The 00s: Film (Fiction) – 10-6

10. Sur mes lèvres (Read My Lips) (Jacques Audiard, 2001)

From one of the most consistently fascinating directors around came this riveting, subtle yarn of two individuals who could never have expected to fit together. Carla (Emmanuelle Devos) is a put-upon secretary whose near-deafness is viewed as a crutch, both by her associates and by herself; Paul (Vincent Cassel) is a greasy ex-con trying to get a start in the legal economy. If the tagline – “She teaches him good manners; he teaches her bad ones” – isn’t tantalising enough, there is a charged passion and emotion that builds through the film to a heart-in-mouth, near-silent climax and a perfect postscript. This is one of those films that it’s just so hard to find any fault with; it’s also a damned fine thriller in its own right.
Classic moment: An extraordinary, protracted scene of lip-reading that is almost too tense to bear.

9. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)

Charlie Kaufman was the celebrity screenwriter of the 00s. Films like Adaptation. and Synecdoche, New York showed that there are still new things to be done (and done very well) in mainstream cinema, but Eternal Sunshine represented the most balanced harmony yet realised from a Kaufman script. It was the perfect marriage between his crushing cynicism and Michel Gondry’s playful, childlike aesthetic, and with great acting across the board, including the best turn of Jim Carrey’s career, this love story of memories, disappointments and ultimately hope had a unique shine. It reminds me of how unusual it is to see recognisable characters up on the screen – people you can identify strongly with, and feel like you’ve met before. If the characters have a somewhat defeatist attitude, it’s because that’s what Kaufman sees all around him in an age of short attention spans and hurried divorces.
Classic moment: Joel wakes up – again – to the tune of Jon Brion’s wonderful score, and the narrative threads start to connect.

8. City of God (Fernando Meirelles, 2002)

When City of God burst onto the screen in front of a packed house at the Christchurch Film Festival in 2003, that now-iconic blade sharpening and running chicken made everyone shut up and pay attention. When we emerged a little over two hours later, the dynamic storytelling of Meirelles’ film had rendered the real world toothless and banal, as if everything was in slow motion – our own lives so much less interesting after witnessing those played out in the favekas of Rio de Janeiro. The kids, the gangs, the violence… it was so different, so brutal and alive. It was, as Empire magazine put it, ‘at once a laboratory for cinema technique and a victory for raw heart… a snot-nosed, blood-stained masterpiece’.
Classic moment: The motel murderer is revealed in truly chilling fashion.

7. Dogville (Lars von Trier, 2003)

von Trier was probably the decade’s most controversial director, serving up Dancer in the Dark, Manderlay, Antichrist and Dogville – all fascinating works that completely polarised critical opinion. Those that liked him couldn’t get enough of him; those that didn’t truly detested him, leading to press conferences of an almost threatening tone (3:50 in this clip). I’m firmly in the former camp: his films are the work of an artistic genius, bursting with ideas that go against the grain of popular thought, and Dogville is his most triumphant statement – both artistically and philosophically – yet. Shot on a barren soundstage, it tells the story of a woman on the run from gangsters who is sheltered in a tiny village; this being a von Trier film, things do not go well. Far from being the anti-American statement so many made it out to be, this is a story that speaks to the whole of humanity and to the close-minded nature we all have in some way or another. The final scenes are some of the most truthful, and gripping, of the decade.
Classic moment: The gangsters catch up with Grace, and the boss tells her she has a tough lesson to learn.

6. Irréversible (Gaspar Noé, 2002)

While I’m on the subject of controversial films, this… is about as controversial as the 00s got. Told in reverse, this is the story of a rape and a murder, and both scenes are protracted, graphically detailed and almost impossible to watch. Still, Noé’s aim isn’t merely to shock. The film works on a number of levels: the nature of the beast within, the dynamics of human relationships, our voyeurism as filmgoers, the capability of CGI and special effects to enhance a cinema experience, and of course the film’s central conceit: that ‘time destroys everything’. Were it structured solely around those two scenes, it would be more of an interesting if off-putting experiment; however, with a third act in which the previously dizzying camera slows down and shows real-life husband and wife Vincent Cassel (that man again) and Monica Bellucci canoodling during a lazy morning in bed – the opposite of those earlier scenes – Irréversible is elevated to an uncommonly high level. At the same time it’s a film I hesitate to recommend to anyone, as it’s the most realistically violent film I’ve seen save The Passion of the Christ, but those who come to it with an open mind and a good deal of mental preparedness will likely be rewarded. It made me feel physically sick, and haunted me for weeks, but I left the cinema in stunned admiration.
Classic moment: The two friends go on a horrible, disorienting odyssey through the gay nightclub ‘Rectum’, searching for Alex’s rapist.

