I’m sure this collaborative list from Justin Souther and myself (and it really is a collaboration—we’ve been batting these choices back and forth for weeks) is going to have its fair share of detractors—and that’s fine. I can already make a pretty good guess at the outrage over the omission of certain titles, and what those titles will be. That can’t be helped. All we can do is present an honest list of the films from 2000 through 2009 that impressed us as the most artistically significant of the decade.
I should note that only the first 20 titles are ranked. The rest are listed alphabetically. After much discussion it was decided that this was the best way, because ranking the other 80 movies would be futile. By the time you’re past 20 titles, it would be strictly mood of the moment that was guiding. As a result, the list would be constantly shifting—even more than most lists do. So, without further ado …
20. Gangs of New York (2002) Grand in scope, this remains Martin Scorsese’s most ambitious to date. Stunning in it’s portrayal of grimy 19th-century New York, the film marks a turning point for Scorsese towards a more complex, lofty style of filmmaking. With an ace cast around Leonardo DiCaprio—Jim Broadbent, Liam Neeson, Brendan Gleeson, John C. Reilly—it’s the movie where DiCaprio legitimized himself and became Scorsese’s go-to actor. But what really makes it all worthwhile, what makes the film truly special, is Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill “The Butcher,” a brilliant creation of one the most memorable movie villains ever.—J.S.
19. Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) This is the movie that introduced John Cameron Mitchell to moviegoers, which was a key moment in the decade so far as I’m concerned (if only he was a little more prolific). It actually took two viewings before I truly fell in love with the movie, but since then it’s been a film that only seems better—and more moving—to me every time I see it. Mitchell starts out working from a deliberately outrageous concept—a drag queen glam rocker who’s had a botched sex-change (resulting in the “angry inch” on the title)—and slowly makes the film more and more human, only to turn around in the last two scenes and burst into dramatically viable surrealism that delivers a punch like no other.—K.H.
18. The Boat That Rocked (Pirate Radio) (2009) Richard Curtis’ The Boat That Rocked opened elsewhere in the world to split reviews and so-so box office results, so when it made it to the States months later, it had been retitled Pirate Radio and trimmed of about 17 minutes. Even in that form, it’s a remarkable film—a celebration of rock music and the anti-authoritarian mind-set of the 1960s. Moreover, it’s a film that recognizes the fact that so much of that era was not in the hands of kids, but also had much to do with more free-thinking older people, as well (yet it’s not afraid to touch on their limitations). Beyond that, it’s about friendship and relationships—and about the way celebrities (in this case, disc jockeys) can become part of our sense of extended family. In the end, it is perhaps best described as a celebration of those things that connect us to each other.—K.H.
17. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) Fans of the stage musical were not entirely happy with Tim Burton’s film version of the Sondheim show. There were complaints that it was too literal-minded and, especially, that Helena Bonham Carter’s Mrs. Lovett lacked the energy and fun of Angela Lansbury’s stage incarnation. Perhaps because I never cared much for the stage show and found Lansbury’s performance altogether too broad, it was the film that finally won me over on the material. Some of that had to do with the more subdued take on Mrs. Lovett, who here became an oddly touching figure. As filmmaking, it shows Burton at his strongest, skillfully blending his horror-movie-infused background with the material. Formally, it’s probably his most accomplished film—and it’s not too far behind emotionally, while still retaining his own personality. That it’s all set against an extremely gory tale—that never forgets that it is a very blood-spattered affair—makes it all the more remarkable.—K.H.
16. There Will Be Blood (2007) Paul Thomas Anderson’s view of greed, God and hubris through the eyes of a California oil man is the director’s most important work, and every inch an outgrowth of his previous output. But at the same time, it plays like the anti-Anderson—instead of characters trying to search for connection with others, it’s about the dangers that occur when we don’t bother to try and connect in the first place. It’s all held together by a juggernaut performance by Daniel Day-Lewis. He may be choosy about his roles, but he sure makes them count in the end.—J.S.
