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Ten Most Transcendent Films of the Last Decade
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
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...
(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.
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.
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.
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.
(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
I like this list overall, although I was shocked to see United 93 on there. I guess it makes sense because it rose up and embodied a significant moment. Still.
I'd probably add Garden State. I don't know how you can't add the film that first spurred a conversation about an entire generation's life experience.
Marc L. Grubb
I'm completely surprised that "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" isn't listed. It's the story of a French fashion magazine editor who suffers a stroke and is completely paralyzed except for his left eye, yet manages to communicate by blinking, and writes a novel about his experience. If there's a film about the value of human life - one that challenges the way we think about the "disabled" or those cruelly labelled as "vegetables" - this is it.
I never really go for the hype and competition of a top ten list — there is simply far too much cultural good in too many cultural artifacts, and oftentimes one is better from one perspective and another is better from another perspective. So, the exclusiveness of a top ten doesn't really do it for me. I'd rather see a more open-ended list and discussion of what artifacts are "among the best" and why.
That said, some I'd add include
(for Solo's immediate depth of connection to another human in crisis),
Lars and the Real Girl
(for its depth of exploration into emotional crisis and how we thnk about and deal with it),
(for the intimate connection and relationship it depicts, especially in that it is about restoration of difficult relationships),
(for its depiction of potential for and sources of rot in long-term relationships), and
(for its exploration of loyalty, love, and grit).
"Eat, Pray, Love", "Blindside", and "Bucket List" were some of my favorites.
Eat, Pray, Love????? Bleh.
Christopher J. Boghosian
Interesting list. Very nice to see THE SON on here, a film mostly unseen by American, let alone "Christian" audiences. It's an absolutely beautiful film and in my top 5 influences as a filmmaker.
PARANOID PARK? Hmmm.... Though I watched it, I hardly remember it. It's great that Mr. Van Sant is included. I personally consider ELEPHANT as his most "transcendent" film; one that has indelibly stuck to my soul. In fact, ELEPHANT and THE SON are filmed in very much the same way: long, steadicam takes from behind the character. Both also won at Cannes.
I would also like to add BIRTH, by Jonathan Glazer; a phenomenal film with so much vision, many have never quite understood nor appreciated it - shameful...
Christopher J. Boghosian
I might add "Apocalypto". Not only did it portray pre-Columbian Central American life in a remarkable way, the ending was a vivid reminder of events that transcend all aspects of current reality
THE FOUNTAIN. How was this one overlooked? Why?
Robert Glenn Smith
How does Crash not make it on this list? In my mind it might be the best film portraying American life in the history of film.
I'm surprised with the list, given that you set it up as "transcendent" as opposed to best or most popular. I'm sure, given the arthouse feel of the list that most are interesting to say the least. But its likely that very few have sen most of the list, which will buffer you from any real criticism or even dialog.
The list ignores some pretty great movies that provided a great sense of epiphany, transcendence over the mundane and reached a much wider audience.
I would have add Good Will Hunting, Inception, Primer, The Dark Knight, Once, and The Lord of The Rings trilogy.
I'm with Granger: United 93? I would say it's less a visceral movie (yes, i said movie) about fighting for life, and more a feel good propaganda flick.
In my opinion, No Country for Old Men would have been a better choice.
Transcendence in cinema is difficult to define, of course, and different viewers will find it in different films, but a list that includes THE SON, THE NEW WORLD and SUMMER HOURS is a good thing, and I appreciate some of the other choices as well.
IMO, the one film of the decade that towers over all others in this regard is Philip Groning's INTO GREAT SILENCE.
Forgive me, but I have to say that I found "Lost in Translation" and "Summer Hours" to be very tragic films. They reflect the "enlightened" approach to soul searching, the messiness of trying to find fulfillment and while we are supposed to connect to the human struggle for reconciling our troubled lives, I found myself heart sick because these people do absolutely everything on their own terms and there is never even a millisecond of humility before God and ultimately transcendence. This is where popular culture seduces "the masses" because it focuses on universal themes, and we are caught up in that universality. We are touched by the poignancy of human suffering. But when human suffering is put under a microscope and then we just watch it flailing around in front of us, it ceases to be beautiful or enjoyable. Suffering in itself isn't the problem. Suffering with no hope is tragedy beyond words.
