Our Favorite Movies of the 2000s

It has been a few years since the end of the 2000s, which gives a crucial amount of distance when examining that decade in movies.  It has also given us time to watch quite a few more that we either hadn’t seen (Dogville) or hadn’t had enough time to see again (A Serious Man).  When looking back I (Matt) realized that my new choices were almost completely different or rearranged in order, not to mention my rapidly changing taste and appreciation of movies.  Here is a new list, compiled by me and our new writer, Sam Tunningley.


1. Mulholland Dr. (2001)- Mulholland Dr.’s appeal is made of the very things that tend to overwhelm and frustrate most who try to approach it. It can seem opaque in many moments, maybe even incomprehensible to some by the end, and it is one of the most brazenly personal and bizarre films to be marketed through a major studio. Lynch almost always uses dream logic as a guiding force through his work, and the narrative here is no different, simultaneously having one foot in lucidity and one foot in abstractedness. It is a puzzle film where the solution is not sought through explanatory means—rather, it is the fine details, such as the rich hues of its interiors or the Jitterbug sequence that opens it, that are key to unraveling its mystery. This is not so much meant to frustrate or provoke than it is to demonstrate film’s capacity for recreating dreams. It gives us broken desires in Hollywood and terrifying visions behind a diner through a stream of imagery that can turn from seductive to otherworldly to outright horrifying. The performances (Watts, in particular) lunge from intentionally artificial to bracingly real, masterfully taking on the wide and exhausting emotional terrain of the director’s vision. It is a perfect rendering of the dreamy universe that Lynch has been working toward his entire career, a perfect realization of the material by all involved, a flurry of abstract imagery and complex emotions—a perfect movie.


2. Dogville (2003)- Lars von Trier’s other notable provocations from this decade, Dancer in the Dark and Antichrist, stand on either side of this masterful battle cry against American exceptionalism.  Grace (Nicole Kidman) finds herself at the mercy of small town America after fleeing from gangsters and asking for refuge; a quintessential tormented von Trier protagonist.  Dogville looks like an ant farm when shot from above, thanks in no part to the nearly empty sound stage von Trier shot it on.  The outsider soon finds herself unwelcome in this self-sustaining microcosm of Christian goodwill, and the townspeople use democracy to slowly descend into sadism.  Grace eventually becomes their prisoner and slave, with a weight chained to her neck to prevent her from escaping.  It’s all so absurd when being written out, but it plays out with an idealistic ferocity matched only by its visual and situational audacity.  Instead of being pushed to the edge of oblivion and then killed, Grace pushes back in one of the most gruelingly Old Testament revenge sequences in cinema.  As the critic J. Hoberman remarked in his review: God shed his Grace on thee.


3. There Will Be Blood (2007)- This volatile epic from Paul Thomas Anderson sat at the top of our previous “Best of the 2000s” list.  While it has fallen two slots, it is still far and away one of the great American films of the past 10-15 years.  Fueled by a gargantuan performance from Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood is the story of capitalism at its most primal stage, where the earth can literally be mined and tamed into vast wealth.   Day-Lewis’ oil baron Daniel Plainview is a post-modern Citizen Kane; a man whose sole ambition is to make enough money to get away from everybody, and who has no past to cling to.  He clashes with an old-time preacher (Paul Dano) who wields what power he can to get a piece of the black gold.  Anderson has reduced the ideological lobbying titans of modern American politics into a frontier battle where law is still being carved out.


4. Zodiac (2007)- Serial killers fascinate us.  David Fincher knows this, as proven by Se7en, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and this film, so far the best of his seemingly unstoppable cinematic hit streak.  Zodiac is not about the grueling reward of on-screen murder, but the gradual erosion that time has on people looking for answers.  Sure, he stages the infamous California killer’s murders with gruesome efficiency, but they end before the first hour.  Like Robert Graysmith (played in the movie by Jake Gyllenhaul), Fincher is obsessed with minute detail, the way a suspect arrogantly crosses his legs during questioning or the way each character smokes a cigarette or drinks.  He also conjures up an authentic (and authentically cinematic) version of the ’70s, which remains stable even as the movie shifts from the everyday to the sinister.


