Best films by decade: The 2000s (intro and movies 1-5)

3 Aug

If the movies of the seventies were glum and dilapidated; the eighties overblown and reactionary; the nineties garish and silly; the 2000s were sincere and unpredictable.

The decade began with commercial planes crashing into high rise buildings in New York; it ended with robotic planes reigning missiles onto villages in the desert sands. It started with Bush and ended with Obama. From boom to bust, the cycle of American capitalism kept spinning.

September 11 haunts the 2000s, a spectral shadowy ghost. The decade can only be understood through the attack and subsequent U.S. response. America flexed its muscles abroad. At home, we grappled with the nasty realities of life that we had been inoculated against for so long. The violence, the suffering, the uncertainty that so much of the world has to deal with was now a part of the daily American experience. Every movie, at home and abroad, seemed to be asking the same question: What does it mean to be American? And just what is America?

The big entertainment story of the 2000s was television. The Wire, The Shield, Arrested Development, Breaking Bad, Deadwood, Mad Men, Generation Kill, John Adams and The Office are all superb—and superior—entertainments that take the best of movies and combine these with the best of television. The result is an astonishing variety of shows that utilize the language of films, the patience of novels and the length of TV. The comedies got smarter, the dramas more cinematic. Internet-based movie sites allowed fans to watch television shows in huge chunks. Shows that failed, like Arrested Development, developed fan bases after being canceled. The paradigm of television changed.

There were two movie stories. The first was a tidal wave of foreign films, where directors around the world caught the moviemaking bug and, finally, eclipsed their American counterparts. It was the uptick of globalism, a cross-pollination of cinematic ideas.

World cinema re-emerged. Iran and South Korea birthed dozens of great filmmakers, and Germany/Austria stamped the decade with an astonishing output of films. Greater Scandinavia finally stepped out of the shadow of Ingmar Bergman, and Denmark in particular produced a crop of fantastic new filmmakers. Australia re-emerged with a newfound dedication to top-notch genre filmmaking.

Back in the States, the movies were relying more and more on special effects. Streaming movies online started as an oddity and ended the decade as the norm. U.S. movie companies responded with bombastic technique, pushing first big blockbuster movies with budgets that rival some small countries’ GDP, and then later with 3D.  Advances in technology allowed for superheroes to enter the fray, and they soon became a dominant force, crowding out other types of films. What was uncool, even fringe, became popular.

The U.S. filmmaking technique remains incredibly high—even our bad films are often very well made—but what’s often missing is daring, interesting writing, strangeness.

Still, some very fine U.S. movies appeared. The mavericks from the 1970s were still around: Spielberg, Scorsese, even Coppola returned to make a few films. And the filmmakers of the 1990s—Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher and Greg Araki, too—delivered on the early promise of their careers.

The second major movie story was documentaries. Digital film allowed for outsiders, skilled amateurs and old pros to make smaller, cheaper films. There was an explosion of documentaries—partly fueled by the reality TV boom that began in the mid-1990s—on a variety of subjects. I’ve excluded documentaries from my lists so far—they often feel starchy and affected to me, in a way that a great movie is not—but in the 2000s there were so many good ones that I had to include three.

Hollywood has always vacillated between two polar extremes: the lightweight superficiality of Los Angeles—sun-drenched happy people, middle brow melodramas and the unbearable lightness of living in a place with no past, only future. And the gritty artiness of New York—existential cops and drug addicts, struggling actors and the distinct weight of living in the entryway into America and the American dream. It’s new wealth versus old money, the suburbs versus the city. (The rural has never had much of a voice, or a presence, in Hollywood.)

The films of the oughts hovered between these two polar extremes, as did I. After graduating college, I went to my first job as an editor. I left Montgomery for Atlanta, Atlanta for Spain, Spain for Iowa, and Iowa for Chicago. I scrounged and scrimped. I roamed and I rambled. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I collected rejections. I watched too many movies. I started multiple careers. I got married. I even had a child.

Tough, stoic, piercing, beautiful, each frame a master class in moviemaking.

1. Army of Shadows/The White Ribbon—The best film of the 2000s was originally released in the 1960s, but never in the States. It’s Jean Pierre-Melville’s best film, high praise indeed, a beautiful and devastating exploration of the French Resistance during World War II. The Resistance fighters descend into a morally murky world, soon not fighting the Nazi occupiers at all; by movie’s end, they are essentially killing each other off to prevent any leaks to the enemy. The great Lino Ventura plays the lead with a world-weary stoicism, so deadpan that even when he’s killing Nazi soldiers he barely blinks. Each shot could be an Edward Hopper painting. The movie uses a number of techniques, including interior monologues, long tracking shots and shadowy lighting, and has some harrowing scenes, including multiple executions. But the movie unfolds with such a serene beauty—at times it feels like the visual equivalent of a Bach violin concerto—that the treacherous, violent world of the French Resistance feels radiant.

Darkness at the edge of town. A tour through small-town hell.

