I have enormous difficulty ranking movies. Partly because I love as many of them as I do, but partly because I just can’t compartmentalize them like I want to. I also seldom see ten that I really love because I’m lucky if I see ten total in any given year.
That said, I’m pretty quick to be able to name a movie that sticks with me from any given year. Here’s ten of those, plus some honorable mentions
2000 – Memento (Dir. Christopher Nolan)
Memento, in my opinion, will long be considered the strongest debut film of any filmmaker in the 21st century. It’s a hyperbolic claim, sure, but it’s kind of hard to overstate how good Memento is. It’s ambitious premise and plotting are more than just gimmicks; the power of the film is essentially embedded in them. It speaks volumes about Nolan’s chosen form that nobody has really tried to replicate it; Charlie Kaufman even considered abandoning Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind once he saw Memento because he felt it could never measure up.
But that aside, it’s still an incredibly strong film in nearly all regards; the performances are excellent, and there’s no significant missteps in pacing or tone. It’s a very dark film to be sure, but the ending knocked me flat on my ass when I first saw it. I’m not sure any twist ending since comes close, and neither does any movie released in 2000.
Honorable mentions? Almost Famous, Gladiator, Amelie
2001 – Monsters Inc. (dirs. Pete Docter, Lee Unkrich, David Silverman)
Monsters Inc. is a movie that will probably forever make me smile. The voice cast is perfect, comic timing flawless, and it’s sense of imagination never falls back on taking the easy way out like too many animated movies do today. Monsters Inc. sticks out because I’ll never miss a chance to watch it, which isn’t something I can really say for other movies released in 2001. And thanks to Pixar’s refusal to rely on soon-to-be-dated pop-culture jokes, it’s still as fresh now as it was back then. It’s not a big “prestige” movie by any means, but it’s entertaining from start to finish and it was my constant choice for Pixar’s best until recently.
Honorable mentions? Moulin Rouge!, AI: Artificial Intelligence, The Royal Tennenbaums
2002 – Adaptation (dir. Spike Jonze)
Adaptation is something of a kindred spirit with Memento; both work against the traditional filmmaking formula, and both have their story strengthened by breaking with tradition. But Adaptation has a lighter side and when one breaks through the meta-film elements, it has a lot of heart. Nicolas Cage’s performance is especially noteworthy, as it defies his oft-mocked over-the-top hamming reputation by being simultaneously understated and ridiculous; he even manages to get a few heartbreaking scenes in there. By being equal parts.. well, equal parts nearly everything, but never abandoning the idea that the characters make or break the story, it works.
Honorable mentions? 28 Days Later, Gangs of New York, Panic Room, Catch Me If You Can.
2003 – American Splendor (dirs. Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini)
Finding an entry from 2003 was a tricky one until I saw this one on my DVD shelf. It’s actually not my copy, but it’s been there so long it may as well be. A trend I’m noticing is that my favourites of this decade seem to play with traditional cinematic structure, or at least work against genre conventions. American Splendor is part documentary, part biopic, and part comic book adaptation. And it’s a hidden gem. I originally planned on going with Kill Bill as my 2003 pick, but while Kill Bill celebrates genre films, American Splendor occupies a fairly unique place. Paul Giamatti’s performance is terrific, and it balances the documentary and dramatic better than any film I’ve seen before by drawing attention to a character – and I mean that in every sense of the word – with stories worth telling.
Honorable mentions? Kill Bill, Finding Nemo
2004 – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (dir. Michel Gondry)
A lot has already been said about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and it’s a complex movie that can be examined from philosophical, aesthetic, and even scholarly perspectives, but what keeps it from just being an intellectual exercise is how grounded it is in it’s characters. Yes, the screenplay goes into places that folks like Terry Gilliam or Philip K. Dick would be familiar in, and Michel Gondry offers some fairly bizarre images to match. But then you also have an incredibly understated performance from Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet in her best work to date. It also has some pleasant surprises in Mark Ruffalo and Kirsten Dunst. And like Memento, it’s never content to just be an exercise in non-traditional filmmaking; Gondry and the cast deliver when it really counts.
