As the door closes on the first decade of the 21st century, it's time to take stock of what we've been through and what it all means. And it's time to make lists. As a film critic, it's been fun for me to look back on this decade and sift through the good and bad of what I've seen (and I've seen a lot). And so here is my humble offering to the glut of "best of the decade" lists: my picks for the 100 best movies. Maybe it wasn’t the 1930s or the 1970s, but the 2000s was a darn good decade in film. Take a look (and fill up your Netflix queue)!
100) Broken Flowers (Jim Jarmusch, 2005): Though Coffee and Cigarettes (2003) was great, Flowers is Jim Jarmusch’s best film of this decade. A gorgeously made road movie with a fantastic cast (Bill Murray, Julie Delpy, Tilda Swinton, Jesica Lange, Chloë Sevigny), Flowers is an open-ended mediation on love, regret, and America.
99) My Best Friend (Patrice Leconte, 2007): One of the best movies about male friendship I’ve ever seen, and one of two films by French director Patrice Leconte on this list.
98) Waking Life (Richard Linklater, 2001): More than just an eye-popping demonstration of the then-new rotoscope animation technique, this talky film is brimful of ideas and 21st century philosophical chitchat.
97) Sideways (Alexander Payne, 2004): One of the best comedies of the decade for so many reasons… A truer film about forty-something wine snobs was never made.
96) Road to Perdition (Sam Mendes, 2002): Sam Mendes’ follow-up to American Beauty provided a striking, moody take on Chicago crime land. Tom Hanks and Paul Newman share some memorably subtle moments (the piano scene!) and Conrad Hall’s photography is among the decade’s best.
95) The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2009): The fist (only?) great film about the current Iraq war. It’s white-knuckled, impressively acted, and refreshingly apolitical.
94) The Village (M. Night Shyamalan, 2004): Though most of us saw the end coming, this film wins on style and acting alone. Bryce Dallas Howard and Joaquin Phoenix have amazing chemistry.
93) The King of Kong (Seth Gordon, 2007): One of the best documentaries of the decade, this film about competitive arcade gaming has all the best elements of comedy, drama, even thriller… not to mention plenty of insights into human nature.
92) Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006): The reboot of the James Bond franchise was fresh, stylish, and one of the best action films of the decade.
91) Pride & Prejudice (Joe Wright, 2005): This surprisingly mature adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic featured great acting, beautiful visuals, and some memorably elaborate single-take tracking shots.
90) The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher, 2008): An exquisitely rendered, peculiar mediation on the fact that our lives—whether lived forward or backward—are lived in time.
89) Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Alfonso Cuaron, 2004): The best of the Harry Potter blockbuster franchise, which has defined the decade more than any one movie brand.
88) Friday Night Lights (Peter Berg, 2004): Though I might suggest that the TV show is even better, the film that preceded it was pretty dang good. Best sports movie of the decade.
87) Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (Adam McKay, 2004): Yes, it’s ridiculous. Ridiculously classic. So many catchphrases—and even Ron Burgundy’s way of speaking—have become incorporated into the comic parlance of our generation.
86) Rescue Dawn (Werner Herzog, 2007): One of the most underseen and underrated films of the decade. Herzog and star Christian Bale are at their best in this twisted, unsettling, strangely beautiful Vietnam war film.
85) Southland Tales (Richard Kelly, 2006): Yes, it’s true that most everyone hated this movie. But most films that are truly great are truly loathed by many. This film managed to summarize its moment so well for me—in an appropriately messy, kitschy, pomo sort of way.
84) Gangs of New York (Martin Scorsese, 2002): Scorsese’s ode to New York/meditation on violence was more than just a mind-blowing showcase for Daniel Day Lewis. It’s a bloody good historical epic with some fierce filmmaking behind it.
83) Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003): This Columbine-inspired art film didn’t offer any easy answers (or easy questions) about teenage violence. And yet as a stylistic exercise and abstract mood piece, it was revelatory.
82) Ocean’s 11 (Steven Soderbergh, 2001): What’s an indie film icon like Steven Soderbergh doing directing a popcorn remake of a rat pack classic? Reinventing Hollywood A-list blockbusters, that’s what.
