Monday, January 23, 2012

The Best Movies of the '00s: Part 3

39.  Gangs of New York (2002, Scorsese)
Arguably Scorsese's most ambitious film, it can be wildly uneven and is held back by miscasting, but there's still nothing else like it:  A massive epic of violence and squalor, telling a forgotten tale of American history with the conviction of a master blacksmith pounding out a sword.  Daniel Day-Lewis is magnificent and terrifying as a Nativist gang leader intent on exterminating the Irish immigrants.  Scorsese is often at his best at his most rough around the edges (see Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Last Temptation of Christ), and this is certainly his roughest of the decade. Here Scorsese takes the measure of John Ford and The Searchers, and attempts to top him.

38.  The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004, Anderson)
Wes Anderson's films are always about control freaks who learn they can't control everything, and Steve Zissou, "a showboat and a little bit of a prick," is no exception.  This is Anderson's largest canvas yet, and he paints it with typical obsessive gusto, noticeably leaving brushstrokes on even the tiniest of visible details.  The story is ridiculous, as always, and the surprisingly bloody shootouts with pirates are a highlight. But ultimately, as it must, the realization of impotence comes, and the story ends in tears.  For it to end otherwise might seem true to the humorous tone and the Boys' Own fantasy world, but it would not be true to the characters, and that devotion to character is what makes Anderson truly special.

37.  Kill Bill Vol. 1 & Vol. 2 (2003, 2004, Tarantino)
This two-movie revenge story is probably Tarantino's most undisciplined effort, but it is also the most fun.  I'm still not sure the second film's sudden shift in tone actually works emotionally, but it's still fascinating for the way it reflexively re-examines and re-shapes the narrative up to that point, bringing out hidden themes and introducing the elements of doubt and moral ambiguity which have always kept QT ahead of his imitators.

36.  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind  (2004, Gondry)
Though it at first seems like one of those mind-blowing modern movies of twisting narrative complictions, this Charlie Kaufman-scripted gem has little interest in actually confusing you.  Instead it wants to make you feel, to dissect a failed relationship from the end backwards, and to mess around with the way memories work in a delightfully low-fi unpretentious way.  It succeeds admirably at all three.

35.  Where the Wild Things Are  (2009, Jonze)
Breaking out of the shadow of his brilliant collaborator Charlie Kaufman, Spike Jonze proved he is one of the finest directors working today with this powerful re-envisioning of the classic picture book. Max's imaginary land is extraordinary, big and grand and even beautiful, but it isn't all fun and games.  Essentially this is the story of a child's temper tantrum, and if you can't understand the pain and blind rage of such an outburst and appreciate the desperate need to be understood, perhaps you were never a child.

34.  Ratatouille (2007, Bird)
A Kunstlerroman that refuses to let the artist get away with bad behavior, as so many others do when making excuses for genius.  This one insists on morality as an artistic principle.  A treatise on art and the role of the critic disguised as a children's cartoon, weaving in the ideals of high art with the talking animal humor.  Have you ever seen another movie that attempts to visualize what taste is like?  And actually succeeds?

33.  The Proposition (2005, Hillcoat)
As dark as anything ever done in the genre, The Proposition is an Australian western about those quintessential western themes--the taming of wilderness, the suppression of barbarism, and the price paid for the coming of civilization.  The brutality here can be sickening, but the powerful moral complexities resemble those of Sam Peckinpah and Cormac McCarthy.

32.  The Village (2006, Shyamalan)
This terribly underrated film was mistaken for a supernatural thriller with a dumb twist ending.  It's not.  It's  a portrait of a community, a morality play with political implications that critiques the nature of founding narratives.  Christopher Nolan would spend much of the decade investigating the lies individuals tell themselves; here Shyamalan does the same thing with an entire village.  It also helps that it's absolutely gorgeous, shot with the eye of a true filmmaker, and features an incredible ensemble cast.

31.  Shaun of the Dead (2004, Wright)
Unlike a simple genre parody, this "romantic comedy with zombies" stands on its own as something special.  It manages to turn the zombie genre's traditional social critiques into a satire of modern slacker-geek culture, plus smuggle in moments of genuine fear, danger, and pain, while remaining hysterically funny, clever, and unassuming throughout.  It announced the arrival of Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright, all three of whom would go on to be pillars of modern comedy, and paved the way for a whole string of major British talent to break out of low-budget television comedy, including Joe Cornish, Richard Ayoade, and Chris O'Dowd.

