The 2000s were a very different decade when it came to the summer blockbuster. Gone was the awe & wonder of Spielbergian pictures, and things became a little darker, edgier. Instead of shooting for PG ratings, it was PG-13 that dominated, movies that were friendly enough for families but with more of an edge. The whole ten-year span felt like Hollywood was trying to figure out a direction that worked, which resulted in very eclectic summers, as you will see by this list.
The Others (directed by Alejandro Amenábar)
Release date: August 2nd, 2001
The Sixth Sense closed out the 1990s, but it inspired a series of moody, supernatural pictures to be dropped in the summer’s twilight month. Most were forgettable, but The Others felt like a breath of fresh air, a ghostly gothic film with the aesthetic flair of director Alejandro Amenábar. The story centers around Grace (Nicole Kidman), a wealthy woman living in her large manor with her two children who have an allergy to sunlight. Grace hires new servants but suspects others are lingering in the house who shouldn’t be there. An eerie mystery is slowly unfolded, and the payoff is quite satisfying. Kidman and the supporting cast are perfectly cast, and Amenábar finds a balance between moody artsy horror and crowd-pleasing entertainment.
Collateral (directed by Michael Mann)
Release date: August 6th, 2004
I have never been a fan of Tom Cruise mainly because I don’t think he’s aged into the kind of roles he’d be best suited for in his fifties and sixties. However, I think this was the move he should have continued, playing a villain. All of Michael Mann’s stylistics are present and click in this neo-noir about a hitman commandeering a cab driver’s night so he can take out his targets. Jamie Foxx holds his own against Cruise as they exist in this continually increasing tension. The city of Los Angeles is perfectly shot and is a location Mann just excels in filming and in giving character. Sadly, Collateral has been sort of ignored in the years that followed and likely goes down as his last great film. He failed to recapture the magic for his next three movies, colossal failures, but Collateral is a kind of picture you don’t see coming out of Hollywood these days.
Speed Racer (directed by The Wachowskis)
Release date: May 9th, 2008
This is my favorite Wachowskis movie. Forget the Matrix films, and I can’t stand Jupiter Ascending, Cloud Atlas is okay. Speed Racer though, is a gem, in my opinion. It is faithful to the tone and style of the original cartoon series it’s based on and completely embraces existing in an artificial space. I get tired of gritty “realistic” takes on cartoons and comics. The reason people love it is because it’s fun and silly. The racing sequences in Speed Racer are wild, and over the top, the Wachowskis manage to blend necessary expository flashbacks in with the high-speed scenes so that we understand who the characters are without cutting into the action. Speed Racer is my favorite family film of the 2000s, and it has a really great positive message without being saccharine. I’ve watched this one repeatedly and have a feeling it will be on repeat for me into the future.
Hulk (directed by Ang Lee)
Release date: June 17th, 2003
Hulk is not the best Marvel superhero movie but is the most interesting one we’ve ever gotten. Director Ang Lee is one of the most confounding filmmakers whose output varies wildly in quality and content. In making Hulk, he embraced the comic book form so much that he turns sequences into paneled layouts, allowing the camera to move between them. It is unlike anything ever seen in any of the MCU films. Lee employs newcomer Eric Bana in the Banner/Hulk role, Jennifer Connelly as Betty Ross, and Nick Nolte as Banner’s estranged father & the film’s reimagining of The Absorbing Man. There’s action, but it is framed so strangely, mixed with odd contemplative, poetic sections. I actually think Hulk is more faithful to the comic book’s underlying themes and nature than the generic follow-up with Edward Norton. The current version of the Hulk in the MCU has been turned into a comedic character while Ang Lee really understands the deep, tormented psychological roots that make the monstrous hero so compelling.
Moulin Rouge! (directed by Baz Luhrmann)
Release date: May 16th, 2001
I don’t know if this movie would hold up now, but at the time, I absolutely loved it. Baz Luhrmann can never be accused of doing things too subtly, and his brash, manic style works with Moulin Rouge. I love the late 1990s/early 2000s stylistic computer effects, and they give the picture a firm grounding in the era in which it was released. The film feels inspired by MTV imagery of the time as it is by the 19th-century setting. The singing isn’t always great, but that’s also part of the charm. It’s hard to deny the cleverness of how some pieces of music are incorporated, and the film knows just how to use these songs to press all the pathos buttons in the audience. This is sort of the ultimate in style over substance filmmaking, and you will either absolutely love it or loathe it. Moulin Rouge is a picture that doesn’t evoke feelings of neutrality.
