Today being the last day of the decade and all (yeah, that’s right), it’s the perfect time to start taking stock of the century of film. By which I mean not the last one hundred years, but the last ten years — the first decade of the 21st century.
It was an interesting decade for movies. Exciting new directors like Sofia Coppola, Darren Aronofsky, and Wes Anderson stepped up and made their marks, while veterans like Steven Spielberg, Steven Soderbergh, and those with completely different sounding names, emerged from creative slumps to show they’ve still got it. Both mainstream and independent films struggled to depict the conflicts that defined the decade outside the movie theater — wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Sudan, and military and police actions against terrorist groups all over the world — sometimes by focusing on the present, sometimes by turning their cameras to a seemingly simpler past. Filmmakers, studio executives and theater owners struggled to survive in a new and always changing economy where going to the movie theater seemed less important to the average American than it ever had. This decade saw box office grosses dip to all-time lows. It also saw the release of the second-highest-grossing film in American movie history, an exciting, challenging, brilliant piece of work called The Dark Knight — that didn’t make my list.
Must have been a pretty good decade.
Here, in chronological order of their U.S. release, with brief comments from me, are the 21 best films of the 21st century (so far).
Requiem for a Dream
Darren Aronofsky’s drug movie to end all drug movies, a devastating look at the destructive power of addiction, whether it’s heroin you crave or a spot on a cheesy TV show hosted by Christopher McDonald. Strong acting work by Jennifer Connelly, Jared Leto, and Marlon Wayans, and an absolutely amazing lead performance by Ellen Burstyn as Leto’s mother, who learns she has a chance to be on TV and promptly self-destructs. The Wrestler got more attention, but Aronofsky did no better this decade than Requiem.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
You’ll know you’ve achieved a certain level of proficiency as a filmmaker when you’ve made a martial arts epic with scenes of characters flying that is reminiscent of Casablanca and makes a great many in the audience cry before it’s over. I wondered back in early 2001 when I saw it for the first time if any other film in the coming decade could possibly be better than Crouching Tiger. Some were, but not many.
28 Days Later
It was a decade that saw the horror film come roaring back as a reliable box office draw. Unfortunately, most of the big money horror films were either grisly torture-porn franchises like Saw or Hostel, or remakes of classic horror films from the ‘70s. But one or two horror films came along this decade that were pretty great, this one being the first. Danny Boyle, who would later be showered in Oscars thanks to his Slumdog Millionaire, directed a cast that included Cillian Murphy and Brendan Gleeson in what turned out to be the best zombie movie in almost 30 years.
Lost in Translation
Before she screwed the pooch with her godawful Marie Antoinette, Sofia Coppola was having a pretty good decade, and it was all by virtue of this, her sad, funny and flawless second feature. Much has been said about the performances of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, and how skillfully the film simultaneously celebrates and pokes fun at Japan, but personally, I’m still bitter that this lost Best Picture to The Return of the King. Although really, now that I’ve had six years to brood over it, I think I ought to let it go. The Academy’s decision was understandable, afterall. Why honor a witty and bittersweet movie about human beings when you’ve got a 200-minute CG blunt object about hobbits and orcs, just dripping faux-profundity from every pore, sitting right there?
Gus Van Sant’s biggest critical and commercial success this decade was Milk, but his best creative work was done in his Death Trilogy, which also included Gerry and Last Days. They’re both excellent movies, and better still is Elephant, the chillingly detached presentation of an ordinary suburban American high school in the minutes leading up to a Columbine-style massacre. The kids are all unknowns, playing types more than individuals (the jock, the cheerleader, the photographer, the nerdy girl), making the most interesting character in the film Van Sant’s camera. It silently follows along behind the kids showing us everything they do, every detail leading up to the shooting, explaining nothing, smart enough to know that no explanation would do.
There are movies on this list because they are great art, and there are movies on this list because they made me laugh until I nearly pissed myself. Bad Santa’s the second one, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be the first one, too. Billy Bob Thornton wasted a lot of time making shitty music with the Boxmasters this decade, but he still found time to put in one of his best performances as a thoroughly miserable, alcoholic department store Santa Claus who plans to rob the joint after close on Christmas Eve. I love a good black comedy, and this is a great one.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Jim Carrey I can take or leave. Charlie Kaufman can stay, though. So can Michel Gondry, whose The Science of Sleep I also enjoyed this decade. Kaufman did great work before this (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation), but Eternal Sunshine combines his ability to create genuinely likable, sympathetic characters with his knack for narrative innovation better than anything he’s done so far. Most of the movie takes place inside the skull of Carrey’s sad-sack Joel, who has paid to have all memories of his former love Clementine (Kate Winslet) erased. Reliving the memories in his mind as they are obliterated one at a time, Joel decides he doesn’t want to forget Clementine afterall. But by then it’s too late. A thought-provoking meditation on the nature of love and memory that’s also hysterical.
Kill Bill, Vol. 2
The ‘00s were another great decade for Quentin Tarantino. He wrote and directed the underrated Death Proof for the Grindhouse double-feature, and just this year his long-in-the-works World War II movie Inglourious Basterds came out to a warm critical reception and good box office returns. But his best work was the two-volume Kill Bill, of which the better half was the second. Where the first half was a gleefully bloody tribute to the Shaw Bros. kung fu movies of the ‘70s, Vol. 2 plays more like a spaghetti western, with the hero (or heroine, in this case) stalking slowly toward her inevitable revenge. The scenes near the end between Uma Thurman and David Carradine are some of the best of Tarantino’s career.
