Best of the '00s

Film critic and programmer Eddie Cockrell once discussed how films can seem different when you see them again years later. Cockrell remarked ďThe films donít change, but you do.Ē I remembered those words often as I went back and watched my picks for the best of the last decade. Ten years ago, when I wrote about the best films of the 90's, I tried to put that decade in a historical perspective. I also went through my list similar to the way I would my annual yearís best, giving a brief analysis and describing their main qualities.

For the 00's I tried a new approach. This time around, it seemed silly for me to use a historical perspective for a decade that ended three months ago. What I realize now, and maybe didnít ten years ago, is that for a true historical perspective you need time. Iím not sure how much time, but it should be more than three months. What I can do is offer some films that still resonate for me. Thatís true for all of the selections on my ďHonorable MentionĒ List:

Almost Famous
American Splendor
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
High Fidelity
Little Children
Moulin Rouge
Panís Labyrinth
United 93
Y tu mamŠ tambiťn

As much as I love ďBest OfĒ lists, even I can see a their basic futility. I could have put any of the films I just cited on my top ten for the decade. Why I picked the films I did seemed so arbitrary. So whatís the point? For me, itís to celebrate the films that not only achieved excellence, but also have a true staying power. I already wrote about nine of the ten films on my list in previous articles, eight of which are still on the Adamís Rib website. So rather than recreating what I wrote earlier, I will provide a link to my original thoughts and discuss what struck me now, as I revisited these gems:

10. The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001). Thereís no mistaking a Wes Anderson film. Even if you initially didnít know he directed a movie you would figure it out quickly. His attention to detail, his filling up the screen with everything from art to little knick-knacks is well known. Almost every shot is a perfectly symmetrical picture. Some critics argue that Andersonís films are too stylized. For The Royal Tenenbaums the style fits perfectly, because the Tenenbaums are a family that live in their own world. They are a group of prodigies who think that the rules donít apply to them, but theyíre wrong. Anderson permeates The Royal Tenenbaums with the melancholy of unfulfilled expectations. Each of the characters feels stifled by the world around them and are haunted by the feeling that they could have been something much greater. Anderson gets both laughs and pathos through this depression. His eclectic soundtrack highlights scenes perfectly. Gene Hackmanís masterful performance as patriarch Royal Tenenbaum ties the film together. Royalís irresponsibility and neglect helped drive the family apart and his struggle to make amends brings them together. Is redemption always possible? Can long festering emotional wounds be healed? The Royal Tenenbaums asks these questions in a way that made me laugh but also touched my soul.

9. Up in the Air (Jason Reitman, 2009). Like The Royal Tenenbaums, Up in the Air is another clever and witty film with heart. Itís also a prescient commentary on how depersonalized our technologically-based world has become. Ryan Bingham personifies much of what many of us hate about current times Ė someone whose job is to fire people. But because itís George Clooney portraying Bingham, you canít help but like him. This is critical because you are pulling for Bingham as he struggles, unwillingly at first, to find his own humanity. Clooney displays much of his famous charm, but he also lets himself be vulnerable on camera in a way that he hasnít before. An up-an-comer in Binghamís company (very well played by Anna Kendrick), serves as a way for Bingham to better see himself. The filmís tag line, making a cute airline pun, describes Binghamís need to ďmake a connection.Ē Up in the Air shows that it can be difficult to connect with other people, and in some ways itís easier to choose not to. As someone who has spent much of his life sitting in dark movie theaters, I can understand all of this. The film also points out that, despite our circumstances, and despite what we may think we want, that connection with other people is essential if we really want to live. Thatís a message that certain people, me in particular, really need to understand.