5. Caché (2005)- Surveillance video as a horror device was explored in Lynch’s Lost Highway back in 1997, but Michael Hanke’s 2005 film Caché takes it one step further, using them in an intricate and elegiac mystery about childhood regret. It is the director’s masterpiece, a political and dread-laden movie where his ascetic style seems daring and appropriate. The story concerns an upper-class couple, played by Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche, who begin receiving mysterious surveillance tapes of their homes. The movie’s central question is figuring out who is behind the tapes, something that is cryptically answered in a blink-and-you-miss-it twist at the very end. The answer to this question, however, is only one piece of the story, and Hanke is masterfully patient at stripping away each layer to reveal the potent and tragic story at the story’s heart. It also contains one of the single most disturbing death scenes ever filmed—a suicide sequence that is wholly shocking in its incredibly sordid and weighty implications.


6. Yi Yi (2000)- Both an ode to family and a beautiful portrait of Taipei, Edward Yang’s Yi Yi is quiet yet deeply affecting.  Describing the depth of Yang’s accomplishment is difficult because the movie seems so simple at first glance.  In between a wedding and a funeral, a middle-class Taiwanese family grows together while each member also becomes more distinct.  With nearly every line, gesture and look, Yi Yi conveys growth in the context of a whole, either a small familial one or the vast, beautiful urban sprawl of the city and the world.


7. Lost In Translation (2003)- It’s hard to think of anyone who has had such an adept turn-around as Bill Murray. He steadily began to take on late-career roles that carry a much larger dramatic weight, breaching his funnyman reputation and showcasing a more understated, even tragic, personae. Bob Harris, his character in Lost in Translation, is not tragic by any means, but Murray brings the necessary longing that he requires. He has weary eyes that can be deftly humorous one moment, only to bring about a strong sadness in the next. Under the right director, Murray is a star in the truest sense, and, thankfully, he had the opportunity to collaborate with Sofia Coppola, this wonderful movie being a career best for both (so far). I can’t think of a more profoundly romantic and beautiful film made in the aughts, and it seems to deepen with each viewing. The romance that blossoms between the two characters is without sex—they are connected by a mutual desire to be with a kind soul in an unfamiliar world. They are aware that it can’t last forever, but they are content with just being in the moment and exploring the sights and sounds of bustling Tokyo together. The film is very notable for announcing a major directorial talent (Virgin Suicides didn’t get nearly as much attention), but it also introduced a brand of slow and thoughtful filmmaking to a more mainstream audience. Around its release, I remember several people saying that it was the most boring film ever made. For me, it was quite the contrary—I can think of few other movies more exciting to experience.

George Washington

8. George Washington (2000)- David Gordon Green’s story is one of great tragedy. Watching George Washington now, it seems impossible that this young talent fell into this unfortunate groove of lowbrow comedy later in the millennium after this masterpiece early on. It is a film that is equal parts tender, mythic and oddball—one of the finest debuts of any year. Its poetic imagery, courtesy of Tim Orr, suggests the coming-of-age tale filtered through a Malick lens, but that would also suggest that Green’s film is a product of his film school heroes. This movie moves like little else out there, and its absolute singularity is what gives it so much strength. The film is really only partly about loss and regret, as it remains curiously uninterested in dealing exclusively with the aftermath of the major tragedy that occurs midway through the film and plagues the kids. Instead, it allows the lives of its great ensemble to unfurl and become richer through scenes of almost surreal emotional clarity.  Many of the scenes move in strange and genuinely surprising directions, and they could seem ridiculous in some other, less sincere film. But Green remains fully committed to this material, and so we believe in it and we believe in its desperate and beautiful world. Like a great novel, you walk away feeling as changed as its characters.

