Reality TV.  HD-everything.  You-Tube.  Global Warming…er…Climate Change.  War on Terror.  Weapons of Mass Destruction.  H1N1… 

Ah yes…this was the 2000’s. 

Stephen Colbert once hilariously stated that this was the “Holy Shit!” decade.  Humorous sarcasm aside, those words do have serious merit.  In terms of contemporary history, the 21st Century began with the essential end of the Cold War and the United States emerging as the main super power.  Yet, with that war over another would begin, which saw the light of day with an event that would incontrovertibly define the decade:  On September 11, 2001 2997 people from 90 different countries died during one of the worst terrorist attacks on American soil.  Al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four commercial airlines, intentionally crashing two of them into the Pentagon in Virginia and both World Trade Centers in New York (the other remaining plane was intended for the White House, but crashed in a Pennsylvanian field).  The War on Terror erupted, which eventually morphed into a decade-long war in Iraq, whose repercussions are still felt, let alone deeply contested, to this very day.  Beyond armed conflicts, other noteworthy disasters included the dreadful Space Shuttle Columbia disaster of 2003, which eerily reflected another past shuttle explosion in 1986.  Then there was Hurricane Katrina, which killed nearly two thousand people in New Orleans in 2005 (which deplorably lead to a highly controversial clean up operation).   The decade would end with the deadly threat of a viral pandemic in H1N1, or colloquially known as "Swine Flu," which is a term that has become annoyingly – but unavoidably - ubiquitous in the worldwide media.  

So, yes, this was the “Holy Shit!” decade. 

On a socio-cultural side, the 2000’s can easily be typified as the digital age.  Although its use can be traced back to its infancy in the 1980’s and 1990’s, digital technology of all kinds truly began to simmer and become widely accepted over this ten year period.  E-mail and Internet blossomed, digital cameras completely overshadowed tradition film cameras, and cell phones became as common as wrist watches.  By 2008 over 3 billion people (that’s half of the world’s population) used cell phones, which essentially means that half of the world’s population is rudely ignoring face-to-face contact with actual people in order to retrieve their self-important text messages of the painfully mundane.  You Tube became the predominant form of wasting thousands of man hours at work each day (it continues to post videos of the incredible and ridiculous).  If anything, digital technology has incontestably altered the cultural landscape of the planet, but I would argue for both the better and worse.  Critics have long asserted that cell phones and the Internet have made our world a smaller global village, but has also had the unintentional effect of separating us that much more. 

As for the movies themselves?  The art form would change forever.  The Hollywood studio system was dominated by six global companies, each which fanned out into innumerable other independents.  Studios, on a down note, began to see the lucrative nature of producing cheap and disposable remakes, adaptations and – most egregiously – crude torture porn films.  Digital technology made huge leaps and bounds for the cinema in the decade, with WHERE BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? being the first film to used digital color correction.  Disney’s TREASURE PLANET was a critical and commercial bomb, but it was the first to debut both in traditional cinemas and on Imax screens (a trend that has become huge today).  George Lucas’ STAR WARS: EPISODE II – ATTACK OF THE CLONES became the very first film to be shot on HD digital cameras, a trend that was unheard of and chastised then, but is slowly becoming common now.  The decade closed out with the increased preponderance of Digital 3-D technology, which still, in my opinion, remains largely a financial grab for studios more than an artistic motivated endeavor.  Yet, with the late-decade box office juggernaut that is AVATAR, 3-D may just become mainstream in the new decade.

In terms of other firsts, the decade marked the first time that African American actors won both for Best Actor and Best Actress at the Academy Awards (Halle Berry for MONSTER'S BALL and Denzel Washington for TRAINING DAY in 2002).  CHICAGO became the first musical to win Best Picture in 34 years.  For the first time in 2003 home video sales accounted for more revenue than theatrical ticket sales.   By 2003 the 1990’s-developed DVD format finally eclipsed VHS sales and many chains finally began to stop carrying VHS tapes of films.  However, the latter part of the decade would bring a lamentable format war akin to the early 80’s VHS vs. Beta battle, and this time it was over the next-gen HD home video format between HD-DVD and Blu-Ray.  History has shown now that HD-DVD’s are now developing as much dust in storage closets as those old Betamaz tapes.  Good luck selling them on EBay. 

