Because I LOVED this post about the top ten films of the millennium (thus far), and because I love lists, and probably because I’m sometimes a copycat, I decided to compile a list of the twenty most defining films released since 2000.
The key word here is defining. My list isn’t so much about the BEST as in raw, objective quality as it is about how well these films capture or embody the moment of the 00s. Just as films like The Graduate, Easy Rider, and Medium Cool defined the zeitgeist of the Sixties, what are the films we will look back upon as the best and most defining films of the first decade of the 21st century? Here is my list: Inland Empire (2007): Though David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) is probably the better film, Inland Empire is certainly more “of the moment.” The all-digital, hallucinatory epic (it looks like a home video from hell) is a three-hour montage of nightmarish postmodern images and rabbit trails—an assemblage of 21st century anxiety and scatterbrained vignettes of the most mind-bending sort.
The New World (2006): Terrence Malick’s film, though set in the earliest days of the American republic, has a lot to say about how we view the world now. The film is an elegiac tone poem for a paradise lost— ecologically, spiritually, and culturally. Its fluid images and hushed voiceover fragments create one long, cathartic purge for our collective, world-weary soul.
A.I. (2001): This film ushered in the 21st century with a particularly 21st century gimmick: the mashup. The Spielberg/Kubrick film is also thoroughly modern in its dystopic imagery and technophobic preoccupations: the all-too-immediate question of what happens when our technology becomes more real to us than our fellow humans.
Lost in Translation (2003): Brilliant in the way that it embodies globalization and its discontents in the twenty-first century, Sofia Coppola’s graceful, nuanced film captures both the joys and existential angst of a glossy, post-industrial, spiritually-wayfaring society.
Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005): This quirky little film from artist Miranda July is all about the odd mutations of human communication and connection in a digital age. What happens when our computer-mediated relationships turn out to be less than appealing in the real world?
Nine Lives (2005): Nine fragments of nine individual lives, told in segments over a series of nine long shots: all of them women, all unresolved glimpses into tangled lives with branching trajectories. It may sound convoluted, but this film evokes so much truth in its snapshot structure. It’s akin to the soundbite news stories or googled tidbits that populate our everyday windows into other peoples’ worlds… only better.
Children of Men (2006): Like A.I., this futuristic sci-fi epic provides an exceptionally dour vision of the not-too-distant future. The film deals not so much with technology, however, as with the consequences of politics, war, terrorism, immigration, and environmental disintegration. Like much of the doomsday rhetoric in society today, however, there are some glimpses of hope within the chaos.
Before Sunset (2004): This film, which is essentially an extended conversation between Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, is perhaps the most elegantly urgent film of our increasingly anxious historical moment. It’s about not letting things slip away in a world where second chances—where nothing, really—is guaranteed.
George Washington (2000): David Gordon Green’s debut film is anachronistic (there are no computers or cell phones to be seen), but while it may not feel completely comfortable in the 21st century, neither does it feel at home in the 20th. The film is in some ways a lament for the “olden days” of green grass, safe streets, American dreams—but it is also looking away from all that—towards a new future that leaves behind the racial, relational, and economic strife of bygone days. Flags of Our Fathers / Letters From Iwo Jima (2006): Clint Eastwood’s WWII double-whammy is both a classic war epic and a totally postmodern recasting of our collective national memory of “The War.” By showing the Battle of Iwo Jima from both the American (Flags) and Japanese (Letters) perspectives, Eastwood provides a decidedly 21st century narrative that is fueled by our general malaise (post Iraq) about America’s foreign policy.
United 93 (2006): 9/11 is the defining event of this decade (thus far), and United 93 is the best filmic representation of it. The documentary-style drama brings us viscerally back to the terror of that day, offering a disturbing glimpse inside the hijacked flight 93 as well as a resonant look at the unfolding chaos on the ground.
25th Hour (2002): Shot in the shadows of the blue-light specters of the World Trade Center, Spike Lee’s film captures the complicated post-9/11 mood of America. Ostensibly about one man’s (Edward Norton) last night before heading off to prison, 25th Hour is really a letter to NYC and America—full of all the rage, love, sadness, and hope that Lee so keenly conjures up in his films.
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001): Wes Anderson’s most complete, satisfying cinematic entrée, Tenenbaums is a gloriously somber iteration of the sort of hip-cultural/youthful nostalgia that has defined the 00s. Anderson’s hyper-stylized, immaculately arranged art direction and mise-en-scene also seem to have started numerous trends in both film and television.
Being John Malkovich (2000): You could argue that the most pressing question of the digital age is that of identity. Being John Malkovich takes this question and runs with it—to very trippy results. Spike Jonze’s film feels like a video game in an online puppet fetish community; it is wildly postmodern and nonsensical.
Southland Tales (2007): This soon-to-be cult classic from Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko) is a frenetic, insane, balls-out overture to all that is off-kilter in 21st century, post 9/11 America. Like the decade it satirizes, the film is a mashup of politics, religion, entertainment and technology—a warped but beautiful vision of a surrealist Lynchian apocalypse. The Departed (2006): Last year’s best picture Oscar winner is a thoroughly contemporary film in both obvious ways (the importance of cell phones for the script) and on more subtle levels (the transnational migration of the film from the Hong Kong original—Infernal Affairs—is a decidedly recent phenomenon in cinema). Furthermore, the film’s urban, unrepentant nihilism feels quite authentic in the context of our current cultural quagmire.
Waking Life (2001): One it tempted to write this animated (via rotoscope) film off as an exercise in high style (which it is), but Richard Linklater’s 2001 film is also stunning in its seamless and gloriously garrulous vignettes full of new millennium philosophizing.
Kill Bill (2003-04): This two-volume epic from Quentin Tarantino throws together a zillion pop culture artifacts to form a surprisingly effective, coherent narrative that fits nicely into the post-9/11 revenge-film trend. The genre, musical, stylistic, and thematic hybridity demonstrated in the film(s) may not be solely Tarantino’s domain any longer, but he still does it the best. Garden State (2004): Some called it The Graduate for the Net-generation; others called it commodified cool. Whatever you call it, this film struck an unmistakable chord with many, many young people—disillusioned, medicated, and unsure of physical place and “home” in an increasingly de-physicalized world.
Tarnation (2004): Using a mass of accumulated home video from throughout his life, director Jonathan Caouette takes us on a harrowing journey through his troubled childhood, messed-up family, and drug-addled existence. It’s a truly tragic and very personal film, and perhaps the first masterpiece of the “home movie / iMovie” genre.