The Best of the Aughts, Part II

We left off with Jason Bourne kicking tail and taking a lot of names. We pick back up and do some kicking of our own, kicking off the top tier of last decades best movies. First up:

10. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) - When it comes to the Coen brothers, their more famous fare tends to include black comedies (The Ladykillers, Burn After Reading) and darker thrillers (Fargo, No Country For Old Men). And then there's O Brother. Based loosely on Homer's Odyssey, it's one that gets better each time you watch it. Playing Ulysses Everett McGill is easily one of George Clooney's best performances, and the two idiotic and simple-minded sidekicks are classic. It's got a ton of hilarious moments, a fantastic story and a great gospel/folk soundtrack. You see it and hope the South you decide to visit is that lively and charismatic. Though it may not seem so at first, when you look back, you realize this is one of the most fun movies you'll ever watch. Memorable scene: John Turturro dancing. You'll understand when you see it.

9. The Prestige (2006) - This is one of three Christopher Nolan masterpieces about which I will rave. Wow, I can not say enough about how purely amazing this movie is. You have two powerhouse actors, Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, playing in a ever-escalating chess match of magic tricks and illusions, each one trying to out-magic and outwit the other, all while the stakes get higher and higher. Michael Caine is the closest thing to a mediator, though his loyalties are clearly marked.....aren't they? It's a twisting, turning, fantastical, wonderous and, of course, magical adventure. You will not be able to predict anything, so don't even try. Just sit back and let it toy with your mind, your logic and your senses. Are you watching closely? Memorable scene: Hugh Jackman's character finds out what physicist Nikola Tesla (delightfully portrayed by David Bowie) is up to in the Rocky Mountains.

8. Gladiator (2000) - This is one of those situations where film is far more interesting than what actually happened, and it kind of makes you wish you could rewrite history, just so we could teach the awesomeness of Maximus Decimus Meridius in school. Long story short, he's a bad-A Roman general who gets betrayed by a grade-A whiner, only to become a bad-A gladiator who plans to exact awesome revenge. Just about everything in this movie is epic- the characters, the plot, the music (I think this is what introduced me to Hans Zimmer), it's all awesome. Crowe's Maximus is a warrior, an action hero, but one with depth, one with heart. He's not a cold-blooded killer out to get the guy who ruined his day; he's "father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife," wronged in so many ways, and the way he gets back in the saddle- fighting in Morocco and the Coliseum against chariots, huge warriors and freaking tigers is nothing short of spectacular. It's bloody, but it's on cable quite a bit, so go find it and watch it. Memorable scene: which scene wasn't? But for the sake of continuity, I'll choose the reenactment of the Battle of Carthage.

7. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) - Okay, so I like Russell Crowe. This is the third of his movies to make my list, and only narrowly edged out Gladiator. But this is a movie that makes you sit back after watching it and say, "Wow. That...was...incredible." It's not wall-to-wall action or adventure, even slow in some parts. But the drama never ceases to unfold, to develop, to deepen, to ripen. You see Russell Crowe's Captain Jack Aubrey as the hero, but you can't help but agree with Paul Bettany's Doctor Stephen Maturin as he questions whether "Lucky Jack" is going too far to accomplish his mission. It has the right combination of acting, directing, music and story, and the lengths to which Peter Weir went to for time-period-accuracy is very impressive. There's only one problem with this movie: at this point it doesn't appear there will be a sequel, despite multitudinous source material. Memorable scene: The doctor learns a valuable lesson about choosing the lesser of two evils.

6. United 93 (2006) - September 11, 2001 is a day so solemn, so poignantly remembered, so
sacredly treated that it took several years for anyone to dare an attempt at bringing it back to life on screen. The one that didn't risk ruin by casting Nicholas Cage is Paul Greengrass' United 93, an account of what happened on the plane that crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. It is based on the conclusions of what exactly took place on the flight from takeoff to crash, as determined by the 9/11 commission. There are no A-list actors (there are some people who were part of the 9/11 drama playing themselves), no dramatic soundtrack, no stunning special effects: this movie runs on the pure human emotion of fear. It's raw, it's real, it's troubling: this movie is so effective, it brought back every anxious and nervous and unsettled feeling that went through me on September 11, 2001. It wasn't a pleasant movie experience, but I would be doing it a great injustice if I didn't say this was a truly powerful movie experience.

5. Memento (2000) - This movie screws with your head, but in a fun way. Another diamond from director Chris Nolan, it's designed, literally, to mess with your mind. Memento is a cerebral crazy-fest, as Nolan presents two timelines, one from the past moving chronogically forward, and the present time, moving backwards.Guy Pearce is a guy investigating his wife's murder, but his memory is all jacked up, so he can only remember the last several minutes. As he tries to find the clues, he keeps track of what he needs to remember through photos and tatoos. It's maddeningly mind-bending, but worth every backwards and forwards minute. Memorable scene: everything. Literally.

4. The Dark Knight (2008) - After the awesomeness that was Batman Begins, this was very likely one of the most anticipated movies of the decade. But it didn't meet expectations. Those were annihilated to a million pieces every time The Joker blew something up (that happens a lot). The Dark Knight did to comic book movies what The Lord of the Rings did to EVERY movie ever: make it utterly pale in comparison. But it's much more than just a Batman movie, just a superhero film: it's a smartly-written crime drama, a dark reminder of how scary our world can be sometimes, and a tribute to the human spirit. Heath Ledger deserves every accolade he got playing the psychotic, never-predictable Joker, and in a fell swoop became one of the most iconic and memorable movie villains in film history. In many ways, this is Chris Nolan's crowning achievement. Now, he just needs to get a move on the next installment, if for nothing else than this Batman fan's sanity. Memorable scene: The Joker's magic trick. And the chase through Gotham's streets. And Two-Face.