Now, this finally brings me to my TEN BEST FILMS of the 2000’s and the first thing I will say about it is that – as is the case with all of my other ten best lists – this is a highly personal and subjective compilation.  This films that have been chosen are ones that have deep personal meaning to me, not to mention that they reflect a broad aesthetic sensibility as to what I believe are the benchmark achievements of the decade.  The list ranges from small scale independent efforts to low key dramas to to the biggest of the summer blockbusters (there is an obstinacy and ignorance among some critics and film viewers that money-makers can’t be seen as significant and important films).  

Aside from being as eclectic as possible with my picks, I must address an obvious question: Why make this list in the first place when you already have made your lists of the TEN BEST FILMS of each year for the past ten years?  Wouldn’t the Number 1 picks from each year just simply appear on the Decade's Best list?  Well, no.  Upon reflection, I think that there are some picks that were number 2 or 3 one year that were better than the films that were rated number 1 on a completely different year.  Also, after carefully scrutinizing the lists from the last ten years today, I find myself re-evaluating the ranking of a few titles.  However, I have a strong aversion to changing lists long after they have been made, seeing as they represent my immediate thoughts as of the end of each year as to what I believed were the ten best films.  That is not to say that my mind has changed about the titles included on them: they all would still remain.  However, the passage of time has simply allowed me re-think their placement.  

And, one last thing.  Yes...I do realize that the decade has not officially ended yet.  The new decade does indeed begin with 2011.  Nonetheless, consider this a TEN BEST list of the period starting on January 1, 2000 through December 31, 2009.  Okay?  So no need to bicker endlessly about the obvious.

 

1. UNITED 93 (2006)

 
 

Paul Greengrass’ astoundingly realized and stunningly realistic UNITED 93 is the seminal film of the decade.  

9/11 still lingers and haunts people well into the new decade, and many film and political pundits questioned whether a film chronicling one part of the dreaded terrorist acts of September 11, 2001 was too much, too soon back in 2006.  Greengrass defied critics and went ahead with what would be then the first – and ultimately best – major big-screen, Hollywood financed retelling of the calamitous events of nearly ten years ago.  Yes, there was then and now the ethical question of whether the film came out too soon after the tragedy, especially when it still reverberated to those that were most deeply affected by it.  Greengrass’ resulting film affirmatively and confidently responded, “It could not come any sooner.”

The film details the doomed United Airlines Flight 93 that would eventually crash to the ground in a Pennsylvanian field after the passengers (apparently) subdued their terrorist captors and attempted to commandeer the plane.  One thing should be stressed from the onset: this is not exploitation of a tragedy like, say, Michael Bay’s abortively condescending PEARL HARBOR, that used one day in infamy to tell an egregiously silly love story.  No, UNITED 93 is not popcorn entertainment, nor a sentimentally and schmaltzy retelling of history.  What it does with such an authoritative tenacity is to create a pseudo-documentary feel to the events presented:  It’s not about commentating on the disaster, or politicizing it, or shamefully using it to entertain audience members.   What UNITED 93 is about is retelling - with an unflinching realism and startling immediacy -  the events in question, and there is no denying that Greengrass' fly-on-the-wall methods here foster one of the most realistic historical recreations ever committed to screen.  More importantly, the film is a proud, heartfelt salute to the heroism and courage of those doomed passengers. 

 
 

2.  THE HURT LOCKER (2009)

 
 

Kathryn Bigelow’s recent modern warfare masterpiece did not get much love from the Hollywood Foreign Press last week, losing out both best Picture and Best Director awards to James Cameron and his AVATAR (a lamentable error, if there ever was one).  However, I think that there is absolutely no question that Bigelow’s more critically lauded and respected effort is AVATAR’s clear superior: it’s not only one of the most realistic and hauntingly tense portrayals of modern day warfare that I’ve seen, but it also commands a very deserving mention as one of the most memorable filmgoing experiences of both 2009 and the decade on the whole.

Bigelow’s film had a budget that would barely cover the cost of her ex-husband’s (Cameron) ego, but she does the extraordinary with such scant funding: She crafts individual moments with the fever-pitched suspense and editorial mastery of a Hitchcock.  Her less-is-more, documentarian style of shooting lends masterful verisimilitude to the proceedings, a trait that far too many glossier and bombastic war films lack altogether.  The improvisational attitude of the main character - a bomb diffuser played in a career making performance by Jeremy Renner - is intuitively linked to Bigelow’s equally sporadic, loose, and freewheeling aesthetic style.  Perhaps most importantly, THE HURT LOCKER does not pontificate a political message, nor does it waste our time on unnecessary sermonizing about the hellish pointlessness of combat.  Instead, it aggressively hurtles viewers into its reality-based universe and engages us on primal, visceral levels.  Those that complain that great war films need to engage in commentary miss the boat altogether: THE HURT LOCKER is not a message film, but a supreme exercise submerging viewers within the day-to-day ordeals that men in uniform must commit themselves to.  For that, THE HURT LOCKER is one of the decade’s most immersive, out-of-body experiences at the cinema. 
 