<< #15-#11 || #5-#2 (coming soon) >>

The 00s: Film (Documentary) – 5-1

5. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (Kurt Kuenne, 2008)

Nothing can really prepare you for Dear Zachary, short of reading and digesting the entire plot summary before diving in.  For those easily upset, I would recommend doing this, or perhaps steering clear completely.  It is director Kuenne’s version of the events surrounding the death of his close childhood friend Dr. Andrew Bagby at the hands of a woman named Dr. Shirley Turner, and his effort to record as much of Bagby’s life as possible for his yet-to-be-born son, Zachary.  As such, the film is a completely subjective account, following Kuenne’s race around North America and England trying to capture people’s memories on tape, following his own emotions and mood through a variety of notable editing choices.  This was the most impassioned film I saw in the 00s.  Again, be warned: you’ll never be the same afterwards, especially if you have kids of your own.

4. Dark Days (Marc Singer, 2000)

Singer, an untrained filmmaker who hasn’t directed since, was drawn by the plight of the homeless living in a New York City Amtrak subway tunnel, and decided to help them by making a film with them that would get them out.  What resulted was a fascinating ethnographic document, superbly shot on black and white and scored by DJ Shadow, depicting real lives as lived and proving that in a lot of ways, these guys are just like us.  While it’s surprising to see how well some of these guys can live, you’re aware that every single day is another struggle, wracked with uncertainty.  This is a film which helps the viewer to see an oft-maligned section of society with fresh eyes.  Watch the first 10 minutes here.

3. Spellbound (Jeffrey Blitz, 2002)

Spelling bees seem to me a very American institution, so it isn’t too surprising that a film following eight teenagers in their quest to win the National Spelling Bee would play like such a chronicle of the American Dream.  There are the immigrants – the Indians (so many) and Mexicans; there is the white bread girl from Connecticut; there is the loner from Missouri; there is the ADHD wunderkind from New Jersey; there is the inner-city black girl from DC.  All have their own, fascinating stories, with widely varying ideas of what the word ‘success’ means, and as we grow to know and love them, the tension of the finals becomes almost unbearable.  I remember feeling bathed in a sweet glow of hopes and dreams afterwards, and in a way, I hoped that these kids would never grow up.

2. Anything by Adam Curtis (Century of the Self, The Power of Nightmares, The Trap)

Some films are ‘important’; Adam Curtis’ films, on the other hand, are absolutely essential.  Cutting deep into the building blocks of society and finding patterns everywhere, Curtis tackles subjects as monumental as the transition of Western thought from community-based to individual-based, or the political shift from promoting positive freedom to promoting negative freedom.  Curtis’ approach is fact-based, backed up by archive footage found after months of trawling the BBC’s archives, and the results are surprisingly entertaining once you get used to the format.  More than that, though, his films are eye-openers in every sense of the word, and I would personally say that they have changed the way I see the world.  If I had to single one out for higher praise, the four-hour Century of the Self is probably the one that impressed me most.  All are available for free online here.  Do yourself a favour and check them out.

1. Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2005)

With his majestic Grizzly Man, Herzog’s soothing Bavarian voice pretty much sums up life, the universe and everything.  Timothy Treadwell is his subject, a man who rejected society and turned to bears, and like many of the films on this list, the fascinations of Herzog’s work are largely psychological: what led Treadwell to this fate?  What does he truly believe?  How much of his reality is a delusion?  Herzog confronts the abyss as he so often does – with a grave but knowing outlook – and explains to us what we see.  You’ll laugh, and you may cry; you’ll surely be riveted by an incredible subject, and truly great filmmaking.  This is a film that would place at or near the top of any decade list.  Part 1 is here.

To go back to the previous part, the intro & #10-6, click here.

The 00s: Film (Documentary) – Intro and 10-6

When it comes to the line between fiction and documentary film, I agree with Werner Herzog: such a line is unnecessary, and essentially imaginary.  Separating them as fabrication and fact takes something away from both: the truth that can be captured in a story written and performed well, and the art exercised by a director presenting the beauty of real events.  A far more worthwhile approach is to consider both simply as films.  You can learn as much about yourself watching a film from a Charlie Kaufman script as you can be entertained by Michael Moore polemic, right?  And anyway, when you have people like Herzog mixing truth and untruth in all of his films – documentary or otherwise – to quite magical effect, it is sometimes impossible to choose which category the film you’re watching belongs in.

Nevertheless, bookstores need sections to separate one genre from another, and blogs do too.  So here we are.

The 00s brought much wider recognition and appreciation for documentary cinema, and I would suggest two chief factors in this.  The first is called Bowling for Columbine, and I’ll talk more about that further down the page.  The second is called the Internet, opening up a massive global audience for all kinds of films and an ideal platform for docs – the proliferation of other media and information online makes it quick and easy to obtain as much or as little information about something as you would care to.  Added to that, making a film is much simpler nowadays with digital video and cheap and powerful editing software, so legions of budding filmmakers are able to produce something for nothing and then put it online for the world to see.

