The Best Movies of the 2000s

Here is the list of my favorite movies from the first ten years of the millenium.  I did this last year, but in several posts.  As we start to look at “best of” lists for 2010, I thought it might be useful to put these all in one post.

#30. Frozen River (2008): The thing about movies is that by telling a particular story, they also act as vehicles for social commentary; Frozen River does just that. Turning in an Oscar-nominated performance, Melissa Leo stars as Ray Eddy. A single working mother struggling to support her two children. Ray works as a clerk at a local convenience store, barely making ends meet. Life becomes even more difficult when her car is stolen. When she finally tracks it down, she encounters Lila (Misty Upham) who defends steeling Ray’s car by claiming that she found the car abandoned with the keys in it. What ensues is an uneasy alliance between Ray and Lila as they address their individual financial woes by smuggling illegal aliens across the U.S./Canada border. Written and directed by Courtney Hunt, Frozen River is as much a story about the illicit smuggling of human beings as is it is a story of clashing cultures between whites in a rural upstate New York town and the residents of a nearby Native American reservation. As a winner of the Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize (Dramatic), the film succeeds on the strength of the relationship between Ray and Eddy. In addition to struggling financially, Lila has her own family problems as she struggles to prove that she is responsible enough to take custody of her young daughter. In the end, Frozen River is a unfriendly reminder of how much two people from different cities and cultural backgrounds may have in common as it relates to life’s struggles.

#29.  Once [2007]: As a musician, I’m always intrigued by other musicians, the lives they lead, and the music that defines them.  Unfortunately,  movies about musicians don’t always work.   For every Almost Famous, there’s a Rock Star (all due respect to Jennifer Aniston and Mark Wahlberg).  As a result, I’m always leery of that genre of film.   So it was a pleasant surprise when I had occasion to watch Once. Although I had read all of the accolades, it wasn’t until my good friend Jenny Green demanded that I watch the movie that I actually did so.

The story centers around a struggling musician played by Glen Hansard who befriends fellow musician/pianist Marketa Irglova (referred to simply as “Girl”) while playing on the streets of Dublin for loose change.  The two strike up a conversation that leads to both a personal and musical relationship.  Although the romantic chemistry between the two is palpable, the movie focuses more on their relationship as musical collaborators.  Although the relationship takes a few twists and turns, the result of the musical union between the two is beautiful.  There is a scene in the movie where Hansard and Irglova step into a music store that she often frequents that allows her to play the piano.  Hansard plays one of his original tunes (the Oscar-award winning song “Falling Slowly) for Irglova and the two proceed to play it together.  In that one moment, there is more musical authenticity and emotion exhibited between the two than any other film you’re likely to see about musicians or the practice of making music, short of a documentary.  This is in part why the movie works.  Its simple, its short, and its real.

#28.  The Squid and the Whale [2005]: Noah Baumbach wrote and directed this quirky “dramedy” that revolves around the struggles of a family torn apart by divorce.  As the son of film critics, The Squid and the Whale, is also semi-autobiographical in that it closely parallels events in his own life.  His parents were writers/film critics that divorced during his teen years.  Appropriately, the movie is set in the 80s and the parents here- played brilliantly by Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney- are writers.

Normally a family drama about divorce would simply be just that.  Yet the humor here is undeniable.  It’s almost as if Wes Anderson did a remake of Kramer vs. Kramer (not coincidentally, the film was produced by Anderson).  There are so many random nuggets of humor interwoven with the drama.  First, there’s the 12-year old son Frank’s (played by Owen Kline) random episodes of acting out; there’s the mini tryst that unfolds when one of Daniels’ students (Ana Paquin) moves in…..oh and then there’s the other son (played by Jesse Eisenberg) who has his own exploits.  But the icing on the cake is William Baldwin who plays a quasi-intellectual hippie tennis instructor who has replaced Daniels as Linney’s new love interest.

