Top Ten Films of the 2000s

Like many film fanatics I love making Top Ten film lists, and what better excuse to do so than the end of a decade? Here are my Top Ten films of the 2000s:

1. Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, 2001)

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Like An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, Lynch’s mesmerizing film occurs entirely in the mind of his dying protagonist, “Betty”, a would-be Hollywood starlet who (re)casts herself in fantasy as the heroine of a mystery story, the solution to which only leads her back to grim reality. In telling Betty/Diane’s sad story Lynch and Naomi Watts – whose shocking transformation from a naïve, endearingly optimistic aspiring actress named Betty to a disillusioned failed actress and jilted lover named Diane is utterly astonishing – expose the filthy underbelly of Tinseltown, whose glittery surface conceals a darker reality of shattered dreams, broken hearts and lost identities.

Angelo Badalamenti’s eerie score sets just the right mood for Lynch’s mysterious and haunting imagery. Listen to it here.

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2. No Country for Old Men (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2007)

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After a couple of disappointing films, the Coen brothers made a stunning return to form with this powerfully directed crime thriller, which boasts the most memorable villain of recent memory in the form of Javier Bardem’s coin-flipping, bolt gun-brandishing Anton “Friend-o” Chigurh, the personification of pure evil whose hideous bowl-cut alone is enough to give you the heebie-jeebies. Aside from Bardem’s unforgettable portrayal, perhaps the most notable aspect of No Country for Old Men is its lack of a film score. I am a certified film score connoisseur, but the Coen brothers prove that music is not a requirement for great cinema (much to the chagrin of Carter Burwell, I’m sure). Indeed, the brothers’ inspired use of sound (and silence) makes the need for a composer completely superfluous. Consider the unbearably suspenseful sequence in which Chigurh pays an unexpected visit to Llewelyn’s hotel room. Seriously unnerved, Llewelyn sits oh-so-quietly on his bed, nervously clutching his gun as Chigurh stealthily walks up to his door, stops for a few seconds just behind it, and then slowly walks away. Llewelyn sees the hallway lights go off underneath his door and waits in complete silence for an agonizingly tense few moments until…WHAM!…Chigurh breaks the silence by blowing the lock off the door with his bolt gun. Most directors would try to ratchet up the tension with suspenseful music. Not the Coens, who demonstrate that light footsteps and the soundless anticipation of imminent violence can be far more nerve-racking than an orchestra’s worth of heart pounding music.

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3. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007)

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Dominik asserts himself as one of the most promising directors working today with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a poetic, elegiac Western which both celebrates and debunks the legend of Jesse James through the eyes of Casey Affleck’s Bob Ford, whose childhood idolization of James turns to fear and resentment in adulthood when the reality of the man fails to live up to the myth living in his head. If you’re like me and you consider American film of the ‘70s to be the last golden age in cinema, then chances are you’ll greatly appreciate The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, an unusually ambitious genre film which would have seemed perfectly at home between, say, McCabe and Mrs. Miller and The Godfather.

Listen to Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ memorable score here.

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4. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)

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Brimming with imagination, populated by amazing creatures and as richly animated as anything by Disney, Miyazaki’s enchanting animated tale, one of the few sheer delights of recent cinema, ties an Alice in Wonderland type fantasy to an exciting adventure story, while touchingly celebrating courage, friendship and personal identity.

Listen to the great Joe Hisaishi’s memorable score here.

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5. Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004)

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As the steadicam follows Celine and Jesse, the reunited lovers from Before Sunrise, around Paris and finally up to Celine’s apartment, Linklater and his actors, who once again deliver uncannily naturalistic performances, achieve a rare sense of intimacy, as if we really were following this couple around, eavesdropping on their private conversations. Even more remarkable, the evident rapport between Hawke and Delpy is so authentic, so genuine and true, that the essence of romantic love seems to have been captured on the celluloid itself. If you’re tired of watching mindless Hollywood romances, check out Before Sunset, a genuine thinking person’s romance (but make sure to watch 1995’s Before Sunrise first!).

