7. Traffic – Steven Soderbergh
The year 2000 was a busy one for Steven Soderbergh, cranking out two award-winning films in the same year. While his film Erin Brockovich was a tremendous effort that took home an Oscar and a Golden Globe, it was his grittier and more indie-looking Traffic that gained the most attention.
Raking in four Oscars out of its five nominations including Best Director (only losing Best Picture to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator), this network narrative film based on a 1989 TV miniseries about the drug trade is masterful in its delivery, performances, camerawork, and screenplay, well-deserving a spot in cinema history.
Divided into four parts, Traffic mainly follows supplies of cocaine being brought into the United States by way of Mexico and the lives it affects. First, two Mexican police officers are hired to eliminate a powerful drug cartel with the help of the military, only to find they are setting up another narcotics cartel for victory. Second, a Washington, D.C. drug czar plans on waging a war on drugs, soon discovering that his only daughter is becoming an addict, causing a division between his family and country.
The third and fourth stories are told at the same time; one focusing on two San Diego DEA agents involved in protecting an American drug dealer set to testify against the Mexican cartel’s U.S. connection who has just been arrested, while the second part follows the innocent wife of the arrested drug lord who must take drastic actions to cancel her husbands debts and keep him out of jail. The stories converge on each other in different ways, while drugs themselves serve as a main character in the film.
This film handles the confusing and complex nature of the network narrative quite masterfully. Soderbergh’s own camera work (he shot the film under the pseudonym of Peter Andrews) alternates in style for each segment, opting for highly saturated desert hues and handheld shots for the Mexican scenes, irritating diplomatic blue tints and fixed cameras for the governmental parts, and a clever mix of both for the San Diego parts.
Soderbergh also directs a cast of gargantuan proportions with over 50 speaking roles spanning two countries. The film is epic and tells a near hopeless story of a war that cannot end yet contains soldiers who will give up everything to attempt to reduce the destruction.
In 2000, Soderbergh’s output with Traffic caught him in the transition between indie auteur (with films like The Limey and Out of Sight) and Hollywood blockbuster director (with Erin Brockovich and Ocean’s Eleven), although he had many hits before this one, Traffic is a career-defining masterpiece.
8. Almost Famous – Cameron Crowe
Not only was the year 2000 a great year for cinema, but it was also a year of good soundtracks. The score for Requiem for a Dream notwithstanding, Cameron Crowe’s masterwork Almost Famous propels the viewer into 1970s America with a film about music and fun-loving youth.
Taking place over the course of the year 1973, Almost Famous follows the young William Miller, a fifteen-year-old social outcast who strives to write rock reviews for Creem Magazine and Rolling Stone. Given the opportunity by Lester Bangs (a real music critic from the 60s and 70s) to interview Black Sabbath at a rock gig, William instead finds himself thrust into a relationship with the fictional band Stillwater (an amalgamation of many bands Cameron Crowe himself went on tour with) who take him on tour with them.
William follows the group through the ups and downs of an up-and-coming band struggling with their newfound celebrity on a rock-fuelled ride through America. Accompanying him on the trip is the mysterious and sexual Penny Lane, who has a romantic fling with Stillwater’s guitarist Russell Hammond.
While dodging calls from his over-anxious mother, William struggles to get his interview with the band, who are mistrustful of him and don’t seem to be happy with each other throughout the tour. As seen through William Miller’s virginal eyes, it is a fever dream of style and poetic debauchery.
Featuring a top notch soundtrack full of hits from the era, Almost Famous’ soundtrack immediately aids with the authenticity of this film. The addition of original rock songs for the band Stillwater is only the icing on the cake as Crowe was given permission to use certain Led Zeppelin songs for the first time in cinema history. Mention of other groups who were around at the time run rampant throughout the film as well while the costumes and set design are highly reminiscent of the era.
