- Werckmeister Harmonies (Bela Tarr, 2000)
I’m going to state it plain and simple: this is my favorite film. Not just of the 2000s, but my favorite film. Period. Bela Tarr’s brooding, draining masterpiece tells the tale of a small Hungarian town on the brink of a revolution. Not an explicitly political or spiritual one, but a revolution none the less. Order is collapsing and there is no longer anyone there to hold it up. The one decent person left is too lost in his own dreams and in the manipulations of others to speak up. Humanity may attempt to control things, but this only leads to the end. It is a companion piece to 1994’s Satantango, my pick for the best film of the 90s. Both show the difficulties of post-Communist Hungary in the realm of the spiritual, and they are both shot with the extreme long takes that have come to define Tarr to the cinematic world. Werckmeister only has 39 shots in its 135 minute run time, but oh, what shots they are!
- Millennium Mambo (Hsiao-hsien Hou, 2001)
It has been a pretty spectacular two-decade run for Taiwanese cinema, but of what I’ve seen (which is certainly not enough), there is one film that stands above the rest: Millennium Mambo. From the stunning opening shot on, Hou’s masterpiece of post-millennial anxiety draws you in and never lets go. Hou’s roaming camera creates a visual poetry out of Taipei’s endless clubs and dingy apartments, interspaced with two journeys to a picturesque Japan. The urban isolation in this film is as complete as anything Antonioni ever did and it may be even more relevant to our time. Taipei’s neon-lit landscape could easily be most of the world’s major cities and it’s safe to say that Vicky, the protagonist, is not the only city-dweller facing a crisis of loneliness.
- A Serious Man (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2009)
It would be no stretch to call the Coen brothers my favorite working American filmmakers, but even I was shocked when they released their masterpiece earlier this year. They managed to combine the ideas of their most recent films with those of their mid-90s heyday in this story of a Jewish man going through a Job-like crisis of faith in suburban Minnesota (incidentally, the town featured here is pretty similar to my own, and the Hebrew school his son goes to is almost exactly like my own). It may initially feel smaller than the lofty No Country and Burn After Reading, but it is their most ideologically complex film to date, combining elements of the bible and Kafka’s The Trial into one of cinema’s great existential crises.
- Love Exposure (Sion Sono, 2008)
I’m not sure what exactly I’m supposed to say about this film. It is among the strangest, most wholly unique films I’ve ever had the privilege to witness. A four hour Japanese black comedy on religion, cults, sex, lust, love, perversion, violence and the art of up-skirt voyeurism that is as madcap and brilliant as it could possibly be. Maybe this is a film that was bound to happen eventually. The stranger, fetishist aspects of Japanese culture, combined with the creeping influence of western religion are an inherently interesting issue, and all it took was one filmmaker strange enough to go that extra step, add in some Beethoven and combine them into one constantly entertaining, always strange and somewhat perverse masterpiece.
- Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006)
Film’s can build their reputations for many reasons, but Children Of Men is one of the few I can think of that developed a cult following originally based mainly on its camera-work and that camera-work certainly must be commended. The film’s two famous tracking shots are among the most acclaimed in film because Cuaron has a knack for building tension and excitement while keeping the full image clear and in focus, even during the heat of battle, but they are not the film’s only strength. The brilliant mise-en-scene makes this the most fully realized vision of the future since Blade Runner, Clive Owen gives the best performance of his career, and, maybe most importantly, it completely sucks you into the story. This is one of the most emotionally gripping films that I have ever seen because it leaves so much of its back-story ambiguous and the audience is forced to watch closely and try to understand.
- Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)
It pains me to think that David Lynch’s masterpiece almost wound up as an ABC pilot. This may be the greatest film about Hollywood, and to see it go down as yet another failed TV project would have been too much. Naomi Watts gave the decade’s finest female performance in her breakthrough role and Lynch finally found the perfect blend between his skills as a natural story-teller and his sense of surrealism. This belongs alongside 8 ½ and Contempt (both of which it heavily references) in any discussion of the greatest films about the process of filmmaking, even if nobody is quite sure exactly what it’s actually about. Of course, simply experiencing it is far more important than any actual understanding.
- Lord of the Rings (Peter Jackson, 2001-03)
If there’s one thing that makes my love of these films even more impressive, it’s that I can’t stand the books they were based on. Jackson takes Tolkien’s overblown prose and crafts one of the grandest epics ever made. Sure there are flaws in each of the films, but this is a nostalgia pick more than anything else. These are the films that first made me love film, and no matter how many times I see them, I will always be entertained.
- There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
Remember how I said that I’d only be doing one film per director? Well, this is where I would put No Country For Old Men, in a virtual tie with There Will Be Blood. The fact that these two films, both so similar in their setting, brilliance and, in a way, their portrayal of America, came out just weeks apart is probably some sort of cinematic miracle. Ultimately, I think history will look on Anderson’s film a bit more kindly because of just how incredibly epic it is in scope and how essential its ideas are to this country. Plus, the fact that it features what may be the single greatest performance in the history of American film and the best score of the decade probably helps.
- Adaptation. (Spike Jonze, 2002)
I’m nothing if not a Charlie Kaufman fanboy, and it was between this and the equally brilliant Synecdoche, New York for this spot (I know they only share a writer, but Kaufman is such a distinctive writer that I counted him in the no repeat directors category), but I went with Adaptation based simply on aesthetics—Synecdoche is clearly Kaufman’s first film behind the camera, and it can be a bit cluttered at times. While Adaptation may not be a wildly original as Being John Malkovich, this is a look at the creative process in film rivaled in depth and complexity maybe only by 8 ½. Characters based on real people interact with the people they’re based on who interact with fictional characters who interact with Kaufman, both as a character, brilliantly played by Nicolas Cage, and as a writer, controlling them all with the proficiency of a true genius.
10. 2046 (Wong Kar Wai, 2004)
In this loose sequel to the deservedly universally acclaimed In The Mood For Love (which is number one on the “They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They” list of the decade’s most acclaimed films), our protagonist has moved on from his unconsummated affair and gets involved in a series of relationships with a series of beautiful women. For the first time, Wong adds elements of science fiction into his story-telling, and this becomes a completely new canvas on which Wong and the great cinematographer Christoper Doyle (whose contribution cannot be underestimated) can paint their images. The romances and characters themselves are all pretty interesting in their own right, but don’t get confused, this film is all about the visuals. It features some of the most stunningly beautiful, detailed and elegant sets, costumes and camera work in the history of film. To put it simply, you do not need subtitles to fully appreciate this film.