Despite my general negativity about movies of the Aughts, there were still plenty of great films released this decade (although I think a Top Ten list of 90s movies would probably omit films that could be #1 on this list). I’ve already provided a list of the ten funniest films of the decade, and there were other great comedies that didn’t make the list. Today, though, we turn our attention to the dramatic category. As Josh has already declared, though, genre concerns can be distracting, so I will not be bound my technical genre classifications. Consider this a list of films I like for “dramatic” reasons:
10. High Fidelity (2000)
Technically a comedy, this film makes the list for somewhat personal reasons. When I first saw it, I thought (and kind of hoped) that this would be what adult life was like: You hang out in record stores, spend your days making Top 5 lists (at NPI, we like to go all the way to ten, but you get the idea), go to concerts and try to have sex with musicians, and refuse to grow up until your girlfriend makes you. John Cusack gives a tremendous performance as Rob Gordon, a record store owner reliving all his past relationships in order to make sense of his current one. Cusack is natural and charismatic enough in the role that his breaking-the-fourth-wall scenes don’t feel lazy or gimmicky at all—just another extension of Rob’s solipsism. These talking-to-the-audience scenes are necessary to capture the spirit of the Nick Hornby novel from which High Fidelity is adapted. The language and frankness of these scenes give the film emotional weight. Hornby’s dialogue is funny and vibrant—a more nuanced, less outlandish precursor to Judd Apatow’s dialogue—but mostly it’s comforting. The dynamic between the characters makes the film so warm and natural that it doesn’t feel like a “romantic comedy” or a “guys movie,” but just like a cool story.
9. A Serious Man (2009)
Another film that is ostensibly a comedy, A Serious Man is actually a deep and complex film. I’ve already tried to enumerate precisely what makes this reimagination of the story of Job so compelling, but it primarily comes down to the Coen brothers’ dark, sardonic worldview. They are able to give a cutting, and at times hilarious, look at the Jewish community in the late 1960s, and yet simultaneously offer a sympathetic look at the morally protean universe Larry Gopnik is caught in. Michael Stuhlbarg’s performance helps garner the sympathy in film that can at times seem misanthropic: Stuhlbarg’s ability to portray Gopnik’s confusion and rage as churning just below the surface makes him seem both nobly stoic, and naturally overwhelmed. This performance is what grounds the story. A Serious Man, like so many Coen brothers films, tells the story of an Everyman caught in a subculture that is both particular in its details and, in its moral mysteriousness, universal.
8. Brick (2005)
As a purely aesthetic exercise, Brick may be the best film of the Aughts. It simultaneously pays homage to the noir style and reinvents it, transposing it onto a traditional high school romance plot. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Brendan Frye, who gets a distraught and unclear phone call from his ex-girlfriend begging for help. In perfect noir tradition, Frye is led into the seedy underbelly of the high school “upper crust.” Gordon-Levitt plays Frye with such aplomb that, even in scenes with minimal dialogue like a brilliantly shot “fight” scene with Tug, he seems perfectly in control. In addition to the stunning visual beauty of this film, the dialogue written by writer/director Rian Johnson seamlessly blends the insiderish jargon known to noir with typical high school talk: In Brick, asking someone, “Who’s she eating lunch with these days?” is anything but an innocuous question. The combination of the linguistic and visual elements gives Brick a quality of intrigue that is hard to resist.
