CATEGORIES Action, Foreign Language, Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Thrillers, Disney, Lionsgate Films, Magnolia, New Line, Paramount, Sony, Sony Classics, Universal, Warner Brothers, Focus Features, 20th Century Fox, Dreamworks, Tom Cruise, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, Johnny Depp, Peter Jackson, James Bond, Lists, Miramax, Best/Worst, War, Daniel Craig, Cinematical, Best and Worst
Cinematical is about to launch into our best-of-the-'00s series, with a different writer tackling a different genre over these last few weeks of the aughts (or whatever it was we decided to call this decade). Yours truly has been tasked with sifting out the most exciting action flicks these years have had to offer, and in the list-making equivalent of flinching, I've decided to divide them up by superlative instead of ranking them in order of awesomeness.
Oh, and before you comment away about what's missing (which we do want), I have left off The Dark Knight, Spider-Man 2, X2: X-Men United and The Incredibles, so they may be included in any superhero or animated list to come. If those movies are left off those lists, then by all means, give them hell. I might even join you.
Best Action-Adventure: As new-fangled as things have gotten in this hovercar-less future of ours, there's something downright old-fashioned about the spirit of swashbuckling that technology can't deny (that is, until the sequels come along). Case in point: 2003's Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl nailed the uncanny mix of love triangles, treasure hunts, seamless effects, a breakneck pace and a free-wheeling sense of humor, thanks in no small part to Johnny Depp's performance as that rogue, Capt. Jack Sparrow. It's the way they used to make 'em as they only could today. Honorable Mention: The terrific Korean ode to the spaghetti western known as The Good, The Bad, The Weird opened in that country last summer, but has been held up Stateside for legal reasons, so if you're keen on importing something seriously fun, this should do the trick.
Best Buddy Flick: In an age when parody constitutes re-enacting a scene and adding a fart or two, 2007's hyper-affectionate Hot Fuzz both sent up and tipped its hat to action extravaganzas with relentless ferocity and some exciting sequences of its own -- namely, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost's climactic siege on the sleepy English hamlet they call home. Honorable Mention: It's a tie between the head-busting parkour fiends of District B13 and the quick-quipping stars of Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang and The Rundown (bonus points to the latter for showcasing the Walken).
Best Chop-Socky Offering: As incredibly graceful as the wuxia likes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero were, I feel a need to go with the proudly outlandish antics of 2005's Kung Fu Hustle for being funny and furious in equal measure. Honorable Mention: Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill boasts two of the decade's best stand-alone fights; between Volume 1's nightclub melee and Volume 2's trailer-trashing brawl, it transcended kung-fu tribute to become kick-ass in its own right.
Best Fantasy Epic: This time last decade, we still weren't sure these movies would actually get made. Now, The Lord of the Rings have set the bar for all fantasy flicks to come, and while WETA's work made each and every battle more substantial than the last, it was the ensemble that made us care about the stakes among an infinite amount of pixels.
Best Historical Epic: In its theatrical cut, 2005's Kingdom of Heaven felt like a distinctly rushed effort by the usually distinct Ridley Scott. Thankfully, home entertainment advancements can allow for us to savor the full scope of his director's cut, even if I can never quite match the sense of seeing the Crusades unfold on a big screen with a big intermission and a big-ass soda to boot. (Seriously, though: the film even feels shorter at 192 minutes than it did at 144, and it'll make you rethink selling Orlando Bloom and Eva Green short in the 'dramatic chops' department.)
Best in Excess: When I previously praised 2006's Crank for being a sublime piece of trashy, amoral fun, a commenter asked, "how does a critic decide that a dumbass action movie with no plot or depth is good in one instance and stupid in another?" It's a fair question, one I still don't have an answer for. I do know that action auteurs Neveldine/Taylor have not yet managed to be more perversely creative, nor has star Jason Statham been more endearingly deadpan. I cared less for its 2009 sequel because it was more focused on the shock instead of the thrill, and I still feel its predecessor delivered those in screwy spades. Honorable Mention: In a similar way, I can respect 2006's Running Scared for being dedicated to its warped fairy-tale approach (Vera Farmiga rescuing her son from a couple of strangers may be her finest moment yet), and while I may not respect 2003's Bad Boys II, I remain in awe of its sure-handed, single-minded parade of destruction. I may not care for most of Michael Bay's recent work, but the man sure knows how to film a mean car chase (see below).
Best One-Man Army: It's a good thing I already gave it up for the Stath, since 2002's The Transporter has been bumped to Honorable Mention here in favor of this year's Taken, in which Liam Neeson tears up half of Paris in order to save his stupid, stupid daughter. No one has brought such gravitas to punching throats and crashing cars like Aslan has.
Best Sci-Fi Action: 2006's Children of Men was my favorite film of that year, and it still stands as a tremendous union of concept and execution, with director Alfonso Cuaron's extended takes making post-apocalyptic action thrilling again and dramatic confrontation all the more potent. Honorable Mention: Since that might not be strictly sci-fi enough for some of you, might I humbly offer in its stead the jetpack chases and moral dilemmas of 2002's Minority Report, the dizzying highway pursuit and fight scenes from 2003's The Matrix Reloaded, and the derivative narrative and inspired land-to-air-and-back-down-again chase centerpiece from 2005's The Island. (See? Michael Bay can make 'em competent when he wants to.)
Best Spy Film: Before James Bond got rebooted in a grittier light, Jason Bourne brought some fresh blood to the espionage genre, and while all of his adventures have made for exceptional fight scenes and hair-raising car chases, they are never put to more superlative use than in 2007's The Bourne Ultimatum. Honorable Mention: While Bond does deserve his due for 2006's action-packed Casino Royale, I must admit a personal preference for Ethan Hunt's antics in 2006's Mission: Impossible III. That mid-movie bridge battle? Still sensational.
Best War Film: It may not have be set in the 2000s, but 2001's Black Hawk Down redefined modern warfare on screen, with Ridley Scott's direction never more immersive or intense. Honorable Mention: 2007's The Kingdom takes a solid procedural and ramps things up considerably in the third act, while 2009's The Hurt Locker boasts greater relevance to our current conflict and its own fair share of ticking-clock tension.