Welcome to the first of ten specials where I cover the best films I've seen in the 2000-2009 decade (technically 2010 is in the next decade). In each year, I will pick three films I loved or was affected by for various reasons. It's a very diverse group. This month's special covers a year from which I have not seen very many films. I have seen my fair few, however, so this is my two cents:
Directed by Tarsem
This is a mind-trip if I’ve ever seen one but equally brilliant and, in the end, oddly touching and resonant, as well as the best film that the year had to offer. Tarsem (who made his debut with this film after years of directing music videos and followed up with “The Fall,” which is positively normal by comparison) juggles two different genres to great effect. One is more prevalent and more disturbing, and that is the “Silence of the Lambs”-type procedural drama that takes precedence and ends up being even more nihilistic than the Hannibal Lecter tale. The other is a highly affecting personal drama.
“The Cell” stars Jennifer Lopez as an F.B.I. agent, tasked with entering the mind of a ruthless and sadistic serial killer. What she finds is a diseased mind, ravaged by memories of a molesting father and alcoholic, distant mother. Tarsem visualizes his mind as a music video of the most disturbing kind (Marilyn Manson was apparently forever changed by the visions and used similar color schemes from then on), complete with Vincent D’Onofrio, in a miraculous, career-defining, and devastatingly powerful performance that stands as one of the best of the decade, showing up in every possible physique, from bearing horns while wearing an unimaginably long cape to donning a clown outfit covered in what seems to be human blood; D’Onofrio not only sells the performance but also makes it frighteningly believable. Rumors that the film was nearly given the fearful NC-17 rating are believable as well.
Directed by Ridley Scott
A staggering achievement from Ridley Scott—the first of two of Ridley’s films, the other showing up in 2003’s line-up—“Gladiator” was a war movie of the greatest kind, whose violence is ratcheted up to grim levels while it maintains a life-affirming message about honor and courage. It was the best war film since Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” and remains as much today. The performances by Russell Crowe, the late Richard Harris, and an especially on-the-mark Joaquin Phoenix represent what the medieval swashbuckler can do when its actors recite dime-store odes that you can set your watch to and not make them sound that way. “Braveheart,” though perhaps the better film due to more practical effects, did the same exact thing.
“Gladiator” stars Crowe as Maximus, a man whose family is ruthlessly murdered by the egomaniacal ruler of Rome. Maximus has fallen in love with said ruler’s sister, who is victim to an unhealthy relationship with and spawned by her power-hungry brother. The film is simultaneously heartbreaking and heartpumping, a war film that pulsates with a brooding energy and at the same time holds a deep sadness beneath the violence. Technical credits may be strong across the board, but it is ultimately Scott’s direction and the aforementioned acting that stand out.
Requiem for a Dream
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Every once in a while, there is a film that kicks you in the gut and leaves you reeling. Its graphic depictions of violence or sex or drug use or even profanity may shock and appall you, but you are left thinking for a long time after watching it what its implications were and where its humanity lied. “Requiem for a Dream” is a film like that. As a disturbingly honest, disquietingly beautiful look at the underground world of drugs and prostitution, the film is unforgettable.
I’ve seen two films by Darren Aronofsky: this one and the fascinatingly strange “The Fountain,” a film I have long referred to as the most flawed masterpiece ever created. “Requiem for a Dream,” however, isn’t flawed, as far as I can see. Along with “The Cell,” it is a film I have only seen once and plan to keep it that way. Both films are unimaginably grim and, to some, repulsive. It is not a film to sit down and watch one boring Sunday afternoon. What it is, however, is a highly rewarding experience for anyone willing to take a step back from the content and view the film on its own merits. Aronofsky apparently opted to refuse the threatened NC-17 and to go with no rating. Although I can see where the MPAA was coming from, I disagree with the choice they could have made. Although it does have more nudity that any film I have ever seen, it is far from porn. Although it features nearly non-stop sequences of harrowing use of every single drug on the market, it is nowhere near glorification or even exploitation. I would recommend this to drug users, dealers, and suppliers, as well as prostitutes and pimps, and would like to see how drug and prostitution rings are changed after viewing it. My prediction: if everyone involved in those worlds saw it, they would both be businesses no longer.
So, there is my best estimation of the film quality in 2000. It may be different than yours, and there might be films I'm omitting. The first choice would be because, well, to each his own. The second would be because I either haven't seen everything, or haven't seen a certain film in many, many years.
Coming April 23: The Best Films of 2001. That will be a much easier year to cover.