7. Kill Bill Vols. 1 & 2 (2003/04)
Whoa, whoa, whoa. Forget what I just said about Brick being the best aesthetic exercise of the decade. I must have forgotten that Quentin Tarantino is still making movies. Kill Bill (and we’re going to count both volumes as one movie because neither half works as well without the other) is Tarantino’s best film of the decade, largely based on its visual strength. In his attempt to pay homage to classic samurai films and martial arts movies, Tarantino presents some of the most interesting and well-shot fight sequences I’ve ever seen. Pretty much the entirety of the showdown between Uma Thurman (playing The Bride, or Black Mamba, or Beatrix Kiddo) and the Crazy 88s—headed by Lucy Liu’s O-Ren Ishii—is gripping and innovative. Fight scenes and action sequences are so commonplace that it can be hard to separate the good ones from the mediocre, but Tarantino has such an eye for the visual, for knowing when to slow things down, what to show in order to keep the audience aware of what’s going on yet unable to predict what comes next, which makes his so thrilling. Plus, he knows how to maximize the impact of small moments, such as Vernita Green’s daughter getting off the bus in the background of her knife fight with The Bride, or Ishii’s scalp flying across the snow. The first volume is probably the more visually arresting, containing the epic fight sequence and Tarantino’s anime story of O-Ren, but the second volume contains all the story and emotional weight. And, as usual with Tarantino, he manages to incorporate enough sentiment to keep the film from being a superficial exercise: When The Bride charges into Bill’s home, only to find her daughter still alive, Thurman’s near-collapse carries enough emotion for both volumes.
6. V for Vendetta (2006)
In this decade of superhero movies and franchises, it was an anarcho-terrorist’s stand against fascism that was perhaps the most memorable “fight against evil.” James McTeigue and the Wachowski brothers work within the general framework of masked superhero stories, and to a large extent tone down the anarchist message and radicalism of Alan Moore’s graphic novel (much to Moore’s predictable chagrin), but V for Vendetta is still the most daring look at a “good vs. evil” struggle from the Aughts. V, played by Hugo Weaving, is clearly a noble freedom-fighter, but his willingness to engage in morally dubious acts, like kidnapping and torturing Evey (Natalie Portman) and blowing up buildings, makes him a much darker defender of liberty than many might find palatable. At the same time, though, the film retains a striking idealism within its dark setting, building its entire story on ideas like V’s proclamation that “ideas are bulletproof.” Balanced with its ideals, though, is a nuanced and realistic portrait of a police state and its acquiescent citizens. V for Vendetta’s ability to depict a gritty, authentic totalitarian world, and yet retain a clear and pristine idea of “goodness” allows it to operate as both a quasi-superhero story and a political drama.
5. Oldboy (2003)
On one level, this South Korean film belongs in the tradition of psychological thrillers like The Usual Suspects and Memento that combine noirish elements with more general action or crime drama themes. As most of these films do, Oldboy turns its entire plot on its head at the end of the movie, forcing the viewer the rethink everything that came before. Unlike many of these movies, however, Oldboy’s twist is not the sole driving force of the movie, and in retrospect feels painfully obvious. Park Chan-wook’s film tells the story of Oh Dae-Su, a man who lived a not very good life before being imprisoned for 15 years for an unknown reason. His quest to find out the reason drives the plot, and just when it feels like Dae-Su has finally broken out of this trap he was forced into, he is revealed to have been a pawn all along. The final scene, in which the full truth is revealed to Dae-Su, is one of the most powerful scenes in any film of the decade. Choi Min-sik plays Dae-Su with such manic vulnerability and hysteria that he is able to sustain the gut-wrenching impact of the final “reveal” for far longer than mere shock value or surprise would allow. It is this emotional force, as much as the psychological mystery, that makes this film so impressive.
4. Lost in Translation (2003)
Lost in Translation is a study in how to make a quiet movie. Despite the fact that the film won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, most of what makes this movie so great are moments with no words at all. The early scenes that depict Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson as totally alienated travelers play mostly without dialogue—or at least without English dialogue—and are all the more powerful because of it. When Murray sees Johansson on the elevator of their Tokyo hotel, no words are exchanged at all, but you can tell that he feels like there is some other lost, solitary individual in his vicinity. Of course, the dialogue that is in the film doesn’t hurt, particularly when you have Bill Murray to say it: His scene filming the commercial for Suntory whiskey is both a funny and poignant look at the language barrier, with the director yelling at Murray what he can only interpret as nonsense. Mostly, though, it’s Sofia Coppola’s willingness to let moments speak for themselves that gives this film force. Small but salient moments, like Johansson resting her head on Murray’s shoulder, do more to cement their connection than dialogue really could. So it’s fitting, then, that the most important line of the story—Murray’s final goodbye whisper in Johansson’s ear—is completely inaudible.
