A new Millennium Reels Onscreen

The 25th Hour

There’s an idea that decades in art don’t always start on January 1st on the first day of that decade. The ‘90s didn’t really start immediately. Terminator 2 still came out in 1991 and feels like the 80s. That properly started with Nirvana and Tarantino.

The same can be said of the 2000s not officially starting until 9/11. The Lord of the Rings had already been completed, and with the announcements and production troubles being daily soap operas of the late ‘90s, that could easily feel like it doesn’t belong in the aughts. The same with movies like Memento that feel like a carry-over from the indie days of the past decade.

But everything changed with 9/11. Personally, the film that I look at as being the thematic true beginning of the decade is Spike Lee’s 2002 film The 25th Hour. From there, you had films that directly dealt with that day, like Paul Greengrass’s United 93, to summer blockbusters that dealt with it in spirit, like Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, to the arrival of a documentary blockbuster with Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. Then with a second Bush term resulting from the attacks, you had a wave of films reacting to eight years of that, from the Coen’s No Country for Old Men and PT Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.

The end of the decade is 2009, and that’s being respected in this piece, but like I said thematically you could say it began with The 25th Hour, you could also say it didn’t really end until Katherine Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty in 2012. Whatever parameters you set, it was a dark decade in the world that reflected cinema. But it was also a brilliant decade. It was a decade where people like the Coen brothers and PTA and Bigelow, who were already renowned for their more fun work prior, stepped up to the challenges of a darker time. 

Paul Hibbard

ZekeFilm turned 10 years old in 2022!  We’ve commemorated it with a year-long Film Admissions series wherein each month, taking on a decade of cinema, in chronological order. As is always the case with Film Admissions, participants have been encouraged to watch a film within that month’s topic that they’d never seen but had been meaning to.  The bigger and more well known the film, the better!  Then, together, we share our individual thoughts on our findings. This marks the final installment of this decade-by-decade series. For our 2010-2019 admissions, check out this previously published piece.

Matchstick Men

Directed by Ridley Scott/2003

by Max Foizey

In this all-but-forgotten film from director Sir Ridley Scott’s impressive oeuvre, Nicolas Cage portrays a small-time con artist named Roy. Roy displays Obsessive Compulsive behavior, opening a door three times before walking through, counting the number of times he locks a cabinet, things like that. He has facial tics and gets sick to his stomach if he’s outside for too long. Roy leads a stressful life. Roy’s partner Frank (Sam Rockwell) wants to pull a long con and make “real money.” Roy balks at this. He’s got plenty of money stashed from his small cons over the years, he doesn’t see the need for the risk of a long con. He’s content to scam old ladies out of their money over the phone, thank you very much. Roy is easy to root for because he doesn’t use violence in his cons, and unlike the more cynical Frank, he comes across as a sincere guy. We see this as Roy attempts to reconnect with the daughter he never knew he had, Angela (Alison Lohman). Angela is a skateboarding fourteen-year-old who comes into Roy’s life like a wrecking ball. At times, Matchstick Men becomes an unorthodox family drama, with a standout scene being a father-daughter game of bowling set to Roxy Music’s More Than This.

Alison Lohman was twenty-four years old when she appeared in Matchstick Men, but plays the age of fourteen convincingly, with all the pep and awkwardness you’d expect from a young teenager. Lohman would go on to star in many acclaimed films such as Tim Burton’s Big Fish, Atom Egoyan’s Where the Truth Lies, and Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell, before retiring from acting to focus on raising her children with her husband, filmmaker Mark Neveldine. The character of Frank is not a flashy role, but Sam Rockwell is solid in the part. Rockwell has become a respected character actor in the years since the release of Matchstick Men, winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. He also gave a wonderful performance in one of my favorite films of this year, See How They Run.

