- #1. WALL-E (2008)
Disney and Pixar have a knack for making movies it’s simply hard not to like. Time and time again their collaborative union has produced massive hits for all ages—something new to the oughties in a way. Animation used to equal “cartoon,” which meant “for kids.” This is no longer the case, and Andrew Stanton’s WALL-E is perhaps the most exemplary product of the shift from “something to amuse the kids” to “this movie blew me away.” WALL-E is partially about the dangers of human consumption and consumerism, but its beauty lies in the simple, adorable interactions between robots Wall-E and EVE, and their interactions with humans. WALL-E has very little dialogue and no true antagonist. With its desolate futuristic landscapes and robots performing an old fashioned courting dance in deep space, the movie is visually enthralling. It is simple, intelligent, gorgeous, and ultimately indelible.
- #2. In the Mood for Love (2000)
Wong Kar-wai’s beautiful tone poem is an ode to unrequited and impossible love. Its brilliant color scheme, gorgeous costumes, unforgettable cinematography, and heart-wrenching violin score harmonize to create a film that seethes with romance, melancholy, and the allure of the impossible. The movie is set in Hong Kong in 1962, a time and place completely alien to most contemporary Americans, and yet set decorations, costuming (especially Maggie Cheung’s stiff, high-necked, brilliantine kimonos), and dialogue are an exercise in immersion, despite their unfamiliarity. Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung play two people who move into adjacent apartments and form a bond when both suspect their spouses of unfaithfulness. The film isn’t about sex, but the sensuality of every touch, every telephone call. Each brief glance is mesmerizing. Romantic comedies and are a dime a dozen, but real romance often has no happy ending, and In the Mood for Love veritably drowns you in the gorgeous, sensual instability of falling in love.
- #3. The Dark Knight (2008)
Christopher Nolan’s much-anticipated sequel to Batman Begins is not a comic book movie. It may be based on classic comic characters, but it demolished the stereotypes surrounding cheesy comic movies. Heath Ledger’s Joker is one of the most terrifying villains in filmic history because he isn’t a joke, not in the least; he’s completely insane but horrendously clever, and death and chaos follow in his wake. His green hair, grotesquely scarred grin, and insane laughter may originally be aspects of the same villain played memorably by Jack Nicholson, but Ledger’s Joker has a horrific realism that makes him terrifying the same way Michael Myers was in the original Halloween. The actor’s unexpected death and posthumous Oscar win add a layer of tragedy to the film, but at the very least, Ledger went out with a serious bang. The Dark Knight’s score is a constant, tense thumping rhythm, reminiscent of a heartbeat—there’s never a moment to relax. After multiple viewings it’s still an amazing watch, an honest edge-of-your-seat thriller, and that’s rare.
- #4. Capturing the Friedmans (2003)
Michael Moore, take note. All you need do is present evidence unfettered, and a truly memorable film results. Documentarian Andrew Jarecki meant to make a movie about birthday clowns in New York City. Little did he know he’d hit a massive cache of family skeletons when he encountered working clown David Friedman. What ensues is pure voyeurism: Capturing the Friedmans closely follows the utter implosion of a seemingly normal American family. It touches on the hysteria surrounding sex crimes, the uncertainty of the justice system, and ultimately, a family’s demise as they try to interact with one another and strive for the truth. Watching this family’s very personal battles is both heart wrenching and mind boggling. We’re one of the first generations to be able to film and document our every single move, and the Friedmans nearly obsessively did so—to the delight and dismay of viewers.
- #5. Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg set out to make a “bloody valentine” to George Romero’s Dead movies, but in so doing they made a film that surpasses horror, veers into comedic territory, bounces over into buddy movie, swerves into romance, and ends up hitting all of our synapses at the same time. Anyone who enjoys zombie movies will have seen the movie (probably multiple times), but even those who didn’t get the in-jokes find it hard not to simply enjoy the ride. Slacker Shaun and his lovably obnoxious roommate Ed, who stumble through their lives immersed in video games and working dead-end jobs, hit entirely too close to home, and when they manage to put up a damned good fight against the zombie hordes (with a few dirty jokes and Romero jokes along the way), you can’t help cheering. While Romero’s Dawn of the Dead is blatantly about consumerism, Shaun instead touches on the oblivion and separation that comes along with iPods, the Xbox, and cell phones…but it’s not an indictment so much as a good, old fashioned satire.
