Almost the best films of the '00s: orphans and personal favorites
With only 50 titles making the big list, a lot of great films wound up on the cutting-room floor, including many that ranked high on our individual lists, but didn’t find consensus support. Here are 25 more films (five apiece) that appeared on one film writer's list, but no others:
American Splendor (2003)
Faced with the challenge of adapting comic-book writer Harvey Pekar’s life and work (which in many ways are one and the same), writer-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini smartly zero in on several anecdotes about Pekar losing his voice, literally and figuratively. The filmmakers combine staged episodes from Pekar’s stories (with Paul Giamatti as Pekar), interviews with the actual Pekar, documentary footage from the subject’s past, and even a few animated interludes. The mix of styles is meant to reproduce the experience of reading Pekar’s comics, which have always been drawn by a variety of artists with a variety of impressions on the man and his life. But it also replicates the different perceptions people have of Pekar, from his work and his public appearances. The triumph of American Splendor is that it clears away the Pekar of pop-culture myth—the working-class slob who sparred with David Letterman on TV in the ‘80s—to reveal a man yearning to say something meaningful, if he can just find the means.
The Aviator (2004)
Martin Scorsese seemed to be on a mission to win an Oscar in the ’00s, starting with the long-gestating dream project Gangs Of New York and culminating—somewhat unexpectedly—in the Hong Kong cops-and-robbers remake The Departed. But Scorsese’s peak effort of the decade—the most consistent, personal, and memorable—is the Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator, which considers the glories of old Hollywood, the trouble with trying to be an independent businessman, and the limits of perfectionism. Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan end Hughes’ story before the reclusive billionaire goes completely crazy, but the seeds for what’s about to happen have already been planted. As masterfully portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio, Hughes is a handsome, cocksure young man who’s only one bloody steak away from losing his grip. Dismissed at the time as another example of Scorsese stumbling through prestige-pic purgatory, The Aviator now seems like the Scorsese movie that’s most about the director himself: a man always daring great things despite weaknesses of which he’s all too aware.
Minority Report (2002)
Unlike Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg went on his I’d-really-like-to-thank-the-Academy jag in the ’90s, then spent much of the ’00s trying to prove he could make genuinely challenging films like A.I. and Munich. Spielberg’s artsy aspirations even bled into more mainstream efforts like Minority Report, which playfully riffs on science fiction and film noir. Spielberg and a team of screenwriters use a Philip K. Dick story as a jumping-off point for an examination of the human impulse to ignore matters of free will and individuality in the drive to make law-and-order more efficient. Spielberg returns to the “what the hell” weirdness of Close Encounters, throwing in all manner of strange futuristic devices and darkly comic setpieces, before ending with a 21st-century approximation of a detective-story drawing-room scene. Coming between A.I. and the same year’s breezy (but often dark) Catch Me If You Can, Minority Report signaled that the most popular director in Hollywood was committed to pursuing a new, exploratory mode.
A Prairie Home Companion (2006)
Late in his career, Robert Altman softened up a little, losing much of his signature acid wit and cynicism. Cookie’s Fortune, Dr. T & The Women, and Gosford Park all have a relaxed feel, as though the director were coasting (albeit pleasurably so) through material that required only a fraction of his attention. Then Altman ended his run with two subtle, reflective films about the act of creation and the people who come together to do it. Both The Company and A Prairie Home Companion offer fine, unforced metaphors for Altman’s philosophy of artistic endeavor, which is all about the communion of creative personalities, bouncing ideas off each other, and plunging unguarded into truthful moments. Adapting Garrison Keillor’s genteel public-radio favorite A Prairie Home Companion, Altman let his camera drift past talented performers and happily deluded folks, showing how they stave off the specter of their own mortality by stepping onto a stage and doing something memorable.