15. Children of Men (2006) It’s the science-fiction film of the Oughts. A subtly idiosyncratic yet harrowing view of the future, it’s a story about finding hope in hopelessness. The film is a stunning technical achievement, which combined with director Alfonso Cuarón’s sense of humanity, set the movie apart, and proves that, yes, gritty realism can work—as long as there’s heart there.—J.S.
14. The Brothers Bloom (2009) Only a handful of films from the decade gave me anywhere near the sheer delight that Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom did. From its breathless opening scenes—done with a voiceover that recalls his take on Dashiell Hammett in Johnson’s first film, Brick (2005)—to its deliciously quirky development and on to its surprisingly moving ending, this is very close to a perfect movie. It’s also a movie that pays rich dividends on repeat viewings, when you start realizing just how seamlessly everything in the film is set up and integrated. Funny, stylish and more, The Brothers Bloom is something of a wonder.—K.H.
13. Talk to Her (2002) It’s very hard to single out one Pedro Almodóvar film as his best of the decade. I could almost as easily gone with Bad Education (2004) or Volver (2006)—and possibly Broken Embraces (2009), except I haven’t been able to see it yet. All of Almodóvar’s films—even the lesser ones—present the viewer with a challenge (often more than one), but after much thought I think this tale of two men in love with comatose women—and possibly in love with each other on some strange level—offers the biggest challenge. It presents a main character who thinks his relationship with a patient in a coma is perfectly normal and that the two of them are a typical couple—except that they “get along better than most”—and it asks you to sympathize with him, which you do against your will. In many respects, it’s typical Almodóvar-heightened soap opera, with a quirky take on life. But it’s more than that—and it may also be his most stylistically daring work.—K.H.
12. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) Despite the astonishing technical virtuosity on display in Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, I think its greatest achievement is that I never think of it as an animated film when I’m away from it. Now, I’m not good at what is called “suspension of disbelief.” I’m always conscious that I’m watching a movie, no matter how involved I am in it, or how much emotional investment I have with the characters. I know this is an animated film. I know that it is a magnificently animated film. But I’m so completely sold on the characters—and the voice performances—that I take it all as real and remember it that way. At the same time, I like the fact that the film seems to be almost a response to Anderson’s detractors who accuse his live-action films as being Anderson moving dolls around in a dollhouse. Well, here that’s pretty much exactly what he is doing—and it works as both an animated film and as a pure Wes Anderson film.—K.H.
11. Be Kind Rewind (2008) We’re bound to catch a lot of flack for omitting Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). But for our collective money, the director’s love letter to the movies is Gondry’s real high-water mark. Whimsical, creative and subtly touching, it’s a film about the wonder of movies, made by a man who carries that same kind of light-hearted, wide-eyed awe.—J.S.
10. The Rules of Attraction (2002) Making films about disaffected, selfish, drug-abusing college kids with little to no redeeming qualities is probably not the best career move. Seeing as how director Roger Avary has spent the remainder of this decade collecting writing credits, this is probably true. But the price that’s been paid for popularity is Avary’s true nerve. While the film is bitterly funny and just oozes style, it is often a difficult film to like. Not necessarily because of the subject matter (though Avary’s refusal to shy away from anything doesn’t help). But more so due to our ability to see our own faults in these grotesque characters—an achievement which is nothing to scoff at.—J.S.
9. Across the Universe (2007) Following Titus (1999) and the admittedly flawed Frida (2002), Julie Taymor established herself as the truly great female filmmaker of the decade with Across the Universe. With it she crafted a film that not only captured an era (I’ve only caught one glitch in the depiction of the 1960s—and I won’t tell you what it is), but did so by following the arc of the career of the Beatles in the bargain. Her film follows the course of the fab four from the Cavern Club days all the way to the concert on top of the Apple building that marked the last time they played together in public as a band. Moreover, the whole film is obviously made by someone who absolutely adores the Beatles’ music, but refuses to embalm it like some tribute band. The songs are treated respectfully—and are obviously being overseen by someone who knows every note of the records—but are also approached in fresh ways that often cause you to rethink them and discover something new in them. I call that a major achievement.—K.H.
8. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) The Coen Brothers finest and most grand work—their take on Homer’s The Odyssey (with a little bit of Preston Sturges thrown in) set in the 1930s South—is the movie that made George Clooney a full-blown movie star. Every bit a Coens’ picture (who else would dare have a Busby Berkeley-styled Klan rally?), it’s quirky, referential, reverential and yet consistently funny. In short, it’s the closest thing to a perfect film the Coens have ever made. The top-notch blues and bluegrass sound track that the film revolves around is just gravy.—J.S.
7. The Hours (2002) Stephen Daldry’s The Hours is one of the most meticulous adaptations of a book I’ve ever encountered. It at least affords the illusion of containing nearly everything in the book within its framework, but it never feels like the Masterpiece Theatre approach. There’s no sense of stifling reverence, because Daldry has crafted such a wholly cinematic work that it flows as smoothly as its Philip Glass score. The patterning of the film, the attention to detail, the subtle foreshadowings that may not be obvious on a single viewing, add up to a work of both great power and humanity. The three central performances from Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore are stunning. There really isn’t a moment in the film that feels false or doesn’t work.—K.H.
6. I Heart Huckabees (2004) David O. Russell’s self-styled existential comedy is a love-it or hate-it affair. Luckily for Ken and me, we love it. An occasionally absurd, often ridiculous, always complicated look at our attempts at connecting with the rest of the world, filtered through a satirizing (or is it?) of new-age philosophy. Funny in the most outrageous of ways and convoluted in the best possible manner, it’s a movie few would make and even fewer could make work.—J.S.
5. Synecdoche, New York (2008) The feature debut from über-screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, it’s a movie only Kaufman could—and should—have made. Bizarre is an understatement when describing this odd, weird, wonderful portrayal of the battle between life and art. Kaufman constantly surprises you with his eccentric imagination. Brilliantly frustrating and frustratingly brilliant, it’s a giant, beautiful, ambitious avalanche of ideas and creativity.—J.S.
In this one instance, I’m going to add a few words to Justin Souther’s take on this film, which was the unfortunate victim of being booked in between two “bigger” pictures locally, and so never had the chance to find its audience. Worse, it scarcely allowed time for those who did see it to see it again. All good movies benefit from being seen more than once, but this one requires it. You can follow the film—as long as you aren’t put off by casual intrusions of surrealism—in a single viewing, but you’ll never really “get it” without a second or even third viewing. And it’s not that the film is willfully confusing. It’s just too complex to unravel without seeing it more than once.—K.H.
4. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth is quite possibly the most beautiful film of the decade—and one of the most unusual in its refusal to quite settle on either a genre or how real the fantasticated events of its story are. In some respects, it’s a horror film. In others, it’s a fairy tale. In still others, it’s a Buñuel-esque drama that’s ever so slightly surreal, but never crosses the line. What is astonishing is that it succeeds on every one of these levels—and others I’ve not even mentioned. It’s charming, horrifying, playful and finally heartbreaking. Even within del Toro’s admittedly impressive filmography, there’s nothing like it. It is simply a masterpiece.—K.H.
3. Slumdog Millionaire (2008) As the host of the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? says in the course of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, “What a show!” From 28 Days Later … in 2002, Boyle turned out not a single clunker from the rest of the decade. He just seemed to get better with each film, but this is the best of them all—a sprawling, nonstop cinematic marvel that tickles the brain (the construction of the story is amazingly assured), while working as a truly glorious tale of romance and redemption. It’s truly rare that a film this complex and daring—and anchored to no star power—becomes a crowd-pleaser. But after this little film—which Warner Bros. was all set to send straight to video until Fox Searchlight offered to release it—crossed the $100 million mark at the box office, there was no denying that Slumdog had done it—and it couldn’t have been more deserved.—K.H.