- #6. Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Ang Lee’s unconventional love story has become more of a pop culture joke in the last few years than it deserves. It’s not only a film about gay cowboys, though that’s the surface of the narrative; it is an epic love story, set in the rolling plains and snow-capped mountains of the Western U.S. It just so happens it isn’t about heterosexual love, so it positively shattered—blew to smithereens—one of our Great American Dreams, and that made people deeply uncomfortable (notably the Christian Right). Heath Ledger’s Ennis and Jake Gyllenhaal’s Jack fall in love while herding sheep together in the 1960s, but their story doesn’t end there, instead it weaves a twisted and heartbreaking thread through decades of marriage, children, and monotony—a tragic story that’s all too believable. Ledger’s Ennis propelled the actor to the top of the Academy’s must-watch list with his gruff, quietly roiling persona; Gyllenhaal and Michelle Williams are flawless in their respective roles. The movie’s cinematography is perhaps its most memorable feature, however: Lee fashioned a cinematic love note to the American West, and each and every shot of sheep trickling down a mountain, of the sun setting behind swaying golden plains, betrays affection and admiration for the beauty and ruggedness of that forbidding landscape (interesting, since Lee isn’t American). The film may have gotten jeers and complaints about pacing, but it can’t be denied that it took a classic American story, turned it on its head, and blew a gaping hole straight through the notion that love in mainstream film has to be between a man and a woman.
- #7. The Squid and the Whale (2005)
Noah Baumbach’s movies often bear a sense of pretension and detachment similar to those of Wes Anderson (the two have worked together multiple times). The Squid and the Whale helps to explain the kind of upbringing that probably contributed to the man he became. It’s one of the most hilarious and painful explorations of a broken family, flawed parents, and reactionary kids you’ll ever see—and it’s autobiographical. Baumbach based it on his own childhood, his parents’ divorce, and the craziness that ensued. Parents Bernard and Joan battle it out with awkward silences and terse exchanges, but watching teenaged Walt and 12-year-old Frank imitate the worst of their parents’ flaws is the most poignant and startling facet of the film, because it’s true: we all parrot our parents at some point, but some of us had more tolerable parents. If nothing else, the characters’ sheer honesty is refreshing, if uncomfortable. It’s a rare film with which you certainly hope you don’t relate, and whose characters are a bit horrifying—but you care about them anyway. Brilliant editing, cinematography, acting, and score synchronize to make one of the best indies in recent history.
- #8. Oldboy (2003)
Director Chan-wook Park pulled no punches with his dark, horrific revenge tale—a terrifically violent and utterly unforgettable tale of vengeance and redemption. After Dae-su is kidnapped and imprisoned for fifteen years in a tiny apartment, he’s set free to wreak havoc on those who ruined his life—with terrifying results. The film’s imagery is indelible: Dae-su consumes a live octopus, its tentacles grasping at his blankly staring face even as he chews; an absolutely incredible continuous panning shot follows Dae-su down a hallway as he attacks a horde of guards with a claw hammer (this apparently took 17 days to perfect). Watching the film, even the most hardened horror fans find their eyes wide and mouths agape, not only because of its violence but also its beauty. The cinematography and lighting are flawless, the acting nearly perfect, the tale alternately horrendous and triumphant. It is the second in a trilogy of revenge films, but it’s the most memorable of the three—and its ambiguous end will leave you staring at a blank screen as you try to figure out what just hit you.
- #9. Brick (2005)
Rian Johnson’s directorial debut Brick is a classic film noir. Oddly, it’s set in a California high school. While this may seem entirely incongruous, Johnson managed to create and bring to life characters that belong in a Bogart movie. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Brendan, a down-on-his-luck kid who sets out to investigate the death of his sweetheart, in the process encountering teenaged femmes fatales, a kingpin whose mother still serves him milk and cookies, and every kind of dark alley through which Bogie slouched in those black and white films of yore. Johnson also wrote the script, which is so deeply ensconced in its own tone and language it can be nearly indecipherable—unless you’ve spent much time reading Raymond Chandler or watching films noir. The haunting score, lighting, and cinematography combine to create a film that is wholly unlike others you’ve seen. Brick is a film about other films, but it is entirely its own, haunting and melancholy, gloomy and violent.
- #10. Children of Men (2006)
The oughties have been a decade fraught with post-apocalyptic films. In Children of Men, a group of subversives try to transport the very last pregnant woman in the world to a safe place where she can give birth, and they encounter both the evil and the good that results from a world mired in fear and violence. Alfonso Cuaron’s movie is chaotic, brutal, and absolutely terrifying—but it isn’t a horror film. The editing and cinematography are nearly unparalleled for effectiveness—every explosion, each sudden bout of brutality, leaves you with the sense of a world without hope and people for whom chaos and violence are life. The idea of a future in which humans can no longer procreate is both terrifying and plausible—though with the advent of IVF and Octomom, it also seems unreal. The beauty of Children of Men is its simplicity; WALL-E, Avatar, and An Inconvenient Truth drill into us that we’re murdering our world, but Children of Men posits a future in which the world continues to turn as humans dwindle. A friend who did a tour in Iraq said Children of Men gave him flashbacks to his time overseas—for good or ill, it’s a film that puts you directly in the center of a chaotic future that’s entirely too plausible to shake off.