 

3.  THE DARK KNIGHT: THE IMAX EXPERIENCE (2008)

 
 

With eight Oscar nominations (alas, none for Best Picture, Director, or Screenplay), a box office that – for the time being - ranks within the top three domestic films of all-time, and the shrewd and cunning directorial mind of Christopher Nolan at the helm of it all, there is no doubt that THE DARK KNIGHT deserves worthy mention here on a list of the decade’s best.  For a director whose career as spawned one masterful film after another (from MEMENTO to INSOMNIA to THE PRESTIGE to, yes, BATMAN BEGINS), THE DARK KNIGHT represented Nolan at the top of his form, not to mention that it has emerged as the finest and best realized comic book films of all time.

Yet, THE DARK KNIGHT is not so much a comic book movie (that simplistic moniker does it no justice): This is a modern crime epic in the vein of the finest of Michael Mann that also does a remarkable job of probing the central ironies of Bob Kane’s legendary 70-year creation.  Batman, in Nolan’s hands, is the ultimate societal fringe figure, a cold and ruthless vigilante that frequently crosses the law when the ends justify the means.  THE DARK KNIGHT further frames its Caped Crusader within a socio-cultural, post 9/11 milieu (it asks, for example, when does the ends justify the means and is Batman truly a heroic figure when he takes advantage of the civil liberties of the innocent to wage a war on crime?).  Few comic book films have the rich thematic density of Nolan’s effort here, and THE DARK KNIGHT fuses the more fantastical and adventurous aspects of the title character with a fatalistic film noir that examines the convoluted grey areas between both the morally questionable hero and villain (whom are more alike than either would admit).  And Heath Ledger’s turn as the Joker is the greatest and most textured portrayal of anarchic evil since Hannibal Lector was introduced in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.  

Note: I have listed "The Imax Experience" here to indicate that this was the definitive version of the film when it was released.

 
 

4. DONNIE DARKO: THE DIRECTOR'S CUT (2001/2004)

 
 

I've seen DONNIE DARKO perhaps twenty times over the course of the last ten years and each time the film becomes even more beguiling and challenging.  What initially was a notorious box office dud when released in 2001 became one of the more significant cult films of the decade, spawning die hard fans to endlessly discuss and dissect its possible meanings and themes.  In its most basic form, Richard Kelly’s film is about (according to Wikipedia) the reality and time bending adventures of the title character as he seeks out the meaning and significance behind his multiple, Doomsday-inspired visions.  That’s about as clear of a plot description as your likely to find.  Yet, DONNIE DARKO should not be chastised for its bewildering and mind-numbingly complicated narrative; what makes the film such a revelation and worthy of placement on this list is that, like all great and masterful films, it repeatedly holds up after multiple viewings, and even after that a succinct explanation behind its internal mysteries still remains aloof. 

That’s what I admired about the film: it’s a haunting, funny, weirdly atmospheric, and ambiguous work that does a marvelous job of captivating you while telling you...really nothing.  DONNIE DARKO does cover some compelling subject matter and themes (like adolescent love, family life, censorship in the media, the socio-political landscape of Reagan-era America, the question of destiny versus free will, the futility of searching for God, the conscious mind versus the unconscious mind…buuuuut…it's also about the philosophy of time travel, interdimensional vortexes, the nature of dreams, the possibility of tangential universes, and giant rabbits with demonic heads.  The true testament to the transcending power the film is that it hooks you in and pulls you head-on into its maddening world, and by the end you experience simultaneous feelings of both amazement with complete puzzlement.   Kelly made some categorically bad errors in judgment with his follow-up, the wholeheartedly awful mess that was SOUTHLAND TALES, but his 2001 debut effort remains one of the decade’s most entrancing and tortuously enigmatic films…but wondrously enigmatic.

