I was just under 11 years old as we entered the 2000s, and in the last decade I have made it my mission to fill the space in my mind that should be reserved for academics to remembering the details of far too many films. In looking back upon this decade, it seems that we’ve had quite a good chunk of time for movies — there are only two years absent on my top ten list: 2000 and 2005, while 2006 is represented by three films. I still cheated, though, by extending my list to eleven entries. Some were just too good to decide between.
I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. And before you start — don’t cry. The Dark Knight isn’t on here.
11. The Royal Tenenbaums – 2001
Spoiler: you’re going to find that comedy is slightly underrepresented on this list, with Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums perhaps the closest film to true comedy. It’s hard for me to argue that Tenenbaums is a comedy, however: darkly humorous and incredibly insightful, this is Anderson’s strongest film, and the one I enjoy revisiting most often. While his other films have found themselves meandering at points (The Darjeeling Limited) or even bogged down by the director’s unique style (The Life Aquatic), The Royal Tenenbaums is a masterpiece, hitting every pitch perfect note and evoking one of the best performances in Gene Hackman’s career. The Tenenbaums feel exaggerated and real, cartoonish and simplistic, honest and ludicrous — we, as the audience, get the best of both worlds.
10. Finding Nemo – 2003
Pixar owned the family film marketplace in the 2000s, beyond the shadow of a doubt. Still, there’s huge debate as to what their best output has been. Some people (like myself, most of the time) will return their favor to childhood preference and say Toy Story; others would love to buy Brad Bird a steak dinner just for creating The Incredibles. In the 2000s, though, my attention is drawn to the trio of Finding Nemo, Wall-E, and this year’s Up. Where Nemo succeeds and the others fail is in consistency: I love Wall-E to death, but the back end simply doesn’t live up to the silent film beauty of the first half. It’s dynamic and wonderfully crafted, but I feel a part of myself wince every time we arrive on the Axiom with Wall-E, knowing the best moments of the film have already transpired. Up has a similar problem: while I’ve greatly attached myself to Ed Asner’s Carl (the opening scenes of the film are as emotionally moving as you’ve heard them to be), by the time we’re watching dogs flying airplanes, I’ve become nostalgic for the film’s simpler moments.
Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich’s Finding Nemo, however, has no extraneous moments. To all intents and purposes, Nemo is as close to the definition of a perfect animated film as we were privy to in the 2000s, and likely it will remain that way until Pixar tops themselves. Marlin, Dory, and Nemo are such well fleshed-out characters that they challenge any others on this list, and the story they tell is immaculately paced. Humorous where it needs to be and poignant as well, Finding Nemo is, for my dollar, Pixar’s best and most well-rounded film of the decade.
9. 25th Hour – 2002
Along with shifting the game in every other conceivable way, the events of 9/11 implicitly and explicitly maneuvered American filmmaking into dark territory — a focus that culminated in a vitrolic anger exposed in films such as The Dark Knight and No Country For Old Men.
Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, the first film to shoot in New York City after the attacks, says more about the uncertain post-9/11 landscape of America than any other film, simply by placing the unmentioned spectre of the event in the background. Lee’s examination of the last free days of a regretful drug dealer (Edward Norton, in a characteristically sublime performance) would function perfectly alone, but the oppressive tone and setting of 25th Hour elevate its status to that of greatness. Lee slips the viewer into the shoes of his characters, and the sense of dread he presents is palpable, honest, and relateable. The work of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper and Rosario Dawson is exquisite, but the true character of the film is the city under our troubled characters’ feet.
8. Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno) – 2006
With Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo Del Toro elevated himself from the position of artistic mastermind to that of brilliant storyteller, while retaining his gothic, earthy and Lovecraftian sensibilities. I recommend shutting off the subtitles on this Spanish-language film and investing yourself in the beauty of the events that transpire, the nuance of the performances (both human and imagined).
In terms of sheer elegance, Pan’s Labyrinth was challenged by only one contender in this decade, and that film is on this list. Like a classic fairytale, Del Toro weaves the story of a young girl’s escape from the horrifying reign of her father in post-Civil War Spain within a lucid dream state that is glorious and frightening. On a superficial level, the film could be appreciated solely for its aesthetics, but buried beneath its beauty is a labyrinth of thematic meaning told in precisely the way film was designed for — we are shown, not told; dialogue is secondary to emotion here.
7. The Departed – 2006
In the wake of critically applauded but popularly questioned films like Gangs of New York and The Aviator, how is it possible that Martin Scorcese made The Departed, a sprawling modern day crime drama that reached right back to challenge Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas for the ranks of his best achievements?
The answer: Marty never lost it. With Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Martin Sheen and Jack Nicholson in tow, he simply returned to the genre that lends itself most readily to his sensibilities. With this remake of the 2002 Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs, the director transcended what has seemed impossible since the days of Michael Mann’s Heat by crafting a taut, engaging, complex and entertaining crime film. Intricate but never convoluted, The Departed throws its viewers into the dangerous yin and yang of lawmen and criminals, while ratcheting up the stakes every five minutes. The Departed deserves a spot on this list simply for being one of the most visceral and envigorating theatrical experiences of the decade, but it also achieved the impossible: transforming DiCaprio from a pretty boy into a quotable, bad-ass staple of frat guy pop-culture.
6. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford – 2008
Forget party lines: the biggest mistake of 2008 didn’t involve an election, politics, a declining economy or Somalian pirates. Instead, the largest travesty was that even Brad Pitt’s name wasn’t enough to prevent The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford from slipping through the cracks. Simply put: Assassination is the best film of the decade that most folks haven’t seen, criminally robbed of its chance at Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best … well, everything status. From the brilliant score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis to its vibrant cinematography to its morose and eloquent performances by Casey Affleck and Sam Rockwell, the film is immaculate. To imagine that length — length of title and length of running time (clocking in at over 2.5 hours) — were the main barriers between Andrew Dominik’s film and greatness is truly a disaster. Hopefully time will shed light on the film, giving Assassination its true place in film history.
5. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – 2004
Countless films have been made that meditate on the relationship between love and loss, but never have the lines between the two been more inventively blurred than in Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Besides extracting from Jim Carrey the best performance of his career this side of Lloyd Christmas, director Gondry succeeded in using the medium of film to dwell on the implications of losing a relationship with a frenzied style that makes the resonance of the film immediate. Hilarious and heartbreaking, Eternal Sunshine is Kaufman’s most accessible and resonant piece of writing, showcased in a film that centers on two great performances — those of Carrey and Kate Winslet — which would be at home in a stage play. Gondry’s work exhibits more depth than any “romantic comedy” we’re likely to see for quite some time.
4. Inglourious Basterds – 2009
While I may be showing my hand in regards to what I consider to be the best film of this year, I simply can’t claim that anything else in 2009 matched the amount of filmmaking prowess on display in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. While critically and popularly supported, many toss off the film as another pulpy bit of silliness from the writer and director.
To say this is all that’s present within Basterds is a disservice to a film that calls a history of film violence into question, while serving as criticism of the entire history of the art form, from silent film to slapstick to Tarantino’s own career. While I’ll have more to say on the subject when I revisit the film for my top ten of 2009, for now it will suffice to say that this is one of the best films about film in existence, in the same realm as Nuovo cinema Paradiso. Thus far, it may be the pinnacle of Tarantino’s work.
3. The Fountain – 2006
From my original write-up on Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain:
“The Fountain is a storybook movie, about love and death, life and loss, and a battle to preserve the essence of what matters in human existence while warding off trivial fights that divide us from the people and things we love most. To see The Fountain is the equivalent of watching a painting ooze and drip into an open wound, enhanced by sparse dialogue and a beautiful score by Clint Mansell. Since its release, it’s been the subject of praise and derision, earning as many near-perfect scores as it has been dubbed ostentatious and muddled in surrealism.
But really, when is art not ostentatious? To risk spending millions of dollars making a film about life is surely that, in concept. But what Aronofsky does best is skirt just this side of the line in melodrama, where the effect is at its most heartfelt and honest. He does so consistently, from Requiem for a Dream to The Fountain to The Wrestler. He has a way of so clearly folding the hands of life and death over each other, making them counterparts, that if one isn’t moved in one way or another, they’re inhuman. It’s an astounding accomplishment on every level. It can be valued aesthetically, spiritually, from the standpoint of its performances. It’s as deep or as shallow as you’re willing to let it be — and the mysterious nature of its story is only an outlet for Aronofsky to dwell on some of the deepest elements of the human experience.”
2. No Country for Old Men – 2007
It’s hard to extract a “best” from the Coen Brothers’ history of work, because they release every other year what would be considered a masterpiece for any other director. In the case of 2007’s No Country for Old Men, however, their Academy Award for Best Picture was well-deserved to say the least. No Country may very well be the darkest road the Coens ever lead their characters down. The film is a bleak examination of human greed and the solitude of each human being’s existence, championing a sense of moral absense or nihilism that could only be present in a world with no guiding force but human (mis)deed. With Cormac McCarthy’s help, the Coens’ minds sprang forth to reveal their nightmarish, apathetic vision of the world, and this powerful film is the result.
1. There Will Be Blood – 2007
Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood could easily have been directed by Stanley Kubrick. This isn’t an inventive observation; countless critics drew stylistic parallels between Anderson’s examination of an oil tyrant and the oblique works of Kubrick, and rightfully so. There Will Be Blood is the sharpest, most frightening work that appeared in the past ten years. It is the best film of the decade.
Many complain about the relative lack of forward momentum in the film, but they’re missing the point. This film is a character, brought to life by Daniel Day-Lewis in such a pitch-perfect performance that I’d be hard pressed to find a better one that’s come from the actor or this decade. Behind the veil of Daniel Plainview’s greed and loss of humanity is a film that seems to propel itself by the fuel of its own soul. Every detail, from camera placement to choice of score, is so well-selected that There Will Be Blood straddles the precipice of perfection, to an extent that is hard to describe without viewing the film for one’s self.
This ambiguity is ultimately the reason I chose There Will Be Blood for the top slot. There is a sense that the film breathes on its own, and sucks me back in for reasons that I can’t quite explain. This power — a word that could summarize both the theme of the film and its overlying resonance — has drawn me back repeatedly, and will undoubtedly continue to do so.