Top 10 Films of 2000-2009
In a previous post I listed seven films from the past 10 years that I believed warranted Honorable Mention. Coming up with an actual Top 10 list was somewhat harder. After some thought the matter has finally been settled. These are the films that will always stick with me; they are expertly crafted and will remain an essential part of cinema lore decades from now.
10. Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (2001)
Lagaan is an interesting film. It is pure Bollywood in its sensibilities, but unlike many other Indian features contains no immense, illogical leaps in plot. It moves along briskly but thoughtfully, and still manages to clock in at just under four hours. The story centers around a poor village that is being persecuted by British occupation. Instead of fighting with weapons, however, the competing forces decide to settle the matter with a cricket match. The movie explains enough of cricket’s rules that American audiences will not be totally lost by the sport.
Gorgeous art direction combined with fantastic landscapes and the star power of Aamir Khan ensure that the film deserves its status as an epic. I will admit that I have a soft spot for the film and its subcontinental culture due to growing up in Pakistan, but aside from that the film still deserves praise. The production is fabulous, and the musical numbers are simultaneously catchy and memorable. It is an enjoyable film for a worldwide audience, and an effective introduction to the subcontinent’s culture and filmmaking for Americans and other Westerners who may be unfamiliar with that part of the world.
9. The Dark Knight (2008)
The superhero movie to end all superhero movies, The Dark Knight was an unstoppable juggernaut. It managed to rack up box office records while being critically lauded. The best part is that all the praise is deserved. Christopher Nolan took all the lessons he learned from Batman Begins, itself a very good movie, and managed to craft a mature, thought-provoking action film. Disregarding the hype surrounding Heath Ledger’s death, I found the character of the Joker to be one of the deeper elements of the film. He’s not a person, not a nutcase, not crazy; he’s an abstract idea that happened to find a body on Earth to inhabit. Anarchy and chaos, let loose on Gotham City. My favorite scene is when Batman (Christian Bale) confronts the Joker in his jail cell. The collision of two monumental personalities, each one personifying several conflicting aspects of the human condition, is thrilling and thoughtful. A complex and fitting climax caps off the second best movie of 2008.
8. WALL-E (2008)
The best film of 2008 is WALL-E. It also remains the best film Pixar has ever made. The opening half hour contains some of the most poetic imagery in recent cinema history. It is fascinatingly gorgeous and strikingly human, even though there is not a single person in sight. As the adorable little robot works at cleaning up the planet he points out some of what make humans human, and it is not just the large amount of trash they leave everywhere. As the film moves to the human population floating aboard a spaceship it does change tone slightly, but never feels false. The parody of the current human condition becomes quite humorous; a scene involving hoards of enormously fat people sliding helplessly across the deck is hilarious. WALL-E is sweet and charming, gorgeously rendered and directed, while managing to make some pointed comments about humanity. The preaching is never too heavy-handed, ensuring that WALL-E remains a fantastic film that has something useful to say.
7. No Country for Old Men (2007)
In the Coen Brothers oeuvre, two films stand above the rest: Fargo and No Country for Old Men. The former is a wonderfully dark comedy wrapped around a crime drama/thriller. The latter almost creates its own genre. It feels like a Western, but we know it doesn’t take place in the Old West. It has the requisite characters for a serial killer movie, but doesn’t play out as you might expect. It has some plot elements of a heist/cop drama, but doesn’t provide any easy answers. By not spoon feeding the audience, No Country for Old Men defies and transcends cinematic expectations. A main character dies, but the event is not even shown onscreen. A major confrontation late in the film remains ambiguous and vague. The entire film works thanks to strong performances from the cast, a tight screenplay that details some terrifying and realistic characters, and an impeccable production at the hands of the Coen Brothers. A slightly philosophical thread is woven throughout the film, providing a backbone for some of the violent and odd happenings. An unforgettable film.
6. Memento (2000)
Christopher Nolan’s followup to his debut feature, Following (itself a tight, well-paced crime drama), proved that he could tackle complex psychological issues while creating an exciting and memorable film. The narrative device of tracing the story backward may not be original in Memento, but it is used so effectively and purposefully that it feels like the story could be told no other way. Not only does Nolan present the end of the film at the beginning, but in doing so changes the nature of the mystery. The film remains suspenseful as it plays out backwards in spite (or perhaps because) of the fact that we already know the ending. A strong lead performance by Guy Pearce, with outstanding support from Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano, lends credence to the story. Memento is Nolan’s best film yet, though I will be excited to see if he can top himself with 2010’s Inception.
5. Spirited Away (2001)
Hayao Miyazaki is no slouch when it comes to animated films, and Spirited Away remains his most monumental achievement. The story is at once magical and touching. The artwork is gorgeous and evocative; its hand drawn beauty adds emotional depth that CG has been having trouble duplicating. As in other Miyazaki films, the characters are rarely black and white. The evil villains might not be as evil as you suspect and almost everyone has flaws. There are magical creatures, some benign, some seemingly malevolent, though all of them might be misunderstood. As Chihiro (Rumi Hîragi), the young protagonist, enters the magical spirit world, there is a sense of wonderment and awe that few films manage to conjure. Spirited Away is the first film I suggest to people as an entryway into any sort of anime, especially if their conceptions of the style have been negatively influenced by Saturday morning cartoons.
