The Best Films of the 2000s

It’s hard to believe how much has changed for me over ten years. This was my coming-of-age decade. At the change of the millennium, I was in sixth grade. Now, with one semester left in college, I’m about to become a real person. In terms of movies, in 2000, I maybe attended two or three times per year with my family. DVDs were not yet a part of my life, and the few VHS tapes we rented were family films or professional wrestling events.

As I grew up, my tastes changed (I can’t imagine liking many of the films on this list as recently as 2005). My movie-going got serious in late 2005, when I started paying attention to critics and seeing more highbrow films. My first experience seeing an “adult” film in theaters was Walk the Line, a film I didn’t even really care for, but the experience really stuck with me. I felt like I was joining a conversation. I saw more movies of this sort, and people at school started asking me my opinion on new movies.

That was around the time my DVD collection started. Before then, I owned maybe two dozen DVDs (most of which were James Bond). At the same time in 2006, I had nearly 100. Now the number is so large it has become closely guarded secret, too embarrassing to freely admit. I’ve seen a lot of films in the 2005-2009 range. I’ve made my best effort to check out the most highly respected films from the earlier part of the decade, but there are certainly many I’ve missed. But for me, the list I’ve assembled is as good as it gets.

Here it is, my 20 favorite films from the past ten years:

20.) Minority Report – Steven Spielberg’s incredibly thoughtful sci-fi thriller is brimming with ideas. Based on a novel by Phillip K. Dick, Minority Report ponders the eternal question of fate vs. free will. Tom Cruise is in fine form and is assisted by an outstanding supporting cast including Max Von Sydow, Colin Farrell, and Samantha Morton. Action and special effects are used to drive the plot forward, unlike most other films of the genre.

19.) Gone Baby Gone – One of the best directorial debuts of the decade from none other than Ben Affleck, it’s also one of the most underrated films in the last ten years. On the streets of Boston, a young girl is kidnapped. Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan play the private investigators hired by the family, while Morgan Freeman is the police officer in charge. They are upstaged by phenomenal turns by Amy Ryan as the kidnapped girl’s drug-dealing mother and Ed Harris as a fiery police detective. The story is deep and the moral questions presented at the end are fascinating to ponder.

18.) WALL-E – Pure movie magic. This was the best animated film of the decade as well as the best love story. The first 30 minutes are just beautiful, and the adventure that follows is mighty entertaining. Pixar showed this decade that they do animation better than anyone, and the contest isn’t even close. They’ve churned out masterpiece after masterpiece, but WALL-E is the best of the lot.

17.) Rachel Getting Married – Anne Hathaway’s coming out party as a serious actress is also one of the best female performances of the decade. Jonathan Demme’s handheld camerawork puts you right in the moment as Hathaway’s self-absorbed recovering addict Kym struggles with her over-protective father (Bill Irwin), radiant bride-to-be sister (Rosemary DeWitt), and disinterested mother (Debra Winger). But this is all Hathaway’s show as we discover the source of her pain and watch her try to overcome it.

16.) Mystic River – Like Gone Baby Gone, this one is based on a Dennis Lehane novel. Directed by Clint Eastwood, this one features some better performances, especially by Tim Robbins and Sean Penn. Three childhood friends are thrown together again after the death of one of their daughters. One is the father, another the detective, while the third is a suspect in her murder. It’s an incredibly intriguing and powerful take on what constitutes justice. Eastwood had a busy decade. This was one of his best.

15.) Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead – With one of the darkest plots of any movie I’ve seen this decade, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead also features one of the most fiery performances I’ve ever seen. Phillip Seymour Hoffman had a great decade, but his best work came in this film from veteran director Sidney Lumet. Andy (Hoffman) and his brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) are in desperate need of cash, so they set up the perfect crime: rob their parents’ jewelry store. But the robbery goes tragically wrong, and we watch Andy, Hank, and their father (Albert Finney) deal with the consequences. This is really intense and powerful stuff that is extremely well written, directed, and acted.

14.) Million Dollar Baby – Speaking of powerful, Clint Eastwood’s boxing drama stands slightly above Mystic River as Eastwood’s best film of the decade. Hilary Swank gives a spectacular performance as the ultimate underdog who works hard and rises up to become one of the best female boxers in the world. But Eastwood takes the film in dark and unexpected directions, making the viewer question what it really means to live. This is one of the few Best Picture winners on the list; it was well deserved.

