The Top 25 Flicks of the 2000s

I know, I know. The deadline has passed for Best of the 2000s listmania. But I just enjoy making lists so much, you could call me Franz Liszt, or Listy Brinkley, or Listerine, or The Listine Chapel. Hence, here’s my dry, uninformed take on the Top 25 Movies of the Decade. Picking #1 was easy, much easier than it will be ten years from now, when I’ll be deciding what was better, “Valentine’s Day” or “The Tooth Fairy.” Until then, I guess you’ll be feeling somewhat listless.

25. Persepolis (2007)
A beautiful, moving adaptation of the graphic novel of the same name, this feat of black and white animated storytelling is a coming-of-age tale, war movie and Iranian history primer rolled into one. This is more than just an interesting memoir; it’s a treatise on what truly defines a nation – not the people who make rules, but the people who make families.

24. Little Otik (2001)
Sometimes, people are more obsessed with the idea of having a child than the child itself. This imaginatively twisted tale from Czech director Jan Svankmajer details the depths that some couples will go, just to say they’ve got a bouncing baby something (in this case, a bloodthirsty, anthropomorphic tree stump). A horrifying, darkly whimsical, one-of-a-kind experience.

23. Coraline (2009)
My favorite movie of the past year was this stop-motion-animated gift from screenwriter/director Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas). This eccentric, wondrously visualized story about a little girl’s discovery of her seemingly perfect “other parents” takes tired, no-duh morals like “don’t judge a book by its cover” and “be thankful for what you have” and reminds you why they became cliches in the first place.

22. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
This movie begins with an all-too-familiar criticism of Valentine’s Day, with its hero, Joel Barish, lamenting, “Today is a holiday invented by greeting card companies to make people feel like crap.” This might lead one to expect a self-absorbed soap opera a la Reality Bites to ensue, but instead, writer Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry smack us upside our rom-com-addled heads with the decade’s most breathtakingly creative interpretation of love conquering all. Part science fiction, part loopy comedy, and 100% positive on the existence of soul mates, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is as convincing and entertaining a pro-Valentine’s Day argument as we’re bound to come across.

21. Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007)
This decade had more than its share of trite, lazy biopics, from the cliche-ridden Ray to the unabashedly rose-colored Walk the Line. And if it wasn’t for Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, we’d have to make fun of them on our own. This largely overlooked satire of “behind the music” movies (and rock stars in general) featured the funniest actor of the decade, John C. Reilly, and a script that mercilessly mocks the way that your average biopic insults its audience – from actors in their 40s playing teens to telegraphed childhood tragedies, the requisite “dark periods” and hyperbolic displays of the power of the music. The original tunes are spot on as well, resulting in the most satisfying rock and roll comedy since Spinal Tap.

20. Secretary (2002)
No movie in the 2000s ignored the rules of romantic comedy as effectively as Secretary, a story of two lonely, misunderstood people who fall in love, wholeheartedly and realistically. There’s romance here, and comedy, but Sandra Bullock wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole, and not just because of the characters’ non-traditional sexual proclivities. The way they test each other, understand each other’s problems and learn how to leverage their love to overcome them – this is the stuff of human relationships, the kind of bond that makes happily ever after a real possibility.

19. The Dark Knight (2008)
It’s a tired observation, but Heath Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight is a revelation. The actor’s turn as The Joker was a glimpse into the eyes of pure nihilism – a fearless, captivating sociopath obsessed with outing the inherent selfishness and cowardice of his fellow man. Christopher Nolan’s movie doesn’t prove its villain right, going out of its way to show the heroic instincts of regular folks, but it blurs the line between good and evil with an honest, unflinching eye, making it the quintessential superhero epic of the decade.

18. Palindromes (2004)
Nobody captures the awkwardness of adolescent life quite like Todd Solondz, and in Palindromes, the director contrasts the resiliency of youth with the ignorance of adults in painfully funny, thought-provoking ways. With a battalion of heartbreakingly good child actors at his disposal, Solondz tells the story of Aviva, a girl dead set on finding herself, no matter how many self-centered parents and religious whack jobs get in her way.

