Carey Norris herein completes his survey of the best films of the foul and violent decade just concluded.
His list is eclectic, ranging from such gritty indies as The Wrestler to epics like The Lord of the Rings.
You can read the full-length version of his piece—as well as part one of his survey, which we published Jan. 7—at bhamweekly.com.
The Lord of the Rings (2001-’03)
The cinematic accomplishment of the decade, Peter Jackson’s epic saga whittled Tolkien’s books into an enthralling 10-hour ride that gave us not only groundbreaking special effects and masterful action set-pieces (the Mines of Moria, from Fellowship of the Ring, and the Battle of Helm’s Deep, from Two Towers, being particular standouts), but also characters we came to love and career-defining performances from several actors. The films build to an operatic emotional conclusion and manage to be both a wildly popular piece of entertainment and an ultimately sad story about the end of magic.
Nonlinear storytelling may be much more common these days, but Christopher Nolan’s thriller still feels audacious almost 10 years later. It starts with a murder, and moves progressively backward in time, doling out more information and becoming ever darker and more tragic. Guy Pearce stars as a man searching for his wife’s killer who is afflicted with a short-term memory disorder that makes him very easily manipulated, both by himself and others. Pearce is excellent as the man caught in an endless cycle of guilt and vengeance, and Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano both shine as well.
Minority Report (2002)
Steven Spielberg’s deeply weird film combines slam-bang action and absurdly comic discursions with genuinely interesting subject matter about the subjugation of free will in the name of law enforcement. Tom Cruise is a cop in a future where psychics called “precogs” predict and prevent all murders, but when he’s told he’ll kill a man he’s never met, Cruise goes on the run. The movie riffs on film noir, has amazing action scenes (a precog predicting where Cruise should go during a chase), and posits future technology both prescient (personalized advertisements) and bizarre (eyeball replacement surgery), but perhaps most importantly it signaled Spielberg’s willingness to tackle odd and challenging material.
No Country for Old Men (2007)
Joel and Ethan Coen may just be the most cynical filmmakers working today. Just look at the messages from their last three films: Don’t expect the universe to provide any answers to your little problems; purely selfish behavior is the best way to survive; and the world is getting worse, and the qualities needed to navigate it successfully won’t make you a very charming dinner companion. But their cynicism has never kept the Coens from crafting thoroughly engaging films, such as this thriller about a taciturn hunter (Josh Brolin) who finds a suitcase full of cash, the fiend (Javier Bardem) who chases him for it and the sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) who fears there is no place for people like him in this amoral modern world. Aided by truly excellent performances from the three main actors, the film for much of its running time works primarily as a master class in creating suspense, but the Coens get at something very depressing and disturbing about the way the world is today, and the way we fear it will be tomorrow.
The middle film in Chan-wook Park’s vengeance trilogy (flanked by Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, both of which will knock you on your ass) is also his best work. A man is mysteriously kidnapped and held prisoner for 15 years. After being released just as mysteriously, he searches for the reason why he was imprisoned, and doesn’t particularly like what he finds. The movie is a visceral thrill (Oldboy takes on a hallway full of thugs with only a claw hammer), but builds to bitter heights of operatic emotions.
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Guillermo del Toro’s beautiful, ambitious film is perhaps the darkest fairy tale imaginable, about a child caught up in the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. The film is an oddly uncomforting testament to the power of escape that fantasy worlds can provide, or perhaps del Toro just wishes there were other worlds we could flee to when our own world becomes too horrible.
Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
It took Paul Thomas Anderson to tap the hidden potential in Adam Sandler, seriously examining the rage and naïveté that fuels his comedic persona. This very raw, deeply weird film follows Sandler’s man-child character Barry Egan as he overcomes his own psyche to woo a kind woman (Emily Watson) uniquely suited to love him. Anderson fills the film with weird, discordant rhythms, and repurposes Harry Nilsson’s songs from Popeye, to make perhaps the decade’s most interesting romance.
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
A comedy about miserable people, Wes Anderson’s third film cemented his particular visual vocabulary with a Salinger-esque story about a family of early-blooming geniuses all shaped by the patriarch (Gene Hackman). The film is a triumph of production design, with its characters’ costumes that suit their unchanging personas, but it also has some great performances (particularly Hackman’s lovable sonofabitch Royal) and mixes laughter with real pain.
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Billed as a “zom-rom-com,” Edgar Wright’s hilarious zombie film succeeds in all of its aims. It tells of a slacker named Shaun (Simon Pegg), who needs the zombie apocalypse to usher him into adulthood. The film wields metaphor in ways that would make George Romero proud as it makes its broad points about growing up, but it’s also quite scary when it needs to be, and works as a comedy that references Prince’s Batman soundtrack for laughs.
Spirited Away (2001)
Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki has made many excellent films, but this is perhaps his best. It tells the story of a young girl separated from her parents in a strange land, and proceeds in a dreamlike manner that often resists interpretation, but always makes emotional sense. The movie is filled with wonder and joy, as well as the horror of being adrift in an unfamiliar place with unfathomable rules, and contains some of the finest animation I’ve ever seen.
There Will Be Blood (2007)
Paul Thomas Anderson uses his huge canvas here to make sweeping commentaries on unfettered capitalism and the American Dream, but also gives us one of recent cinema’s most iconic characters with Daniel Day-Lewis’ oilman Daniel Plainview. The film is gorgeous to look at, but undeniably brutal. Simultaneously epic and intimate, it shows us a man who attains all his goals, no matter the cost, but finds only blackness as his reward.
Pretty much any Pixar film from this decade (except Cars) could have made this list, but this is my favorite of theirs. It expands the perceived limits of kids’ films while remaining immensely entertaining. Its haunting first half-hour, set on a future ruined Earth, is full of stark beauty, but also loss, and the film proceeds to tell a story about true love as only a film about robots can as Wall-E learns what it means to be human after we have forgotten.
The Wrestler (2008)
Normally a visual formalist, Darren Aronofsky gets real with this wrenching film about an aging professional wrestler (Mickey Rourke) who just can’t give up his place on the fringes of show business. The film’s wrestling milieu is quite realistic, but it’s Rourke’s astounding performance that makes the film, even though Marisa Tomei almost matches him as an aging stripper who is also facing the end of her viability in her chosen profession.
Y Tu Mamá También (2001)
Two teenaged boys convince a woman to take a road trip with them to search for a fabled bit of paradise, but the ugliness of contemporary Mexico constantly threatens to show its face (as exemplified by director Alfonso Cuaron’s frequent asides).Cuaron’s soulful coming-of-age tale is all about transitions and the loss of possibility, impending death and incipient adulthood, but the film’s playful surface rarely betrays the deeper themes.
Best known for Seven, David Fincher gives us a different kind of serial killer film here. Fincher’s murder sequences are terrific, but the film is better at giving us a portrait of San Francisco blanketed by a kind of free-floating dread as the city is besieged by a killer. The movie is also perhaps the best procedural I’ve ever seen, precisely because it’s about an unsolved mystery, and the effect the unknown can have on people. The film’s screenplay throws a wealth of detail at us, and follows the investigators (including Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards’ policemen, and Robert Downey Jr. and Jake Gyllenhaal’s newspapermen) down the rabbit hole as they investigate dead ends and blind alleys to no avail, until only a few can’t let it go. It’s a fascinating movie about obsession, made by one of the most obsessive filmmakers working today.
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