I have a theory: it takes about fifteen years (give or take a year or two) for us to start determining what’s classic and what’s not. It takes a little bit longer with music- nearly all critics acknowledge Kid A as the best album of the 2000s (I don’t, sue me), but it doesn’t really feel classic yet. It still feels like it belongs to this time. Give it another five years, and we’ll probably be talking about Kid A the same way we talk about Nevermind now.
But movies age faster. There’s something about music that gets deeper into our psyche to where we hold onto it a bit longer. Movies belong to their own time more; they’re more fleeting.
I decided to make a list of the movies from 2000 that we can say with some certainty are now “classic”. I don’t have any legitimate authority over the actual status of these movies, though it would be nice if someone in Hollywood would throw me a bone on that front. (Just a little power, that’s all I ask.) To be clear, this list is not the same thing as the Bummys. These aren’t my personal favorites, just movies that I think have endured in the culture and will be remembered. Remembering is fun, so that’s why I made the list.
The movies can be broken down into five categories:
Undisputable: I don’t have a dictionary, but I think this should actually be “indisputable”. I guess I could look it up. Okay, just did- it’s “indisputable”. But in the interest of not caring, I’m going to leave it as undisputable. Anyway, it’s pretty self-explanatory. These are the movies that it would be very difficult to argue against including.
Critical Consensus: These are the movies that are and will be classics based on the strength of their support from critics. Generally these movies aren’t as popular with general audiences. It’s not that they don’t like them, per se, just that critics are and will champion these movies more.
By Popular Demand: And this is the opposite. Non-critic audiences liked these movies more when they were released and still do.
Performance Enhancement: These movies have endured and will continue to do so based on the strength of one or more performances in the movie, rather than the quality of the movie as a whole.
Cult Status: These are movies that weren’t popular with audiences when they first came out but have achieved a special kind of popularity on DVD.
2000 was a transition year for movies. The 1990s, like with many other mediums, saw the success of excess. Big movies with hefty running times were the order of the decade. 2000 saw the tail end of this trend combined with the beginning of more successful small movies. The independent scene that saw its roots in the 1980s finally began to catch on with wider audiences. The classics reflect this. Here they are:
Almost Famous: Nearly universally regarded both as Cameron Crowe’s best movie and as the only good movie he’s made in the 2000’s, Almost Famous is the semi-autobiographical story of a 15-year-old boy who pretends he’s older so that he can follow a rock band on the road for Rolling Stone. This one was always going to be a classic; pretty much every critic loved it, and it has found word-of-mouth success as a DVD. But Philip Seymour Hoffman’s passing solidified it, making his scenes in the movie as a jaded rock critic simply iconic.
Cast Away: Robert Zemeckis’s films so often have a gimmick; the animation/live-action combination of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the insertion of Tom Hanks into historical footage in Forrest Gump, the austerity of the island scenes in Cast Away. But his gimmicks are often in service of great stories, and Cast Away, the story of a man who survives a plane crash only to spend years marooned on an island, has a story that has endured. If the permanence of “WILSON!” isn’t enough to convince you of Cast Away’s classic status, I don’t know what is.
Chicken Run: It was Pixar or nothing in the world of animation back then, since the studio had seen wild success with the first two Toy Story movies and A Bug’s Life, and Shrek hadn’t launched the new wave of snarky DreamWorks movies quite yet. Chicken Run was the first feature-length from Aardman Animations, the studio that makes the Wallace & Gromit shorts, and the studio’s stop-motion debut showed that there was a different way than CGI. Of course, the studios didn’t learn their lesson, doubling down on trying to catch up to Pixar and DreamWorks, but that doesn’t alter Chicken Run’s status as one of the best animated movies of the 2000s.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: While China’s reaction to Ang Lee’s masterpiece was a resounding “meh”, CTHD was a huge hit here in the States. And no wonder: on top of the magnificent effects and sumptuous cinematography, CTHD distilled kung fu movies down to their essence. The gravity-defying fight scenes are highly stylized and exciting, but they complement the love stories and transcendentalist themes at the movie’s center.
Erin Brockovich: This is Exhibit A in my argument that this isn’t just a list of my personal favorites, because I barely like this movie. But it’s an integral part of the culture now, reestablishing the standard for based-on-a-true-story activism set by Norma Rae in the ‘70s. And it has a dynamite performance from world treasure Julia Roberts, so it belongs on this list despite my personal misgivings with the movie.
Gladiator: Subsequent sword-and-sandal movies like Alexander, Troy, and Ridley Scott’s own Kingdom of Heaven and Exodus: Gods and Kings have muddied the waters around Gladiator. The trend it kicked off in 2000 certainly hasn’t produced any other classics, but Gladiator remains as wonderfully epic now as it seemed 15 years ago. Scott has always been good at bringing blockbuster production design to relatively small human stories, and Gladiator is one of the best examples of his unique sensibility.
Meet the Parents: Another example of this not being the Bummys. Some movies that are unfunny end up enduring despite themselves. Maybe it was the pairing of Stiller and De Niro that made this movie a hit, but it’s one of the highest-grossing live-action comedies of all time, and I don’t understand.
Traffic: Steven Soderbergh is one of the most inscrutable directors to me; I’ve never understood his enormous appeal to critics. I’m not a huge fan of Erin Brockovich, and I thought this crime movie that interlocks stories at various ends of the drug trade was merely “very good”, while most critics think it is “great” and “one of the best crime movies ever”. But I just watched sex, lies, and videotape (Soderbergh’s 1989 debut) and loved it, so maybe I just need to revisit his movies.