17. Team America: World Police (2004)
Back in ’04, whether you were up in arms over the United States’ recent efforts to cast itself as a big, dumb superpower, or just in the mood for a great extended puke scene, Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s puppet action movie was just what the doctor ordered. From songs that pair Top Gun cheese with W. administration arrogance to brilliant send-ups of action movie cliches and vigorous rounds of celebrity lambasting, Team America makes you view its inherent social commentary through tears of riotous laughter.

16. Three … Extremes (2004)
What Hollywood did to Japanese horror movies in the 2000s is way more horrific than the remakes themselves. If you had to sit through The Ring 2, this trio of Asian short films will remind you that movies can be awfully scary. After taking in “Dumplings,” an instant classic of a horror story in which an aging actress will consume anything to hold onto her youth, chances are you’ll forget about that grudge you were holding onto, as well as The Grudge.

15. Wall-E (2008)
A largely dialogue-less, computer-animated adventure about robot love, Wall-E proved once and for all that family movies don’t need wisecracking animals vomiting out early-’90s catchphrases to be successful (e.g. “Shake what yo mama gave ya!” – Alvin from Alvin and The Chipmunks: The Squeakquel). A timeless romance between a pair of machines that have more heart between them than the whole obese, drone-like human race, Wall-E challenges the mind and stirs the spirit.

14. Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
That rare case of a cultural phenomenon stuffed with one liners that don’t get old, Napoleon Dynamite is a humble geek love story that withstood the most unexpected merchandising blitz of the decade (e.g. Liger stickers were on sale at my gas station). Which only adds to its charm, of course. A hopeful story that celebrates teenage nerd-dom for all of its ugliness, discomfort and facades of superiority, rooting for Napoleon Dynamite feels so good that by the end, you’re ready to start all over again.

13. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Have the movies ever given us a family more impossibly eccentric than the Tenenbaums? They’re a mess of obsessive-compulsiveness, shattered dreams, blasé attitudes and chronic self-obsessions. And thanks to director Wes Anderson’s inimitable quirks, these cartoonishly dysfunctional characters are also thoroughly lovable. But while Anderson’s style makes The Royal Tenenbaums special (e.g. the closet full of board games, the matching track suits, Royal’s stab-happy best buddy), its themes of love and redemption make it timeless.

12. The Station Agent (2003)
When you’re in need of a friend, the last thing you want to hear is that you just have to “let it happen.” The Station Agent is about the merit of that advice, following the lives of three characters, all outcasts in their different ways, as they slowly and organically become friends. A sweet, quiet ode to the power of human companionship, Thomas McCarthy’s movie is an affirmation for anybody out there who’s ever felt alone (which is all of us, I presume).

11. Signs (2002)
Signs is a movie about loss, belief, family bonds and murderous aliens. As a thriller, it does all the right things, taunting the senses instead of assaulting them, using a rustling cornfield or the whimpering of a dog to strike fear in our hearts. As a drama, it tugs at our heartstrings without insulting them, detailing the dissolution and reconstruction of a family, in parallel to the spiritual doubt and reaffirmation of its minister father, played with surprising force by Mel Gibson. M. Night Shyamalan may not be capable of movies like this anymore, but the tender comedy, sharply honed horror and stark spirituality of Signs is evidence of a master at work.

10. Step Brothers (2008)
Of writer/director Adam McKay’s trilogy of attempts at groundbreaking absurdity, this is the purest – take a loose concept (40-year-old guys still living with their parents who become stepbrothers), give it to Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, and film what happens. The result is an anarchic comedy masterpiece, in which the leading men lead each other down increasingly juvenile, wildly funny paths, and supporting players Richard Jenkins, Adam Scott and Kathryn Hahn turn in hilarious performances as they play along.