You Can Count On Me (2000)
Playwright Kenneth Lonergan’s directorial debut stars Laura Linney as a small-town single mother fretting over her wayward younger brother (played by Mark Ruffalo) when he visits to borrow money. Linney asks that Ruffalo stay a few days to help her pick up her son Rory Culkin, and the uncle-nephew relationship that develops both alters and reinforces a longstanding family dynamic. Though it has the surface of a typical earnest indie drama, You Can Count On Me is beautifully written and acted, and deals sensitively with how a man and a woman grapple with their moral responsibilities in a world where God may be absent. Sammy and Terry have been orphaned since childhood, and while Sammy is a regular churchgoer and Terry a cranky agnostic, both are frustrated that they have neither a parent nor a pastor willing to firmly establish what’s right and what's wrong. So many indie films in the ’00s relied on an accumulation of quirks or forced crises, but Lonergan’s lone (released) film to date is a wonderful exception, using the smallness of low-budget filmmaking to tell a story about subtle changes and slight redemption.
Under The Sand (2000)
A visibly happy, long-married couple played by Charlotte Rampling and Bruno Cremer heads out to a seaside vacation in the opening scenes of Under The Sand. It goes predictably, comfortably well until Cremer fails to return from a swim. Why? Director François Ozon never fully answers that question, and the film isn’t really about answers anyway. It’s about the mystery of death, the depths of mourning, and the way the past keeps finding its way into the present. In one of the best performances of her career, Rampling captures the struggles of an unknowable woman confronting the unthinkable.
Rachel Getting Married (2008)
As a recovering addict so self-absorbed that she’s offended when her sister’s wedding isn’t all about her, Anne Hathaway’s character in Rachel Getting Married ought to be about as likeable as Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds. It’s a testament to her uncompromising performance that she remains frustrating from the beginning of the movie to the end. But by then, we’ve spent so much time with her, watching as she revisits the choices she made and those made for her in her short, messed-up life, it’s impossible not to wish the best for her. Jonathan Demme’s handheld approach makes the swirl and chaos of the festivities feel immediate, but the focus remains with Hathaway as she looks on as an exile from the comforts of the family circle.
In The Loop (2009)
Arnando Iannucci’s political black comedy is a nonstop cascade of words—gloriously, beautifully, profane words—but it’s deeply concerned about how those words work. A story put in motion by a poorly chosen adjective, it shows how the escalation of rhetoric, and the verbally inflated egos of those doing the escalating, can nudge a nation into making tremendous decisions based on anything but facts, and the lines between personal agendas and actions taken for the good of the people all but disappear. Without being specifically about the war in Iraq and the George W. Bush era, it’s one of the best movies about both.
Shaun Of The Dead (2004)
The dry, digressive, pop culture-aware humor of director Edgar Wright and actor Simon Pegg—co-writers of Shaun Of The Dead—was already familiar to UK TV viewers thanks to Spaced, the slacker sitcom they worked on together (with co-star and co-creator Jessica Stevenson). But in Shaun, it found a larger scale and a larger audience via a affectionate, feature-length send-up of zombie movies. It’s the sort of movie that found room both for ridiculously specific jokes involving Prince’s ill-starred Batman soundtrack, and for a warmhearted look at the strain adulthood takes on the friendship between Pegg’s everyman protagonist and his immature best friend (played by Nick Frost, another invaluable part of the Wright/Pegg ensemble.) As a funny zombie movie with the guts to set an action scene to Queen, it’s pretty great. As a comedy about the compromises and pleasures of growing up that happens to include brain-eating beasties, it’s even better.
The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)
Speaking of comedies about the difficulties of growing up necessarily involves talking about Judd Apatow, who put a deep stamp on this decade via ensemble-driven, heavily improvised movies as a director, producer, and originator of a style others could imitate. But while it’s easy, and not wrong, to dwell on Apatow’s command of dick jokes and gags about sexual discomfort, it’s wrong to overlook the heart beneath it all. It’s a pleasure to hang out with Apatow’s boy-men, but his movies are essentially about shedding the man-child skin. Apatow’s directorial debut, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, is an absurdly funny trip into the heavily sheltered world of Steve Carell’s late-blooming electronics-store worker, whose circle of friends tries to drag him into the world of sexual experience without realizing how lost they’ve also gotten in the dangerous waters of that world.
