31 October 2007

The 21 Best Films of the 21st Century (English Language Division)

"What do you mean, he's not on the list? He's Zach Fucking Braff!"

And, so the best 21 films of our young decade, or century, or millennium, whichever you think most appropriate. I stuck to English language cinema because I know the score there better; most of my foreign language movie watching has sadly been confined to material decades old, so I felt it best to preclude any particularly glaring oversights that might betray my total ignorance in this regard. Hell, I probably screwed it up somehow anyway. Oh, and if you couldn't tell from the above caption, the absence of Garden State is not an omission on my part.

21. The Ring - Gore Verbinski (2002)

There are two movies that have the power to scare the piss out of me in my adult life: The Exorcist and Gore Verbinski's remake of the Japanese horror classic, Ringu. In this instance, Verbinski eschews the Hollywood tradition of mucking with great source material and remains faithful to the original, throwing in superb performances from Naomi Watts and Brian Cox and vastly improved special effects to boot. And his version of "the tape" is far scarier than the original.

20. The Proposition - John Hillcoat (2005)

The best Western of the decade thus far isn't even set in the American West; this one takes place in the Australian Outback, a place just as lawless and violent as anything John Ford or Sergio Leone ever imagined. The set-up is simple: outlaw Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce, perhaps the best underemployed leading man today) must betray his older brother Arthur to save his younger brother Mike. The execution is anything but, thanks to a serpentine screenplay by that old forked-tongue devil himself, Nick Cave. Terrific supporting performances by Danny Huston, Ray Winstone, and Emily Watson.

19. Old School - Todd Phillips (2003)

The Frat Pack paterfamilias, Old School has basically set the comedic tone for the decade by demolishing the wall that had evidently cordoned the sarcastic off from the juvenile since around the time of Ghostbusters. If you have Vince Vaughn, Will Ferrel, and a Wilson brother (Wedding Crashers proved that it doesn't matter which one), you probably have a hysterical movie. Add Ben Stiller, and, well, Results May Vary.

18. The Rules of Attraction - Roger Avary (2002)

Where the fuck were the critics on this one? Brilliant from top to bottom, starting off with three great leading performances (James Van Der Beek especially), every sharp narrative trick in the book (the rewind sequence at the beginning is particularly astonishing), and, hell, an awesome soundtrack. This is how you adapt Bret Easton Ellis, not that shit-eating grin of a "dark comedy" American Psycho. In other words, "criminally overlooked."

17. Catch Me If You Can - Steven Spielberg (2002)

Very quietly, Spielberg is continuing to burnish his credentials as a master filmmaker, producing the terrific Catch Me If You Can, War of the Worlds, and Munich (not to mention the controversial A.I. and split-decision Minority Report) this decade. I chose Catch Me If You Can for inclusion here because I feel that it is most representative of his best work: unlike other filmmakers who are constantly making their presence felt (for better or for worse), Spielberg's movies feel effortless - only upon further review does the intricacy of his efforts and breadth of his vision become evident. Also, not for nothing, but his movies aren't a chore to watch. Entertainment, people.

16. Shaun of the Dead - Edgar Wright (2004)

It's difficult to remember the last time someone made a comedy with this much emotional range, let alone a parody. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost play best friends caught in the midst of your garden-variety zombie invasion? infestation? At first, everything is played for laughs - in this movie zombies can't sprint after your terrified ass. But then as the blood begins to flow, our besieged hero is forced to shoot his zombified mother in the head, his chief human antagonist is graphically disemboweled, and his best friend is a sure goner. Then, in a hail of bullets, everything is back to laughs again. What a strange little movie.

15. Mysterious Skin - Gregg Araki (2004)

Along with Mark Ruffalo, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has emerged this decade as a great dark horse leading man, with stellar work Brick, The Lookout, and this film, in which he portrays a young gay hustler, Neil, whose life is fatefully intertwined with Brian (Brady Corbet), an introvert, when both are molested as children by their Little League coach. Neil's trauma resonates in his sexual risk taking and cold demeanor, while Brian represses the memory altogether, believing that his nosebleeds and memory lapses are the product of an alien abduction. Araki refuses to draw any easy lessons or proffer a clean moral, instead choosing to end his film with a gripping and grisly emotional climax that poses more questions than it answers.