9. Gosford Park (2001)
Gosford Park is a sumptuous treat in every way. From the detailed country house interiors to the beautifully interwoven story and tremendous ensemble of actors, Robert Altman’s last great achievement is an even larger embarrassment of riches than the combined bank accounts of its characters. A completely engrossing whodunit and exploration of classist attitudes in 1930s England, this is a period piece that looks old, but will never feel that way.

8. Borat (2006)
Most of the social experiment-as-entertainment projects of the 2000s were forgettable, from the trash barge of reality TV shows that began with Survivor to gimmicky documentaries like Super Size Me. But there was nothing formulaic or remotely trite about Borat, a hilarious and harrowing practical joke of a movie that shines a harsh light on our country’s collective ethnocentrism, mining it for several of the most explosively funny moments of the decade.

7. Capturing the Friedmans (2003)
A common complaint against a poorly told story is that there are no grey areas – the good guys are Christ-like, the bad guys are repugnant. Few movies have explored the grey areas of real human existence like Capturing the Friedmans, a documentary about a family destroyed by the horrible compulsions of its father, the questionable tactics of the people who investigated his crimes, and the son who may or may not have deserved to get swept up in it all. Splicing modern day interviews with home movies that the family filmed as it was disintegrating, Friedmans leaves you disturbed, shaken and completely unsure whose side you were on.

6. Bad Santa (2003)
Christmas is supposed to be about selflessness, doing whatever it takes to make your loved ones happy. Which makes Bad Santa the perfect Christmas movie. Sure, this masterful piece of black comedy includes alcohol abuse, filthy language, armed robbery and child beating, but it also relays a strong message about the importance of family – when you care about somebody enough to bleed for their Christmas present, that’s the reason for the season.

5. There Will Be Blood (2007)
In theory, the American dream is an idyllic, magnetizing thing, a world of big, clean houses, white picket fences and laughing children. In practice, it’s dark and destructive, but just as magnetic. This concept is at the heart of Paul Thomas Anderson’s mesmerizing There Will Be Blood, an imperialist allegory that positions cutthroat businessmen and fiery men of religion as two sides of the same twisted coin. Daniel Day-Lewis’ monumental performance as the heartless, fascinating oil man Daniel Plainview is one for the ages, as is Anderson’s crackling script and Jonny Greenwood’s sparse, disturbing score.

4. The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
Children banding together to fight a frightening common enemy – in terms of horror stories, it’s about as original as a monster under the bed. But in Guillermo del Toro’s enthralling, Spanish Civil War-era tale The Devil’s Backbone, the enemies are human, the group of children includes the spirit of a murdered orphan, and the overarching emotion is one of tenderness, not fear. An effective exploration of youth during wartime and man’s capacity for evil, this is a ghost story with soul.

3. Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Brokeback Mountain was the great romance of the past decade, featuring two characters who fall in love against all odds, and not in a Serendipity kind of way. Under Ang Lee’s masterful eye, the story of Ennis and Jack’s pure, intense, ill-fated love is told with the quiet simplicity of a Wyoming landscape. There are no speeches in the rain or last-second rushes to the airport here, just two soul mates whose feelings for each other are demonized by society. And when the time does come for high drama, Lee gets it from two shirts, a faded photograph and three muttered words – “Jack, I swear.”

2. Spirited Away (2001)
For all of the highly conceptualized, visually stunning animation that the 2000s had in store, none of it came close to Spirited Away, the heart song of the legendary Hayao Miyazaki and one of the most imaginative fairy tales this side of Through the Looking Glass. When the main character, Chihiro, and her parents stumble across an enchanted, abandoned theme park en route to their new hometown, the ensuing adventure bubbles over with charming encounters, unexpected friendships, bizarre terrors and universal lessons about greed, loyalty and growing up. An extravaganza for the eyes, and a joyride for the mind.