2. The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004) If I had it to do over again, Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou would be in the top spot for best film of 2004. Subsequent viewings (I saw this at least six times during its theatrical run) made me appreciate it more every time I saw it—and that still happens today. Actually, we had a little trouble settling on whether to put this film or The Darjeeling Limited (2007) on this list—and it was a very near thing. But I think Life Aquatic is slightly more important—a little broader in scope. It’s also the film where Anderson fully came into his own as one of the most individual voices working in film. The thing is that you either respond to Anderson’s particular style, his deadpan sense of humor, his quirky use of music, his creation of a world that is like ours, but not quite—and his overriding interest in damaged people and broken families—or you don’t. I very much do.—K.H.
1. Moulin Rouge! (2001) It’s probably immaterial that I like Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!. It’s also immaterial that there are films on this list that I might like better. What counts for me—and why it occupies this exalted spot—is that it’s a film that in many ways defines that which is best about the decade. Love it or hate it, it is truly a spectacle of a kind previously not seen, and while it most assuredly has its roots and influences in movies of the past, it emerges as something truly its own. It is simply alive with the thrill of filmmaking—and indeed the very act of creation. I don’t believe there is a single frame in the entire film that isn’t carefully gauged for maximum impact. It’s also a film with a strangely—and hard to define—sinister undercurrent that gives its simple story line badly needed gravity, but don’t make too much of that statement. In the end, it’s a giddy musical romance with a tragic ending. Yes, I know, for some people the film is just sensory overload, but as time passes and many of Luhrmann’s techniques become assimilated by other filmmakers, it seems less frenetic and much more carefully crafted than it did in 2001.—K.H.
The 80 others:
28 Days Later … (2002) Not every movie completely revitalizes an entire genre (in this case—for better or for worse—the zombie flick). But this is no fluke, since Danny Boyle’s sparse, apocalyptic vision is the goods. Horror filmmaking at its finest, intelligent yet gruesome and innately human, it’s the movie that started Boyle off on a decade of versatile, top-notch output.—J.S.
About a Boy (2002) A good book becomes a great movie—and from the most unlikely of sources, Chris and Paul Weitz, who up to that time were best known for American Pie (1999). Suddenly the brothers seemed to grow up and this film—that redefines several things, including the romantic comedy—was the result. That neither has done anything nearly this good since is unfortunate, but we have this as a reminder of how good they could be.—K.H.
Australia (2008) In a decade where the word “epic” got thrown around willy-nilly, Baz Luhrmann actually accomplished the kind of full-throated entertainment that truly deserves that adjective. Grandiose, ambitious and energetic, it’s what movies have always been about.—J.S.
Bad Education (2004) Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education is second only to Talk to Her (2002) as his most challenging film in terms of subject matter. In some ways, it’s even harder to come to terms with for some people, as was evidenced by a reader from Hendersonville, who wrote an outraged letter about my having recommended this “vile” movie that was nothing but “nonstop sex between two men.” (She saw a much steamier version than I did.) As a friend of mine remarked at the time, “You said it was disturbing—and it disturbed her. I don’t know why she’s complaining.”—K.H.
Big Fish (2003) Tim Burton’s unusual, fanciful vision filtered through a real-world sensibility made for the most heartbreaking work of his since Edward Scissorhands (1990). The most mature movie in his filmography is also his most touching and complex.—J.S.
Black Book (2006) After decades of Hollywood junk, Paul Verhoeven returned to Holland to make his best work since 1983’s The Fourth Man. This World War II drama is a perfect example of Verhoeven at his best, mixing overheated entertainment with brash filmmaking, all the while getting a daring performance from the still underused Clarice van Houten.—J.S.
Black Snake Moan (2007) It’s God, sex and the blues in Craig Brewer’s ode to the grimy-side of the South, a topic (along with 2005’s Hustle & Flow) he never handles as caricature. The big surprise, though, is how a movie centered around the premise of a God-fearing Samuel L. Jackson chaining a half-naked, sex-addicted Christina Ricci to an old radiator could turn out to be so sweet natured.—J.S.
