The Top 40 Films of 2000-2009
Every year I do a top-10 film list, but the end of a decade cries out for something more. So here's looking back at the 40 very best. Some years had more to offer than others. I chose 1 from 2000, 7 from 2001, 2 from 2002, 4 from 2003, 3 from 2004, 5 from 2005, 7 from 2006, 6 from 2007, 4 from 2008, and 4 from 2009. Technically that adds up to 43, because I count all three Lord of the Rings films are as one (#1), and ditto for Batman Begins & The Dark Knight (#8). We'll take them in groups of ten, rated, of course, in descending order.
1. The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson (2001, 2002, 2003). 5 stars.
2. Pan's Labyrinth, Guillermo Del Toro (2006). 5 stars.
3. Let the Right One In, Tomas Alfredson (2008). 5 stars.
4. Martyrs, Pascal Laugier (2009). 5 stars.
5. Juno, Jason Reitman (2007). 5 stars.
6. Palindromes, Todd Solondz (2005). 5 stars.
7. United 93, Paul Greengrass (2006). 5 stars.
8. Batman Begins & The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan (2005, 2008). 5 stars.
9. Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino (2009). 5 stars.
10. Mulholland Drive, David Lynch (2001). 5 stars.
The Lord of the Rings towered over the decade like Mount Olympus, a miracle brought to life out of an impossibly difficult text, not just in terms of cinematography and score, but soul; despite the blockbuster pacing, it's a work of art, emotionally heavy, about the passing of an age. Pan's Labyrinth was a another fantasy landmark, even darker, with an ending that rivals the Grey Havens. Let the Right One In touched deeper than any romance; it was the vampire film we'd been waiting for, and everything Twilight wasn't. Martyrs, on the other hand, was a brutal terror, one of the nastiest films I've ever seen, yet surprisingly transcendent. On a lighter note, Juno and Palindromes were brilliant comedies about teen pregnancy: one a post-feminist piece with memorably endearing characters, the other a vicious satire on pro-choice and pro-life advocates (equally deserved, I might add). United 93 used gut-punching artistry to make us relive 9/11 for the right reasons, surely the most harrowing film of the decade. Christopher Nolan redeemed a genre with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, teaching us the destruction of hope, and proving that superheroes don't have to be about hollow thrills for adolescent males. Quentin Tarantino delivered his absurdist World War II masterpiece, Inglourious Basterds, which, yes, supersedes even Pulp Fiction. And let's not forget Mulholland Drive from the genius of David Lynch: a dream-fable of Hollywood upturned by cruel reality. These ten films, for my money, are the crown jewels of the past ten years. I've seen them many times and they don't get old.
11. Doubt, John Patrick Shanley (2008). 5 stars.
12. Bug, William Friedkin (2007). 5 stars.
13. City of God, Fernando Meirelles (2003). 4 ½ stars.
14. The Road, John Hillcoat (2009). 4 ½ stars.
15. Hard Candy, David Slade (2006). 4 ½ stars.
16. The Departed, Martin Scorsese (2006). 4 ½ stars.
17. Little Children, Todd Field (2006). 4 ½ stars.
18. Requiem for a Dream, Darren Aronofsky (2000). 4 ½ stars.
19. Eden Lake, James Watkins (2008). 4 ½ stars.
20. There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson (2007). 4 ½ stars.
Still going strong on this next tier. I was blown away by Doubt, an ambiguous morality puzzle, and also by Bug, which proved that William Friedkin hasn't lost his touch; both films are based on (off-)Broadway plays driven by well-crafted dialogue and searing psychological tension. City of God was cinephilic storytelling at its purest, about the drug wars in Rio de Janeiro, and a kid who survives the chaos by becoming a newspaper photographer. The Road was the best post-apocalyptic film I've seen, and Hard Candy the best revenge film (I usually hate revenge flicks) for its indie artistry and having the balls (pun) to unleash the castrating fury of a 14-year old on a pedophile. Martin Scorsese scored a slam dunk with The Departed, easily his best film since Goodfellas, and that same year Todd Field delivered Little Children, a satire on upper-middle class suburbia in which every adult is seen to be juvenile in the extreme. Requiem for a Dream took us down the rabbit hole of drug addiction, and to the most agonizing performance of Ellen Burstyn's career. Eden Lake left me floored by its brutal honesty, portraying a group of kids who harass and torture a man and woman to a miserably unhappy ending. There Will Be Blood loomed as an epic indictment on religio-capitalism; the moral scope of this film is astounding.