I’m one of those budding filmmakers.  Here are ten documentary films produced in the 00s which eventually inspired me to get started on my own movie (coming soon, watch this space…)

10. Jackass Number Two (Jeff Tremaine, 2006)

Weren’t expecting that, were you?  The Wikipedia page states, “Jackass Number Two is a compilation of various stunts, pranks and skits, and essentially has no plot.”  A remarkable document of extreme behaviour, voyeurism and (arguably) Dadaism, it is also one of the most entertaining films of the 00s – but only if you have the stomach to watch Steve-O attach a leech to his eyeball, or Chris Pontius insert his penis into a snake’s cage.

9. Darwin’s Nightmare (Hubert Sauper, 2004)

Perhaps the 00s’ most depressing film; certainly the one which made me feel most sick and sad at the state of the world and the human race.  Lake Victoria used to be a typical African lake, basically as it would have been millennia ago, until Europeans introduced the Nile perch – a particularly large and tasty fish – into its waters.  Within years the ecological balance became completely unhinged, and as this film shows, the ripples reach out from the water and into the lives of every person living in the area.  While I sometimes pine for those innocent days of ignorance before I saw Darwin’s Nightmare, this is a desperately important film that everyone who professes to care about their fellow man owes it to themselves to see.

8. Waves (Li Tao, 2005)

Read my full review for a closer look, but where sweeping statements are concerned, it isn’t too much of a stretch to say that this effort from first-time director Li Tao was the most enlightening and inspiring film to come out of New Zealand in the 00s.  If nothing else, it was certainly the most moving, and offered a restrained yet deeply intimate portrait of the life of teenaged Chinese going to school abroad.  This is something that happens everywhere from Wellington to Washington, and Tao has made the film about the experience.  After seeing it, I prayed that it would reach as wide an audience as possible so the greatest number of eyes could be opened, and minds broadened.  The DVD can be ordered here.

7. Bowling for Columbine (Michael Moore, 2002)

Bowling for Columbine was the film that brought documentaries (back?) into the mainstream.  Grossing millions and garnering an Oscar, it cut a swathe through the film market and brought the masses to see that they could be entertained as they were being informed.  In many cases, it showed people such as myself that there are alternatives to mainstream media.  Its biggest impact, however, was probably to promote Moore’s personality to the point where his next film would gross over US$100 million – staggering for a ‘documentary’ – and his movements and polemic became worldwide current events.  In the wake of its cultural relevance, it might be easy to forget how good Columbine is; while Moore occasionally messes with the truth in order to keep the viewer hooked, he crafts a superb viewing experience that keeps you amused, shocked and riveted for the duration.  The best moment comes when Marilyn Manson has his turn to speak and, with no pomp whatsoever, quietly sums up the entire movie.

6. DiG! (Ondi Timoner, 2004)

Truly demonstrating the benefit of hard work and dedication, Timoner spent seven years following The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre and managed to edit weeks of footage into DiG!, one of the best films about music.  It has at its centre the towering talents and ego of Anton Newcombe, who would surely be a bigger star than the Dandies’ chiselled frontman, Courtney Taylor-Taylor, if he followed his rival’s music business motto: “if it’s good, it’s fun; if it’s bad, it’s funny”.  The film follows as the two bands start off as close friends, living and jamming together, then steadily drift apart under the gaze of Newcombe’s increasingly unhinged wild grin.  Tambourine player Joel Gion’s perpetually amused attitude is a joy for every moment that he’s on screen.

For the second half of the list, click here.

The 00s: Overlooked or Underrated Films – Part 2

I realised as I was writing up Part 1 that the films on this list may be overlooked or underrated, but none of them are obscure.  Indeed, they are all basically American movies.  I guess that reflects how many films are made in America, and particularly how many of them come to global attention; as a result, there are more American films that slip by without due notice.  Fortunately, I have a sieve.  Onward…

Miami Vice (Michael Mann, 2006)
Collateral, as Mann’s first DV-at-night opus, won the plaudits, but while the foundation of Miami Vice – its script – is shakier and less balanced than the handheld camerawork, for me it is a much better film.  If you are a viewer who appreciates grand moments or, as Herzog puts it, ‘adequate images‘, this epic ode to mateship and violence satisfies for its entire running time.  Strangely for a big-budget buddy action movie, it has more in common with Le Cercle Rouge than Bad Boys 2… though there are elements of both styles at work here.  Watch it with an open mind and try to not to worry about the plot, which really is just a bare frame on which to hang thick mood and atmosphere.  And that DV camerawork by Dion Beebe?  Mesmerising.

