Personal selections year by year
2000: “Best in Show”
2002: “The Good Girl”
2003: “Cold Mountain”
2006: “Thank You for Smoking”
2007: “No Country for Old Men”
2009: “World’s Greatest Dad”
As the decade comes to a close, it’s a time to reflect on what the last 10 years have brought the world in terms of film accomplishments.
There were both precedent-setting highs, like the elaborate world of Middle Earth in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and new lows with memorably horrendous misfires such as “Gigli,” “Date Movie” and “The Happening.”
Let’s not even mention anything where Larry the Cable Guy headlined.
But every year had its own unique offerings, whatever your preference. The following list entails a year-by-year selection of a variety of personal picks made by yours truly. These may not necessarily be the best movies of each year, but each stands out in its own way — some of which instantly became mainstream favorites, while some have remained hidden gems.
All are worth multiple viewings, so have your Netflix queue ready for a few new entries.
2000: “Best in Show” — A film crew follows the contestants of the Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show as they prepare their canine companions for the biggest competition of their lives.
One of the great mockumentaries of all time features a heavy amount of improvisation from its wonderfully low-key comic ensemble cast, including Jennifer Coolidge as a gold digging poodle owner; Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara as a hard luck, Norwich Terrier-loving couple; and Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock as a pair of neurotic yuppies with a spoiled Weimaraner.
Director Christopher Guest — who also plays a budding ventriloquist with a bloodhound — hit his high point here, using his usual troupe of actors to their full potential, but his other features like “Waiting for Guffman,” “A Mighty Wind” and “For Your Consideration” are just as watchable.
2001: “Iris” — Accomplished Irish writer Iris Murdoch (Judi Dench) has lived a full life and has a loving relationship with husband John Bayley (Jim Broadbent), but their marriage becomes exceedingly difficult when she begins to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease.
Dench is thoroughly convincing as a woman whose already low inhibitions and impulse control cause her spouse — well-played by Broadbent — no small amount of grief as she unravels mentally. The story succeeds in not being a precautionary tale against aging but a no-holds-barred look at what kind of strain it causes in a marriage.
The flashbacks to the couple’s youth are just as compelling in establishing the unorthodox bond between them, as well as the depth of the eponymous character’s psyche. Kate Winslet gives a passionate showing as the young Iris, nicely matched by Hugh Bonneville as her fuddy-duddy, scholarly suitor.
An equally intriguing narrative about living with Alzheimer’s was explored in 2007’s “Away from Her.”
2002: “The Good Girl” — Justine (Jennifer Aniston) is an unhappily married woman working a retail job that is interminably boring. Her life is shaken up when a young co-worker (Jake Gyllenhaal) approaches her and they start an affair.
Aniston gives the best performance of her career to date — which she almost matched in 2009’s “Management” — as a woman whose life isn’t quite as unpleasant as the heroines of these kinds of stories. With a clueless hophead for a husband (John C. Reilly), hers is more an account of escaping banality rather than subjugation, as he is neglectful without being abusive or unfaithful.
Gyllenhaal also excels as the young man who becomes Justine’s lover, a disturbed, cynical kid who believes he is the embodiment of “The Catcher in the Rye” protagonist Holden Caulfield. As if he were the first to emulate the literary favorite.
Screenwriter Mike White, who plays another of Justine’s colleagues, also achieved a comparable character with his 2007 directorial debut, “Year of the Dog.”
2003: “Cold Mountain” — Having only the briefest yet powerful connection with a sheltered woman (Nicole Kidman) before being sent off to fight for the South, a Confederate soldier (Jude Law) deserts his post to return to his beloved. Likewise, she finds her comfortable North Carolina life uprooted by the terror-driven tactics of the Home Guard, among other troubles.
Although it’s not quite sprawling enough to be considered an absolute epic, this is a return to grand scale war stories, with a number of parallels to “Gone with the Wind.” And as innovative as its predecessor was, the newer take on the Civil War is unflinchingly graphic in both combat, wartime politics and romance.
The two leads are gripping, although Renée Zellweger draws the most attention in an Oscar-winning role as lively Southern girl Ruby, companion to Kidman’s Ada. There’s no shortage of talent, with Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kathy Baker, Giovanni Ribisi, Natalie Portman, Ethan Suplee, Ray Winstone and more filling out rich supporting personalities.
2004: “Sideways” — Failed novelist and sulky divorcé Miles (Paul Giamatti) hopes for a pleasant bonding experience when he takes best friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church) on a week-long bachelor party vacation to California’s Santa Ynez Valley wine country. But the salacious bridegroom has different ideas, as they meet and woo a pair of local women (Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh).
With the kind of premise that could be completely raunchy and worthless in the wrong hands, the adaptation of Rex Pickett’s novel — published only after the film was released — is a real writer’s flick — a hilarious, thoughtful look at love, manhood and wine with adept handling by co-writer/director Alexander Payne.
Giamatti is particularly sympathetic as the perpetual loser at the center, but his co-stars bring just as much to the story, whether it’s Haden Church as shameless aging actor Jack or Madsen as sharp, sensual waitress Maya. The whole movie is as quaffable as any of the wines downed by its characters, be it a Pinot Noir, a Chardonnay or Miles’ prized ’61 Cheval Blanc.
