The Best Films of the Decade
Over the course of the last week, the regular critics here on Pajiba have assembled their own individual genre lists, covering the top ten films in horror, comic-book adaptations, love stories, comedies, kid’s flicks, indies, foreign-language films, action movies, and sci-fi. The Top 20 Films of the Decade, however, has been a collaborative project, not just among the critics here, but our readership. Over the summer, in a comment diversion, our readers also noted their favorite films of the decade, and the collective reader list was given equal weight with each of the critic’s lists, all of which resulted in what you see below: The Top 20 Films of the Aughts. In the end, I believe this Top 20 reflects the personality and sensibility of Pajiba as accurately as can be done, capturing the intelligence, quirk, weirdness, the sense of humor, geekiness, and — ultimately — the thoughtfulness of the critics and the readership here.
I won’t say there’s much of a surprise in the films named — our number one film was almost a foregone conclusion, having not only appeared on every list, but at the top — or close to it — on most of them. Number two, I admit, was something of a (pleasant) surprise — I expected it in the top 20, but not as high as it is. Nearly three-fourths of the films named here came from the earlier part of the decade, yet three of the top six were from more recent years. Two directors (or sets of directors, if you will) appeared on the list twice (in the top ten twice, in fact). Christian Bale and Heath Ledger also appear twice, but perhaps the decade’s biggest star, Robert Downey, Jr., appears only once, and in a movie you might not have expected.
Here it is, for your reading and quibbling pleasure: Pajiba’s Top 20 Movies of the Aughts.
20. Mulholland Drive (2001): I can remember seeing David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive in the fall of 2001 at Milwaukee’s Oriental Theater. Roughly 90 minutes in, when the big reveal takes place, I felt infuriated. I was completely lost, utterly confused, and I felt insecure in my position as a spectator. I had never felt compelled to work so hard to make sense out of a film before that screening. I went back to the theater the next week and everything in Lynch’s neo-noir fell into place, which is all the more shocking given its production context (the film was originally shot as a television pilot and then elongated into a feature film over a year and a half later). Lynch finds his detective in Betty (Naomi Watts), an aspiring actress who has just arrived in Los Angeles, only to find Rita (Laura Elena Harring), a beautiful woman suffering from memory loss, asleep in her house. The two women team up to try to trace the path that Rita took the night before and who may be out to kill her. It goes without saying that Lynch’s films often rely on a certain amount of dream logic to elaborate upon the plot. Yet, Mulholland Drive is perhaps the best instance in which those moments completely fulfill their duties. There’s a beautiful, haunting symmetry to the film with regard to its imagery (shots of women lying in beds) and its narrative quirks (which, for the sake of spoilers, I will not reveal). Plus, as much as it can be a wake up call to find oneself thinking at the movies, I have to admit that one of the most rewarding things about Mulholland Drive was how it changed my perspective on the art form. — Drew Morton
19. The Station Agent (2003): If you don’t know the name Thomas McCarthy, you’re missing out. He’s not just a terrific actor, but an outstanding and understated writer-director. I think it’s because he’s an established and talented actor himself that he allows his performers to just perform. His films are deceptively simple and seemingly basic, but the performances are so powerful. The Station Agent is very simply the story of a dwarf (Peter Dinklage) who wants to be left alone and a hot dog vendor (Bobby Cannavale) who won’t let him. It’s a study of what it means to be lonely, without getting into existentialist navel-gazing or moralizing or philosophizing. The story is in the characters, and if you consider yourself a serious writer, you will watch this film and learn how to do it right. — Brian Prisco
18. American Psycho (2000): American Psycho, like the 1991 Bret Easton Ellis novel that informs it, is based on the premise that consumer culture (the late-’80s urban American variety) has so compromised our humanity that our least offensive characteristic is our apathy. At our worst, we’re greedy, vain, covetous and incurious little ids, and the shinier the surface, the scarier the marrow it conceals. The movie’s thesis is simple: He who lives for the exterior has no interior. A lot of ink has been spilled about American Psycho’s attack on Reagan-era values and mindless consumer trends, but that ink describes only the picture’s foreground; the foul effects of luxury have always been one of the most common targets of satire (along with hypocrisy), and neither Reagan nor the 1980s can claim a patent on the behavior or its critique. Look back to Juvenal and Horace, then skip ahead to Alexander Pope and every other Augustan poet, and American Psycho’s ancient pedigree, once exposed, gives the film or novel even more breadth than it