It’s been a strange decade for movies. Looking back, it seems like the events of the last 10 years and the things we were watching and listening to have occurred completely independently of each other. This decade’s paradigmatic movies – Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Star Wars, all the comic book movies – have been specifically designed to be timeless. They don’t comment on the events of the last 10 years, or even attempt to. Movies that have tried to ‘take on’ the things we’ve all lived through and talked about – 25th Hour, Elephant, Stop Loss, United 93, anything by Michael Moore – have been shrill, uneven and generally ignored. There still isn’t a good movie about 9/11, and the only good one about Iraq—the Hurt Locker—is mostly good because it avoids taking a stance or making a point.
The movies’ have not only circumvented what we’ve lived this decade, they’ve also circumvented how we’ve lived. In spite of Hollywood’s increasing focus on tweens as a market (old enough to have money, not old enough to figure out The Pirate Bay), movie-adolescence is still trapped somewhere between ‘Leave it to Beaver’ and ‘Gidget’.
Movies depict routine, decidedly non-exotic components of our daily lives—texting, cell phones, the internet—like alien mating rituals. The genuine moral dilemmas of modern life—constant information without the tools or the maturity to process it—are sidelined in favour of fossilized geek-jock star crossings. Movies, even when they take place in the present, somehow don’t resemble the way we live and talk.
Judged on verisimilitude, it’s been a terrible decade for movies. Which doesn’t mean that they’ve all been bad, just that, in 50 years, they won’t tell us very much about where we are now.
I wanted to put together a list of the movies that, in spite of all the upwind incentives, told us something about this decade. I don’t necessarily think these are the best movies of the last 10 year per se, I just think these are the ones we will show our kids when we want to tell them what it felt like to live in the first decade of the new millennium. Not all of them directly take on ‘how we live now’ or whatever. These are just the movies I feel like I’ll look to when I’m sitting in a hovering rocking chair in 50 years, looking for a celluloid bookmark.
1. The Bourne Identity series
One of the central innovations of action filmmaking in the ‘00s has been the dedication of writers and directors to taking their premises seriously. The genius of the Bourne movies is that they take a pulp premise—You wake up with amnesia! Gasp, you’re a superspy!—and ask ‘what if this actually happened?’
The Bourne movies doesn’t admit for a second that their premise is far-fetched. There’s no snappy sidekick, no meta-jokes for the audience’s benefit. The reason they work is that they put real people into these premises, and we watch how they live with it. Bourne doesn’t wisecrack, he doesn’t one-line before he kills the bad guy. He feels bad about what he does, and laments rather than celebrates the killings he performs. He is Oughties Man. He’s not only allowed to feel bad, he’s expected to.
Along with the dedication to their premise, the Bournes are a good example of the increasing TV-ization of the movies. Among all the sequels and serieses released in the ‘00s, few bother with the ‘last time on…’-style recaps of the previous films. They simply expect that you have seen them, and can keep up. The Bourne movies perform almost no hand-holding at all. Each movie is darker, more serious and less talky than the last. The Bourne Ultimatum probably has five lines of dialogue that aren’t a variation on ‘he’s on your left!’ or some other spatial declaration. The most devastating scene in the movie consists of two characters looking at each other in a diner.
2. Dancer in the Dark
In a decade where everyone from film students to Michael Bay got all shaky-cam on us, only a few movies actually used the technique to elicit any audience reaction beyond ‘get a fucking tripod!’
I’m not going to defend ‘Dancer in the Dark’s’ content. I know a lot of people who absolutely hate this movie, and most of their criticisms are valid. It is pretentious. The musical scenes are amateurish. The premise and ending—my God, that ending!—are mawkish and manipulative.
‘Dancer in the Dark’ succeeds or fails solely on whether you fall in love with the main character. If you do, none of those criticisms matter. The stylistic misfires of the decade (obtrusive handheldery, time shifts, CGI everything) failed because they thought ‘how did they do that?’ was an acceptable substitute for empathy.
‘Dancer in the Dark’ succeeds because, a week or a month after you see it, you don’t remember that it was grainy, or shaky, or that the actors didn’t wear makeup. You just remember the main character. And that fucking ending.
3. High Fidelity
Forty years after feminism, we’re still figuring out how to date each other in a world without door-holding and dad-meeting. ‘High Fidelity’ is the only romantic comedy this decade to actually address this. The movie opens with the two protagonists breaking up, and follow them as they date and fuck other people, humiliate themselves, and finally get back together because they don’t know how to be themselves with anyone else. It ends with cautious optimism (the opposite of the ‘oh shit what have we done’ shot at the end of The Graduate), and leaves them right where they started. This movie says more about modern relationships than a Mao army of Sandra Bullocks.
4. In the Loop
Here’s one! A movie takes on one of the major events of the decade. Wait, who’s it by? The Brits?!
This movie’s actually not on this list because it tells us anything new about Iraq. It’s actual content is pretty much coincidental. In the Loop is on this list because it lays bare the way that governments actually work in industrialized, middle-class nations. Not just the backroom handshakes, but the way that everyone’s concerns monolithically boil down to ‘what does this mean for me?’
Beyond the profanity and Brit-casm, the central joke of In the Loop is the bottomless selfishness of all of its characters. Everyone wants credit, everyone wants to hold the lever. And in the end, everyone ends up in an outcome they didn’t foresee or even particularly want.
