Best Of The 2000s In Cinema: Films Of The Decade by Roger Keen

As a decade in cinema, 2000 to 2009 was abundantly fruitful, and one of its most notable features overall was that CGI ceased to be the preserve of higher-budget blockbusters, usually of SF or fantasy leanings, and became ubiquitous, cropping up in all manner of tricksy art movies, furnishing real world scenes with ambitious backdrops that would otherwise have been more difficult or expensive to create, and inevitably seeping into TV dramas, documentaries and adverts, altering forever the whole feel and syntax of moving imagery.

One of the early movies of the decade to boldly demonstrate this new trend was Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!, a musical like no other that abandoned itself to pure audio-visual spectacle, in a non-stop bravura rampage on the senses that pulled no punches and was ideally suited to its subject matter. It embraced the new technology, employing elaborate sets, model-making and digital composting, together with a swooping camera and fast-cutting montage in order to create a 3D wonderland bohemian Paris of 1900 that appeared to gush right out of writer Christian’s imagination. In the postmodern spirit, it used today’s pop music and the talents of Fatboy Slim, taking the genre to new places in a delirious Dennis Potter-on-absinthe kind of way – very 21st century.

Another film in a similar mould, released around the same time and also set in Montmartre, Paris, was Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie, which was so loved that it rose to the rank of most internationally successful French film of all time. Adopting the pose of a magic realist fable, it again used richly saturated colour and digital effects, such as talking photographs, to bring its fairytale world to life. The beauty of the style matched the enchantment of the story, where Amélie (Audrey Tautou) becomes a magical force for good, turning detective in order to restore the faded hopes and dreams of others, and find love for herself. Self-consciously meta-filmic, it iced the cake of everyday life with a thick layer of fantasy and became today’s equivalent of such classics as The Wizard Of Oz, and It’s A Wonderful Life.

But rapidly advancing visual effects technology also had its place in taking the genre blockbuster to new heights, and no review of the 2000s would be complete without a mention of Peter Jackson’s impeccable Lord Of The Rings trilogy. The scale and ambition of the novels, which have consistently topped favourites lists since they were published as a single volume in the 1960s, could only be matched in film by 21st century resources, consisting of an army of special effects, art department, makeup, costume and stunt personnel, together with the inspired use of New Zealand landscapes and a director with the just the right vision to make it all gel as a whole. Andy Serkis’ Gollum, with CGI ‘painted’ onto a live performance, was cutting-edge, as were the digitally-created battle scenes, replicating a cast of thousands and cropping up again in other epics, such as Troy and Gladiator.

As in the past, the multi-part franchise continued to be a staple of cinema, and another very popular example was Gore Verbinski’s Pirates Of The Caribbean trilogy. Based on a Disney theme-park ride, it combined elements of the traditional swashbuckler with fast-paced action and supernatural horror to create a fusion that greatly appealed to the zeitgeist of the new century. And indeed Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow, with his three-cornered hat rock ‘n’ roll image, became one of the major cinematic icons of the decade.

Other franchises that dealt in special effects-laden fantasy and magic wereHarry PotterX-Men, and Spider-Man, with horror director Sam Raimi doing much to re-invigorate the comic book genre by providing a deeper humanistic dimension in the latter. That torch was grasped by Zack Snyder, who, after combining visual effects with antiquity in 300, gave us the recent Watchmen, a bedazzling opera of multi-faceted effects, bringing alive a noir-ish, more ambivalent superhero tale, miles away from the wholesomeness of Clark Kent and Superman. Here the effects were truly part of the structure, making the fantastical seem probable, such as with the glowing, translucent, sapphire blue Dr Manhattan, equipped with god-like powers through his interfacing with the quantum-mechanical realm – very much a superhero of the moment.

