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.