A serious man

9. A Serious Man (2009)- When No Country for Old Men debuted in 2007, it was widely considered to be one of the Coen Brothers’ crowning achievements.  It garnered acclaim pretty much across the board, in serious film circles as well as in the Academy Awards.  The excited reaction to that film quietly fizzled, and other movies from that year, notably Zodiac and There Will Be Blood, turned out to have more staying power.  Their 2009 film A Serious Man was not nearly as well-received when it came out, though it was by no means panned.  It is a Jewish self-critique as scathingly funny as anything they’ve done, and their best film of the 2000s.  Beginning with an old Yiddish fable and ending with the apocalypse, it centers around an academic (a breakout turn by Michael Stuhlberg) whose life gradually turns to shit as the movie goes on.  It is The Book of Job with a more sardonic edge.


10. Fat Girl (2001)-Twelve-year-old Anaïs wants to lose her virginity to a man she doesn’t love.  So she tells her older, slimmer sister Elena in Catherine Breillat’s provocative examination of adolescent female sexuality.  Fat Girl is about the renunciation of female independence in relationships, as demonstrated by Elena’s coerced sexual encounter with the charming Italian law student Fernando.  Shot in an excruciating 20-minute take, Fernando’s charm slowly dissipates as he realizes that they are going toward a girl who doesn’t want to put out.  All the while Anaïs watches the embarrassing encounter from another bed, peaking through her eyes as her sister gives in.  Breillat sees this kind of domination at the core of all sexual relationships, which coincides with the movie’s controversial and violent finale.  Fat Girl is a loud, bold feminist statement, yet its lyrical precision is undeniable in its haunting, drained rendering of such a beautiful locale.


11. In the Mood for Love (2000)- This is certainly one of the most lushly filmed movies of all time.  Wong Kar-Wai’s exquisite tale of yearning from afar (or from down the hallway) is both achingly romantic and intensely erotic.  A man and a woman in a 1960s Hong Kong apartment building form a bond when they realize their spouses are sleeping together.  It’s a simple set-up, but Kar-Wai makes it more and more dreamlike as the two begin to reenact how they would confront their spouses with each other.  The impossibility of their romance is heightened by the social norms, as it often is in period dramas, but rarely do they simmer with this kind of claustrophobic sexuality.


12. The New World (2005)- At a 2012 Oscar round-table discussion, Christopher Plummer spoke on The New World and working with Terrence Malick. He made the claim that he will never do another film with the director because of his preoccupation with the natural world.  To argue that Malick’s vision is somehow compromised because of his tendency to focus more on nature and less on actors is both wrong and severely missing the point. Nature is a character in his films, and he films it like he would Pocahontas or John Smith, capturing its fleeting moments of rare and natural beauty. This is especially purposeful in The New World because it concerns a character that is heavily entwined with the vast world. Pocahontas, played by Q’orianka Kilcher, explores the earth with wonderment; she basks in it, dances in it, and is constantly amazed by its majesty, its preponderance in her life.  This relationship reminds us at every turn of the effort it takes to co-exist.


13. Platform (2000)- Jia Zhangke is often renowned as one of the world’s best directors for a reason. His 2000 film “Platform” is an understated epic about a band of musicians growing with the heavy social climate change taking effect is post-Mao China. The film gradually, almost subtly, shows the predominant Western influence that started spreading through the ’70s and continued to grow in stature in the following decades. The introduction of apolitical pop music into the country forces the group to rid of their older songs and try for something different, leaving them behind in a place that is rapidly moving on. Jia’s film may be lengthy, but it is not overblown—the static camerawork and painterly landscapes provide a gasping beauty without being remotely showy. The complexity and aching sadness found in his second feature made it one of the defining films of the decade.


14. A History of Violence (2005)- Leave it to Canadian master David Cronenberg to tell the story of America as a darkly comic psychosexual myth.  Tom Stahl (Viggo Mortensen) is hiding a dark criminal past from his perfect small town life, but an act of savage (and savagely filmed) heroics makes it gradually flood back in.  Like many of his films, identity is expressed chiefly through sex and violence, but it also continued an uninterrupted departure away from body horror and sci-fi that he began with his underappreciated 2002 film Spider.  Here he displays more control over his aesthetic choices, brilliantly blending the hyper-reality of his earlier films with the two Americas on display here.