Narc (Joe Carnahan, 2002)
Carnahan’s chief reference point for his debut film was The French Connection, and it’s not hard to see the best of 70s crime flicks in Narc.  Carnahan has since expunged the credit on his CV with his offensively poor follow-up, Smokin’ Aces, but here the balance between script, character, acting and technique was just right.  Opening with perhaps the best chase scene of the 00s (definitely think twice about your tolerance for hyper-real violence before clicking that link) and then following Jason Patric’s weary cop through an investigation into the death of near-psychotic Ray Liotta’s detective partner, Narc pulls no punches and leaves a deeply satisfying imprint.

Palindromes (Todd Solondz, 2004)
Solondz is best-known for his study in audience discomfort Happiness, but admirers of that film will understand that its warmth lies in how seriously it takes its cast of misfits, and as such will find plenty to enjoy here.  Again, Solondz constantly skirts the ‘too-far’ line, but in this story of a teenage girl (played by 11 different actors) who wants nothing other than to have a baby, he hits the mark on a number of truths surrounding the Abortion Question and the notion of free will.  Like Kinsey, this is not a film for water cooler dissection, but an open-minded approach to watching it brings great rewards.

Ravenous (Antonia Bird, 1999)
(OK, not technically the right decade, but it didn’t gain a following until the 00s, and this is MY list.)  Ravenous is one of the most unusual and fascinating films I’ve seen, and one of my most adored.  A story of cannibalism during the Western expansion in 1800s America, it is funny, dark, graphically violent and strangely poignant.  It draws you into its off-kilter world from the get-go, and if I were a film academic, I could find much to extrapolate from its frequently hinted-at theme of opposing forces duking it out for good and evil.  The key to its success is its score by Michael Nyman & Damon Albarn, about which I have written before, which you will remember long after the credits end.

Spider (David Cronenberg, 2002)
Before he made the most wildly overpraised fail of the decade, Cronenberg produced this low-key stunner with Ralph Fiennes as a mumbling schizophrenic (what is it with me and schizophrenia?) and his battle with his memory.  Cronenberg displays an impeccably sure hand and Fiennes is excellent, but Miranda Richardson steals the show playing Fiennes’ mother, his father’s mistress, and his landlady.  A brooding, masterful study of an outcast’s reality.

Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, 2008)
I HATED this film the first time I watched it, finding it to be the most self-consciously gloomy offence to the medium in years; watching it again with my girlfriend, she gently coaxed me to see it with open eyes and by the end of that second time through, I knew I would never shake it from my mind.  Roger Ebert quipped that it’s a film you should only see if you’ve seen it already.  As such, it demands a degree of familiarity with its meta-referentiality and intensely dark subject matter – an existential nightmare, with loved ones becoming distant and bodily functions shutting down – so that its deep, resonant beauty can come to the surface.  I’ve since watched it twice more, and it grows in stature every time as it reveals more of itself.

Wet Hot American Summer (David Wain, 2001)
The funniest comedy of the decade – I never thought I would be so tickled by a summer camp movie.  Those with a taste for absurd humour are guaranteed huge laughs – the jokes come thick and fast, varying between subtle and completely over-the-top, and all are delivered to perfection by an ensemble cast led by Janeane Garofalo, David Hyde Pierce and Michael Showalter.  My favourite character, though, would have to be Paul Rudd’s Andy, the classic doesn’t-give-a-shit hunk with the best dumb grin in movie history.  Oh, and it has an awesome soundtrack.  Just watch it already.

The 00s: Overlooked or Underrated Films – Part 1

A number of films are released each decade that deserve a good deal more positive attention than they get.  These films are awarded that great consolation prize of the movies, entry to the hall of the underrated or overlooked, for many reasons.  A hopeless and misleading marketing campaign can doom the film’s intention.  It might simply not have enough money behind it to generate enough interest for a successful run. The elite at Cannes or Venice might choose to pass it by in favour of overpraising something less deserving.  In rare cases, such as in that of the first film listed below, a director’s runaway infamy might overshadow his masterpiece.

The following is my list of underrated works of the 00s, and they were made with widely varying intentions, perhaps more than my main list of the best of the 00s.  For one, comedy is much better represented here (good God, I’m becoming the Oscars).  I would be quite happy to put many of them in the ‘best ofs’, and dare say I would prefer to do a marathon of these than the generally drier, heavier set in the other list, but they are here because they each, as far as I can perceive, warranted closer inspection than they were allowed. So, in alphabetical order…

Apocalypto (Mel Gibson, 2006)
I went gleefully to the theatre when Apocalypto was released, eager to see what deliciously violent mishmash Mad Mel had thrown together.  In the build-up to its release, the trailer for this historical Mayan epic included a shot of Gibson himself hangin’ with the boys, and a shot had been leaked of a Holocaust-style pile of bodies with Wally, from the ‘Where’s Wally?’ books, obvious among them.  Added to that, Gibson was charged one of the more memorable DUIs of the decade, and his previous film was The Passion of the Christ.  Believing I would love every minute, but with a healthy ironic detachment, I suddenly found myself riveted and in awe: here was a film with extremely pure and genuine intentions of telling a simple universal story, telling it with considerable filmmaking skill, and never letting you leave the edge of your seat.  Its HD photography looks phenomenal and at nearly two and a half hours, it isn’t a moment too long.  One of the best action films of this, or any decade?  Absolutely.

