15. The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, 2008)
The Wrestler, another true American chronicle, flows on nicely from Jesse James at #16 (though they’d make for a pretty dispiriting double bill). Mickey Rourke’s Randy the Ram, one of the finest characterisations of the 00s, knows that away from the bright lights of the ring he’s nothing. When he’s forced to give it up and work the punters from behind a supermarket deli counter, he finds the moves in real life aren’t choreographed to guarantee the right response; same goes for his varyingly unsuccessful attempts with women, including his own daughter. Aronofsky’s technique pulls us in close – much of the film is spent looking over Randy’s shoulder – and forces us to care about this sad, washed-up beast who ultimately becomes a truly tragic figure hung out to dry by an American society that no longer had a use for his fame.
Classic moment: With the sounds of the ring still echoing, Randy marches to his new work arena through cardboard boxes and crates rather than yelling fans and steam machines.
14. Adaptation. (Spike Jonze, 2002)
Charlie Kaufman’s meta-screenplays made him the closest thing to a celebrity screenwriter in the 00s. He will appear twice on this list and once on the Underrated list; first with Adaptation., a satisfying and surprisingly funny inversion of the writing/filmmaking process. I was among the few that found Being John Malkovich more self-indulgent than brilliant, but while Adaptation. is even more firmly focused on its maker, it actually tells a good story and never stops striving to entertain… and yes, I know those specific elements are supposed to be ironic references to the very horrors of Hollywood excess I banged on about in part 1, but when you have two Nicolas Cages at the top their game and a still-fresh director using all his talents to get the most out of an already remarkable script, how can you not be engaged?
Classic moment: Robert McKee, the world famous screenwriting guru, teaches Charlie Kaufman, the world’s most famous screenwriter, a lesson in his art.
13. Half Nelson (Ryan Fleck, 2006)
The most mature movie regarding drug abuse in the 00s was Half Nelson, the story of an inner-city schoolteacher who understands exactly how his addiction limits him but, in a world he knows is going to the dogs, lacks the motivation to kick it. Fleck and his partner Anna Boden hoped to wake a few people up from the apathy of modern life and, with Gosling’s fine performance, fashioned a unique and powerful voice in Dan Dunne, a schoolteacher who is already jaded in his mid twenties. As is so often the case it is the innocence of a young girl that gives him pause, but instead of getting lost in life lessons and forced interactions, the whole thing stays real from first to last. It’s sad that you can’t say that about too many recent films. I guess it just makes them even more precious when they come along.
Classic moment: Dan meets up with his ex-junkie girlfriend and, too strung out and nervous to focus, turns it into yet another display of obsessive self-awareness.
12. Downfall (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004)
Before it became one of the more famous internet memes in history, Downfall was the film about the fall of Nazi Germany and the last days of Hitler. It serves no great purpose to talk about its individual aspects, because all of them are so exceptional as to be unsuitable for holding up to scrutiny. While Downfall lacks the innovation of other films on this list, and thus places lower than my words might suggest, it gets inside its subject to a rare degree and appears to reflect absolutely the reality of what happened, why it happened, how it felt. It’s like nobody needs to make any more movies about Hitler’s bunker ever again because that movie, in all its sad and powerful glory, has already been made.
Classic moment: While saying goodbye to his staff, Hitler pauses poignantly at his terrified secretary Traudl Junge and gives her a smile which could almost be viewed as hopeful.
11. Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000)
Hello, superstar director. I remember when you made small-budget movies about the mind. Now you make mega-budget movies about the mind, and your impressive track record keeps you firmly entrenched as one of the very few hopes for a smart Hollywood (even if The Dark Knight, um, wasn’t actually that good). Still, I’d be very much surprised if you ever made anything that came close to this, a perfect triumph of ideas and thought through cheap sets, cheap locations and (then) cheap (though excellent) actors. The lessons of Memento about wilfully distorting one’s own reality have remained with me since that first baffling, exhilirating viewing, and I imagine I will struggle with them for the rest of my days. I’m sure that one of these days soon you’ll make a dud, a Christopher Nolan film that sucks, but it’s okay; I expect that. And all will be forgiven, as soon as I throw on the DVD and watch that Polaroid undevelop for the umpteenth time.
Classic moment: Leonard’s short-term memory loss causes him to forget why he’s running… at a particularly inopportune moment.