I have been sitting here for 5 minutes trying to think of a way to introduce the 2000s. Turns out, it is a bit… errr… way more boring than the 1900s.
Let’s just get to the list…
Kid A by Radiohead
The album that saw Radiohead transcend from “really damn good rock band” to “musical geniuses” as they started to really move towards some more electronic, jazz, classical, and ambient influences (‘OK Computer’ was the album that saw them starting to play around with a lot of new ideas but ‘Kid A’ is on another level of experimentation for them).
I have always seen ‘Kid A’ as two sides separated by the ambient “Treefingers”: the first side opens with “Everything in Its Right Place” (featuring beautiful synths and manipulated vocals), the supremely electronic “Kid A” and closes with “The National Anthem” and “How to Disappear Completely” (the former is an energetic jazz influenced song while the latter is perhaps the saddest song ever written); the second side opens with “Optimistic” and “In Limbo” which is a bit of a return to their older guitar-based style before they flip the switch again with the masterful “Idioteque”, leading into the always fun “Morning Bell” and closing with “Motion Picture Soundtrack” (perhaps the most beautiful, heart-breaking song on the entire album).
From ‘Pablo Honey’ in 1993 to ‘Kid A’ in 2000, Radiohead is perhaps the greatest example of a band that improved immensely in a very short period of time. The band went from pretty standard grunge-y alt rockers to genius experimental art rockers in the period of 7 years and would go on to make many more great albums (‘Amnesiac’, ‘In Rainbows’, ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’). For all of the great albums Radiohead has made over the course of their career, ‘Kid A’ is still their high point and the standard for all rock bands to come.
Along with ‘Sátántangó’ and ‘The Turin Horse’, this ranks among Béla Tarr’s best (and among slow cinema’s best, just behind the aforementioned titles and most of Tarkovsky’s work). The film takes place in a small Hungarian town where a circus will soon arrive with a giant decaying whale and a performer simply called “The Prince”. It is an allegory of the brutalization of society and the decay of ethics, a society in total eclipse (silencing the animals) before the return of sunlight. It is a depiction of broken and powerless people who lash out against anything that they can in their own helplessness. An impenetrable yet beautiful darkness that will stick with you for the rest of your life.
Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones
Far less focused than both ‘The Phantom Menace’ and ‘Revenge of the Sith’ (the former focused on the child Anakin while the latter focused on the becoming-Darth-Vader Anakin), ‘Attack of the Clones’ overloads the viewer with so much visual and story information that it can be very overwhelming.
While ‘The Phantom Menace’ saw the marriage of form and content (for example, the sun-baked visuals matched the dryly stated trade negotiations – structurally, ‘The Phantom Menace’ was as dry as you can get), ‘Attack of the Clones’ continuously sees the clash of form and content – it is volatile and uncomfortable, constantly in a transitional state. In terms of its content, ‘Attack of the Clones’ can be accurately described as “things happening” – detached, disconnected events that play out beyond the control of those involved. In a strange way, this clash of form and content is reflective of the thematic meanings found within as the aimlessness and purposelessness of the film’s form is mirrored through Anakin’s character (after all, the prequel trilogy is a character study through and through).
While people often lambaste the film for the usual mainstream reasons (i.e. wooden acting, poor scripting, etc.), I feel like these people are often missing the point. If you think that Lucas was going for something that would be considered “perfect” in some mainstream sense or to give the fanboys of the originals exactly what they wanted, I feel like you are judging the film for what you want it to be rather than for what it is.
Sure, viewing ‘Attack of the Clones’ can be an alienating experience, especially when you hold it in juxtaposition to something far more uniform and mainstream friendly (i.e. ‘The Empire Strikes Back’). However, it is this alienation that makes ‘Attack of the Clones’ a masterpiece. It is a singular piece of film (as was ‘The Phantom Menace’) that is so convinced and sure of itself (in its story, characters, digital backgrounds, etc.), it is difficult to not see it as a great cinematic achievement (plus, it was the first major Hollywood film to be captured digitally and to use an almost fully digital pipe-line in its creation).
For all intents and purposes, ‘Blissfully Yours’ is a medical film. It is a medical film due to both the conditions / actions of its characters and the medical-like examination of the human condition: Min has rashes on his upper body that need to be treated, Orn prepares a medicinal brew of chopped vegetables and various creams which she uses as an anti-depressant that also represses her sexual desires despite her wanting another child, and Roong fakes an illness to get out of work.
These conditions extend beyond their physiological implications and become something of a philosophical reflection of the internal struggles of the characters. Roong, Min, and Orn become firmly rooted in their natural surroundings, away from the factories and laws of society, able to explore and embrace their primitive urges and desires (feeling the moment) – in the end, there is a separation (a moving on) from the past, a result of the causal conditions of the Universe, forcing us into our pre-destined paths, but forever keeping us in a beautiful embrace.