81) The Queen (Stephen Frears, 2006): Though it’s almost too perfect, The Queen must be acknowledged on this list. Not only is it a spot-on character study (aided by Helen Mirren’s astonishing performance); it’s also a fascinating exploration of media, celebrity, and politics in the tabloid era.
80) The Passion of the Christ (Mel Gibson, 2003): Say what you will about this controversial film, but you have to admit that it’s something to behold. Mel might have been a smidge more restrained, but overall—and divorced from all the politics and religious commercialization of it—this is a film of impressive artistry.
79) About Schmidt (Alexander Payne, 2002): Jack Nicholson’s best recent performance was in this fantastic comedy/drama from Alexander Payne. It’s a wonderfully melancholy film with extremely poignant moments and a great “trails west” Americana vibe.
78) Bright Star (Jane Campion, 2009): This John Keats romance film definitely ranks in the top ten on the decade’s “most beautiful to look at” list. But it also has ideas and painfully true insights about love and loss, adding to the visceral impact of the well-lensed images.
77) The Incredibles (Brad Bird, 2004): One of Pixar’s standout classics in the last decade; It’s a film that thrills, inspires, and just makes you feel great about life.
76) Into the Wild (Sean Penn, 2007): Sean Penn’s film version of the amazing book by Jon Kracauer perfectly captures its outdoorsy, existential spirit. It’s a strikingly earnest film with an adventurous pulse most of us can resonate with.
75) Match Point (Woody Allen, 2005): This highly plotted, thoroughly British morality play is the film that reminded everyone that Woody Allen’s best filmmaking days might not be behind him after all.
74) The Others (Alejandro Amenabar, 2001): For my dime, one of the scariest movies of the decade. Great Henry James-ish mood and a dynamo performance from Nicole Kidman.
73) Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, 2008): Michelle Williams delivers one of the decade’s best, most under-appreciated performances in a tragic film that makes a little story go a very long way.
72) A Serious Man (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2009): A striking, complicated, “you’ll be thinking about this for a while” film about God, suffering, and having faith like Job. The Coens’ second best film of the decade.
71) Half Nelson (Ryan Fleck, 2006): Ryan Gosling delivers a surprising performance in this tiny little indie that manages to wrestle with big ideas (Hegel! dialectics!) even while it plays out on an intimate interpersonal stage.
70) The Proposition (John Hillcoat, 2005): Before he directed The Road, John Hillcoat made this moody, visceral, violent Australian western. Featuring an intense score by Nick Cave and great acting by the likes of Guy Pearce and Danny Huston.
69) Amores Perros (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2000): Translation: “Love’s a bitch.” And that’s surely the takeaway from this dour film. But the execution is nothing short of cinematic genius.
68) Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009): As audacious as ever for Tarantino, with some of the tensest and most well-developed scenes he’s ever concocted.
67) Inland Empire (David Lynch, 2006): This all-digital, hallucinatory epic (it looks like a home video from hell) is a three-hour montage of nightmarish postmodern images and rabbit trails—an assemblage of 21st century anxiety and scatterbrained vignettes of the most mind-bending sort.
66) Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly, 2001): Richard Kelly’s auspicious sci-fi debut film has proven to be one of the decade’s major cult classics.
65) Finding Neverland (Marc Forster, 2004): As tear-jerkers go, this was one of the decade’s most palatable. A great story-behind-the-story with winning performances from Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, and Freddie Highmore.
64) The Class (Laurent Cantet, 2008): This fascinating slice-of-life look inside a complicated social ecosystem (the classroom of a Paris working class public school) is as real as a non-documentary gets.
63) Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2005): Was there a stranger, more compelling documentary character this decade than Timothy Treadwell, as portrayed through the fascinating lens of Werner Herzog? I don’t think so.
62) Personal Velocity (Rebecca Miller, 2002): The first and best film from Rebecca Miller (daughter or playwright Arthur Miller and wife to Daniel Day-Lewis) is an eloquent and subtle look inside the everyday struggles of three women.
61) Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme, 2008): One of the best wedding movies ever made, with standout performances from Anne Hathaway, Debra Winger and Rosemarie DeWitt.
60) City of God (Fernando Meirelles, Katia Lund 2003): This harrowing look inside the urban nightmare of Rio de Janeiro’s slums is less flashy and yet more powerful than its Oscar-winning counterpart Slumdog Millionaire.
59) Collateral (Michael Mann, 2004): No film this decade has captured nighttime L.A. better than this thrilling look inside the criminal underworld of the City of Angels.
58) Yi Yi (Edward Yang, 2000): This sprawling family drama from the late Taiwanese director Edward Yang is a masterpiece of wonder in the mundane rhythms of life–a sort of Tokyo Story for Taipei.
57) Gladiator (Ridley Scott, 2000): This Oscar-winning film single-handedly revived the sword-and-sandal epic. Despite how it has been coopted by youth pastors and the like, Gladiator remains a stirring, well-acted adventure.
56) Me, You, and Everyone We Know (Miranda July, 2005): This quirky little film from artist Miranda July is all about the odd mutations of human communication and connection in a digital age. What happens when our computer-mediated relationships turn out to be less than appealing in the real world?
55) Best in Show (Christopher Guest, 2000): Most definitely one of the best flat-out comedies of the decade, this mockumentary features a superb and hilarious cast that includes Jane Lynch, Jennifer Coolidge, Parker Posey and Fred Willard.
54) Kill Bill Vol 2 (Quentin Tarantino, 2004): Most Tarantino films are about 80% ludicrous, violent pop art and 20% insightful and humane. In this film, the breakdown is more like 50/50. It’s a surprisingly affective piece of kitsch.
53) Munyurangabo (Lee Isaac Chung, 2009): Set in Rwanda, this is a film about the effects of genocide, tragedy, and war… but also about friendship and renewal and the life-giving purity of nature. It’s tender, mysterious, quiet, and one of the best films about Africa I’ve ever seen.
52) Flags of Our Fathers (Clint Eastwood, 2006): The first of a pair of films about WWII’s Battle for Iwo Jima, Flags of Our Fathers is a sobering look at the horrors of war, propaganda, and racism. Features a memorable, heartbreaking performance by Adam Beach as Ira Hayes.51) Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007): There’s something deeply unsettling about this true-story film, creepily told with polished digital elegance by David Fincher. Great performances, striking visuals, and a mood that will make your skin crawl.
50) All the Real Girls (David Gordon Green, 2003): David Gordon Green (aka mini Malick) got much acclaim for this film, which starred the then little known Zooey Deschanel and Paul Schneider. It’s the best breakup film of the decade (sorry (500) Days of Summer!).
49) Amelie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001): This was the foreign film that made everyone fall in love with Paris. Again. It also defined a highly color-saturated, “magic realist” style that would be oft-imitated in subsequent years.
48) Ballast (Lance Hammer, 2008): No one saw Ballast, but it’s one of the decade’s best independent American films. Watch the trailer. The film is a thing of quiet beauty that begs to be experienced.
47) Thirteen Conversations About One Thing (Jill Sprecher, 2001): There’s a decidedly melancholy tone and Edward Hopper-esque look to this “interlocking stories” ensemble film, but it ends up being far from just another artsy downer.
46) Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola, 2006): The colors, textures, and indulgent opulence of this film would be annoying if it wasn’t all so absolutely fitting and perfectly executed. A classic story retold through Sofia Coppola’s delicate and distinctive 80s shoegazer lens.
45) Black Hawk Down (Ridley Scott, 2001): Though it had the unfortunate luck to be released just months after 9/11, this stunning action film remains one of the best, most punch-you-in-the-gut depictions of modern urban warfare that we have.
44) Wall E (Andrew Stanton, 2008): Pixar topped themselves yet again with this cautionary tale/robot love story. More than just a triumph of the craft (the best animated movie of the decade), Wall E is a film that speaks to the cultural moment with grace and provocative insight.