The White Ribbon— Director Michel Haneke appeared on the scene in the late 1980s, and made many interesting films. They shared a number of traits, including vicious characters, pointless violence, and beautiful compositions that mask a detached view of human depravity. I find his early films to be mechanical, cold, and annoying. His take on Kafka is humorless and pressed clean of eroticism (although dimpled with sex). Funny Games is brutal and brutalizing, unsubtle and punishing to the viewer. Then he made the excellent Cache (number 9 on the list). But nothing prepared movie fans for The White Ribbon, a somber, meditative black and white movie on a mysterious series of escalating crimes in a German village before World War I. The movie unfolds at a calm, measured pace, but the subject matter is so unsettling that it feels like a pulpy thriller. There are a few hundred people in the village, including a young tailor (narrating from some future time), his love interest, a misanthropic doctor, his two children, and a number of peasant farmers. The craft of the film is enthralling, and while watching it’s hard to find your moral bearings. Mistreated by the adults, the children begin to mistreat each other. There’s a causal chain of violence, intimidation, manipulation and exploitation. There are suicides and a murder, a bird is impaled ritualistically and a horse is killed. It’s a ghastly small town gothic with socio-political undercurrents. Haneke’s argument, by movie’s end, is clear: the heady stew of oppressive religiosity, racial purity, ethnic intolerance, and crippling poverty results in nothing less than the Nazi party. One to haunt your dreams.

The new pillar of fire—oil—in Paul Thomas Anderson’s best film.

2. There Will Be Blood/The Lives of Others—Paul Thomas Anderson emerged in the early ’90s as a filmmaker with superior talents. Every film was superb, but his adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s Oil is his best film so far, a riveting character study of a driven misanthrope mad for oil prospecting. Daniel Day-Lewis stars as Daniel Plainview, an unscrupulous oilman who begins prospecting on the land of the Sunday family. The teenage son, Eli, is a local fundamentalist preacher, and soon Eli and Plainview are working each against the other for control of the land, the oil, and the hearts and minds of the people of their west Texas town. Anderson’s images are so strong, he makes the whole moviemaking thing seem so easy, and he gets excellent performances from his actors. Anderson’s argument is clear: Oil is money is power. And religion is influence is power is money. And the two together is this country we call America. Feels classic and contemporary at the same time, an amalgamation of all of Anderson’s influences. You can see John Ford and Robert Altman, Orson Welles and Ingmar Bergman, Antonioni and Renoir and Kazan and just about every other great filmmaker since the Lumiere brothers first captured those happy people on the beach.

The dangers of being passive in service to the evil state; you lose your humanity.

The Lives of Others (2006)—Greater Germany—I’m including Austria—had a banner decade. The White Ribbon, Revanche, Downfall, Soul Kitchen, The Beider Meinhoff Complex, and Mostly Martha all came out the 2000s, and every film on this list is an absolute smash. The Lives of Others is the tidiest and most theatrical of the films, made with warmth and love. It follows a stony Stasi agent assigned to ruin the life and career of a well-known East German playwright.  The playwright’s girlfriend is a great stage actress who has been forced into a sexual relationship with a high-ranking East German official. The Stasi agent’s slow realization that the state apparatus he works for is not only flawed but also evil is a wonder of writing and acting. The thawing out of his soul is one of the great stories of redemption. The best thing about this movie, however, is the pacing. The best dramas play out like thrillers, and this movie turns white knuckle before the end.

A devastating portrait of a couple falling in and out of love.

3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind/Zodiac—Charlie Kaufman often misfires. He’s wordy, precious, self-involved and more interested in internal digressions than telling a good story. (Look at the endings of his movies; they are almost all an unraveling of the story you just spent two hours watching. Synecdoche, New York is a criminal theft of the audience’s time.) He’s clever, often funny and has plenty of ideas, but he’s also solipsistic and, well, annoying. But here, with director Michel Gondry (who carries a predilection towards silliness), Kaufman wrote a great script with an idea ripped from a Philip K. Dick short story. A service will delete an ex-lover from your memory, leaving only tiny little ghosts of that person’s existence. Jim Carrey plays Joel, a man whose impulsive girlfriend, played by Kate Winslett, has paid for the service and had every memory of him surgically removed. Crushed, he decides to do the same, but in the middle of the process, he tries to hold on to the fleeting moments. What follows is a terrifying, and often very funny, surreal journey through his distorted memories. They’re subplots, some great acting, and a devastating portrait of a relationship falling apart. The movie is as visually inventive as the script, with disappearing walls and repeating patterns in libraries and streets. It really feels like peering into someone’s fragile mind, watching the tiny little lights go out. I wish Kaufman had made three films with Gondry instead of Spike Jonze.

The beautiful and terrifying true story of San Francisco’s most notorious serial killer.

