Here we are at last: The final 25 of my “Top 100 of the Decade” list. I’m posting this on my birthday, as a sort of present to myself, because as many of you probably know (if you’ve read my blog even a little bit), movies are a big deal to me. They’ve been a big deal for me for a while now, but the 2000s has really been my “coming of age” decade for appreciating, learning about, and experiencing cinema. I published my first film review in 2001 as a freshman in college (the Julia Stiles movie O), and 9 years, hundreds of reviews and a graduate film studies degree later, I’m still at it. The films listed below represent those that have kept my passion alive over these years–not only for the cinema, but for art and life in general. And for God. Maybe it sounds a little strange, but I truly believe these films have enriched my faith.
In any case, it’s been fun reflecting on the decade in cinema by making this list (100-76, 75-51, 50-26). Maybe it wasn’t the 1930s or the 1970s, but the 2000s was a darn good decade in film. Without further ado, here’s the conclusion of my list:
25) Chop Shop (Ramin Bahrani, 2007): Though set in New York City, in the shadow of Yankees Stadium, this film feels remarkably other-worldy (Third-worldly, actually). But that’s the point. Tapping into the spirit of De Sica-style Italian neo-realism, Chop Shop puts a lens on the unseen, difficult lives of the American urban underclass.
24) Dancer in the Dark (Lars von Trier, 2000): This film could easily be seen as some sort of cruel ironic joke, if only it wasn’t so achingly sincere. It may be the most depressing musical ever, but this Bjork-starring film is utterly compelling and packs a major punch at the end.
23) Man on the Train (Patrice Leconte, 2002): This film about two strangers who wish they had the other one’s life is deceptively simple and yet endlessly insightful. We’ve all wished we could live another type of life at some point or another. Leconte comments on many aspects of humanity in this film (identity, aging, mortality, etc) and yet it never feels aggressively cerebral.
22) Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002): Charlie Kaufman wrote himself into the script for this film about the writing of an adapted screenplay of a book. With Jonze behind the camera, the effect is discombobulating in a gleefully postmodern sort of way. But in the hands of brilliant actors like Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper (and yes, Nicolas Cage), the film manages to connect on a deeper level than just meta deconstructionism.
21) Cache (Hidden) (Michael Haneke, 2005): This film is compelling on so many levels. It’s a suspenseful thriller, well-acted character study, but it’s also a film that is about watching film (a theme Haneke also explores in his controversial Funny Games). It’s a film about seeing, being seen, and the various levels of “reality” that we must wade through when we start thinking about media and how it increasingly arbitrates so much of our existence.
20) Nine Lives (Rodrigo Garcia, 2005): Nine fragments of nine individual lives, told in segments over a series of nine long shots: all of them women, all unresolved glimpses into tangled lives with branching trajectories. It may sound convoluted, but this film evokes so much truth in its snapshot structure. It’s akin to the soundbite news stories or googled tidbits that populate our everyday windows into other peoples’ worlds… only better.
19) Gosford Park (Robert Altman, 2001): Though it might appear at first glance to be an elegant British murder mystery, Gosford Park is actually a quite profound, moving, entertaining examination of class. Writ large with one of Altman’s trademark massive ensemble casts, Gosford boasts innumerable dynamo performances from the likes of Helen Mirren, Maggie Smith, and Kristen Scott Thomas.
18) No Country for Old Men (Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, 2007): On one level, this film is a pulsating cat-and-mouse thriller, but as it progresses we see that it is about much, much more. The presence and subsequent absence of violence as the film goes along reveals a white flag weariness that matches the arid and emotionless Texas landscape. It’s a film that intentionally refuses satisfaction or answers to its audience, leaving us, like the older characters in the films, to stand stumped and disillusioned by the mundane nightmares of our contemporary world.
17) George Washington (David Gordon Green, 2000): Green’s debut film is anachronistic (there are no computers or cell phones to be seen), but while it may not feel completely comfortable in the 21st century, neither does it feel at home in the 20th. The film is in some ways a lament for the “olden days” of green grass, safe streets, American dreams—but it is also looking away from all that—towards a new future that leaves behind the racial, relational, and economic strife of bygone days.