Cameron Crowe went above and beyond in making this film. He captures the era through costume and set design. Along with his then wife (and guitarist of the 70s rock outfit Heart) Nancy Wilson helped pen actual rock songs that could very well have been regarded as classics back in the day. Crowe also picked the finest actors he could get in being able to depict troubling, yet also stiflingly funny performances.
Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Lester Bangs to a tee while Kate Hudson oozes sexuality and heartbroken longing as Penny Lane. Frances McDormand is hilarious as the overbearing and worried mother. Billy Crudup and Jason Lee perfectly play egotistical rock stars incapable of setting their differences aside to play music for their fans. Last but not least, Patrick Fugit (in his cinematic debut) crushes the screen with his innocence, fear, and anger given his desire to get his interview and go home.
An autobiographical film based partially on Cameron Crowe’s own experiences with touring rock groups in the 70s like Led Zeppelin and the Allman Brothers, Almost Famous expertly tells a great story of a bygone era that had not been done properly since Richard Linklater’s Dazed & Confused.
The theatrical release was stellar but the home video audiences were treated to an uncut version on DVD and Blu-Ray, adding another 50 or so minutes to the already great film, making the Untitled Cut the definitive version of the film.
9. High Fidelity – Stephen Frears
In an era where romantic comedies are a dime a dozen, every once in a while one will pop up out of the mainstream and catch many a filmgoer’s attention. Such is the case with High Fidelity, another musically-driven film with a great soundtrack parodying the 1980s teen love film.
Calling this film a parody is more of a stretch, but one can be justified in calling High Fidelity a “continuation” of the 80s rom-coms. Set in John Hughes-land (Chicago), the story features former teen star John Cusack playing Rob, a shadow of his former self as a grown up thirty-something who owns a struggling record shop. He could very well be the same man seen in Say Anything… (1989) or Better Off Dead… (1985), living a dreary life of failure and emotional ignorance.
Much like his 80s characters, Cusack’s portrayal of Rob still hasn’t figured anything out in life and is put into further turmoil when his girlfriend Laura leaves him for someone else. Constantly breaking the fourth wall and referring to the audience (as well as his own imagination) à la 80s teen comedy, Rob addresses his doubts and fears as well as his frustrations with his current depressive situation. The rest of the film has Rob come to terms with his lacklustre life and figure out if he really is the problem rather than everyone surrounding him.
This lovely tale of losing and hopefully finding romance again is complemented by three things: the first being its performances. Cusack shines in his monotonous delivery while Iben Hjejle evokes such frustration and exhaustion with Rob as the ex-girlfriend Laura. Along for the ride are Jack Black and Todd Louiso as Rob’s motley crew of record store employees who cause more grief for him than most co-workers do.
The second great thing about this film is the comedy itself. It jumps from romantic comedy to silly slapstick, to psychological Woody Allen-type ruminations. Jack Black plays his usual self, guaranteeing loud and obnoxious shenanigans. This mixture of styles gives the film a certain authenticity and mixes in with the drama quite beautifully.
The third gold star this film receives is in its soundtrack. Although the film is about love, it is also about music and its effects on the soul. Throughout the film are rock and love songs from the 60s onward, covering the good and bad both subjectively and emotionally. If one song choice is unworthy of the viewer’s pleasure, there will surely be another one further into the film that will play to their taste.
Well received by critics but kinda forgotten over time, High Fidelity is a unique romantic comedy that is both touching and rocking at the same time.
10. O Brother, Where Art Thou? – Joel Coen
Another entry into the “great soundtrack” section, the Coen Brothers’ re-telling of Homer’s Odyssey is full of their bizarre yet quirky sense of humor while maintaining the duo’s trademark sense of adventure and philosophical gesturing.
Set in the state of Mississippi in 1937, three convicts escape from a chain gang and attempt to find a hidden treasure supposedly stowed away from an armored truck job done by Ulysses Everett McGill (played by George Clooney), a fast-talking and arrogant know-it-all who pays special attention to his coiffure. His two fugitive associates Pete Hogwallop and Delmar O’Donnel (John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson respectively) join him for the sole reason that they were convinced by Everett that they would receive a share in the 1.2 million dollars he has stashed away from an armored-truck heist.
