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The 50 Best Movies of the Decade (2000-2009)

November 3, 2009  |  7:00am
The 50 Best Movies of the Decade (2000-2009)

If comparing music from Gillian Welch and Outkast in our 50 Best Albums of the Decade is like apples and oranges, ranking films like Amélie, The Dark Knight and Mulholland Drive is more like apples, ice cream and foie gras. But despite the wild variety among our 50 Best Movies from 2000-2009, each is an exquisitely made, exceptionally satisfying piece of cinema that we believe will endure well after the decade has ended. There are masters like Martin Scorcese and Lars Von Trier, and relative newcomers like Fernando Meirelles and Anna Boden. There are documentaries, comedies and dramas, as well as animated films and even a super-hero flick. Mirroring a decade of globalism, the filmmakers are from the United States, New Zealand, Taiwan, Germany, Ireland, France, Japan, Canada, Mexico, Denmark, Romania, Thailand, Brazil, and nearly every part of the U.K. Let these be our recommendations for your Netflix queue—or in the case of #21, a theater near you. Personally, after reading the loving descriptions in these pages, I’ve already got films I missed the first time around—like Syndromes and a Century and Beau Travail—on the way.—Josh Jackson, Paste editor-in-chief

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50. The Squid and the Whale (2005)
Writer/Director: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline
Studio: Samuel Goldwyn Films
Borrowing themes from his previous films—children of failed marriages; characters whose bookish smarts seem to work against them; a floating sense of fatalism—The Squid and the Whale creeps ever closer to Noah Baumbach’s own tempestuous past. His parents’ faltering union isn’t just a detail used to add depth to a certain character. It’s the whole story—a gorgeous, candid portrait of the messy car crash of divorce, from all angles. “It’s hard to even put myself in the mindset of those movies anymore,” he told Paste in 2005. “With Squid, these are reinventions of people that are close to me, and this is the movie I identify with the most. It is a natural extension of what I have intended and what I feel. I trusted myself more on this one.”—Keenan Mayo

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49. High Fidelity (2000)
Director: Stephen Frears
Writer: Nick Hornby (novel)
Stars: John Cusack, Jack Black, Lisa Bonet, Todd Louiso
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
Funny, insightful and insanely quotable, High Fidelity plays like an ultra-hip Woody Allen movie. Writer Nick Hornby tapped into the psyche of the 20th century male, with John Cusack playing an everyman who retraces his past girlfriend history only to find he let the perfect woman slip through his fingers.—Jeremy Medina

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48. Flight of the Red Balloon (Le voyage du ballon rouge) (2008)
Writer/Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Stars: Juliette Binoche, Hippolyte Giradot
Studio: IFC Films
It’s tempting to put the latest movie by Hou Hsiao-hsien into a neat little box. Although it’s not a film for kids, it’s an homage to Albert Lamorisse’s endearing children’s short “The Red Balloon,” and at times it seems as buoyant and aimless as a helium-filled toy. Hou is working in France instead of his usual Taiwan, and with Academy Award-winning actress Juliette Binoche instead of his cast of regulars. This makes the entire project feel like a detour for an artist best known for complex, austere films about Taiwan’s pulsing present and tumultuous history. Lamorisse’s short is about a loner of a boy who has the best of all possible friends, an amazingly reactive balloon, but Hou’s film is a realistic look at the inside of this fantasy, at the modern-day stresses on close-knit families. He slips behind Lamorisse’s facade like the Taiwanese amateur filmmaker who takes a job as Binoche’s nanny, an echo of Hou within his own story; the nanny even tells us how special effects make the balloon move. Since Flight falls at the simple-but-elegant end of Hou’s spectrum, the mysterious and lyrical finale in the Musée D’Orsay comes as a surprise; this balloon is anchored by some heft.—Robert Davis

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47. Grizzly Man (2005)
Writer/Director: Werner Herzog
Stars: Timothy Treadwell, Werner Herzog
Studio: Lions Gate Films
This profile of nature lover Timothy Treadwell, who unwisely tried to live among wild bears in Alaska until he was devoured, cuts a Herzogian swath across the hillside: A man attempts to find harmony with nature but instead finds, as Herzog puts it, “chaos, hostility and murder.” Looming over the film is not only the horror of Treadwell’s demise but also an audio recording of the tragedy, taped inadvertently by the video camera in Treadwell’s tent. Herzog tastefully omits it from the film, but he makes the viewer aware of its existence. “The question of the tape which recorded Timothy Treadwell’s death and Amie Huguenard’s death is something that I had to address,” Herzog told Paste in 2007. “So I listened to it, and that’s the only time I appear in the film. You only see me from behind, listening to it with earphones. The interesting thing is that Jewel Palovak who was working with Treadwell and living with Treadwell for 20 years tries to read my face, and it’s very, very intense and moving for her. The moment I heard the tape it was instantly clear: Only over my dead body is this tape going to end up in the movie. I’m not into doing a snuff film, and I have to respect the dignity and privacy of two individuals’ deaths.”—Robert Davis