At times the movie is almost too painful to watch, as the uncomfortable scenes are numerous.  In the end, Baumbach delivers a great movie by striking the right balance between the pain and comedy that defines the movie.  The acting is also wonderful.  Most notably Daniels does an excellent job as the failing father and ex-husband.

Despite being unbearable at times, The Squid and the Whale still deserves a look.

#27.  Munich [2005]: As one of America’s greatest storytellers, Steven Spielberg has often exercised his ability by using lesser-known stories as vehicles to explore some of the great tragedies throughout history (see Amistad and Schindler’s List).   With Munich Spielberg explores the history and nature of the middle east conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis.  To do this, he chronicles how a covert group of Israelis retaliated against the “Black September” terrorists; the individuals  responsible for the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.  Instantly, Speilberg’s deft touch comes through as he weaves actual news coverage of the massacre within the events as they unfold in the movie.  All in all, the movie is filled with suspense as the group embarks on a bloody journey to avenge the deaths of those athletes who lost their lives.  Eric Bana gives a brilliant performance as Avner, the de facto leader of the group and the protagonist.  Throughout, the internal struggle that takes place within Avner becomes more clear with the killing of each target.

Indeed, Munich conveys a message.  Indeed, Spielberg spares no expense in illustrating the difficulties of engaging in a back-and-forth war with no end, during which the purpose of the conflict gets lost.  Although it gets a little long in the tooth towards the end, the movie ultimately deserves to stand alongside Spielberg’s other great works.  If for any other reason than that it is ambitious in its message.

#26.  The 25th Hour [2002]: Director Spike Lee entered into our national conscience with 1989′sDo the Right Thing.  As a movie about race-relations in the highly polarized Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, it remains quite possibly the most significant movie on race in at least my lifetime.  What followed were a series of gems (Malcolm X, He Got Game), and a few serious missteps.  Fortunately for Lee and everyone else that has come to enjoy his movies, he followed 2000′s woefulBamboozled with The 25th Hour.  Among other things, Lee made his bones exploring largely racial issues; in a rare occurrence Lee steers away from the subject.

The movie centers around Montgomery “Monty” Brogan, played by Edward Norton.  Monty has recently been sentenced to prison for 7 years and is preparing to head upstate to serve his time.  The title refers to the focus of the movie, which is Monty’s last day as a free man.  With the aid of flashbacks, the movie follows Monty’s past as well as his last day as a free man, as he spends it with his girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson), and his two best friends Jacob and Frank; played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Barry Pepper, respectively.

Shot in the wake of the attack on the Twin Towers, The 25th Hour is as much a postcard to New York City as anything else.  But what really makes the movie work is Norton and his vulnerabilities as he slowly comes to terms with the realization that his life will soon drastically change.  In addition to Norton, there are strong performances here by Hoffman, and Ana Paquin who plays a high school student of Hoffman’s.  Playing that role in a way that only Paquin can, she creates real tension with Hoffman.

If, like me you are a huge fan of Lee’s work, than you will be pleasantly surprised to see that his directing chops are still in tact.  If not, you will no doubt be impressed with the movie but disappointed that you haven’t seen more from one of America’s best, if not important directors.

#25.  Crash [2004]: Paul Haggis’ brilliantly filmed drama about race relations in post-911 Los Angeles was as much a slap in the face, as it was a breath of fresh air.  With strong performances by a coterie of fresh and established faces, the film did a wonderful job of questioning notions of a post-racial society.

Shot from several different perspectives, the movie examines the lives of several main characters portrayed among others by Don Cheadle, Terrence Howard, Brendan Fraser, Sandra Bullock, Matt Dillon, Ryan Phillippe and rapper turned actor Christopher “Ludacris” Bridges.   The film chronicles each character as inevitably their paths cross, ultimately crashing into one another.  Complexity ensues as each interaction reveals a different racial bias.

