Let’s face it, movies are getting worse all the time. Louder, dumber, more willing to dispense technology or other fakery in place of humanity – and I don’t only mean Hollywood. Amid the neverending glut of big-budget sequels, unnecessary remakes and too-smart-for-you indies, adequate images and the valuation of ideas are more desperately needed than ever. I’ve begun to feel like the film industry is on an inexorable slide into perfectly clean banality, in which every film fits a predefined set of requirements and caters to a specifically identified market.
The 00s were beset with numerous travesties, many that aspired to greatness, some that were still widely praised despite their ineptitude or hollowness. I fear the 10s will be decidedly worse, though the surprisingly enjoyable Avatar heralds the potential of a new dawn. Come on, who doesn’t love an enormous, outrageously expensive movie about our need to have love for one another? I’m serious. I wish more directors afforded astronomical budgets would have the stones to make something with true heart.
Still, good directors always seem to find a way to make good films, and sometimes great ones. I saw hundreds of films in the 00s; a good number stood out. Here are the ones that affected me most. Like the music list, I’m going by the one director – one movie rule, and I could mention several that I wish could occupy a place on the list. They would include: Good Night, and Good Luck., Spirited Away, Brokeback Mountain, Donnie Darko, Amores Perros, Traffic, Children of Men, Once, High Fidelity, Syriana, Mulholland Dr. and 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days. The 20 that follow managed to somehow reach a level slightly above these just mentioned and, to my mind, anything else released in the 00s.
20. In My Father’s Den (Brad McGann, 2004)
Like the music list, my top 20 begins with a New Zealand success. Lest you think I’m showing undue favour to my homeland, In My Father’s Den could have come out of Nicaragua and it would still figure here. With Matthew Macfadyen’s 00s-defining performance as a base, McGann – making what sadly proved to be his only feature – crafts an intricate, smart and powerful story which implies plenty about small towns not just in Nu Zild, but everywhere. Up there in the pantheon of NZ’s best contributions to cinema.
Classic moment: “Is that why you push people away?” Celia’s innocent question provokes an alarming response from Paul, until he factors in her naïveté.
19. My Summer of Love (Pawel Pawlikowski, 2004)
For some reason, Pawlikowski has not directed again since this meditative stunner, and more’s the pity. My Summer of Love represented a firm expression of his accumulated filmmaking ideals over a decade of documentary production and his previous Last Resort. What starts out as a dreamy, intimate portrait of holiday romance – crossing the class divide, naturally, but with the twist of being between two teenage girls – grows ever more claustrophobic and questioning of its characters’ often murky motivations. Nathalie Press and (now mega-famous) Emily Blunt made for one of the best couples of the 00s, and Paddy Considine – the Best Actor of his Generation – is his usual brilliant self. Pawlikowski remains the star, though, marrying a freeform visual aesthetic and a great soundtrack to a deeper-than-you-might-think story whose power lies in its realistic telling.
Classic moment: Phil (Considine), having given all he has to try and stay on God’s path, finally ‘goes dark’.
18. Ratatouille (Brad Bird, 2007)
In the staggering – yet somehow deserved – hype that surrounded WALL-E and Up towards the end of the 00s, Pixar’s most satisfying creation yet seems to have been forgotten somewhat. That’s the curse of quality, though, with Pixar churning out classic after classic to become the exceptional production house of modern cinema. Where do they get their ideas? And how did they charm me with a story that sounds so stupid on paper? Quite simply, through a love of film and a scarcely believable attention to detail. I remember, on my first viewing of Ratatouille, forgetting that it was an animation and paying more attention to the marvellous composition of each shot. Nothing less than a miracle, the only thing keeping it from marching up the list is its lack of lasting impact, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I ranked it higher and higher as each year passes.
Classic moment: With one bite, Anton Ego hurtles back in time to his mother’s dinner table and the tastes and memories of his childhood.
17. 24 Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom, 2002)
It all started with a sparsely attended Sex Pistols concert in ’76, heading on through a contract written in blood, on-stage faints, suicide to Stroszek, attempted murder, innumerable ego clashes and a £30,000 table… but how much of it is true? The story of Tony Wilson and Factory Records as told in 24 Hour Party People is a postmodern treat and one of the funniest films I’ve seen, a monument at least to good storytelling, ensemble acting and taking measured directorial risks – if not a monument to transparent fact. Still, as Coogan’s Wilson quotes in the film, “if it’s a choice between the truth and the legend, print the legend.”
Classic moment: The soon-to-be-important figures are introduced at the Sex Pistols gig, with a glorious slow-motion close-up of John the Postman, one of the lesser lights.
16. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007)
If there’s one film of the 00s that I suspect will grow and grow in stature over the coming decades as it is reconsidered outside the context of its initial release, it’s this one. Coming just in advance of two hotly anticipated, superficially similar films – the somewhat overrated No Country for Old Men and worthy There Will Be Blood – most folks weren’t prepared for a slow-burning, philosophical Western in which ideas took precedence over gunplay. Jesse James never really stood a chance. But what ideas! It is a meditation on both celebrity and criminality, a sharp and serious criticism of American idol worship that shows it to be a far-from-modern phenomenon. This dedication to thought and atmosphere will distinguish the film as a work of art and set it apart as time passes. Indeed, had I myself seen it more than once, I wouldn’t have been all surprised to see it occupy a much higher place on this list.
Classic moment: Jesse James’ emotion gets the better of him as he attempts to confront his growing paranoia.
For #15-11, click here.