Werner Herzog is known for making documentaries that aren’t always all that factual. He’ll film a subject as he tells his true life story, then lean in and ask the subject to tell it again, with suggestions for a few changes. Herzog didn’t have much opportunity to do that here; his subject, Timothy Treadwell, had been eaten by a bear two years before. Working with hundreds of hours of video footage taken by Treadwell during 13 years of camping in the so-called grizzly maze on the Alaskan peninsula, Herzog constructs a compelling film about a man to whom the bears meant everything, who found out the hard way that he meant nothing more to the bears than a source of meat.
Ang Lee’s second film on the list just goes to show how versatile he is stylistically, if not thematically. Despite the lack of flying and acrobatic swordplay, the story at the heart of Brokeback is the same as Crouching Tiger: two people whose love is doomed by both the world in which they live, and who they are. The posthumous win for The Dark Knight should have been Heath Ledger’s second Oscar.
Good Night, and Good Luck
George Clooney really grew on me as an actor this decade, something which, after Batman & Robin, I never thought would happen. But he really impressed me when he showed off his directorial game. Built around a great performance by David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow, Clooney’s film never overreaches, knows what it wants to do and does it, presented to us in beautiful black and white. The story, focusing on Murrow’s televised crusade against anti-communist witch hunter Senator Joseph McCarthy, was noted for its timeliness, and Strathairn was so good as Murrow that Keith Olbermann has been ripping him off every night since.
This one got a bit of attention for its unorthodox distribution — released to theaters and HDNet TV on the same day, and on DVD a few days after that — but it’s the movie itself, shot by Steven Soderbergh on a small budget with amateur actors, that deserved the hype. It’s a welcome reminder that it doesn’t take hundreds of millions of dollars and an army of special effects wizards to make a great film. All it takes is a story, and someone who knows how to tell it.
The best film about the events of September 11, 2001 isn’t about the World Trade Center, or the Pentagon, or the war that followed. It’s about the only plane hijacked that day that didn’t hit its target, and the passengers that fought back against their terrorist abductors. The film, featuring a mostly anonymous, unknown cast, shows us a credible recreation of events on United Airlines Flight 93 more or less in real time, depicting the combination of random chance (the flight’s take-off was delayed long enough for passengers to learn of the earlier attacks) and courage that allowed the passengers to rush the cockpit and go down fighting.
Away From Her
Julie Christie got a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her performance as a woman in the first stages of Alzheimer’s disease, but Gordon Pinsent, who played her husband and was every bit as good and better, got the shaft. As great as Christie is, it’s Pinsent’s sad eyes and golden voice I remember best from Sarah Polley’s outstanding directorial debut.
Little Miss Sunshine
A family comedy, a road movie, a brutal satire of the grotesque world of children’s beauty pageants — Little Miss Sunshine was all that and more, with Steve Carell, Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Paul Dano, and Alan Arkin all turning in great performances in another of the decade’s great black comedies — with the sunniest disposition of any black comedy I can remember. It’s one of my very favorite films.
The Lives of Others
This subtle and moving film about life in East Germany at the end of the Cold War is its director’s first. If Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck manages to make another film in his entire career as surprising, affecting and unforgettable as this one, he’ll have earned a place among the greats.
No Country for Old Men
I didn’t rank the list because the more I think about it, the sillier it seems to me. I mean, really, would putting Good Night, and Good Luck at #11 and Grizzly Man at #12 mean anything at all? Still, if you’re at all interested in what I thought was the best film of the ‘00s, it’s this one, No Country for Old Men. Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh is the best movie villain ever, Tommy Lee Jones and Josh Brolin are both great, and I love the ending, with the retired sheriff telling his wife about his dream. So there.
There Will Be Blood
For awhile there it looked like Paul Thomas Anderson’s best film of the decade was gonna be Punch-Drunk Love, his quirky romantic comedy starring Adam Sandler. And that would have been nothing to be ashamed of — it was a damn good film. Still, it was nice to see him return to Boogie Nights and Magnolia form with There Will Be Blood, a liberal adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!. Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano work so well together as oil magnate Daniel Plainview and revivalist preacher Eli Sunday that they should take their double-act on the road. I’d pay good money to see them re-enact that final scene live on stage.
In a decade that also included Borat, Superbad, The 40 Year-Old Virgin, and a shitload of other funny movies, it’s tough to pick the very funniest of them all. But I think it’s this one, Tropic Thunder, directed by Ben Stiller and starring Stiller, Jack Black, Nick Nolte, and Robert Downey Jr. as Oscar troll Kirk Lazarus, who takes his role as an African American sergeant in the Vietnam War so seriously he undergoes a skin-tinting process to alter his pigmentation. The whole movie is a scream, but Downey is so funny it’s hard to believe sometimes. Talk about a comeback.
Rachel Getting Married
The Dark Knight got all the attention, but the best film of 2008 was this closely observed drama about a family with two daughters — one getting married, one just back from rehab. There are great performances all around, especially from Anne Hathaway as recovering addict Kym, and Bill Irwin as her father, and the movie is filled from beginning to end with great music. The drama aside, this is the kind of wedding I wouldn’t mind being invited to. Why can’t they all just be like this one?
Let the Right One In
Speaking of great movies being passed over in favor of inferior alternatives, while Twilight was taking the world of 11-19 year-old girls and the parents who put-up with them by storm, this Swedish vampire film was quietly convincing critics and much smaller audiences that it had to be one of the greatest horror films ever made. Let the Right One In tells a similar story to Twilight — a young human is befriended by a vampire who appears to be a child of about the same age, but is actually much older, and also a ruthless bloodsucking machine. What sets this film apart from Twilight is the fact that it isn’t based on a novel written by a complete idiot. It also treats vampirism as something ugly and seriously scary, not a sexy and harmless twist on a tepid teen romance, and it was made by a director who clearly was interested more in doing good work than in picking the pockets of swooning Robert Pattinson fangirls.
Not such a bad decade, if I do say so myself.