10 Great American Movie Classics of The 2000s You Probably Haven’t Seen

Though we might think we are not that far into the 21st century, we are in fact nearly a quarter way through it already. Naturally, of course, that means that there are already 20 plus years of cinema to investigate from the new millennium alone, a time span which contains numerous masterpieces, more than a few classics, plenty of stinkers, and certainly a lot of buried gems. For me, films that were released in the early 2000s are now starting to take on a strangely nostalgic haze, and it is when looking back upon that decade that one realises just how many solid films came and went without fan fare. We were, it seems, rather spoilt.

Below are ten more notable films of the 2000s which may or may not have passed you by, though it’s more than likely that they wistfully evaded your viewing.


1. Animal Factory (2000)

Animal Factory

When people talk about the essential modern prison movie, they will undoubtedly opt for the 1994 adaptation of Stephen King’s Shawshank Redemption as the genre’s ultimate experience. However, for quite a few years now, I have been endorsing a little known drama from 2000 called Animal Factory as one of the best. Adapted from the second novel by Eddie Bunker (real life criminal and Mr Blue from Reservoir Dogs), it was Steve Buscemi who eased himself into the director’s chair for the big screen version.

Animal Factory has its admirers, but it has definitely disappeared into time, and there are obvious reasons why. True, this tale of a young man (Edward Furlong) imprisoned for drug possession and taken under the wing of a grizzled jail veteran (Willem Defoe, looking as tough as nails) was hardly pleasant viewing, and there were no real inspirational messages, quotable lines or uplifting epiphanies, certainly not of the kind we see in Shawshank. Animal Factory is exactly what it sounds like; a fearless, raw exploration and condemnation of the prison system, where the men are trapped like beasts and treated like so.

But the movie is brave and worthy. First off, Buscemi’s direction is wonderful. While he had taken a step back and let the actors run free in his previous picture, Trees Lounge, here he adopts a more intrusive style. The camera is closer to the characters, and is much more in your face and jagged. We follow Furlong so closely that we feel we are standing right next to him, experiencing the hell of this prison all the way.

It has to be said, too, that the performances are exceptional; Defoe is terrific in one of his finest efforts, and Furlong proves himself to be a powerhouse. Buscemi puts in a nice cameo too, and it’s also great to see a number of indie regulars in there, like Seymour Cassell and Mark Boone Jr. The great Danny Trejo is notable as well, in one of his more fleshed out roles to date, while Mickey Rourke provides what is perhaps the most surprising supporting turn.


2. Saint John of Las Vegas (2009)

Seeing Steve Buscemi in a lead role is something of a rarity, so savour the chance to see his name above the title in Saint John of Las Vegas (2009). A long forgotten dark comedy, it features Buscemi as an ex gambling addict who’s run out of luck and now works for insurance fraud. An investigation leads him to his old town, Las Vegas, and he finds himself tempted by his former addiction, all the while finding himself in a shady case where his colleague is hardly a man to rely on.

The film sank upon release and hasn’t really been spoken of much since, which is indeed a great shame, as the film is hugely enjoyable. Written and directed by Hue Rhodes, it’s one of those rare gems of indie cinema that we never seem to be treated to these days. Buscemi is great in his role, constantly trying his luck on scratch cards while trying to keep up a rather odd relationship with an unstable girlfriend (Sarah Silverman), and carries the off beat proceedings with a charismatic turn.

It received only a very limited release and did next to no box office when it crept out into a few theatres here and there. Now, sadly it’s already buried in time. You owe it to yourself to dig this one out.


3. What Just Happened (2008)

What Just Happened is based on the book of the same name by Art Linson, all about his experiences and troubles working in Hollywood. Here, Robert De Niro plays the ageing producer, Ben, who is having trouble with his latest production, a brutal thriller starring Sean Penn (yes it’s really him), made by a most turbulent and difficult British director, played by a spot on Michael Wincott in full-on Keith Richards mode. At the same time, he is finding it hard to break off his failed marriage to Robin Wright Penn, who is in turn sleeping with a screenwriter, played by Stanley Tucci.

