Somehow, some way, we are nearing the end of the twentieth year of the 21st century. Two decades, and time marches on.
Beginning with 2000, a year that seems more culturally distant by the day, I curated my ten favorite movies from each year. Some years were shockingly easy, others almost impossible, and so much of it (especially the earlier years) was a fun, sometimes eye-opening trip down memory lane.
Here goes nothing…
10. The Contender – Director Rod Lurie’s compelling political thriller has all but disappeared from public discourse over the last two decades. It deserves a reappraisal, especially in today’s politically-charged cultural war zone, where accusations can damn a person forever and every minuscule misstep is dragged through the court of public opinion. This is an acting showcase and it’s the film that solidified Joan Allen’s status as a powerful screen presence.
Allen is remarkable as Laine Hanson, a candidate for Vice President whose personal life and sexual escapades in college are brought to the surface in congressional hearings by Republican senator Shelly Runyon, played by a perfectly slimy Gary Oldman. If the tension between these two isn’t enough to draw you in, there’s Jeff Bridges, who grabbed a Supporting Actor nomination for his avuncular turn as President Jackson Evans, a man who loves nothing more than to challenge the White House kitchen with off-the-wall food requests.
9. The Cell – If I were to say “they don’t make them like this anymore” every time it applied, the phrase would get old before the end of this first list. But, honestly, they don’t make anything like Tarsem Singh’s mind-fuck of a serial killer thriller anymore, where Jennifer Lopez uses newfangled technology to travel into the nightmarish mind of a psychopath (Vincent D’Onofrio, who else), to try and find his latest victim before time runs out.
The visuals on display here still feel unlike anything that’s existed before or after Tarsem’s picture, rich and hypnotic and often terrifying. It helps that the story, and Howard Shore’s relentless score, effectively build nerve-jangling momentum behind the trippy imagery.
8. Gladiator – This year’s Best Picture winner hasn’t aged particularly well, especially in the CGI renditions of ancient Rome. But docking a picture because of aged effects is foolish. Beyond this, though, there’s something antiquated about the rhythms of the film, and it’s something that’s difficult to pinpoint. Just go with me. The emotional impact that resonated in 2000 just isn’t there anymore, not in the same way. It feels more like a series of memorable moments strung together by a thin, retreaded Spartacus storyline.
And yet, there are powerful moments and strong performances, and despite it’s creakiness, Gladiator is still a thrilling revenge tale. Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix are fantastic in their roles of hero and villain, and Ridley Scott handles the scope of the film and its major action set pieces with the expertise he’s often shown in these sweeping period epics. Gladiator reaches for the stars, and his reach lands more often than not.
7. Meet the Parents – There’s something invigorating about a comedy taking over the cultural conversation. It’s a rarer feat, more difficult to do, and it’s often something that unifies us all in laughter. Ben Stiller has done that more than once, with Something About Mary in 1997, and again with Meet the Parents, which holds up so well it has reached the “timeless” stage of its maturity in recent years.
Stiller is, of course, not the main draw here. It’s Robert De Niro, in arguably his final role where he seems to be awake and aware of what’s happening around him – at least for a dozen more years, before he made an effort in Silver Lining’s Playbook. The mystery behind De Niro’s character and his bone-dry straight man humor pairs perfectly with Stiller’s natural bewilderment and desperation. It’s a shame they felt the need to keep making increasingly terrible sequels; nevertheless, nothing can take away the impact of Jay Roach’s original.
Special shout out to the late, great James Rebhorn, who steals every scene in which he’s involved.
6. Unbreakable – M. Night Shyamalan’s follow up to The Sixth Sense definitely confused a lot of people in 2000. There’s a twist, sure, but not in the same way, not with the same groundbreaking impact. There also wasn’t much horror or suspense, really, just a mood piece following Bruce Willis’s David Dunn as he tries to deny his destiny as a superhero, and ignore the persistence of Samuel L. Jackson’s brittle, purple-clad Elijah Price.
Looking back on Unbreakable without the context of Split or Glass, this was an era where superhero movies were still a mystery to Hollywood. Bryan Singer’s X-Men had just come out and set a new template for the serious superhero film, but the studio rush to produce these existing IPs hadn’t kicked off just yet. Shyamalan’s film existed, for a long time, in a void where nothing could touch it as far as superhero films were concerned. Now, in the afterglow of Avengers: Endgame, it holds up in an all new way, as a wholly unique experience in a genre that’s taken over the zeitgeist.