Receiving an oracular message from a blind railroad worker predicting peril and adventure before their treasure is found, the group stay on the run from the guards pursuing them, get fooled into an exotic trance by sirens, find religion, converse with a one-eyed Bible salesman, and get into a whole slew of trouble before they finally reach their respective destinations, both mentally and physically.
This film marked the end of an era for the Coen Brothers. After 1990s hits like Barton Fink and Fargo, the Coen Brothers went into a lull after this one that they would not break out of until 2007 with No Country for Old Men. (Although many argue that 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There is a decent film.) O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a fresh and genius adventure film that could only come from the Coen’s minds.
The leading trio are hilarious together and helped give George Clooney a new name for himself in the physical comedy genre. The film’s thematic elements are at times serious while sometimes border on the supernatural, even delving into silly territory.
The mixture of emotional and theological arguments between the three gives a loveable air to the characters as each one, being a criminal, has a quirky disposition that transcends their unlawful deeds that preceded the film’s story and sets the trio out on their own personal roads to redemption.
The aforementioned stellar soundtrack consists of various folk-bluegrass songs from the era the film is set in, with particular arrangements by notable music producer and frequent Coen Brothers collaborator T-Bone Burnett.
The song “Man of Constant Sorrow,” a catchy rendition of a very old Southern blues tune, won a ton of awards (including a Grammy), while the soundtrack itself has gone certified platinum at least eight times since its release. Even if country folk music isn’t your thing, it suits the film perfectly.
11. Wonder Boys – Curtis Hanson
A misunderstood work of brilliance, Curtis Hanson’s Wonder Boys is an excellently-told and well-executed film that suffered from being released at the wrong time. Slipping under the radar and receiving mildly reviews, the film’s release history is evocative of mistakes that could be made on the advertising side of things, leaving a film to be doomed upon release. However, those who enjoy this movie praise it for its story and the general vibe this film give off.
Set in Pittsburgh, the story revolves around college professor and novelist Grady Tripp, who is attempting to finish his “unfinishable” second novel. Catching him at a low point in his life, Tripp deals with his wife leaving him, a pregnancy caused by an affair he has had with the wife of the English Department’s chairman, and the haunting “spells” he suffers from when trying to find his novel’s ending.
Along the way he gets into a series of misadventures with his flamboyant editor who is in town to check up on the novel’s progress, and a troubled, yet gifted student of his who has a supposed finished novel waiting to be published. It is a story full of writers and literature students, both the pompous and the eccentric, and the story plays out in excellent fashion.
Based on a novel by Michael Chabon, the story was adapted by veteran screenwriter Steve Kloves. Being that Chabon’s novels are already screenplay-like in their own form, Chabon’s knack for dialogue meshes well with Kloves’s script, making the film excellently contained from beginning to end.
Featuring themes of dark gallows humor, tragicomedy, desperation, and fear of repetition conveyed through the film’s relatable characters, Wonder Boys is a misunderstood masterpiece chronicling the human condition. Along the way, the series of weird events that transpire throughout the story almost seem surreal but they keep happening with an air of everyday normalcy, adding to the quirkiness of the film.
Although the more accessible Gus Van Sant vehicle Finding Forrester came out at the end of the same year which featured similar literary subject matter, Wonder Boys has a level of superiority due to its bulletproof script and great performances from Michael Douglas, a pre-comeback-era Robert Downey Jr., a young Tobey Maguire, and Frances McDormand. Along with a top notch soundtrack made in collaboration with Bob Dylan, it is an unsung hero of the college movie genre.
12. American Psycho – Mary Harron
The year 2000 was definitely not a year without controversy. Whether it be the plagued release of Wonder Boys, the box-office bomb and ensuing slaughtering of Battlefield Earth by press and moviegoers alike, there was one gory masterpiece that waited in the wings that has since become a cult classic and a fine example of dark satire: American Psycho.
