The first decade of the new millennium got off to a raucous and controversial start. And things never quite settled down after that. The 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore was the first in more than 100 years in which the winner lost the popular vote. The election basically was settled by the U.S. Supreme Court. Things were just settling down after that when, less than a year later, the tragedy of 9/11 occurred.
Thus began a decade of war and financial collapse that ultimately led to the election of the first African-American President in Barack Obama. The upheavals continue to this day, culturally, politically, and artistically. All the tumult seems to have sparked a particularly expansive era in filmmaking. Less traditional stories were being told about less traditional characters. Here are my picks for the best films of the 2000s, domestic and foreign.
The Best American Movies of the ‘00s
I’ve chosen two Christopher Nolan films for this list. We’ll get to the obvious choice of The Dark Knight in a moment. Memento is about a man with anterograde amnesia, which is an inability to hold on to new memories day by day. This is a sort of amnesia that makes it pretty difficult to solve the mystery of his wife’s murder. It’s a mesmerizing movie, led by a brilliant performance from Guy Pearce. He so fully captures the mixture of confusion and drive to figure things out that you begin to feel the same anxiety, frustration, and dread.
Superhero movies have been around for several decades and generally have been pretty rotten. Even though the budgets got bigger, they just couldn’t seem to shake the campy atmosphere pioneered by the original Batman TV series. It was a story that was just really hard to take seriously. The western had the same formulaic problem for several decades as well, until John Ford made She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1948) and suddenly the possibilities of the western as a form for artistic expression on a profound level were obvious. But I digress. The Dark Knight is a sequel to the 2005 movie Batman Begins. This film takes the story of a man who fights crime by dressing up as a bat and moves it into a dark and terrifyingly complex world of ambiguous morality. Heath Ledger gives one of the great performances in film history as the disfigured and murderous Joker. Every time I see this film, the magnitude of the loss from his untimely death grows greater in my mind. The film also stars Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Aaron Eckhardt, Maggie Gyllenhall, and Morgan Freeman.
Joel and Ethan Coen do crime movies better than almost anyone. Check out Blood Simple (1984) or Fargo (1996). Here, they adapt the riveting and bleak Cormac McCarthy novel to the screen. It was a bit of a revival for the Coens after a fallow period in which they made some pretty forgettable films in the early 2000s following the triumphs of Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998), and O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). In this film, Tommy Lee Jones plays a Texas Ranger investigating a mass murder at the scene of an apparent drug deal gone bad. He pursues the relentless killer, played by Javier Bardem, who is also pursuing a cattle poacher (Josh Brolin) who stole $2 million of his money. This is a deeply unsettling film and Jones is particularly outstanding here.
This movie is referred to as “a science fiction comedy/drama.” Got that? It certainly is that and more. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet play an estranged couple who both undergo a procedure to erase their memories of each other from their minds. What a way to break up. Then they end up meeting again and dating all over again. Now, I think all of us have a relationship we’d like to forget. In fact, if I could forget the entire two years I spent dating a bisexual clinical psychologist who kept diagnosing me every time I disagreed with her, that would be GREAT. Carrey is particularly winning in this film—restrained and soulful. Great screenplay by Charlie Kaufman.
This is the best of what feels like the nineteen or so movies Peter Jackson has wrung out of J.R.R. Tolkein’s books centered on the various adventures and goings-on in “Middle Earth.” The special effects are well used here, the film’s canvas is enormous and breathtaking, and the pace of the film isn’t as ponderous as it can be in the other two films in this trilogy. Everything in this film builds to an explosive crescendo to the battle of Helm’s Deep. The reason I rate this film above the others is that this is the least pedantic and most focused on telling the story at hand. It’s a ripping good adventure yarn and well worth watching again on its own.
The Best Foreign Films of the ‘00s
The Mexican film and television industry has been around for almost as long as Hollywood has existed. In recent years, Mexican directors, cinematographers, writers, and actors have begun to emerge as important figures on the world stage. Five of the last six winners of the Best Director Oscar have been Mexican, among them the director of this picture, Guillermo del Toro. Del Toro’s movies tend to be fanciful, ornate, and surreal. This film is the perfect illustration of his style. It alternates between a fairy tale setting and the brutal reality of Spain near the end of World War II in the early years of Francisco Franco’s oppressive regime. It’s a dazzling movie—visually stunning with plot twists and plenty of those “what the…?” moments that are a hallmark of his films. If you saw The Shape of Water (2017) and found it strange and compelling, check out this movie.
Ang Lee takes the tired format of the martial arts/costume drama in spectacular new directions with this wonderful movie. Lee is the kind of protean film artist who can seemingly work in any genre and come up with a better version of that type of film than just about anyone. The only other director who is as capable and inventive across different genres would be Stanley Kubrick. This film is best known for the characters flying and fighting. It’s an extraordinary and highly romantic film.
Julian Schnabel, the director of this film, is American. And the screenwriter, Ron Harwood, is South African. Yet this is a French film. It is mainly in French and is deeply imbued with a French sense for life. It tells the true story of a man who awakens from a three-week coma with “locked-in syndrome.” In this terrible condition, the patient’s body just simply won’t move. The mind is completely functional but it is imprisoned in a body that won’t do anything due to the complete paralysis of all the voluntary muscles in the body. Mathieu Amalric plays the man at the center of the film. He speaks, but no one can hear him. His only way to communicate with the world is by blinking his eyes. This film doesn’t sugarcoat or minimize the terror of what has happened, yet it remains triumphant and inspiring.
This is one of the best crime dramas you’ll ever see. Set in the bleak City of God slums of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, it chronicles the rise of organized crime there from the late 1960s until the early 1980s. It focuses on three boys who come of age in this suburb as it degenerates from an immense but sterile housing project into an urban jungle. This is an unflinching and violent tale, told with tremendous flair and panache by co-directors Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund. If you’ve watched GoodFellas a few too many times, switch gears and check out this heart-pounding film.
The East German state police, the Stasi, was probably the most comprehensive internal spying organization the world has ever seen, other than perhaps what they’ve got going on in North Korea right now. Everyone in East Germany, it seems, was spied on by everyone else. This drama tells of the toll that this relentless paranoia, spying, and betrayal took on the souls of the people of that country.
No list of films of this decade is complete without one from Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar. As with all Almodóvar movies, this focuses on the unexpected relationships that develop between totally unlikely people. In this case, two men meet at a care facility as they visit two women who are in comas for utterly different reasons. “Talk to her,” one of the men urges the other. Even though it may seem they cannot hear you, talk to her anyway. The story of each of the love affairs is told in flashback, alternating between present-day and the past, with each flashback deepening the stories. This is a moving and tragic film, incredibly romantic, and unexpectedly hopeful, even though virtually nothing works out for anyone as they had hoped.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and theBBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.