I think I’m the only person in America who doesn’t like this movie. Most of ‘Borat’ felt to me like a mid-90s Tom Green sketch (‘let’s go ruin someone’s day!’), and the racism and homophobia he found in my home country just made me sick to my stomach.
For the purposes of this list, though, I can’t deny the huge paradigm shift that ‘Borat’ represents. All the 2.0-ish trends of the ‘00s—amateur media creation, YouTube, viral videos, post-modern satire (‘I’m making fun of racism by being racist! See?’)—it’s all here. Not to mention the cringe docu-comedy invented by the UK version of ‘The Office’ and perfected by the US version. I don’t ever want to see ‘Borat’ again, but if I was burying a time capsule, this would be the first DVD in it.
6. Donnie Darko
Behind all the mobius-stripping and clear-complexioned angst, ‘Donnie Darko’ succeeded by being the first movie of the ‘00s to really understand its audience. The first cult classic of the DVD era, ‘Donnie Darko’ unabashedly rewarded repeat viewings and channel-surfing attention spans. Most of the movie’s humor comes not from the writing but from the performances, and seems engineered to be pasted into your Facebook status (‘I’m beginning to doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion!’).
The movie’s poor critical reception and box-office failure almost add to its credibility. There’s always going to be movies that your parents don’t get. This was the first decade where you don’t need their permission.
7. Amores Perros
The apex of the ‘we’re all connected!’ trend. Temporal creativity and coincidence-hung plotlines eventually got played out, but ‘Amores Perros’ (and its brethren Memento and The Prestige) demonstrate the difference between technique and gimmick.
8. The Royal Tenenbaums
Instead of trying to come up with a name for this decade that plays on the numbers (oughties, naughties), can’t we just call it the Wes Anderson Decade? Anderson has made only four movies, and two of them were mediocre (I haven’t seen Fantastic Mr. Fox yet), but no one else has had bigger influence—or a more precise eye—for where we are aesthetically this decade. Too fastidious to be reality but too painstaking to be camp, the sets, costumes, cinematography, even the dialogue of every Wes Andersen movie has been a milestone. No one remembers much about the narratives, but the visuals have been the most admired—and imitated—of the last 10 years.
9. X2: X-Men United
Still the best comic book movie ever made (yeah, Dark Knight, I said it), and one of the only movies of the ‘00s to deal with the new paradigm of difference. The X-Men, in all their iterations, have always been a powerful metaphor for minorities and the way they see and are seen by the mainstream culture.
In the ‘90s, the battles over minorities mostly consisted of representation—are we in your movies and TV shows? How many of us? In the ‘00s, the battle over minorities seemed to consist of ‘now what?’ The major minority groups in America have gone through their Sydney Poitier phase in entertainment, and are ready for more nuanced portrayals. X2, took this seriously, and somehow found the vulnerable teenager underneath a blue-skinned, horned Canadian.
I wish there was another movie this decade that addressed this issue. I’d even take one without an airborne F-16 vs. lighting-bolt battle. But with a few small exceptions, X2 is the only movie to even attempt to unflinchingly depict a group of minorities and the way they struggle to fit in.
10. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep
If the ‘80s were the Me Decade, the ‘00s were the Meta Decade. The defining genre was the mixtape, the defining humor was snark, the defining pose was irony. In spite of our generation’s obsession with authenticity, no one has wanted to take anything particularly seriously for the last 10 years.
The Science of Sleep and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind weren’t the most realistic movies of the decade, but they were definitely the most earnest. The characters love and fuck and fail without showing any awareness of the cinematic-ness of it all. No one makes self-referential jokes or Dave Eggersly gazes at their navel. The soundtracks aren’t self-conscious or obtrusive. This systematic refusal to try and sum up the young people of this decade is what makes them so good at it.
11. Bad Santa
The end of the redemptive arc, finally!
In spite of its flaws, I’m a huge proponent of Bad Santa. After a childhood growing up on raunchy comedies that were only good until the spiky protagonist meets The Girl, it’s great to finally have a ‘scoundrel goes mainstream’ movie that doesn’t pussy out and turn the protagonist into a saint.
Yeah, yeah, Billy Bob Thornton gets marginally better at the end, and the movie has some misfires (midget jokes, really?), but you couldn’t pick a better mascot for the end of likability and relatability as prerequisites for main characters.
12. Gone Baby Gone
The only entertainment (other than ‘The Wire’) to grapple with the surrender of our inner cities. The urban experience in the ‘00s has been depicted as a problem that only social workers and SWAT teams are equipped to solve. ‘Gone Baby Gone’ exposes the slow-motion avalanche of failure in America’s inner cities, and how the ‘solutions’ from inside and outside only make the problem worse. In a decade where cities became stand-ins for coolness, ‘Gone Baby Gone’ reveals the deep dysfunction and cornered-eel sociopathy underneath the ‘urban’ pose that overtook our radios and TVs.
13. Half Nelson
As much as the ‘heroic teacher’ genre needed to be blown up in particular, this movie is also a good argument for the end of the role model generally. The idea of looking up to a specific person as a model somehow seems really … ‘80s now. The ‘00s taught us that everyone is fallible. The paparazzi ruined the celebrities, the courts ruined the sports stars and CNN ruined the politicians. ‘Half Nelson’ is about how our inspirations leave us lonely, and how we should never follow our heroes home.
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