1. The Lord of the Rings (2001-03)
Three epic-length movies with gargantuan budgets, heavily reliant on unproven CGI technology, tackling the “unfilmable” Holy Grail of fantasy stories, directed and co-written by a guy known mostly for campy horror flicks. This doesn’t sound like the recipe for the crowning achievement of the decade, but Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy is just that – a mindblowing distillation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s intricately interwoven and minutely detailed story, delivered with the kind of fanboy loyalty and filmmaking magic that turns the grumpiest naysayers into born again devotees. (Yeah, I know they’re three movies, but I didn’t want them to suck up three spots on the list; plus, I’m still not sure what my favorite installment is.) For all of their technical achievements, which made us believe it was Middle Earth we were looking at, it’s the adapted screenplays that made these movies sing. Without skimping on the battles, creatures and other eye candy, Jackson, Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh made a point to develop these characters in concert with the books, not shying away from depictions of love between Frodo and Sam, capturing Gandalf’s aloofness along with his power, treating Gollum’s tragic, schizophrenic struggles with a sympathetic flair. These 10 hours of film show us how strength and salvation can come from the most unexpected places – like the quiet gardens of The Shire, or the ambitious minds of New Zealanders.

Oldies to Spare

For the entirety of my childhood and a good portion of my adult life, listening to Buffalo radio stations wasn’t a completely awful experience. Amongst the Foxes and Edges, the Joy and Magic, the Jack and Alice, there was one station that never let me down – Oldies 104. A station devoted to the most exciting period of pop music history, it got The Beatles, Beach Boys, Sam Cooke and Sly Stone in my DNA from a young age, as my mom schlepped me around to Little League practices, piano lessons and such. But several years ago, the station changed its identity, along with its format. As Mix 104, it sounds like pretty much everything else on the dial, a mish-mash of chart-toppers from the last 40 years. I still haven’t recovered.

But my feelings of betrayal were somewhat assuaged on January 9, when I took in the oldies cover band Spare Parts at Arty’s Grill on Buffalo’s East Side (the place is awesome, with the picture here absolutely doing it justice). Over the course of their several-hour set, this group of retired postal workers (and a few younger ringers) dished out joyful, endearingly sloppy renditions of “Sea Cruise,” “Runaway,” “Slow Down,” “Do You Love Me,” “Mustang Sally” and so on. It was the most fun I’d had at a show in a while, and not just because I had some pals in the band. As a crowd of Spare Partisans and Arty’s regulars danced, clapped and raised their drinks in salute, I yearned for the days when this kind of reverie was just a twist of the knob away.

If you’re the kind of person who gets pissed off at the phrase “oldies but goodies” (why do we have to be reassured that they’re goodies? There’s a much better chance that an oldie is a goodie than a new Nickelback song), I’d recommend the Spare Parts experience. Not only will the set list be crammed with several of your favorites, you can look forward to half-assed Elvis impersonations, charming originals, the soft-spoken witticisms of bassist/de facto bandleader Frankie Flame, and a general air of unpretentiousness. Because when a band pays homage to the building blocks of rock and soul without taking itself seriously, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

I’m not credible!

Fun fact: The beautiful people over at Artvoice were kind enough to include selections from my Top 100 Albums of the 2000s list in their January 7 issue – they even put the story on the cover.

In it, I refer to a song from Radiohead’s Kid A called “How To Disappear Completely.” Except I decided to call it “How To Become Invisible.”

If you need me, I’ll be out back, burning all of my wool caps, cappuccino frames, ironic t-shirts and thrift store sweaters with well-worn thumbholes. I hath no indie cred.

Top 10 Albums of 2009

Mom and dad,

This list of the Top 10 Albums of the past year is a bit anti-climactic, since I’m sure you pored through my Top 100 Albums of the Decade list with a fine-toothed comb, or at least a comb with teeth that are relatively small. It definitely wouldn’t have been one of those thick plastic combs that come with dolls that you buy at the Dollar Tree. If it was, then you’re both dead to me.

You’ll see a few repeats here (six, in fact), but I’m sure you won’t mind reading them again – I’m your flesh and blood after all. It’s the least you could do.