 
 

5. MEMENTO (2001)

 
 

Christopher Nolan (making his second appearance on this list; this was his decade) made an auspicious splash with one of his earliest directorial efforts, MEMENTO, a deeply involving and endlessly fascinating psychological thriller about a man with Anterograde Amnesia (in short, someone that cannot create new memories) trying to discover the truth behind a heinous crime.  The problem: how does he sift through all of the evidence and clues when he is incapable of remembering them all?  That is the endlessly provocative hook of MEMENTO, and Nolan’s adaptation of the short story by his own brother, Jonathan (whom would later become a frequent collaborator on future projects) became an fiendishly innovative film for its use of a nonlinear narrative structure -  the film’s events unfold in reverse chronological order - which is so simple in its brilliance.  When scenes begin, the viewer - like the main character - is unaware of the preceding events to the scene, thereby giving the viewer a portal into the character's confusion and paranoia.  MEMENTO is not just ingenious for its unique storytelling devices; it also taps into human themes of perception versus reality, love, grief, self delusion, and how revenge can often cloud all other decent impulses.  For those reasons, Nolan’s film emerged not just as a densely intriguing cinematic Rorschach Test in terms of its plot, but also was one of the most tense, atmospheric, and hypnotic thrillers of the decade, and one where its novelty thankfully never overwhelmed its story and characters.

 
 

6. BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (2005)

 
 

Ang Lee’s BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN was far and away the romantic drama of the decade, and the fact that it concerned a lifelong love between two men is redundant.  Deal with it.

The film generated ample buzz both before and after its initial release in 2005, and often the talk was delegated to lame and cheap late night talk show monologues.  Calling it the “gay cowboy movie” really does it a disservice: The film, at its very foundations, is one of the finest stories of tragic love, yearning, isolation, unspoken passion, and inner despair to grace the silver screen over the last ten years.  Lee sets up a poignant and heartrending framework here that easily overcomes the so-called controversial aspects of the film’s homosexual content by infusing the proceedings with a real depth and weight with the story and characters.  Enis and Jack (played in two of the finest and most brave performances of the decade by Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger, the latter marking his second most memorable performance of his career behind THE DARK KNIGHT) are two men that begrudgingly fall in love, but at the wrong time.  They unfortunately live their lives in the 60’s and 70’s during a time when any hint of gayness was demonized.  The intriguing arc of the film is that it is the very morally conservative society that has taught them to chastise a gay lifestyle that also makes them subvert their real feelings.  They try to slip into a normal, heterosexual family life, but with dreadful results.  The film certainly takes a new focal point with its love story, but Lee paints this melancholic canvas with such universal human themes and emotions that it becomes an incredibly touching love story.  Ultimately, it does not matter whether it's gay or straight.
 
 

7.  MUNICH (2005)

 
 

 

There is no doubt that Steven Spielberg is the most financially successful filmmaker of the last 40 years, an accolade that is far too frequently used against him when he attempts more sobering and solemn dramas.  He is a filmmaker that has demonstrated in the past his relative ease for segueing from escapist, summer blockbusters to searing, moving, and Oscar-worthy dramatic fare.  He started the decade making of the best pure science fiction films of the decade in MINORITY REPORT and ended it with his not-bad, but not-great INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL, but I fear that his 2005 masterpiece, MUNICH, has been lost in the critical limelight. 

The film all but solidified Spielberg as a director that is not hampered by difficult subject matter.  In this film’s case – based on truth – Spielberg explores a narrative of an assassination squad that is hired (off the record) to hunt down and exterminate the people responsible for the kidnapping and murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.  The film – with the possible exception of SCHINDLER'S LIST – is the director’s toughest, most unsettling, and most ethically complex drama he has ever made; an utterly invigorating work that does not - as Spielberg himself has stressed - wish to be a “pamphlet” drama.  The magnificence of MUNICH is that it's neither anti-Israeli nor anti-Palestinian.  Instead, Spielberg shows an adept and democratic hand to both sides and respects the audience members to make up their own minds.  No film from 2005 – nor arguably from the decade – challenged and evaded so many socio-political bullets as this one.   The finest thing about MUNICH is that – after some truly misguided misfires like THE TERMINAL and WAR OF THE WORLDS – it represented a return to form for the auteur in Spielberg, a master of both populist escapist entertainment and smaller, more compelling, and more invigorating dramas.
 
 

8. JUNO (2007)

 
 

JUNO is a pure, giddy, infectious delight; a film that introduced the lyrically idiosyncratic voice of Diablo Cody (a former stripper, turned screenwriter and Oscar winner) into mainstream films and further reinforced to moviegoers as to why Ellen Page is one of the best young actress of her generation.  

