I love talking about movies almost as much as I love watching them, so the chance to share my list of favorites of the past decade is really the hope for more conversation. The films on my list (below) are mostly those I’ve watched more than once, and will likely watch again. This was the decade that married movie-watching with instant gratification—DVD, DVR, Netflix. I probably saw more movies in the last ten years than I’d seen in the previous twenty, and I saw them when I wanted to see them. I recently came home from a screening of Nine, trying to remember 8 1/2, the Fellini film on which Nine was loosely based but which I hadn’t seen since college. I went to Netflix, clicked a link and was watching a streamed version of 8 1/2 within minutes. Seeing the source so quickly changed what I thought of the newer film; suddenly they were in conversation with each other (or in battle maybe, with a clear, classic victor).
The other reason list-making appeals to me is that it provides me with a picture of what I value. Turns out that films that put sexuality in the forefront are a big deal to me, which probably isn't a surprise to anyone who's read my fiction. Also making a big showing are films about self-discovery—whether the full-on emo blast of Into the Wild, or the halting, semi-satirical Year of the Dog. At the same time, I’m clearly drawn to the collective story—interwoven plot strands with multiple protagonists—a genre that emerged strongly over the last ten years, abetted by increasingly sophisticated editing technology. In different ways, films in this genre—the documentary-ish quality of Shortbus, the internationalism of Babel or the sitcom-writ-large that is Happy Endings—seemed to say that no one story tells the whole story, in a world that keeps getting smaller.
I recognize that I haven’t seen everything, and that my taste has its limits. Certain genres I don’t seek out, like horror or action, and I definitely favor American indie dramas and comedies, with a good dose of documentary and foreign films in the mix. In my first version of this list, I had almost 100 entries, but that seemed like overkill on one hand and cowardice—failure to take a stand—on the other. Going out on a limb a little more boldly, I humbly offer my top 20 movies of the '00s.
1. Shortbus (2006). A film that was absolutely of its time, and also ahead of the curve for critics and some audiences, Shortbus documented the emotional life of the artistic and sexual underground (in NYC) during a decade when art and sex were under a constant dulling threat from mass culture. John Cameron Mitchell, whose Hedwig and the Angry Inch could have easily been on this list, too, was the director, guiding a cast of unknowns through sexually graphic, emotionally raw performances as potent as any of the star turns on this list.2. Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001). A young man’s education, times two, in which the bounds of friendship were tested, enhanced and ultimately broken by physical intimacy. Alfonso Cuarón’s film helped put one of my favorite stars, Gael Garcia Bernal, on the map. (Gael features in three of my top 20, making him my #1 crush.) This was also my favorite of a really great crop of films from Mexico. Nearly 10 years later, it already seems like a classic.
3. Far From Heaven (2002). Todd Haynes was a cherished director in the previous decade, with films like Poison and Safe. In this one, he used a bigger budget to show his intimate understanding of the melodramas of the 1950s, ala Douglas Sirk, and managed to create from old conventions something that felt really new. His leading lady, Julianne Moore, was at her peak here; hers is probably my favorite female performance of the last ten years.
4. Lust, Caution (2007). Ang Lee might be the director of the decade, beginning with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and building up to the phenomenon of Brokeback Mountain. But it was this film about covert action in revolutionary China that really blew me away. The story of a female spy whose relationship to the man she is supposed to kill actually brings on her own demise, it is troubling and upsetting and a masterpiece of characterization and tension. And the sex scenes, I mean, wow.5. Into the Wild (2007). What does it mean to be young and want to rebel when the world seems to offer so few outlets? Can you destroy expectations without destroying yourself? This film took all of that on with great visual style and emotional impact. Sean Penn directed a brilliant performance from Emile Hirsch as a real-life suburban kid who leaves it all behind to disappear into the Alaskan wilderness, as foolish as he is brave.
6. Babel (2006). The political is personal in this film that skips across borders and continents, depicting how the lives of strangers are inextricably linked in our “globalized” world. This film has more memorable scenes than I have room to name—the ecstasy trip in Tokyo through the eyes of a deaf girl; the Mexican nanny (the amazing Adriana Barraza) deported by Homeland Security; the American husband in Northern Africa (an awesome Brad Pitt) trying to save his wife after she’s hit by a stray bullet. Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who made two other really great films, Amores Perros (2000) and 21 Grams (2003).7. Year of the Dog (2007). I wish everyone would see this bittersweet film, with Molly Shannon breaking from her SNL persona ("I'm fifty!") to deliver a surprising, tender and heartbreaking performance, about a loner trying to survive the death of a beagle named Pencil and transforming into an animal rights activist. Mike White, who wrote the twisted Chuck and Buck (2000), wrote and directed this one, keeping a tonal balance between sentiment and satire. Peter Sarsgaard is one of many great supporting actors here, playing a sexually ambiguous dog trainer.
8. I Heart Huckabees (2004). At some point in the middle of the decade, everyone I knew was in a Bush-induced depression. This film seemed to encapsulate that mood and mindset perfectly. Jason Schwartzman goes on a quest to solve his existential angst, wanting to overcome helplessness (he doesn’t) and understand if coincidence means synchronicity or randomness (hmm…). Mark Wahlberg steals the show hitting Jason Schwartzman in the face with a big red rubber ball. Sidebar: Director David O. Russell became notorious for his on-set screaming at Lily Tomlin, a hissyfit that we all got to watch online—a very emblematic 00’s moment.