Honorable mentions? Collateral, The Aviator, Sideways, Shaun of the Dead
2005 – Match Point (dir. Woody Allen)
Match Point is one of those movies that has managed to stick with me despite only seeing it once. It’s economical, tense, and relies a lot on mood and music. And to my great surprise, it’s a Woody Allen movie. I’m someone who hasn’t seen a great deal of Allen’s films or even feel compelled to, but probably wouldn’t want to be stuck in a world where Woody Allen never decided to make a movie. Woody Allen’s best-loved films generally aren’t thrillers, and they’re also generally not about upper-class Brits and the terrible things they’ll do in the name of reputation, but Match Point is. I still find that Scarlett Johannson is a fairly inconsistent actress, but she’s excellent in this one, and the film looks fantastic. Is it one of Woody Allen’s best? That’s a matter of debate to be sure, but it manages to be an incredibly involving film in it’s own right, even if it’s not a kindred spirit with Annie Hall or Hannah and her Sisters.
Honorable mentions? Brick, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, The 40-Year-Old Virgin
2006 – Children of Men (dir. Alfonso Cuaron)
2006 was a hard year to narrow down to just one. Even just within my own tastes, I found that there was a great heist flick (Inside Man), one of Scorsese’s best mob movies (The Departed), and a terrific Christopher Nolan character study/thriller (The Prestige). So why Children of Men? A few reasons. The first is the overarching story: the film drops you into a devastated world with no real explanation as far as how that happened; the hook (women are inexplicably infertile and mankind is at most 50 years from extinction) is strong enough alone to be intriguing, but by asking questions and giving no answers, it becomes captivating. There’s an enormous problem facing the world, but they’re damned if they can solve it. Second is how effectively it narrows a plot that’s on a global scale down to just one character. And the third is how well it tells his story. The film’s guerilla-style handheld shots and long takes make it hard to not get involved, and the performances keep the film grounded in human drama, ensuring the film’s plot never veers too far into science fiction to keep from being taken seriously. It’s fundamentally rooted in it’s characters and performances rather than the sheer volume of despair in it’s world, and that makes it great rather than simply bleak and technically impressive.
Honorable mentions? Inside Man, The Departed, The Prestige
2007 – Zodiac (dir. David Fincher)
I feel as though all David Fincher’s award nominations and Oscar buzz for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button were essentially consolation prizes for how little buzz and recognition Zodiac received. Because Zodiac is easily a better movie in nearly all regards. It has help; the Zodiac killer story is among the most fascinating true crime stories in American history. But even with some assistance from reality, it takes a special talent to make scenes about handwriting analysis interesting and engaging. But the real treat is when the film shifts into thriller territory. While the scenes of the murders are often tense, the most intense scenes are the ones where the tension and fear felt by Jake Gyllenhaal’s character are dictated not by onscreen violence, but by careful editing and well-chosen camera angles. It sounds boring, but the results speak for themselves; the film is incredibly tense, even if you can’t figure out why until after the fact. While Panic Room is the most purely entertaining film Fincher has made, Zodiac remains his best.
Honorable mentions? Once, Sunshine, No Country for Old Men, Juno
2008 – The Wrestler (dir. Darren Aronofsky)
Noticing another trend? I like movies with strong characters and performances. And why not? Objectively complex special effects alone don’t make movies interesting beyond the initial viewing experience and the behind-the-scenes DVD features. I love movies where the special effects are in the service of characters, but The Wrestler had no special effects to speak of. Just a character. It’s essentially the Mickey Rourke show, but his performance was justly rewarded. Darren Aronofsky slips in some truly beautiful moments and some achingly broken ones. It’s not the only performance-driven, low-fidelity movie of 2008 – it has a kindred spirit in Rachel Getting Married – but it resonates most. It’s a movie that I can’t shake from memory and though it’s flawed, flawed movies are often the most memorable.
Honorable mentions? The Dark Knight, Slumdog Millionaire, Wall-E
2009 – Up (dir. Pete Docter)
It speaks great volumes about Pixar that their biggest screw-up was Cars. While Wall-E accomplished the unenviable task of making a love story about robots warm and resonant, Up takes the ambition and heart of Wall-E and applies it to a deeply human story. As firmly planted in fantasy and adventure serials as Up is, it’s an incredibly smart movie in how it handles that. It never overplays it’s emotional hand, despite having a stacked deck. It’s the strongest argument against the “animation can’t compete with the real thing” made to date. When I saw the movie, the film’s most heart-wrenching scene (a montage of Carl and Ellie’s life together) was narrated by a loud woman sitting near me, and the scene still managed to be as powerful as every film critic had said.
Honorable Mentions? Adventureland, Coraline, Zombieland, District 9