13.) There Will Be Blood – This film is kind of a mess. The main character is a bundle of contradictions: brilliant but self-destructive, spiritual but evil, charismatic but introspective, hateful but loving. The direction, music, and cinematography are all over the place. But it all works, nearly perfectly. This is a fascinating tale about a man corrupted by himself. Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is an oil man, and a damn good one. But the better he is at it, the more he destroys his own soul. P.T. Anderson takes another huge risk and really steps outside his comfort zone. Daniel Day-Lewis again shows his versatility and knack for choosing only the best roles. He is phenomenal and unquestionably one of the film’s biggest assets.

12.) In the Bedroom – Todd Field’s directorial debut is the kind of film most director’s dream they can make once in a career (Field did it twice this decade with Little Children which just missed inclusion on this list). A story about a perfect family torn apart by grief, In the Bedroom is as compelling as it is simple. Field draws us in slowly with just the right amount of character development. Once drawn in, the spectacular performances by Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek keep us invested. And the ending is as surprising as it is profound.

11.) Far From Heaven – Perhaps one of the most emotionally honest films I’ve ever seen, Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven transports us to a time that is often lampooned in film (1950s suburbia), but rarely taken seriously. Haynes’ film is as visually interesting (with vibrant autumnal colors) as it is emotionally involving and features career best work from Dennis Quaid and Julianne Moore. It confronts some difficult social issues (racism, sexism, homophobia) with all the complexity they deserve.

10.) Kill Bill – Quentin Tarantino is my favorite director. His films drip with atmosphere. They are always impeccably casted, and the writing crackles with wit and intensity. I consider Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Kill Bill Vol. 2 as one film for the purposes of this list (not the first time this happens). Taken separately, Vol. 1 would be on the list but a little lower, while Vol. 2 would not make it. Vol. 2 is flawed, but taken as an extension of Vol. 1, I feel it enhances what precedes it and gives the superior first volume a little more depth. Uma Thurman is tremendous as The Bride, a woman scorned who goes on a killing spree after losing her fiancé, friends, and unborn child. David Carradine brings a great deal of charisma to the roll of Bill in Vol. 2. But the star, as is usually the case in his films, is Tarantino. His music, camera work, dialogue, art direction, editing: all perfect.

9.) The Dark Knight – The sequel to the excellent Batman Begins is the best superhero movie ever. Christopher Nolan creates such a dark world, it’s hard to believe this is the same character played by George Clooney and his bat-nipples. Everything about this film is incredible (enough words have been written about Heath Ledger’s frightening portrayal of The Joker), but perhaps Nolan’s greatest accomplishment is the fact that, unlike most comic book movies, we never know who is safe.

8.) Avatar – They said this one would be a game changer. Time will tell if it actually is, but I can say Avatar is the most visually stunning and inventive film of the decade, perhaps longer. That alone would not garner a spot on this list, but because the story is so engaging and the special effects enhance it so much, it deserves better than the token honorable mention many critics have given it on their decade lists.

7.) Memento – Christopher Nolan had a great decade. In addition to this and The Dark Knight, he also had the exceptional Insomnia, Batman Begins, and The Prestige. But his crowning achievement was also his first: Memento. Told in a maddeningly complex manner, the story of a memory-impaired man’s quest for revenge is as engrossing as it is original. Guy Pearce’s performance is fantastic as Leonard Shelby, who suffers from short-term memory loss after getting injured in the same attack that killed his wife. His work is nearly equaled by Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano as Leonard’s friends, who may have ulterior motives and might not be as helpful as he believes. But Memento is most memorable for the unique way the story unfolds. Reverse chronology has never been put to better use.

6.) Inglourious Basterds – Tarantino strikes again. This is a truly audacious film. Not many filmmakers can rewrite history, but Tarantino does and succeeds with flying colors. Brad Pitt leads a group of American basterds who want nothing more than to collect some Nazi scalps. Meanwhile, Melanie Laurent stars as a theater owner charged with screening Germany’s new propaganda film. But she is a Jew in hiding and wants revenge for the murder of her family by a sadistic SS agent (Christoph Waltz). The performances are sensational, especially Waltz. But again, Tarantino is the biggest star, successfully mashing up war films with spaghetti westerns, and sprinkling in some hilarious comedy. It’s the great director’s finest hour.

