20 Best Movies of the Last 20 Years, Part 3: 10-6
Part one of this list featuring movies 20-16 can be found here and part two featuring movies 15-11 can be found here.
(The list can be discussed on the BSL Board here.)
The Master (September 14, 2012)
Many people were disappointed in ‘The Master’ after it was released. The plot sounded like it was going to be a deconstruction of Scientology and instead that was only a backdrop for a deep character study of the men played by Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd, the leader of the Scientology adjacent organization while Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a messed up veteran who runs into Dodd and decided to join ‘The Cause’. There are no real flashy stand out moments or thrilling scenes of drama in the traditional sense but there are still many great subtle scenes with brilliant acting. Perhaps the best performance in both great actor’s careers, they were both nominated for Academy Awards as was Amy Adams for playing Dodd’s wife.
As weird as the spiritual practices being depicted on screen are, every scene in the movie feels real. That is helped by the beautiful cinematography and excellent direction from Paul Thomas Anderson, who is probably the best director of the past 20 years for me. As good as the character building for each of the main characters is and as uniquely troubled as each man is its the relationship between the two that is the most fascinating. Like a combination between father/son and a married couple they have a love/hate relationship where they somehow bring out both the best and the worst in each other. The fact that there is a belief system at the center of it all adds a lot of themes to dissect and think about.
United 93 (April 28, 2006)
Two movies were released in 2006 depicting events that transpired on September 11, 2001. ‘World Trade Center’ took the more traditional approach casting Nicholas Cage as a firefighter trying to save people at ground zero immediately following the terrorist attack. It wasn’t very good and it felt like Hollywood going through the motions and making every predictable choice when it comes to bringing an infamous event to the big screen. The other one was ‘United 93’ and I’m obviously a little more fond of the film making put on display in that film. Paul Greengrass, director of ‘Captain Phillips’ and three of the movies in the Jason Bourne series, decided to cast unknown actors and focus on the less obvious incident that didn’t get as much publicity on that day.
The incident in question was the hijacked flight that didn’t hit its target but instead crashed into an open field saving who knows how many lives. From the opening of the film in the air traffic control room all the way to the incredibly bittersweet ending every minute of the run time feels authentic and not exploitative. As good as it is it may be weird to see the movie this high on a list like this but its a movie that affected me as much if not more than any other movie at the time of seeing it. I was 14 when 9/11 happened and as a head in the sand kid that didn’t like watching the news I avoided having to deal with the harsh realities of the situation as much as possible. But this movie doesn’t give you any outs, you’re in it from beginning to end, and it gave me some perspective on everything. While its depressing for obvious reasons its also an uplifting story about what Americans are capable of when they come together with a single goal and what true bravery looks like. Its not a very re-watchable film but its an important one.
Magnolia (December 17, 1999)
The second Paul Thomas Anderson movie on this list is a movie I first watched (I should say, tried to watch) when I was in middle school and quit about 30 minutes in because I just didn’t get it. There are some other examples of this from when I was young including ‘The Big Lebowski’ which I also liked much better on a later viewing. I caught back up with ‘Magnolia’ a couple years ago after loving other PTA films and continuously hearing great things about it on movie podcasts and such. I’m not surprised that I didn’t get it at the time looking back but it is funny how much our tastes can change with exposure to new things. It happens to be a fantastic film with a great ensemble and multiple interesting stories intersected throughout with a highly memorable ending.
PTA directs the hell out of this movie (the scene that always pops into my mind is a tracking shot following a character through the halls of a building heading to the set of a game show) and gets great performances from so many notable actors. Look at this cast: Tom Cruise, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Phillip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, William H. Macy, Julianne Moore, Alfred Molina, and plenty other notable names and faces. Oftentimes in a big cast like that it can become a mess trying to give each character enough development but to me it all works together seamlessly in this case. And somehow that ending works. It makes no sense but at the same time makes perfect sense for no discernible reason. I love it.
Zodiac (March 2, 2007)
Another example of a movie I was wrong about the first time I saw it. The first time I watched ‘Zodiac’ was near the end of 2007 when I was trying to put together my end of year top 10 list and preparing for the upcoming award season making sure I’d seen as many Oscar worthy movies as possible. I remember getting hooked early and really loving the opening thirty minutes or so as we follow the serial killings of the Zodiac but then getting tired and finding the rest of the movie boring. I wrote it off as a rare missed opportunity by the great David Fincher but then over time heard nothing but great things about the movie. 2007 is one of the best years in film history and to hear this movie constantly mentioned as one of the year’s best by critics that I follow and respect gave me a reason to give it another shot and I’m glad I did.
This one I am surprised that I didn’t latch onto right away. Unlike with ‘Magnolia’ I was an adult and a few years into my obsessive love of film. This may have been a case of not being the right frame of mind to fully appreciate a movie. I started the movie later at night than usual and it is a long movie so it probably felt like it was dragging and I got tired, maybe even dozed off for a minute or two. Upon re-watch I loved every second of the film. Another great cast with great performances I loved the way that the movie evolved along with the investigation. It starts off from the victims perspective, shifts to the police as they try to track the killer down, and eventually focuses on the media’s role in figuring out who the zodiac is. Jake Gyllenhaal (who is great in everything, underrated actor), Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey Jr. stand out and this film marked a transition for David Fincher’s style of film making which I think is even better than his earlier work.
Anchorman (July 9, 2004)
The only outright comedy on this list is a movie everyone is familiar with. Whether you’ve seen the movie or not you’ve heard quotes from it and have probably gotten annoyed by them at some point which is similar to the other comedy that almost made the list ‘Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan’. It may not be cool to quote it anymore but there is a reason that it became so popular to do so, the movie is hilarious. Not only that it gets better with every viewing. Its up there with ‘Dumb and Dumber’ as far as movies I’ve seen from beginning to end the most amount of times and it never gets old for me. A mix of broad and subtle humor both physically and dialogue driven, there’s something in here for everyone. Except my wife apparently who refuses to watch it to this day…
As funny as it is the best thing going for it is the news team. Great characters who work great together and alone, I actually care about what they’re doing. They’re not solely used as joke delivery machines. Paul Rudd is one of my favorite actors and brings some charm to the slimy Brian Fantana, who I dressed up as for Halloween one year, Steve Carell is great as Brick Tamlin, ‘Champ’ Kind plays his role well, and Will Ferrell obviously knocks it out of the park as Ron Burgandy. I even liked the sequel that came out nine years later despite it predictably not living up to the lofty expectations it garnered. Truly great comedies are hard to come by these days so we have to hold on to the ones we get. You stay classy Baltimore Sports and Life.