seems to present at first glance. Despite its place in a long tradition, Ellis’s book is one of those works which, once written, filled an absence in the canon that was waiting to be filled; it picks up similar messages by Pope, Austen and Waugh and throttles all the politeness out of them by replacing the silver fork with the Ginsu knife and duct tape, and by presenting a world where wet bodies stuffed into sports bags or blood-stained sheets can’t raise eyebrows in a public defined by material rather than human value. It’s not a new premise by any means, but Ellis and Mary Harron (who directed the film version in 2000) take a great old saw and run it into soft bodies until they burst in the kind of gore-shower Ellis believed was needed to shock us out of our daze at the tail-end of the last century. — Ranylt Richildis
17. The Incredibles (2004): The Incredibles, in a way, adopts the Republican ethos of the current political climate, as the heroes battle the long-chinned French supervillain Bomb Voyage, all the while railing against our overly litigious, media-driven society and the evils of bureaucrats, which have ostensibly driven the superheroes underground. The Incredibles adopts the Ayn Rand approach to self-determinism, instructing us to embrace an individualistic society, while vilifying the type of culture where “everyone is special, so no one is.” The movie’s evil archetype, Syndrome, who as a young man is cast aside because he lacks superpowers, sets about to even the playing field (redistribute the wealth?), envisioning a world where everyone has superpowers and thus, “everyone will be super, which means no one will be.” There is also an unmistakable undercurrent in the film lauding traditional family values, celebrating the nuclear family even in its superhero form.
16. You Can Count on Me (2000): Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s script is a remarkably unadorned, penetrating view of familial love. It doesn’t hurt that Mark Ruffalo and Laura Linney turn in brilliant, natural performances as Terry and Sammy, a brother and sister reunited in upstate New York after a long time apart. When they were children, their parents died in a car accident, a shadow that, like almost everything in the movie, smartly informs things without being made overly explicit. You Can Count On Me develops the relationship between its leads slowly and carefully, allowing long, believable conversations to make us feel close to them without pulling too many sentimental strings along the way. This method allows the viewer to make an emotional investment in the characters that’s beyond what he or she might fully realize as the movie unfolds. In the final scene, when the siblings, on the verge of parting again, have a tender conversation in which they refer to the film’s title without actually saying it, the scene is as beautiful, heartbreaking, and genuine as any you’re likely to see. — John Williams
15. A History of Violence (2005): A History of Violence is the most accessible film Cronenberg has yet made, and by far his most accomplished work. His gross-out psychological chillers like The Fly still stand out in their field, but here Cronenberg surpasses himself with a gripping story about “ordinary people caught up in extraordinary situations,” as Wagner described his story. It’s a challenging drama, and one worth seeing. That’s what I’m here to do: I implore you to see this movie, and to watch with an open mind. If you find yourself among the people with the mindset to cheer on violence, ask yourself why. It’s not an easy answer but, then again, easy answers never took anyone to the treetops. — Daniel Carlson
14. Almost Famous (2000): Almost Famous has got it all, y’all. It’s a slightly tipsy, 2 a.m.-phone-call kind of movie that introduces the best musical moment in cinematic history, the “Tiny Dancer” bus scene that will buckle your knees, make the hair on your arms salute the gods, and then detonate inside you. Almost Famous harkens back to a time when music offered salvation instead of an insipid avenue to that faux-hipster vibe and, if you can’t find some sort of romantic symbiosis when Phillip Seymour Hoffmann announces that “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone when you’re uncool,” then you don’t belong together. Hell, you may as well go back to watching “Saved by the Bell” reruns with your roommate and discussing the secrets to crushing Schlitz cans into your forehead, because that’s where you’re going to be until you find a woman that not only loves 27 Dresses but has an unironic fondness for Weekend at Bernie’s. — Dustin Rowles