Owning Mahoney (2003)
Gifted (albeit maddeningly non-prolific) writer-director Richard Kwietniowski followed up Love And Death On Long Island with another indelible portrait of an obsessive tortured by his compulsions. Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as an almost perversely bland bank employee in 1982 Toronto who has a single, secret vice: gambling. As his addiction spirals out of control, Hoffman begins stealing insane amounts of money from his employer to fund trips to Atlantic City, where he’s treated like a minor deity by oily, pragmatic casino boss John Hurt. Hoffman is quietly riveting as an unremarkable man with a remarkable gift for self-destruction, especially in a heartbreaking final scene where he contemplates the prospect of a future without the compulsion that has both destroyed his life and provided the only real joy in an otherwise beige, dispiriting existence.
Idiocracy is the little satire that could, a subversive comedy that was buried by Fox with next to no promotion or publicity, only to become an instant cult classic on DVD. Perhaps the purest manifestation of writer-director Mike Judge’s unsparing take on the emptiness and stupidity of popular culture and mankind, the film casts Luke Wilson as a proud mediocrity of the present who goes into frozen hibernation and wakes up in a future where mankind has devolved to the point where he's now the smartest man in the world. Judge imagines a future much like the present, only much, much dumber, where Starbucks offers handjobs as well as lattes, the president is a ’roided-up former American Gladiator, and anyone who speaks with intelligence is derided for talking like a fag. True, Idiocracy falls apart in its third act, but it nevertheless stands as one of the defining satires of our time, and a film that looks more prescient every day.
Writer-director Alexander Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor brilliantly adapted Rex Pickett’s comic novel about a boozy writer in the midst of a mid-life crisis (Paul Giamatti, in a career-defining performance) who travels to Napa Valley with his engaged best friend (Thomas Haden Church) for a few days and nights of drunken debauchery, then ends up confronting the wreckage of his life and career. In true Payne/Taylor style, Sideways is painfully funny and ultimately deeply sad, a tragicomic character study of a frustrated man in a personal free-fall and the woman (Virginia Madsen, in the role that resurrected her flailing career) who just might be able to save him from himself. Sideways did wonders for all four of its leads, especially sitcom veteran Church, who makes his big dumb animal of an actor surprisingly sympathetic.
Big Fan (2009)
Patton Oswalt makes a stunning transition from comic character actor and stand-up comedian to dramatic leading man with Big Fan, The Wrestler screenwriter (and former Onion editor/friend of the A.V Club) Rob Siegel’s dark comedy about a pathologically loyal New York Giants fan who gets beaten up by his favorite player after a misunderstanding at a strip club. Like The Wrestler, it’s a sneaky religious allegory that hearkens back to the gritty, working-class American cinema of the ’70s. It’s perfectly observed down to the smallest detail, from the packets of soy sauce Oswalt’s mother squirrels away obsessively to the torturously worded monologues its poignantly pathetic anti-hero carefully rehearses before phoning his favorite sports-talk call-in show. With Big Fan, the world of sports super-fandom finally gets its very own Taxi Driver.
John Landis, one of the most successful comedy directors of the ’70s and ’80s, reinvented himself as a documentarian with 2004’s Slasher, a hilarious, music-filled exploration of the strange life and career of car salesman Michael Bennett. A raspy-voiced, strangely charismatic motormouth, Bennett travels from city to city with his DJ sidekick to preside over used-car-lot bonanzas where bargain-minded shoppers hunt for a mystery car they can purchase for $88. The eternally drunk, verbose Bennett makes for a magnetic documentary subject, but the film’s real subject is the false promise of capitalism; the mythical $88 car serves as an inspired metaphor for the duplicity and flimflammery underlying so much commerce. It sounds great in theory, but the “winners” get exactly what they paid for. As a bargain-shopper enamored of Bennett’s slick patter enthuses, it’s all “very dramastic,” but there’s a lot of sadness and desperation just under the ebullient surface.