14. Heist - David Mamet (2001)

Admittedly, Mamet's career as a director is pretty checkered, split between the imperfections (House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner), the movies nobody's seen (The Winslow Boy, Homicide), and the one everybody likes (State and Main). Only once have his talents as a screenwriter and interpreter of his own material perfectly jelled. Set in the criminal/con milieu where Mamet makes his bed, Heist is a genre piece all the way, with a million-dollar cast (Gene Hackman, Danny DeVito, Sam Rockwell, Ricky Jay, and Delroy Lindo) spouting dialogue so hot it's practically still on the griddle. "Everybody needs money. That's why they call it money." "You screw me on Wednesday, you screw me on Friday. I gotta go, I got my picture on a cereal box. " "She could talk her way out of a sunburn." Et cetera, et cetera.

13. The Incredibles - Brad Bird (2005)

When it comes to computer animation, there's Pixar, and then there's "when's Shrek 4 coming out?" Most kids films these days are an endless parade of fart jokes with a couple of over-their-heads-yet-wildly-inappropriate dick jokes thrown in for the parents. The Incredibles eschews this unfortunate trend by creating an interesting, smart, funny, heartfelt story that genuinely appeals to kids and adults instead of a 90 minute trailer for the DVD.

12. 24 Hour Party People - Michael Winterbottom (2003)

Steve Coogan plays Factory Records impresario Tony Wilson here as the not-quite-sainted fool, standing at the epicenter of a Manchester movement that would span the 1980s, from Joy Division/New Order post-punk to the Happy Mondays and the birth of rave culture. Wilson's reach always seemed to exceed his grasp ("Blue Monday" losing 5 pence per copy; the Hacienda bleeding thousands of pounds a month), but Winterbottom is rightfully empathetic, noting via Coogan that Wilson avoided the dilemma of selling out by having nothing, in the end, to sell. The movie is a celebration of a moment that has come and gone, and with Wilson now securely in the tomb, will never come again. I think.

11. All the Real Girls - David Gordon Green (2003)

Green's talent as a filmmaker lies in his feel for the authentic: everything in this movie feels like an intrusion, as though there is no possible way that something as intimate as the onscreen relationship between Paul Schneider and Zooey Deschanel could be remotely contrived. Boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl - the great emotional truth at the center of All the Real Girls is that something so simple never really is.

10. You Can Count on Me - Kenneth Lonergan (2000)

Blood is thicker than water, but how thick is blood exactly? When Terry blows into town to stay with his sister Samantha and her son, he continually pushes those limits to their breaking point, fucking up behind a cloud of pot smoke and a veil of mumbled whatevers. Anchored by Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo, You Can Count on Me is not a film about easy forgiveness, or the indestructible nature of the familial bond triumphing over all. In the end Terry is gone again, and though Samantha deeply loves him, she doesn't stop him from getting back on the bus.

9. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers - Peter Jackson (2002)

Only time will tell if the LOTR trilogy becomes a classic on par with the (first) Star Wars films; surely though, they are in the same ballpark. As with George Lucas' troika, the middle volume is the best - owing, perhaps, to the fact that the second act is always when the outcome is most in doubt and the final release remains far off in the distance. Ever since Braveheart, moviemakers have felt the need to recreate William Wallace's/Mel Gibson's rousing horseback speech to the troops ("They can never take OOOUR FREEEDOM!!!"). Peter Jackson goes the opposite route, letting audiences soak in the silent tension as tens of thousands of Orcs assemble for the climactic Battle of Helm's Deep. I needn't tell you which is more effective.

8. Control - Anton Corbijn (2007)

The most recent addition to this list, but I don't think I'll regret including it, give or take a few spots. Control is the kind of movie that leaves its thumbprint on your imagination, and I imagine that its stature will grow in the coming years as people start to fit it into the proper cinematic and intellectual traditions. Well, do yourself a favor and don't wait until they bag it, tag it, and put it on a shelf. The best rock and roll movie of the 21st century thus far.