10. Iggy Pop – Préliminaires
Iggy Pop’s 15th solo album is a brooding slab of French pop, post-punk and Basin Street blues, making for a delightful departure from his firmly established hard rock sneer. Whether he’s seducing like Serge Gainsbourg on “Les Feuilles Mortes,” leaning into a dirty New Orleans groove on “King of the Dogs” or channeling Leonard Cohen over the wandering violins of “Spanish Coast” and brooding synths of “Party Time,” Iggy’s gothic cabaret baritone totally captivates, thickening each arrangement like café with extra lait.

9. The Flaming Lips – Embryonic
This is the album that The Flaming Lips needed to make after 2006’s At War with the Mystics, a solid effort that nonetheless signaled the band’s return to Earth after seven years in the space rock stratosphere. Shredding that sacred, universally appealing Soft Bulletin formula once and for all, Embryonic isn’t much interested in hooks, or for that matter, traditionally beautiful sounds. Raw, challenging soundscapes are the order of the day instead, accentuating the inherent weirdness of Wayne Coyne’s voice where previous albums sought to offset it. Where Bulletin or Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots would have given you a blast of harmony, Embryonic hits you with a wall of static, a dissonant power chord or wash of synthesized harp. By bringing their freakier ’80s and ’90s selves back into the fold, the band can give us metaphysical head trips like the “The Sparrow Looks Up at the Machine” and towering, passionate jams like “Worm Mountain.” Drummer Kliph Scurlock goes ballistic throughout, like Nick Mason would’ve if Pink Floyd had tried to go back to its roots. With feet planted in the past and the future, Embryonic makes the present a hell of a lot more interesting.

8. Vetiver – Tight Knit
Quick, listen to Vetiver’s song “Everyday” right now, before Target or Old Navy or some other company beats it into submission in a ubiquitous commercial. Coupling some breezy acoustic chords with a sweet, McCartney-esque vocal melody, the track is as effortlessly catchy as anything released in ’09, and if it wasn’t for Feist’s “Mushaboom,” the entire decade. And this quality bit of easy listening is only part of the charm of Tight Knit, a record that’s intent on conveying one particular form of happiness – that lazy Sunday afternoon, dipping your toes in the lake kind of feeling, a sensation that’s as unforgettable as it is fleeting. As a result, Andy Cabic’s songs aren’t all that interested in changing your life, or even getting you to think all that much. This is gentle, artful soft rock, irresistibly simple and mostly free of James Taylor-ish stabs at poetry. Keep it out of your On the Go party playlist, but when you’re hung over the next day, you’ll cling to it as intensely as that bottle of blue Gatorade.

7. Raekwon – Only Built 4 Cuban Linx … Pt. II
Wu-Tang Clan broke the rules from the start, a crew of nine MCs that rolled out a raw East Coast masterpiece at the height of gangsta rap’s popularity, took four years to record a two-disc follow-up, and turned that into a stroke of brilliance as well. In this context, the utter magnificence of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx … Pt. II makes sense. Usually when artists borrow off the cred of their younger days, it’s because they’re either greedy, out of ideas, or both. But Raekwon’s “sequel” to his legendary solo debut is no Stillmatic. Maybe the title alone was enough to get the MC to push himself, so as not to sully the sacrosanct Cuban Linx name, but regardless, Raekwon has never sounded better, not to mention guests Ghostface Killah and Method Man, and producers RZA, Dr. Dre and the late J Dilla. These project newscasts, dealer diatribes and prison yard tales are as raw and compelling as hip hop gets, from the chilling descriptions of “Cold Outside” to the laid-back crack-making interlude “Pyrex Vision” and the heartfelt Ol’ Dirty Bastard memorial “Ason Jones.” Part II is such a shocking triumph, one wonders if these guys could’ve salvaged The Godfather: Part III.

6. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
The press went apeshit about an album with a weird title by a relatively unknown Brooklyn indie-folk band. Lots of people listened, went out and bought it. And it’s terrific. What a refreshing thing to think about as the “death of the album” decade comes to a close. To those going in pre-hyped, Veckatimest might not be an immediately rewarding listen, because this isn’t typical pop songcraft. It’s lofty, hypnotic music, where the verses draw you in and the choruses only serve to deepen the mystery.

5. Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca
Take an infectious, harmony-drenched pop album of enviable quality. Now stick it in a jam jar and shake it up violently. You might have something resembling Bitte Orca, a record that’s stuffed with stunning vocal melodies and intricately beautiful guitar passages, put together in jarringly unconventional ways. Odd time signatures, jittering solos and acquired-taste falsettos abound, and instead of giving the sense of a masterpiece marred, Dirty Projectors reminds us of the beauty of broken rules.

4. Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse – Dark Night of the Soul
When two absolute masters from different genres team up on a project, the expectations are overblown, and the results usually can’t meet them. But when Danger Mouse joined Mark Linkous, the one-man wonder behind Sparklehorse, for a cinematic, star-studded affair called Dark Night of the Soul, the final product was as good as advertised. This is much more of a Sparklehorse record, which means it’s weird, whispery and sad (the most upbeat cut is called “Daddy’s Gone”). Mouse gives Linkous’ songs more room than they usually get to breathe, resulting in the most far-reaching album of his career. Guests with defined personalities (e.g. The Flaming Lips, Iggy Pop, David Lynch) blend gracefully into this tapestry, not a small feat. And in true Danger Mouse fashion, the record still hasn’t been released – a frustrating fact that only adds to its intoxicatingly mysterious vibe.

3. Mos Def – The Ecstatic
Until this year, Mos Def was a shoo-in for the most disappointing hip hop artist of the decade. His 1999 solo debut, Black on Both Sides, is one of the masterpieces of the genre, but it’s had to tide us over since then – 2004’s The New Danger was hazy and uneven, and 2006’s True Magic is best left forgotten. But from the opening, acid rock/Bollywood strains of “Supermagic,” where the MC spits a twisted Mary Poppins-inspired chorus, our faith is instantly renewed in his ability to get our heads nodding and spines tingling. The Ecstatic is more an album of vignettes than full-blown songs, and it keeps Mos Def constantly on his toes, crushing one mesmerizing analog beat after another, two-three minutes at a time. His acting is enjoyable, but here’s hoping he leaves the multiplex by the wayside and continues this musical resurgence.

2. Neko Case – Middle Cyclone
Neko Case’s fifth album finds her at the peak of her abilities, channeling Emmylou Harris and Jeff Tweedy in her reverb-laden alt-country soundscapes, and the devastating power of Mother Nature in her lyrics. When a singer/songwriter name-checks the natural world, we expect it to be a treatise on peace and beauty. But on Middle Cyclone‘s opening cut, “This Tornado Loves You,” the narrator is a fearsome storm, destroying towns and villages in her search for the love that got away. The lilting Sparks cover “Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth” turns the tables on the standard abuser-victim relationship between mankind and the environment. On the title track, Case lets her guard down to confess the pain of a loveless life, but she finds her strength by the end – “But I choke it back/How much I need love.” The record is a gorgeous examination of love’s warts and blossoms, and by the time you get to its final cut – more than a half-hour of cricket-laden nature sounds – it feels less like a soothing sleep aid and more like a beautiful, potential threat.

1. Antony and the Johnsons – The Crying Light
Good music is fun to listen to and easy to identify with. Great music transports you to another world. The Crying Light is great music, an impeccably produced, soul-searching record, marked by ambitious arrangements and Antony Hegarty’s indelible, quavering voice. This is a white man in his late 30s who sounds like the reincarnation of Nina Simone, pouring sincere expressions of pain and pleasure into lyrics that aren’t afraid to get markedly poetic. In Hegarty’s world, hearts don’t break, they sob. Lovers don’t kiss his lips, they kiss his name. Celebrations of Mother Nature rub shoulders with a devastating account of an epileptic seizure. And the singer’s hypnotic way with words makes them ideal bedfellows for these arrangements, which employ small string sections, spare pianos, subdued guitar picking and dancing woodwinds in a way that’s both elegant and humble. The Crying Light is an album dominated by soft, shy balladry, yet it demands your attention. God-given talent isn’t a background kind of thing.