Gosford Park (2001)
Robert Altman’s star-studded take on Upstairs, Downstairs is a whole series of movies in one: On first viewing, it’s a parlor-room murder mystery, with touches of domestic drama and farcical comedy. On subsequent viewings, it’s a character study, with the likes of Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Helen Mirren, Kelly Macdonald, and Clive Owen each compressing a nuanced individual into a relatively tiny amount of screen time, then exploring the sparks that fly when they interact in different combinations. Get the DVD and turn the subtitles on, and it becomes a different movie entirely, one in which twice as much is going on, hidden in the overlapping, naturalistic dialogue and barely-heard muttered asides. It takes a number of viewings to unpack everything in this mannered period comic drama—but thanks to clever writing, terrific performances, and Altman’s curious, wandering camera, each viewing is more rewarding than the last. It’s the perfect marriage of the restless, scene-capturing Altman of Nashville and the focused, craft-oriented Altman of Short Cuts.
The Fall (2006)
Tarsem’s outsized labor of love is in a way a series of stunts: a child star convinced she was acting in a documentary about a paraplegic; a non-handicapped adult star (Lee Pace) living in a wheelchair over a 12-week shoot, for verisimilitude; a film planned and shot across the space of more than two decades, in the most beautiful places Tarsem encountered in two dozen countries. But all the craziness just makes an already off-the-wall project more endearing and notable, especially since that craziness shows up clearly enough onscreen. Part redemption story, part high-gloss fantasy fable, The Fall is remarkable in every facet: the rawly emotional performances, the ridiculously gorgeous cinematography, and the thoroughly strange sense of humor that somehow brings Charles Darwin and a swimming elephant into the plot.
A lot of people couldn’t abide the twee giddiness of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie, but love it or hate it, it’s hard to deny that it’s an original, rigorously constructed, beautifully shot vision. Essentially an effervescent, highly stylized take on Jane Austen’s Emma, it centers on an idiosyncratically odd girl (Audrey Tautou) tampering with other people’s lives, trying to improve them via her starry-eyed idea of romance. But while Austen didn’t stint on personal detail in her books, Jeunet and co-writer Guillaume Laurant pour it on to such a degree that the minute trivia of people’s lives almost becomes the story. As the opening scene suggests, people are far more complicated and specific than Tautou’s character imagines, and helping them is harder than it looks. And yet in such a candy-colored, fairy-tale world, love will inevitably conquer all, in the quirkiest, prettiest way imaginable.
On one level, Rian Johnson’s writing and directing debut Brick is a delight because of its killer central conceit: film noir’s broad emotion and narrow, controlled expressions of that emotion mapped onto high-school students. That narrow emotional palette is similar, but the standard stable of characters is very different, and there’s an almost Bugsy Malone-style humor in Brick’s junior-grade version of the femme fatale and the underworld kingpin. But on another level, the movie is fantastic because it’s so controlled, so textured, and so perfectly apt: the conceit really works, in part because of a top-notch cast anchored by Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the teen gumshoe on the trail of his girlfriend’s killer, and in part because of Johnson’s uncompromisingly idiosyncratic scripting. Again, this is a film that’s fantastic the first time through, but thoroughly rewards unpacking and multiple viewings.
State And Main (2000)
State And Main is a departure from David Mamet’s usual mode, on a couple of levels: It’s a comedy, and it’s about filmmaking rather than cops, criminals, or serious conflicts. And yet its overview of the perils of filmmaking has the same inside-baseball feel as his crime stories. William H. Macy stars as a beleaguered director dealing with everything from underage-tail-chasing leading man Alec Baldwin to a historic setting that’s burned down. The results are as lively as a Christopher Guest comedy, but more calculated and crafted. It isn’t biting comedy, exactly—in aiming at the broadest and most ridiculous aspects of his industry, Mamet is taking some pretty gentle potshots at some pretty broad targets—but it’s bouncy and fast-moving, almost a screwball comedy for an era that’s mostly moved away from screwball comedy.