8. The Visitor (Thomas McCarthy, 2008). The Visitor, in some ways, is a perfect complement to Up in the Air. Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins), like Ryan Bingham, cuts himself off from the world around him. One of the many engaging parts of The Visitor is how Vale connects with a man with whom, on the surface, he has little in common, a young illegal immigrant from Syria. The film illustrates how human bonds can come from the most unlikely places. In this case itís a shared love of African drum music. When Valeís friend is detained by the INS, he then becomes close to the young manís mother (Hiam Abbass). Thereís beauty in seeing how two people from different cultures, who have each lost so much, gradually come together. Much of that beauty comes from McCarthyís terrific script and direction. Some of the credit must also go to Jenkins and Abbass, two veteran actors who each deliver delicate, understated but powerful performances. The Visitor is a sweet, tender, and moving film. It may have not reached a broad audience, but I have not talked to anyone who has seen The Visitor who was not affected by it.

7. Capote (Bennett Miller, 2005). Capote ends with Truman Capoteís classic line ďMore tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.Ē How fitting. On the surface Capote may be about the famed authorís writing of the classic nonfiction novel ďIn Cold Blood.Ē In the end, though, itís really about a manís struggle with his own questions and demons. Truman Capote develops a complex relationship with killer Perry Smith. Capote needs Smith to write the book and even grows to like him. But in order for the book to be complete Capote believes that Smith must die. What does Capote owe Smith? Loyalty? The truth? After all, Smith is a murderer. Or is the struggle not really about Smith at all but about Capote maintaining his own integrity? The film poses these questions but does not answer them. The filmmakers have enough faith in the audience to let them work out the issues for themselves. Philip Seymour Hoffman undergoes a remarkable physical transformation to play Capote. He does this not through makeup or prosthetics, but through the way he talks and moves. Hoffman finds the essence of Capoteís personality and conflict. Through him you can see how a man can shed tears over answered prayers.

6. Breach (Billy Ray, 2007). Chris Cooper had a small role in Capote but still made a lasting impression. Somehow, despite winning an Oscar (for Adaptation), he is still one of Americaís more underrated actors. He has a gift for hinting at a characterís internal life, suggesting that much is there beneath the surface. Cooperís performance in Breach as convicted spy Robert Hanssen makes the most of his many talents. Hanssen, to paraphrase Taxi Driver, is a walking contradiction, a patriot and devout Catholic who is a traitor to his country. Breach gives you a sense of who Hanssen is while also keeping his distance. This is a difficult feat but it works because of Cooper. As Hanssen, Cooper does so much with his eyes, taking everything in and testing everyone around him. In many ways its an internalized performance, but you canít take your eyes off of him. Billy Ray gives hints as to why Hanssen did what he did, but wisely never offers anything concrete. In reality we really donít know why and, as Hanssen says, in the end the reasons donít matter. What does matter is that Cooper makes you care about Hanssen. Cooper plays him interestingly enough that you want to know more but has enough restraint to keep much of the character hidden. Both Ray and Cooper respect the audienceís intelligence. They trust that we donít need everything explained to us. I just hope theyíre right.

5. City of God (Fernando Meirelles, 2002) Ė How can a film be so exhilarating and so frightening simultaneously? Meirelles injects City of God with so much kinetic energy that you canít help but enjoy the ride. Everything in the film is constantly moving, from place to place, from character to character, from story to story. Somehow Meirelles holds it all together. City of God places you at the heart of Rioís favelas (slums) during its drug and gang wars. Every frame feels authentic, which is no accident. Meirelles shot the film in the favelas using many first-time actors who grew up in that environment. Actually, ďgrew upĒ may be an exaggeration because many of the characters are still kids. People in the favelas donít live that long. City of God illustrates how violence feeds on itself and is passed on from one generation to the next. Itís scary to see little children playing with real guns instead of toy cars. Meirelles displays the ongoing pointless loss of life front and center. His film has a message without ever becoming preachy. It doesnít have to.