Birth (Jonathan Glazer, 2004)
There were few positive voices among the scathing mass of critics as Birth started getting its first notices. I won’t go so far as to say that the naysayers missed the point, as they might simply place the highest emphasis in their film analysis on believability. For me, it is atmosphere: a sense of being involved with something, being drawn into a specifically composed world of sound and vision. From the simple, beautiful prologue – we follow a man running in snowy Central Park and watch as he has a heart attack, and is perhaps reborn, with the accompaniment of Alexandre Desplat’s extraordinary score – Birth is riveting and not a little disquieting, with Nicole Kidman’s best work at its centre.

Flags of Our Fathers (Clint Eastwood, 2006)
Its companion Letters from Iwo Jima may be the better film, but the idea here is much more interesting: what is the reality of an iconic image of war (in this case, the American flag-raising on Iwo Jima), and how does the dichotomy between that reality and how it is presented back home affect the soldiers involved?  With such wide scope, a lesser director could have crashed and burned trying to keep all the plot strands in focus and avoiding jingoism.  Fortunately, Eastwood’s sure hand guides Flags of Our Fathers through a deeply satisfying and thought-provoking series of events with an appeal that welcomes the whole world to listen, not just Americans.

Keane (Lodge Kerrigan, 2004)
A brilliant meditation on mental illness and paranoia, handled with rare sensitivity.  Damian Lewis’ portrayal of the title character may go to the edge, but never over the top, and Abigail Breslin (of Little Miss Sunshine fame) shows her natural talent and ease in front of the camera.  Worth seeing, at the very least, for one of the cleverest cuts of the 00s, from one character to another (?) – something I had to rewind and watch again a couple of times so I could marvel at it.

Kinsey (Bill Condon, 2004)
Biopics remain one of the chief stocks-in-trade for the Hollywood machine, alongside those blasted sequels and comic books, and it felt like the 00s were dealt with more of them than any previous decade.  While Ray, Walk the Line and Capote et al received the most attention and plaudits for their mostly clean-and-easy approach, this look at the life of the world’s most famous sex researcher delves deep into the taboo and somehow manages to stay focused and fascinating even while following the subject’s entire life.  A mature and highly provocative work for which the advisory “viewers discretion is advised” seems woefully inadequate.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Shane Black, 2005)
One of the funniest and most entertaining films of the 00s, with Robert Downey Jr’s dumb petty thief and Val Kilmer’s gay private eye trading one-liners and an intricate plot filled with opportunities for hilarity.  Endlessly rewatchable to pick up all the lines you missed and marvel at the inspired, delectable writing and acting.

The Ladykillers (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2004)
I’m yet to find anyone to support me with this one, widely criticised as the weakest and most pointless film in the Coens’ canon.  Personally, I find their preciousness more irritating than interesting – with a few notable exceptions – but with this remake of a classic (which, to my embarrassment, I have not yet seen), the brothers’ whimsical approach fits perfectly with the material.  It must be said, however, that the film benefits greatly from one of the great comedic performances I’ve seen, by Tom Hanks of all people, and from a series of wonderful supporting turns led by Irma P. Hall.  Still, it’s a technical marvel with a great soundtrack and the product of two revered filmmakers clearly having fun.

Matchstick Men (Ridley Scott, 2003)
This simple, clever film merits only a one-sentence mention on legendary Brit Scott’s (now a knight of the realm) Wikipedia page.  However, amongst all the big-budget dross he turned out in the 00s – another look at that Wikipedia entry reminds of just how much crap he dumped on the slate – Matchstick Men quietly came and went with little recognition.  It is in fact a tight, well-acted and amusing look at a con man with OCD who discovers he has a 14-year-old daughter.  Nicolas Cage (in his increasingly rare Taking it Seriously mode) and Alison Lohman are outstanding in the central roles.  As I left the theatre, I couldn’t shake the delighted grin from my face.

For part 2, click here.

The 00s: Film (Fiction) – 15-11

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.

<< #20-16 || #10-#6 >>

The 00s: Film (Fiction) – Intro & 20-16

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.

The 00s: Music – 1

Well, you knew it was coming.

1. RadioheadKid A (Parlophone/Capitol)

You can read reams upon reams elsewhere about the qualitative aspects of Kid A and what exactly makes it the best album of the 00s, not to mention one of the most widely acclaimed works of music history, so I’m going to cut all that out and just tell my own story about it.

