Best movies by decade: The 2000s (17-20)

8 Aug

Inspired comedic kung fu madness.

17. Kung Fu Hustle/Vicky Cristina Barcelona/Junebug—Hong Kong funnyman Stephen Chow’s ode to Warner Bros cartoons combining chop sockey karate with inspired manic madness. A down on his luck wannabe tries to join the notorious Axe gang in a hard knock neighborhood in 1940s China. His striving brings him into a slum, where two of the world’s greatest warriors are hiding out. The ensuing battle escalates into cosmic proportions. Chow is a very fine filmmaker, improving upon the very funny Shaolin Soccer. He manages to balance humor, action, and drama, and the resulting film is the best slapstick action cum fantasy-comedy since Army of Darkness.

The young and the sexually restless in Woody Allen’s best movie in years.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona—Woody Allen spent the 2000s traveling the world, and we are all the better for it. Leaving New York behind, Woody Allen found renewed strength and vigor first in London, then in Spain. Whereas Matchpoint was a British reworking of Crimes and Misdemeanors (without the jokes), and Scoop was a diverting but slight picture, Vicky Cristina Barcelona offers up an intriguing story of beautiful young people looking for love in the cosmopolitan areas of the Iberian peninsula. Javier Bardem is excellent, Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johanansen are strong, but Penelope Cruz is superb as the tormented artist who punishes the people around her. Allen’s take on young people is spot-on—how an old curmudgeon who hates contemporary music managed this I don’t know—and his filmmaking has taken on a relaxed, insouciant appeal. He’s an old master now, spinning yarns on celluloid.

The best movie about the (white) south.

Junebug—The best movie about the (white) American south. Madeleine, a British art collector, falls in love with George, a debonair southerner. They marry in New York and make a life for themselves in the city. But, when Madeleine discovers a bizarre folk artist near George’s hometown, they journey to his tiny hamlet in North Carolina. His family finds her strange, as she finds not only the people but also the land. This rich, quiet drama follows the cultural misunderstandings that follow, leading to tragedy. Quirky characters and an off-the-beaten path storyline, plus a fantastic soundtrack by Yo La Tengo, make this one of the best American movies of the 2000s. Scott Wilson—who also has a cameo in The Host—steals the show with his hushed performance, and Amy Adams is a revelation, providing all the humor. The movie has one of my favorite scenes of the decade, when George sings an acapella hymn for a whole picnic of people, while a confused Madeleine looks on. Junebug captures the storytelling tradition, with all its contradictory weirdness.

A brief respite before the world falls apart in the bleak, dour, but hilarious The Wedding.

18. The Wedding/The Messenger/Wonder Boys—Pity the poor, miserable Polish. This ferocious satire follows the precipitous decline of a Polish businessman as he marries off his daughter to an unethical slime. Using the stress, expense and chaos of the wedding to expose the fissures in contemporary Polish society, the director escalates things to absurd proportions. The reception and after-party devolve to an immense bacchanalia, and the entire structure of Polish society begins to unwind. There’s a touch of cosmic tomfoolery here—the toilets begin to gush rivers of bile, the drunken orgiastic revelry exceeds Fellini’s Satyricon—and the petty gangsterism of the Polish state comes into clear view. The whole thing plays like a comedy, but by movie’s end, amidst the shit-stained sheets and broken glass, it’s clear that this movie is the most serious of indictments. Vicious, but entertaining.

A study of men at war at peace.

The Messenger—A very fine movie about men of war at peace. Ben Foster plays a returning Iraq War veteran haunted by the things he’s seen and struggling to find his way in the civilian world. He is given a horrifying new job with the military—he must, in person, tell family members that their sons and daughters have died in combat. Woody Harrelson plays his accompanying officer. Their day-to-day deliveries, ruining lives, demands intense courage and fortitude. The toll of the job wreaks havoc on their personal lives, but these two soldiers confront the horror with stoic conviction. And what could have been a saccharine weepy is instead a taut little gem of a movie, constructed in such a way that the emotional devastation of the characters sneaks up on you by film’s end. Probably the best movie about veterans ever made.

A little gem that has been all but forgotten.