3. Children of Men (2006) - Of all the dystopian films out there, this one is set against a truly disturbing future-reality. It's not global warming (Day After Tomorrow), killer robots (I, Robot), or aliens (too many to list). No, the problem with this future, set 17 years from now, is that humanity is facing extinction. No woman has given birth in 18 years, and there's no explanation as to the cause of the worldwide sterility. Most governments have collapsed, and those that remain have shrunk into isolation. People are overall disillusioned with everyday life, among them an apathetic bureaucrat, played by Clive Owen (this is the movie that began me liking Owen, now he's one of my favorite actors). Out of nowhere comes a spark of hope, and his impossible mission is to keep it burning. Give a barge of credit to director Alfonso Cuaron: the movie is beautifully filmed (even though pretty much everything is dirty and decaying), and the story is dark and brooding with the occasional glimmer of humor. Memorable scene: an unbroken, single-shot scene where Clive Owen makes his way through a raging battle. It's a 7.5-minute scene shot with one camera.

2. WALL-E (2008) - I was torn as to whether WALL-E or Children of Men deserved the #2 slot. I decided on the little robot for two reasons: first, Pixar has defined computer-animated movies for the last 15 years, and WALL-E is, I feel, Pixar's best movie to date. Second, it's a computer-animated movie set in the distant future, yet it so perfectly connects to classic films of the past. And when I say classic, I mean really old. Like black-and-white silent old. My absolute favorite part of the movie is the first 30-40 minutes, where WALL-E goes about his daily task of gathering and compacting garbage, completely oblivious to the fact that he is pretty much the only moving thing left (besides his best friend, a cockroach). He is very reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin in a goofy lovable way, and so naive it's positively endearing. On top of that, he loves a VHS copy of Hello, Dolly! Of all the old movies to choose, the writers chose Hello, Dolly!, and it is a perfect fit. It's unconventional for an animated movie, but it all comes together in a brilliant, moving and delightful way. Memorable scene: seeing what WALL-E has chosen as his treasures and artifacts from among the trash he sifts through every day.

1. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-2003) - I really don't think this one is ever getting topped. Only two movie trilogies in history garnered Best Picture nominations for each of its installments, and this is one of them. Like Beckie, there's not much to add to all the praise I've given these movies, but I'll say a bit. This is as close to a perfect movie as I think we're ever going to get. It's a fantasy that feels like history; it's an action movie that gives you characters you can care about, empathize with, love and cheer on. The actors play their parts so well, the characters feel more real, more genuine than a lot of people you pass on the street. Howard Shore didn't compose a soundtrack, he wrote a symphony. The attention to detail brings a life to the film that feels more real than some historical movies. This is the adaptation of what I feel is the most influential piece of fantasy literature ever written (my argument: Tolkein's world has influenced all subsequent fantasy stories/movies/books/games than any other work). My only sadness is that being in Russia for the release of The Two Towers and Return of the King, I didn't get to share the hype and fever that swept across cinema-land. But you can rest assured I more than made up for lost time when I got home. Memorable scene: I give this slot to my favorite scene, where the Riders of Rohan arrive on the Pelennor Fields and, after a moving and rousing speech by King Theoden, proceed to decimate the Orc battle lines.

Okay, movie fans, there you go. Agree, disagree, whatever; but let me know what you think. Did I miss anything? What do you think should have been on here that wasn't? What made my list that shouldn't have? Leave a comment or put your thoughts on your own blog (just let me know it's there).

Regardless, these are all worth a watch. Or 500. Whichever comes first.


Leon said…
What about Napoleon Dynamite. Can't believe you didn't put that on here. :/
Beckie said…
A nice finishing touch to your list...I especially like the inclusion of multiple Russell Crowe movies and Children of Men. I have no time this semester, but now all I want to do is go watch each of these movies!
Peeser said…
I was always intrigues by Memento, but never watched it because of the R rating. Now, after reading about it on both yours and Beckie's list (and finding out that Christopher Nolan directed it), I want to watch it more than ever... I will have to pay closer attention to cable, perhaps (sorry- I'm still pretty firm on the No Rated R films thing). If you ever get an edited version, let me know!

I also like that you included Master and Commander (not just because it is a fantastic film, but in large part because of Peter Weir- I will always argue that he is one of the most underrated directors of his time, if not ever- not enough people appreciate his incredible directing skills, as evidenced by the fact that there apparently won't be any further installments of this series).

Um, what else? Love the Prestige. Love Gladiator. Love WALL-E. And LOTR will always be the definitive movie experience in my opinion- it should hold the number 1 slot in just about any movie list (except "worst movie" or "worst acting," etc.)

Thanks for sharing. I want to go watch these now.
Steven said…
So I realized this morning I forgot a true gem. So, sliding in at slot #5.5 (between United 93 and Memento) is "Everything is Illuminated." Liev Schreiber created a masterful mix of humor and real emotion, and captures the true character and flavor of post-Soviet Eastern Europe. As good, if not better, than Elijah Wood is Eugene Hutz, who plays Wood's guide and eventual friend. The soundtrack is classic and moving all at once, and the ending gives the viewer an unforgettable "aha" moment.

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