5.) Children of Men – One of the bleakest visions of the future ever filmed, Children of Men tells the story of the end of humanity, when mankind is infertile, and all hope is lost. Theo Faron (Clive Owen) is convinced by his ex-wife (Julianne Moore) to help guide a miraculously pregnant girl to the mysterious Human Project. But with the government of England growing more and more repressive (especially toward immigrants who are forced into filthy ghettos), a group of rebels want to use the girl as a political tool. Alfonso Cuaron’s film features some of the greatest cinematography ever (by Emmanuel Lubzienski) with long tracking shots through war zones, while the writing is also pointed and brutal. It’s a tough film to sit through, but well worth it.

4.) The Departed – Finally, Scorsese gets his Oscar. The Departed, a remake of the Hong Kong action series of films Infernal Affairs, is the beloved director’s best film since Taxi Driver (yes, better for me than both Raging Bull and Goodfellas). The film features a brilliant cat-and-mouse game between an undercover cop a Boston crime syndicate and an undercover gangster masquerading as a cop. It also features career-best work from Leonardo DiCaprio (Scorsese’s new muse this decade), Matt Damon, and Mark Wahlberg, not to mention a classic scenery-chewing roll for the great Jack Nicholson as head of the syndicate. The film is full of Scorsese’s trademarks and features one of the best (and bloodiest) twists of the decade.

3.) Lord of the Rings – As with Kill Bill, I will be considering these three films as one for the purpose of the list. While each film is great in its own right (the first and third would certainly be on the list, while the second would be on the fringe), they all add up to such a fine achievement it’s hard to separate them. Peter Jackson brings J.R.R. Tolkein’s series about a group of hobbits and their protectors who go on a quest to destroy a magical ring and rid Middle Earth of evil forever. His accomplishment is unparalleled. All three films in the series were nominated for Best Picture (and the Academy is not really the fantasy type), while the third won. The films feature magnificent ensembles, timeless visuals, and a whole lot of heart.

2.) Requiem for a Dream – Never have I seen a film that probes so deeply into such darkness. Addiction is a dangerous thing, and the four principal characters of Requiem for a Dream are so addicted, they would sell their mind, body, and soul for another fix. The performances are incredibly courageous, especially Ellen Burstyn who is unforgettable as Sara Goldfarb, an older woman who gets addicted to speed. Director Darren Aronofsky’s second feature (after 1998’s Pi) is sickening, but a must-see. The score is haunting, the editing is unbelievable, and the message is powerful.

1.) United 93 – My defining film of the decade rose from the ashes of the decade’s defining moment. United 93 is not about the events of September 11, 2001 per se. Instead, it celebrates the human spirit. The story is known by all: ordinary passengers come together and fight back, saving thousands of potential lives. The film perfectly captures the chaos of that day, but never feels exploitative. It’s divided into two equally excellent segments. In the first, we are on the ground with the air traffic controllers as they try to figure out what is going on. Many of the people in the film portray themselves, giving a greater degree of credibility to the scenes. The second half of the film takes place on the doomed flight. When the terrorists seize control of the aircraft, it’s pure bedlam. But the people come together. They won’t go down without a fight. The film is a towering achievement. Paul Greengrass’ direction is some of the finest I’ve ever seen. The wounds from that day had barely healed when the film came out in April 2006, but instead of ripping them open, he gives a fitting tribute to those who perished.

I can’t say enough about this incredible film. It wasn’t a film that I thought would end up at the top of my list when I first saw it (it was number six on my original top ten list of 2006), but every time I revisit it, it impresses me more and more. Before I revisited it a few weeks ago for the purposes of this list, I had expected it to be somewhere in the top five. But after it was over, I knew it was my number one. It’s powerful, authentic, timely, emotional, inspirational, and nearly perfect.

This blog has been the culmination of my movie-going this decade. I’ve always liked giving my opinion on films, and now I have an outlet to do so. It’s only a few months old, but I’m proud of what I’ve done so far, and I look forward to continuing to make it better in the coming months and years.

In the meantime, thanks for reading this year as I’ve got this off the ground. Here’s to a great next decade!

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