Each decade has its defining films. The ’70s shepherded in gritty filmmakers such as Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather) and Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver) while George Lucas and Steven Spielberg introduced us to the event film with Star Wars and Jaws, respectively. This trend continued well into the ’80s where the images of Indiana Jones dodging a boulder and E.T. making the bicycle fly against the moon are impossible to forget. As the ’90s sink into the coils of our memory, what do we remember? Tom Hanks in a white suit, Anthony Hopkins jonesing for a nice Chianti, Steve Buscemi’s leg in a wood chipper and classic lines like, “Zed’s dead, baby. Zed’s dead.” Now that the ’00s are about to become a fond memory, we are already assessing the “new” classics, films that will be remembered for years. Someday, the Lord of the Rings trilogy will be looked on with the same reverence as the Cecil B. DeMille epics from the beginnings of cinema. Lost In Translation will be a sign of the times, our discontent as our nation sat in its ivory tower while Brokeback Mountain could be the taboo buster, The Graduate of our time.

But the point of this feature is not to blow more smoke up the asses of these classics in the making. No way. For every Raiders of the Lost Ark there are hundreds of equally worthy films that have been forgotten. Released virtually at the same time, Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot is every bit as thrilling as Raiders, yet does not have the same ubiquitous place in our filmic culture. Jules Dassin’s dark, noir gem Riffifi is one of the very best films of the ’50s, but show me the casual movie-goer who’s even seen it. This article is a re-evaluation of the ’00s. While the Academy feels it necessary to give dreck like Crash and Chicago the little gold guy, this is a list of films that should be seen, discussed, vaunted as “new” classics. Like any good list, this one is meant to inspire, to motivate, to start discussions. These are only 10 worthy films out of 100s. May it cause you to come up with your list of Should-Be Classics of the ’00s.

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The Devil’s Backbone (Dir: Guillermo del Toro, 2001)

“What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber.”

While Pan’s Labyrinth pushed del Toro until the realm of A-list directors, this little-seen gem is perhaps his best film. All of Pan’s themes are here: the ghosts of the Spanish Civil War, the wanton cruelty of the Falangists, coming of age in such a horrific time and most of all, the supernatural. While del Toro did not create an entire magical world for The Devil’s Backbone, he did play upon our childhood fears of ghosts in the cupboards as the young Carlos (a priceless Fernando Tielve) is left at a decrepit orphanage in the early days of the Civil War. Soon, Carlos learns of the ghost of Santi, a boy who went missing the night a bomb landed, but did not detonate over the orphanage. Guillermo del Toro has created a visually stunning masterpiece that captures the lonely sadness of the orphanage, the watery depths of Santi’s tomb and mythologizes an epoch too horrible to rationalize. As Carlos faces a foe in the form of rising Fascism, something much scarier than any phantom, we realize del Toro has managed to transcend the horror genre by accomplishing one simple feat: creating characters we care about.

Bloody Sunday (Dir: Paul Greengrass, 2002)

“I just want to say this to the British Government… You know what you’ve just done, don’t you? You’ve destroyed the civil rights movement, and you’ve given the IRA the biggest victory it will ever have. All over this city tonight, young men… boys will be joining the IRA, and you will reap a whirlwind.”

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Bloody Sunday accomplishes something quite extraordinary: it is a historical drama that recreates an event as if we’re watching it take place. There is no stirring music or overdramatized death scenes. But, there is an immediacy to Paul Greengrass’s handheld photography which chronicles the events leading up to a massacre where the British Army gunned down 27 peaceful Irish protesters on January 30, 1972 that puts the audience right there on that horrible day. Unlike many other films that portray only the hardened, inhuman cruelty of the British, Bloody Sunday shows both sides with relative objectivity. At the heart of the film is James Nesbitt as Ivan Cooper, whose efforts to fight off a violent IRA campaign in favor of a peaceful march are destroyed that day. But Greengrass refuses to portray all the Brits as pure monsters and his sense of veracity holds firm up to the crucial scene of the massacre, a moment both horrifying and heartrending. Most directors would not have the restraint to portray such a horrible day in such a realistic light. Greengrass would return a few years later to recreate the terror of United 93, Bloody Sunday remains his masterpiece. It is more than an elegy for those who died that day, it’s a requiem. (NB: I have seen Steve McQueen’s stunning Hunger since writing this feature and it is a film of equal power).

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Punch-Drunk Love (Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson, 2002)

“I didn’t do anything. I’m a nice man. I mind my own business. So you tell me ‘that’s that’ before I beat the hell from you. I have so much strength in me you have no idea. I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine. I would say ‘that’s that’, Mattress Man.”