Where Crash gives some pause is by the method Haggis uses to get his point across.  Indeed, Haggis uses a sledgehammer to tell the story.  And at times the story seems far-fetched.  Yet it is effective in getting across the point that all of us, regardless of ethnicity hold preconceived notions about others based upon their cultural backgrounds.  Critics complained that the movie was an unrealistic portrayal of race relations in this country.  Although this criticism has some merit, it misses the point. Crash is a movie that forces us to re-think the cultural lenses through which we view our fellow citizens as well as the society at large.   In conveying the message in a compelling way it strikes just the right tone.

#24.  Half Nelson [2006]: I’ve slowly come to realize that Ryan Gosling is indeed one of the best actors in Hollywood.  Although it may seem obvious to some, it was not always clear to me.  Prior to Half Nelson, my only familiarity with Gosling was as the male lead in 2005′s touching, but drabThe Notebook.  Here, Gosling establishes himself as one of the best actors of his generation.

Gosling plays Dan Dunne, a young, hip, but unorthodox high school teacher working in a tough Brooklyn school.  During the day he’s a breath of fresh hair to his young pupils as he puts forth a dynamic style of teaching, bent on real-world application.  After school he brings passion to his other job as the coach of the girl’s basketball team.   What his students and teaching peers do not know is that this is a facade.  Dan is also addicted to crack.  Clearly tormented by demons that Dan is unable to dispose of, he continues to live this double life.  It all appears to come to a head when one of his players, Drey (played by Shareeka Epps) catches him in the act.  What follows is a relationship that develops between the precocious Drey and Dan as they deal with unpleasant realities.

Gosling and Epps are both excellent as two people that form a unique bond over the unlikeliest of circumstance.  Gosling’s Academy Award nominated performance alone is enough reason to see this movie.  But the manner in which the story is told is quite effective. Half Nelson draws you in, keeping you there as you try to figure out when its all going to come crashing down.

#23.  Waltz with Bashir [2008]: In many ways, Waltz with Bashir is the most unique movie I’ve seen in quite some time.  At the very least its the most unique on my list.  At first glance, it may simply appear as an animated feature but its actually a documentary.  Written and directed by Ari Folman, the film chronicles Folman’s experiences serving in the Israeli army during Israel’s war with Lebanon in 1982.

As an animated feature, the film is one to marvel.  Visually, the feel of the movie is stylish, yet provacative.  The animation style looks similar to  interpolated rotoscoping (see A Scanner Darkly) in which animation is transposed over live footage.  Filled with music from various Israeli recording artists, the score does an excellent job of underscoring each scene.

On the whole, Waltz with Bashir is a brilliant movie.  Folman uses the film quite ably as a mechanism to work through  what was obviously a trying time in his life.  Although it is an animated documentary, the closing scene in the film truly brings home the realism of Folman’s experience.

#22.  The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford [2007]: Before I go on, I must start off by saying that this is a very long movie; as in nearly three (2:40) hours long.  That said, its a pitch perfect portrayal of one of America’s most notorious criminals, and the man that murdered him.  One more thing, my assessment of this movie may be a bit skewed.  I’m biased towards anything with Mary Louise Parker in it and I love Westerns so these two aspects give the movie an implicit bump in ratings.

Nevertheless, here we find Brad Pitt playing what many believe to be one of the most accurate portrayals of James.  One of the things I love the most about the film is that it goes to great lengths to explore the cult of personality that was Jesse James.  After all, there were no movie stars in those days.  Train robbers were about as close as you would get to celebrity status.  And of course, like Britney Spears today, James had his own obsessed fans; enter in Robert Ford.  Casey Affleck — who we can all agree is a much better actor than his brother Ben — plays the role of a lifetime as the star-struck Ford.  Hell bent on becoming a member of James’ gang, he forges a friendship with James that ultimately turns sour.

What really stands out though is the cinematography.  Set during the time of reconstruction, the camera follows James as he wanders through the heartland of America depicting beautiful landscapes, dark nights, and amber waves of grain that go on as far as the eye can see.  If you don’t mind the length and you’re partial to Westerns this is a must see.

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