43) 25th Hour (Spike Lee, 2002): Shot in the shadows of the blue-light specters of the World Trade Center, Spike Lee’s film eloquently captures the complicated post-9/11 mood of America. Ostensibly about one man’s (Edward Norton) last night before heading off to prison, 25th Hour is really a letter to NYC and America—full of all the rage, love, sadness, and hope that Lee so keenly conjures up in his films.
42) The Road (John Hillcoat, 2009): Based on the novel (by Cormac McCarthy) that is arguably the definitive piece of fiction for the 2000s, The Road is a triumph of cinematic adaptation that manages to visually render a book some called unfilmable and offer us an unsettling forecast of what nightmares may come if we don’t “carry the fire” and pass it on to the next generation.
41) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004): This Charlie Kaufman-penned film is as unconventional as romances get, what with its trippy examinations of memory, time, and psychology. And yet it all comes together perfectly, capturing quirky blips of spellbinding truth that more conventional films could never offer.
40) Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006): Heart-pounding and compelling from start to finish, this action/thriller is more than just a showcase for ear-ringing bombs and spectacularly elaborate single-take gun battles. It’s a film that jolts us awake to the miracle of life.
39) Traffic (Steven Soderbergh, 2000): Probably the best drug-themed film of the decade, and Soderbergh’s most significant contribution to cinema since Sex, Lies & Videotape. It was pivotal in the way that it energized the “social problem” film genre and proved that films about complicated issues could be made stylishly and for mainstream audiences.
38) Silent Light (Carlos Reygades, 2007): This film about a Mennonite love triangle set in Northern Mexico is original to the core (aside from a very literal nod to Dreyer’s Ordet) and shockingly visceral. The opening and closing shots are truly unforgettable.
37) Kill Bill Vol 1 (Quentin Tarantino, 2003): More indulgent and outrageous than Vol. 2, but even more stylish and painfully entertaining. Who can forget the epic fight scene climax in Japan or the “let’s have us a knife fight” matchup with Uma and Vivica?
36) Letters From Iwo Jima (Clint Eastwood, 2006): This “other side of the story” companion piece to Flags of Our Fathers puts the stunning maturity and storytelling genius of Eastwood on full display. There was no more heartbreaking war film than this in the 2000s.
35) The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007): Taking a page out of Malick’s stylebook, Dominik renders a contemplative existential portrait of Jesse James through images and sound, not so much with words. Brad Pitt is at his best, but the real star is Casey Affleck, whose “cowardly” Robert Ford proves to be a most unexpected tour de force.
34) In the Bedroom (Todd Field, 2001): Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek are at the top of their game in this gripping, stays-with-you domestic drama about normal people reacting to abnormal trauma.
33) Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood, 2004): The best of Eastwood’s late career prolific period, Million Dollar Baby is a sports movie (boxing) that packs a real punch. The third act takes a turn unlike anything I’ve seen this decade.
32) The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001): Wes Anderson’s most complete, satisfying cinematic entrée, Tenenbaums is a gloriously somber iteration of the sort of hipster/retro nostalgia that has defined the 00s. Anderson’s hyper-stylized, immaculately arranged art direction and mise-en-scene launched innumerable trends in both film and television.
31) Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas, 2009): This exquisite French film is about the beauty and meaning of life, and how it is so much more than objects and mementos and the bric-a-brac of our everyday accumulations. It’s about the hours we spend with our families, running around on a summer evening in a forest or field, sipping wine or eating quiche. It’s about the love and passion and sadness we share.
30) A.I. (Steven Spielberg, 2001): This film ushered in the 21st century with a particularly 21st century gimmick: the mashup. The Spielberg/Kubrick film is also thoroughly modern in its dystopic imagery and technophobic preoccupations: the all-too-immediate question of what happens when our technology becomes more real to us than our fellow humans.
29) The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008): Not only the best comic book movie ever, but one of the best action/blockbuster films as well. Heath Ledger is one thing (a big thing), but this movie is impressive on so many levels. It’s reassuring that films like this can still get made—super smart films that can still make $700 million.
28) Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000): Before The Dark Knight, Nolan gave us this breakthrough indie hit—a told-backwards film that revels in unorthodox structure and kicked the door wide open for a decade of non-linear narrative exploration.
27) Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Peter Weir, 2003): In terms of historical costume epics, Weir’s elegant seafaring drama delivered all the goods. It’s an exciting, beautifully made, well-acted film with profound themes and the increasingly rare (but wonderful) blend of regal grandiosity and intimate character development.
26) Dancer in the Dark (Lars von Trier, 2000): This film could easily be seen as some sort of cruel ironic joke, if only it wasn’t so achingly sincere. It may be the most depressing musical ever, but this Bjork-starring film is utterly compelling and packs a major punch at the end.
25) Chop Shop (Ramin Bahrani, 2007): Though set in New York City, in the shadow of Yankees Stadium, this film feels remarkably other-worldy (Third-worldly, actually). But that’s the point. Tapping into the spirit of De Sica-style Italian neo-realism, Chop Shop puts a lens on the unseen, difficult lives of the American urban underclass.
24) L’enfant (Jean-Pierre Dardenne/Luc Dardenne, 2005): Shocking both in how spare it is and how affecting it becomes, L’enfant is one of the true gems of recent European cinema. As usual for the Dardennes, the film withholds catharsis until the final few frames, leaving us abruptly stunned, paralyzed, and unsure what to feel as the screen goes black.
23) Man on the Train (Patrice Leconte, 2002): This film about two strangers who wish they had the other one’s life is deceptively simple and yet endlessly insightful. We’ve all wished we could live another type of life at some point or another. Leconte comments on many aspects of humanity in this film (identity, aging, mortality, etc) and yet it never feels aggressively cerebral.
22) Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002): Charlie Kaufman wrote himself into the script for this film about the writing of an adapted screenplay of a book. With Jonze behind the camera, the effect is discombobulating in a gleefully postmodern sort of way. But in the hands of brilliant actors like Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper (and yes, Nicolas Cage), the film manages to connect on a deeper level than just meta deconstructionism.
21) Cache (Hidden) (Michael Haneke, 2005): This film is compelling on so many levels. It’s a suspenseful thriller, well-acted character study, but it’s also a film that is about watching film (a theme Haneke also explores in his controversial Funny Games). It’s a film about seeing, being seen, and the various levels of “reality” that we must wade through when we start thinking about media and how it increasingly arbitrates so much of our existence.
20) Nine Lives (Rodrigo Garcia, 2005): Nine fragments of nine individual lives, told in segments over a series of nine long shots: all of them women, all unresolved glimpses into tangled lives with branching trajectories. It may sound convoluted, but this film evokes so much truth in its snapshot structure. It’s akin to the soundbite news stories or googled tidbits that populate our everyday windows into other peoples’ worlds… only better.
19) Gosford Park (Robert Altman, 2001): Though it might appear at first glance to be an elegant British murder mystery, Gosford Park is actually a quite profound, moving, entertaining examination of class. Writ large with one of Altman’s trademark massive ensemble casts, Gosford boasts innumerable dynamo performances from the likes of Helen Mirren, Maggie Smith, and Kristen Scott Thomas.
18) No Country for Old Men (Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, 2007): On one level, this film is a pulsating cat-and-mouse thriller, but as it progresses we see that it is about much, much more. The presence and subsequent absence of violence as the film goes along reveals a white flag weariness that matches the arid and emotionless Texas landscape. It’s a film that intentionally refuses satisfaction or answers to its audience, leaving us, like the older characters in the films, to stand stumped and disillusioned by the mundane nightmares of our contemporary world.
17) George Washington (David Gordon Green, 2000): Green’s debut film is anachronistic (there are no computers or cell phones to be seen), but while it may not feel completely comfortable in the 21st century, neither does it feel at home in the 20th. The film is in some ways a lament for the “olden days” of green grass, safe streets, American dreams—but it is also looking away from all that—towards a new future that leaves behind the racial, relational, and economic strife of bygone days.