District 9 (directed by Neill Blomkamp)
Release date: August 14th, 2009
Coming out of seemingly nowhere, District 9 was one of those August hits that used summer blockbuster tropes but told a more complicated story. Using a fictional alien arrival in Johannesburg, South Africa, to talk about xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments, director Neil Blomkamp tells a story that shares DNA with some of Spielberg’s classic works. We see the state of things over two decades into the settling of the alien “prawns” into a sprawling shantytown. Our protagonist Wikus is a bureaucrat in the government agency monitoring these new residents. We discover the inner workings of prawn culture through his eyes, allowing the narrative to unfold organically. He learns things about what is really going on that surprise us as much as him. I think this makes an excellent companion piece in contrast to Independence Day or to compliment Arrival. More and more, I see the “alien invasion” subgenre as a place to explore the growing xenophobia is certain corners of society.
Inglourious Basterds (directed by Quentin Tarantino)
Release date: August 21st, 2009
Quentin Tarantino can be grating, but I will never deny the man’s sense of filmmaking, genre, and theme. He just has this superpower to blend elements, even if they feel dissonant to make great movies. Inglourious Basterds starts with the foundation of Dirty Dozen-style movie. Then the director brings in the tone & rhythm of Italian spaghetti westerns with slow-burn tension, take the opening scene where the audience is introduced to Hans Landa. Then he brings in the stylistic influences of World War II spy movies, characters staying just a few steps ahead of the Nazis. It all blends and melds into this perfect movie that can satisfy the broad audiences and appeal to the art-house crowd. This is also the first of his historically revisionist films that show Tarantino understands that escapism doesn’t have to be dumb, rather it can be a cathartic experience that touches on collective pain.
War of the Worlds (directed by Steven Spielberg)
Release date: June 29th, 2005
There was a marked shift in the tone of Steven Spielberg’s films, which some have attributed to 9/11, but it started before that horrific event. In the summer of 2001, he released A.I., initially being developed by Stanley Kubrick. That movie mixed the wonder of Spielberg’s earlier work with a new darker 21st-century viewpoint. War of the Worlds is a picture that can be linked to 9/11 in theme and a continuation of the exploration of these new spaces the director was already doing. Once again, Tom Cruise shows up on the list but in a very different role from what we see in contemporary films. War of the Worlds is a film about the trauma of violence with Cruise and his two children at the center of the story. We see the alien attack unfold from their point of view, experience the seeds of trauma being planted, and observe how paranoia brews and people quickly turn on their fellow human beings. This is dark territory for Spielberg, shockingly so. He would move out of this type of storytelling by the 2010s, but I think this is some of his finest, most honest work in his filmography.
The Dark Knight (directed by Christopher Nolan)
Release date: July 18th, 2008
This is probably the best movie DC has made in this century, so far. Director Christopher Nolan should be sending thank you notes regularly to Michael Mann, though it is essentially what Mann would do if he was handed the Batman franchise. There is a crackling momentum from the first frame of The Dark Knight, and it never feels like the gas lets up. That trajectory allows the picture to never settle into complacency and propels us towards the great tragedy that ends the second act. Then the movie appears to settle only to ratchet the tension back up, boiling down the ideology conflict between Batman & The Joker into a single experiment. All that said, The Dark Knight is also fascist apologia when you start to break down Batman’s actions and justifications. This is a profoundly problematic movie but a stylistic achievement nonetheless.
Spider-Man/Spider-Man 2 (directed by Sam Raimi)
Release dates: May 3rd, 2002 & June 30th, 2004
These are the best comic book movies since Richard Donner’s Superman in 1978. In turn, these pictures would be followed by the best comic book movie of the 2010s, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Sam Raimi had a long interesting road to this moment. And for the longest time, James Cameron was attached to direct the first Spider-Man feature film. I think Raimi was the better choice because you have someone who loves this character and the feel of the comic book circa 1963-1970. I am usually not a supporter of fans becoming the media makers based on what they loved, but in this instance, it works. Raimi is first a director, then he is informed by his fandom. The result is one of the most faithful adaptations of a comic book character ever put on the screen. And then to really amaze the audience, he gives us the best comic book movie sequel ever made that is arguably better than the first entry in the series. Spider-Man 2 is what I go to blockbuster movies in the summer, hoping to see but rarely get. It’s cinematic thrills and characters we care about involved in conflicts that matter.