16) The Pianist (Roman Polanski, 2002): The ending of this film is pure catharsis. After two and a half hours of death and horror, our protagonist (Adrian Brody) is finally redeemed, and over the end titles, he performs Chopin’s magnificent Grande Polonaise for piano & orchestra with the Warsaw Philharmonic in a concert hall. Like the beautiful music played throughout the film, it is both sad and triumphant—equal parts emotional release and spiritual requiem for lost beauty and innocence. Very few films’ end titles are so riveting that not a single audience member leaves for five+ minutes.
15) The Son (Jean-Pierre Dardenne/Luc Dardenne, 2002): Aside from maybe The Road, there was no more beautiful a portrait of fathers and sons this decade than The Son, which is also the best European film of the decade. A film of great patience, restraint, and quietness (shot in the Dardennes’ trademark verite style) The Son spans the mundane rhythms of life and finds within it an abundance of grace.
14) The Departed (Martin Scorsese, 2006): This is a thoroughly contemporary film in both obvious ways (the importance of cell phones for the script) and on more subtle levels (the transnational migration of the film from the Hong Kong original—Infernal Affairs—is a decidedly recent phenomenon in cinema). Furthermore, the film’s urban, unrepentant nihilism feels quite authentic in the context of our current cultural quagmire.
13) In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar Wai, 2000): This haunting, dream-like film from Hong Kong (set in the 1960s) is an expression of love—not just the human experience of it, but also our memory of it and its cinematic expression. Thoroughly contemporary in its preoccupations with nostalgia and the urgency of remembrance, In the Mood luxuriates in the inherent sensuality of the cinema and the necessarily mournful implications of the filmic embodiment of time.
12) Old Joy (Kelly Reichardt, 2006): Coming out as it did at the height of Bush-era malaise, Reichardt’s impressive debut captured the emotional tenor of a generation (or a certain large swath of a generation) better than just about any other film this decade. Startlingly simple in story and form (embellished only by a gorgeous Yo La Tengo soundtrack), Old Joy nevertheless provides a striking meditation on things like time, aging, and the loss of idealism.
11) Dogville (Lars von Trier, 2003): Truly one of the most original films of the decade, both in its soundstage-and-chalk stylization and its high-minded allegorical ideals, Dogville is an arthouse epic if I ever saw one. Nicole Kidman as “Grace” is easily one of the juiciest roles of the 2000s, guiding us through a stunning film that on paper should fail spectacularly. But credit Lars von Trier that Dogville transcends pretentious gimmickry and manages to say some of the decade’s most daring and provocative things.
10) Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant, 2008): This is one of those films that had me silent and stunned for the entire duration of the closing credits. Though highly sensory and aggressively artistic, Paranoid also has a plot—a simple, devastating plot that will grab you and shake you and make you think about the deep interiors of your life that rarely get glimpsed. It’s a totally unique, thoroughly American masterpiece of the cinematic form that demands to be seen in HD and surround sound.
9) Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001): You don’t watch a David Lynch film because it makes sense; You watch it because it rings true. And with Muholland Drive–a film of extraordinary beauty, mystery and sadness–Lynch is at his truest. Aided by a breakthrough performance by Naomi Watts, Drive takes the audience deep into the subconscious interiors of Hollywood and the human condition. The “Silencio” interlude–among other moments in the film–is absolutely unforgettable.
8) There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007): There Will Be Blood is an American masterpiece–a Citizen Kane for the postmodern Net-generation. It’s a stunning, thoroughly modern work of art that paints a stark picture of what happens when greedy capitalism and power-mongering is bedfellow with something so contrary as Christianity. As the title forebodes, the results—for all parties involved—will not be pretty. Though not a political film in the traditional sense, Blood nevertheless acutely captures the blood-oil-Iraq-evangelicals-capitalism zeitgeist of Oughts-era America.
