If you’ve been reading my yearly lists, then you probably noticed that the 2000s was when I parted ways with mainstream Hollywood Cinema. This wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision – it’s just simply that better, much better, films were being made elsewhere. My favourite genres of horror, action, sci-fi, still had considerable output but the gluttony of remakes and the lack of risks being taken in the US led to the rest of the world picking up the slack. That boils down to more than half my twenty films being either completely foreign films, or joint productions between the US and (an)other nation(s). This is going to be my final yearly post for a while, maybe ever, as I’m so slow at catching up on modern releases – off the top of my head there aren’t that many films released between 2010 and today that I can say I truly love. It will be some time before I have seen enough of those, and seen them enough times to make a genuine attempt at a list beyond simply calling out random films I enjoyed.
21: Sympathy For Mr Vengeance (2002)
Chan Wook Park burst onto the scene in the early nineties, but it wasn’t until 10 years later that Sympathy For Mr Vengeance saw him making waves worldwide. Having already seen and enjoyed JSA, this revenge thriller was a step up in all departments. Bringing powerhouse actors Kang-ho Song and Shin Ha-kyun with him from JSA, the film follows the two men in an interweaving tail of tragedy and violence – hence the name. Saying much more would land us in spoiler territory – the story following a deaf mute factory worker who has just lost his job and goes to the black market to try to get a kidney for his dying sister. This is a film where people have the right intentions, kind of, but everything goes wrong. In the hands of anyone else, with a different cast, this would be lackluster B-movie fare, but with this team we have an extraordinary, bleak, piece of grim drama. The South Korean movie revolution didn’t start here, but this is where it started to wipe the floor with Hollywood.
20: Orphan (2009)
Horror hit a bit of a renaissance in the 2000s. First with Asia, kicking off a hole host of remakes and imitators in the west, followed by the new wave of extreme horror with Torture Porn sagas and French and Spanish extremism leading the way. Branching off this success we were treated to more adventurous indie or smaller scale efforts. Director Jaume Collet Cera ticks the Spanish and remake boxes and before he struck up a partnership with Liam Neeson he unleashed this neat little original on us. The director is assured, but the film succeeds because of the cast – Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard, and a stunning performance in the title role by Isabelle Fuhrman. Following the death of their unborn child, a married couple decide to adopt, bringing in Fuhrman before things get weird. Then things get much weirder. There’s a certain element of sleaze as the film progresses, and some uncomfortable racial issues which almost feel self aware, but there is enough intrigue and enjoyable tension to raise this higher than most ‘bad seed’ movies. You’ve heard me drop my Oscar nods in these lists before – Fuhrman was snubbed here.
19: Batman Begins (2005)
Everyone’s going to have this on their list, right? There are a tonne of films which most people will have – There Will Be Blood, No Country For Old Men – neither of which are anywhere near my list, but most people will have this and/or The Dark Knight. Christopher Nolan was already a successful, highly regarded director before this, but this is the film which gave him superstardom. He became a household name, a director that your average film-goer will seek out, a director who could pretty much do whatever he wanted from this point on.
Fans of the Burton movies will be at home here – visually, Nolan has is own style but as an origin story all of the boxes are checked. What truly holds it together is its scope and ambition, and its cast – Christian Bale the perfect choice and ably backed up by Oscar winners and nominees and that pedigree left right and center – Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Rutger Hauer, Cillian Murphy. There has yet to be a Marvel film which comes close to matching this in terms of quality – the film transcends the comic book genre and becomes something all of its own. It’s not even the best of the trilogy.
18: Rec (2007)
I mentioned New Wave European extreme horror earlier. While this doesn’t exactly fit in that ultraviolent category, it’s certainly one of the super successful breed or Euro Horror which got fans so excited. Capitalizing on the cheap to make found footage style, Rec instantly became the benchmark. Its sense of claustrophobia, mystery, tension, terror, and its sudden explosive violence is the closest we’ve come to a true Resident Evil movie. The shot for shot US remake was watchable, but there’s something special at devilish work here. In your perfect horror movie scenario, the almost perfect Rec follows a journalist and her team making a documentary about a fire crew – following them around on a typical day. The crew is called to an apartment building due to a report about an old woman trapped and screaming in her room. This being a horror movie, the old woman isn’t exactly screaming because she’s fallen over…
There is a lot of wild innovation on display here – those moments that make you think why no-one else had done it before. The apartment building almost becomes a character in itself, its rooms and corridors closing in on the inhabitants like a fist. 28 Days Later and its sequel raised the bar for what fast moving ‘zombies’ could do and Rec sticks you right in the middle of an unwinnable situation. Most horror movies fall because of lack of character – Rec realises this and cleverly builds a world where each person feels real and in danger, forcing you to see things from their POV even if most only get a few minutes screen time. The film builds tension in the classic sense but then decides to unleash all out war, rarely giving the viewer time to breathe before cranking up the nerves once more in the convoluted wtf finale.
