8. Traffic – Steven Soderbergh
Taking on three different storylines, Soderbergh weaves a narrative of modern life caught up in the troubles of the American drug trade. In Mexico the police are so connected to the cartels that even honest cops find it hard to distinguish between good a bad. And one trying to do the right thing isn’t sure just how safe that is.
In the US a newly appointed judge is struggling with home life and his new job, trying to let neither get the best of him. He battles not only his colleagues but his conscience and family. At the same time two DEA agents are looking to take down a major drug baron but find themselves thwarted at every turn.
Traffic shows just how far reaching the War on Drugs goes and how intimately it impacts everyone. Almost a premonition of things to come, Traffic is an expose of people caught up in a broken modern system.
7. Little Miss Sunshine – Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Little Miss Sunshine is the story of a very modern family. Sheryl has a son from a previous marriage and her suicidal brother has just moved in. To top it off, Richard, her husband, is a failing motivation speaker and his drug addicted father has also moved in with them.
The only source of joy seems to come from their bright but odd seven year old daughter Olive. Olive, obsessed with Miss America, is told that she has won a pageant on a technicality and will move on to the next round in California. The family, in dire straits, tries to get there with their broken down VW bus.
A hilarious and touching roadtrip about a family that might do better to go their separate ways but manages to hold it together in the end. It’s also a look at the bizarre lifestyle of child pageantry, the perversions some have towards it, and it’s image fetishism.
6. The Dark Knight – Christopher Nolan
There’s a good reason that a lot of people still see this as the best superhero movie ever made. After a challenging beginning, Batman is now the feared caped crusader of Gotham City, slowly but surely pulling the rug out from under the mob. So when the man controlling their entire pot of money is apprehended in China, they turn to a fresh face and accidentally unleash chaos.
The Joker arrives and causes nothing but mayhem, leaving the mob’s burning money in his wake. With the ascension of the Joker the entire film takes on the paranoid frantic tone that all the residents of Gotham feel. They are thrown into the same confused shock cities fell after a terrorist attack. Unlike other superhero films The Dark Knight gave us a villain without motivation beyond destruction. Like real terrorists, the Joker didn’t have any real goals, or he was too crazy to see that they wouldn’t work.
All the good guys, Batman, Chief Gordon, Harvey Dent, are all hampered by the system and corruption in someway and in the latter’s case, completely transformed by it. In the end Batman does the bravest thing and doesn’t give in to the Joker’s demands. The Dark Knight is a good allegory for crime and terrorism and our responses to it in the modern era.
5. Nightcrawler – Dan Gilroy
Lou Bloom is down on his luck and finds good money shooting crimes right in the aftermath. He sells the videos to a local TV station and becomes rivals with another, more professional cameraman, Joe Loder.
Nina Romina, the woman buying the footage tells Lou to keep at his work as he is good. He focuses on crimes happening in more upscale neighborhoods but starts to alter crime scenes so he can get a better shot. Bit by bit Lou gets even more obsessed with getting footage and better footage. The police start to get suspicious as Lou goes to more extremes to get what he wants.
Modern journalism is all about the visceral, gruesome stories that grab attention. Looking at how this might make people chasing criminals into criminals, Nightcrawler is a terrifying and fascinating look at how our pursuit of the next best story, clouds the truth.
4. Contagion – Steven Soderbegh
From SARS and Ebola to Bird and Swine Flu, there hasn’t been a year without a big scary disease looming over us. Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion takes a realistic look at what would happen after the outbreak of a deadly disease.
Matt Damon plays Mitch whose wife dies shortly after returning from a business trip. He and his daughter seem immune and through their eyes we see society start to crumble as the town is quarantined. The international community tries to control the situation, battling a blogger, played by Jude Law, increasing paranoia and chaos, all while struggling to find a cure.
By looking at modern communication, international cooperation, means of societal control, and the mass effects of hysteria Contagion successfully portrays what would happen if a virus started sweeping the globe tomorrow.
3. Requiem For A Dream – Darren Aronofsky
Darren Aronofsky serves a slice of the darker side of life with this tale of drug addiction and bad decisions. Harry is the heroin addicted son of widow Sara Goldfarb and along with his girlfriend Marion and friend Tyrone, also heroin addicts, he decides to make his way in the world by getting into the drug trade.
Sara is struggling with depression and the realization that she is getting older. She dreams of being on TV, using diet and amphetamines to look young again. Plans for everyone begin to slip out of their control and in their desperation things only seem to get worse.
Aronofsky reminds the viewer that stories don’t always have a happy ending and that life gets the best of people sometimes. There are pitfalls that are beyond individual control because they are built into the fabric of society. Requiem for a Dream is a sad reminder that the American Dream can slip away very quickly with just a few bad decisions.
2. The Social Network – David Fincher
Not just a movie about the rise of one person or one company, in The Social Network Fincher shows the change in how we communicate and interact with each other in an increasingly digital world. Mark Zuckerberg, played by Jesse Eisenberg, is just a student at Harvard asked to write code for a website designed by several upperclassmen. When he abandons their site to create his own, success, wealth, and popularity start coming his way but at the expense of friendships and respect.
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin is showing how business culture has changed and the lengths some will go to in order to get their larger share of the pot. While perhaps not the whole true story, The Social Network is still an important document of how behind the back and behind the computer screen interactions have real world consequences.
1. Boyhood – Richard Linklater
Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater are Mason Jr. and Samantha. Coming from divorced parents, Olivia and Mason Sr., they have a fractured relationship with both. Their mother struggles as she balances making ends meet and being their for her family while trying to be her own woman.
Olivia goes through the trials of being a single parent, remarrying, and being successful. We watch Mason struggle with his own identity while also trying to fit in. Linklater challenged the medium of storytelling by taking meticulous time to craft his narrative (literally 12 years). And by leaving many plot threads hanging, unresolved and forgotten just like life, he is challenging the notion of that everything wraps up neatly in the end.
While Boyhood bears all the hallmarks of a child growing up in any era, it is also a stunningly intimate and simultaneously world conscious document of an American family in a post-9/11 world.
Author Bio: Eliot Nelson was born in Seattle and is a graduate of The Evergreen State College. He majored in creative writing and is currently writing a novel.