Coming down the home stretch of this series. For those just tuning in: Part one, part two, part three, and part four for your reading pleasure.
5. Knocked Up: Ben is a lovable stoner loser with no direction or genuine ambition; Alison is a career-oriented young woman who recently received an on-air promotion at E! Entertainment Television. They meet at a bar when she goes out to celebrate her success; they leave together and have unprotected sex after some communication breakdown. Fast forward eight weeks and Alison has a bun in the oven, and reluctantly she approached Ben with the news– and thus, the never-ending party of his life comes to an end. Knocked Up is possibly one of the finest comedies of the decade, but like most material hailing from the Apatow camp, it is much more than a needlessly strung out joke that ends on a punchline we ultimately don’t care about. For twenty-something males, the film presents a comic how-to guide on growing up, taking responsibility, and molding yourself into the man that you need to be, not just for your own sake but for the sake of a person who depends on you. It’s an endlessly funny picture, and it doesn’t shy away from pushing the boundaries of taste with its often vulgar and typically blunt observations about relationships and parenthood. In the midst of its delightful crudeness, though, lies a sweet and touching parable about becoming an adult, and that both sides coexist so peacefully is perhaps the film’s greatest marvel.
4. Oldboy: Maybe I’m cheating here. Oldboy is, after all, my favorite movie (though lately 8 & 1/2 has been giving it competition, but that is neither here nor there). But what is the purpose of compiling a list like this if I’m not allowed to be at least a little subjective? My obvious bias aside it is not much of a stretch to suggest that Oldboy is among the best of the 2000s; it’s a dizzying work of cruel, black genius, Park Chan-wook’s greatest accomplishment, and one of the most important dissections of the measures people will take to assuage their emotional distress. Choi Min-sik’s drunk and belligerent mid-level businessman Oh Dae-su is kidnapped from under his friend’s nose on a rainy night, whisked away to a private prison, and held captive for 15 years– at which point he is freed as abruptly and unceremoniously as he was detained. With more than a decade’s worth of pent-up rage at his disposal, and years of “imaginary training” under his belt, Dae-su strikes out into the city to discover the reason behind his torment, and finds that the need for vengeance goes both ways. Choi’s work could move mountains; he is savage and feral, an untamed and uncivilized barbarian attempting in vain to fit into a world that has left him behind. Playing opposite to this product of a bygone society is Yu Ji-tae’s villain, cold and businesslike and also more of a furious, vengeful god than a man. Their near-life long dispute is an exquisite game of cat-and-mouse, and Park captures their conflict with an impressive array of camera techniques while imprinting the film with his now-trademarked eye for color palettes and patterns. Oldboy isn’t for everyone, but ultimately all the elements which will inevitably turn some viewers away are part of the design; it is a hideously gorgeous film, terrible to behold yet breath-taking at the same time, simultaneous proof of both Park’s talent and his cavalier filmmaking attitude.
3. Pan’s Labyrinth: Guillermo del Toro’s grim, adult fairy tale masterpiece. “Adult” is the keyword. Pan’s Labyrinth should not be conflated with children’s entertainment, despite popular opinion suggesting that it falls under such a label: Lush and awe-inspiring fantasy is contrasted with stark terror and graphic violence as our audience surrogate, the young Ofelia, copes with life in post-Civil War Spain. She lives with her mother and her step-father, the sadistic Captain Vidal, at his post in the mountains, where his goal is to root out Spanish Maquis guerrilla soldiers. To escape from the harsh realities of a lonely existence– she has no other children to interact with, only jaded or cruel adults– Ofelia imagines (or does she?) a fantasy world populated by faeries, fauns, and other, less savory creatures, the kinds of nightmarish (and captivating) creations that stalk the dreams of slumbering children. It’s not just the images of these beasts, or graphic depictions of violence, that render this film “adults only” (though the Pale Man, played by the great Doug Jones, is an aberration capable of scaring members of any age group); Pan’s Labyrinth feels like it was constructed specifically to give adults the opportunity to view their own world through the eyes of a child. Strip away the wartime setting and you have a tale of a girl who is neglected by the majority of the adults in her life. But the heart of the story is as much a part of Pan’s Labyrinth as its dazzling effects and designs– a lot of love and affection went into creating the film’s grotesque beastiary and dazzling sets, both of which contain the eye-popping levels of detail that del Toro is known for. This is the film that vaulted del Toro from lovable and obsessive schlock artist to critical darling and maestro of the fantastical; if there’s any confusion as to why Peter Jackson chose del Toro to helm the two The Hobbit prequel films, a single viewing of Pan’s Labyrinth alone will dispel such queries.