Nicolas Cage has become something akin to a living internet meme, even acknowledging this with his performance in this year’s The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. I find his impassioned, at times over-the-top style interesting and usually a boon to the films he appears in. He can do comedy (Raising Arizona), drama (Leaving Las Vegas), mainstream (National Treasure) and art house (Pig). His performance in Matchstick Men could be mocked with pointing and laughter every time Cage displays a facial tic or a shout. But that would be unfortunate, as Cage pours very real heart into his performance. Matchstick Men goes from being a con man movie to a film about an empty person filling their heart with something they didn’t know they needed. And it does this thanks to the committed performance of Cage. 

The bouncy, almost tropical score is atypical for composer Hans Zimmer, but it flows seamlessly with the Bobby Darin and Frank Sinatra songs on the soundtrack. Zimmer’s score and those pop songs do their best to divert your attention from what’s really going on in the movie. With any con man movie, you should be looking out for the twist in plot. This one is easy to figure out, especially since a line of dialogue less than an hour in gives everything away. But it’s worth watching for the performances from our three leads and Ridley Scott’s stylish direction. The only thing more satisfying than a con man flick where the plan goes right is one where the plan goes wrong. Matchstick Men gives you both, depending on your point of view.


Directed by David Fincher/2007

by Robert Hornak

Nobody told me the movie was about an obsessive cartoonist named Robert. (My name is Robert, I drew a comic strip for my college and grad school newspapers, and I once was obsessive about, not murderers, but MAD Magazine.) But the movie doesn’t start out that way – Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), on whose book the movie is based, begins the movie as a fly buzzing around the ensemble cast, lurking in the background, a de facto gopher, while the big boys at the paper receive and seek to interpret the various handwritten threats and coded, sick-id-revealing puzzles sent to them by a never-conclusively revealed serial killer who calls himself Zodiac. Now, everybody loves a good puzzle; the paper’s staff, the string of cops up and down the California coast, the increasingly pre-occupied cartoonist… and the audience. 

What happens here, over the course of the movie, is that the characters get to enjoy, abhor, shrink from, abandon, and finally get emotionally wrecked by the mounting abundance of bodies and clues left behind by Zodiac (or not), but the audience doesn’t. Fincher seems to willfully make sure of that by virtue of his divertingly grease-slick shooting and editing style. We’re absolutely sucked in during the movie’s prelude murder sequence and we’re never let go, but we are strictly observers. I’ve never seen a movie this gripping that also acts as an experiment in omission. Fincher and his editor Angus Wall slice scenes down and then overlap them together like a collapsing accordion. That deliberately truncating pace does everything to heighten the tension (we never feel like we’re missing information as the train of mini-scenes barrels by), but we do lose the down time to absorb the desperation of the characters into our guts – we’re watching the manhunt, not participating.

The movie’s a clear acolyte of Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976), with its dogged reporters (and here, cops) following the true-crime trail into deeper and deeper stratas of darkness, as well as the rich ‘70s art direction, here a devoted ode to the era, in Pakula’s film the real deal. Now sitting only in my memory a few days later, Zodiac is very broadly a kind of tryptic – first part’s the reporters, second part’s the cops, third part’s Graysmith’s amateur sleuthing that warms up the cold case long after the initial killings have been rendered urban legends by time. 

For me, one of the things that subtracts from the movie is that it does cover so much time. It has to, I suppose, but it’s almost too all-consuming a timeline and definitely a challenge to remember the spitfire uttering of names, many of whom are never attached to a face on screen. I’d love it if the movie was introduced as just an overview of the case, then followed by a Fincher-directed Zodiac franchise, with each film biting off a chunk of the story. I’d gladly watch, say, two hours of Mark Ruffalo’s lead cop Dave Toschi in the years between the general abandonment of the case in the late ‘70s and Graysmith’s new connections in the following decade, or a standalone story that better uses Robert Downey Jr.’s haunted, alcoholic reporter Paul Avery. As it is, the movie serves as the world’s most engrossing highlights reel. The final case in point is the longwinded written epilogue after the final shot that reads like the treatment for at least a half-hour more of screen time. Some of the information is so tantalizing that not featuring it as part of the movie proper feels like a major cheat, or more graciously, perhaps an intentional let-down to simulate the frustration of the various un-consummated strands of clues. Beyond these complaints, I have none for Fincher’s ability to lure us into the movie, especially given that it leads to nowhere. Many movies draw us into true stories that we know the end to; few can make us care about a decades-old cold case with no bowed-ribbon resolution at all.