16) The Pianist (Roman Polanski, 2002): The ending of this film is pure catharsis. After two and a half hours of death and horror, our protagonist (Adrian Brody) is finally redeemed, and over the end titles, he performs Chopin’s magnificent Grande Polonaise for piano & orchestra with the Warsaw Philharmonic in a concert hall. Like the beautiful music played throughout the film, it is both sad and triumphant—equal parts emotional release and spiritual requiem for lost beauty and innocence. Very few films’ end titles are so riveting that not a single audience member leaves for five+ minutes.
15) The Son (Jean-Pierre Dardenne/Luc Dardenne, 2002): Aside from maybe The Road, there was no more beautiful a portrait of fathers and sons this decade than The Son, which is also the best European film of the decade. A film of great patience, restraint, and quietness (shot in the Dardennes’ trademark verite style) The Son spans the mundane rhythms of life and finds within it an abundance of grace.
14) The Departed (Martin Scorsese, 2006): This is a thoroughly contemporary film in both obvious ways (the importance of cell phones for the script) and on more subtle levels (the transnational migration of the film from the Hong Kong original—Infernal Affairs—is a decidedly recent phenomenon in cinema). Furthermore, the film’s urban, unrepentant nihilism feels quite authentic in the context of our current cultural quagmire.
13) In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar Wai, 2000): This haunting, dream-like film from Hong Kong (set in the 1960s) is an expression of love—not just the human experience of it, but also our memory of it and its cinematic expression. Thoroughly contemporary in its preoccupations with nostalgia and the urgency of remembrance, In the Mood luxuriates in the inherent sensuality of the cinema and the necessarily mournful implications of the filmic embodiment of time.
12) Old Joy (Kelly Reichardt, 2006): Coming out as it did at the height of Bush-era malaise, Reichardt’s impressive debut captured the emotional tenor of a generation (or a certain large swath of a generation) better than just about any other film this decade. Startlingly simple in story and form (embellished only by a gorgeous Yo La Tengo soundtrack), Old Joy nevertheless provides a striking meditation on things like time, aging, and the loss of idealism.
11) Dogville (Lars von Trier, 2003): Truly one of the most original films of the decade, both in its soundstage-and-chalk stylization and its high-minded allegorical ideals, Dogville is an arthouse epic if I ever saw one. Nicole Kidman as “Grace” is easily one of the juiciest roles of the 2000s, guiding us through a stunning film that on paper should fail spectacularly. But credit Lars von Trier that Dogville transcends pretentious gimmickry and manages to say some of the decade’s most daring and provocative things.
10) Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant, 2008): This is one of those films that had me silent and stunned for the entire duration of the closing credits. Though highly sensory and aggressively artistic, Paranoid also has a plot—a simple, devastating plot that will grab you and shake you and make you think about the deep interiors of your life that rarely get glimpsed. It’s a totally unique, thoroughly American masterpiece of the cinematic form that demands to be seen in HD and surround sound.
9) Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001): You don’t watch a David Lynch film because it makes sense; You watch it because it rings true. And with Muholland Drive–a film of extraordinary beauty, mystery and sadness–Lynch is at his truest. Aided by a breakthrough performance by Naomi Watts, Drive takes the audience deep into the subconscious interiors of Hollywood and the human condition. The “Silencio” interlude–among other moments in the film–is absolutely unforgettable.
8) There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007): There Will Be Blood is an American masterpiece–a Citizen Kane for the postmodern Net-generation. It’s a stunning, thoroughly modern work of art that paints a stark picture of what happens when greedy capitalism and power-mongering is bedfellow with something so contrary as Christianity. As the title forebodes, the results—for all parties involved—will not be pretty. Though not a political film in the traditional sense, Blood nevertheless acutely captures the blood-oil-Iraq-evangelicals-capitalism zeitgeist of Oughts-era America.
7) I'm Not There (Todd Haynes, 2007): This Bob Dylan biopic is not an easy film by any means, but it is a work of art. There is a lot to admire about the film’s style (cinematography, period costumes, stunning editing) and its acting (Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Richard Gere and especially Cate Blanchett), but the brilliance of I’m Not There is far less quantifiable. Just as the film—through the case study of Bob Dylan and the 60s—shows us how identity is an elusive thing in postmodernity, so too does it evade any typical conventions of story and cinema. Like the era in which it exists, I’m Not There is made up of disparate images, moments, sounds, feelings, frustrations—small pieces loosely joined by the fragmenting, universal quest for identity.