About Schmidt (2002)
No one does banal quite like Alexander Payne. The poet of flyover country, Payne finds the comedy in every small corner of Middle America, all while slipping his ambivalence around the pitfalls of condescension and campaign-ad sentimentality. His 2002 comedy About Schmidt concerns the most ordinary of crises: An Omaha insurance man (Jack Nicholson) who retires into uncertainty, having witnessed his life’s work piled up in boxes around the dumpster at corporate headquarters. The death of his battleaxe of a wife and his estranged daughter’s impending marriage only deepen his funk, and he takes to penning hilariously candid letters to an African child he’s sponsoring. Nicholson plays this marginally redeemable bastard without a hint of vanity, and Payne slips effortlessly from humor to pathos and back in exploring his hero’s capacity for appalling selfishness and unexpected generosity.
The opening salvo in Lars von Trier’s aborted “America trilogy,” Dogville ruthlessly examines how the democratic ideals of a tight-knit community are subject to the corruptions of human nature. Having never been to America—he’s terrified of air travel—von Trier has the smart, audacious idea of looking at the country in the abstract, shooting on a bare stage with chalk outlines in place of streets and structures. (It’s a little like Bertolt Brecht meets The Sims.) A fugitive on the run from gangsters, Nicole Kidman takes refuge in a small town, offering her services to the citizenry in exchange for their protection; needless to say, they take more than full advantage. In this world without walls, von Trier lays bare the hypocrisies that simmer underneath the veneer of Everytown wholeness, and builds to a reckoning of genuinely shocking magnitude. It’s a grim, misanthropic take on humanity, but one delivered with absolute conviction.
The Fog Of War (2003)
With The Fog Of War, innovative documentarian Errol Morris turns a wide-ranging interview with former defense secretary Robert S. McNamara, the chief architect of the Vietnam War, into a brilliant meditation on the ruthless calculations and tragic uncertainties of conflict. Though still a slippery character, McNamara candidly examines the decisions he made in office, and though he doesn’t own up to all his mistakes, even his evasions are revealing. Powered by Morris’ signature blend of investigative curiosity and dazzling technique, The Fog Of War neither condemns nor exonerates its subject, but uses the “11 lessons” of his life as a prism through which to see all the major conflicts of the 20th century. In veiled reference to Iraq, McNamara also provides audiences with a great applause line about the dangers of unilateralism: "If we can't persuade nations of comparable values of the rightness of our cause, then we'd better reexamine our reasoning."
Far From Heaven (2002)
If there’s a knock on Far From Heaven, it’s that director Todd Haynes (Safe, Velvet Goldmine) was so interested in scrupulously recreating the look and feel of Douglas Sirk’s Technicolor weepies from the ‘50s that the film functions only as museum-piece pastiche, rather than its own thing. Yet Haynes’ reworking of Sirk’s 1955 classic All That Heaven Allows goes beyond mere mimicry, and reflects a career devoted to outsiders whose passions run counter to the tacit rules of society at large. Haynes makes one significant change to Sirk’s story of a widow (Julianne Moore) from high society who pursues a forbidden romance—he changes her lover from a lower-class gardener to an African-American. The shift from class to racial tensions gives the film’s depiction of the Eisenhower Era some extra potency without losing the tenderness and intimacy that made Sirk’s film special. It’s simultaneously an impressive facsimile and a refreshingly idiosyncratic vision.
Friday Night (2002)
For viewers in tune with her moody, elliptical style, Claire Denis (Beau Travail) is one of the best and most distinctive filmmakers in the world, but she isn't immediately accessible. To that end, Denis’ Friday Night may be the perfect gateway drug, a light and utterly enchanting dusk-to-dawn love story that showcases her full range of expression without any danger of newcomers losing the thread. Denis works from the simple premise of a life in transition (if there weren’t already a French film called Time Out, that title would suffice), following a single woman (Valérie Lemercier) on the evening before she moves from her apartment into her boyfriend’s place. When she picks up a handsome stranger (Vincent Lindon) in the middle of a Paris traffic jam, the two embark on a secret and transient affair that’s more like a tender, compressed romance than a tawdry one-night stand. Denis’ active camera picks up on the unforced chemistry between her two actors, complemented by the “city of love” living up to its vaunted reputation.