17: Mulholland Drive (2001)
Here’s another which most will have on their list. David Lynch had been on a bit of a downturn in fortunes for ten years – at least that’s what They’d lead you to believe. Framing this as a pilot for a new TV show a la Twin Peaks, once Lynch heard that the show was never going to be made he spliced his footage together and released it as a standalone – a standalone which many believe to be his best work. Hypnotic, non-linear, packed with mystery and few answers, it’s a film which people are still dissecting now, connecting dots to find a bigger picture which may not even exist. Attempting to assign a synopsis may be futile, but on the surface it’s the neo-noir story of a hopeful aspiring actress who comes to Hollywood and meets an amnesiac woman who is recovering from a car crash. Interspersed are both random and connecting vignettes about other characters who would have presumably found greater meaning if the series had been realized – bumbling hitmen, ghostly totemic producers, actors, cowboys. Where most films start out fractured and end with a whole, Lynch’s film starts out broken, pieces form and seem to fit, before becoming shattered and pulped. Everything a Lynch fan loves about Lynch is here, including his underrated talent for colour and sound. Watts and Harring are superb ably backed by Melissa George, Justin Theroux, Robert Forster, and a host of cameos. The film’s greatest mystery may be why it was only nominated for a single Oscar in a year where fluff like A Beautiful Mind and Moulin Rouge were so successful.
16: Departures (2008)
While we’re talking about movie mysteries – how is it that Japan has only ever won a single Oscar for Best Foreign Picture? I think we all know that this category is complete nonsense anyway, but that’s another story. Before 2008 the number of wins for Japan was zero, Departures the shock winner this year. It’s the perfect film about life and death, a film inherently Japanese and which may give other viewers some culture shock, but underneath the customs it’s a film that we can all understand and relate to as human. As Jim Morrison once warbled – no-one here gets out alive. Joe Hisaishi crafts one of his finest scores – probably the best score of the decade – and the cast includes ex idol Masahiro Motoki, Kurosawa stalwart Tsutomu Yamazaki, and Ryoko Hirosue who I had been a fan of since her days as a Nintendo model (I’m weird like that).
The film a cellist who is forced to move back to his childhood home with his wife, after his orchestra falls apart. Out of work and with no valuable skills he takes the first job he can get – assisting departures, which he assumes is some sort of travel work. What he soon finds out is that he is assisting the departure of a soul from this world to the next – basically helping in old funeral rituals such as washing and dressing the corpse. Horrified and embarrassed initially, as this is seen as a ‘low’ or ‘defiled’ position, he quickly comes to see the the dignity and beauty in this work, and its importance to those left behind. All this plays out against his guilt over not spending more time with his now deceased mother and his anger towards the father who abandoned him as a child. I know what that sounds like, but trust me – you’ll love it. It’s one of the most moving, heartfelt, and poignant films I’ve ever seen and it had me moved to tears at several points. Those weren’t merely tears of emotion – the film had me laughing my ass off too, a strange combination of humour and drama that I haven’t really encountered to this degree of success before.
15: Oldboy (2003)
It’s that man Chan Wook Park again, back with the second part of his vengeance trilogy (the films’ characters and stories are unrelated – the only link being the theme of revenge). If you thought Sympathy For Mr Vengeance was dark, and enjoyed it, then you’ll love Oldboy. This time bringing on board the masterful Choi Min Sik, the film again merges overlapping stories of revenge where no-one is wrong and no-one is right – mistakes and terrible decisions ripple outwards, infecting everyone in the vicinity and ensuring that even greater mistakes and tragedy results. Oldboy is brutal in every sense – on screen violence reaching new heights without being sickening or voyeuristic, and with each new twist bringing a new level of depravity and head-shaking awe. The film has of course been remade… I’ve not convinced myself to watch it yet and I doubt that I ever will. Maybe it’s okay, maybe it’s even good, but I doubt it will come close to reaching the glory of the original. I’d advice everyone to do the same and only watch this.