Breakfast on Pluto (2005) Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto is very probably the best film the talented filmmaker has yet made. A warm, winning, funny and moving look at the life of cross-dressing Patrick “Kitten” Brady (Cillian Murphy), the film also boasts an amazing sound track of late 1960s and early 1970s pop music. It veers from the comedic to the tragic and back without missing a beat.—K.H.
Brick (2005) This movie shouldn’t work. A high-school version of a hard-boiled detective film—filled with teens who speak like they’re straight out of a Dashiell Hammett novel—is just too gimmicky to be good, right? Maybe in most people’s hands it would’ve devolved into self-parody, but director Rian Johnson never allows this to happen, instead creating one of the most creative, original debuts of the decade.—K.H.
Brokeback Mountain (2005) Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005) did the unthinkable—it turned a gay love story into a popular film. Yes, it’s still in the tragic mode that most gay films that crossover into the mainstream market use, but there’s a difference this time, since the tragedy isn’t founded on a character’s gayness, but on his fear of living the life he wants.—K.H.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) Perhaps it’s because I’ve always disliked the Gene Wilder version of this story that I am so drawn to Tim Burton’s take on the same material—that and the fact that I find Burton to be one of the most consistently interesting filmmakers of the past 20-plus years. As filmmaking, it’s certainly more creative that the Wilder film, but much of what appeals to me is rethinking the Willy Wonka (Johnny Depp) character as a burnt-out rock star, which gives the film an extra edge.—K.H.
Closer (2004) Mike Nichols’ Closer is one of the most elegant, yet brutally frank films about sexual relations ever made. That might be enough right there, but it’s also such a complex—and sometimes enigmatic—examination of the lives (real or pretend) of its main characters—flawlessly played by Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Clive Owen and Natalie Portman—that it becomes a genuine work of art in the bargain.—K.H.
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002) Confessions of a Dangerous Mind marked George Clooney’s directorial debut—and while he’s done other good work, he’s yet to make a film this clever or daring again. It’s from a Charlie Kaufman screenplay that was adapted from Chuck Barris’ loony book about his life as a secret agent. This allows room for endless creativity in blending fantasy with reality—to a degree that you’re not always sure which is which. It’s the comedic art film antidote to Ron Howard’s too safe A Beautiful Mind (2001).—K.H.
The Darjeeling Limited (2007) Yes, Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004) and Fantastic Mr. Fox both made it in our top 20 list. Ken and I went back and forth on which to include, and finally we decided that The Darjeeling Limited would be the odd man out. But please, don’t perceive this as a slight against this film. While Life Aquatic might, in the end, be the more significant film, here we get Anderson at his most mature and personal, fully embracing his own style and idiosyncrasies. A perfect piece of filmmaking.—J.S.
The Departed (2006) After decades of work, it was this film that finally won Martin Scorsese his Oscar. Thankfully, it was fully deserved and not just some pity award. This crime drama, which turns almost Shakespearean, might be Scorsese’s great opus. It’s Scorsese further growing into his constantly flowering artistic abilities, never forgetting to be the entertaining, stylish filmmaker he’s always been, but underscoring it all with depth and complexity that’s all too often missing from movies.—J.S.
The Devil’s Backbone (2001) In a decade that could be called uneven, Guillermo del Toro started off with what can best be described as a peek at things to come. A somewhat simplistic ghost story at base becomes a wholly creepy, chilling piece of horror filmmaking, filtered through the same childlike view of the world that later cropped up in his brilliant Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). Viewed as a part of del Toro’s filmography, it’s an important work that shows an artist coming to grips with his vision. As a standalone movie, it’s one of the best horror film’s of the decade.—J.S.
Dirty Pretty Things (2002) If Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things did nothing else, it introduced me to the work of the remarkable Chiwetel Ejiofor—and for that matter, Sophie Okonedo. But actually, it did a lot more than that in that it is something quite unusual—a riveting crime thriller that isn’t afraid to be much more than its genre requires.—K.H.
The Dreamers (2003) Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers captures the feel of the late 1960s film nerd better than any movie ever has or is likely to do. (Is it sad that I recognized every pantomimed movie reference before the film revealed what they were? Probably, but hey I am a film nerd and I know this era very well.) It also delves into the politics and sexuality that are part and parcel of the time. Shattering and brilliant.—K.H.
