30 Best Films of the 2000s (Part One)
— By Jose-Luis Moctezuma | December 15, 2009
Best-of lists are of course an imperfect science in which omission plays as much a part as inclusion. I have attempted here to make a universal list of the 30 Best Films of the Decade. The criterion is simple: those films which have advanced the cinematic arts into locales unvisited before or through methods unimagined, or which have made relevant statements on the spirit of the decade and the state of the globalized world as it appears to its authors and victims, are those which have been gingerly, sometimes painfully, squeezed into here. You might ask, why 30? There does indeed exist a list of 50 films, and also a list of 100; but once a list expands itself, it may never stop until it accounts for all those films which have even a minimal value to be gleaned. So 30 felt just as good a number as perennial favorites 10, 25, or 50. I have curbed myself on one point: a director whose work recurs on the list has to be limited to two films. I’ve also taken the liberty to compound films, sometimes by the same director, sometimes by two different, into one entry; the only reason for this is that the films are perceived to be of one feather in quality and type, and should be seen together. So without further ado, here’s the first part, numbers 30-21.
Feel free to drop comments (or vent indignation). Enjoy:
Any list which pretends to rate those films considered essential for the strange end-of-days decade that was the 2000s must either begin with this film, or end with it. I have chosen to begin it, albeit at number 30 (though it is the kind of ahistorical document that can be placed anywhere in a series), with the film that – more so than the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Spider-Man franchise, or the multitude of other blockbuster movies that reigned in the collective pop-unconscious – harmonized the cerebral interests of a born filmmaker with the collective interest of the Hollywood war machine. The Dark Knight was the event film of the decade that managed to surpass its glamour, transcend its fiscal aims, and cement a new standard in not only action filmmaking, but also in the unapologetically sacrosanct (and exclusively American) concept of the superhero. Batman has by now eclipsed Superman and all other modern-mythical heroes. It is a matter of contemplation to consider the remarkable trajectory that has brought Christopher Nolan from the independent, low-budget opus Following to the very pinnacle of studio-backed film art. TDK is the 2nd highest grossing domestic film in history, and it is also proof that the Hollywood spectacle is capable of producing monolithic, Gilgamesh-sized statements.
Films about the Holocaust are, for better or worse, prepackaged with a set of emotions that cannot fail to elicit prejudices of the strongest kind. Everyone holds a vested opinion on what the most humane (or, more perniciously, ‘the best’) film was which had the Holocaust as its origin or its end: for some Schindler’s List was the definitive statement, and for others Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah reached levels of human authenticity that could not be simulated; still others would have the courage to declare Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog as the soul of what Giorgio Agamben described as the “unspeakability” which all Holocaust survivors cannot, nor desire to, overcome. The Pianist is the work of a famed artist who happens to be both a Holocaust survivor and a man wanted for a sex crime. If these facts are enough to produce cognitive dissonance in the acceptance of the film’s value as authentic art, neither of them suffices to explain what exactly sets The Pianist apart from films of its type. It is neither a sentimentalized film nor one of patent tragedy; it gradually mobilizes the particulars of its plot away from the horrific rituals of the concentration camp; it whittles down the ‘drama’ (or what little there is of it) to the very core of an emotion that is as unspeakable as it is invisible to us. Adrien Brody, playing the actual-life character of pianist and survivor Wladyslaw Szpilman, eventually subsides into silence, into the madness and sorrow of hunger and deracination, and gives himself over to that instinctual automation, that whittling down of the spirit which is called, for lack of a better word, ‘perseverance’. In making a film of profoundly tangential pathos, Polanski – who holds the right of experience to render a statement on survival – chooses to respect that unspeakability which only survivors comprehend. Polanski (the artist, and not the man) gives us instead of words, the hands of memory that play Chopin’s Ballade no. 1; instead of horror, the grace – which, for lack of a better word, we call ‘art’ – whose peace endures and passes all understanding.
If The Royal Tenenbaums is not singly responsible for authoring the style that an entire body of sleek TV commercials and indie-hipster artifacts now follows, it is certainly the epitome of the American ironic tragedy. That it can be simultaneously stylized and sincerely heartfelt is what distinguishes it from other lesser films; such is the unmistakable talent of Wes Anderson, perhaps the most reliably entertaining American-born director working today. The darkness and pain of familial conflict that the film cleverly disguises in pop music and nouveau eccentricity are here and there exposed by a deft use of photography, color-coding, and fashion-plate theatricality. Its humor is black, but sugared with the milk of dandyish frivolity.
