These are my favorite films of the 2000s. Please note that I say “favorite” here, because I no longer feel qualified to declare which are the “best” or “most important.” That said, these at least are in rough order by what I discern as their importance (which I’ll try to explain). The only thing I think is really missing is an Iranian film, but in my estimation the best Iranian films were made in the late 90s. Most of my readers probably already know this, but I was a film studies person for five years before transitioning to game studies. I don’t personally think it gets in the way of my understanding games as a unique medium or cultural form, perhaps because I interact daily with Ian. I may be wrong, of course.
In any case, you’ll notice that these skew toward the beginning of the decade. That’s because I started studying games in 2007 and stopped keeping up with what was winning at film festivals. During my five years of study, I purchased over 300 DVDs (mostly contemporary) and watched between 2-4 films a day. My specialization was in East Asian genre film, but I also spent a summer researching at the Irish Film Archive and familiarized myself with the classics of most historical eras and movements. My problem with most such lists by other Americans is that they’re Anglo-centric. I’m obviously biased here, but I hope I’ve presented a decent mix. I’d like to give special thanks for my years of study to Professor Richard Neupert of UGA, an expert on French New Wave and animation—one of the best mentors I’ve had the privilege to study under.
Film of the Decade: Yi Yi
This one, I believe, belongs in most “ten greatest films of all time” lists, knocking one of the Kurosawas, Ozus, or Kubricks out of contention if you’ve got two on there (typically, Rashomon and/or Seven Samurai appear in the second half of most of those lists… Rashomon obviously stays). If you look at Cannes winners, it quickly becomes obvious that the 2000s were the decade of international social realism cinema. Yi Yi, by the late Taiwanese director Edward Yang, certainly falls into this trend. The reason that it emerges on the top of the heap is that it also engages with the clash in East Asia between tradition and westernization, morality and technology, youth and age. About the disintegration and reconciliation of a sprawling family, Yi Yi is one of the few films I’ve seen that takes videogames seriously—maybe because Yang was a brilliant computer engineer before becoming a director. Its cinematography is finely-tuned, with entire conversations caught in reflections on glass surfaces, long takes, and incredible depth of field. It is funny, heartbreaking, perfect.
In the Mood for Love
Wong Kar Wai is the reason I started studying asian film, and In the Mood for Love is the reason I was exclusively attracted to Chinese females for a period of three years. It’s a period piece about the 50s and 60s in Hong Kong, so popular (despite being an art film) that it spawned a craze for cheongsams throughout China. Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung play neighbors whose spouses are cheating on them with each other. The conceit is simple: “we’ll roleplay to figure out how this happened.” Neither the faces of the spouses nor any possible sexual interaction between the protagonists are ever caught on camera. There are more slow pans across alleys while rain is falling than you would ever want to see in real life, all edited to the same melancholy string instrumental. I have a tattoo of Maggie Cheung from this film on my left arm.
Dancer in the Dark
I don’t like Lars von Trier. I don’t mind that he made a trilogy about the United States without ever visiting it, because that’s not important. What I do mind is that he calls this trilogy the “America trilogy” when it would be more accurately named the “People trilogy.” The main lesson of all these films is that people, especially when they’ve got no money, do horrible things to each other. Bjork plays an immigrant working in a factory in Nowhere, USA. She’s going blind, but she’s been saving up money so that her son might have a chance at a better life. Everything goes wrong. This is a musical about factories and trainyards. Some scenes are captured by one hundred handheld video cameras shooting simultaneously, an example of kinonarrative dissonance with a purpose. Within the same moment, it both exemplifies and defies everything set forth in the Dogme 95 manifesto. Vinterberg’s Festen is the better Dogme film, but this is the superior film.
When I was in high school, we had a German exchange student. One night, while we were driving around shooting off fireworks, he said this: “In Germany, we don’t have Mexicans. We’ve got Turks. They’re like rats.” Fatih Akin, the director of Head-On, was born of Turkish decent in Germany. Many of his films are about the cultural and economic struggles of Turks living in Germany. Head-On is the story of an aging Turkish man with no love for his culture who marries a beautiful, young woman so that she can leave her family home to sleep with non-Turkish men. They fall in love. Did I mention that they meet in a suicide ward? Everything goes wrong. Main sequences of the film are segmented by these strange interludes with a traditional Turkish musical performance. The pacing is incredibly good, which is something I can’t say about his later Edge of Heaven.
