Living in a DVD world, you tend to become age-neutral about movies: you seek the best of old and new, black and white and color, narrative and documentary, U.S. and foreign.
It makes sense that more and more viewers will think and act this way towards film, as on-demand becomes a broader phenomenon in the coming years, both in terms of reach and choice. Taking into account the inviolable personal dictates of mood and taste, movies will become even more of a meritocracy, with the buyer completely in the driver's seat. Hopefully, what will count will be less "what's out", more "what's great".
Still, I want to correct the idea that I favor older films too much. No, folks, I am not a shill for TCM; I watch and love some new releases too. Frankly, I just wish the majority of them were more original, with perhaps a few more titles aimed at intelligent viewers over eighteen.
But to prove I'm not just a "classics" nut, for this piece I've drawn from our site a noteworthy title from each year of the current decade. Together they comprise an interesting mix. This week I focus on movies produced in this country, and two weeks from now, I'll repeat the exercise with international features.
1) "Best In Show" (2000) - Christopher Guest, today's answer to Preston Sturges, works his talented stock company to the hilt in this satire concerning the various bizarre characters populating the dog show circuit. Eugene Levy, Parker Posey, Catherine O'Hara, Fred Willard, and Guest himself create an off-kilter portrait of obsession and competition, where it feels like the owners should be wearing the leashes. Hilarious vignettes of various colorful dog show entrants and their pooches add up to one of the top comedies of the past decade. Guest's send-up of various American types also include a Southern rube and a gay couple, but the laughter is never mean-spirited. Willard's side-splitting turn as a clueless broadcast announcer is truly for the ages. This is comedy worth revisiting.
2) "Mulholland Drive" (2001) - Fresh off a plane from Canada, perky aspiring actress Betty (Naomi Watts) arrives at her aunt's LA apartment to find an amnesiac young woman (Laura Harring) cowering inside. Over the next 24 hours, Betty attempts to help the injured girl (dubbed "Rita) piece together what's happened, while also auditioning for hot-shot director Adam Keshner (Justin Theroux). When the blonde wannabe and the brunette femme fatale make a gruesome discovery, they bump square into detective Harry McKnight (Robert Forster), who's hunting a killer. Bizarre, hypnotic, and darkly dreamlike, this enigmatic mystery from "Blue Velvet" director David Lynch cloaks the City of Dreams in a lush, noirish atmosphere. "Drive" may elude straightforward logic, but keeps us hooked with the jolting appearance of strangers, corpses, odd changes of identities, and a voyeuristic sex scene that's both disturbing and intensely erotic. Watts gives a particularly intriguing performance as alluring, innocent Betty, and Harring emits a smoldering sensuality that intoxicates. Spooky and irresistible, "Drive" delivers a deliciously creepy take on Hollywood ambition.
3) "Insomnia" (2002) - In the shadow of an ongoing internal-affairs investigation, LAPD detectives Will Dormer (Al Pacino) and Hap Eckhardt (Martin Donovan) are sent to a small Alaskan town to help solve the murder of a teenage girl. During a fog-laden outdoor excursion to trap crafty suspect Walter Finch (Robin Williams), Dormer brings about a fatal accident, then shields his responsibility from the police. As it turns out, Finch was right there after all, and saw everything. An intriguing, top-notch reworking of a Norwegian psychological thriller by "Memento" director Christopher Nolan, "Insomnia" gets a lot of mileage out of its picturesque Alaskan setting, since constant Northern daylight is the trigger for Dormer's sleepless, guilt-ridden nights. Pacino excels as the tortured cop whose error in judgment lands him in a cat-and-mouse game with his suspect, chillingly played by Williams. With strong support from Donovan and Swank (as a gung-ho rookie cop on the case), and a fabulous chase sequence on floating logs, this moody, gripping film will keep you wide awake.
4) "Flesh and Blood" (2003) - In this affecting documentary, filmmaker Jonathan Karsh takes us into the Fairfield, CA, home of single mother Susan Tom, who selflessly cares for 11 special-needs children she's adopted. Faced with a barrage of daily tasks: feeding, dressing, advising, medicating, and defusing violent tantrums, Tom somehow creates an environment of stability, normalcy, and all-consuming love for kids who daily face a gamut of problems. Karsh's intimate portrait of a unique household and the special woman who governs it with a tender, matter-of-fact approach might sound depressing on the surface. And indeed, the movie often weighs heavy on the heart. Yet it also inspires, as Tom is so articulate about her children's issues and her motivations for taking them in that "Blood" is never less than compelling. Raw but poignant, this film is as soul-stirring as its title suggests.