No one knew what to make of upon its release. Those expecting an Adam Sandler comedy were shocked to find an allegorical oddball film that featured no scatological humor or moronic losers. Fans of director Paul Thomas Anderson couldn’t make sense of the film’s brief running time and one-character focus after sprawling ensemble pieces Boogie Nights and Magnolia. What they did get was an undisputed masterpiece about an introverted loner falling in love, overcoming the abuse of his sisters and beating the fear that kept him down his entire life. Sandler plays Barry Egan, a sales rep in a toilet plunger warehouse who, after finding a discarded harmonium, finds his life spinning out of control. His trademark blue suit a metaphorical safety blanket, Barry meets and falls in love with the equally awkward Lena Leonard (a wonderful Emily Watson). But a wayward call to a crooked phone sex operator sends Barry down a path that includes a gang of thugs, a trip to Hawaii and an abundance of Healthy Choice pudding. For all us neurotic romantics out there, Barry Egan is a superhero, someone who we can cheer for as each level of his phobias are stripped away and replaced with the type of confidence only love can bring.

Bus 174 (Jose Padilha, 2002)

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Though overshadowed by the frenetic energy of City of God, Bus 174 can be seen not only as a companion piece to Fernando Meirelles’s masterpiece but as a tour de force in its own right. But this time, the stakes are higher. The footage you are seeing is real. Though Bus 174 concerns the 2000 hijacking of a Rio de Janeiro bus by Sandro do Nascimento, the film focuses on the problem and plight of the thousands of street children that live in Brazil. Tracing Sandro’s own sad past through the murder of his mother, to his initiation into street gangs and drugs, Padilha is showing us that there’s more to someone the television deems a terrorist. Just as gripping as any dramatized film, Bus 174 takes us from the favelas to the horrific conditions of Brazil’s prisons to the homes of Sandro’s victims. Though it is impossible to pardon Sandro’s crimes, Bus 174 and Padilha give us a second chance to see him as both a villain and a victim. If only other films could be this objective, our compassion for a lost human being would be easier to realize. After viewing Bus 174, it is impossible to blame only the man, but also the society that created the monster.

All the Real Girls (Dir: David Gordon Green, 2003)

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“Pretend you’re standing over the ocean. You’re a millionaire. Pretend you’re running over the ocean. You’re jumping across mountains. You’re jumping across mountains. Everybody loves you.”

All the Real Girls will touch anyone who has felt an all-consuming love so intense that it had no choice but to come to an end. Set in small town North Carolina, Green introduces us to Paul (Paul Schneider), the town lothario who has fallen in love with his best friend’s younger sister Noel (a stunning Zooey Deschenel). After an intense beginning, Paul’s “love ’em and leave ’em” reputation gets in the way of true love and things go horribly wrong for the couple. While the plot could come from a John Hughes soaper, Green fixes his lens on a spare palette and lets us fill in the blanks. How novel, a film about love that doesn’t spoon feed its audience with encompassing platitudes about the sticky stuff. As hilarious as it is heartbreaking, All the Real Girls is a real slice of Americana, a portrait of a town blown away and forgotten by industrialism and the denizens that have been left behind. Patricia Clarkson and Danny McBride (as the amusing, yet sad Bust-Ass) add depth to characters that are so realistic they could be your friends and neighbors. A bittersweet sadness hangs over All the Real Girls, just like our memories of that first missed opportunity.

Oldboy (Chan-wook Park, 2003)

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“Even though I’m no more than a monster – don’t I, too, have the right to live?”

As the second part of his acclaimed Vengeance Trilogy, Park’s Oldboy explodes from the screen with a rippling fury. Brutal, uncompromising and dark, Oldboy is not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach. After 15 years of imprisonment for which he has no idea why, Oh Dae-Su (a snarling Min-sik Choi in a visceral performance) is released and given a mission to find his kidnapper. As he follows a twisted path to a grim, gut-wrenching conclusion, Oh Dae-Su will fight off countless men, have sex with a younger woman with a secret and consume a living octopus. Oldboy sports some of the most intense fight scenes ever filmed including a one-take tracking shot where Oh Dae-Su, trapped in a hallway, fights off assailants on both sides. You will still be talking about that one for weeks. Rarely has cinema been this alive, this exciting, this raw. But it’s the film’s twisted climax that pushes Oldboy to the level of a classic. How far will one go to get revenge and, when satisfied, what is there left to do? It’s best to go into Oldboy knowing very little, but by the time it ends, there is no turning back from the horrible truth.

The Fountain (Dir: Darren Aronofsky, 2006)

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“Our bodies are prisons for our souls. Our skin and blood, the iron bars of confinement. But fear not. All flesh decays. Death turns all to ash. And thus, death frees every soul.”