But the comicbook king was Christopher Nolan, who took over the burgeoning Batman franchise and came up with darkest, most compelling version yet, culminating in the frenetic and mesmerising The Dark Knight, a top genre film of the decade, giving us another iconic character in Heath Ledger’s Joker. And shortly before Batman Begins, Nolan was also responsible for one the most original, quirky and puzzling films of the decade – Memento – a deconstructed film noir where the protagonist suffers from memory loss and the story is told in reverse. Such is the ingenuity of the movie that its inverted timeline becomes a feature of the mystery and a palpable embodiment of the disorientation of amnesia.

And amnesia was a key theme of another highly influential 2000s franchise, this time of the action-espionage variety – the Bourne trilogy. Though he’s now an outsider, hunted by his own former employers, Jason Bourne is very much the super-talented and resourceful secret agent in the James Bond mould. But the confusing nightmare world, in which he struts his stuff and where friend or foe aren’t at all clearly differentiable, was a departure from the cosy paint-by-numbers 007 plots, and the action sequences – particularly those directed by Paul Greengrass – had a new edgy and exciting feel, with hair-raising twists and convolutions that left Bond in the shadows. So successful was the Bourne franchise that when Bond was re-tooled in 2006 for Casino Royale, with Daniel Craig in the driving seat, they did their best to emulate it – a compliment indeed.

Not quite a trilogy but certainly the most memorable duology of the decade, Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films took his taste for eclectic pastiche and theatrical violence into the new century. This time drawing heavily on Hong Kong and Japanese martial arts movies and spaghetti westerns, he created a kind of ballet of blood, where the violence is so stylised and the plotting so implausible that one simply doesn’t read it like a regular film and instead it becomes a solipsistic exercise that stands up purely because of its brilliance as pure cinema. The pace and choreography of the fight scenes and the lusciousness of the cinematography sustain throughout, and Uma Thurman’s Bride in her tight yellow suit, swinging a samurai sword, has become another immortal icon of the decade.

Tarantino’s friend and close collaborator Robert Rodriguez entered the big time in 2005 with Sin City, which, with its proliferation of ultra-violent scenes and loose moral centre, was very Tarantinoesque. The most striking thing about Sin City, however, was its look, replicating the quality of Frank Miller’s graphic novel by shooting on digital video against green screen, so that real actors could be placed in comicbook-style created settings. The stark, ultra noir, black and white photography, with occasional elements of bright colour picking out specific objects or areas, completed the style; and it worked perfectly, achieving just the right balance between gritty, dirty realism and comic book fantasticality. Like Moulin Rouge!, and Amélie, it uniquely married new techniques and aesthetics to define a language for the new age.

Other directors of Mexican extraction made a big impression on the decade, most notably Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro. Iñárritu gave us Amores Perros21 Grams, and Babel, all of which combined gritty, hard-hitting drama with fractured, non-linear storytelling, so that they came over as intriguing and sometimes baffling puzzles that really required work in order to solve. Much more of a fantasist, Del Toro combines inventive commercial projects, such as the Hellboy franchise, with arty and more personal work, such as The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. This latter film, which juxtaposed an isolated child’s fantasy world with the cruel realities of the Spanish Civil War, brilliantly showcasing del Toro’s painterly skills in weaving visual effects into both of the parallel worlds, is one of the decade’s bona fide masterpieces, a rare example of an ambitious, somewhat risky concoction that nevertheless gels to perfection.

The 2000s also saw far eastern cinema rise to greater international prominence, and the most famous and influential example is Ang Lee’sCrouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. With its classic story of love and revenge, a colourful, mystic setting, fast-moving action and superbly choreographed fight sequences – where flying through the air doesn’t seem at all far-fetched – it reinvigorated the whole martial arts genre; and although the film is in Mandarin, it still achieved worldwide blockbuster popularity. In a similar historically epic vein, there soon emerged Zhang Yimou’s Hero, and House Of Flying Daggers, whilst Lee himself applied his talents to American culture, producing one the decade’s most affecting films, Brokeback Mountain, a subtle and sad story of repressed gay love in the disapproving atmosphere of Wyoming cattle country.