Though a comedic satire, What Just Happened offers a great insight into the troubles of getting a movie made in Hollywood. No one gets off lightly, whether it’s the preview screening audience, the executives or the moody stars. In the middle of all this, De Niro gives one of his finest efforts of recent decades, a funny and well observed portrayal of a producer on the skids, struggling to get the respect he deserves and put his chaotic life back on track.

Between this more high energy portrayal of the modern film producer and his more quiet, passionate Monroe Stahr in The Last Tycoon, De Niro has covered two key eras in movie making history, giving two very different performances. The one in What Just Happened however, is much stronger and he is more able to carry the punchier picture than he was with his work in the very low key The Last Tycoon.

However, critics seemed to dislike the film, and it was also a commercial disaster at the box office. It seems a good time to dust this one off, then, for a fresh reappraisal.


4. The Shipping News (2001)

The Shipping News (2001)

Based on the novel by E. Annie Prouix, The Shipping News is an understated drama with a fine cast all at the top of their game. It stars Kevin Spacey as Quoyle, a man who has reached rock bottom following an unhappy childhood and equally turbulent marriage to a troubled woman, Petal (Cate Blanchett). Petal runs off with her lover, taking with her she and Quoyle’s young daughter. She later turns up dead, having lost her life, alongside her lover, in a car crash. Scarred by the horrors, as well as the joint suicide of his parents, Quoyle (his daughter having been returned to him by the police) decides to move away from New York and start a fresh life in his ancestral home, a quiet fishing village in Newfoundland. Here he begins a calmer new chapter, meeting a widow named Wavey (Julianne Moore) who promises a brighter future for him.

The Shipping News is a rather grim film at times, but it is an ultimately uplifting story, as soon as you get over the initial bleakness that is. Lasse Hallstrom directs with graceful ease, and Robert Nelson Jacob’s screenplay is a faithful yet cinematically conducive adaptation of the book. It is the acting, however, subtle and completely controlled, which impresses the most. Spacey is superb, playing a kind hearted but wounded man who slowly begins to heal as the story goes on, while Moore is as appealing as ever. Judi Dench might just steal the show though, playing Spacey’s rather eccentric auntie, Agnis. It attracted respectful reviews at the time but did little business at the cinema, and these days it seems almost totally forgotten.


5. This Girl’s Life (2003)

Now here’s a genuine buried gem, Ash Baron Cohen’s This Girl’s Life. It focuses on Juliette Marquis, who plays a young woman who works as a star on an internet reality show. We follow her in her daily life, seeing the problems she is faced with everyday. James Woods plays her father, who is suffering from Parkinson’s, and it is looking after him which pushes the girl’s life over the edge.

This Girl’s Life is an extremely engaging film, directed with raw grittiness by Baron-Cohen, and acted superbly by the whole cast, though it is Woods who stuns the viewer. Referred to only as Pops throughout, he becomes the man so much that one often forgets it’s even Woods. With great subtlety, he gets everything right; the shakes, the mannerisms, the frustration. But he also gives the character depth beneath these tics. He is funny too, telling silly jokes to his daughter and her friends, and trying to remain positive, despite still being heartbroken that his wife died years earlier. Unaware that his daughter is a star, he believes (or chooses to believe perhaps) she is a vet. “Did the animals misbehave today?” he asks as she helps dress him one day. His work here puts a lump in your throat, and he’s so effective that you even feel it in your stomach.

Reviews of the film were positive, and even those not won over by the picture as a whole were glowing about Woods. Roger Ebert, who was niggled by what he saw as flaws (incorrectly in my view), wrote that Woods’ performance was so good it was almost too good for the film itself; a compliment for Woods, yes, but also a misjudgement on the film.