5) "Mysterious Skin" (2004) - As a kid, now Kansas teen Brian Lackey (Brady Corbet) awoke in his basement after a Little League game with a bloody nose and no memory of the previous five hours. Since then, he's come to believe he was abducted by aliens. Neil McCormick (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a gay, sexually precocious teen from the same town, a stone-faced loner who hustles tricks with older men. As Brian yearns to determine the truth about his past, he discovers that he and old teammate Neil have more in common than a hometown. Based on a novel by Scott Heim, Gregg Araki's gritty, intense drama examines the corrosive effects of early childhood abuse on two youths, bookish Brian and vacant, lovelorn Neil. While the subject matter is disquieting, Araki handles the material deftly, injecting a feeling of hope. Corbet and Levitt (from TV's "Third Rock From the Sun") are strikingly credible in demanding roles, while supporting players Elisabeth Shue (as Neil's loose, permissive mother), Michelle Trachtenburg (as his New York friend, Wendy), and Bill Sage (as the Coach) turn in exemplary work. "Skin" digs deep and burrows into your heart.
6) "Transamerica" (2005) - Just a week before pre-operative transsexual Bree Osbourne
(Felicity Huffman), formerly Stanley, is about go under the knife to complete her male-to-female transformation, she learns that she has a 17-year- old son named Toby (Kevin Zegers), who's in trouble with the law. Encouraged by her therapist, Margaret (Elizabeth Peña), to come to grips with her past, Bree bails Toby out of jail and takes him on a cross-country road trip to Los Angeles, hoping at first to drop Toby off with his stepfather and still make her operation. Then, of course, nothing goes as expected. Executive-produced by Huffman's real life-spouse, actor William H. Macy, and expertly handled by first-time director Duncan Tucker, this funny, touching film belongs to a tradition of beautifully observed movies about nontraditional American families. Huffman is riveting, especially in the scenes with her disapproving mom Elizabeth (Fionnula Flanagan). But it's her rapport with Zegers, perfect as the troubled Toby, that gives the film its heart and soul. Their trip--as in most great road films--is mutually nourishing and eye-opening. Settle in with "Transamerica" for a frank, heartfelt outing.
7) "Jesus Camp" (2006) - This eye-opening documentary trails Pentecostal children's minister Becky Fischer in her quest to, as she phrases it, "indoctrinate" the next generation of evangelical leaders. Glimpsed mainly at a "Kids on Fire" summer retreat in North Dakota for those under 15, these youths pray for theocracy and the vanquishing of Satan in cathartic sessions, and hear tough-talking teach-ins about sin and salvation, abortion and politics, and laying down their lives for Jesus. By focusing on a single woman's efforts to raise a theocratic revival, film-makers Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing fashion a revealing thumbnail sketch of this country's fastest growing, most influential social movement. Home-schooled by evangelical parents who teach them creationism-not evolution, preteens are urged by Fischer to pray for George W. Bush and pro-life Supreme Court appointees, then given over to fervent prayer sessions where they speak in tongues. For balance and relief, the directors also showcase radio talk-show host Mike Papantonio in lieu of critical voiceover, but they really needn't have: Fischer and her juvenile God's Army are alarming enough on their own.
8) "Zodiac" (2007) - After a series of grisly murders shocks San Francisco residents in the 1970s, editorial cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) meets investigator David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.), who are each trying to decipher the cryptic clues and letters the killer called "Zodiac" has left to taunt authorities. As time passes, and seemingly important leads turn up nothing but more questions, the case exacts a heavy toll on the three men, but it's Graysmith who won't give up. In this brooding police procedural, David Fincher ("Seven") revisits a real-life case that Bay Area investigators puzzled over for years. Adapted from two books written by Graysmith, this riveting film centers around the experience of an obsessive illustrator who sacrifices work and a lot more to discover the killer's identity. Gyllenhaal's fine turn as the guileless, curious Graysmith is enhanced by Downey's own as a jaded beat reporter. Ruffalo's rugged cop, who discourages Graysmith from traveling too far down the rabbit hole, completes an effective three-way dynamic. Stylish, unnerving, and complex, "Zodiac" is a first-class detective tale with an epic sprawl.