Easy Virtue (2009) Stephan Elliott’s Easy Virtue is both a wild comedy and a penetrating drama that manages the considerable feat of balancing them both in at least close to equal measure. A top-flight cast—and, yes, I include Jessica Biel in that—and seemingly effortless style bring it all together. And there’s an amazingly playful sound track in the bargain.—K.H.
Femme Fatale (2002) A lot of people don’t like Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale, but for me it was—and is—a return to form for the filmmaker. It’s a trashy thriller taken to every possible extreme—and one that plays like a compendium of the filmmaker’s best work.—K.H.
The Fountain (2006) Sure, Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler (2008) got all the attention, but here’s the real deal. It’s Aronofsky as artist—and an ambitious one at that. A dense, complex journey through time and love, it’s one of the most visually striking films of the decade. An understated epic.—J.S.
From Hell (2001) If you’re going to make only one film in a decade, you’d best take a cue from the Hughes Brothers and make sure it’s damn good. Based on Alan Moore’s graphic novel, this tale of Jack the Ripper and the laudanum-addicted inspector (played by an excellent Johnny Depp) attempting to track him down is—even eight years later—the most purely stylish horror film to come around this decade.—J.S.
Grindhouse (2007) This much-maligned attempt at an old-school B-movie double feature (something that simply confused moviegoers) is not on here for Quentin Tarantino’s half of the bill, the admittedly tedious Death Proof. No, what gets this film on the list is Robert Rodriguez’s schlock-a-thon Planet Terror, a splattery, stylish zombie flick that stands as the director’s best. Add in some fake trailers (by such filmmakers as Rodriguez, Rob Zombie and Edgar Wright) about movies involving Nazi werewolves, and it’s the most fun I’ve ever had in a movie theater.—J.S.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) Yes, the first two Harry Potter movies from Chris Columbus were entertaining enough, but with Alfonso Cuarón brought in to helm this third film, we got a Harry Potter film that exploded onto the screen with wild creativity like nothing we’d seen in the series before. In fact, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban crosses that line between entertainment and art.—K.H.
A History of Violence (2005) Someday in the future, we may look back at the films of David Cronenberg and see A History of Violence as a shift into a different style. For the longest time, the master of “body horror” dealt more in the offbeat, making science-fiction films where this revulsion could be excused as fantasy. Not anymore, as Cronenberg brought all this into the real world, making it all the more unsettling. Combine this with a great role by William Hurt, and it’s just a simple reminder as to how lucky we are for having someone as unusual as Cronenberg working today.—J.S.
Hollywood Ending (2002) I was a little disappointed by Woody Allen’s Hollywood Ending when it first came out, but after hearing Allen assess it as one of the few of his films that entirely works for him, I gave it another shot. I still think the film is at its funniest before Allen’s character is stricken with psychosomatic blindness, but all in all, it’s Allen’s funniest starring film of the decade. And though it shouldn’t work, he and Téa Leoni make a good screen team.—K.H.
Hot Fuzz (2007) Shaun of the Dead (2004)—Edgar Wright’s first team-up with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost—is the more popular pick, but it has nothing on this film. A frenetically stylish, reverential send-up of low-grade action movies, the movie’s surprisingly complex plot is only outdone by its clever sense of humor.—J.S.
Idlewild (2006) Bryan Barber’s Idlewild is such an odd film that it never really stood a chance. Yet this very creative, full-blown musical/gangster drama is one of the most interesting films of the decade. If you’ve never seen it, give it a try. There’s really nothing out there like it—which is one of the main reasons it never stood a chance.—K.H.
The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (2009) A late-in-the-day addition to this list (since I’d not seen it till last week), Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Dr. Paranassus can best be described as a darkly funny allegorical fantasy. It’s also a movie that I can imagine bumping something off the top 20 of the decade someday. Time alone will tell.—K.H.
