Film critics may serve a valuable purpose for moviegoers, but even more helpful is hindsight — especially for critics. Not one of the motion pictures listed below as the best of the ’00s won the Oscar for Best Picture, although most were at least nominated for something. But these are the movies people are still talking about, and watching, years later. The below films are listed in alphabetical order. This is the first of a five-part series on top films of the past five decades.
10. Almost Famous (2000)
The best movies don’t just make us feel cool, by virtue of our proximity to characters more exciting and glamorous than we are. They actually convince us, for a couple of hours, that we really are that cool (or at least could be if we tried) just because we’re watching the movie. Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical film about a young teenager who lands a gig following a rock band for Rolling Stone magazine in the delirious 1970s, pulls this off with exquisite verve. The movie gave Kate Hudson her breakthrough role, although it did nothing for Patrick Fugit, who played the journalist and is as unknown today as he was then. What hurt Crowe more than the fact the film wasn’t even nominated for a Best Picture Oscar was that nobody went to see it. Almost Famous, his best picture, failed to break even.
9. Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Very quickly, it became easy to dismiss Brokeback Mountain as the “gay cowboy movie.” When it wound up on the losing end of an upset for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, theories ranged from speculation that the voters of the Motion Picture Association of America were homophobic (highly unlikely) to the possibility that they simply preferred the less heralded Crash (probably the case). The movie has been criticized for depicting a gay relationship, for not being gay enough, even for neglecting bisexuality. Nobody associated with Brokeback Mountain, from director Ang Lee to the actors, as well as its writers and producers, has ever said publicly that they set out to make a gay film. The picture works because it’s so unabashedly romantic. It’s also remarkably adept at capturing the ranching culture of the American West. But “gay cowboy movie” is a moniker it will never lose.
8. Children of Men (2006)
If apocalyptic films have become a genre unto themselves, then this dystopian version of the near-future blasts it into smithereens. The doomy tone may be familiar — London in the near future, when people have lost the ability to have children and the British capital is the only livable place left on the planet. But most of the end-of-the-world clichés are missing. Society as depicted here feels familiar, only devoid of hope — or is it? Alfonso Cuaron’s picture, which features a screenplay written by many contributors, lets the audience think for itself. It’s smart, loaded with cultural and literary references that are there for the taking, but needn’t be recognized for the movie to have an impact. Children of Men‘s most breathtaking element, however, is the actual camerawork, particularly several long single shots. Technically speaking, this is filmmaking at its most brilliant.
7. Grizzly Man (2005)
The ’00s were an exceptional decade for documentary films, and perhaps none had a more lasting emotional impact than this examination, by maverick German filmmaker Werner Herzog, of one very mixed-up man. Timothy Treadwell, a self-proclaimed naturalist, liked to think of himself as living among the bears during the 13 summers he spent in the field at a national park in Alaska. He said he was protecting them from poachers, although none had been poached, and approached the grizzlies as if they were domesticated dogs, only to be killed and eaten by one, which wildlife officials later had to kill. Aided immensely by 85 hours of video Treadwell had shot of himself in Alaska, and letting his own intriguing thoughts and feelings seep into the film, Herzog doesn’t just create a portrait of a complicated man. He shatters many myths we harbor about our relationship with nature.
6. Hotel Rwanda (2004)
When the tiny African nation of Rwanda descended into the maw of genocide in 1994, the rest of the world chose to look away. Hotel Rwanda, 10 years later, forced the world to see what their apathy had wrought. So this is an important film, but perhaps remarkably, it’s also highly entertaining. It tells the true story of Paul Rusesabagina, a luxury hotelier who protected more than 1,200 refugees in his establishment. As played by Don Cheadle — in the role of his career — Rusesabagina doesn’t just keep his humanity in the face of complete societal breakdown; he exudes a level of courage and compassion that nothing in his life or work had prepared him for. In other words, we can put ourselves in his shoes. While showing us how genocide can mushroom, director Terry George keeps us watching by staging the story as a thriller, a very deft trick.
5. Kill Bill, Vols. I and II (2003-04)
Neither installment was even nominated for an Oscar, in any category. The picture, in a formal sense, is a mess, a sacrifice made to the idiosyncrasies of its director, Quentin Tarantino. Essentially one movie, it had to be split in two because he couldn’t edit himself. The cinematic references — to kung fu movies of the 1960s and ’70s, Japanese samurai and yakuza films, the Chinese wuxia genre, spaghetti westerns, exploitation flicks — are so numerous and laden with significance that they often overshadow more important elements like character and plot. But ultimately, none of this matters. Tarantino injects every frame of his film with an energy that’s intoxicating. It’s deliriously stylized. And the many martial arts sequences are choreographed with a skill rarely seen in motion pictures. As a movie in love in movies, it has no equal.
4. Lost in Translation (2003)
It’s often said that, in storytelling, what’s left unsaid has more impact than that which the audience is allowed to hear. This philosophy doesn’t just account for the effectiveness of a key scene in Sofia Coppola’s second feature, it pretty much describes the entire film. The tale, about two Americans far apart in age marooned in the very foreign landscape of Tokyo, owes a lot to the movie’s casting. Scarlett Johansson plays an observant, young woman who makes a connection with an aging actor portrayed by Bill Murray, who is largely responsible for the film being as funny and touching as it is. While these characters do connect, they accept that their friendship must be fleeting, a rare acknowledgment of common sense in the movies. And at the end, when he whispers something inaudible in her ear that makes her cry, we in the audience are in the midst of great cinema.
3. Memento (2000)
There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who enjoy puzzles, and those who are driven crazy by them. If you count yourself among the latter, then Memento probably isn’t the movie for you. It may not make many converts among the puzzle-phobic, but the film, which delves deep into matters of memory and time, is airtight in a way that few movies going down this road manage to be. Scrupulously crafted by brothers Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, Memento tells the story of a protagonist (Guy Pearce, in what remains his best role) attempting to track down his wife’s killer, a task made infinitely harder by the fact that he has no short-term memory. Amnesia is much more than just a device here, however. Half the film moves forward in time, the other half backward. The audience is as confused as Pearce’s character, intentionally so, but it all comes together in the end.
2. There Will Be Blood (2007)
This is an unusual film; some might call it strange, even deeply odd. When the increasingly deranged oilman Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) and false prophet Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) are propelled into the story’s final confrontation, the movie probably goes too far. But Paul Thomas Anderson’s picture, an indictment of American capitalism circa 1902, fully deserves the label of “masterpiece” that so many critics have bestowed upon it. Impressive in its scope and visually stunning, There Will Be Blood is not easily forgotten. It’s a remarkable example of a director’s singular vision fully realized. It has much to say about the dark side of the American dream. But finally, it’s the inspired performances of Day-Lewis, who won an Oscar for his effort, and Dano that let the audience know this is a film with ambitions fully as mighty as those of its characters.
1. Zodiac (2007)
Whodunits are ideally suited for the page, where readers can immerse themselves in the complexity of the case at their own pace. The big screen, typically, is not the venue for complex stories, like the one in Zodiac. Perhaps that explains why this picture, about a serial killer who terrorized the San Francisco Bay area in the 1960s and ’70s but was never caught, didn’t perform well at the box office. Director David Fincher took meticulousness to the extreme in making a movie that has no narrative payoff, and it was the attention that he paid instead to the process — of police work, journalism — that threw off a lot of critics. Nearly two hours and 40 minutes long, the movie veers off into uncertainty just when we should be expecting a big climax. But stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr. had faith in Fincher, and so should viewers. Zodiac richly rewards those who are patient.