When I was 15, I spent a week of my August school holidays staying with my brother Ed.  While he and girlfriend Rach were at work, I whiled away solitary hours on the couch watching the Sydney Olympics, playing Driver on PlayStation and listening to the former student, newly commercial radio station uFM.  (And, yes, getting up at 11 in the morning if I was lucky. If you can’t be a horrible layabout when you’re 15, when can you?)  uFM had gotten their hands on a promo copy of Kid A and played about five or six tracks from it each day of the week.   Now, I couldn’t say it was love at first listen, but I was intrigued.   I knew it was a new kind of music for me; there was something intrinsic about it that reached out to the listener, but through the limited scope of commercial radio, I couldn’t put my finger on what it was.

A few months later I put Kid A at the top of my birthday list, not really expecting it to change my life, but definitely wanting to experience it again.  Naturally, Ed bought it for me.  For the following month the disc shuttled back and forth between my home CD player and my Discman, the sounds living in my head whenever I wasn’t listening to it.  ‘Idioteque’ stuck out as an early favourite, but the more ambient tracks – ‘Everything In Its Right Place’, ‘Treefingers, ‘Motion Picture Soundtrack’ – moved me in a way I still couldn’t articulate.  In any case, I swiftly decided as only a teenager can that this was the Best Album Of All Time and I would never, ever get sick of it.

Over the following couple of years, particularly after a wonderful New Year with my brothers and their spouses at Lake Ohakuri, I took it everywhere with me.   I’m not just saying that.  I really did.   I even made a point to listen to it on every car or bus journey leaving or returning to Auckland, where I lived, and every time it offered up some grand realisation or small detail that I hadn’t understood or noticed before.  Those ambient tracks now emerged and revealed themselves fully along with the rest of the album, and over time I felt like I could see, feel and accept ideas about our world that had never even remotely occurred to me before.

I left home, to go to university and then to work.  Kid A came with me in its now tattered case.  I discovered and embraced other Great Albums but always held Kid A above them all, the album that really got me into music, the album that I loved the most.  Every phase of doubt about it – ‘maybe it isn’t actually that amazing after all’ – was struck down as soon as I listened to it again.  With each passing year it became ever more a part of my soul and my being on this Earth, and so it remains today.

Radiohead have released other albums, and I have doubted them and been schooled each time.  But my teenage self turned out to be right: nothing will ever beat Kid A.   It is to me what I understand The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is to my dad – though he will surely expand on that – and Ziggy Stardust is to my mum: a unique relationship with a musical work that impacts you so strongly during your formative years that it never leaves you, or more accurately, you never leave it.  What’s yours?
Most representative track: ‘Optimistic’
My favourite: ‘Everything In Its Right Place’

The 00s: Music – 5-2

5. TV on the RadioReturn to Cookie Mountain (4AD/Interscope)

Indie as a genre ceased in the 00s to mean simply ‘independent’, and took on more of a ‘wet, hipster douches trying to sound plaintive and postmodern to mask the vapidity of their music’ connotation.  Thankfully, TV on the Radio were present to reclaim some of the ground lost by actually using their indieness to push the musical envelope as far as they could.  After one outstanding EP and one inspiring debut album, they delivered Return to Cookie Mountain, one of the more ambitious records ever released by a band that’s just about to make it.  It starts with ‘I Was A Lover’, a disorienting cluster of broken horn and guitar samples over a synth beat, and continues to challenge the listener’s expectations in basically every track on the album.  Through it all, twin frontmen Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone are electrifying, their distinctive and pushed-to-the-limit voices giving extra power to their deep and artful lyrics.  This was an album that was brilliant in ways I never expected it to be, seemingly designed to be hard to pick up.  I think the message TV on the Radio sent in the 00s, on this and their similarly essential other two albums, was that the music world needed a shake-up and that they were the ones who would do it.  Their attitude as thinkers/innovators who don’t mind the odd ‘fuck you’ to the establishment suggests that they might never make a weak album.  They shook me all right, quickly working their way into my thoughts and memories, and I’ll never be the same again.
Most representative track: ‘Wolf Like Me’
My favourite: ‘I Was A Lover’

