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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Movies That Defined the 2000's: 10-1

Ground Zero, where the World Trade
Center once stood, courtesy of
And here we are at the end of the road. We've looked at #50 through #11, and now we've hit the top ten definitive movies of the 00's. It's amazing how dramatic these are. I could argue two are technically comedies, but only in a broad sense. We were hit early in the decade with the biggest tragedy in our country's history, which seemed to give way to a bevy of darker, more dramatic films. Without further ado, let's look at the final ten - the ones that, years from now, will stand up as the iconic ones from the 2000's.

#10. Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)

I don't like Michael Moore that much and I didn't care for this film, but I can't argue with the impact of this sensationalist look at the perceived failures of the Bush administration in the wake of 9/11 (it won the People's Choice Award for Favorite Film for God's sake...what documentary does that?). Moore argues that Bush simply used the fear induced by the terrorist attacks to push his agenda forward and starting the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq and, while there will always be doubt, he does a good job supporting his point. Whether you are a republican, democrat, or independent, Fahrenheit 9/11 is a must see for people old enough to have a handle on the events of 9/11 and the subsequent wars. The Academy may have tired of Moore at this point (it wasn't even nominated for Best Documentary) and, whether you agree with Moore's point of view or not, at least it makes you think. 

#9. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

Johnny Depp went from teen sex symbol on "21 Jump Street" to an auteur of weird, outside-the-box movie roles, but then jumped into this Disney film based on a theme park ride. As Captain Jack Sparrow, Depp lit up the screen with his crazed Keith Richards-style performance that earned him an Oscar nomination in the first installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean series. Alongside Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom (ugh) and Keira Knightley, Depp took what is essentially a kids adventure film and made it into an epic blockbuster that's fun from top to bottom. Nominated for Makeup, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Visual Effects, Pirates spawned three lesser sequels (and more coming most likely), but still managed to bring some critical praise and audience love to a film based on one of the worst Disney rides ever.

#8. Almost Famous (2000)

Writer/director Cameron Crowe made this semi-autobiographical comic-drama in 2000, which quickly became everybody's favorite movie (hipsters mostly, but still). Almost Famous details a high schooler's trip with an up-and-coming rock band in an effort to write a story about them for Rolling Stone. The movie debut of young Patrick Fugit puts him with a bevy of up-and-coming actors, including Anna Paquin, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jimmy Fallon, Billy Crudup, and Zooey Deschanel, alongside veterans Frances McDormand and Jason Lee. The major discovery was the talent of young Kate Hudson, a Best Supporting Actress nominee for the film (as was McDormand). She has subsequently wasted said talent, but at least she was a flash in the pan. Few movies capture the dreamy-eyed mind-frame of aspiring writers so well, especially in the presence of the people you worship. A well-conceived, Oscar-winning script, great performances, and the perfect film for anybody looking for a coming-of-age story.

#7. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

Of all the Harry Potter films, why did I pick this one? Because it changed the series. Young Daniel Radcliffe inhabited the iconic J.K. Rowling title character through the first two films, but it wasn't until director Alfonso Cuarón took the helm with this one that the series jumped up a notch. Director Chris Columbus didn't do much to deepen the film beyond what the books did in the first two, basically making films for kids based on books for kids. Cuarón took the source material and the fact that these children were growing up and made a motion picture more geared toward adults and the people who grew up with the series and are, in fact, also older. The Prisoner of Azkaban remains the best in the series and, without it, the subsequent films would still be made like Disney family adventure films, thus destroying their impact. Even the final installment would be lacking if it weren't for the path this one set for it.

#6. Avatar (2009)

Never has a movie premiered that forced you so deliberately to see it at the theater. And in 3D, too. James Cameron's spectacle of special effects and CGI was basically Dances with Wolves in space, but still had to be seen to believed. Avatar didn't just throw in effects - it was nothing but effects. Cameron sacrificed story and acting to build the planet Pandora completely from scratch, creating a feast of visual splendor and computer-designed magic. It was the most expensive film ever made. It was the biggest box office earner of all time. But, as culturally significant as it was and as many tickets as it sold, it still lost the Academy Award to a tiny film that made no money (The Hurt Locker). And I couldn't have been more pleased. This movie gave me a headache. Maybe it was the glasses.