Wonder Boys—A very fine movie that, somehow, didn’t connect with audiences. It’s a shame, because this Curtis Hansen-directed film has great performances from Michael Douglas, Frances McDormand, Tobey MaGuire, and Robert Downey, Jr., and a very funny storyline following one weekend in the life of an unraveling professor. Douglas plays an unhappy writing teacher who suffers from the opposite of writer’s block; he can’t figure out how to stop writing an immense novel of some 2,000 pages. Meanwhile, he’s impregnated a married colleague, and his star student has stolen a priceless heirloom from the cuckolded husband. The movie doesn’t overreach, staying within the academic setting, allowing the characters to breathe. Very funny stuff, made with old-school craftsmanship.

Intrigue and murder, both upstairs and down, in Robert Altman’s last great movie.

19. Gosford Park­/Mysterious Skin/Rocket Science—Altman’s triumphant return. Before he created the smash PBS hit Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes co-wrote this Robert Altman-directed period drama. A reworking of Renoir’s near-perfect The Rules of the Game, Gosford follows a hunting weekend amongst the upper and lower classes on an English country estate. But unlike Downton, it is mostly the upper class peoples—who don’t work or contribute to much of anything—who intrigue, conspire, and destroy. Witty and charming, but with dashes of menace and the coming doom, this movie accomplishes more storylines than 12 hours of Downton. Altman was a master storyteller, and this is his best film since Short Cuts.

A haunting rumination on two decimated lives.

Mysterious Skin—The Enfant terrible of 90s indie cinema, Greg Araki in the oughts produced one of the great movies about sex, love, and lost childhood. The story follows two boys who grow up to be disturbed men. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Neil, a heartless gay hustler prostituting himself without any care of the damage he’s inflicting on himself or others. Brady Corbet plays Brian, a sexually ambiguous loner obsessed with alien abductions. What connects their two stories is the abuse they both suffered at the hands of a predatory coach when they were children. Araki’s films always straddle the line between parody and art; here he manages to imbue the proceedings with a tawdry gloss, a stand-in for the boys’ fractured memories. The movie is creepy and almost surgical in its examination of disaffection, but above all, it’s a real heart-breaker.

A small-scale movie that is almost perfect in its wit and charm.

Rocket Science—A low budget gem. Rocket Science follows a stuttering young teenager who decides to join the debate team, while a star senior debater has lost his voice. A very sharp script and fine acting highlight the teenager’s attempts to overcome his stutter and achieve some kind of limited greatness. The material is handled with a subtle touch, such as the boy’s divorced parents or his mother’s doomed romance with the next door neighbor. Writer-director Jeffrey Blitz—the director behind the very fine Documentary Spellbound—handles his characters with warmth and acceptance. They’re quirky, but loved. Whipsmart, elegant and eccentric, like a great New Yorker short story.

The perfect American thriller with a Gallic twist.

20. Tell No One/After the Wedding/Amelie—A French adaptation of an American crime novel and the result is a visceral thriller made with aplomb. A doctor loses his wife in a horrible crime, and years later receives an email with video footage of his wife still alive. Attempting to see if the footage is real, he is soon gallivanting through France, dodging police and henchmen alike. It’s a white knuckle, pulse-pounding movie, streaking along like a comet.

Mads Mikkelson faced with a heart-rending decision in the moving After the Wedding.

After the Wedding—Susanne Bier is one of the bright spots from greater Scandinavia. She makes intense, moving dramas about people facing external danger and internal turmoil. She does melodrama in the age of globalization and she does it well. Mad Mikkelson plays a good-hearted do-gooder managing an orphanage in India. He is a reformed rake, and feels fatherly to one of the orphans in particular. But he is called back to Denmark by Jorgen, a wealthy businessman interested in donating to the orphanage. The culture shock isn’t all he has to face, however; the businessman has an agenda of his own. Mikkelson discovers he has a daughter with an ex, the current wife of Jorgen. A very fine movie. She would go on to make the excellent In a Better World.

A blast of whimsical romantic comedy, shot in a timeless corner of the Paris of your dreams.

Amelie—One of the great romantic comedies, taking place in a strange, parallel world of idiosyncratic synchronicity. Amelie is an eccentric, lonely French girl who decides to make the world a better place, one person at a time. She’s resourceful, clever, and shy, but when angered she is just as creative in her wrath. Filmed far from the Paris of riots and looting and street crime, here we have the quaint Paris of our dreams. Jeunet, with his writing partner Caro, made waves in the 1990s with Delicatessen and City of Lost Children, both engaging tales of whimsical weirdness, but slight. But Amelie is their best movie, as the skewered view of the world is Amelie’s, and the cutesy is touched by pain.

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