Another important Chinese director to come to prominence is Wong Kar-wai, whose 1960s-set Hong Kong drama In The Mood For Love has proved to be one of the most critically-acclaimed films of the decade. Concerning a love affair that didn’t quite happen, it’s a nuanced, understated piece where the emotion is conveyed through vivid details and strong atmosphere – so effectively, in fact, that the final sense of loss is quite devastating. Wong followed it up with 2046, more of an expansion than a sequel, with the pain of the unfulfilled love explored through a series of other affairs, weaving together a hypnotic layering of stories in a masterful cinematic performance. Using the same lead actor – Tony Leung – Ang Lee entered similar territory with his Lust, Caution, set in wartime Shanghai, a profoundly erotic and beautifully handled story of doomed love, which echoes both Wong’s work, and Brokeback Mountain.

German cinema also enjoyed a successful decade, and there a prevailing theme was the cathartic examination of the country’s sinister 20th century history. Florian von Donnersmarck gave us The Lives Of Others, a study of state control through surveillance techniques in East Berlin before the collapse of communism. Going forwards into the reunification era, when the Stasi (secret police) archives have now been made public, it very much works as an attempt to lance the boil of the past and achieve closure. Similarly, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall explores the final days of Hitler’s rule from a German perspective, resulting in a truly great and epic war movie and a marvellous ensemble drama. All the characters are so well-drawn and the casting so accurate that the sense of realism is strikingly profound, and Bruno Ganz’s Hitler is an acting masterpiece, the best ever realisation of this often caricatured figure. Downfall is a top film of this decade and one of the best war films of all time.

As regards comedies, Alexander Payne made his mark on the decade with two off-beat comic dramas, both brimming over with pathos – About Schmidt, and Sideways – which explore old-age and mid-life crises respectively, and succeed in being both, by turns, serious and hilarious. Shaun Of The Dead was a breakthrough British movie in that it found an odd but winning fusion between zombie horror and urban sitcom, and it spawned many inferior imitations. Little Miss Sunshine was another oddball hit, treading a fine line as it lampooned the American child beauty pageant circuit. Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder was a terrific knockabout romp, with Robert Downey Jr’s blacked-up Sergeant Lincoln Osiris stealing the show. But in the comic arena, the decade belongs to Sacha Baron Cohen, whose Borat created a parade of marvellous gags by presenting a fictional character as real to the unwitting American public, thereby taking the popular dramatic irony-prank tendency in comedy to dangerously extreme lengths. It seemed like an unrepeatable one-off, yet he did it all again with Bruno, this time using homophobia as a tool to wrong-foot.

In the field of animation, Pixar’s CGI work has become the benchmark, and the studio produced many of the decade’s favourites, including Finding NemoThe IncrediblesRatatouille, and Wall-E. Aardman Animations hit the big time when they teamed up with DreamWorks to make Chicken Run, and Wallace & Gromit In The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit, and the work managed to retain much of its home-grown charm despite Hollywood influence. Of edgier animations, both Persepolis and Waltz With Bashiradd a surreal gloss to explorations of middle eastern conflicts, and A Scanner Darkly brings alive Philip K. Dick’s druggy SF novel most appropriately, using real actors and interpolated rotoscoping.

When it came to feature-length documentaries Michael Moore was the man, and his wry look at American gun culture, Bowling For Columbine, contained some priceless moments where fact proved far wackier than fiction. In his Fahrenheit 9/11, he was accused of distorting the facts to suit his own agenda, and the off-screen controversy polarised opinion on journalistic objectivity. British film Touching The Void used effective reconstruction to tell an amazing story of survival against impossible odds when two climbers come to grief in a remote part of the Andes. Man On Wire had a similar feel, in that it showed daredevilry taken to extremes, with a catalogue of tightrope walker Philippe Petit’s hair-raising stunts, such as walking a wire between the World Trade Centre’s twin towers.