2. There Will Be Blood: If I had to choose one word, and one word only, to describe Paul Thomas Anderson’s unexpected masterpiece of American greed and spiritual ugliness, it would be “epic”. Anderson’s film spans decades in the life of Daniel Day-Lewis’ ruthless, towering oil man Daniel Plainview, a character hellbent on personal gain at the expense of anyone fool enough to stand in his path or linger in his wake. This is the fifth film by the technically skilled Anderson, and it may represent the first time that he truly has something urgent and valuable to say in his career; There Will Be Blood is an important stepping stone in his development and maturity as a filmmaker, something so polished and refined that I can still scarcely believe that it came from the director whose best film to date is Boogie Nights (which is fantastic, but barely hints that Anderson had the potential for a film like There Will Be Blood buried in his heart). Here, Anderson has honed his talents as a storyteller, judiciously pacing out his film with a deliberate and steady hand, allowing the story to purposefully stride onward to its inevitable and apocalyptic conclusion. Primarily the film is concerned with the conflict that erupts between the godless Plainview and small town Christian revivialist preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), to whom pride appears to be a virtue. Plainview hungers for the oil beneath Sunday’s family ranch and Eli wants to manipulate the deal to his advantage; their dueling ambitions clash and the impact echoes throughout both of their’ lives. The questions the film asks about religion, and the comments it makes on the cost of achieving the American dream, are perhaps straightforward, but the themes are too rich and run too deep to consider their relative obviousness flawed.
1. Children of Men: The world’s a dark and dreary place in the year 2027; when all women of Earth suddenly become inexplicably infertile, the planet descends into global anarchy. Only England stands as a safe haven of order; it is a beacon for refugees, who are often refused entry. Those who dare to enter illegally find themselves rounded up and put into “refugee” camps. The world is shockingly familiar, crushingly devoid of hope, and so impossibly well-realized that to watch it and catch each nuance takes either a keen eye or numerous viewings. In Children of Men, director Alfonso Cuarón has done what the best speculative science fiction has always done, namely create a palatable fictional world parallel to our own in order to make observations about our present cultural identities; the refugee camps, for example, feel all-too-real in the wake of the atrocities committed at Abu Ghraib. Terrorist attacks have almost become an everyday part of life; as our hero, Theo (Clive Owen), slow rolls his way through his morning routine, an explosion roars over the hustle and bustle before the film cuts to its opening credits. In short, things look pretty bleak; Theo is suddenly kidnapped by the Fishes, a group of immigrants’ rights activists, and shown a living, breathing symbol of hope in the form of a young refugee girl who is radiantly and inexplicably pregnant. Suddenly the movie isn’t quite so bleak and despondent, though Theo’s desperate quest to bring expecting mother Kee to the enigmatic Human Project (a group of scientists alleged to be working on a way to change humanity’s fortunes) yields sucker-punch reversals and heart-wrenching tragedies. Children of Men isn’t meant simply to hammer its inherent nihilism into our hearts– rather, it is at its core the most propitious movie of the decade, a powerful story of how hope always exists even when circumstances appear utterly irredeemable.
For your benefit, produced below is my combined and collected top 25. See you next year, and thanks for reading!
25. Fantastic Mr. Fox
22. Before Sunset
19. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang
17. City of God
16. District 9
14. Grizzly Man
13. American Splendor
12. In the Mood For Love
11. The Lord of the Rings
10. Shaun of the Dead
9. Black Book
8. No Country For Old Men
7. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
5. Knocked Up
3. Pan’s Labyrinth
2. There Will Be Blood
1. Children of Men