proved in this movie that not only is he the best actor to have ever starred on "Saturday Night Live," but that he can do much more than just crazy comedies. Lost in Translation is perhaps the best romantic drama of the entire decade, and has one of the most profound and believable human connections that has ever been put on film. Johansson and Murray have a chemistry that is rare to see, and almost every scene helps to set the mood of the characters. Although other films may have been more original or exciting, no other film has captured the search for a connection with another person while surrounded by the unknown as Lost in Translation. -BW

15. Moulin Rouge! (2001) - Baz Luhrmann lives in a fantastic world, a world in his head, and every few years the world is privy to the realization of those fantasies. Luhrmann introduced the decade to the reinvention of the musical genre. Moulin Rouge! is a musical fit for a modern audience, with its rapid editing and use of pop and rock songs. Of course not everyone appreciated the use of Nirvana or Madonna - some fans really are true blue. Since its release a decade has almost passed, so we can all pretend that “Lady Marmalade” music video did not happen. More importantly, Moulin Rouge introduced the world to Ewan McGregor’s singing voice, which is surprisingly good. McGregor plays Christian, an English writer who comes to Paris during the Bohemian revolution in the year 1899. Christian falls in love with French courtesan Satine, played by Nicole Kidman. But trouble ensues because the Moulin Rouge where she dances is indebted to a jealous controlling duke (and, of course, because she is a courtesan). Part Alexandre Dumas’ Camille, part idyllic wonder, it’s a musical with explosive color, character and heart. It’s also fitting that the non-fictitious character Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo) is a leader of the Bohemian way, and helps Christian learn the importance of Truth, Beauty, Freedom and Love. Lautrec and Christian repeat one of the most memorable lines from the film, “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.” -AM

16. The Fountain (2006) - I cannot begin to explain why The Fountain would belong on anyone else’s Best of the Decade list. For me it was an intense personal experience, marking the first time in my adult life (of going to movies) that I can recall leaving the theater being absolutely blown away by a film’s sheer beauty. Darren Aronofsky has given us three such films in the past decade that while gritty and unflinching, they are centered around beautiful and heartbreaking human stories. The Fountain spans three periods of time and three love stories each connected by the theme of eternal life. In the physical and the metaphysical. It explores the depths of true love, faith, time, death and the eternal. With weaving textures of darkness and light as the film progresses, and yet another haunting and memorable score by frequent Aronofsky collaborator Clint Mansell. Never fully appreciated in its time, I truly believe that this misunderstood masterpiece is one that offers something new with each viewing. One that will be looked back upon well into the next decade. -ZD

16. Punch-Drunk Love (2002) - Described by P.T. Anderson as an “art-house Adam Sandler movie,” Punch-Drunk Love was an unlikely follow-up to the director’s operatic drama Magnolia (the very notion reportedly drew laughs from the press at Cannes). But what Anderson recognized in Sandler was a quality that so many other directors had overlooked in the past: depths of diffidence and repressed anger bubbling just beneath the surface of his seemingly juvenile exterior. Whether or not the turmoil is genuine, Anderson masterfully utilizes this unseen side of Sandler to tell the simple yet captivating story of a self-conscious small-business owner, his enigmatic harmonium, and his unconventional grapple with love... and pudding. Lush cinematography by Robert Elswitt, a beguiling, harmonium-infused score by Jon Brion, and vibrant “Scopitone” transitions by Jeremy Blake round out the offbeat romantic comedy of the decade. -BD

18. The Departed (2006) - Martin Scorsese very seldom disappoints when it comes to making a film. From Goodfellas to Gangs of New York to The Aviator, this director has exceeded expectations again and again, creating some of the best movies, period. In 2006, out comes The Departed, a film that definitely qualifies as one of the best of the decade. All the elements were there: a fantastic veteran director, an all-star cast full of well-seasoned and established actors, exceptional and appropriate cinematography, and an incredible plot. Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and Jack Nicholson all worked together in unison, then you have Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg added as a supportive harmony. It’s very impressive that not one of them ever outshined the other. The plot is simple, yet full of complexities, leaving you on the edge and not wanting to let your guard down for a second for fear that you might miss something important. Yet at the same time, it can still be followed and the audience is allowed to see it from virtually every type of angle. This gangster drama is gritty, raw, has its moments of dramatic irony, and is said to be one of Scorsese’s finest pieces since the release of Goodfellas, which speaks volumes. Anything that makes an excellent, memorable film can be found in The Departed, and that’s what makes it unarguably one of the most notable of the decade. -MMB

18. Hot Fuzz (2007) - The duo of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost should be enough to make you want to watch this movie. If not, perhaps characters played by Jim Broadbent, Timothy Dalton and smaller roles from Bill Nighy, Steve Coogan and a tiny role from Cate Blanchett would do the trick? Co-written by Pegg and director Edgar Wright, Hot Fuzz isn’t just about a big cop in a small town. Pegg plays Nick Angel, a copper who gets transferred to Sandford, where he’s partnered with hopeless Danny Butterman (Frost). The pair come across numerous accidents and events that arouse suspicion. Angel tries to teach Butterman how to be a better cop and Butterman teaches Angel how to have fun; a “bromance” begins. Eventually, they both realize what “the greater good” really means for the people of Sandford. This parody/spoof of an action/cop movie also acts as a tribute - it honors Point Break and Bad Boys, while still managing to be wittier than most comedies Hollywood churns out. It’s also nice to see Timothy Dalton using wolfish charm to play a smarmy character. However, it will be hard for Pegg and Frost, as a comedic duo, to top Hot Fuzz. -AM

18. Man on Wire (2008) - “1974. 1350 feet up. The artistic crime of the century.” The tagline only scratches the surface of director James Marsh’s 2008 documentary Man on Wire, which chronicles French tightrope walker Phillippe Petit on his illicit mission to traverse the 200 foot void between the then newly built World Trade Center towers. What could have merely played out as a lackluster retelling of an extraordinary feat becomes a mesmerizing escapade, through Marsh’s employment of noir-esque reenactments and Michael Nyman’s hypnotic score. But the true heart of the film is Petit himself, whose master storytelling and childlike vigor for life instantly enchant even the most reserved viewer. When Petit finally succeeds in his mission, the enthralled public seems to only want to know why he dared to do such a thing. His reply: “There is no why.” He, and now the viewer, simply understand. -BD

Honorable Mentions: The Fall (2008) and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

(In addition to this, some of our individual lists will follow in other posts.)


darianr said...

Wow, I am stunned that Hot Fuzz made it on the list. I liked the movie, but not nearly as much as Shaun of the Dead.

wildcatgirl13 said...

This is a good list, well thought out and the movies reviews are well written. I have added the few we haven't seen to our netflix queue. I agree with Darian, thought Shaun of the Dead was much better than Hot Fuzz. Looking over this list I can agree that some of these are "the best movies of the decade" but not neccessary my favorites.

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