In Bruges (2008) Black comedy done right. Martin McDonagh’s debut feature is a juggling act of violence, intelligence and unmitigated offensiveness, all set—in of all places—Belgium. It all works not just because of McDonagh’s talent behind the camera, but behind the pen as well, making for one brilliantly written, cleverly plotted movie.—J.S.
Inglourious Basterds (2009) For me this wild and woolly World War II yarn—that is marvelously unconcerned with historical accuracy— is Quentin Tarantino’s best film—at least so far. It’s still more or less in the same “trash masterpiece” mode as his earlier films, but there’s a new maturity here in both his writing and his filmmaking style. That may seem a strange assessment of a film that rewrites the ending of WWII, but it’s true.—K.H.
Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2 (2003/2004) OK, so theatrically these were released as two separate films, but we’re going to cop-out and use director Quentin Tarantino’s original intentions of this being one single movie and go with that. And since one can’t really exist—or be enjoyed—without the other, it seems right. Regardless, it’s the movies where Tarantino’s love—and embracing—of B-movie schlock reared it’s head on-screen, something that later culminated with Inglourious Basterds (2009). A smorgasbord of bloody, ridiculous absurdity that marks the first time the man became a full-fledged, stylish filmmaker.—J.S.
Kinsey (2004) Bill Condon is a filmmaker whose work we don’t see often enough. Granted his Dreamgirls (2006) was a bit of a letdown, but his two biopics—Gods and Monsters (1998) and Kinsey—are pure gold. Gods and Monsters is only sort of a biopic, since the story of the last days of filmmaker James Whale is pure speculation, and that might be why it’s slightly the stronger film. Still his film on sex researcher Alfred Kinsey (Liam Neeson) is a brilliant film that ought to be better appreciated.—K.H.
The Ladykillers (2004) Yes, we picked this over the Coen Brothers Oscar winner No Country for Old Men (2007). Yes, it got a pretty lukewarm reception from both audiences and critic. Nevertheless, this remake of Alexander Mackendrick’s 1955 original is funnier (featuring some of the Coens’ cleverest dialogue) and quirkier than it ever gets credit for, and has one of the few truly original Tom Hanks performances.—J.S.
Let the Right One In (2008) It’s a pity that vampires in this now-expired decade will forever be defined by Twilight, especially while this Swedish vampire flick exists. A bizarrely touching tale of a young boy who befriends a vampire girl who lives next door, director Tomas Alfredson never skimps on the atmosphere or the blood-letting, in this complex tale of innocent—and not-so-innocent—youths.—J.S.
Lilo & Stitch (2002) OK, I am not a Disney fan, so the fact that Lilo & Stitch made this list is noteworthy. However, I think it belongs here—and I suspect that the key to why this film works for me as few Disney productions do lies in the fact that it’s almost entirely the vision of two men: Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders. Plus, it wasn’t subjected to the corporate mind-set where a film ends up with half a dozen (or more) writers until the original concept is watered down to nothingness.—K.H.
Love Actually (2003) As readers of my Screening Room column know, it’s only recently that I re-watched Richard Curtis’ über-romantic (in every sense of the word) Love Actually—and I found it to be as good or better than I remembered. The question I’m left with after this Christmas offering of his is why we have to wait several years between Curtis’ movies?—K.H.
Milk (2008) After years of futzing around with unwatchable navel-gazing indie films, Gus Van Sant got down to cases with this intense and intensely moving biopic on outgay San Francisco politician Harvey Milk. It’s fairly traditional filmmaking, which in this case is exactly what the material needs. Everything is built around Sean Penn’s towering performance as Milk, but there’s not a single performance in this film that didn’t give me new respect for the actors involved.—K.H.
Miracle at St. Anna (2008) Unwieldy, it’s Spike Lee at his most ambitious. It’s a movie about World War II and about race, but it’s so much more than that—from spirituality to death to plain old human interaction. But most importantly, it’s the kind of overreaching cinema that doesn’t get made often enough. —J.S.