Regarding notable movies from well-established directors, Peter Weir gave us Master And Commander; Roman Polanski – The Pianist; David Cronenberg – A History Of Violence; Ridley Scott – Gladiator; Mel Gibson –The Passion Of The Christ; Paul Greengrass – United 93; the Coens – No Country for Old Men; and Steven Spielberg – Munich, and Minority Report. And Martin Scorsese at last won an Oscar for The Departed, ironically one of his least memorable films.

Finally we come to other quirky, arty and difficult to classify movies that made a strong impression. Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums has proved an enduring favourite, in partly because of its odd compelling look, seeming almost to take place in its own alternative universe, and also because of its stellar ensemble cast, mixing the older generation – Gene Hackman, Angelica Huston – with the younger – Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller. The story of a dysfunctional family of cracked geniuses works on many richly complex levels, having a distinctly autobiographical feel and referencing the works of J.D. Sallinger, and Orson Welles. Deep, serious, light and comedic by turns, it is a uniquely thought-provoking piece.

Another excellent film that stands in a class of its own is The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, the story of paralysed Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, directed by painter Julian Schnabel. Using ambitious camera techniques to re-create Bauby’s viewpoint and interior world, it is not itself a fantasy but shows the power of fantasy and the indomitability of the human spirit to overcome a hopeless predicament. It’s a deeply moving and highly successful piece of experimental cinema.

An intriguing film of the end of the 1990s that uniquely blends together surrealism and comedy is Being John Malkovich, where a puppeteer gets inside the head of the famous actor with highly weird results. The inspiration behind it was largely due to its writer, Charlie Kaufman, rather than its director Spike Jonze, as Kaufman proved with his subsequent screenplays for Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. This latter film, beautifully directed by Michel Gondry, became a standout fantasy of the decade, deconstructing a relationship as the couple, played by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, meet as if for the first time after having had their memories of one another erased because of past difficulties. Here the fantasy element acts as a spotlight, telling us more about the ineffability of love than a straight romance ever could.

More recently Charlie Kaufman got the chance to direct his own screenplay and the result, Synecdoche, New York, is another marvellous reality-bending piece that uses low-level fantasy to create new twists on the exploration of life’s big issues. A theatre director embarks on an epic work about the people of New York, which remains perpetually in development as it grows larger and larger, becoming focussed on the director’s own troubled life – and then on himself working on the production, holding up parallel mirrors so that life and art refract each other to the nth degree. It proved not to be as widely popular as his other films, appealing more to specialist tastes; but for connoisseurs of reality-bending cinema it remains an exquisitely crafted exercise of multi-layered sophistication, a one-of-a-kind masterwork.

And so to the reality-bender-in-chief, Mr David Lynch, who, after treading an increasingly experimental path with Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and Lost Highway, came up with – in terms of pure cinematic innovation – easily the most important film of the decade, Mulholland Drive, which completely re-defined what is possible within the medium – and without the aid of special effects, through narrative alone. The noir plotline, bent back on itself in a möbius strip, looping through reality and dream, created a meta-mystery in the mind of the audience that addressed the core of what ‘watching a film’ is about. That many people wouldn’t ‘get it’ and treat the narrative as incomprehensible was all part of the plan; as indeed was the spawning of thousands of theories, leading eventually to a consensus agreement about what’s ‘really’ going on – a shortcut solution to the Rubik’s cube – though still there are parts of the movie that defy cause-and-effect rationalisation. And now, eight years on, it still remains a rarefied experience – if it became tamed in the public mind and it made as many top ten lists as Lord Of The Rings, it wouldn’t be an innovative masterpiece, would it?

Amelie - rare treats

Moulin Rouge!



Pan's Labyrinth

In the Mood for Love


The Royal Tenenbaums

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Synecdoche, New York

Mulholland Drive