7. Brick - Rian Johnson (2005)

Chinatown set in a public high school in an anonymous Southern California suburb. Yes, it could have been a two hour long Max Fischer play, but thanks to a fantastic script and yet another tremendous performance from Gordon-Levitt, it's the kind of movie that sucks you completely into its world without a backwards glance. Even if the whole set-up is kind of preposterous in retrospect.

6. United 93 - Paul Greengrass (2006)

Future generations may be able to watch Paul Greengrass' film with sufficient detachment to judge it based upon its cinematic merits, both as document of 9/11, and as a thriller, which it technically is. For those of us who witnessed the terrorist attacks, however, it is a surreal experience, reawakening those initial feelings of shock, confusion, and horror, as the terrorists' plot unfolded for the entire world to see. It's not a question of whether or not Greengrass handles his delicate subject tastefully; he barely handles it at all. United 93 comments on nothing, simply recounting events as they happened, thereby trapping us, helpless to stop it from happening again.

5. In the Bedroom - Todd Field (2001)

In an instant, everything can change; when the Fowlers' son is senselessly murdered, their picture-perfect life is completely eviscerated, and, in a sense, In the Bedroom is one long, painful denouement. That the film is bearable at all is due to the absolutely masterful performances of Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek, who wear their characters' grief with terrifying realism. The most emotionally brutal film in recent memory.

4. A History of Violence - David Cronenberg (2005)

"It's easy to lose sight of the fact we're talking about the destruction of a body and a unique human, whose experiences are never to be replicated again. I want the audience to take it as seriously as I do." At its most basic level, A History of Violence is David Cronenberg's thesis on cinematic violence and how we as an audience interpret and respond to it. The plot is a notch above B-movie fare: a man is forced to defend his family against a bunch of ruthless gangsters who believe that he was formerly an associate of theirs. Traditionally, we would be expected to solidly identify with Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) and applaud his actions as he maims and kills his assailants. Yet, the brutality of the violence shown in the film, and its effect on Stall and his family runs contrary to our expectations; even if we're not being directly accused of anything, we feel complicit nonetheless.

3. Mulholland Drive - David Lynch (2001)

In retrospect Mulholland Drive seems simple: the first half of the film is Naomi Watts' fantasy of Hollywood, and the second is the reality. That is, of course, if you ignore the cowboy. Or the bizarre homeless guy behind the Winkie's. Or the little blue box. So on and so forth. David Lynch's films have always been expressionist in nature: really, it's just best to sit back and let them wash over you. And if you thought this one was tough, wait 'til you see Inland Empire.

2. Children of Men - Alfonso Cuaron (2006)

Apocalypse Now with an actual apocalypse, Children of Men, like many great works of science fiction, is best understood as a summation of the anxieties of its time. Terrorism, illegal immigration, war, and the police state all put in their appearances, but chief above all is our fear that our society, our civilization is in an inexorable state of collapse. Cuaron's film is a Hell House, taking us on a tour of a not-too-distant future so realistic that it may only be a dirty bomb away. Incredibly intense; we left the theater fearing snipers.

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - Michel Gondry (2004)

It's as if somebody dared Charlie Kaufman to dream up the most convoluted way possible of saying "true love conquers all." Barring the incredible "memory erasure" framing device, Eternal Sunshine is a powerful deconstruction of all the ways that our tics and petty jealousies can conspire to destroy our relationships, and exactly how small all of it seems compared to what was lost. A beautiful, inventive film highlighted by the finest performance of Jim Carrey's career, Kaufman's wonderfully humane screenplay, and Michel Gondry's boldly impressionistic visual technique.

Honorable mentions: The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson; 2001), The Departed (Martin Scorsese; 2006), War of the Worlds (Steven Spielberg; 2005), 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle; 2003), The Aviator (Martin Scorsese; 2004), Moulin Rouge (Baz Luhrmann; 2001), Ocean's Eleven (Steven Soderbergh; 2001), Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (George Clooney; 2002), Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola; 2006), Jarhead (Sam Mendes; 2005), Adaptation (Spike Jonze; 2002), A Scanner Darkly (Richard Linklater; 2006), Zodiac (David Fincher; 2007), Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino; 2003-04), Sideways (Alexander Payne; 2004)