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

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20. Elephant (2003)
Writer/Director:   Gus Van Sant  
Stars: Alex Frost, Eric Deulen, John Robinson
Studio: HBO Films
The immense tragedy of 9/11 defined this decade, but 1999’s Columbine massacre remains haunting for its intimacy. Van Sant’s dramatization is almost unbearably fragile, an exquisite exercise in mood and tone—it’s as though he turned a horror movie into a poem. His steadicam sweeps the high-school hallways, and what you notice most is the eerie stillness, the deafening silence. When the killing comes, it’s brutally matter-of-fact: a fall from grace, a serenity violated.—Nick Marino

19. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (2007)
Writer/Director: Cristian Mungui
Stars: Adi Carauleanu, Luminita Gheorghiu, Madalina Ghitescu
Studio: IFC Films
With eerily realistic performances and stunning direction, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days combines an uncomfortably forthright discussion of abortion with long, virtuosic handheld camera takes. In Cristian Mungui’s hand, these shots are more than just a gimmick; they position the audience behind the camera and refuse to let us look away from the horrors on screen. At times, it’s difficult to watch, but few films have ever displayed as perfect a marriage of form and content.—Sean Gandert

18. Syndromes and a Century (2006)
Writer/Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Stars: Nantarat Sawaddikul, Jaruchai Iamaram, Sophon Pukanok, Jenjira Pongpas
Studio: Strand Releasing
Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul doesn’t mind if you call him “Joe.” It’s a strategy he picked up while living in Chicago. He studied architecture in Thailand and filmmaking in the windy city, and his experience straddling two cultures informs his tender, highly experimental films. They’re objects of beauty that cleave in the middle. In one moment, his camera is idling in a verdant Asian village, and in the next it’s gazing through portals of time, like the mind-blowing films of Kubrick or Antonioni. Syndromes is the oblique story of how his parents met. They’re both physicians, and the film tells their story twice, each time following them from a rural clinic to a modern hospital, as if they too straddled worlds.—Robert Davis

17. Memento (2000)
Writer/Director:   Christopher Nolan  
Writer: Jonathan Nolan (short story)
Stars: Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano
Studio: Newmarket Films
During a brutal attack in which he believes his wife was raped and murdered, insurance-fraud investigator Leonard Shelby (played with unequivocal intensity, frustration and panic by Guy Pearce) suffers head trauma so severe it leads to his inability to retain new memories for more than a few minutes. This device allows Nolan to brilliantly deconstruct traditional cinematic storytelling, toggling between chronological black-and-white vignettes and full-color five-minute segments that unfold in reverse order while Pearce frantically searches for his wife’s killer. The film is jarring, inventive and adventurous, and the payoff is every bit worth the mindbending descent into madness.—Steve LaBate

16. Half Nelson (2006)
Writer/Director: Ryan Fleck
Writer/Producer: Anna Boden
Stars: Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps, Anthony Mackie
Studio: ThinkFilm
The debut feature film by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden is a compelling personal story about a high-school teacher who’s failing himself and his students. It’s a rich political allegory for the liberal malaise of the Bush era, and it’s a sly subversion of a tired Hollywood cliché. Fleck and Boden wrote the script, edited the footage and directed at least three best-of-decade performances from their young cast (Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie and Shareeka Epps) earning a place on our “must see” list for years to come.—Robert Davis

15. Juno (2007)
Director:   Jason Reitman  
Writer:   Diablo Cody  
Stars: Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Allison Janney, J.K. Simmons, Olivia Thirby
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
At the center of Diablo Cody’s quickly drafted first movie script is a teenage girl going through a difficult situation and handling it with more maturity and aplomb than most of the adults around her. Ellen Page’s Juno is a delightful counter to vapid high-school stereotypes that litter the genre, but the challenges of pregnancy and the arrested development of Jason Bateman as the potential adoptive father take the precocious teenager in way over her head. The film’s honesty in tackling these issues makes its many laughs well-earned.—Josh Jackson

14. Up (2009)
Writer/Directors: Pete Docter, Bob Peterson
Stars: Edward Asner, Christopher Plummer, Jordan Nagai
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures (Pixar)
In an oeuvre already overstuffed with classics (The Incredibles, Wall-E) that enchant both children and parents Pixar’s Up towers. Instilling heart into a trash compactor was a feat, but a comedic triumvirate consisting of a septuagenarian curmudgeon, a boy scout and an androgynous bird makes for a truly uncanny combo. That the film gracefully alights on abandoned dreams, old age, loss and the burden of domesticity is just the cherry on top.—Andy Beta

13. Mulholland Drive (2001)
Writer/Director:   David Lynch  
Stars:   Naomi Watts, Laura Elena Harring, Justin Theroux
Studio: Universal Pictures
Naomi Watts’ soulful and fearless dual performance as a wide-eyed ingénue and a jaded junkie anchors David Lynch’s puzzlebox film, an update on mid-century Hollywood vice flicks that twists itself into a powerful tragedy. Only superficially exploitive, Mulholland Drive gives its girl-on-girl action a tenderness rarely seen in mainstream sex scenes and never seen in Lynch films. Even as the director further blurs the distinctions between fantasy and reality, he finds the dark heart of this tangled romance.—Stephen M. Deusner

12. There Will Be Blood (2007)
Writer/Director:   Paul Thomas Anderson  
Writer: Upton Sinclair (novel)
Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano
Studio: Paramount
There’s a whiff of Citizen Kane about There Will Be Blood. Both Charles Foster Kane, the center of Orson Welles’ 1941 masterwork, and Daniel Plainview, the protagonist of Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 gem, are Shakespearean in their contradictions—too creative and too wounded to be fully condemned, and too ruthless to be fully admired. Like Welles, writer/director Anderson fashioned an original cinematic language to reveal Plainview’s strange mix of genius and monstrosity. Long stretches are virtually dialogue-free, but the close-ups of Daniel Day-Lewis’ glowering face—splattered with blood, sweat and petroleum—and the long shots of rickety derricks and shacks perched precariously on a savage landscape say more than words ever could.—Geoffrey Himes

11. The Dark Knight (2008)
Writer/Director:   Christopher Nolan  
Writers: Jonathan Nolan, David S. Goyer, Bob Kane, Bill Finger
Stars: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Heath Ledger, Aaron Ekhart, Gary Oldman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Morgan Freeman
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Memento director Christopher Nolan surpassed Batman Begins’ immaculate resurrection of the Caped Crusader with this multi-layered comic flick. In The Dark Knight, he orchestrates a pool of crisp performances into a compounded plot that intertwines the rush of the superhero genre with the unnerving drama of a psychological thriller, showcasing Heath Ledger’s endearingly heinous embodiment of The Joker, and upping the stakes for all comic-book adaptations to come.—Gage Henry