4. Junior BoysSo This Is Goodbye (Domino)

I came to love So This Is Goodbye when I was the sickest I’ve ever been in my life.  It was the beginning of 2007, and I’d just secured a job in Japan and scored a goal from the halfway line in futsal.  The resulting elation and exhaustion brought on a 40°C fever, which rendered me stricken by hallucinations and unable to focus on a screen or page long enough to browse the net, watch movies or read a book.  Fortunately, I’d just discovered this emotional and precise Junior Boys album, downbeat enough to keep me grounded but with the requisite mechanics and care in arrangement to help maintain a pulse.  There wasn’t a single dud, so I could chuck it on repeat and let it run for the day, discovering new intricacies and rediscovering favourite moments from my stupor.  I suspect everyone who loves this album remembers in detail the time and circumstances during which they first experienced it, infused as it is with such wistfulness, nostalgia and clarity.  It’s a breakup album, so many of them will link it one of their own failed relationships; I can’t tell you about that, though I would love to hear from them.  From the subtle, hinting lyrics of ‘Double Shadow’ to the haunting sparseness of ‘FM’, this album is meticulously dealt and exceedingly tight despite its fragile appearance.
Most representative track: ‘The Equalizer’
My favourite: ‘FM’

3. Girl TalkFeed The Animals (Illegal Art)

Is Girl Talk the music of the 00s?  Night Ripper was the moment at which everyone stood up and took notice of mashups as a viable contender for becoming a consistent presence on the airwaves, but for me, Feed The Animals represented a refinement and deepening of Gregg Gillis’ aesthetic and the apex of his output thus far.  I read in an interview that people at his shows are no longer getting excited at hearing Lil Wayne rap ‘Lollipop’ over ‘Under the Bridge’, instead jumping higher and whooping louder for the fact that it’s one of ‘his’ songs – that is, the audience know his work and are more energised by it than the artists he samples.  I couldn’t imagine a clearer statement of acceptance.  What Gillis does is more than just playing around with sounds that connect in a cool-sounding way, though; a lot of the connections are inspired pieces of pop culture commentary, like opening with a link between The Spencer Davis Group’s ‘Gimme Some Lovin’’ and UGK’s ‘International Player’s Anthem’.  That’s getting pretty nerdy, though, and for me, after the balls-out wow factor of Night Ripper, the Girl Talk sound developed such a stronger emotional core with Feed The Animals, extracting every drop of feeling out of hundreds of songs that seem corny and passé when listened to on their own.  He’s said he won’t be doing any more album-length megamixes like this, instead focusing on creating discrete tracks, and as far as I’m concerned, he can do whatever he wants – I’ll still be first in line on release day.
Most representative track: ‘Shut the Club Down’
My favourite: ‘Give Me A Beat’

2. BurialUntrue (Hyperdub)

The moulded and beaten vocal samples of Burial’s music suggest a voice crying out from the darkness, leaving echoes of moments in time – maybe in the past, maybe in the future.  The words are usually imperceptible, but occasionally there’s a moment of clarity – such as during ‘Shell of Light’, on which “I wasn’t sure if we could be friends” loops over and over.  Your own optimistic or pessimistic nature may inform what you take from that, and what you hear in the fainter samples, but taken at face value these vocals sum up Burial’s uncertain aesthetic.  Even when cutting together an album as consistent and musically grounded as Untrue, he never quite seems at ease.  It’s like he’s constantly switching from looking over his shoulder to see what he’s left behind (or maybe what’s chasing him), and casting his eye as far in front of him as possible, willing something tangible out of the haze.  That said, if that’s the case, he acts as a powerful and skilled creator.  New elements seem plucked from the earth’s soil as he conjures each track and allowed to develop organically into something that just… works.  I mentioned texture(s) when writing about Dan Deacon and Four Tet earlier, and if that word is synonymous with the sounds produced by the most forward-thinking musicians of the day, Burial sits squarely at the top of the pile.  Untrue, only his second album, is his groundwork for a new generation of innovators.
Most representative track: ‘Archangel’
My favourite: ‘Raver’

For the big #1, click here.

The 00s: Music – 10-6

10. Kanye WestLate Registration (Roc-A-Fella, Island Def Jam)

When it comes to Kanye West’s second album, it’s really not worth keeping in mind that Kanye is an arrogant, hubristic, selfish egomaniac who crashes music video award shows and writes ludicrous blogs about his creativity.  Admittedly, Late Registration does look from every angle like a representation of its creator’s psyche: 21 tracks across 70 minutes encompassing overarching themes of the Black Man’s Struggle and selected pivotal events from his own life, all tied together with as much bombast and daring as he can cram in.  However, he wastes no time planting his foot down on ‘Heard ‘Em Say’ and setting off a musical odyssey that never feels bloated or wasteful.  The man will inevitably eat himself before he ever gets truly comfortable – indeed, he might only be comfortable when he is Lord and Master of the Universe, as well as Most Appreciated and Recognised Hip Hop Artiste – but Late Registration, along with two other very good albums, shows that he is at the forefront of popular music trends for a reason and cannot be ignored by anyone.  There is one fact that definitely is worth keeping in mind: this album is as much Jon Brion’s masterwork as it is Kanye’s, their partnership one of the more surprising and successful collaborations of the 00s.
Most representative track: ‘Heard ‘Em Say’
My favourite: ‘Gone’