If Wes Anderson’s two-dimensional aesthetics and choreography describe the loneliness inherent in the characters and their relationships to each other, then Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale strips them of their fashion and tongue-in-cheek bohemianism. Baumbach’s film is basically The Royal Tenenbaums removed of its levity and manicured irony, without losing any of its sincerity. The Squid and the Whale represents the photographic negative that lies beneath the pastels and hipster-eloquence of Anderson’s film; yet both share joint custody over the burdens and heartbreaks of a broken home trying to settle with its past mistakes. The two form a dual portrait of the modern American hipster-intellectual family:
While the Coens have been making films of high quality since the 80s, it appeared that they had lost something of their passion for high-tension suspense in their most recent films. The late manifestation of No Country for Old Men then seemed anomalous. It is likely their most brutally violent film (as savage, if not more so, as Blood Simple or Fargo) and it is also among their most enigmatic. Though reputed to adapt Cormac McCarthy’s novel fairly accurately, the Coens’ treatment greatly magnifies the existential substance of the book to an alarming degree. The Coens’ severe penchant for violence and nihilism (the film ends on a mother of anticlimaxes) translates the veneer of the book’s doom into a commentary on the end of western values in general. If the book wished to evoke the nostalgia of Yeats’ poem for “what is past, or passing, or to come,” then the Coens’ adaptation makes a similar statement on the passing of the Western genre in film. It is a Western about the end of Westerns. Tommy Lee Jones’ Ed Tom Bell is the sheriff of a cinematic world whose values of justice and retribution have been consumed by the dislocation of violence; soulless violence, meaningless violence. Ed Tom Bell’s (and Llewellyn Moss’s) great High Noon showdown never arrives: the good guy dies an unceremonial offscreen death, and the culprits don’t even get a name. The times of John Wayne and Gary Cooper are over: if they had lit the candle that led the way across dark roads, the darkness and uncertainty of a vast globalized world has snuffed those heroic campfires out of existence.
Historically speaking, the end of the French New Wave was announced by Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore. It carried out its execution with a bleakness at that time unimaginable, but still traceable in the contemporaneous work of Jacques Rivette, Alain Resnais, and Jean-Luc Godard. Here and there the destandardization of classical film tropes which defined the New Wave was assimilated by the efforts of emergent film cultures in the non-West who in turn, ironically, standardized the same anarchic ideals. The New Wave would not appear (wholesomely anyway) in Europe for some time. Then, Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003) came on the horizon, invigorating an interest in reassessing the ideological and emotional nature of the 60s’ revolutionary youth (those who would consume the films that comprised the New Wave, who were shaped by it). Philippe Garrel’s Regular Lovers is not only a work inspired largely by the cadence and melancholy of The Mother and the Whore – taking up its themes of isolation, lovelessness, and the unpleasant tide of reality encroaching upon the dreams of bourgeois-radicals, with an expressive gusto – it is also a response to two of Bertolucci’s films: The Dreamers (which it markedly improves upon, and uses Phillipe Garrel’s actor-son, Louis Garrel, in the lead role), and Before the Revolution (which it, in a manner quite Nouvelle-Vague, cites directly). As such, Regular Lovers hypothetically goes under an alternate possible title: After the Revolution. It captures in florid black-and-white elliptical lightness, the gentle sorrowful hapless suicide of an entire race of youths abandoned by the failure of a bogus, opium-fueled revolution. For after the revolution, if love no longer occupies ‘the ideal bed,’ what else awaits, what else but death?
With perhaps the exception of Bong Joon-ho, Park Chan-wook may be South Korea’s most technically gifted director. If at times his mastery of cinematic pyrotechnics overwhelms the emotional life of his characters, the velocity with which he speeds along his subjects disorients the viewer enough to have her hallucinate valid otherworldly insights. Oldboy remains his magnum opus for this reason. Despite its Korean manufacture, it is a film that seems as much Japanese as it does Korean: the futurity that makes Japan’s manga culture so vibrant and labyrinthine is not lost upon the Korean director. Adapted from a manga by Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi, Park Chan-wook’s film energetically transfuses the realm of the graphic novel into the cinematic with far more facility and, indeed, with far more hyperactive shock-and-awe, than either Zach Snyder’s 300 and Watchmen or Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City. Oldboy was famously hyped by Quentin Tarantino for good reason: it is as violent, and as brilliantly realized, as the American director’s best work.
There is no film in recent memory which has synthesized stomach-churning scenes of violence and brutality with deftly-orchestrated spurts of feel-good charm and humor as well as Fernando Meirelles’ City of God. Its uniqueness derives from its ambidexterity in this respect. It is the prototype that presaged the make and success of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, and one of those films which not only everyone has seen, but everyone has loved equally and seen at least twice. The reason for this lies not in its profundity (of which it has very little for moving so fast) but in its urgency to introduce the realism of poverty in a manner consistent with the perceptions of those who do not understand what poverty really feels like. It is, thus, a work of fantastic hyperartifice, in which the favelas come alive with a sheen of lurid sun, gunfire, and smiling charismatic cold-blooded assassins.