9. The Cockettes (2002). The documentary that reinvigorated the idea of the counterculture in a decade that tried to destroy it. My friend, director David Weissman, unearthed the surviving members of the early '70s San Francisco hippie-drag-acidhead theater collective to tell a story of art, freedom and survival. The glittery effects of this film will be felt for years in the worlds of performance and fashion and communities where personal expression is paramount.10. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). How does the imagination survive under tyranny? Using the fantasies of a very young girl as a springboard, director Guillermo del Toro produced some of the most visually arresting images in any film, period, proving that special effects can be used for something more personal than exploding things in outer space or Middle Earth.
11. Before Night Falls (2000). Painter Julian Schnabel proved he was a great film director when he made stirring art out of the heroic life of gay writer Reinaldo Arenas, nobly brought to life by Javier Bardem. Arenas, who survived imprisonment and forced labor in Castro’s Cuba only to die of AIDS in NYC, was a prolific novelist, poet and memoir writer who still has much to teach us. His work will likely stay in print thanks to this film. (Bonus: Johnny Depp as a drag queen smuggling contraband inside her butt. Hey-ey!)
12. Mysterious Skin (2004). Joseph Gordon Leavitt rightfully became a star in this enthralling performance as a gay kid fucked up by, but also liberated by, surviving childhood abuse. Scott Heim’s beautifully written novel was masterfully handled by Gregg Araki, whose direction had never seemed so right as it did in this film.13. Adaptation (2002). Charlie Kaufman’s hilarious script, directed by Spike Jonze, turned Susan Orleans’ book The Orchid Thief into an absurdist take on writer’s block, complete with a (rare) great performance by Nicolas Cage playing both Kaufman and a fictional twin brother. Meryl Streep was at her best in a decade where she seemed all but unstoppable. I loved Kaufman’s brilliant Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), too, but this comedic treatment of the horrors of the writing life hit close to home.
14. Bad Education (2004). How does Pedro Almodovar keep making so many excellent films? Does it have something to with the way financing flows to filmmakers in Spain, or is it simply his pure talent and tenacity? I also adored Volver (2006), and I liked a lot of Talk to Her (2002), but this one, with its queer mystery plot, is the one I hold most dear. Oh yeah, there’s also Gael Garcia Bernal showing lots of skin. Mucho gracias.
15. Milk (2008). The biopic trend has become overbearing, but this film was more than just the life-story of gay hero Harvey Milk. It put the struggle for LGBT equality into historical context at exactly the right moment. And—often overlooked—it was a really varied piece of filmmaking: the multiplying split-screen telephone conversations, the strobe-lit Coors boycott, the pressurized come-out-to-your-parents phone call (an homage to The Boys in the Band). Director Gus Van Sant made five other films in the last ten years (!), including the mesmerizing Gerry (2002), Elephant (2003), and Last Days (2005). Milk bonus: my very own handsome husband was an onscreen extra cruising Sean Penn in a coffee shop. That’s right, baby…
16. Me, You and Everyone We Know (2005). Director and star Miranda July’s take on the interwoven-cast-of-characters was like a series of linked short stories—no surprise, since she also wrote one of the best books of the decade, the short story collection No One Belongs Here More Than You. The tone here is so gentle it’s almost a whisper, but at times the comedy is outrageously funny. Extra points for best (mis)use of emoticons in any movie ever: ))<>((
17. Once (2006). An Irish guy playing music on the street; a Czech woman with a broken vacuum; a not-quite love story, with music. Really lovely music. This was one of those came-out-of-nowhere films, with unknown stars and an unknown director (John Carney, from Ireland), that just knocked out everyone who saw it with its quiet, honest, believable depiction of the lives of ordinary, nearly invisible people. It also had really great music. Remember the enthusiasm of the stars when they won the Best Song Oscar? I still get choked up thinking about it.
18. The Squid and the Whale (2005). Seems like it’s rarer and rarer to get an American film made about a simple story—a marriage falling apart, rebound love, the kids discovering sex in the midst of adult turmoil, etc. But Noah Baumbach did it, and beautifully. Who can forget the dad (Jeff Daniels, in a perfect performance), playing the most inappropriately aggressive game of tennis; or the older brother (Jesse Eisenberg) pretending that Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” is a song he wrote; or the younger brother (Owen Kline) who, having learned to jerk off, starts wiping his semen everywhere he goes...?
19. Happy Endings (2005). Writer/director Don Roos gave us a great comic ensemble making the most out of interwoven romances and relationships in flux. I love everyone in this cast: Lisa Kudrow, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Steve Coogan, Jesse Bradford, Bobby Cannavale and—a great surprise—Tom Arnold. There’s also Josh Ritter, who’s adorable, as a kid trying to come out, and a subplot involving gay couples trying to procreate, a subject that was very much at the center of the world I lived in over the past ten years, though happily not as messed up as in this charming movie.
20. Man on Wire (2008). The film that seemed to speak most deeply to the losses felt by New Yorkers after 9/11 never mentioned 9/11 at all. This documentary, directed by James Marsh, about the adventurous spirit of prankster Philippe Petit, who tightrope-walked between the Twin Towers in 1974, was pure, joyous entertainment.
Honorable Mention: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. There was a moment in 2004 when I was laid up with the flu and my only relief was watching the first three films in this series. It was a slow build, but by the end of #3 (Prisoner of Azkaban), I was hooked. My favorite of the bunch is #4, the Mike Newell-directed Goblet of Fire, with its eye-popping Quidditch World Cup, its edge-of-the-seat underwater race, and the terrifying appearance of Voldemort in the final moments. Dismissed as kid stuff and ignored by the Oscars, these films have been one of my steadiest (least) guilty pleasures. Here’s to (big-budget) magic.
So there you go. What are you favorites? What on this list do you love, or hate? Which of my fixations do you share? Converse.