Is it possible to address human struggles in a positive way without any direct or
indirect reference to God?
These films do not point to Christ in any way shape or form. The people go about their lives as if He doesn't exist or, as in the case of "Summer Hours", Christianity is a sort of "quaint tradition" to keep in your back pocket for moments like funerals. The end of that movie was particularly heartbreaking to me, as a young woman clearly wants to walk in the footsteps of her deceased grandmother whose life (from a Christian perspective) was deeply troubled. But the sentimentality of a granddaughter carrying on in her grandmother's footsteps is so much more appealing than humility and repentance. Those words don't find themselves anywhere in our public discourse about life challenges.
I understand that we can't expect every film to have subtle or not so subtle allusions to Christ and the Truth. I understand that the secular world does not allow for that. My question is, is a film is trying to cut to the truth about human struggles for wholeness, how can it be beautiful when the characters move even farther from the Truth? I suppose some would say that these films spell out the need for Christ, perhaps awakening some people to look harder than the characters themselves. From my feeble perspective, I think these films fail to do that.
Please forgive me for my rambling and I hope I didn't offend anyone! Thank you for the opportunity to make a comment.
STRANGER THAN FICTION is a fascinating exploration of sovereignty and free will.
I would have added The Book of Eli, mostly because Denzel needs to be somewhere on every list. Except maybe the list in Matthew 1....
Clint Eastwood - Gran Torino
No Country for Old Men and Seven Pounds should both be in there.
I'd take out Master & Commander and replace it with Man On Fire. A man who has lost his way turms around and then rescues someone who is lost and helpless, eventually giving his own life as a ransom, redeeming her in every sense of the word. Transcendent.
@Katarina IIIc - Thanks for your thoughtful comments.
If you don't mind my saying, I think that you're failing to recognize that it's all God's. In several of the films on the list, I'd say that directors *want* us to feel "heart sick," as you put it.
Also, I think that people of grace have a responsibility to locate grace wherever they can. Do many of these films fail to comprehend the full scope of the human problem? Absolutely, but those that recognize that we have one are a step in the right direction over most of what one finds in the local googol-plex. Those that recognize our own inability to solve that problem are even better (I think of a film like _Magnolia_ that is sadly just outside the parameters of this list). It is truly a rarity to see those that more particularly show us the kind of hope we know exists, but sometimes, stopping short of a proposed answer in a narrative is far more effective than an affirmative answer (see Jesus' parable of the lost son).
Not having seen _The Summer Hours_, I can't comment on its conclusion, but I think it is a terribly broad statement to say that we can't find humility or repentance "anywhere in our public discourse about life challenges." I think we might see these praised (or their antitheses questioned) in movies like _Thirteen Conversations About One Thing_, _There Will Be Blood_, or _Grizzly Man_. In addition, as important as those two concepts are, I think we should be careful lest we limit the stories by which God might reveal Himself to humanity: the kind of beauty of sacrifice we might find in _The Dark Knight_ or _Wall*E_, for instance.
Most of all, we should not overlook the sense of eternity in our hearts that makes us quest for meaningful stories and work out the very definition of humanity in the first place. Along those lines, I'd be remiss to mention my nominees to the list: _Moon_ and the criminally overlooked _The Fall_.
I was profoundly affected by The Lovely Bones.
I was profoundly affected by The Lovely Bones.
I agree with what you shared for the most part. I remember enjoying the films listed (Before Sunset, Lost in Translation, and Summer Hours) before I came to really experience joy in living for Christ, now all I see is sexy allure to sentimentality and clever philosophy.
by Bruno dumont!!!
by Bruno dumont
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