The title of the film is taken from a lyric in Jacques Dutronc’s song, “La fille du Père Noël,” a garage-rock track that the protagonist in Jacques Audiard’s exquisite film happens to listen to in one scene. The same protagonist – named Thomas Seyr and played by a De Niro-channeling Romain Garis – also happens to be a former classical pianist, whose current day-job is brutalizing and running poor immigrant squatters out from uninhabited apartment complexes in Paris. The dichotomy that splits Thomas’ psyche is explained away by a rather trite concept: his deceased pianist mother, whose hands and gift for classical repertory he’s inherited, and his still-living, thieving, problematical father, whom Thomas is forced to look after and from whom he’s inherited a taste for brutality and criminal work, are the two forces that dominate his life. The film is a remake of James Toback’s Fingers, starring Harvey Keitel, but here is one of the rare occasions in which a remake not only improves on the original, but so thoroughly capitalizes on the same themes as to permanently replace Toback’s original conception. Audiard’s vision is graceful at the same time it is brutal, and the film boasts composer Alexandre Desplat‘s best work so far, a score that glistens on the windowpane during surreal moments of pause in a battered high-speed life. The balance achieved by Duris’ gutsy charismatic performance and Audiard’s effortless direction should be emulated by any filmmaker of taste. I have not yet had the opportunity to see his latest, A Prophet, which won the Grand Prix at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, but it is my great expectation that the new film will solidify once and for all that Jacques Audiard is the most talented and exciting French-born director working today.
Despite having directed exceptional films before like A Little Princess and Great Expectations, Alfonso Cuarón came to the attention of the American public with the release of his celebrated Y tu mamá también (a film which would have made this list had it grown to 50). Notwithstanding the energy and short-story-compacted excellence of that Mexico-based film, Cuarón’s Children of Men, a film distributed by an American company, directed by a Mexican director, and taking place in a Great Britain of the immediate dystopian future, has shown itself to be the director’s greatest achievement thus far. The film is not so important for its socio-political themes – its commentary on the impending atmosphere of terrorism and the world’s pressing fear of extinction – and in fact says very little that we do not already imagine. The film, rather, is an achievement of a profoundly technical order: its visual mechanics are among the best in action-capture and cinematic experimentation to date. No one had thought that Cuarón – a director who was professedly an independent ‘auteur,’ who had flirted with major studio work on the Harry Potter production, almost as a kind of training, before taking on Children of Men – was capable of Spielbergian, James Cameron-like innovations in camera rhythm and kinetics. The film employs some of the best one-take tracking shots in cinema history; the inside-the-smart-car revolving-camera set-piece is already one which will inspire numerous imitations. Slavoj Zizek contributed an illuminating commentary on the philosophical and cinematic features that separate Children of Men from other dystopian films of recent times; notably among his insights is the claim that Children of Men, despite all appearances, is really a virtual remake of Y tu mamá también, another film in which the friction of foreground and background creates a shifting panoply of illusions and revelations about the characters and the world they navigate.
P.T. Anderson had not made a film for five years when he made There Will Be Blood. According to a story read some time ago (but now I can’t manage to find it), Martin Scorsese invited Anderson for a showing of John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a film that afterwards stuck in Anderson’s mind and inspired the plot of There Will Be Blood. Whereas in Huston’s film the loss of man’s good was the gain of gold, Anderson’s vision replaced the element of gold with the profit of oil, and put Daniel Day-Lewis in the shoes of Humphrey Bogart. If Anderson, by seeking to reproduce the majestic impersonality of Huston’s great film, attempted to do away with the quirks that signified his brand of filmmaking (so prominently on display in films like Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love), he succeeded in crafting a film so unlike anything he’s done before. Regardless of the faults that sink the congested conflicted conclusion of the film (in which a visibly and psychologically overwhelmed Paul Dano attempts to compete with an incomparable, bigger-than-life Daniel Day-Lewis), the first two hours that make up There Will Be Blood are sublime Kubrickian filmmaking. It is a work in which its greatnesses are so magnificent, its cinematic genius so ostensible, as to outweigh the disproportionately talky (and necessarily bloody) denouement. What Anderson accomplishes with the slightest dramatic involvement — with the spellbound movements of speechless laborers and the methodical pumping of oil drills — and what Day-Lewis fabricates in the mythical character of “oilman” Daniel Plainview from the deep wells of misanthropy and wrath, is the single great two-act performance of the decade. And the bristling, chill-inducing, heart-bracing, Shostakovitch-touched score by Radiohead’s mad-genius Jonny Greenwood, is perhaps the best score/soundtrack of the decade. There Will Be Blood, finally, is a chronicle of the history of the true founding fathers of the nation: the self-made oil barons and 2nd generation industrial tycoons who would become corporate tyrants, and of the tyrants who would become kings in a land slowly drained of the milkshakes that honest toil buys.
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