A film in two parts: a romance between Keng (a Thai soldier) and Tong; a lone soldier who becomes lost in the woods and encounters a tiger shaman. The transition from slice-of-life queer cinema to magical realist, surrealist fantasy felt somewhat abrupt on the first viewing. However, subsequent viewings gave incredible insight into the parallels and differences between these two seemingly unrelated stories and how they interact with each other in subtle ways. Weerasethakul’s slow, methodical pacing allows for the film to become enveloped in its own intricacies, pushing it into something far more transcendent than the sum of its parts.
P.S. ‘Tropical Malady’ has the best jungle scenes in cinematic history.
The College Dropout by Kanye West
Just to provide some background on my Kanye listening history, I got into Kanye around the time that ‘Yeezus’ was released. Between 2013 and 2016, every one of Kanye’s solo albums was my favourite Kanye album at some point. This is exemplary of one of the greatest things about Kanye as an artist: his diversity and versatility. It was easy to change my mind about what Kanye’s best album was because each album offered something entirely unique when compared to his other albums: different sounds, different song structures, different lyrical themes, and so on. He never made the same album twice (he is like the anti-AC/DC or something).
It has been 7 years since I started listening to Kanye and while I still (mostly) admire his full body of work, there are two albums that standout to me as his absolute best: ‘Yeezus’ (for its abrasiveness and brevity) and ‘The College Dropout’. I have heard people say something along the lines of “You have your whole life to write your first album and 1 year to write your second” and I think this perfectly encapsulates the essence of ‘The College Dropout’.
Compared to Kanye’s later efforts, I think that ‘The College Dropout’ is home to a wider variety of influences as it shifts and changes in tone and approach more than any other Kanye album. The acoustic guitars of “All Falls Down”, the down to earth tones and rhythms of “Spaceship”, the gospel influenced “Jesus Walks” (back when Kanye made good gospel music), the more traditional “Get Em High”, the silly “The New Workout Plan”, the soulful “School Spirit”, the orchestral rock-esque “Two Words”, the highly emotional and personal “Family Business”, the story-telling of “Last Call” – ‘The College Dropout’ is Kanye at his peak during his early career.
One of the most enjoyable albums ever made with some of the least annoying skits / interludes ever recorded (though some of them do get tiring after dozens of listens).
Back in my late high school / early university days, I was getting tired of playing the same old Xbox 360 games: ‘Halo’, ‘Gears of War’, ‘Call of Duty’. So I took a trip to my local Best Buy to find some new games to play. I went in with an open mind and searched for titles I had never heard of that I thought had an interesting cover and title.
I ended up buying two titles: ‘Spec Ops: The Line’ and ‘Persona 4 Arena’. The former ended up being a third-person shooter with a unique twist but one that never really had a huge effect on me and the latter was life-changing. A superb fighting game intertwined with a superb visual novel, ‘Persona 4 Arena’ was home to some of the greatest characters I had ever found in a video game and one of the coolest story-lines to go with it.
I was never really a fan of fighting games but ‘Persona 4 Arena’ blew me away. My initial assumption was that ‘Persona’ was a fighting game series but I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that ‘Persona 4 Arena’ was merely a fighting game spin-off of a primarily turn-based JRPG series. As someone that grew up loving the ‘Pokémon’ series, I was eager to get my hands on a PS Vita to play ‘Persona 4 Golden’. The more research that I did on the series, the more I learned that ‘Persona 4’ (and its enhanced version ‘Persona 4 Golden’) was considered a gold standard, among the best in JRPG history, if not the best.
Expectations were extremely high and I began doubting if ‘Persona 4’ would really live up to the acclaim it had received from both critics and audiences alike. In the end, ‘Persona 4 Golden’ blew me away. It was better than I had ever imagined: the greatest characters in video game history (I genuinely felt like I had made friends by the end of the game and I was so upset when the game ended (how great would it be if there was a game like ‘Persona 4’ that just kept going until the end of time?)), one of the best story-lines I had ever experienced in a work of fiction (both in terms of writing and in terms of the concepts that are utilized), and a superb implementation of psychological and philosophical themes in order to deepen and expand on the story and characters.
Comparing the game-play of ‘Persona’ (and the SMT series as a whole) to something like ‘Pokémon’ is a night and day difference. ‘Persona’ certainly has its influences and predecessors but it still feels wholly unique when it comes to turn-based combat in video games. It is smooth, intuitive, and intelligent. In terms of dungeon design, ‘Persona 4’ took a very simplistic approach, however I found it incredibly effective (compared to ‘Persona 5’ where the dungeon design felt unnecessarily complicated because they added in unnecessary mechanics and ideas, resulting in something more annoying rather than more engaging).
While I consider ‘Persona 4 Golden’ to be the definitive ‘Persona’ experience, I am placing ‘Persona 4’ on the 2000s list because, ultimately, it was vanilla ‘Persona 4’ that was the true masterpiece that allowed ‘Persona 4 Golden’ to happen in the first place (fun fact: I considered ‘Persona 4 Golden’ when creating my list for the top releases of the 2010s but left it out since I determined that ‘Persona 4’ was the real masterpiece and ‘Persona 4 Golden’ was mostly just a really damn good port with some really nice additions and quality of life improvements).
Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith
Following the sun-baked visuals and dryness of ‘The Phantom Menace’ (which depicted Anakin as an innocent child with limitless potential) and the disorienting volatility of ‘Attack of the Clones’ (which depicted Anakin as a turbulent teenager), ‘Revenge of the Sith’ closes out the prequel trilogy in remarkable fashion.
‘Revenge of the Sith’ integrates potent action sequences into its highly tragic narrative and Lucas shoots these sequences in a way that captures everything altogether (i.e. character, action, emotion, setting). While ‘Attack of the Clones’ saw the dissimilation of form and content, ‘Revenge of the Sith’ is a re-marriage of form and content (the marriage of form and content played a significant part in the greatness of ‘The Phantom Menace’). However, it strays away from the dryness and straight-forwardness of ‘The Phantom Menace’, opting instead for something darker and more emotional.
In both ‘Attack of the Clones’ and ‘Revenge of the Sith’, Anakin feels disconnected from the Jedi, feeling their lack of trust in him and feeling resentful towards them (an astonishing change of heart since ‘The Phantom Menace’: “No one can kill a Jedi”). In ‘Attack of the Clones’, this disconnect is represented through the separation of form and content – it is uncomfortable, volatile, and unpredictable. In ‘Revenge of the Sith’, this disconnect is represented through the marriage of form and content – it is a pure tragedy in which Lucas perfectly captures the strong emotions of every character involved, forcing the audience to feel the loss rather than witness it from a distance.
Choosing the best ‘Star Wars’ film is surely a difficult task but I feel like ‘Revenge of the Sith’ slightly edges out over ‘The Phantom Menace’. While not as idiosyncratic and mysterious as either ‘The Phantom Menace’ or ‘Attack of the Clones’, ‘Revenge of the Sith’ is the film where Lucas’ vision for the ‘Star Wars’ universe reached its peak in every imaginable way – visually, audibly, conceptually, and in terms of execution. ‘Revenge of the Sith’ is arguably the greatest action-adventure film ever created.
Syndromes and a Century
‘Syndromes and a Century’ is Weerasethakul’s most beautiful and emotionally provocative film. Dedicated to Weerasethakul’s parents (who were both physicians), the story is centered on a male and female doctor. However, these doctors work in two separate hospitals (one in rural Thailand, one in Bangkok), 40 years apart. It is a story about transformation, memory, identity, and love (of the platonic type). The film is not only about memory but is also constructed like a memory as there is no cohesive plot, instead relying on the weaving of small details of distant memories past.
The film does a fantastic job at capturing the beauty of human existence without prejudice for any particular time or place. The jump from the rural (the more personal) to the urban (the more sterile), or from the past to the present, would have been far too simplified in the hands of a less competent director (most directors would descend into the far too easy “rural = good” and “urban = bad”, or “things were better back then” mentality). Instead, Weerasethakul (in his masterful approach and execution) creates images that dig deep into your soul, making you feel what he feels.
The scene with the dentist, the scene with the child playing tennis against the door, the scene with the old ladies drinking alcohol while hiding in a storage room, the final scene in which a large group of people are seen dancing… Weerasethakul finds extraordinary beauty and gives incredible insight into the little things. It is a film that continually shows us the good and the bad in all things, over both times and between both places.
‘Syndromes and a Century’ is ultimately an optimistic film about human connection – we exist in these tiny moments and our life is simply the amalgamation of these moments. How wonderful it is to be anything at all.
The New World
Malick has a remarkable filmography: ‘Badlands’, ‘Days of Heaven’, ‘The Thin Red Line’, ‘The Tree of Life’, ‘To the Wonder’, ‘Knight of Cups’, ‘Voyage of Time’, ‘Song to Song’, ‘A Hidden Life’…. any director would be happy to have made any one of these fantastic films. But ‘The New World’ reigns supreme over them all.
This is the film where Malick’s phenomenological obsessions were taken to another level as the camera is constantly in a state of searching – searching for life and beauty, forever in awe of the harmony and conflict between people and nature, people and people, nature and nature. ‘The New World’ creates impressions on the viewer in its union of style, form, content, and substance, pushing us towards feeling instead of simply observing – and it works. The asynchronous editing works in tandem with the wandering shots of people, places, and things in order to capture a dream-like passage of time, flowing like a river, reflecting the inner depths of the human soul, reaching outwards to find love and connection.
‘The New World’ is a meditation on people, nature, violence, destruction, love, civility, and greed. It is a re-imagining and interpretation of the story of Pocahontas, reflective of Malick at his peak as a masterful visual artist and a great philosopher. ‘The New World’ is one of the greatest films ever made – an impressive work of visual and auditory splendor, matched by great philosophical depth and elegance.