13. High Fidelity (2000): High Fidelity is a good movie about relationships generally — about the things that attract people to each other, the difficulty in staying together, the alternating pettiness and profundity of love. But since the story is structured around John Cusack’s Rob trying to come to terms with past loves, it’s maybe best described as a break-up movie. And its most valuable piece of break-up wisdom — a moment that briefly stings, and then soothes — comes when Rob is talking to his old flame, Charlie (Catherine Zeta-Jones), after a dinner party. In voice-over, he realizes that “Charlie’s awful. She doesn’t listen to anyone, she says terrible, stupid things, and she apparently has no sense of humor at all.” This is not a universal experience — meeting someone again after a long time apart and loathing them — but the scene concisely speaks to the futility in pining for the past. Odds are, the past has had some work done. Earlier in the movie (and its source, Nick Hornby’s novel), Rob is astonished to find that Charlie is listed in the phone book. She’s become a “myth” in his head, someone who should be living in a distant galaxy, not listed in the White Pages. If you watch High Fidelity in the immediate wake of a break-up, the “Charlie is awful” moment won’t make much of an impression. But if you watch it several years after a break-up, with no need or expectation of relevant resonance, you might just nod along with Rob’s epiphany: that myths aren’t worth the time. — John Williams
12. Wonder Boys (2000): Curtis Hanson produced one of the great neo-noirs in 1997 with his adaptation of James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential. The success of the film resulted in Hanson receiving an Academy Award nomination for Best Director and an award for Best Adapted Screenplay. As a follow up, Hanson helmed an adaptation of Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys (2000), my personal pick for the most unjustly overlooked film of the aughts. The film follows English Professor Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) who, in the midst of a mid-life crisis, finds himself juggling the lives of his lover (Frances McDormand), talented student (Tobey Maguire), housemate (Katie Holmes), and literary agent (Robert Downey Jr.). To make matters worse, there’s a dead dog in the truck of his car, lying next to a transvestite’s tuba. The cast is excellent, Hanson’s sense of tone and humor is impeccable, and the soundtrack, featuring Bob Dylan’s “Things Have Changed,” is intoxicating. — Drew Morton
11. In Bruges (2008): Though McDonagh’s film is enjoyable, interesting, and extremely dark, it works primarily because of the firm grasp on character and action he’s built up through a lifetime of writing award-winning and pretty unsettling plays like The Pillowman. In Bruges has all the action and flow of a dynamic film, but the pain, drama, humor, and sharp characterizations could only come from someone who’s spent a lifetime writing stories that rely solely on dialogue for emotional content. The whole thing is grim, weird, witty, and not quite like anything you’d expect it to be. — Daniel Carlson
10. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001): The Royal Tenenbaums is a beautiful, sad portrait of a sprawling family of geniuses in decline, held together primarily by the pain that’s marked the seasons of their ruined lives. The Tenenbaums’ patriarch, Royal (Gene Hackman), is a cantankerous old liar who decides to force himself back into the lives of his estranged wife, Etheline (Anjelica Huston), and three children — Chas (Ben Stiller), Richie (Luke Wilson), and Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow). He feigns cancer in order to move in with the family for a while, but they discover he’s faking it and kick him out, which eventually starts Royal on the road to self-improvement through sacrifice and recovery through helping his family work out their various problems. Royal connects the most with the son he’s emotionally furthest from at the beginning, Chas, whose wife died a year before. … Stiller’s manic energy brings the perfect edge to Chas’ spiraling depression, and at the end of the film, Royal and Chas stumble into a blissful moment of forgiveness as Chas whispers, “I’ve had a pretty bad year, Dad.” And Royal responds, “I know you have,” placing his hand on his son’s shoulder. It’s a calmly magnificent moment. — Daniel Carlson
9. Memento (2001): One of the great mindfuck movies of all time, 2001’s Memento is a testament to what happens when a brilliant premise is paired with an equally brilliant director (Christopher Nolan). Movies that muddle with timelines are always a complicated undertaking, but Memento does it without resorting to cheap gimmickry. The story, about an insurance investigator (Guy Pearce) trying to find the man who beat and killed his wife, is told in reverse, starting with him murdering a man. From there it staggers back and forth between black and white scenes and color ones, as it alternates between time lines. To confuse matters even more, Pearce’s character, Leonard Shelby, has anterograde amnesia as a result of the attack on his wife, causing him to forget everything that happened since the attack. Every day he wakes up with no memory of anything that’s happened between that fateful day, and that very moment.. As a result, he develops a wickedly clever and intensely creepy and almost fetishistic method of keeping track of events, including notes, photographs, and tattoos that now cover his body. To tell any more is to ruin the movie, which I can’t bear to do even 8 years later. Memento is simply stunning, with a strange, harsh universe that is unforgiving to everyone in it. Shelby is one of the most complex characters I’ve seen on film, and the handling of his amnesia and his methodical dedication to his quest for retribution is breathtaking. Pearce, in what is arguably his best role ever, is a torn, shattered