What does a Spanish conquistador searching for the Fountain of Youth, a scientist trying to find a cure to save his dying wife and a man tending to a tree in futuristic bubble all have in common? They are all played by Hugh Jackman in The Fountain, Darren Aronofsky’s film initially dismissed as hokum but certainly one that deserves a second look. While some found the film’s treatise on eternal love to be sappy, there is not one cloying moment within. As a society, there is nothing we fear more than the process of aging and dying. Aronofsky takes that fear dead on and in a powerful climax allows his characters (and us) to recognize the release of death is a natural moment. Though the film is only 90 minutes in length, Aronofsky packs in powerful ideas and great special effects that use minimal CGI, a plus in this decade oversaturated with fake-looking computer imagery. Most mainstream films, craven by most standards, do not take such a liberating view on death. While The Fountain confused audiences in search of a good conquistador film, it did leave us with a tender, beautiful discourse on allowing ourselves, and those we love, to die. Why so sad? True love lives forever, baby.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Dir: Andrew Dominik, 2007)

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“By his own approximation, Bob assassinated Jesse James over 800 times. He suspected no one in history had ever so often or so publicly recapitulated an act of betrayal.”

While everyone flocked to Daniel Day-Lewis’s drooling performance in There Will Be Blood, this other dark Western of 2007 received very little attention. The Assassination of Jesse James rivals Blood on every level: story, cinematography and gravitas. Though Day-Lewis’s Daniel Plainview will probably go on to be one of cinema’s most indelible characters, Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck deliver measured, believable roles as the infamous James and the man who murders him. But these characters do something Plainview does not do over this film’s three hours, they grow and change. Watch Affleck go from a sycophantic sidekick to terrified assassin as Pitt’s cowboy sangfroid shifts into high paranoia. Rather than be a slam-bang Jesse James gunfire marathon, director Dominik cares about the characters, showing us their human side. Like many of the other films on this list, Jesse James is a movie that requires thought. For those seeking a Western where Indians are slaughtered and gunfights break out at every turn, this not the right place for you. After Clint Eastwood revolutionized the genre with Unforgiven, Jesse James, Deadwood and There Will Be Blood took the Western to its next elegiac level. It’s just unfortunate the best of the three examples will forever be the least popular.

Lake of Fire (Dir: Tony Kaye, 2006)

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Now that Bush years are thankfully beginning to ebb away, we can begin to look back at the hysteria of the last decade and hopefully learn something from our mistakes. Though terrorism was the loudest public issue, abortion is and will be the most polarizing topic our country has to face. Leave it to a Brit to present one of the most even-handed, moving and haunting documentaries ever created. Best known stateside for his fractious relationship with Edward Norton on American History X, Kaye evenly presents both sides of the issue sans narration. He interviews Pro-Lifers, victims of bombings, women who have had abortions and academics like Noam Chomsky. While Michael Moore may walk away with the most seen documentaries of the decade, Kaye’s film is much more subtle and eschews Moore’s buffoonish tactics to get to the heart of the issue. But what makes Lake of Fire so important? For anyone who has a stance on abortion, this film will challenge your notions and make you re-examine your own beliefs, something we should constantly be doing anyway. Only once we become entrenched in our own dogma without any consideration for the other side do we become the extremist we fight against. Lake of Fire is a shattering example of how a film can shake the very roots of our ideological beliefs.

In Bruges (Dir: Martin McDonagh, 2008)

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“Ken: Harry, let’s face it. And I’m not being funny. I mean no disrespect, but you’re a cunt. You’re a cunt now, and you’ve always been a cunt. And the only thing that’s going to change is that you’re going to be an even bigger cunt. Maybe have some more cunt kids.
Harry: Leave my kids fucking out of it! What have they done? You fucking retract that bit about my cunt fucking kids!”

In Bruges is an action/comedy hybrid that revels in its strangeness. While most of this list is populated by heavy films dealing with heavy topics, In Bruges is a confection for those who love off-beat cinema. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, two Irish hit men who are banished to Belgium following a bungled assassination, are both brilliant in their idiosyncratic roles. But beyond its colorful characters (Ralph Fiennes is classic as their profane boss), what In Bruges and McDonagh manage to pull off is a resurrection of a genre effectively murdered by every Pulp Fiction knock-off to crawl out of the miasma of bad filmmaking. The dialogue is whip-smart, political correctness is tossed to the birds and a midget gets hopped up on horse tranquilizers. What else do you need? But beneath all the silliness and gunfire taking place in a quaint little European city, there is a hopeful current to swipe away the nasty nihilism and existential malaise that has so long engulfed the “buddy hitman” film. In Bruges knows it’s naughty, but after so many bitter pills to swallow this decade, isn’t a little naughty good for you sometimes?

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