21. The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow (2009). 4 ½ stars.
22. Running Scared, Wayne Kramer (2006). 4 ½ stars.
23. Memento, Christopher Nolan (2000). 4 ½ stars.
24. Inside, Alexandre Bustillo (2007). 4 ½ stars.
25. Babel, Alejandro González Iñárritu (2006). 4 stars.
26. Crash, Paul Haggis (2005). 4 stars.
27. Storytelling, Todd Solondz (2001). 4 stars.
28. The Wrestler, Darren Aronofsky (2008). 4 stars.
29. The Descent, Neil Marshall (2006). 4 stars.
30. Moonlight, Paula van der Oest (2007). 4 stars.
Hard to believe we've hit the bottom half; these are still really good. The Hurt Locker was Kathryn Bigelow's best work yet, the best film about the Iraqi war, with some of the best suspense scenes ever shot. Running Scared didn't let us up for air -- an insanely violent film involving dirty cops, murderous pimps, and monstrous pedophiles; the story is peppered with Grimm's fairy tale references like Pinnochio (the abused boy Oleg), the Mad Hatter (the pimp), and the Blue Fairy (the whore who rescues the boy). Memento got Christopher Nolan on the radar, portraying a man with short-term memory loss, the scenes played backwards so that viewers are just as clueless as to what went before. Inside was the goriest film I've seen (after Gibson's passion film), and like Martyrs (#4) showed the French to be way ahead of the curve in making intelligent horror films. Babel was a brilliant allegory of failed communication across cultures, and Crash an equally effective parable of inner city racism. Storytelling was two films in one, each story told as only Solondz knows how, with equal-opportunity offense. The Wrestler was Aronofsky's most mature film to date, and The Descent was terrifying for its suffocating claustrophobia as much as the nightmarish creatures. Moonlight was an unexpected treat out of nowhere (the Netherlands actually), a fairy tale for adults, about a Dutch girl and Afghan boy on the run from killers and must rely on non-verbal communication.
31. The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson (2004). 4 stars.
32. The Believer, Henry Bean (2001). 4 stars.
33. Mouth to Mouth, Alison Murray (2005). 4 stars.
34. The Devil's Backbone, Guillermo Del Toro (2001). 3 ½ stars.
35. The Dreamers, Bernardo Bertolucci (2003). 3 ½ stars.
36. Whip It!, Drew Barrymore (2009). 3 ½ stars.
37. Frailty, Bill Paxton (2002). 3 ½ stars.
38. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Michel Gondry (2004). 3 ½ stars.
39. In the Bedroom, Todd Field (2001). 3 ½ stars.
40. Eastern Promises, David Cronenberg (2007). 3 ½ stars.
This last bunch are effectively my "honorable mentions". The Passion of the Christ thrived in a storm of controversy: critics were evenly split, and it's too bad so many of them got caught up in the person of Mel Gibson more than his film. The Believer gave us the paradox of a Jewish neo-Nazi consumed by self-loathing, and Mouth to Mouth showed us the allure and charisma of gang leaders, with parents susceptible to brainwashing as much as their kids. The Devil's Backbone showcased Guillermo Del Toro's talents years before Pan's Labyrinth (#2), and like his fantasy masterpiece, this ghost story is set in fascist Spain. Moving one country over and three decades ahead, The Dreamers tackled the milieu of 1968 France (the student rebellions), as three young cinephiles withdraw from the world and express social revolt in the form of sexual pursuits. Whip It! proved that coming-of-age sports dramas can actually work for a change. Frailty was an astounding achievement for Bill Paxton, about a man convinced that God has commanded him to kill "demons", and enlists the help of his two young boys to kidnap people and axe them to death; the ending was a brilliant twist and completely caught me off guard. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind argued that some things can never be forgotten, while In the Bedroom insisted some things can never be forgiven. David Cronenberg finally hit a home run with Eastern Promises, a thoughtful crime drama about the Russian mafia in London.
It was a smashing good decade for film, if you knew where to look. I don't think I could come up with a top-40 list for every decade -- certainly not for the 80s, though probably for the 70s and perhaps for the 90s. Here's hoping the next ten years will see cinema taken to higher (and deeper) levels. Happy New Year and Decade!
UPDATE: Rick Sumner retaliates with his own list.