Because everyone else seems to be doing it, I’m jumping in here with my top 20 films of the last decade. And yes, I’m going 2000-2009 even though 2000 was technically the last year of last century. All the other lists are doing it, so I’m doing it, too. This is a very personal list and I recognize that most people would probably quibble with it. That said, I watch a lot, and I mean A LOT, of cinema, and if you missed any of these (including the honorable mention list), you should give them a shot some afternoon when you have a free hour or two. Personally, I think they all speak very well for themselves.
Also, I want to note, right here up front, that my favorite director, David Lynch, is shockingly absent from this list. The Naughts only produced two films of his – Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire. I still haven’t seen Inland Empire, and while I enjoy Mulholland Drive personally, I still don’t see it on this list. Had Lost Highway been made a little later, it would definitely make my top 20.
And with that, onto the list (chronological, then alphabetical within):
High Fidelity (2000) – A deeply American story in its pop culture language (which is ironic, since it is based on a British novel), High Fidelity embraces the self-absorbed, narcissistic, specialty geek asshole…and somehow makes him adorable. Only John Cusack could sell this one, and he does perfectly. Plus, to quote the film itself, “Because it's a brilliant film. It's so funny, and violent, and the soundtrack kicks fucking ass. I never thought I'd say this, but can I go work now?”
Memento (2000) – A fascinating neo-noir provides Chris Nolan’s breakout success and rewrites the narrative structure so profoundly that, even after a decade of film influenced by it, I still find it original. Of all of Nolan’s artful works, and I’ve seen them all, this is by far the best. Definitely worth the hype it received when it came out.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) – The Coen Brothers venture into musical land with this ode to the classics. This film is pure win. The story, the heavy Odyssey analogies, the music, the cinematography, the acting – wow. And I’m in favor of any film that can take a literary classic and make it accessible to modern audiences without a ton of blood and gore.
Wonder Boys (2000) – This wonderful film about the way life strangely works itself out and how we eventually find happiness if we let ourselves is a terrific and overlooked character piece. Everyone in it is stunning, from stars Michael Douglas and Tobey McGuire all the way down to Katie Holmes' tiny but winning role, but Robert Downey, Jr. steals the show here. If you’ve never seen it, you missed one of the decade’s best.
Moulin Rouge! (2001) – Ah, Baz Luhrmann! Again we have here a director I love, and of his short list of works, this is by far the best. The music, the costumes, the intensive color so over the top that the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” dance number is visually assaultive, and I mean that in a good way. Plus, the story is tragic, compelling, and beautiful. “Thank you for curing me of my ridiculous obsession with love!” And yet…more than anything, it makes you believe.
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) – Wes Anderson has a truly unique story telling approach, and of his tales, this is the one I find the most compelling. In a world where many of the characters are written for flat delivery of the most emotional lines, what makes The Royal Tenenbaums the true winner of all of Anderson’s efforts is the emotion shining through here, particularly in the performances of Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Gwyneth Paltrow, and especially Luke Wilson.
Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain (2001) – Fantastical storytelling has been a staple of the last decade, and I’d argue that Amélie helped that movement grow. Not only is it a great story with wonderful acting and cinematography, but was also wildly popular, which is a boon to film lovers everywhere by raising popular awareness of the joy and magic awaiting in foreign films.
Big Fish (2003) – Speaking of fantastical stories, Tim Burton’s best of the decade is easily Big Fish. When I saw The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, all I could think was that the film wanted to be Big Fish and just couldn’t get there. A fantastical and beautiful story that reminds us that magic is the stuff that our lives are made of, if we only know how to look.
House of Flying Daggers (2004) – Without a doubt, Chinese action cinema has had an impact on action films worldwide. Of the big three – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, and House of Flying Daggers – House of Flying Daggers has the best story and the most amazing fight choreography and cinematography. The use of color, which is critical in all three films, is at its most effective here as well.
Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2 (2004) – I think it’s impossible to evaluate either half of the Kill Bill duo without recognizing that the two really are halves of one whole. Quentin Tarantino somehow manages to create a film that has kick ass action, hilarity, and some truly moving moments – the coffin scene, the bathroom scene, etc. While I still think the two halves could have been collectively edited down to one much tighter film, I still find it one of the most compelling stories of the decade.
Brick (2005) – If Memento is genius because it takes traditional film noir and turns it on its head, then Brick is genius because it manages to be every bit the traditional noir while giving this murder mystery a unique setting – high school. From the fashion to the “snappy patter” dialogue, this film is full of traditional archetypes in a modern setting. Also, let it be know, if you ever want to identify the moment when Joseph Gordon-Levitt established himself as a true talent, look no further. He’s in basically every shot, in true noir style, and he carries every one of them beautifully.