A Beautiful Mind

Directed by Ron Howard/2001

by Taylor Blake

One of the beauties of our Film Admissions feature is I keep getting to say, “That was not what I was expecting!” Once more, A Beautiful Mind is another excuse to dust off that phrase.

Yes, this Best Picture winner does check off a lot of boxes of modern Oscar contenders. It’s a technically accomplished biopic about an influential but misunderstood historical figure whose career competes with his family life, and yes, I could double the length of this piece by listing 21st century Best Picture noms featuring that arc. But there’s a twist to A Beautiful Mind, and it’s the jolt this biopic needs to stick in our memories. 

Somehow that twist wasn’t spoiled for me in the last two decades, and I’ll continue to withhold it in case anyone wants to make this their Film Admission for the decade. But in short, A Beautiful Mind is more than the memes of floating numbers it has inspired. Russell Crowe plays the star of those memes, the Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash, and Jennifer Connelly is his struggling wife in her Oscar-winning role. While they do provide a narrative heart (making the most of the script’s unnatural and often expository dialogue), the scene stealers are supporting players Paul Bettany and Ed Harris. They walk a fine line between caricature and archetype, and they energize what would otherwise be a stale melodrama. (Notably, they are not accurate portrayals of their real counterparts in Nash’s life.) They are also part of this film’s sneaky strength: making difficult-to-understand concepts digestible. 

Those memes may feel silly online, but in context, they are a creative and, at times, thrilling depiction of our hero’s superpowers. After just reading Nash’s Wikipedia page, I know I will never understand the mathematical concepts he explored, but for a moment, Ron Howard made be me believe I could keep up—what could be more unexpected than that?


Directed by Spike Jonze/2002

by Erik Yates

As I finished watching Adaptation., all I could think is “why didn’t I ever see this film before now?”. It features the steady direction of Spike Jonze and a cast consisting of Nicholas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, and Tilda Swinton, with appearances by the likes of Ron Livingston, Brian Cox, Maggie Gyllenhaal, David O. Russell, and Judy Greer. Adaptation. is a glaring film admission for me going all the way back to 2002, that I can thankfully say I’ve finally watched. 

Cage plays screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who is actually the screenwriter for Adaptation. In a meta-move, the story picks up where Cage is seen (as Kaufman) at the filming of 1999’s Being John Malkovich (also written by the real-life Kaufman), when he is given the opportunity to adapt Susan Orlean’s book, The Orchid Thief.  The film follows Cage’s Kaufman as he encounters major writer’s block doing the research for this book, wanting to do a faithful and creative adaptation instead of a paint-by-numbers rehashing of the source material.  Meanwhile, Charlie’s (fictional) twin brother Donald (also played by Cage) has moved in as he has encountered another of life’s setbacks.  It turns out he has been inspired by Charlie to be a screenwriter, and embarks on a series of screenwriting workshops by Brian Cox’s Robert McKee.  

Soon enough Donald finds out that he is getting his script picked up by a studio while Charlie continues to sputter.  A flashback story features Streep’s portrayal of the book’s author, Susan Orlean, who is covering John Laroche (played by Chris Cooper) as the subject of her book that she is writing about this “orchard thief” who eventually becomes her lover.  As she interviews Laroche, she finds herself falling for him.  Their story progresses across several years until it reaches the modern day. Pretty soon Charlie’s struggles and resulting anxiety, depression, and downward spiral will clash with Donald’s rapid formulaic script success. Together, they will work to get Charlie out of his funk which tailspins into the now intersecting timeline with the story of Cooper and Streep’s star-crossed romance in the swamps of Florida.  

