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

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30. Once (2007)
Writer/Director: John Carney
Stars: Glen Hansard, Markéta Irglová
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
This low-key story of a busker on the streets of Dublin (The Frames’ Glen Hansard) who meets a girl that digs his songs is one of the most heartfelt celebrations of music ever filmed. Its handheld realism is the cinematic equivalent of a great live show—a palette-cleanser that strips away layers of studio lacquer in favor of warm tones and deeply soulful characters.—Jason Killingsworth


29. Man on Wire
Director: James Marsh
Starring: Philippe Petit
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
In 1974, high-wire walker Philippe Petit fulfilled a longstanding dream by sneaking into New York’s World Trade Center, stringing a cable between the tops of the two towers, and—with almost unfathomable guts—walking across it without a net. The man is clearly a nut, but he’s also a great storyteller with a heck of a story, and Man on Wire gives him a chance to tell it. Petit’s stunt was both an engineering challenge and a test of, well, a test of something that most of us don’t possess in this much quantity. Filmmaker James Marsh uses standard documentary techniques, combining new interviews with a satisfying pile of footage and photographs, but his film has the suspense of a caper movie. The title comes from the report written by a police officer who was more than a little uncertain about how to respond to the audacity on display.—Robert Davis

28. A History of Violence (2005)
Director: David Cronenberg
Writers: John Wagner, Vince Locke (graphic novel), Josh Olson (screenplay)
Stars: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt
Studio: New Line Cinema
A devious genre tale that’s so much more, this thriller/action film plays its audience like a marionette with a mix of taut suspense, humor and a myriad of implicit questions about our response to violence. This first Cronenberg/Mortensen collaboration led to another fine film, Eastern Promises.

27. Caché (Hidden) (2005)
Writer/Director: Michael Haneke
Stars: Juliette Binoche, Daniel Auteuil, Maurice Bénichou
Studio: Sony Picture Classics
Michael Haneke’s aptly named Caché (Hidden) is a multi-layered, open-ended thriller, an onion sliced by taut piano wire. It’s the story of a family with blocked communication channels. It’s a look at the way buried trauma seeps into daily life. And it’s an examination of fear and vulnerability so palpable that a long sequence—in which the main character simply enters the house, draws the curtains and lies down for a nap—drips with dread. Despite these provocative layers, Haneke develops the themes in concrete terms so Caché also works as good-old-fashioned suspense. He works against the genre in one way; he’s more interested in the mystery’s existence than in solving it, leaving plenty of room in his fertile construction to accommodate the intelligence of his audience.—Robert Davis

26. Ghost Dog (2000)
Writer/Director: Jim Jarmusch
Star: Forest Whitaker 
Studio: Channel Four Films
After making Dead Man, a Western film about a meek Ohio accountant and a Native American warrior, indie auteur Jim Jarmusch blended Oriental philosophy with gangster reality in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. Forest Whitaker plays the title character, a hit man who adopts the code of the Hagakure, a training manual for 18th-Century would-be samurai.—Josh Jackson

25. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Writer/Director:   Guillermo del Toro  
Stars: Ivana Baquero, Ariadna Gil, Sergi López i Ayats
Studio: Picturehouse
Mexican director Guillermo del Toro’s vision of what’s, ostensibly, a childhood fable hews closer to the dark corners of the young mind (think the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen) than any squeaky-clean Disney versions. Our determined heroine, little Ofelia, maintains a fantastical imagination—filled with fairies like insects and a benevolent yet nightmarish fawn—even in the face of a facistic stepfather.—Andy Beta

24. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
Writer/Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Stars: George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, John Goodman, Holly Hunter
Studio: Touchstone
T-Bone Burnett’s soundtrack got all the attention, but this twist on Homer’s Odyssey—set in Depression Era Mississippi—had all the effortless storytelling, imaginative characters and quotable lines we’ve come to love from the Coen Brothers’ best comedies, with George Clooney joining a celebrated list of Coen comic leads. Holly Hunter and John Goodman basically reprise their hilarious Raising Arizona roles, only with more kids. And an eye-patch.—Josh Jackson

23. Traffic (2000)
Director:   Steven Soderbergh  
Writer: Stephen Gaghan
Stars: Michael Douglas, Don Cheadle, Benicio del Toro, Dennis Quaid, Catherine Zeta-Jones
Studio: USA Films
Steven Soderbergh’s simulated documentary about modern drug culture twists and glides with a calculation as deep and complex as the cavernous topic it so effectively dissects. Ever the visionary, Soderbergh displays an objective, impartial eye (quite literally—he photographed the film as Peter Andrews), digging into his characters’ explosive trajectories as they reach their tragic and ambiguous ends, and leaving us with more questions than answers.—Sean Edgar

22. Dogville (2003)
Writer/Director:   Lars von Trier  
Stars:   Nicole Kidman, Lauren Bacall, Chloë Sevigny, Paul Bettany, James Caan
Studio: Lions Gate Films
When Lars von Trier pits idealism against human selfishness, the latter always wins. His hubristic characters become what they hate by inescapable degrees. Dogville is his most trenchant polemic, with a minimal black-box theater set cultivating fevered lucidity. It’s about a town that destroys a woman by loving her, and a woman who loves a town by destroying it. In von Trier’s world, idealism inevitably leads to ruin, and there are only two kinds of people: martyrs and buffoons.—Brian Howe

21. In the Loop (2009)
Writer/Director: Armando Iannucci
Writers: Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Tony Roche
Stars: Tom Hollander, James Gandolfini, Chris Addison, Peter Capaldi, Steve Coogan
Studio: IFC Films
If clever verbal humor were easy, we’d have more comedies like In the Loop. But it’s not, and this one stands in a class of its own. It’s the most quotable film of the decade—by miles—and the cynical potty mouths on screen are so articulate and creative that, after the avalanche of witticisms, you’re left with the lingering sense that you’ve seen not just a funny movie but also a wicked political satire of the highest order, the kind where the absurdity speaks for itself.—Robert Davis