Brokeback Mountain (2005) – Ang Lee’s bleak romance set against the big sky and rugged mountains of Wyoming manages to do something that few films do – it tells a story by showing the story, not through dialogue. The dialogue here is as sparse as those lovely mountains, and yet communicates so much emotion.
Conversation(s) with Other Women (2005) – You probably didn’t see this movie. I almost didn’t see this movie. Thanks to a friend who recommended it, I caught it on video when it was so far off the new release wall it was already on sale. Aaron Eckhart and Helena Bonham Carter play off each other perfectly, and while the unique running use of split screens to demonstrate the various emotions a single moment can hold might weaken a film with lesser stars, here it just makes the story stronger. A compelling tale of a love not quite meant to be, it is definitely worth watching.
Elizabethtown (2005) – Cameron Crowe has only directed six films, and three have been in the last decade: Almost Famous, Vanilla Sky, and Elizabethtown. When it comes to critical acclaim and grosses, Elizabethtown, starring Orlando Bloom as a failed shoe designer who takes one last trip to visit estranged family in Kentucky before his “dark date with destiny” and finds himself falling in love with a flight attendant (Kristen Dunst) along the way, is the flop of the bunch. Except that it isn’t. The story is one that perfectly captures the feeling of finding oneself at loose ends in your late 20s/early 30s and working out, on your own, how to find feelings of success, happiness, and contentment with your life and accomplishments even when you don’t know where you’re going. It is the most accessible of the three films, and a lovely tribute to the way meeting the right someone can give you a whole new perspective on where you’ve been and where you’re going.
Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) – It is a tribute to the incredible talent that is Mr. Clooney that he appears at least once on every “best of the last decade” list I’ve seen, and not always as an actor. Here he makes the list twice, once as the lead actor of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and here again, in the director’s chair. In a decade of outstanding historical film –from biopics ( Ray, Walk the Line) to politics histories (Milk, Forst/Nixon) to true crimes dramas (Zodiac) -- Good Night, and Good Luck is the best of the best. It manages to be historical, realistic, and exceptionally timely. While films like V for Vendetta extolled the virtues of big resistance, Good Night, and Good Luck tells the extraordinary story of people leading normal lives who risk everything in quiet rebellion to protect what they know is right.
Junebug (2005) – A bittersweet tale of instant attraction that fails to survive the big reveal of who the two lovers really are. Amy Adams completely deserved the win for Best Supporting Actress for this role, and if you missed this one, rent it. You missed a truly winning performance.
Casino Royale (2006) – Of all the big blockbuster action films made in the last ten years, Casino Royale makes the list because it manages to simultaneously be art and action. Here’s a franchise I never would have believed you could make good story telling from – all Bang! Whomp! Boom! for years – and then, suddenly, here it is: amazing action, equally compelling story.
Jesus Camp (2006) – Possibly one of the most profoundly disturbing documentaries made in the last decade. It is so difficult to watch, but also incredibly revealing about the modern evangelical movement and their systematic use of children in ministry. All you can do is wonder about what will become of these children, most of whom are homeschooled, as they grow older and have to interact with the world around them. In a post-Michael Moore documentary world, it is rare to see a documentary try to give an even-handed look at a heated political issue. That Jesus Camp makes an effective attempt to show its subjects in a sympathetic light is admirable.
Juno (2007) – In a decade of hipster teen romances, Juno shines the brightest because it manages to be self-absorbed without being obnoxious about it. (cough! Garden State cough!) I think the most perfect moment to sum up growing up is captured in the lines, “I was out dealing with things way beyond my maturity level." And that says it all.
Wall-E (2008) – I know a lot of people would put Up! or The Incredibles on the list instead, but I think anyone who does overlooks the fact that Wall-E manages to bring the silent film back for over half an hour at the beginning is crazy. Plus! In an era of "show all" sex and romance, here is a film that tells a beautiful love story which begins and ends with the simple and profound act of holding someone's hand.
Honorable Mention: Almost Famous (2000), Vanilla Sky (2001), The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), I Am Sam (2001), LOTR: Fellowship of the Ring (2001), Hero (2002), The Fog of War (2003), Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), Millions (2004), Walk the Line (2005), The Prestige (2006), Stranger than Fiction (2006), V for Vendetta (2006), 3:10 to Yuma (2007), Charlie Wilson's War (2007), Control (2007), The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), The Go-Getter (2007), Zodiac (2007), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), Frost/Nixon (2008), Milk (2008), Up (2009).
Most overrated? Lost in Translation (2003), Crash (2004), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), Slumdog Millionaire (2008).
There you have it. My best of the Naughts list. What did you love? What did I miss? I’m already looking forward to what comes next.