5. Memento – I remember reading about Memento in the newspaper back in 2000. Yeah, the newspaper, crazy huh? The idea that a film somehow played backwards and managed to make sense, and have a twist, consumed me; and clearly I wasn’t alone. So after work, I drove some 20 miles to the nearest independent theater and witnessed Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending neo noir for myself.
Seeing Memento for the first time is something you cannot, ironically, forget and experience over again. At the same time, every revisit still contains a bit of that early mystery, of an unraveling plot that comes to you bit by bit, thanks to some clever structural tricks Nolan employs, and the skittish nature of the story itself. The small scale of this film, which could have been entirely shot in no more than a single city block, is amusing to think about when you consider Nolan’s films today. Guy Pearce is terrific, and Carrie-Anne Moss should have been a bigger star.
4. Almost Famous – Cameron Crowe’s semi autobiographical journey across the landscape of America rock music in the 1970s is equal parts charming, saccharine, propulsive, emotional, and altogether rewarding as a pure cinematic experience. It’s a film that grows on you from its opening moments, that pulls you into its melodrama, and leaves you emotionally changed, much like our hero, William Miller (Patrick Fugit).
The marketing and the buzz surrounding the film in 2000 revolved around Kate Hudson, who’s never been as good again as she was here, playing Penny Lane, pioneer of the “band aids” for the Bad Company/Allman Brothers-type fictional band, Stillwater. It’s a shame she was upset for Best Supporting Actress the following spring (although Marcia Gay Harden is great in Pollack).
3. Requiem for A Dream – Much like Memento, I read about this new director named Darren Aronofsky, and his stylistically groundbreaking new addiction film, in something called a newspaper. And, like I did with Nolan’s film, I went after work to see the film at that same independent theater. Then, I brought my friend to see it; then, I brought another friend to see it.
Nowadays, the subject matter and the intensity of Aronofsky’s film is much more difficult to stomach than it was as a 19-year old, when family and age and empathy hadn’t yet softened my edges. It’s too intense, and it’s probably too showy or too “film student cliche” for some, but despite the fact I may never watch this movie again, it was important, undeniable in my development as a cinephile. It was a stepping stone in my personal relationship with cinema, and it will forever live as an important flashpoint in my life. And, besides, there’s no denying the power of the performances. Ellen Burstyn’s physically-demanding, remarkable turn as the lonely widow Sara Goldfarb is heartbreaking. Her longing for a human connection is something I understand more as age creeps up on me, and it’s her stunning, physical work here that will forever endure.
2. American Psycho – This was the only film on this list I didn’t see theatrically. Not many did. Mary Harron’s adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s aggressively ’80s satire is a special type of film, one that evolves rapidly from the first time you see it to the third or fourth time. At first, the subject and the execution (no pun intended) can be repulsive, because it’s easy to go into a film like this blind and take everything at face value. Once you sync up to the story’s satirical bite, however, the film opens up as a brilliant black comedy.
Christian Bale is a perfect Patrick Bateman, a plastic, dead-eyed yuppie in a land of lookalikes and a sea of poseurs. Except his internal dialogue is that of a nasty, murderous villain, and the external outpouring of his hatred and disgust for humanity is shown in some hilariously off-putting and gruesome bursts of sex and violence. Sometimes, I buy into the idea that all of Bateman’s murders are in his head, and there is evidence to support this; other times, I believe he did commit these crimes, but in this vapid Manhattan universe, nobody really cares or believes him anyway.
That’s one reason why this movie rules.
1. Cast Away – It seemed like the marketing for Cast Away kicked off shortly after Hanks appeared in Saving Private Ryan, because he began losing an extreme amount of weight and growing out a crazy beard to play Chuck Nolan, a FedEx workaholic who crash lands on a deserted island, where he lives for four years. Sometimes, these extreme physical transformations are for nought, but in this case, Hanks and Robert Zemeckis took that publicity and crafted a masterpiece.
For some reason, “masterpiece” is a word rarely uttered with this film, which feels like an absurd oversight. This is an astounding and iconic performance by Hanks, who pulls us into the film with roughly 45 minutes of wordless physicality. It’s a film that makes us cry over a volleyball, it’s a film that makes us think about how we might handle such a horrific turn of events, and it’s a story about how people have to eventually move on or die. Cast Away will never not be a captivating, timeless classic.