The 50 Best Movies of the 2000s

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The 50 Best Movies of the 2000s

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 Scorsese 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

Here are the best movies of the 2000s:

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

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

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

47. Grizzly Man (2005)
Writer/Director: Werner Herzog
Stars: Timothy Treadwell, Werner Herzog
Studio: Lions Gate Films
This pro?le 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 ?nd harmony with nature but instead ?nds, as Herzog puts it, “chaos, hostility and murder.” Looming over the ?lm 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 ?lm, 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 ?lm. 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 ?lm, and I have to respect the dignity and privacy of two individuals’ deaths.”—Robert Davis

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

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

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

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

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

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

40. The Departed (2006)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writers: William Monahan, Felix Chong, Alan Mak
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Whalberg, Alec Baldwin
Studio: Warner Bros.
At times truly funny and at others brutally violent, Scorsese’s latest ambitious gangster flick spends equal time exploring the deceitful inner workings of the Boston Special Investigation Unit and it’s pro-crime counterpart, the Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson)-led Irish mafia.

39. Spirited Away (2001)
Writer/Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Stars (U.S.): Daveigh Chase, Jason Marsden, Suzanne Pleshette
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki perfectly exemplifies what happens when adults never lose their childlike curiosity and sense of wonderment. Beautifully animated, it’s the crowning achievement in his filmography thus far, a dreamlike (and at times, frightening) adventure about a young girl who discovers an alternate reality filled with some rather fantastical inhabitants. (And, in typical Miyazaki form, an epic battle between good and evil). There’s a strangeness to the wonder, and there’s beauty in the most nightmarish corners. A Disney film like no other, Spirited Away is a triumph for the imagination.—Jeremy Medina

38. Donnie Darko (2001)
Writer/Director: Richard Kelly
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, James Duvall, Mary McDonnell
Studio: Newmarket
Richard Kelly was just 25 when he got funding for his first full-length feature, Donnie Darko, but it became a cult classic, thanks to mind-bending twists and a gigantic talking bunny named “Frank.”

37. Billy Elliot (2000)
Director: Stephen Daldry
Writer: Lee Hall
Stars: Jamie Bell, Julie Walters, Julie Walters, Gary Lewis
Studio: Universal Focus
On the surface, Billy Elliot appears to be the archetypal tale of an outsider who is driven to follow his own path at all costs. But this story of a boy from depressed, working-class England who mortifyingly discovers that ballet is his life’s ambition, is saved from cliché by Stephen Daldry’s slightly quirky, at times witty, and deeply sympathetic portrayal of the pain of finding one’s voice in adolescence. The tearjerker caused such an impact worldwide, it was made into a Tony award-winning musical scored by none other than Elton John.—Emily Riemer

36. Millions (2004)
Director: Danny Boyle
Writer: Frank Cottrell Boyce
Stars: Alexander Nathan Etel, Lewis McGibbon
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Danny Boyle is a gifted director with a range seldom (if ever) seen—from the frenetic druggie movie Trainspotting to the zombie thriller 28 Days Later, from the science fiction of Sunshine to Oscar-winner Slumdog Millionaire. But Boyle’s best work to date was the family film Millions. He brings the energy, creativity and vibrancy that are his hallmarks to the most fully realized and satisfying story he’s committed to film. Boyd and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce imbue a simple tale of found money and family loss with a degree nuance and sophistication rare even in art films, let alone family fare. In Millions, idealism and fantasy meet gritty reality in an inspiring tale that deals with life’s complications before transcending them. —Tim Regan-Porter

35. Junebug (2005)
Director: Phil Morrison
Writer: Angus MacLachlan
Stars: Amy Adams, Embeth Davidtz, Alessandro Nivola, Celia Weston
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Phil Morrison’s debut is marked by strong sense of place, genuine feeling and a delicate, non-denigrating humor. Set over one long, intense weekend, the story details how the seductive presence of Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz) challenges the mores and affects the fragile equilibrium of a Southern family whose dynamics and socioeconomic makeup are most particular. Deliberate pacing and contemplativeness—qualities associated with the South—inform the movie, which boasts sharp characterization, crisp dialogue and meticulous attention to physical locale. And Amy Adams gives one of the best performances of the decade.—Emanuel Levy

34. Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
Directors: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Writer: Michael Arndt
Stars: Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Abigail Breslin, Steve Carell, Paul Dano, Alan Arkin
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
If the key to comedy is timing, then Little Miss Sunshine proves that what’s true for performers is also true for filmmakers. Mom, Dad, two kids, Grandpa, and Uncle Frank—a suicidal college professor recently spurned by his lover—sit down for a chaotic dinner scene that pops like syncopated jazz, setting the tone for a warm, funny that somehow includes Friedrich Nietzsche and Marcel Proust in a story about a road trip and a beauty contest. All the adult actors, save Carell, had played dramatic parts in the past; their versatility is critical, and Carell proves more than ready to join their ranks.—Robert Davis

33. Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2 (2003, 2004)
Writer/Director: Quentin Tarantino
Stars: Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, Daryl Hannah, David Carradine
Studio: Miramax
With Kill Bill, Tarantino managed to pay homage to all the kung-fu films, spaghetti westerns and exploitation flicks he grew up with. The four-hour epic was split into two films filled with Uma Thurman violently, unrelentingly serving up revenge.—Josh Jackson

32. Ratatouille (2007)
Writer/Directors: Brad Bird, Jan Pinkava
Stars: Patton Oswalt, Lou Romano, Peter Sohn, Brad Garrett, Ian Holm
Studio: Walt Disney Studios (Pixar)
While consistently fun, many of Pixar’s film’s succeed by taking an obvious universe impossible to really capture with live action—anthropomorphizing toys, fish, monsters, cars, etc.—and crafting a solid story around it. But Ratatouille is anything but predictable: a rat (Patton Oswalt!) who dreams of becoming a chef. With The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille, Bird has carved his name, not just among the animation greats, but the storytelling masters.—Josh Jackson

31. Gosford Park (2001)
Director: Robert Altman
Writer: Julian Fellowes
Stars: Michael Gambon, Alan Bates, Derek Jacobi, Hellen Mirren, Kristin Scott Thomas, Bob Balaban, Clive Owen
Studio: USA Films
Robert Altman’s ambitious murder mystery aptly demonstrates his signature style of filmmaking. He assembles a large cast of superb actors and allows them to act out their roles, in some cases even improvising, while the cameras roll. The result is an Agatha Christie-whodunit meets a post-modern exploration of the dying class system in England. Not unlike the British Sam Mendes’ treatment of American suburbia in American Beauty, no one but an outsider can so acutely skewer a culture’s idiosyncrasies as Altman does here. And only this famed “actors’ director” could have attracted such an illustrious and talented cast, who can make the tautly written lines sing and the emotionally fraught scenes hum with intrigue and tension.—Emily Riemer

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

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

10. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Writer/Director: Wes Anderson
Writer: Owen Wilson
Stars: Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller, Andrew Wilson, Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, Danny Glover, Bill Murray
Studio: Buena Vista Pictures
With his third movie, Wes Anderson let all his quirks run rampant: a storybook setting that is and is not New York, a uniform for each character and an obsession with childhood detritus. Rather than deflect the family’s conflicts (as Anderson’s critics claim), these elements only enhance its spiritual conundrums, making The Royal Tenenbaums Anderson’s most directorially confident and emotionally cathartic film—a bittersweet ode to regret, forgiveness and hard-won contentment.—Stephen Deusner

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9. No Country For Old Men (2007)
Writer/Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Writer: Cormac McCarthy (novel)
Stars: Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones, Kelly Macdonald, Woody Harrelson
Studio: Miramax Films
What is it about the Coen Brothers’ inconsolable No Country for Old Men that still chills the blood, even under the South Texas sun? No doubt its inscrutability plays a role: Is it a Western, a noir or a morality play? And the Academy Award-winning performance by Javier Bardem disturbs because he himself remains a mystery: Is Anton Chigurh a merciless hitman or the Angel of Death? The story of a drug deal gone wrong soon reveals its true theme: the futility of being good and just in the face of abject evil. But the Coens also meditate on the faltering of the physical body. “Age’ll flatten a man,” Tommy Lee Jones’ Sherrif Bell esteems, and for this Texan, the evocation of my childhood landscape—right down to the tiniest detail—means that the specter of Chigurh will haunt not only the end of my life but stomp through its earliest remembrances as well.—Andy Beta

8. The Son (Le fils) (2002)
Writer/Directors: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Stars: Olivier Gourmet, Morgan Marinne, Isabella Soupart
Studio: New Yorker Films
Renowned Belgian filmmaking brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne found the perfect distillation of their stark style with this masterpiece about a man who teaches woodworking to troubled teens. One boy in particular draws his attention, but the brothers parcel out the plot so carefully that watching it unfold is rewarding in itself. The greatest pleasure, though, comes from watching the Dardennes treat the simple details of building a toolbox and the limits of human forgiveness as if they’re both vital, and maybe somehow related.—Robert Davis

7. Lost In Translation (2003)
Writer/Director: Sofia Coppola
Stars: Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Giovanni Ribisi, Anna Faris
Studio: Focus Features
Fueled by Bill Murray’s impeccable performance, Sofia Coppola delivered a picture of sublime nuance for her sophomore effort. The physical and emotional unavailability of spouses, words left unspoken, life’s missing purpose, an affair devoid of sex—absence is the looming presence here, and Coppola perfectly captured the ineffable human conditions of dislocation and ennui. Lost in Translation is a testament to the power of a raised eyebrow, a gentle touch and a parting whisper.—Tim Regan-Porter