#5. United 93 (2006)

For years, directors tried to capture the fear and terror that fateful day in September 2001 created. On that day, two planes crashed into the Twin Towers and one into the Pentagon. But the fourth plane crashed in rural Pennsylvania, thanks to the efforts of some brave passengers. Five years later, writer/director Paul Greengrass fictionalized the events that happened on that fourth plane with United 93, a real time account of that tragic flight, in a similar way that Gus Van Sant's Elephant took on the Columbine shooting. It wasn't a studio film. It wasn't a film that tried to have you take this unthinkable tragedy and turn it into a patriotic call to action. It was a simple re-telling of a story of the utmost bravery in the face of uncertain doom. It did nothing more, nothing less. Yet it still managed to make an event that happened five years earlier all the more important and life-changing.

#4. Brokeback Mountain (2005)

It was supposed to be the movie that turned the heads of the old, white bigots of the Academy and take home the Oscar. Instead, it became the movie everyone felt was robbed because it had homosexual themes. Based on a short story by Annie Proulx, Brokeback Mountain is a love story between two cowboys that spanned their lives, together and apart. Portrayed on screen by Heath Ledger and Jack Gyllenhaal, Ennis and Jack are sent into the mountains of Wyoming to shepherd and form a lifelong bond that amounts to much more than just friendship. As they take different roads, their love for one another never fades as they pretend to live normal lives in the wake of such a tumultuous time. Supported on both sides by equally detailed performances from Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway, Ledger and Gyllenhaal earned plenty of raves. I won't hesitate to call it overrated, but it certainly did make the impact it needed to. Crash may have taken home the Oscar in 2005, but Brokeback Mountain took home the critics and the general public.

#3. The Passion of the Christ (2004)

Mel Gibson was once the handsome man in the Australian dystopian adventure Mad Max and half of the buddy comedy Lethal Weapon. In 1995, he proved himself as a director with Bravehart. In 2004, he took on the Bible, but not the Old Testament or the years leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus. He took on the crucifixion itself, which amounted to 120 minutes of agony and pain as the audience witnesses the last twelve hours of Jesus' life. Portrayed on screen by Jim Caviezel, Jesus was shown just as the Bible writes him, without any variation for thematic flare. Gibson made no bones about his faith when he marketed the film, but after critics extracted antisemitic tones from the film and Gibson stuck his foot in his mouth over and over again, the film was forever associated with the perceived insanity of the former heartthrob. Religion will always be a hot button issue and, whether or not it was ill-conceived or an act of pure faith, The Passion of the Christ struck a chord that incited a nation, both positively and negatively.

#2. The Dark Knight (2008)

Earlier in the countdown, we discussed Spiderman 2 and the way it forced peple to take comic book adaptations seriously. After Christopher Nolan took on the reboot of the Batman series with the ambitious Batman Begins, he tore the roof off the genre with The Dark Knight, a comic book adaptation with so much substance and dark thematic elements that it removed every memory of there ever being another Batman film. Christian Bale's darker portrayal of the hero and his twisted, damaged side was praised, but the performance of the decade may have come from Heath Ledger here as the Joker. Dying of a drug overdose not long after the film's release, Ledger's performance won him the Supporting Actor Oscar posthumously. Unfortunately, the award always gets viewed as a "sympathy vote." But, trust me - tragedy or not, Ledger's work here is terrifying, mind-blowing, and every bit as good as any villain who has ever graced the screen. The film was one of the biggest box office successes of all time, but still managed to get snubbed by the Academy, not even being nominated for Best Picture. The following year, the Academy changed the rules to allow ten films into the race.

#1. The Lord of the Rings (2001/2/3) 

Could there be any other choice? Forgive me for lumping them all together - it feels like cheating. But, when Peter Jackson took the lead as director to adapt the J.R.R. Tolkien fantasy novels into films, he assembled a brilliant group of actors, special effects wizards, and set designers to build the most epic set of films the public had seen since the original Star Wars trilogy. The story of Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) and the group entrusted to take the One Ring to Mount Doom to destroy it forever is big, beautiful, and breathtaking. Ian McKellen's portrayal of Gandalf, along with Viggo Mortensen's work as Aragorn  are the highlights, as well as the emergence of a fully CGI-character named Gollum in the The Two Towers portrayed by Andy Serkis. My personal favorite is the Fellowship of the Ring, because it introduces the characters and focuses more on their development, as opposed to the quest itself. The Oscar winner of the group for Best Picture was Return of the King, which really served more as an award for the entire series. As we await Peter Jackson's latest chapter, The Hobbit, let us not forget what an accomplishment this original trilogy was and how, years from now, these films will be what define the 2000's.

So, there you have it. Argue all you want, but I don't think you'll get very far.

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