BEST OF THE ’00s: MOULIN ROUGE!


1. Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! (2001)

What else? This film came along very early in the decade and right away, I fell head over heels in love with it, seeing it three times during its opening week – including once with Baz Luhrmann in attendance. You see, the filmmaker had promised to someone that he’d fly to whichever city in North America “Moulin Rouge” made the biggest splash during its first weekend in theaters to introduce a showing and chat with the folks in attendance. It happened to be Montreal, so I went to that very special screening, shook the man’s hand and thanked him for this wonderful picture, mentioning in passing that I’d already seen it three times just that one week. To my surprise, he answered that he’d heard from people who’d seen it five or six times!

All of which goes to show that, for me and many others, “Moulin Rouge! was the movie we’d always been waiting for, unknowingly. I mean, I kinda always had a thing for musicals, but I never thought I could become so enamored with one before. I don’t think I was all that into Nicole Kidman previously either (though I had enjoyed her greatly in things like “To Die For” and “Eyes Wide Shut), and while I was a fan of Ewan McGregor (going back to the “Shallow Grave”/”Trainspotting” one-two punch), I never exactly thought of him as a dashing romantic lead! As for Baz, I’d seen and liked his “Romeo + Juliet”, but he’d yet to become one of my favorite auteurs.

When it comes to putting together lists like this, there’s always a bit of randomness and of the moment sentiment. With time, the titles on a Top Ten and particularly the order in which they are ranked will often shift. This is true of nearly all of this here Best of the ’00s selection, with “Moulin Rouge!” being the one notable exception. Oh, intellectually, I could make a case for “The Lord of the Rings” towering above everything as the most overwhelming cinematic achievement of the decade, I could praise to the skies the artistry at work in “There Will Be Blood” or I could recall that watching “Dogville” for the first time at the 2003 Festival du Nouveau Cinéma was one of the most shatteringly intense experiences I’ve ever had in a movie theater. I could have included “Inglourious Basterds” instead of “Kill Bill”, maybe removed “Avatar” (too soon?), thrown “Punch-Drunk Love” in there, and so on.

But in my heart, “Moulin Rouge!” is clearly the one, it’s always been. One thing I believe speaks volumes is how often you go back to a title. Like, it’s easy to claim that “Citizen Kane” is the holiest of the holiest, but unless you truly feel the need to watch it over and over, can you really in all honesty call it your all-time favorite? Well, I’ve returned to Baz Lurhmann’s masterpiece at least a dozen times since it first came into my life in June 2001. It’s part of a rarefied group of flicks that satisfy specific urges of mine better than any others. Many films I’ll watch once, admire them greatly, but never be inclined to revisit. Whereas others will become part of my life in a very real way. “Moulin Rouge!” fits into the latter category.

Now, before moving on to the rest of the Top 10, I should try to define clearly what it is exactly that makes “Moulin Rouge!” so special to me. Ok, there’s the songs, Nicole and Ewan, the supporting cast (Toulouse! Zidler! The Duke!), the lights and colors, the art direction, the comedy, the drama… Freedom. Beauty. Truth. LOVE! Yeah, love. Not ordinary, pleasant, everyday love. The kind of love that can’t be quieted down, the kind of love that must be heard, the kind of love that makes you want to climb on top of an elephant to sing about it, the kind of love that gives you the strength to overcome all obstacles, the kind of love that inspires you to write and create…

Like the best of Bollywood, “Moulin Rouge!” is goofy and melodramatic, it’s irresistibly over the top, it’s filled with a thrusting, vibrant, wild Bohemian spirit, it’s a magnificent, opulent, tremendous, stupendous, gargantuan bedazzlement, a sensual ravishment… Simply put, it’s Spectacular, Spectacular!

2. Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (2003)

The other key thing, which I caught on to early on, but that only grows truer every time I watch it again, is how “The Lord of the Rings” is, maybe more than anything, the most amazing friendship story ever told. Sure, there’s all this shit going on with Sauron, Saruman, the Nazgûl, the Orcs, the Uruk-hai and whatnot, but they basically add up to being a whole goddamn lot of evil that our heroes must fight. And what’s most interesting is how, even in the face of all this horror and cruelty, our hobbit, human, elf, dwarf and wizard friends remain so brave, loyal and kind towards each other.

3. Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007)

In many ways, this new millennium has been all about CGI, 3D and special effects, for better or worse. So it’s amazing to find a movie like this, so deeply rooted into earth, oil, dust, fire, rock, wood, steel, sweat… And yes, blood. I might be wrong, but from what I can tell, everything on screen is as real as it gets, and we can feel it.

4. Lars von Trier’s Dogville (2003)

One thing that only occurred to me now but which sorta seems obvious in retrospect is how this is in many ways a biblical allegory, with Grace as Christ going through his/her Passion and being forgiving of men because they know not what they do, and her gangster boss father (James Caan) as the Old Testament God, who’s more prone to unleashing great vengeance and furious anger… Except that in this version of the story, Christ ends up realizing that maybe you can indeed hate people for their weakness and that wiping them out might be the wise thing to do…

5. M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs (2002)

Even more than the precise plotting, it’s the characters that Night created and the actors he got to play them that utterly win me over every time I watch this film. Mel Gibson’s Graham, Joaquin Phoenix’s Merril, Rory Culkin’s Morgan and Abigail Breslin’s Bo form a family as convincing and endearing as the movies have ever given us. Through the funny and scary parts alike, it’s their interaction, first and foremost, that makes it work. We truly grow to care for this widower, his kids and his brother and when the last act comes, we feel so close to them that everything that happens becomes intensely personal for us too.

6. Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous (2000)

One major happening in my life which explains this renewed passion for Crowe’s film is that, since 2000, I’ve actually spent quite a lot of time amongst musicians and groupies. I’ve even become sort of a rock journalist lately. More than ever, I know what it feels like to be in that world, how exciting and a bit frustrating it can be to be amongst all these cool people when you, yourself, remain rather uncool… To be surrounded with folks that are friendly with you, but who aren’t really your friends… And to be in awe of girls who barely notice you, what with you not being famous and all…

7. Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill (2004)

Now, a lot has been written already, here and elsewhere, about all the great things in “Kill Bill”. I could go on and on about the use of color (the way red blood looks against that yellow tracksuit!), about the sound of clashing steel and gunshots, about the always effective music, about the brilliant way every scene is shot and cut, about how fun it is to watch Sonny Chiba’s Hattori Hanzō and Gordon Liu’s Pai Mei… Here’s a picture that features both the greatest action set-piece (Showdown at House of Blue Leaves, where Uma -and body double Zoë Bell!- kick a whole lot of ass) and what may be the most cleverly written extended dialogue sequence (Beatrix and Bill’s Face to Face) of the decade.

8. James Cameron’s Avatar (2009)

During these touching scenes between Jake and Neytiri, we’re watching computer-animated characters, remember, but the technology used to capture the performances of the actors manages to convey every little emotional nuance. Sorry, Robert Zemeckis, but even though I loved your three performance capture flicks, they clearly pale in comparison to what James Cameron has achieved here. Same goes for the groundbreaking 3D cinematography, which allows us to immerse ourselves even more fully into the world of Pandora and its inhabitants. There truly never has been a movie-watching experience like this one before.

9. Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain (2006)

On a sensory level, Aronofsky’s film is pure awe, from how brilliantly the editing connects the various storylines to the use of light, darkness and golden hues, by the way of Clint Mansell’s mind-blowing score, possibly the best of the decade. And then there’s the acting, to which now words can do justice; Jackman and Weisz are iconically perfect throughout, never failing to move us.

10. Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

That opening, the first meeting between Joel Barish (Carrey) and Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet)… It’s oh so quiet, yet casually kooky, and you can’t help falling in love with Clementine, blue-haired, impulsive, kinda nuts but so adorable. “Why do I fall in love with every woman I see who shows me the least bit of attention?” YES! Kaufman gets that feeling, you know, that feeling of longing with every fiber of your being to meet someone, some crazy/beautiful girl that would… save you, dammit. Not every one gets this, but if you deeply love the work of Paul Thomas Anderson and Cameron Crowe, you get it.