6. Beau Travail (2000)
Writer/Director: Claire Denis
Stars: Denis Lavant, Michel Subor, Grégoire Colin
Studio: New Yorker Films
French filmmaker Claire Denis has such a keen eye and natural sense of rhythm that her movies often hypnotize viewers even when they aren’t following the plot. She’s subtle. For Beau Travail, Denis transplanted Herman Melville’s Billy Budd to the African landscape where she grew up. She gave her movie one of the greatest endings of any film this decade when her lead character—wound tight as a spring—finally allows himself a spastic, joyous moment. Whether it’s real or metaphorical isn’t clear, but we know this much: It’s music. It’s dance. It’s pure cinema.—Robert Davis

5. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Writer/Director: Michel Gondry
Writers: Charlie Kaufman, Pierre Bismuth
Stars: Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood, Tom Wilkenson
Studio: Focus Features (2004)
Michel Gondry’s debut feature, Human Nature, was a whimsical dud, but his follow-up suggested a mature, disciplined director with his playful side intact. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind traffics in his signature sleights of hand, which serve two touching and tragic love stories: between red-haired Kate Winslet and a supremely sad Jim Carrey, and between headstrong Kirsten Dunst and a pining Mark Ruffalo. All of their performances—including Gondry’s—stay in your memory long after the credits have rolled.—Stephen Deusner

4. The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003)
Writer/Director: Peter Jackson
Writers: J.R.R. Tolkein (novels), Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Stephen Sinclair
Stars: Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Ian McKellen, Sean Astin, Dominic Monaghan, Billy Boyd, Orlando Bloom, John Rhys-Davies
Studio: New Line Cinema
The Lord of the Rings film trilogy took the work J.R.R. Tolkien himself described as “unsuitable for dramatic or semi-dramatic representation” and translated its epic story in a far more literal manner than could’ve ever been guessed. What comes across in Jackson’s adaptation is a passion not just for telling the epic tale, but for telling it correctly. Corners weren’t cut for time or expense, nor were compromises made to create a tighter plot and more streamlined experience. In a sprawling 11 hours, the series’ meticulous recreation captures the same wonder and awe of the books. We suspect that were he still around, Tolkien would’ve reconsidered his comment and enjoyed seeing his world on screen just as much as the rest of us.—Sean Gandert

3. Almost Famous (2000)
Writer/Director: Cameron Crowe
Stars: Patrick Fugit, Kate Hudson, Jason Lee, Zooey Deschanel, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Studio: DreamWorks
Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical film perfectly captured the essence of the world music geeks inhabit—the passion for the music; the joy in the concert experience; the obsession over the tiniest details of melody, lyrics, musicianship, artwork and liner notes; the camaraderie of fans and musicians. But even beyond the resonance that music fans feel, Crowe crafted flawless little scenes, peopled with fully fleshed-out characters who were funny, romantic, heart wrenching and utterly believable. Almost Famous is the essential movie for music aficionados, and a great one for anyone who cares about humanity.—Tim Regan-Porter

2. Amélie (2001)
Writer/Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Writer: Guillaume Laurant
Stars: Audrey Tautou, Mathieu Kassovitz, Rufus, Claire Maurier
Studio: Miramax
With the face of an angel, the heart of a child and the haircut of a Parisian pixie, do-gooding waitress Amélie Poulain (Audrey Tautou) swept us clean off our feet. Hers was a love story, a French love story—as if it could get more romantic. And her fantastical adventures in the name of love unfolded in flights of magical realism. Indeed, the film held up love itself as both magical and realistic. Which, of course, is how it really is.—Nick Marino

1. City of God (2003)
Director: Fernando Meirelles
Writers: Paulo Lins (novel), Bráulio Mantovani
Stars: Alexandre Rodrigues, Alice Braga, Leandro Firmino, Douglas Silva, Seu Jorge, Philipe Haagensen
Studio: Miramax (2003)
Originally released in January 2003 to critical praise, Fernando Meirelles’ masterful yet brutal City of God receded from view until Miramax re-released it for Oscar consideration. And while it failed to even garner a foreign-language-film nomination that year, the alternately intense and intimate depiction of Rio’s desperate favelas has only grown in stature and power. Based on the novel by Paulo Lins (and adapted by Bráulio Mantovani), Meirelles turned an unflinching eye on a world forgotten by the wealthy and powerful, ignored by police and indifferent to law and order. City of God set the template for other shocking urban films to follow (not to mention a revival of “favela funk” by music-marauders like Diplo and M.I.A.). But whereas other cinematic studies like Gomorrah (about modern Sicily) and the documentary Dancing with the Devil only wallowed in such viciousness, this film plunged deeper, gripped harder, and yet always allowed glints of humanity into such darkness. City of God’s harrowing depiction of daily violence in the favelas exemplifies in shocking detail the Hobbesian view of life as “nasty, brutish, and short,” but the film never casts judgment. While chaos and bloodshed rule the world of protagonist Rocket and those of his generation—psychotic druglord Li’l Zé, groovy playboy Benny and solemn Knockout Ned (singer Seu Jorge, in his breakout role)—City of God elucidates an underlying symmetry, exhibiting if not poetic justice, then the street version of the same.—Andy Beta

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