15. 4 Months 3 Weeks & 2 Days (2007)- A grim, uncompromising look at communist Romania in its final throes, 4 Months 3 Weeks & 2 Days is the rendering of dystopian nightmare as the everyday.  By showcasing one woman’s attempt to end an unwanted pregnancy, it shows the extent of state control, and how the female body is regulated and reduced to currency in this regime.  This was a breakout feature for writer/director Cristian Mungiu, who portrays this anguishing experience with clarity and empathy by drawing suspense from the anguished perspective of the woman risking her life to help her friend.


16. The Gleaners & I (2000)- Agnes Varda said in a Cineaste interview that shooting The Gleaners & I in digital gave her a freedom she hadn’t felt since the beginning of her career. Indeed, this documentary is a free form, compassionate examination of the intersection of life and art as it applies to “gleaning” or, in a more negative connotation, scavenging.  There are gleaners everywhere, from those who pick through fields after harvest, to a working class man who eats what others throw away as a political statement rather than necessity.  It is all filtered through Varda’s warm humanistic lens, a digital masterwork for a filmmaker who has lived and evolved with the medium like few others.


17. Colossal Youth (2006)- Pedro Costa’s final film in his “Fontainhas Trilogy” explores the relocation of the residents in the Lisbon district. In this film he focuses on a character named Ventura, who wanders through the increasingly ruinous neighborhood visiting his “children.” The “children” are not actually his in a literal sense; they are the disillusioned characters, the ghosts of the past, that Ventura has taken under his apparent guidance. Vanda—the androgynous drug addict that was also present in Ossos and In Vanda’s Room—reprises her role here, looking further disheveled after having replaced her drug addiction with obsessive TV-watching. Costa’s digital compositions reached an apex in this film; every frame is immaculate right down to the last detail (it was made in 2006, which also saw the release of two other astounding digital films: Lynch’s Inland Empire and Mann’s Miami Vice). But as wonderful as the film is on a technical level, its soulful treatment of the material elevates it into a strange masterpiece.


18. Before Sunset (2004)- Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy return to Jesse and Celine nine years after their achingly romantic Vienna talkie in Before Sunrise.   Now in Paris during a stop on Jesse’s book tour, this follow-up reignites the spark of the original while also taking it in more emotionally nuanced and slightly darker territory.


19. Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)- One of this decade’s most overlooked films is Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky.  Centered around an annoyingly, stubbornly happy schoolteacher named Poppy (Sally Hawkins), Leigh picks away at the very meaning of joy, something he would explore further in 2010’s Another Year.  The story unfolds in a distinctly working class London, though its heightened sense of color reflects Poppy’s own delusional consciousness.  That is, until she meets Scott the anarchist driving instructor (Eddie Marsan), whose volatile persona creates a personality conflict for the ages.  Leigh is one of the most gifted working directors, able to conjure up comedy and sadness in the everyday without it feeling contrived.


20. Pulse (2001)- Pulse likely wouldn’t sit well with many fans of the many crossover J-horror films, though it is probably the most significant one of the decade from any country. Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira) is a director markedly less interested in making us jump out of our seats than many of his peers. His movie, instead, uses the horror film as a platform to open up into much bigger questions about our relationship with technology and what it means for an increasingly isolated world. The plot of the film can often seem almost overwhelmingly perplexing, but, even if it’s hard to tell precisely what is happening during certain moments, its emotional core and complex ideas are always in sight. There has always been a tragic current running through the horror genre—ghosts, especially, are woeful and unfortunate creations—and Kurosawa embraces that in the most cosmic way possible.


21. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)- Wes Anderson’s novelistic chronicle of a family of geniuses is, in its own way, a work of cinematic genius.  His style, a clash of immaculately choreographed imagery and quiet, subtle character, is one of the most distinct and original in American movies.  The key to his work has always been the undercurrent of sadness that runs through his beautifully original worlds.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in Tenenbaums, where not even genius is good enough for the patriarch Royal (Gene Hackman).  Lifelong wounds surface in nearly every scene, and each character’s distinct way of coping manifests in their outward appearance.  It is a view of family as a shattered mirror, a whole comprised of vastly different pieces.