and confused man who despite all the chaos that every morning brings, is so driven that he’s almost scary. The immersion in the Memento’s story is total — the muddled storylines, varied color manipulation and chaotic, abrupt switches creates a wholly unique viewing adventure, allowing you to observe the events, and the twisting, turbulent minefield of a plot exactly as Shelby does. It allows for total empathy and as such, it becomes the rare film that doesn’t feel like you’re watching the story unfold, but rather that you’re experiencing it — you’ll find yourself gasping with every new discovery, and mourning every misstep and tragedy. Memento is one of the finest examples of less-is-more filmmaking, of the triumph of writing, acting, and directing trumping budget and effects and gadgetry. It unfolds with relentless pacing, and will leave the easily distracted viewer mercilessly in its wake. It’s a film that requires total concentration, and is richly and spectacularly rewarding right to the end. —TK
8. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000): The Coen brothers’ take on The Odyssey is probably their most broadly accessible film to date, thanks to the engaging chemistry between the trio of leads and the fantastic old-time soundtrack full of country music and spirituals produced by T-Bone Burnett. It’s the first of their informal “idiot trilogy” — followed by 2003’s Intolerable Cruelty and 2008’s Burn After Reading, all revolving around gleeful simpletons portrayed by George Clooney — but it’s the best of the lot as well as Clooney’s best performance of the three. He escapes from a chain gang with two other criminals, played by a beatific Tim Blake Nelson and mercurial John Turturro, and sets out across the American South during the Great Depression on a journey to recover more than $1 million that he stashed before being arrested. With nods to everything from Preston Sturges to A.P. Carter, and with a script that revels in the absurd, O Brother is an energetic, warm, character-driven comedy that remains among the Coens’ very best. — Daniel Carlson
7. Brokeback Mountain (2005): Calling Brokeback Mountain “that gay cowboy movie” is about as reductive as calling The Godfather“that mafia movie.” It contains aspects of Westerns, gay coming-of-age films, and romantic melodramas, but to apply a facile label would be to underestimate its majestic sweep and its heartening and heartrending depth. It is, at its base, a film about the conflict between what a man is and what he needs. The movie’s source is the final story in Annie Proulx’s book Close Range: Wyoming Stories, a collection of narratives about difficult lives lived in difficult circumstances by people who mostly don’t expect better. Her characters tend to be of two types: the dreamers who either buy into the romance of the West or can’t wait to escape it and the realists who accept their lot with stoic resilience. Brokeback Mountain has one of each: Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), starry-eyed and caught up in heroic myths, and Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) a pragmatist who just lives his life the only way he knows how. In outline, the film is simple: Boy gets boy; boy loses boy; boy gets and loses boy over and over again across a lifetime — but there’s a whole world of suffering and grief in all that getting and losing, a permanent sense of loss, of possibilities forever forestalled, happiness perpetually found and then denied, lessons learned too late. — Jeremy C. Fox
6. No Country For Old Men (2007): Just as every generation’s youth believes they were the first to invent rebellion, so too does every crop of old men hold firmly to the notion that their world was the one pure one, and that it’s being leeched of that beauty by the iniquities of their crooked children. That’s the central truth behind No Country for Old Men, the film from co-writers and directors Joel and Ethan Coen, who have fashioned another fantastic movie that’s a genre-swirling mash-up and as psychologically taut and philosophically mature as anything they’ve ever done. The film is in many ways a return to the roots they laid down with Blood Simple: No Country for Old Men, adapted from the Cormac McCarthy novel, shares the dusty Texas backdrop, shocking bursts of violence and gallows humor of the earlier film. But instead of a sweaty neo-noir, the Coens this time opt for a more deliberately paced story that places as much emphasis on the emotional turmoil of the observers as the motives of the killer or the trials of the victims. The film is also funny, trafficking in the quick wit and character-driven humor that’s a hallmark of Coen films, where the actors seem to take such profound joy in the slightly off-kilter language that the air becomes electric with the possibilities of where the film might go and around what strange corner it will wander. Most of all, the film is about a world that’s moving on and leaving its once-proud lawmen and protectors to stare blankly at the savagery around them, even as they long to return to a time when things felt simpler, even if they never actually were. — Daniel Carlson