But not Merlot!
2005: “Transamerica” — Bree (Felicity Huffman), a transgender woman in the final stages of a sex change, learns that during her life as a man, she unknowingly fathered a son (Kevin Zegers), who is now a teenager with criminal issues. When she meets him under the guise of a random do-gooder, they embark on a cross-country journey hoping to get rid of each other as quick as possible but also finding a lot in common.
As a woman pretending to be a man who’s only one operation from becoming a woman, Huffman keeps a steady head portraying an individual you could mistake for the Avon lady if you didn’t know the back story. The script makes for one of the best road movies in a long while with a comfortable blend of traditional and contemporary values.
The same year also brought us the artier “Brokeback Mountain,” but the depiction of alternate lifestyles here is much more personable and undemanding. The narrative is further complemented by the breezy accompanying Dolly Parton tune, “Travelin’ Thru.”
2006: “Thank You for Smoking” — Cocky tobacco industry lobbyist Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) finds himself questioning the ethical implications of his line of work. His doubts are raised even more thanks to an interview with a muckraking journalist (Katie Holmes), as he sees himself earning the title of “Merchant of Death” more and more.
The spin business gets a good counter-twirl in this take-no-prisoners satire. Taking aim at a business that is almost universally hated isn’t much of a challenge, but the movie takes it to the next level by balancing the argument.
An anti-smoking politician (William H. Macy) is vilified doing everything he can to shove the public to his half of the forum, including arranging a kidnapping of Naylor and having terrorists cover his body with nicotine patches. And you’re in no danger of being influenced to light one up, with Sam Elliott as a health-stricken old Marlboro Man reminding us that cigarettes are indeed dangerous.
The point being that for all the lines of reasoning on both sides — as with many hot button topics — the real question is about personal conscience and the freedom of choice. No lobbyist can change these enduring themes, even one with the swagger of Eckhart.
2007: “No Country for Old Men” — A West Texas man (Josh Brolin) gets more than he bargained for when he discovers a briefcase of cash while hunting in the desert. Tracking him is a mysterious assassin (Javier Bardem) with an icy resolve and no hesitance in killing anyone and anything that gets in his way, leaving a local sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) the only one to rectify the situation.
The Western genre gets a stark, almost devastating revamp in this meticulously faithful rendering of Cormac McCarthy’s novel. Filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen won a well-deserved trio of Academy Awards — Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay — for their bleak revision of human nature on the prairie, reminding us that gone are the days when the gallant cowboy wore a white hat and the villain a dark one.
Though the largely silent and barren settings establish a moody, callous ambiance, the real terror comes from Bardem as contract killer Anton Chigurh, a merciless and humorless force of nature who carries a cattle gun for his work and decides his quarry’s fate by flipping a coin.
Just don’t stare at his hideous hairstyle when you call heads or tails…
2008: “Frost/Nixon” — Following Gerald Ford’s 1974 presidential pardon of Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) for his involvement in the Watergate scandal, the nation is split into supporters and detractors of the former president. British media personality David Frost (Michael Sheen) takes up the cause of getting an extensive, exclusive interview with Nixon, knowing that such an examination will make for powerful television.
But his quest for ratings evolves into a stratagem to get the disgraced politician to admit his guilt, an outcome that Nixon and his associates intend to circumvent.
Sheen is perfectly charming as Frost, whose first impression as being a bit of a twit is not indicative of his skills as an interviewer. Langella is even more forceful as the notorious subject, wholly capturing Nixon’s own one-of-a-kind magnetism and his trademark rage. He easily stacks up to previous portrayers like Anthony Hopkins, Dan Hedaya and Philip Baker Hall.
Screenwriter Peter Morgan’s reworking of his own stage play mainly focuses on the behind-the-scenes of the whole ordeal, but it is never once boring — an altogether thrilling drama from director Ron Howard.
2009: “World’s Greatest Dad” — When his teenage son (Daryl Sabara) dies in an embarrassing, self-imposed freak accident, a single dad (Robin Williams) fakes the boy’s suicide to save face. This has an unexpected upturn on his own life, as the students at the school where he teaches become fascinated with the deceased fellow student they never got to know.
And it only snowballs from there…
Williams is understated and amazingly effective as a genuinely good father who quickly becomes a monster as he reaps the benefits of his child “killing himself,” but Sabara’s character’s abhorrent personality makes his legacy all the more hilarious.
Though the other pupils in his school reinvent him in their own individual images post mortem, they are oblivious to the fact that the 15-year-old cared about nothing in life and considered activities like sports, movies, music and writing — basically anything that involves creativity or physical effort — to be stupid.
Writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait’s irreverent black humor spits in the eye of basic decency and makes no apologies. Rightly so, as his scathing commentary about the ease of manipulating the public perception is deadly serious.
These are but a few of the highlights to hit theaters since 2000, and the list can only be so long. But there are plenty of other features made during the decade that are worth seeing, so don’t limit yourself.
Here’s hoping that the 2010s will yield just as many noteworthy films!