Set in 1980s Manhattan, American Psycho takes a look into the materialistic life of young investment broker Patrick Bateman. Harvard-educated and born into an already wealthy family, he doesn’t seem to do much during the day, but at night he gets his kicks going to clubs and lavish (read: pretentious) restaurants with his buddies (who all look the same), listening and critiquing the latest pop hits from the 80s, and murdering people in inventive ways.
The titular American Psycho Bateman lives in a surrealist nightmare who just doesn’t find any worthiness in humanity. Everyone below him makes him sick, and justify his need to murder as many of them as he can. Throughout the film, the viewer is treated to horrifying killings that do leave much to the imagination, and also leave a shred of doubt as to their validity. While all this is happening underneath the surface, the daytime sequences play out in macabre hilarious fashion giving this film a dual-edged razor like feel.
It was a polarizing film upon its release, feminists hated it, horror junkies liked it, psychological thriller fans loved it. The film has gotten even more clout over the years and its comparison to Bret Easton Ellis’s source novel of the same name is quite accurate. Mary Harron’s direction and Andrzej Sekula’s photography root the film in 1980s excess, right down to the neon lights, flashy outfits, cocaine bars, and pop music.
The film’s critique of American capitalist society is ever present in its depiction of chic New York City instead of the slummy parts, which are only shown when Bateman is prowling around for his next hapless victim. The emphasis on fine dining in temporarily “happening” restaurants (in that they only exist for a week or so) also brings a sophistication to the narrative. These culinary ties mixed in with Bateman’s methodical killings evoke the movements of a five-star chef rather than a serial killer.
Much like Dostoevsky’s killer Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment mixed with early-80s Tom Cruise-like charm and Texas Chain Saw Massacre Leatherface savagery, Christian Bale brings both a dark humanity and unflinching mask of horror to Patrick Bateman in his disgust with society and remorse (and remorselessness) for his actions.
Not for the squeamish, this film is not quite horror, but more or less black comedy done right, especially since it was able to so successfully divide its audience on many different fronts. The film’s ambiguity, much like Memento, helped set up future slasher/psycho-thriller horrors and raised Christian Bale into the spotlight for the decade to come.
13. Dancer in the Dark – Lars Von Trier
Most of Von Trier’s work can be seen as one giant canvas of films related to one another like Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delight, featuring intense beauty at one end but devastating darkness at the other. Always one for psychological ventures into turmoil and the darkest pits of despair, Dancer in the Dark is among one of his most poetic films.
After directing the top notch Breaking the Waves in 1996 and the controversial Dogme film The Idiots in 1998, Von Trier continues his ruminative cinema by casting Icelandic singer/artist Björk in a lead role, already flipping the basic Hollywood notions of a movie star on its head.
Receiving international aid from a dozen countries apart from his native Denmark, Von Trier’s film tells the story of Selma, a Czech immigrant with eyesight problems who immigrates to the United States in 1964 with her son. What follows is a lengthy tale of hope and hard work.
However, the themes of being taken advantage of mixed in with Selma’s need for recovery as well as to take care of her son are ever-present. Being a fan of music, Selma watches old Hollywood musicals and has her friend narrate the dance steps to her either vocally or by tapping the rhythms on Selma’s hand.
Von Trier’s film, although polarizing, was a hit at Cannes, and was awarded the Palme d’Or and Björk (in her only major film role) won the Best Actress award. Apart from accolades, the film’s style jumps from Dogme Film to Busby Berkeley musical, featuring choreographed dance and musical numbers that happen whenever Selma enters a trace-like state in times of hopefulness or despair.
The film’s political issues and cynical view of America are also present (and helped in the polarization process), dealing with 1960s McCarthyist politics and having Selma being from a Communist country makes itself known during the film’s lowest point.
Stark and depressing, Dancer in the Dark is still one of Von Trier’s more elegant films and allowed him to continue his journey to experiment with cinema in the decade to come.