22. Adaptation (2002)- Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman are one of the most effective writer/director collaborations in modern American movies.  With Being John Malkovich, and this 2002 masterwork, they showcase a deep humanism by way of the bizarre.   Nicolas Cage plays Kaufman writing what eventually becomes the movie we’re watching.  He also plays his made-up twin brother, a hopelessly shallow mainstream screenwriter.  Adaptation eventually descends into the abyss of the Florida swamplands, where the writer of the screenplay, the writer of the source material and the source converge in an intense, drug-fueled battle.

I'm Not There

23. I’m Not There (2007)- Six performers act out a different version of the American folk myth of Bob Dylan in Todd Hayne’s anti-biopic.  Instead of trying to tame the illusiveness of Dylan into a conventional narrative, he instead treats that very illusiveness as his subject, jumping between his different personae and linking them thematically, lyrically and visually.  Cate Blanchett also gives one of the decade’s great performances as Dylan during his iconic electric period in the ’60s.


24. Beau Travail (2000)- Claire Denis’ Beau Travail is a military film by way of a ballet. This sui generis opus concerns a sergeant (played with quiet intensity by Denis Lavant) who takes an overt disliking to one of his troop members (possibly, it implies, due to romantic feelings). This hatred (or desire) fuels much of the film, but every scene feels steeped in hallucinatory, even operatic, metaphor. Denis’ camera films the beautiful training exercises with a hyper-intimate fervor, eventually evolving into a weird kind of grand waltz. Only by the time it reaches the brilliant closing scene does this initially abstruse effort come through with resonant and powerful clarity.


25. Syndromes & a Century (2006)- If other films on this list like Mulholland Dr. and Waking Life use cinema with a sort of dream logic, then it could be said that Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes & a Century employs the language of memory.  It drifts through overlapping scenes and time periods, catching their situational similarity while highlighting their aesthetic difference.  Weerasethakul’s camera is a quiet observer of the nature in the every day, and of the things we remember, and why.


26. Waking Life (2001)- Richard Linklater’s films have all teasingly employed philosophical ideas, but Waking Life is perhaps the only one to deal exclusively with them. It is one of the only films to truly mirror dream logic, and its zonked-out animation (filmed, first, with live actors and then rotoscoped) still feels innovative and incredible. The characters all speak about big, provocative ideas, but they are often through casual conversation (for instance: the final, profound monologue comes from a character playing pinball). What makes this potentially didactic experience feel so intensely emotional is Linklater’s film is alive and bursting with the (im)possibilities of the mind.


27. A Christmas Tale (2008)- This despair-filled French drama turns everything about the terrible, sappy Christmas movie on its head.  Arnaud Desplechin takes a novelistic approach to chronicling the tumultuous Vuillard family.  Plagued by both physical and mental illness and deep reservoirs of resentment and hatred, they reluctantly gather for the holiday to discuss a bone marrow transplant for the terminally ill matriarch (a regal Catherine Deneuve).  Told with a haunting, corrosive sense of time, it is both darkly comic and devastating.


28. Gosford Park (2001)- An upstairs, downstairs British murder mystery from Robert Altman.  Not much else needs to be said to sell you on Gosford Park, but it is among the best of the late director’s final onslaught of moviemaking.  The cast, featuring Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren and a slew of other talented people, is uniformly excellent at delivering Jullian Fellowes’ lacerating dialogue.


29. The Son (2002)- The Dardenne brothers’ The Son tells a simple story: a carpenter chooses to take a young apprentice under his wing after discovering it is the same boy who murdered his son years ago. But this is one of the decade’s finest film parables, and its emotional complexity is very understated. It is almost entirely shot in intimate close-ups and tracking shots that force the viewer to become almost uncomfortably close to the characters and their situation. Its moral ambiguity only deepens the impact.

spirited away 8 witch

30. Spirited Away (2001)- Considered one of Hayao Miyazaki’s grandest achievements, Spirited Away is a beautifully realized and haunting fairy tale.  Set in an overwhelmingly elaborate animated world, it tells a surreal story of a young girl drawn into a Wonderland that’s hardly wonderful.  Chihiro finds herself a servant at a supernatural resort trying to keep a hold on her identity, though as with all of Miyazaki’s films describing the story does nothing to illustrate their grandeur.

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