4. Sideways (Alexander Payne, 2004). Quentin Tarantino called certain films ďhangout moviesĒ because you want to hang out with the characters. Thatís how I felt when I revisited Sideways, that it was fun to spend some time with Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church) again. No one plays depression or self-loathing as well as Giamatti. He can do it while still making the character engaging, as he does with Miles. Giamatti and Church play off each other so well, that some of the best scenes in the film are just the two of them talking. Much of what defines Miles is his passion for and knowledge of wine. Sideways is immersed in the wine culture, as Miles is. The film asks whether such a passion is healthy. Like many passions, it can bring much joy, but it can also be a way to shut out the rest of the world. Payne never gives a firm answer. Also, I always wondered about the title, Sideways. On a literal level, thatís the way wine is stored. But it can also be a reflection of how Miles approaches life Ė not fully embracing it, but not quite running away either. Sideways is a smart, funny and moving film that criticizes its characters while also showing them compassion. It questions what they, or anyone, wants out of life, whether we should approach it head on or come at it sideways.

3. Cast Away (Robert Zemeckis, 2000). Sometimes I feel that Cast Away has been forgotten. Maybe thatís because Zemeckis has since stopped directing live-action films and has moved to motion-capture animation. Maybe itís because it came between Tom Hanksís Oscar winning roles and his more recent work in The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons. Whatever the reason, Cast Away deserves a reexamination. The film has a meditative, transcendental quality. More than any recent studio film, Cast Away creatively explores the power of silence. For the bulk of the movie, when Chuck Noland (Hanks) is stranded by himself on a desert island, there is no music and few spoken words. Hanks does some of his finest work, holding the audience all by himself. The cliche that much of acting is reacting has much truth, making Hanksí solo work all the more remarkable. Noland, as FedEx trouble shooter, is a man who by his own words, lives and dies by the clock. So what does he do in a place where time as he knows it has no meaning? We can take it one step further and ask what we would do if our priorities, the things we thought were most important in life, were taken away from us? Would we crumble, would we adapt, or would we reevaluate just how important those priorities were?

2. Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2001). People remember Memento as ďthat story thatís told backwardsĒ and the film that launched Christopher Nolanís career before he reinvigorated the Batman franchise. Thatís all true, but Memento is a gripping, absorbing film on its own merits. The fact that Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) has no short-term memory is not just a handicap that he has to overcome. Itís also a way he fools himself by thinking that memory is not needed. Through Leonardís struggle, Memento examines how dependent we all are on our memories. Like Kurosowaís classic Rashomon, Memento stipulates that the absolute truth is often less important than what people remember, even though memories can be unreliable. Not only that, but memories can be manipulated, both by others and by ourselves. Is something real because I believe it? If I donít remember something, did it really happen? Yet as unreliable as memories may be, itís almost impossible to function without them. How many times have any of us had to decide whether to write something down or trust that we will remember it? On the flip side, how many times have we discovered notes, or mementos, and then struggled to remember what they meant? Itís those ironies and paradoxes of memories that Memento explores so well.

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004). I was not planning for my top two films to both focus on memory, but it just worked out that way. While Memento focuses on the utility of memories, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind stresses their emotional impact. With a brilliant screenplay by Charlie Kaufman, Eternal Sunshine is the most original, inventive film of the decade. Kaufman, perhaps more than any other screenwriter, is fascinated with how we think. Much of his story for Eternal Sunshine takes place in the mind of Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) while his memories of his ex-girlfriend are being erased. For these scenes, rather than relying on CGI, Gondry uses effects that feel much more organic. This helps make a far-fetched situation feel believable. Eternal Sunshine illustrates just how precious memories can be, even if we donít always realize it. Think about it: a key event in your life may last only hours, or even minutes, but the memories last for years. You could argue that the memory may be the most important part of an event. The film also shows that we can let one thing, such as how a relationship ends, color so many other things, such as all the good times in that relationship. Eternal Sunshine reminds us that itís our memories, both good and bad, that define so much of who we are.

Adam Spector
April 1, 2010

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