5. Shaun of the Dead (2004): Shaun of the Dead is one of the rare movies that succeeded in combining two disparate genres, namely, horror and comedy. Lean too far one way, you’ve got a horror movie with comic relief; too far the other, and you’ve got a spoof with no real thrills. But director Edgar Wright, who co-wrote the script with star Simon Pegg, creates a beautiful fusion of the two. The film is genuinely funny, riffing on horror flicks and sending them up a bit (Shaun and Ed’s trial-by-error process learning how to kill zombies is magnificent), but it’s also a full-on thriller. The zombies that overrun London are real, and not all of Shaun’s friends and family survive their gruesome onslaught. Wright, Pegg, Nick Frost, and the rest play the horror and comedy straight, marrying them with moments of genuine emotion, especially when Shaun’s trying to win back his ex-girlfriend and care for his best friend while flesh-eating zombies close in. The jokes are fast and quick, the scares are visceral, and the characters are indelible. It’s just plain wonderful. — Daniel Carlson
4. There Will Be Blood (2007): There Will Be Blood is both a masterpiece and a surprising one in that it unfolds with few of the stylistic flashes that Anderson had made his oeuvre. Maybe it’s the fact that Anderson is beginning to realize that his age demands a certain amount of control over the material at hand; that could also be why he’s now credited as the more grown-up sounding Paul Thomas Anderson instead of the youthful and cavorting “P.T.” of his earlier years. Whatever the case, Anderson has made in There Will Be Blood the kind of sweeping, damning tale of American toil and corruption that stands as a hallmark of early 21st-century film and catapults Anderson beyond the level of gifted Gen Xish filmmaker and into the realm of the all-time greats, and he does it by both playing to his strengths and branching out into newer, bigger territory. Anderson’s eye is on the dirtier parts of our cultural history — like the book says, we may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us — but he’s also laying track toward the future of modern American filmmaking. — Daniel Carlson
3. The Dark Knight (2008): Yes, it’s patently absurd that a young man attempting to deal with the death of his parents would channel that rage into karate classes and building a rubber suit shaped like a bat, but Nolan grounds that action in a world that’s palpably real. As a director, Nolan takes the story seriously, and that makes all the difference, transforming his films from good to great. They’re the best superhero movies ever made because they embrace the character on a gut level and not as some pop artifact. The Dark Knight is a harrowing, frightening, uncompromising, flat-out great superhero movie, wonderful in sad ways, hitting the perfect mix of characterization and humor, bouncing between phenomenal action set pieces and the brutally human moments that place the film in a recognizable world even as it soars into comic book fantasy. Put simply, Nolan just gets it. He’s a believer, and he’ll make one out of you, too. — Daniel Carlson
2. Children of Men (2006): To reduce Children of Men to a chase movie robs the film of its skill and power. Cuarón keeps the tension high throughout the film by allowing the realistic story to drive the action, not the artificial music stings or blurred cuts that are the hallmark of the genre. There are no jetpacks here, simply a lived-in, beat-up, decaying world that’s decorated with touches of technology to lend it a vivid texture. Based on P.D. James’ novel, the film is a dazzling balancing act: humorous but not comical, chaotic but not mindless, bleak but not defeatist. Clive Owen cements his leading-man status by bringing a sense of gallows humor to his antihero, along with a British combination of anger and bemusement and drive. Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the film is Cuarón’s somewhat hopeful outlook. Children of Men presents a frighteningly possible future of our world, and Cuarón knows we don’t have to let it come to pass. — Daniel Carlson
1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004): Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Michel Gondry’s (and Charlie Kaufman’s) 2004 gem, represents perfectly the beautiful disasters we create through relationships, romantic and otherwise, with its look at the oddly matched Joel (Jim Carrey in the best thing he’ll ever do) and Clementine (Kate Winslet), who each opt to have their memories of each other erased after their painful breakup. As each memory of Joel’s slips away, though, he and Clementine — in a Kaufmanesque manner — view with new eyes everything they in fact had as a couple, and they can’t help but be drawn to each other all over again. A secondary plot ends the same way, with a girl (Kirsten Dunst) again loving the man (Tom Wilkinson) she had erased from her mind. In a depressed state you could take these plots the wrong way, in that you’ll never get over your former love, but it’s best to view the positive truths they represent on what it means to love unconditionally. It is not about loving someone in spite of their flaws; their flaws come with the package. You just love them, and that’s why we all take the gamble in the first place. And if the person who just broke your heart can’t see that, well, screw them. You’re better off without them, right? … Right? — Sarah Carlson