In the name of boredom, clickbait and trying to remember that life isn’t always as awful as 2017 would suggest, various outlets have been recently compiling “Best Films of the Millennium” lists. Well, as luck and the inevitable slouching towards entropy that we call “time” would have it, I’ve just crossed over 15 years reviewing films here at The Reader. With apologies to 2001, this means my critical experience lines up fairly neatly with the start of the millennium. And since this issue celebrates the best of our big little town, I figured I’d take a crack at choosing my 10 favorite movies during my tenure.
Holy shit this sucked.
Most folks, like The New York Times, who have taken the nonsensical, unprompted “Best of the Millennium Challenge,” opted for 25 films or more to make things easier. Hell, the BBC took the listed 100! Weak-willed fools! Smaller is better in terms of making lists, playing golf and, according to at least one current President of the United States, hand size. At the bottom, you will find a non-ranked list of honorable mentions as a mea culpa to all the films I’ve loved before (just not enough).
One last preamble: Opinions, tastes and critical sensibilities change over time. Just as I’m not the same person now as I was when I reviewed most of these, I’m a different reviewer too. For example, I long ago resolved the arbitrary differences between the words “best” and “favorite” and now consider them synonyms. So what follows is, as much as I can determine, the top 10 movies I’ve ever reviewed by any measure. And, for what it’s worth, I’ve had a hell of a time all these years. Sincerely. Thank you.
10.) Spider-Man 2 (2004)
We live in a time of heroes. Oh sorry, not in real life. In real life, we live in a time of cowards that hold elected office. But in terms of cinema, this era will be defined by superheroes. Although X-Men paved the way and Iron Man mastered the modern formula, Spider-Man 2 was the first time everything totally clicked. Every exciting, silly, heart-rending thing that carved out a core for comic books in my heart was finally perfectly translated to my truest love: movies. Also, this may have been the last sighting of the actual James Franco before he became a human performance art piece.
9.) Spring Breakers (2012)
Yeah, I know, I just went back-to-back Franco. It’s a bold move, illegal in 37 states. Harmony Korine’s inexplicable masterpiece is a brilliant bit of postmodern shenanigans. From the hypnotic deconstruction of the modern hypersexualization of young women to a stunning shift in the second half that violently reclaims their agency, Spring Breakers is as enigmatic as it is energetic. Don’t just take my word for it. Franco claims Werner Herzog believes the film will define this generation more than President Obama’s inauguration speech. Of course, Franco said that at the same time he was allegedly hitting on underage girls via Instagram. The Franco giveth, and the Franco taketh away.
8.) Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
Before HBO gamed our thrones and a three-part Hobbit (unfairly) soured our communal memory of Peter Jackson’s (ahem) towering achievements, The Two Towers emerged as the benchmark for epic fantasy. Talking trees and a kill-happy elf were joined by a remixed Gandalf to create what remains my favorite big-screen CGI mega-battle. The Fellowship of the Ring relied too much on a not-great performance by Elijah Wood, and Return of the King’s 57 endings still make me angry. The Two Towers is the best entry in the series that redefined filmmaking for the new millennium.
7.) Mean Girls (2004)
You can keep your Anchormans and your Borats, no comedy in this millennium is as quotable and relevant as Tina Fey’s sharp-tongued satire. An impossibly brilliant cast—and yes, I am including 2004’s Lindsay Lohan in that—crafted what remains the best high-school movie I’ve ever seen. Rachel McAdams’s Regina George is too infrequently discussed on lists of all-time villains, and “She doesn’t even go here” memes remain hilarious. The early millennium may have been dominated by affable manbaby, dudebro schtick (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, The Hangover, the existence of Seth Rogen), but they are already painfully dated and derivative. For the smartest and funniest comedy since Y2K, watch Fey.
6.) The Act of Killing (2012)
If you’ve seen Joshua Oppenheimer’s unparalleled documentary, The Act of Killing, you understand why it’s on this list. If you haven’t seen it, I’d say “you’re in for a treat,” but this is about holding a war criminal accountable for his actions in a singularly stunning way. So maybe “treat” isn’t the right word. Maybe “you’re in for an opportunity to watch a movie actually suck the soul out of a murderous monster-person.” That’s not an exaggeration, as there is a moment late in the documentary you can hear the very essence of a genocidal maniac leave his body. Watch it.
5.) Upstream Color (2013)
Writer/director Shane Carruth has made two movies. I almost put both on here. What nudged this one above Primer for me is how Upstream Color’s message has resonated with me over the years. Without physical or sexual violence, Carruth explores the suffering and anguish that comes from victimhood. And yet, it’s also a triumphant testimony to the power of empathy to heal and the resilience of which we are all capable. I would give three kidneys to see more Carruth movies. I know I only own two and stand by my offer.
4.) Shaun of the Dead (2004)
I wanted to put the entire Cornetto Trilogy in this spot, but you can’t cram three things into one slot. That was not a challenge, and nobody send me a correction on that. Super recently, I defended At World’s End as the best of what may be my favorite film trilogy. A rewatch of Hot Fuzz complicated things further. And yet, I’ve seen Shaun of the Dead maybe more than any other movie, it is the best horror comedy of all time and even catching a glimpse of the poster makes me happy. You know what, Shaun? I’ve got red on me too. I’m still blushing with love.
3.) Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
This could have been number one. Maybe it should be. Ugh, counting is hard. I saw this in theaters double digit times. For a while, I would just go and watch it whenever I felt sad or angry or; cinema as therapy is a real thing. Feminist as hell (although admittedly too light on intersectional elements), the resemblance of the lead villain to a certain Russian colluder only makes repeated viewings more therapeutic now. The best action movie ever made. The best sci-fi/action hero (Furiosa) ever created. The best faceless, latexed, flame-throwing guitar player of all time. BRB, I’m gonna go watch it again real quick.
2.) Synecdoche, New York (2008)
I first saw Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut at home. I rewatched it three times in a row that night. I’ve seen it at least 10 times. I still don’t understand all of it. The densest novel I’ve ever watched, Kaufman barfs his genius directly into the audience’s faces. Picking through every single symbolic kernel of corn to identify how it got into the narrative’s digestive track is an exhausting process. It is also so impossibly worthwhile (and, yes, pretty gross). Maybe the best example of why I feel film is the highest art form, possessed of the most potential, each viewing is a transformative education.
1.) Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
I’ve talked about Beasts so many times in The Reader over the years. Honestly, each time I sit down to consider what goes at the top of lists like these, it remains there unchallenged. It’s not as creative as Upstream Color, but it encompasses the whole human experience. It’s not as funny as Shaun of the Dead, but it makes me smile more. It’s not as thrilling as Fury Road, but it comforts me more deeply. It’s not as smart as Synecdoche, but it is more beautiful. In 15 years, reviewing more than a thousand movies, I genuinely think this one is the best.
I (honestly) look forward to hearing about how much y’all think I got wrong.
Honorable Mentions: Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Primer, The Babadook, Moonlight, Inception, Get Out, Lost in Translation, Inglorious Basterds, Under the Skin, Only God Forgives, Anchorman, The Departed, Children of Men, United 93, Moon, District 9, Holy Motors, The Fountain, 28 Days Later