You Can Count on Me: Widely regarded as one of the best indie movies ever, it combines what you expect from an independent movie (low budget, small story) with what you wouldn’t expect (a total lack of quirkiness, movie-star acting- that’s cheating a bit, since neither Linney nor Ruffalo was a movie star yet). Featuring breakout performances by two underrated actors (both then and now) in Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo, director Kenneth Lonergan captured sibling love perfectly. The complete dearth of movies from Lonergan after You Can Count (until Margaret’s tortured release in 2011) has only served to increase its quality in retrospect.
George Washington: One of the first indies I ever saw also happens to be one of the most championed by critics. It’s a small film about children in a low-income neighborhood who legitimately act like children and not like child actors. David Gordon Green has never lived up to the promise he showed as a filmmaker in this one.
The Gleaners & I: A documentary by French avant-garde filmmaker Agnes Varda that, typical to Varda, shines a light on a largely unseen segment of the population. Gleaners are basically scavengers, though without the negative connotations of that word; historically they would gather whatever crops were left over after the harvest. Varda’s film includes street gleaners (essentially dumpster divers), and it’s considered one of her best.
High Fidelity: In retrospect, it makes sense that High Fidelity wasn’t a hit. Being released in the same year as Almost Famous would be difficult for any music-centric movie, especially one where John Cusack routinely breaks the fourth wall and refers to everything through top-five lists. But critics continue to extol its many virtues, including its insights into masculine entitlement and music criticism.
Yi Yi: I know very little about Yi Yi. I know it’s Taiwanese; I know it’s a family drama; and I know critics describe it with the breathless praise usually reserved for masterpieces. While it’s supposed to be slow-moving and will probably never catch on with the wider public, I have to assume that the effusive noise from the critics will carry Yi Yi well into the future’s estimation of the movies of 2000.
By Popular Demand
Bring It On: This is a bad movie that I like a little bit in spite of myself. Again: this list is NOT about telling you which movies from 2000 were the best. This is about movies that have endured in the culture and that I think will be remembered from here on out. Bring It On, to my generation, is a seminal movie that both upended and defined its own genre. “Jazz hands” will always be a thing, and there’s nothing we can do about it now.
O Brother, Where Art Thou?: The Coen brothers were already elite filmmakers by the time they made O Brother, having already made Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo, and The Big Lebowski (WOW.). O Brother, Where Art Thou? was a lark for them and for George Clooney, and yet it’s among their most popular movies. Why? I’m the wrong person to ask, because I don’t like this movie at all. I think the popularity of its soundtrack has a lot to do with it, as well as the fact that neither the Coens nor Clooney has ever been involved in anything like this before or since that its uniqueness makes it stand out. Its weirdness is its own reward, I suppose.
Remember the Titans: Critics do not like Remember the Titans. It’s a very simple movie; director Boaz Yakin may not be familiar with the concept of nuance. But my generation loves this movie. It was, for many of us, the first time we saw a Denzel Washington movie and therefore the first time we felt the force of his charisma. Many of us saw Titans when we were kids, so the simplistic, black-and-white plot resonated with us. A lot of movies that end up being classics later are movies that work for the youth of their time, who, when they’re adults, pass their childhood movies on to future generations. If you’re a critic who doesn’t like Remember the Titans: embrace it; it’s not going away.
Dancer in the Dark: Björk wasn’t the first woman Lars von Trier put through the ringer to elicit a classic performance (ask Emily Watson what Breaking the Waves was like), but she’s by far the most famous example.
Pollock: The combination of Ed Harris as Jackson Pollock himself and Marcia Gay Harden as his long-suffering wife will always make this often-boring biopic worth seeing.
Shadow of the Vampire: An uneven fictional portrayal of the filming of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, Shadow endures solely because of Willem Dafoe’s inspired Max Schreck, who may or may not be an actual vampire.
American Psycho: Somehow this thriller starring Christian Bale as a sociopath only grossed $15 million.
The Legend of Drunken Master: Originally released in China in 1994, Drunken Master was released in America to little-to-no success after Rush Hour catapulted Jackie Chan to stardom, but now it’s seen as an essential comedy to kung fu movie aficionados.
Love & Basketball: I don’t know any basketball fan who doesn’t think this is one of the most underrated sports movies ever.
Memento: It wasn’t Christopher Nolan’s first movie, but it was his first big break, gradually becoming a sleeper hit.
Requiem for a Dream: Audiences stayed away, critics didn’t know what to do with it, but since it bowed out of theaters losing money, Darren Aronofsky’s drug horror movie has reached an unprecedented level of fame as a cautionary tale for addictions of all kinds.
Personal Favorites Left Off
I like all three of these movies quite a bit, but they’re not classics. Billy Elliot is still well-respected and it was nominated for 3 Oscars that year (including Best Director and Original Screenplay), but it’s more famous now for spawning a Tony-Award-winning musical than for being the first of a wave of vaguely neorealistic British movies in the early 2000s. Chocolat is now perceived as somewhat of a joke, one of those early-2000s Miramax movies that received more awards attention than it deserved, ruining its long-term reputation. It’s actually a nice little fable that never should’ve been nominated for Best Picture. Unbreakable is the forgotten M. Night Shyamalan movie, the middle child between The Sixth Sense and Signs, even more forgotten after Shyamalan’s cache in the industry took a nosedive after 2006’s Lady in the Water. It’s really a very good thriller with an interesting premise- not his best work, but also not The Happening.