After a long hiatus from list making (you can check out my Top 5 Action Sci-Fi Movies from the 80s written last year if you feel so inclined), I am back with another. Like all lists, this one is subjective and says more about me than it does these movies. Yes, I think they are good. Great in fact, but I don’t want to just tell you what I think are the “best” films from last decade. I want to provide a balanced and personal list that gives you a sense of what was meaningful and important for me during the 2000s. If I am successful, hopefully they can mean something to you as well. Watch one, two, or all of them in succession, but don’t think of this as just a list, but rather as a guide. Basically, I want you to trust me.
DONNIE DARKO (2001) Dir. Richard Kelly: Let me begin by saying that Donnie Darko is underrated. This might sound strange considering its devoted cult following and general high esteem, but the movie is a near-perfect articulation of teenage angst and the splendorous horrors of modern suburbia. Yet, despite these themes, it doesn't fall into the schmaltzy trap of over-eager self-importance that ensnares films like American Beauty (1999). Despite seemingly indulgent moments, like Donnie's insistence that life is complicated and can’t fit into the simplistic categories of fear and love, it all comes off as real and authentic, with a self-awareness that doesn't undercut itself. Like Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause made 56 years earlier, Donnie Darko is a true expression of the inner turmoil and gnawing insecurity that comes along with being a teenager in the suburbs. The existential questions are powerful and confront the reality that our actions have consequences, even if the depth and force of those consequences are never fully understood. On top of all this, the movie features time travel, jet engines falling on houses, and a life-size demonic bunny named Frank that is both marvelous and creepy as hell. The movie features witty yet scathing banter between Donnie and various authority figures, and too many great lines to put down here. This is one of my all-time favorites, and we need more of these mid-budget creative works.
1 ANTICHRIST (2009) Dir. Lars Von Trier: Antichrist is difficult to watch, and one of the most deeply disturbing films ever made. It caused a stir at Cannes when it debuted there, as critics and reviewers debated whether or not the suffocating misogyny and genital mutilation were artistically valid or just perverse torture porn. One of the more thoughtful and less polemic reviews claimed it was one of the most profound representations of mental illness ever conceived on film, and it is widely known that it spawned from Von Trier’s crippling and life-threatening depression. Yet, unlike Ingmar Bergman’s penchant for art as catharsis, there is no redemption in Antichrist. It is uncompromisingly bleak and hopeless. Issues of gender and patriarchal domination make this a good object for intellectual inquiry, but Von Trier is not a cerebral filmmaker, and we can only understand his subject by experiencing it. He plunges deep into the madness and pain, and we can’t help but go along with him.
1 NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007) Dirs. Joel and Ethan Coen: This was a difficult choice, because I feel like I had to choose between this and P.T. Anderson’s There Will be Blood. Both these films slugged it out during the Oscars, and are two of the most critically lauded films of the 2000s. They are inextricably linked, and I felt I had to either put both of them in or choose one. Made for ultimately arbitrary reasons, my decision is clear. No Country for Old Men is incredibly violent, and relentlessly attacks the Western mythology of the righteous gunslinger who saves the day. In this cruel world, honor and virtue can be bought for a price, and chaos and chance are its most powerful shaping forces. The movie poses so many questions and leaves virtually all of them unanswered, which is part of what makes it so great and difficult to understand.
1 IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (2000) Dir. Wong Kar Wai: Of all the films on this list, this is the one I am least familiar with. Yet, it is clear that this beautiful representation of love, infidelity,and shifting identity is a triumph in merging high-art aesthetics with real, heartfelt narrative and visceral passion. Repetitive images and sound sequences are used to great effect, making In the Mood for Love true poetry in motion.
INLAND EMPIRE “A Woman in Trouble” (2006) Dir. David Lynch: Another difficult choice because I couldn't justify putting two David Lynch films on this list, and thus had to choose between Inland Empire and Mulholland Dr. A difficult choice indeed, but I feel good about going with Lynch’s lesser known masterwork. It is, after all, his magnum opus and one of the most ambitious and exhausting films I've ever seen. While focused in and around Los Angeles and Hollywood, Inland Empire is more than a movie about movies; it is a tireless intrusion into the systems of patriarchal oppression and abuse embedded in film and television, and an examination of the horrors that arise when we explore the darkness in the back of the studio and peel back the protective layer of the screen. From giant bunnies reenacting tropes of 50s sitcoms, to a girl alone in a dingy hotel room, weeping and watching what we are watching on a small television, and Laura Dern transitioning from a millionaire Hollywood actor to a low-class woman with her own history of violence, David Lynch’s twisted vision shows how things can go horribly wrong and yet fit perfectly into place. The film is brutal and the threat of violence is ever-present and haunts the viewer throughout. Lynch is relentless, incisive, and at his disturbing and jarring best. You will cry and shudder, and when it ends you will know that something has happened.
Honorable Mention--WALL-E (2008) Dir. Andrew Stanton: I want to add this to the list, if only to give it some variety and perspective (I am subtly disturbed by the fact that my list features violent, existential, and male-dominated films). But the thing is, Wall-E happens to be a really good movie. I would be surprised if anyone who has seen it and thought about it for two seconds would disagree. Yes, it is a kids movie, but it is smart, beautifully crafted, narratively engaging, and emotionally real. There is no dialogue during the first half and, against all reasonable expectations, we are led to believe in the love between two robots who can only say each other’s names. Wall-E pulls it off. Throw in a trenchant social critique and you have a winning formula. As a side note, the movie got a lot of criticism for not appealing to kids, but that says more about how little our society expects from children than it does about this movie. If kids don’t connect with Wall-E, it is probably because they have been spoon-fed mindless talking animals and sentient mushrooms or other such nonsense their entire lives. Kids are people too, they are smarter than we give them credit for, and they deserve quality just like we do.
Okay, clearly this “honorable mention” was just an excuse for me to rant. Sound off in the comments section below regarding any onerous or morally unjustifiable omissions.