The whimsical and fantastical world of Jean-Pierre Jeunet realizes its true potential in Amélie. The fanciful tale of a shy girl living in a section of Paris is brought to life by her imagination and mischievousness. Audrey Tautou is adorable and crafty as she schemes against her cruel neighbors and forges relationships with her interesting neighbors, all the while pursuing the love she thought she would never find. The story may sound trite, but it works exceedingly well with Jeunet’s stylish directing. The sets are phenomenal, looking almost like a French comic book. The colors are bright and vivid, nearly the boldest I’ve seen since the days of The Adventures of Robin Hood from 1938. It would take a hard-boiled cynic to not fall in love with Amélie and the wonderful world she’s created with her imagination. The movie’s lingering impact can be felt even today, when films like Up in the Air [review here] reference its traveling gnome. A must-see for anyone feeling down about life.
3. Donnie Darko (2001)
Richard Kelly’s debut feature film is a technically marvelous achievement that explores philosophical issues of life, death, adolescence, and time travel. The themes sometimes seem as confusing as the film, though in the end it all becomes clear. Few films manage to weave giant bunny rabbits, invisible or not, successfully into their storyline; the only other film that succeeds is Harvey. Frank (James Duval) is an essential part of the film, much like Harvey is to Elwood P. Dowd if Harvey were malevolent. A remarkable supporting cast surrounds a great lead performance by Jake Gyllenhaal, including Patrick Swayze as a creepy motivational speaker. Scenes featuring the dance troupe Sparkle Motion are indelible; every time I see young kids being fussed over and put on stage I think of Daveigh Chase’s scenes as Donnie’s younger sister. The relationship between Donnie and Gretchen (Jena Malone) is honest, a more accurate depiction of teenage romance than most any romantic comedy. As a whole, Donnie Darko is greater than its individual parts. The philosophical science fiction aspects intertwines with the threads of romance and familial interaction in a touching and thoughtful way. Amazing direction by Kelly and an appropriate soundtrack (even if he couldn’t afford the songs he wanted at the time, and for which he had to wait for his Director’s Cut) round out an amazing experience, and one of the best movies of the decade.
2. Mulholland Dr. (2001)
David Lynch’s origins were minimal, one might say. He completed Eraserhead [review here] on his own, with no backing from any studio and no star power. An intense dedication to the art and complete obsession with his ideas and images enabled the film to become a reality. After his self-perceived failure with Dune [review here] he swore to ensure that he always retained final cut, a position that has enabled him to see his true vision presented on screen ever since. Mulholland Dr. may have been a failed television pilot for ABC, but thank goodness that it was. Lynch’s opportunity to rework the film, with the help of French distributor and production company StudioCanal, was a godsend, allowing him to take the film in a new direction, one of his own choosing.
This backstory might be interesting, but it does not explain why I love Mulholland Dr. so much. I will not pretend to know that I understand it all; Lynch himself has said that people much “think-feel” their way through the film, using their intuition as much as their minds to make sense of the entire movie. The film is primarily a mystery. Who is Diane Selwyn? What does the blue key indicate? What’s the Cowboy’s role in everything? But this mystery is not easily unlocked. It is greater as a mystery than it would be if it were solved, and that’s why Lynch refuses to discuss it. Some viewers might hate the film; their desire to know everything (see Spoorloos [review here] for an insightful look at the power of human curiosity) and understand how it fits together prohibits them from being enveloped in the world Lynch has created, stops them from appreciating the greatness of the mystery by forcing them to constantly search for meaning. On top of the thematic elements that I enjoy so much, the film is also masterfully crafted. Only the recent Antichrist [review here] has filled me with the kind of dread and horror the scene behind the diner invokes. The sense of the uncanny pervades the film, as nothing is quite as we would expect it to be. Rarely has there been a film this beautiful, magical, and mysterious.
1. Requiem for a Dream (2000)
No film has affected me as powerfully as Requiem for a Dream. Darren Aronofsky’s followup to Pi (itself a low-budget independent film, carefully crafted and paced much like Following) is a stark and haunting portrayal of four normal people helplessly addicted to various substances. The film begins in the summer, and life is good. Harry Goldfarb (Jared Leto) and his girlfriend Marion Silver (Jennifer Connelly) are helplessly in love; their scene flying paper airplanes atop a building is poignant and heartbreaking in light of what follows. Harry’s mother, Sara (Ellen Burstyn, robbed of an Oscar by Julia Roberts) is told by mail that she will appear on a television show. Widowed and alone, this is her last gasp at happiness and fulfillment. But first she must trim down in order to fit into her red dress. Meanwhile, Harry’s friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) hits upon an idea. Their recreational drug use might be a profitable venture if he can use his connections wisely. Following summer comes the fall, when things begin to spiral out of control for the four of them. As their situations become more dire they resort to more extreme measures, and after the fall comes the winter. There is no spring.
Aronofksy’s innovative camera work and expertise with actors helps support the story and the characters, and never once hits a false note. Clint Mansell’s soundtrack, performed by the Kronos Quartet, is the most haunting and effective musical score in the history of cinema. As the audience is sucked into the helpless and hopeless world of the characters it feels like there is no escape. The film is a bleak punch to the gut, one that can take days to get over after an initial viewing. It nearly brings me to tears every time I see it (only one film has honestly succeeded, The Children Are Watching Us), and every viewing is an immensely powerful and emotional experience. Requiem for a Dream is one of the greatest films of all time.