30.  Spider-Man 2 (2004, Raimi)
The quintessential superhero movie. It delivers heartbreak with the thrills, genuine danger with genuine humor.  Peter Parker is the great everyman superhero--the one any kid can relate to, any kid can grow up to be.  He embodies the ideals of the superhero more purely and innocently than any other, and this film is not only an action flick, but genuinely heartwarming for those of us who value those ideals.  It is a rare superhero film that works equally well in both its character scenes and its fight sequences.  Read my full review here.

29.  Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003, Weir)
Peter Weir is one of the undersung masters to come out of the '70s, and this is his only film of the decade.  Like all his work, it is beautifully lensed, and like much of his work it is a study of a community and the various bonds and rules that give it structure. Unlike nearly all his other work, it is a grand adventure film, filled with thrilling battle sequences on the high seas.  What come through strongest are the virtues of the 19th century military man, peculiarly British values of honor, duty, and cool under fire, so unknown to us today.  "England is under threat of invasion, and though we be on the far side of the world, this ship is our home," says Captain Jack. "This ship is England." 

28.  Hero (2004, Zhang)
A Rashomon-esque tale of conflicting memories of events, larger and more beautfiul than anything I had ever seen before.  The color-coordinated fight sequences are as grand as any ever filmed.  A pity it ends up being nationalist propaganda at the end.

27.  Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000, Lee)
The film that re-started a whole genre and became an international phenomenon.  Hero is grander and more beautiful, but this is the more profound film.  Love vs. social restrictions, youth vs. age, temper tantrums vs. serenity; it is among the most meditative action epics ever made.

26.  A History of Violence (2005, Cronenberg)
Some have praised this film for its subversive critique of small-town Americana, but I actually think that's the film's weakest aspect. Instead, I'm in awe of the visceral psychological portrait of a family under violent attack from within and without, mapping the tensions and fault-lines of a breakdown in trust.

25.  A. I. Artificial Intelligence (2000, Spielberg)
Inspired by the story idea and example of Stanley Kubrick, Spielberg was spurred to make his most knotty, difficult, and intellectually complex film.  The result is hard science fiction of a scope and depth not seen since Blade Runner, and a vision of the future that seems more ambitious and bleak the more you think about it.  As pure and fluid as E.T., but with none of that film's optimism.  This one continues to rise in my estimation.


  1. I can't really say there's a bad film in this batch, though my absolute favorite is A.I., with ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, CROUGHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON, GANGS OF NEW YORK, RATATOUILLE and THE VILLAGE as big favorites. I was thrtilled to learn you loved the latter film, as I was almost ready to give up the fight for it. I've gotten into a few scuffles defending it's beautiful James Newton Howard score, the stunning cinematography and an arresting turn by Bryce Howard. You are quite right, methinks, that its a morality play with political implications.
    A.I. Artificial Intelligence, fueled by some profound philosophical themes and issues of motherhood, is arguably one of Spielberg’s masterworks, and for this blogger it ranks with Schindler’s List, Empire of the Sun and E. T. on the short list of the director’s greatest achievements in cinema. Like the other three, it is extraordinarily moving, and it paints yet again a piercingly provocative view of childhood and of the human condition, tinged with an overwhelming sense of sadness. The film is based on a short story by Brian Aldiss entitled “Supertoys Last All Summer Long,” published in 1969, and it draws considerable influence from Disney’s PINOCCHIO.
    Spielberg alumni, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, composer John Williams and editor Michael Kahn all make major contributions to Spielberg’s futuristic parable. Kaminski’s elegiac canvasses are tinged with melancholy, and are perfectly accentuated by the bittersweet music. But it’s a film that stays with you largely because of its philosophical themes, which in the end question the validity of eternal life, the fleeting nature of mortality and how the power of love can transcend centuries. It’s a film of lasting and significant emotional resonance and it’s my choice for the best movie of 2001.

  2. Woo! Glad to find someone else who likes The Village! Stephen Russell-Gebbett included it in his all-time top 50, but other than one or two other bloggers I really haven't found many people willing to defend it. Shyamalan has become anathema to everybody, now, except for The Sixth Sense.

    And I'm glad to see you champion Spielberg as well, Sam. He's got a good 6 masterpieces by my count, and even if he's got some flops in there and an occasional tendency to blandness, he has too many great movies to ever discount him from the conversation on America's greatest filmmakers.

  3. Glad to see that you appreciate The Village here. I consider it a beautiful film and, yes, very underrated. It touches me emotionally whenever I re-watch it. You have covered a lot of wonderful films here. Well done.

    1. Thank you very much. Always good to find another fan of The Village--we are out there, apparently!