It’s always suprising and illuminating to look back upon a decade in reference to the films that were released during that period of time, how they reflected the world in which they were made, and what kind of mark they left upon the entire history of film. If there was any discernable theme that ran through the films released during the ’00s (at least with the ones that I liked the most) was a collective anxiety; a collective anxiety of the unknown, of a tenuous present and an uncertain future. Or maybe it’s just the pessimist in me.
The following are in no particular order.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
After the disappointing Adaptation I was glad to see Charlie Kaufman return to form with this tale of a doomed romance that wasn’t (or was it?). Jim Carrey’s character, Joel wants to erase the painful memory of his relationship with former girlfriend, Clementine (Kate Winslet), but things are never that simple. On the face of it, Charlie Kaufman’s script is fairly cerebral, but it is the stripped-down direction by Michel Gondry and the wonderfully tactile performances of its two stars (yes, I’m actually saying I enjoyed Jim Carrey in a movie), that bring a certain dose of humanity that ultimately grounds this film. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is able to have its cake and eat it too; it is a heartbreaking, moving story as well as a brilliant, postmodern treatise on dating and relationships.
Mulholland Drive (2001)
There are so many romantic comedies released every year it comes as a complete surprise when one emerges that isn’t sappy, silly, vapid and that doesn’t pander to the audience in every way possible. If anyone can give this particular genre a much-needed face lift it would be Paul Thomas Anderson. With Punch- Drunk Love he hones his vision down to a mere 90 minutes, focusing on only two characters. Gone is the epic feel, the multiple storylines and dozens of characters. He has returned to the taught, focused filmmaking of his first film, Hard Eight. Most of all Anderson is able to pull an extraordinary performance from Adam Sandler whose characters are usually one-dimensional punch lines that you feel glad to be rid of at the end of two hours. Sandler builds the character of Barry from pure tension. There is tension even in the quietest moments, aided in a big way by a score by Jon Brion that sounds as if it has been tightly wound, like it is about ready to break apart at any moment. Amazingly, Anderson is able to harness this constant anxiety for the duration of the movie; we feel Barry’s anxiety and anger boiling just beneath the surface in every scene that he is in (it is only in the final scene that there is a feeling of release, of relief). And the chemistry between Sandler and Emily Watson is genuine, funny, and tragic; in a word, it feels immediate. For me, this might be one of the most memorable films of the decade; it is surreal and tender and terrifying and awkward all at once.
Lost in Translation (2003)
Yes this “indie” film received a lot of hype upon its release, but unlike another over-hyped “indie” film, Napoleon Dynamite, it actually deserves all of the allocates it received. Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson are wonderful to watch as two lonely people desperate for connection. There is ennui here, there is melancholy, but none of it feels forced. Sophia Coppola’s second film after the nostalgia-kissed Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation is certainly a love story, but it is also the story of a friendship between a man a woman, something of which is rarely seen in movies, especially American movies.
François Ozon might arguably be the true cinematic descendant of Luis Buñuel and Alfred Hitchcock. His films, especially Sitcom and See the Sea are dark, blacker than night, highly controlled excursions into the human psyche. His output in the ’00s was sometimes hit and miss, but both Swimming Pool and Under the Sand are such strong, fascinating films that I was hard pressed to choose one I like better. Under the Sand is far more controlled, far more restrained, but its emotional impact is greater, while Swimming Pool remakes the standard thriller with the wonderfully sultry Ludivine Sagnier at its center.
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Wes Anderson’s first three films exist in a world of their own, one that doesn’t feel derivative, that doesn’t feel like a copy of anything else out there. “Original” is a word that gets thrown around a lot when it comes to directors, but I would argue that in this case it fits. Bottle Rocket, Rushmore and The Royal Tenebaums are all utterly sincere, and really funny, their characters broken, vulnerable, but still trying to make connections in a world that is often indifferent at best. The Royal Tenebaums feels like the culmination of a singular, purposed vision. From the soundtracks, to the staged framing, to the title cards, everything is specific, nothing is random or left to chance, and yet it all feels effortless and genuine.
Comic book adaptations are hard to get right. Maybe it’s because most are from source material that has to do with men and women running around in capes and tights and when these characters are erected into live action forms, the artifice that works on the printed page competently falls flat on the screen. With Ghost World this pitfall is avoided due to the subject matter’s lack of superheroes and its grounding in the “real world”. Also, the film is co-written by the original author, Dan Clowes the brilliant satirist behind the comic magazine Eightball from which the serial Ghost World was taken, so the story is ultimately treated with the respect it deserves. Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson manage to stay true to the source material as two sarcastic teenagers who slowly drift apart from one another the summer before adulthood. It is a bitter-sweet, sometimes truly sad film, with an ending that is strange, unsettling and moving.
The Dark Knight (2007)
I usually don’t bother with blockbusters, plus the other movies in this franchise have been fairly awful, completely missing the mark (even Batman Begins was at times droll and lifeless), so I was completely caught off-guard with The Dark Knight, the second film in Christopher Nolan’s re-imaging of the character. I actually enjoyed this film, really enjoyed this film. There are at least three movies packed within this turduken of a film, but it all works, the unrelenting pace never giving the viewer a chance to catch their breath, or question how ridiculous it all becomes. Disregard Gary Oldman’s silly speech at the very of the movie and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s stilted and awkward performance, and you’ll be left with an adaptation that finally gets Batman right. Nolan’s nihilistic vision of a Gotham City self-destructing and a Batman that is bordering on fascism in his vision of “justice”, is actually thrilling to watch.
Y tu mamá también (2001)
A film that is at once intimate and expansive, Y tu mamá también is a sex-charged coming of age story without the crass, snickering infantilism of movies like Porky’s and American Pie; it actually treats sex in a frank, uncompromising way that is both exhilarating and tender. Directed in a cinema verite style by Alfonso Cuarón, the film is often interrupted by a narrator that gives further background to events or characters that the main storyline runs into, illuminating a bigger social-political context that is woven into the film.
OK, I’m cheating here again, but I like both of these films and found it hard to leave one out of the top ten. Inland Empire is a sprawling, frustrating, often impenetrable mélange of ideas that, like Eraserhead, stands as the closest example of pure surrealist cinema that Lynch has created (save for a handful of short films). What does it all mean? I’m not sure, and frankly I don’t really care. It’s always a truly visceral experience watching a David Lynch film and Inland Empire is no exception.
Dogville— the first film in a proposed trilogy— is like a version of Our Town that has gone horribly, horribly wrong. Admittedly, I have a love/hate relationship with Lars Von Trier. Stylistically, he is one of the most ambitious filmmakers in the last thirty years. Element of Crime, Zentropa and the Kingdom series are so different from one another, so varied in their approach, that you would think that were made by three different directors, which, in this case, is a good thing. However, it is his seemingly mysongisnitic bent that makes viewing his films, at times, an uncomfortable experience (this is the same reason I have issues with some of Sam Peckinpah’s films). Dogville, in many ways, feels like a return to form (I wasn’t a particular fan of the Dogma95 film The Idiots or Dancer in the Dark). The subject matter is still as bracing as always, but shedding the often cumbersome and sometimes pretentious confines of the Dogma95 rules, Lars Von Trier creates a highly controlled film, a set piece really (well, literally, it all takes place on a soundstage), about good and evil in America.