9. Dan DeaconBromst (Carpark)

If some music is described as being a ‘wall of sound’, Dan Deacon brings to mind a hose of sound spraying with gleeful abandon. With Bromst he naturalised his sound from Spiderman of the Rings with real drums and guitars, but rather than just being an improvement in production values, this led to the hinted-at emotional core of his first major release being elucidated more clearly and openly. It takes a few listens to get past the shock value of having so many layers seemingly trying to out-do one another, but once you do, Bromst reveals several potential levels of appreciation: the story of a ghost wandering away from home, a collection of richly textured compositions, elements of shoegaze/techno/ambient, and some of the most pure enjoyment and fun you can have listening to a record. The chord progressions and song formulas may not be that variable, but the heady mixture of maths and chaos wins out. Not for everyone, but those who like it will love it.
Most representative track: ‘Woof Woof’… or maybe ‘Snookered’
My favourite: ‘Get Older’

8. The StreetsA Grand Don’t Come For Free (Vice/Atlantic)

In-between a glorious debut and a disappointing announcement of redundancy, Mike Skinner mined pure gold.  On those first two albums, I see him as the Ray Davies of the 00s: a quintessentially British-sounding recording artist who, in narrowing his lyrical scope to focus on exactly what he knows, spoke to the hearts of fans worldwide.  A Grand Don’t Come For Free isn’t as simple as a guy churning out a set of quality down-home rhymes, though.  The sharp focus of Original Pirate Material is refined further into a complete story spanning the album, a conceit that often feels beyond the range – or limited by the ego – of the musician in question, but Skinner stays true to his art and to the listener.  From those opening horns, you’re hooked.  Each song works perfectly well on its own and as part of the story, so you can dip in if you must (though it’s hard not to listen from start to finish).  And let’s not forget how vivid his lyrics are, wall-to-wall empty cans taking on a sort of timeless quality.  I lost interest after the grievous disappointment of The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living, but for this opus The Streets will always be a part of my life.
Most representative track: ‘It Was Supposed To Be So Easy’
My favourite: ‘Empty Cans’

7. GorillazDemon Days (Parlophone/Virgin)

This was my favourite of 2005, and nearly five years on, few other albums of the 00s are as versatile – you can throw it on for a dinner party, a party party, if you’re working or even if you’re having a ‘big talk’ with your significant other.  It’s comfortable but deep, danceable but mellow.  It gives you space but seethes with agitation.  It is of course the brainchild of Damon Albarn, his most successful and probably lasting creation, with help from producer genius Danger Mouse (The Grey Album, Gnarls Barkley).  I still remember how surprised I was on about the fourth of fifth listen after getting it, because Albarn’s debut of this ‘group’ four years earlier was interesting enough but hardly earth-shattering.  I liked this even less at first, too, then Albarn’s lyrics and Danger Mouse’s little touches in production started to worm their way into my brain, and I started listening to it several times in a row every day.  Though the music drifts along without ever pushing you to take notice of it (you will, eventually) Albarn seems incapable of making a record without Saying Something Important, and while having a gospel choir sing “These demon days are so cold inside, it’s so hard for a good soul to survive” might seem pretty hokey and cheesily earnest – ok, it totally is – it’s hard not to love the fact that Albarn desperately wants the listener just to stop coasting for a minute and think.  We cannot have too many artists taking life seriously in these uncertain times.
Most representative track: ‘Feel Good Inc.’
My favourite: ‘Demon Days’

6. M.I.A. – Kala (XL)

M.I.A.’s first album Arular took a couple of goes round for me to take to it, but with Kala, I felt like the kind of music I’d imagined for years in my head had finally synched up with music that actually existed.  It drives and pounds, all hips and fire, with her worldly and socially conscious lyrics scattered loosely over the top.  In fact, where a good number of the other albums on this list – particularly those I’ve put up here in the top end – are meticulously crafted with hardly a drumbeat out of place, Kala is freeform and sometimes barely seems to hold together.  I still remember when I saw her perform in Japan, where her haphazard button smashing on the DJ panel put about 50 extra gunshots in ‘Paper Planes’.  What does keep Kala from imploding under its own pressure, then?  Well, M.I.A. is such a committed artist that it’s the force of her personality as much as anything.  Read any interview: you’ll see that she puts up with absolutely no bullshit and has no problem badmouthing anyone she sees failing to keep it real, or anything that she perceives to be a danger to society (naturally, she’s on pretty much every flying alerts anti-terror list).  I in turn see her as a powerful force for global good, the spokesperson for the growing legions of folks who are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.  A third album will drop in a few months, and the movement will continue.
Most representative track: ‘Paper Planes’ (please, PLEASE ignore the Slumdog connection)
My favourite: ‘Bamboo Banga’

For the next part, click here.