7) I’m Not There (Todd Haynes, 2007): This Bob Dylan biopic is not an easy film by any means, but it is a work of art. There is a lot to admire about the film’s style (cinematography, period costumes, stunning editing) and its acting (Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Richard Gere and especially Cate Blanchett), but the brilliance of I’m Not There is far less quantifiable. Just as the film—through the case study of Bob Dylan and the 60s—shows us how identity is an elusive thing in postmodernity, so too does it evade any typical conventions of story and cinema. Like the era in which it exists, I’m Not There is made up of disparate images, moments, sounds, feelings, frustrations—small pieces loosely joined by the fragmenting, universal quest for identity.
6) Moulin Rouge! (Baz Luhrmann, 2001): On the level of pure madcap entertainment, this is a brilliant film. But on a conceptual and technical level (i.e. fearlessly hyper-speed editing, audaciously anachronistic musical numbers, songs actually sung by actors!), Moulin Rouge is simply genius. It’s a risky film (as Luhrmann’s always are) that works as a mythic love story but also a pop culture pastiche, culling together a century of sights, sounds, glitz and glamour to forge an explosively cinematic feast for the senses.
5) Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004): This film, essentially an extended conversation between Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, is perhaps the most elegantly urgent film of our increasingly anxious historical moment. It’s about not letting things slip away in a world where second chances—where nothing, really—is guaranteed. Hawke and Delpy are the best romantic movie pair of the decade as they stroll along, in real-time, at Paris-at-sunset, talking life and philosophy and what has transpired for them in the decade since they last met (in 1995’s Before Sunrise). It’s simple, yes. But in a decade that has been anything but, “simple” is a welcome attribute.
4) United 93 (Paul Greengrass, 2006): 9/11 is the defining event of the 2000s, and United 93 is the best filmic representation of it. The documentary-style drama brings us viscerally back to the terror of that day, offering a disturbing glimpse inside the hijacked flight 93 as well as a resonant look at the unfolding chaos on the ground. As a painstakingly objective historical document of the decade’s most important day, this film is a triumph. As a heart-pounding, sweaty-palmed thriller about what existence becomes when teetering on the edge of non-existence, United 93 is a nearly unparalleled achievement.
3) The Lord of the Rings trilogy (Peter Jackson, 2001-2003): Taken as a trilogy, this WAS the decade in blockbuster filmmaking. Its unprecedented scale (three films shot back to back, totalling over ten hours of final film), coupled with Jackson’s meticulous artistry and the able hands of a fine ensemble cast, made these films more than just epic fantasy adventures; They are masterpieces of contemporary Hollywood filmmaking. I still remember where I saw each of these films for the first time, and where I saw each for the second and third time, etc. The films were a cultural event and are firmly engraved in the annuls of “Ought” history.
2) The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005): Malick’s fourth film–and arguably his most sprawling and fully realized–is an epic tale of love, life, growth and nature, set against an American orgins story: The legend of Pocohantas. But it’s not a film about what happens. It’s about what is. In a way that few directors can, Malick confronts us with the thingness of things–the reality of a flock of birds, or a lightening bolt, or a corsetted dress. It’s a film of poetic abstraction that expresses a universe of cohesion by stitching together tidbits of light and longing, in the same way that William Blake saw the whole world in a grain of sand. It challenges our notions of what a film should be, eschewing traditional norms of storytelling while opening the form up to new expressive potential.
1) Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003): There’s a brief interlude in the middle of this film in which Scarlett Johansson’s character sits against the window of her Tokyo hotel room, looking out on the gray, foreign skyline. As an instrumental Squarepusher song plays, a tender handheld camera gracefully surveys the scene–taking in the bird’s eye view of the city but also the figure of Johansson in the foreground. The camera’s attention seems torn between the force of the chaotic city (graciously subdued by the protective layer of glass) and the humanity of this lonely feminine figure. Simple and true as it is, this sequence captures the dialectical essence of Sofia Coppola’s breathtaking film. It’s a film about the triumph of intimacy in the face of crowdnessness, fleeting human connection against the villains of loneliness and time. It’s a film that–through exquisite mastery of sight and sound–viscerally binds us both to the joy and despair these characters (Johansson and Bill Murray) feel. By the end, as the Jesus and Mary Chain serenades a ghostly whisper tour of Tokyo at sunrise, we feel a sort of boozy morning-after solemnity. But we also feel the thrill of having broken through–just for a moment–the 21st century melee of arcade lights and existential anonymity.