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6. The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, 2008)

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Combining grainy documentary-like authenticity with dark romantic poetry, The Wrestler might best be described as a vérité fairy-tale, working both as a naturalistic glimpse inside the brutal world of professional wrestling and as an elegiac requiem for washed-up wrestler Randy “the Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke). Rourke takes the viewer on an emotional journey with his “broken down hunk of meat”, never stepping wrong in a complex, multi-faceted performance of body-slamming, heart-rending, tear-shedding and blood-letting power. Having failed in his attempt to create a new life for himself after wrestling, Randy finds himself compelled to return to the only place he knows: the ring. With an aura of tragic fatalism hovering over him, Randy enters the ring for the last time, determined to recapture his past glory, if only for one fleeting moment before departing the arena forever. Poignantly, he succeeds, climbing the ropes to salute the crowd and deliver his signature “Ram Jam” for the final time, and then leaping through the air, onto the canvas, and into cinematic folklore.

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7. Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky, 2000)

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Employing myriad visual/aural techniques to convey the manic, fragmented, disoriented state of mind of the addict, Aronofsky captures the subjective experience of drug addiction with harrowing, visceral intensity in Requiem for a Dream, an experimental near-masterpiece which concludes with an extraordinary montage sequence that cuts back and forth between the four main characters as their sad, tragic fates unfold, building to an astonishing crescendo, aided by Clint Mansell’s already-classic music, that would have impressed the Griffith of Intolerance.

Listen to Mansell’s amazing score here.

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8. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008)

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Eschewing the gratuitous gore and CGI effects of the typical modern Hollywood horror movie, Let the Right One In favors a slow burn atmosphere of mounting dread with an emphasis on story and characterization, while still managing to pull off several memorably horrific sequences, notably the soon-to-be famous “pool scene” featuring remarkably imaginative decapitations and dismemberments. The result is a stunningly original horror movie which combines an ingenious re-imagining of the vampire flick with a surprisingly sweet romance/poignant coming-of-age tale – or, given that one character happens to be immortal, a poignant coming-of-agelessness tale.

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9. Caché (Michael Haneke, 2005)

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In Haneke’s creepy thriller, the stable relationship of a happily married couple is upset when they start receiving mysterious videotapes of their home under surveillance. But who’s sending them? Haneke never definitively answers. Caché works best, I think, as a self-reflexive acknowledgment of the director’s godlike role in manipulating his characters and the audience. For it is Haneke, is it not, who’s really sending those surveillance tapes? Certainly the fact that Haneke stages many scenes with the same kind of static, voyeuristic camera set-ups we see on the surveillance tapes lends credence to this reading. That, above all, implicates Haneke in the “crime”. After all, it links the director’s shooting style to that of whoever is shooting the tapes. As such he can be seen as the omnipotent presence hovering above and beyond the proceedings, manipulating the characters in the filmic universe of his own creation. But there is enough going on in this provocative, formally inventive film to support multiple interpretations, which is why it is probably destined, like Blow-Up before it, to be analyzed ad nauseam by stuffy film school professors everywhere (not that that’s a good thing).

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10. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (Seth Gordon, 2007)

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My favorite documentary of the 2000s was not about the Iraq War but about the Donkey Kong War, the monumental struggle between good and evil waged by video arcade geeks Steve Wiebe, the nice guy underdog, and Billy Mitchell, the villainous nerd and undisputed Donkey Kong champ whose rock star status among video gaming geeks even landed him a silicon-filled trophy wife. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters may not have been “the best” documentary of the decade, which was a particularly rich period for the form, but it was certainly the most entertaining one.

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Here are a few additional recommendations:

Memento
You Can Count on Me
Amores Perros
In the Mood for Love
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Ghost World
Devils on the Doorstep
The Piano Teacher
Y Tu Mama Tambien
Bully
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
The Magdalene Sisters
The Son
Bus 174
Capturing the Friedmans
Touching the Void
Kill Bill Vol. 1
A Tale of Two Sisters
Sideways
Open Water
Shaun of the Dead
Maria Full of Grace
Kill Bill Vol. 2
Red Lights
Grizzly Man
A History of Violence
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
The Lives of Others
Exiled
United 93
Ratatouille
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
There Will Be Blood
Once
Zodiac
Cloverfield
WALL•E
Bigger Stronger Faster*
Inglourious Basterds
Up
A Serious Man
In the Loop
Coraline

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