Page has been in so many lasting films, given one indelible performance after another (like HARD CANDY, SMART PEOPLE, and WHIP IT for example), but her work as the acid-tongued, fiercely quick-witted, pop-culture slinging, and vulnerable title character was one of the many factors that made this Jason Reitman directed comedy one with a real intelligence, wit, and heartfelt sentiment.  Reitman’s affectionately low key direction (which has what has made his films, like THANK-YOU FOR SMOKING and recently UP IN THE AIR , so refined) allows for the character dynamics – and Cody’s wondrously verbose and colorful dialogue – to come to the forefront.  The film mixes heartfelt laughter and soul-searching pathos inordinately better than most other dramedies (a combination that is decidedly difficult to pull off) and the richness and flair that Cody has embodied in her teen characters is something to be relished, not demeaned.  Mean-spirited critics were quick to lash out at that Cody’s hyper-clever, hyper-stylized dialogue lacked veracity?  Excuse me?  I will take her clever and inventive adolescent banter any day, especially seeing that far too many teen comedies over the decade don’t even make modest attempts to allow their personas to be literate and sharp.  JUNO was the most memorable, funny, and quietly moving dramedy of the decade.  And it's final scene - showing the tender and nurturing bond between two young soul-mates - is as perfect as it gets.

 
 

9. ZODIAC (2007)

 
 

After a stellar career that has seen such lauded efforts like SE7EN, FIGHT CLUB, and THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, David Fincher’s 2007 real-life crime epic, ZODIAC, emerged as the finest film of his career and one of the most intoxicating police procedurals of the decade.  What he does (as he has demonstrated with all of his films) is to show his impeccable handling of mood and texture.  

ZODIAC is a sprawling, lavishly produced, and brilliantly told narrative of the investigation into one of the most polarizing, unsolved murder mysteries of the 20th Century, and with Fincher at the helm the resulting film is a wonder to behold.  Mixing immersive period design, intensely drawn and realized characters, an entrancing story, and miraculous use of CGI effects (which does the impossible of making a San Francisco skyline of the past feel so tactile and real without showing the effects magicians' strings), ZODIAC entices viewers in its story of the decades-old battle to uncover the real identity of the Zodiac killer.  Not only are there palpable moments of dread and nail-biting tension here, but the film also tantalizes viewers with never really spelling out exactly whom the the real killer is (this may be one of the few serial killer movies where the culprit is never readily identified and, yes, never caught), but that’s the brilliance of Fincher’s vision.  Like an ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, the focus here is on the investigative journalists working with the police in an obsessive – but ultimately defeatist – goal of cracking this nefarious crime caper.  Men like Eastwood dominate the Western genre, Scorsese the gangster epic, and Lucas the Fantasy, but Fincher has the crime thriller genre all to himself.  It's one of the decade's largest shames that a film this great did not find an audience.

 
 

10. MOULIN ROUGE (2001)

 
 

MOULIN ROUGE – at the time of its release - was the very first screen musical to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in 22 years, and deservedly so.   

Baz Luhrmann’s luscious, bold, audacious, and vividly realized 2001 romantic musical – based in turn on Orphean myth and Giuseppe Verdi’s opera LA TRAVIATA – remains the finest example of the genre that the decade produced.  Perhaps what's so memorable and lasting about the film is the hyperactive and kinetic energy that Luhrmann brought to the film musical, something that has yet to be duplicated.  Also noteworthy and highly innovative is the way ROUGE’s aesthetic palate was so richly diverse: It fused a classic love story between a starry-eyed English poet/writer (Ewan McGregor, never more charming and debonair) who falls in love with a cabaret actress and courtesan (Nicole Kidman, never more sexy and alluring) with intoxicatingly anachronistic pop songs that belong to a contemporary generation.  The story and backdrop of late 19th Century Paris as told through the musical vocals of modern rock and pop tunes seems like a risky gamble, but Luhrmann brilliantly and evocatively homogenized it all with the bright and intense sheen of a Technicolor musical, the swirling and spastic editorial trappings indicative of the MTV generation, and an overall whimsical and theatrical tone that felt just right.  CHICAGO, which came out a mere year later, received most of the accolades that MOULIN ROUGE should have received (Rob Marshall’s film, in my book, still remains the worst Best Picture winner of the last 20 years), but it is Lurhmann’s hypnotic kaleidoscope of music, dance, and boundless energy that became the benchmark work of the genre for the decade. 

 
 

 

 

 

 
     
 

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