6) Moulin Rouge! (Baz Luhrmann, 2001): On the level of pure madcap entertainment, this is a brilliant film. But on a conceptual and technical level (i.e. fearlessly hyper-speed editing, audaciously anachronistic musical numbers, songs actually sung by actors!), Moulin Rouge is simply genius. It’s a risky film (as Luhrmann’s always are) that works as a mythic love story but also a pop culture pastiche, culling together a century of sights, sounds, glitz and glamour to forge an explosively cinematic feast for the senses.
5) Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004): This film, essentially an extended conversation between Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, is perhaps the most elegantly urgent film of our increasingly anxious historical moment. It’s about not letting things slip away in a world where second chances—where nothing, really—is guaranteed. Hawke and Delpy are the best romantic movie pair of the decade as they stroll along, in real-time, at Paris-at-sunset, talking life and philosophy and what has transpired for them in the decade since they last met (in 1995’s Before Sunrise). It’s simple, yes. But in a decade that has been anything but, “simple” is a welcome attribute.
4) United 93 (Paul Greengrass, 2006): 9/11 is the defining event of the 2000s, and United 93 is the best filmic representation of it. The documentary-style drama brings us viscerally back to the terror of that day, offering a disturbing glimpse inside the hijacked flight 93 as well as a resonant look at the unfolding chaos on the ground. As a painstakingly objective historical document of the decade’s most important day, this film is a triumph. As a heart-pounding, sweaty-palmed thriller about what existence becomes when teetering on the edge of non-existence, United 93 is a nearly unparalleled achievement.
3) The Lord of the Rings trilogy (Peter Jackson, 2001-2003): Taken as a trilogy, this WAS the decade in blockbuster filmmaking. Its unprecedented scale (three films shot back to back, totalling over ten hours of final film), coupled with Jackson’s meticulous artistry and the able hands of a fine ensemble cast, made these films more than just epic fantasy adventures; They are masterpieces of contemporary Hollywood filmmaking. I still remember where I saw each of these films for the first time, and where I saw each for the second and third time, etc. The films were a cultural event and are firmly engraved in the annuls of “Ought” history.
2) The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005): Malick’s fourth film–and arguably his most sprawling and fully realized–is an epic tale of love, life, growth and nature, set against an American orgins story: The legend of Pocohantas. But it’s not a film about what happens. It’s about what is. In a way that few directors can, Malick confronts us with the thingness of things–the reality of a flock of birds, or a lightening bolt, or a corsetted dress. It’s a film of poetic abstraction that expresses a universe of cohesion by stitching together tidbits of light and longing, in the same way that William Blake saw the whole world in a grain of sand. It challenges our notions of what a film should be, eschewing traditional norms of storytelling while opening the form up to new expressive potential.
1) Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003): There’s a brief interlude in the middle of this film in which Scarlett Johansson’s character sits against the window of her Tokyo hotel room, looking out on the gray, foreign skyline. As an instrumental Squarepusher song plays, a tender handheld camera gracefully surveys the scene–taking in the bird’s eye view of the city but also the figure of Johansson in the foreground. The camera’s attention seems torn between the force of the chaotic city (graciously subdued by the protective layer of glass) and the humanity of this lonely feminine figure. Simple and true as it is, this sequence captures the dialectical essence of Sofia Coppola’s breathtaking film. It’s a film about the triumph of intimacy in the face of crowdnessness, fleeting human connection against the villains of loneliness and time. It’s a film that–through exquisite mastery of sight and sound–viscerally binds us both to the joy and despair these characters (Johansson and Bill Murray) feel. By the end, as the Jesus and Mary Chain serenades a ghostly whisper tour of Tokyo at sunrise, we feel a sort of boozy morning-after solemnity. But we also feel the thrill of having broken through–just for a moment–the 21st century melee of arcade lights and existential anonymity.