14: Borat (2006)
I was never a fan of the Ali G movie, seeming like it was too much on the side of supporting what the TV persona was lampooning. I was a fan of Cohen in his early days on Channel 4, always tuning in for The 11 O’Clock show and later the Ali G show. The former was more of a cult show that only a select group of friends was aware of, while Da Ali G show was one that had everyone talking in school. Borat was my favourite character, seeming much more sympathetic and Mr Bean – like. I never thought a film featuring any of Cohen’s main character’s could be a success, but I am very glad I was proven wrong, because Borat is easily the funniest film of the decade, and one of the funniest of all time. Prepare to be offended. Borat exposes the racism and fear and paranoia which is all too prevalent in some parts of the world – specifically in the USA here, leading to many absolutely bewildering encounters with politicians and regular people all loosely wrapped around the story of Borat coming to the US and A to learn about its people and possibly meet Pamela Anderson. It’s not going to be to everyone’s tastes, but in the good old tradition of rubbing the human face in its own vomit and then forcing it to look in the mirror (sic) it’s a vital piece of art which should be seen by all.
13: Martyrs (2008)
The zenith and nadir of French Extremity. Martyrs is torture to watch, a grueling experience which will pummel you and leave you exhausted, this is film-making at its most visceral and powerful. Pascal Laugier’s debut was standard horror fare, a Virginie Ledoyan vehicle which suggested the director wouldn’t be anything more than someone who rode on the coattails of Christopher Gans by association. His follow-up, Martyrs, is a work of undiluted force, a shotgun blast to your sensibilities, and makes Hostel and pals look like Sesame Street. Starting out with the escape of a young girl – Lucie – who has been held captive and tortured for unknown reasons, Martyrs shows how haunted she has become, believing she is being stalked by some demonic creature. At an orphanage, she befriends another girl, Anna, who acts like a bigger sister. Once more, I don’t want to give away any further details because this is a film which takes some decidedly sudden shifts in narrative – it’s enough to say that the torture Lucie suffered has scarred her for life and into adulthood she and Anna continue to deal with its fallout – even as answers slowly drip through.
This is maybe the only film on the list that I’d only recommend to horror fans. I don’t mean people who enjoy a horror movie every so often – I mean hardcore horror fans who watch more from this genre than anything else. If you don’t do horror, stay well well away in your land of sunshine and rainbows. This is not a pleasant watch and at times it feels like an endurance test. It’s not merely violence glammed up in a neat budget or gore for the sake of gore. I wouldn’t go so far as examining it from every philosophical angle either, but it is a movie with brains for the viewer with brains, and regardless of the conclusions you choose to draw it is a movie that will stay with you for a very long time. This one has been remade too and no, I haven’t seen it.
12. A Tale Of Two Sisters (2003)
Another entry and another film which would be remade later in the States. This one features an Oscar snub too. Snub isn’t the right word as they would never nominate something like this in the first place, but supporting actress Yum Jung-ah gives the performance of a lifetime, full-blooded and horrifying. Director Kim Jee Won may be the best shot framer in the business. He may be the best since Kurosawa or Kubrick. Every. Single. Shot. Is set up like a painting, the camera a paying customer to the greatest gallery in the world. In fact, his only rival currently may be Chan Wook Park. A Tale Of Two Sisters is simply gorgeous, a joy to behold, almost beautiful to the extent that you forget the horror bubbling underneath.
The film is basically a twist on the wicked stepmother story – a teenage girl has been institutionalized but at the start of the movie is released back home to her father’s mansion where her distant father and loving sister wait. Also living there is the father’s new wife who he married after the death of his first wife. There is a lot of tension in the house, with the father not engaging with his new wife while the relationship between the sisters and the stepmother starts out uneasy and grows violent before long. Secrets and twists abound.
The film isn’t happy merely to offer the tried and tested Asian long-haired ghost girl tropes although it does present several chillings scenes of this nature. There is a more dream-like quality akin to something like Audition and the undercurrents of abuse – physical and psychological – create a murky atmosphere of unknown depth. This is a film that you’ll want to watch as soon as possible again after finishing to see how the puzzle pieces revealed in the final moments all fit together with foreknowledge. It’s a film which will leave you uneasy during and after, as mentioned it looks stunning, and the performances are all top-notch.