In the end, a story about writer’s block becomes a meta-driven deep dive where the screenwriter becomes the antagonist of his own story about adapting the screenplay of a book rather than just a film that is the adaptation of a book about Laroche’s exploits like Susan Orlean wrote about.  Filled with humor, drama, and Hollywood-rooted social commentary with enough self-deprecation to let the audience in on the inside joke of “the industry”, Adaptation. feels like a light breeze as it cruises to a satisfying conclusion.  If you happen to be a writer, this is a story about how the writer can be the story if that writer can’t find the story in what they are adapting from another story.  Confused? Don’t worry. Spike Jonze makes sure it all lands perfectly by the time the credits roll.


Directed by Rian Johnson, 2005

by Jim Tudor

There are several reasons why I should’ve seen director/writer Rian Johnson’s feature debut, the bleak teen Noir Brick, prior to now- but none were solid enough to move me.  I don’t really know why.  Perhaps the lag was from having learned the hard way, from Looper and The Last Jedi, that being an appreciator of Johnson’s work also meant having to have a ready defense of it.  That’s exhausting.  Also, I was told back in 2005, when the film came out, that it was really good but also really, really heavy.  That sort of description couldn’t help land as more of a warning than a recommendation, even though I like dark hard-bitten Noirs.

And, heavy it is… though not debilitatingly so.  Johnson clearly (and, on the KL Studio Classics Blu-ray director’s commentary track, admittedly) drew much inspiration from the writing of Dashiell Hammett, as Brick actively and repeatedly strikes a knotty yet targeted Maltese Falcon-esque tone.  Though our protagonist, Brendan (a moppy-haired and monochromaticly dressed Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a chronically overlooked everykid, he’s no slouch in the sluething department. 

The skills-set serves him pretty well as he must rely on his cunningness and cleverness as his drive to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding the death of his ex (Emilie de Ravin) becomes increasingly dangerous.  Surrounding Brendan are a tidy cadre of Noir archetypes.  The ailing creep who controls everything (Lukas Hass). The emotionally fragile tough (Noah Fleiss).  The meddling lawman (Richard Roundtree).  The stool pigeon (complete with dog tags; Matt O’Leary).  A femme fatale (Nora Zehetner).  And the ailing creep’s doting mother.

Doting mother??  Well, yes.  It’s important to iterate that the central conceit of Brick is that it’s set in and around a high school.   The main characters are all students there.  Johnson’s own persisting cleverness is consistent here, as the classic Noir tropes fall right into place within this contemporary teen microcosm.  There’s a hush-hush  “criminal hierarchy” and out of control tensions amongst the denizens; broken hearts and manipulations are rampant.  Yet, it’s also the other way around to some degree.  Note passing and where you eat lunch matter.  Interestingly, we never see any of these characters in class, and the rundown exterior of the school looks more like an abandoned warehouse or something.  As is the case with any good Noir tale or any high school drama period, good luck following the twisty story.  (The titular brick ain’t for building).

Smartly, Johnson mainly plays it straight with Brick, creating a truly earnest Noir story as opposed to a pastiche or deconstruction.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt is excellent as the even-keeled lead with glimpsed misogynistic tendencies.  From here, he would deservedly enjoy one of the more thoughtful movie stars runs of his era.  Though the film calls itself “Brick: A Detective Story”, Johnson’s Benoit Blanc is a long way off.  Having knives out is all fun and games… until someone pulls out a gun.  Heaven forbid they come at you with a brick…


For this write-up I utilized a review copy of KL Studio Classics’ Blu-ray release of Brick.  The disc is a great acquisition, presenting this daytime Noir is all its overcast glory.  It’s official features list:

  • Brand New 4K Restoration Supervised by Director Rian Johnson
  • Audio commentary by writer/director Rian Johnson, actors Nora Zehetner and Noah Segan, producer Ram Bergman, production designer Jodie Tillen and costume designer Michele Posch
  • 8 deleted and extended scenes (w/ introduction by writer/director Rian Johnson)
  • The Inside Track: Casting the Roles of Laura and Dode
  • 5.1 Surround and 2.0 Stereo
  • Theatrical Trailer