Ten Most Transcendent Films of the Last Decade by Brett McCracken

As we enter the second decade of the second millennium AD, Q is
pausing to look back on
the last ten years. Other contributors in this series include Andy Crouch, Margaret Feinberg and Josh Jackson.

What were the most transcendent films of the 2000s? Which films, through their exceptional beauty and truth and goodness, achieved something that felt like spiritual epiphany, something immanent and cathartic and moving—not merely on an emotional level but on a soul level? Which movies rose up to embody the aches, fears, and hopes that audiences felt during the last decade?

Certainly “the Aughts” was a decade in need of transcendence, what with its terrorism and war, financial crashes and tsunamis and endless political bickering. In the midst of all this, the movies offered, as they always have, diversion and escape. But some of them offered more. The following are 10 films that stand tall as some of the decade’s finest examples of transcendent cinema. In alphabetical order…

One | Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004)

Essentially an extended conversation between Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, Before Sunset is perhaps the most elegantly urgent film of our increasingly anxious historical moment. It’s about not letting things slip away in a world where second chances—where nothing, really—is guaranteed. As Hawke and Delpy stroll along, in real-time, at Paris-at-sunset, talking life and philosophy and what has transpired for them in the decade since they last met (in 1995’s Before Sunrise), we get a concise, punch-to-the-gut picture of the sort of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it relational transcendence of which we’re all familiar.

Two | Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003)

There’s a brief interlude in the middle of this film in which Scarlett Johansson’s character sits against the window of her Tokyo hotel room, looking out on the gray, foreign skyline. As an instrumental Squarepusher song plays, a tender handheld camera gracefully surveys the scene–taking in the bird’s eye view of the city but also the figure of Johansson in the foreground. The camera’s attention seems torn between the force of the chaotic city (graciously subdued by the protective layer of glass) and the humanity of this lonely feminine figure. Simple and true as it is, this sequence captures the dialectical essence of Sofia Coppola’s breathtaking film about the triumph of intimacy in the face of crowdnessness, of fleeting human connection against the villains of loneliness and time.

Three | Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Peter Weir, 2003)

In terms of historical costume epics, Peter Weir’s elegant seafaring drama delivered all the goods. It’s an exciting, beautifully made, well-acted film with profound themes and the increasingly rare (but wonderful) blend of regal grandiosity and intimate character development. But it’s more than all that. This is a film with true moments of transcendence. I think of the solemn sequence when a seaman is lost in a storm, set to the mournful swells of Vaughn Williams. Or the epiphanies of recognized beauty represented in the odd couple friendship between Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany’s characters. It’s a film about a ship at sea, encountering trials and glories and pain and beauty while pressing on toward some hoped for final port. Much like life.

Four | The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005)

Terrence Malick’s fourth film is an epic tale of love, life, growth and nature, set against an American orgins story: The legend of Pocohantas. But it’s not a film about what happens. It’s about what is. In a way that few directors can, Malick confronts us with the thingness of things–the reality of a flock of birds, or a lightening bolt, or a corsetted dress. It’s a film of poetic abstraction that expresses a universe of cohesion by stitching together tidbits of light and longing, in the same way that William Blake saw the whole world in a grain of sand. It challenges our notions of what a film should be, eschewing traditional norms of storytelling while opening the form up to new expressive potential.

Five | Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant, 2008)

This is certainly one of Gus Van Sant’s more experimental/lyrical/avant-garde films, but also one of his most affecting. It’ll leave you silent and stunned with the credits roll, not because it is shocking but because it is intensely, painfully beautiful. Though highly sensory and aggressively artistic, Paranoid also has a plot—a simple, devastating plot that will grab you and shake you and make you think about the deep interiors of your life that rarely get glimpsed. It’s a film about the heavy incomprehensibility of “the self behind the self” (to use a phrase from an Emily Dickinson poem), but also about the meditative rhythms and grace of something as simple as skateboarding.

Six | The Pianist (Roman Polanski, 2002)

The ending of this WWII/Holocaust drama is pure catharsis. After two and a half hours of death and horror, our protagonist (Adrian Brody) is finally redeemed, and over the end titles, he performs Chopin’s magnificent Grande Polonaise for piano & orchestra with the Warsaw Philharmonic in a concert hall. Like the beautiful music played throughout the film, it is both sad and triumphant—equal parts emotional release and spiritual requiem for lost beauty and innocence. Very few films’ end titles are so riveting that not a single audience member leaves for five+ minutes. But this is one such film.

Seven | Silent Light (Carlos Reygades, 2007)

This film about a Mennonite love triangle set in Northern Mexico is original to the core (aside from a very literal nod to Dreyer’s Ordet) and shockingly visceral. It opens with a 7 minute long shot of a sunrise, from pitch dark to glowing morning light, and concludes with a matching shot of a sunset. In between is a lot of silence. It’s a film that beckons us not only into the drama of its very humble protagonists, but also into the drama of nature—the billowing storm clouds, baptismal watering holes, a symphony of cows mooing and roosters crowing. It’s elemental. We’re invited to consider how grandiose and mysterious those elements are, and how hope, light, resurrection and goodness play out on the tableauxs of everyday.

Eight | The Son (Jean-Pierre Dardenne/Luc Dardenne, 2002)

The Son is one of the most gorgeously redemptive European films of the decade. A film of great patience, restraint, and quietness (shot in the Dardennes Brothers trademark spartan, verite style) The Son observes the mundane rhythms of life, work and family and finds within it an abundance of grace. As themes, forgiveness and reconciliation can easily become trite cliches, but in The Son they are given their proper due.

Nine | Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas, 2009)

This exquisite French film is about the beauty and meaning of life, and how it is so much more than objects and mementos and the bric-a-brac of our everyday accumulations. It’s about the hours we spend with our families, running around on a summer evening in a forest or field, sipping wine or eating quiche. It’s about the love and passion and sadness we share. It’s a quiet, observational film which doesn’t wow us with big budget adventure as much as it compels us to consider the very core of our impermanent existence.

Ten | United 93 (Paul Greengrass, 2006)

9/11 is the defining event of the 2000s, and United 93 is the best filmic representation of it. The documentary-style drama brings us viscerally back to the terror of that day, offering a disturbing glimpse inside the hijacked flight 93 as well as a resonant look at the unfolding chaos on the ground. As a painstakingly objective historical document of the decade’s most important day, this film is a triumph. As a heart-pounding, sweaty-palmed thriller about what existence becomes when teetering on the edge of non-existence, United 93 is a nearly unparalleled achievement. Though the outcome of the plot is never in doubt, the film is far from morbid or depressing; Rather, it is a thrilling, breathless tribute to the force of life when it fights tooth and nail to assert its preciousness.

In your opinion, did Brett miss anything? What films touched your soul and would make your list?

Editor’s note: The artwork above is by Julien Pacaud.