11: Dawn Of The Dead (2004)
In the pantheon of great remakes, only a handful are ever mentioned and agreed upon – Cronenberg’s The Fly, John Carpenter’s The Thing… The Departed. Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead is one of my favourite films of all time so Snyder’s remake marked one of the only times I really, truly loved the remake. This also marked the start of the zombie’s return to popularity, along with Shaun Of The Dead and 28 Days Later. This film was insanely successful and was one of those films which was a hell of a lot of fun at the screening, yet translated just as well to the small screen. The consumerism of Romero’s is replaced by a general end of the world paranoia, with a collection of interesting characters led by a great cast all with their own issues and presenting a view of the new millennium that doesn’t leave a sweet taste in the mouth.
The story isn’t all too different from the original, the difference being that we are launched straight into Dawn without knowing the night. It gets off to a rip-roaring start and barely lets up, introducing us to a nurse who wakes up one morning to find a zombie child chomping on her husband. Her frantic escape through suburbia is pulsating and she eventually makes it to a shopping mall where she meets a bunch of other survivors – teens, gun fiends, old couples, security staff etc. There they spend their days waiting for rescue, waiting for the world to revert to normal, talking, shagging, killing, but it becomes increasingly clear that the world is not going to get better. The fast zombies here add so much more threat, the movie frequently ‘goes there’, and it’s simply a lot of fun with a high rewatch factor. It remains Snyder’s best film, by quite some distance.
10: Final Destination (2000)
If the Nineties saw a renaissance in teen horror towards smarter, or at least more self-aware movies, then with Final Destination it looked like the new millennium was going to take things further. What better movie villain could there possibly be than Death? In spite of the quality of the various sequels, I still contend that this is one of the best ideas in the history of movies – a bunch of people, according to fate, are supposed to die in an accident but manage to cheat death, leading death to stalk them one by one so that fate’s course is corrected. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll know I have a thing about inevitability – it creates an inescapable sense of dread and it reminds us of our own lives, situations, and mortality. Final Destination works on so many levels – as a thrill ride, as a perfect teen date movie, perfect popcorn fodder, as a grim comedy, as a visceral catalogue of memorable movie kills, and on all of those deeper levels. You can choose to watch it as you see fit. It features some great performances – Devon Sawa should be a much bigger star by now. James Wong directs with style, squeezing out every drop of tension from the kill scenes, adding plenty of fake-outs and establishing the tone of the series. This one equals of fun factor of Dawn of The Dead, but adds the depth missing from Snyder’s effort.
9: The Fellowship Of The Ring (2001)
By the time this came out I’d never read any of the Tolkein books in total. I’d tried Fellowship and given up and I think I read most of The Hobbit as a kid. This is weird because the books should have been right up my alley. As I saw the trailers and began reading the reviews of the movie I knew I had to see it and knew I had to read them. And so, I read the trilogy in a short space of time before seeing this. I’ll go there – the movies are better than the books. I mean, not really, but I do much prefer the movies. This is my generation’s Star Wars – an epic introduction to an epic saga featuring a massive ensemble cast fighting a classic battle of good and evil. I don’t think I need to say much more about it – you’ve seen it and you love it.
8: Ju On (2003)
This is the last horror film on my list, which surprised me more than you should be. I will say that this top ten, like all my lists, is pretty interchangeable. I will say that I love the entire series, and there’s a lot of entries. Takashi Shimizu is the maestro behind the series, directing the TV movie originals, then this main big screen effort and sequel, then the US remakes. They’re all good, and they’re all pretty similar, and yet they all have this weird interweaving timeline that you can lose yourself in. In the end it doesn’t matter, this is Ringu with jumpscares, played at a hundred miles per hour. This features some of the most innovative scares you’ll ever see, a non-linear plot which ends up feeling almost like an anthology movie, but isn’t merely a series of loud noises. It’s a film which instills a sense of dread with the slightest effort, giving some early scares in the first moments which set the tone and set you on the edge of your seat for the remainder of the movie. Sound design, atmosphere, directing, acting are all great here and the finale is a breathless, unsettling, hate-to-use-the-term-but-fuck-it-rollercoaster ride.
7: The Dark Knight (2008)
This is the one. The one everyone is going to have, right? Unless the film has aged to the point now that hipsters look down upon it, but who the hell listens to them. This is everything you want in a Batman movie (The Joker), everything you want in a comic book movie, everything you want in a movie full stop. The surviving cast carry over from Batman Begins, but this is Heath Ledger’s movie, a final hurrah to an actor on the cusp of greatness. Unlike The Crow, where the real life tragedy seeps through to every aspect of the film, this feels like a celebration. Nolan here does begin to direct his movies a little too close to being like a trailer – something which he has only done more with each subsequent film – where scenes don’t seem to connect, where the music continues through scenes without cutting or fading to another track… but that’s another point for another day. For my money this is still Nolan’s best film and like several others on the list I’m fairly confident you include it on your list, so I won’t say any more about it.