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46. Iraq in Fragments (2006)
Director: James Longley
Studio: HBO Documentary Films
Applying the full spectrum of cinematic technique to a nonfiction film, Longley made one of the most striking movies this year, an immersive view of life in Iraq; a record of opinions and faces from across the country, all captured at close range.—Robert Davis

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45. Whale Rider (2002)
Director: Niki Caro
Writers: Witi Ihimaera (novele), Niki Caro (screenplay)
Stars: Keisha Castle-Huges, Rawiri Paratene
Studio: Newmarket Films
Whale Rider tells the story of a young girl, Paikea, who lives in New Zealand with a stern grandfather who, apparently, needs to get modern. Every scene tells us this and gives us an opportunity to tsk-tsk his staunch rejection of his granddaughter who he believes, despite her lineage, can’t inherit the leadership of this Maori village because of her gender. She’ll need to convince her grandfather she can lead just as well as the boys can, and she’ll need to do it before the end of the movie. But just when you think you have the film pegged, its sincerity manages to break through the thin characterizations and age-old plot. Young actress Keisha Castle-Hughes gives Paikea a richly expressive voice, and the turning point is an astonishingly heartfelt speech she delivers at a school program for parents. Castle-Hughes’ grace and beauty on the screen is probably the main reason Whale Rider became a surprise art-house hit.—Robert Davis

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44. Hotel Rwanda (2004)
Director: Terry George
Writers: Keir Pearson, Terry George
Stars: Don Cheadle, Sophie Okonedo, Nick Nolte, Joaquin Phoenix
Studio: Lions Gate
While Hotel Rwanda attempts to document the country’s genocide in 1994, it does so by focusing on the character of Rusesabagina (played by Don Cheadle), who gave refuge to hundreds of fleeing Tutsis. Calling in dozens of favors with his extensive network of contacts, he was able to hold the Hutu extremists (the Interahamwe militia) at bay, until the Tutsi rebels drove the Hutu from power. Cheadle portrays Rusesabagina as an efficient manager who cares deeply about his family and the people in he looks after It’s a gripping film that bears witness to both a historic tragedy and one man’s bravery. “I never thought I was doing something different,” Rusesabagina modestly told Paste just after the film’s release. “I thought I was just acting as a normal hotel manager.”—J. Robert Parks

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43. In America (2004)
Director: Jim Sheridan
Writers: Jim, Naomi and Kristen Sheridan
Stars: Paddy Considine, Dijmon Hounsou
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Approximately one minute of this film is all it takes to fall in love with the two girls in the lead roles (real-life sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger). Four minutes later, you’re in love with the parents (Samantha Morton and Paddy Considine), too. This Irish family is recovering from tragedy by immigrating to the tenements of New York. Their attempts to mend their broken hearts and scarred psyches after the death of their son—with the help of AIDS-stricken Djimon Hounsou, and a new baby—is heartrending, but the wide-eyed candor of the girls and writer-director Jim Sheridan’s sense of humor save it from being maudlin.—Emily Riemer

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42. The Last King of Scotland (2006)
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Writers: Giles Foden (novel), Peter Morgan and Jeremy Brock (screenplay)
Stars: Forrest Whitaker, James McAvoy
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
The brutality of this film is at times difficult to bear, but harder still would be tearing your eyes away from Forrest Whitaker, who is fully inhabited by the charismatic monster Idi Amin. Director Kevin Macdonald pulls us gradually into the world of the Ugandan dictator through Amin’s Scottish personal physician, making for a Faustian seduction with horrific returns.—Josh Jackson

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41. L’Enfant (2006)
Writer/Directors: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Stars: Jérémie Renier, Déborah François
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
The Dardenne brothers specialize in poetically ambiguous titles, and in their latest film, it’s the new parents and their cohorts who seem like children. But the Dardennes love them anyway, telling their story in the unvarnished style that’s become their trademark.—Robert Davis

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