Zodiac—The best film ever made about the police mind at work and the intricacy of investigative processes. Director extraordinaire David Fincher recreates the various personalities obsessing over the Zodiac murders in 1970s San Francisco. He cuts no corners, jamming the audience into the morass of paperwork and red tape, the competing law enforcement agencies and the messiness of solving a complicated case. The murder scenes are conducted with technical panache and a slavish devotion to the facts. The result is a movie that feels like the best of documentary and fiction. Fincher is the best craftsman we have, and when he has good material, he is a marvel. This is great material, with a great cast, including Mark Ruffalo, Jake Gyllenhall, Robert Downey, Jr. and Elias Koteas. A crime can shape a city in profound ways.

An artist’s heart, a pianist’s hands, and a gangster’s brain.

4. The Beat That My Heart Skipped/Pusher III—A French adaptation of the 1970s American cult film Fingers, and it’s absolutely stunning. Roman Duris, one of the busiest and best French actors, plays a disturbed young man working as a strong arm for his thuggish, unscrupulous father. His real love, however, is music, something he gave up long ago. But when he stumbles onto a piano tutor, he slides back into his real passion. With one foot in two worlds, he struggles with the existential weight of rehabilitating his soul with music. Meanwhile, his father comes to loggerheads with stone cold gangsters. The original is quirky, intriguing, and ahead of its time, but loses its footing halfway through. The French movie improves on the original’s mistakes. Durain does an excellent job playing an artist who has lost his art, a thug with a nagging conscience. As he rediscovers his gift for music—and the failures that accompany any art—he tries to remove himself from his father’s life. Audiard, the director, went on to make Un Prophet, another very fine crime film.

A drug-addicted middleman in a bewilderingly violent universe.

Pusher III: I Am the Angel of Death—The middle Pusher movie follows Tony, released from prison into an unforgiving world. Tony is a drug addict, cretin and creep, but Mads Mikkelson plays him with a warm humanity, and you end up cheering for him. But the episodic nature of the movie—each scene ends with Tony enduring some new humiliation—makes this the weakest of the three movies. But with Pusher III, director Refn delivers the strongest in the series. Mid-level Drug kingpin Milo—Frank’s enemy in the first movie and sort of lurking around the edges of the second—takes center stage, following 24 hours in his rough and tumble life. Refn frames the drug trade as a high stakes bureaucratic affair, and Milo is in trouble. He receives a shipment of new drugs. A young turk tries to rip him off. His daughter is getting married. He is fighting off his own drug addiction. And some old underworld types are making life difficult for him. And, perhaps worst of all, he’s a terrible cook, and slated to make the food for his daughter’s wedding. Refn mines each small situation for immense tension, and by the end of the film it’s almost unbearable. But there’s humor, too, much more than the first two films, a loosening up. Zlatko Buric, who plays Milo, delivers a sterling performance of a violent man trying to be a decent human being, trying and failing. Unforgettable.

The youth of Brazil, armed and running wild.

5. City of God/Mulholland Drive—A glittering diamond of a gangster film, beautiful, rousing, rambunctious, tragic and sad. Based on a true story, City of God follows a group of young poor Brazilians as they splinter into drug dealers, gangsters, murderers and thieves. The lead is a shy aspiring photographer who winds up, through his childhood group of friends, ensconced in a gang war between rival factions of drug dealers in the slums of Brazil. The movie lurches backwards and forwards in time, using every cinematic trick in the book, and the result is a genre-shattering work of iconoclasm. It’s a more stylized, adult-oriented Pixote—with an absolutely smashing soundtrack—but the hardship of the homeless children, the casual violence, and the petty strivings of the street urchins make City of God one of the best movies of the decade.

The nocturnal side of the dream life, a winding, craggy road through the Hollywood hills.

Mulholland Drive—A return to weird greatness from David Lynch. Lost Highway was an intriguing movie, marred by an overcooked visual style (percolating down from the world of music video that saturated the 90s; parts of Highway look like a Marilyn Manson video). But Highway has its acolytes, and it is a very disturbed movie-going experience. Straight Story was next, a major departure for Lynch and is mostly a success. Mulholland, however, was to be Lynch’s return to television. The first hour or so is the pilot. When the network passed on the project, Lynch took the footage, shot an extra hour or so, and then released it as a film. It’s a quintessential story of Hollywood, movies and acting. (Lynch reveals his hand having Penelope Ann Miller play the super of an apartment building.) The dream logic of the movie can only be understood through the quest for fame. Naomi Watts delivers a star-turning role as a woman bent on becoming a famous actress. She finds in her aunt’s Hollywood apartment a naked woman with no memory of how she got there. Along the way there are gangsters, hitmen, a dream that can kill you, and a theatre with a live show that can drive you mad. Lynch changes the rules once again. Magical, frustrating, and jaw-dropping. It must be experienced.

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One Response to “Best films by decade: The 2000s (intro and movies 1-5)”

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  1. Best movies bt decade: The 2000s (21-25) « simoneandthesilversurfer - August 13, 2012

    […] and part 1 here; parts 2 and 3 here and here) Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like […]

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