I know all the better hipsters in the audience were reading graphic novels before this film came out. Well I wasn’t, because I was busy watching movies all day. Directed by two documentarians, Shari Berman and Robert Pulcini, American Splendor mixes interview footage, traditional non-fiction narrative, and animated segments to great effect. The star of the show is comics writer Harvey Pekar, played alternately by himself and Paul Giamatii (before that Sideways crapfest and villain roles in bad action films). Pekar’s life story and gradual development into an indie comics icon is totally blue-collar and totally real. Hope Davis and Judah Friedlander also crafted memorable depictions of rather cartoonish human beings. It deals with cancer survival, artistic inspiration, child-rearing, and Dave Letterman—what more could you ask for?
Joint Security Area
I like Park Chan-wook’s “Vengeance trilogy.” There were a couple years when Oldboy was my favorite film. I’d watch it twice a week and force all of my friends to sit through it when they came over for a beer. Kind of like when I watched Fight Club every day when I was fourteen. You get over it eventually. JSA came out before the vengeance trilogy, and it’s about a clandestine friendship that develops between North and South Korean soldiers stationed on the border between the two countries. When I visited South Korea, I was astounded by the naive optimism of many that the North would capitulate “any day now” and accept the marvels of capitalism. JSA takes this naivete and twists it, making the conflict about people rather than ideology. The ensuing tragedy is handled in a much less melodramatic way than any other film on the subject (I’m lookin’ at you, Taeguki). Fairly brutal critique of UN peacekeeping, too, I might add. Honorable mention: Kim Ki Duk’s 3 Iron.
Miyazaki is good; you don’t need me to tell you that. Along with a few other anime directors and one or two from France (Michel Ocelot), he pretty much makes western animation completely obsolete for me: he uses computers to enhance cel-filmography rather than replace it. His colors are vibrant, his environments dynamic. I don’t know if Spirited Away is better than Princess Mononoke, but I think it strikes the perfect balance between engaging both adults and children without insulting or boring either. In a country whose animation is dominated by male power fantasies (sometimes subverted) and demon sex, Miyazaki makes coming-of-age films about young women warriors. They’re sensitive, funny, and immersed in that same struggle between tradition and modernity that I loved in Yi Yi. Honorable mention: Ocelot’s Kirikou and the Sorceress.
If this were a list from the 80s or 90s, this position would be in heated contention between Cronenberg and Lynch—that is when both of the dark, postmodern directors created their best work. We are by no means settling with our pick of Mulholland Drive, though. Every hipster you know has his or her “perfect” “solution” to the “puzzle” the film presents (actually my friend Max has the best one). What do you need to know? It’s a critique of Hollywood from someone who’s seen the worst of it. It’s got dream logic, symbolism, Illuminati, and imagery-for-imagery’s-sake. Lynch always uses that stilted, awkward acting… so what happens when he breaks down his personal fourth wall for the scene where Naomi Watts is auditioning for a soap opera? It gets hot. Honorable mention: Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises.
Children of Men
Science fiction is my favorite genre, narrowly beating out gangster film. That said, I can’t think of many innovative science fiction films from the 2000s. They remain, for the most part, neoliberal escapist fantasy. Also, the 2000s were dominated by zombie films—third-rate zombie films. Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men came along just before the recent rash of post-apocalyptic media. First: its cinematography is grainy and frenetic. The long takes during the assault on the car and the escape from the farm house are more tense than most action films. There’s a healthy dose of intrigue, mixed with advocacy for marijuana in a world where half our population is medicated, mixed with a critique of British and American treatment of illegal immigrants. Unlike many notable science fiction films of the decade, it knows how to splice its final, insane glimmer of hope with the tragic loss of its protagonist. Remember, this is the guy who did Y Tu Mama Tambien and a Harry Potter flick (talk about range). Honorable mention: Soderbergh’s remake of Solaris.
Talk to Her
What do you want out of a Pedro Almodovar film? You want a flamboyantly gay, Spanish David Lynch film. My favorite of his is definitely 1999’s All About My Mother. My dad was raised Catholic, so nothing really beats sitting down with him to watch a film about prostitutes, an absent father, and a pregnant nun with AIDS. Talk to Her, on the other hand, is much more restrained. It’s about two women locked in comas and how the men in their lives deal with it. One of them was a female matador, a core icon for the director. It runs a gamut of sexual perversion from rape (with a question mark) to shrinking men who live inside vaginas (with an exclamation point), but this kinkiness is matched with Almodovar’s deep compassion and the pinnacle of his pacing abilities. One of my least favorite films of the decade? Almodovar’s Volver.
The takeaway, for my friends who study games, is this: it’s time for social realism to fall out of favor in the cinema, and it’s time for social realism to dominate the videogame industry. Thanks for reading, and I hope I named some good ones you hadn’t heard of to look up on Netflix. Please feel free to engage me in dialogue about the choices or my somewhat vague explanations in the comments—I wanted to keep the main body short for casual readers.