6: The Return Of The King (2003)
The epic to end all epics, this massive curtain call to Jackson’s saga is gigantic in every sense. Thankfully, it’s also excellent, giving closure to all of the characters and the story (perhaps too much closure) and featuring battles on a scale which haven’t been equaled yet. It feels wrong splitting the trilogy into three parts as they are not as distinct as say, the original Star Wars Trilogy, but feel more like one continuous story. Nevertheless, you can put this or any of them on, and lose yourself in one of the finest, fully realised fictional worlds ever committed to paper and screen.
5: Casino Royale (2006)
How on Earth do you follow-up the worst entry in your franchise? With one of the best, of course. Blonde and Buff, Craig takes the series into new levels of realism with his emotive portrayal further showcasing what I have always loved about the character – he is a broken man – everything he touches dies, and yet he keeps fighting for the cause. Team Craig and Campbell up with surviving cast members from previous entries, throw in a creepy villain, and add probably the best Bond girl there has been in Eva Green, and you’re onto a winner; the action, the plot, and the visuals are merely the icing on a very sweet cake.
4: X2 (2003)
Remember when there used to be good superhero movies? You know, instead of the twelve which come out each month now? Yeah. Yeah, those ones. This puts all the current MCU fluff to shame and it’s much better than any of the other X-Men movies. Alright, I haven’t seen most of the MCU, and I haven’t seen Logan yet, but give me a chance – I only have two eyes. Unlike several of the X-Men I imagine. Great action, effects, emotional resonance, interesting characters and story, rather than big ego A-Listers getting 20 million each for four minutes screen time.
3: Amelie (2001)
I don’t do romantic comedies and generally those quirky type Indie movies don’t work for me. The latter tries too hard and the former feel insincere and end up neither making me laugh or giving me whatever it is romances are supposed to give you. What a surprise then that Amelie is at once a quirky romantic comedy, but one which is entirely sincere and effortless. It’s also absolutely gorgeous, has Jeunet’s style down to a T, and features a career defining performance from Audrey Tautou who melts the hearts of every viewer. It’s one of the most beautiful films of the decade and one which never fails to put a smile on my face and think that maybe the world ain’t such a bad place. Just what we needed in 2001 and just what we need now.
2: Love Exposure (2008)
This came from nowhere and absolutely floored me. I hadn’t laughed so much at a single new movie in years and it came when the Japanese market wasn’t pushing out so many classics. I had already seen some Sion Sono films and I was concerned when I heard he had made a 4 hour religious drama, but this so far surpasses anything else in 2008 its ridiculous. In fact, it would be number 1 except for that film being a once in a lifetime masterpiece and a piece of vitally important work. Love Exposure isn’t important, it’s simply amazing, and I guarantee you won’t have seen anything like it. Religious monologues on an abandoned beach, ninja camera pantyshots, budgie worshipping cults, priests who resort to whipping their children, and love eternal. It also has the best soundtrack of the year, some of the best performances of 2008, an outrageous script, and Sion Sono directs like there’s a nuke down his pants. If there’s any film on the list most people won’t have seen it is this, and it is an absolute must-see.
1: Battle Royale (2000)
I knew the first time I saw this that it was going to be one of my all time favourites and that my mission for the next month was to make sure as many people as possible saw it. I held screenings in my house almost every day and forced everyone I knew to watch it. I argued that it should be shown in every school in the country. And then The Hunger Games came along, diluted and for the masses, and became a huge hit. I like The Hunger Games and as bloated as it became it remained sort of entertaining. Much of that was down to Jennifer Lawrence – take her out and it’s just forgettable popcorn YA fluff. Battle Royale is seminal in every way and every frame oozes a vitality which most films can’t achieve in their entire running time. It has over the top violence, it has anger, it has heart, action, comedy, scares, it’s heart-breaking, and it has a fantastic cast. I can’t gush too much about it and I find it a shame that so many people either haven’t seen it or will go into it having already seen The Hunger Games. Battle Royale is Buffy, The Hunger Games is Twilight – BR is The Godfather, THG is Mickey Blues Eyes. There isn’t a single better movie in the last twenty years than Battle Royale.
Let us know in the comments what your favourite movies of the 2000s are!