3. No Country for Old Men (2007)
The second appearance by the Coen brothers on this list, No Country For Old Men combines so many of their talents to make a totally engrossing film. It harnesses the regional beauty of its location to sharpen the story’s focus; it contains sparse but witty, sardonic dialogue that is both funny and somewhat disturbing; it explores elements of moral murkiness with an objective but sympathetic point of view. The Coen brothers were remarkably faithful to the Cormac McCarthy novel, and yet the film is far more powerful and disturbing than the book. Part of this, of course, is being able to actually see the gruesome deeds Anton Chigurh commits. It is also a credit to the stellar cast. Tommy Lee Jones turns his character, Sheriff Bell—who, in the novel, feels preachy and annoying—into the moral foundation of the story; Josh Brolin, one of the Aughts’ underrated actors, takes command of his scenes, without even saying much; even Kelly Macdonald, in only a few scenes, manages to make her character more than just a damsel in distress. Most of all, though, this film will and should be remembered for Javier Bardem’s performance as Anton Chigurh. Bardem gives the third most memorable acting performance of the decade, bringing to life this terrifying vision of a cold and charmingly effective assassin. Chigurh’s presence and force dominate the entire film, lending the threat of death and violence to almost every scene. It’s this power that makes the film one of the most powerful moral dramas of the decade.
2. City of God (2002)
Much like The Wire (which, if you haven’t gotten the point by now, we’re big fans of here at NPI), City of God, the Brazilian film from director Fernando Meirelles, explores the urban drug trade in a way that gradually adds layers and layers to the story. Centered on the young photographer Rocket, City of God is a personal story. It follows Rocket’s youth, depicting his love life, the beginnings of his career, and his drug use. As the story continues, though, the portrait of the city and its characters expands. Little vignettes tell the story of “The Tender Trio”—the benevolent drug dealers of Rocket’s childhood—the rise of Lil Ze—the bloodthirsty warlord who takes over the drug trade as a pre-teen—and Knockout Ned—a noble citizen who gets gradually pulled into the drug was. Each of these vignettes contains its own striking visual trademark, featuring images that are haunting and unforgettable. Unlike many films that use achronological storytelling, City of God weaves together all of its threads naturally and to maximum effect; it does not rely on unconventional storytelling as a gimmick. Meirelles’ ability to incorporate innovative and dynamic cinematography with an affecting, well-constructed, and original narrative makes City of God a brilliant look at gang violence and, more generally, urban life.
1. The Dark Knight (2008)
The best, most iconic, most unforgettable film of the Aughts is, fittingly, a comic book movie. Whereas many great filmmakers during this decade—Ang Lee, Sam Raimi, Bryan Singer—tried to tap into the superhero genre to make a great film (and some did, to varying degrees, expand the scope and artistic expectations of the genre), the Nolan brothers were the only to fully realize the capabilities of the genre. Batman Begins was very well-received for being an intelligent and dark thriller, but it failed to truly harness the Batman mythology. Only in The Dark Knight did they truly delve into and explore the existential nihilism at the heart of Bob Kane’s character.
Most of that—as I’ve written before—has to do with Heath Ledger’s amazing performance as The Joker. Ledger’s role as The Joker is the single best acting performance of the Aughts, fully embodying the complete and utter repudiation of any and every moral standard. He steals every scene with his charm and his silver tongue. Nevertheless, Ledger’s performance should not dwarf the contributions of Aaron Eckhart and Christian Bale. The Dark Knight is a complete film, giving each of its characters depth and a full arc. The demise of Harvey Dent and the despair of Batman are what make this movie more than just a showcase for Ledger and The Joker’s nihilism. The Nolans know how to tell such a rich story and effectively complement it with innovative, if required, action sequences; the car chase/truck flip sequence (in which the Nolans wisely eschewed the use of CGI) is not only aesthetically cool, it serves a crucial plot element as well. The Dark Knight is certainly not flawless: Bale lays it on a little thick with the gravelly voice, and some of the dialogue may be a bit over the top. But, of all the films from the Aughts, the one I’m most sure that I’ll still want to watch, still recommend, and still think about in another decade, is The Dark Knight.