Mulholland Dr. (2001) The closest thing to an accessible movie David Lynch made in this decade, Mulholland Dr. really isn’t all that accessible. It only seems that way when you put it up against his online work and Inland Empire (2006). Otherwise, this is a deeply sinister film that sometimes seems to exude evil without it ever being exactly clear why, which is part of its appeal.—K.H.
Ocean’s Eleven (2001) Yeah, it’s a lightweight film, but it may also just be one of the few nearly perfect entertainments out there. In fact, this reworking of the really pretty bad 1960 Frank Sinatra film of the same title is very likely the most enjoyable movie Steven Soderbergh has made. And if he hadn’t put the scene that paved the way for the sequel on the end of it, I’d say it actually becomes art. Well, it does become art—till that happens.—K.H.
Once Upon a Time In Mexico (2003) The final entry in Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi trilogy is the director at his most self-indulgent. A convoluted plot that revels in its own absurdity—from blind gunmen to face transplants to double crosses—shows off a playful Rodriguez coming into his own as the decade’s preeminent action director.—J.S.
The Orphanage (2007) In a decade where horror was defined by torture porn—and the Saws and Eli Roths of the world made small fortunes—Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Orphanage got it right. It’s always harder to be creepy than it is to gross an audience out, and Bayona masters this, piling on atmosphere while never skimping on the scares. Easily the creepiest movie of the decade.—J.S.
The Others (2001) Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others may not be quite as clever as it thinks it is, which is to say that you’ll likely figure out what’s really going on before the end. But in terms of impact, the ghost story is one of the decades most chilling films.—K.H.
Paprika (2007) If only all animation was this ludicrously eccentric. Satoshi Kon’s anime is a compendium of offbeat weirdness as fantasy and reality meld together into one big pile of outlandish surrealism that’s never strange for the sake of strange. A reminder that anything is possible in animated film.—J.S.
Paris, Je T’Aime (2006) The fact that this film’s ersatz sequel New York, I Love You hasn’t come to town is proof enough that film anthologies such as this don’t usually work. They’re too often uneven or inconsistent, but Paris, Je T’Aime is the exception. A happy accident where 20 disparate filmmakers with different styles—from the Coens to Alexander Cuarón to Alexander Payne—all come together to show off their love of cinema.—J.S.
Peter Pan (2003) Not so long ago I watched P.J. Hogan’s Peter Pan again—and was pleased to find it just as wonderful as I’d remembered. Absolutely everything about this film works—and yet it was a movie I’d originally dreaded sitting through. Oh well, I can be wrong. What’s funny to me is I’m much more transported to another world with Hogan’s Neverland than anything offered by the technology of Avatar.—K.H.
The Phantom of the Opera (2004) I have a friend who actually walked out of Joel Schumacher’s film of the Andrew Lloyd Webber version of The Phantom of the Opera. I am probably as mystified by that as he is mystified by why I rate it so highly. To me, it’s simply the perfect, soaring, operatic telling of the tale. Does it lose the horror in the bargain? Yes, in some ways it does, but it’s a trade I’m willing to make.—K.H.
A Prairie Home Companion (2006) I don’t believe any filmmaker has ever gone out with such a magnificent final film as Robert Altman did with this. What’s most amazing about the film to me is that while it’s a perfectly good film about the Garrison Keillor radio show of the same name, it becomes a meditation on death and dying—from a man whose health was so precarious that Paul Thomas Anderson was on hand to take over filming at any moment. Yet, it’s never a gloomy work. It’s as fast-paced and playful as anything Altman ever did. What a way to go!—K.H.
The Prestige (2006) No Dark Knight (2008) to be seen here; we’re instead going with Christopher Nolan’s blackened thriller. Its preoccupation with identity—as illustrated by a rivalry between fellow magicians—is perfectly suited to Nolan’s usual thematic concerns. Nolan manages to squeeze as much mood and style out of the material as possible. It remains one of the rare cases of a movie working in spite of its twist, not because of it.—J.S.
Punch-Drunk Love (2002) While Paul Thomas Anderson has made weightier films, that doesn’t mean his take on the romantic comedy should be dismissed. Very much an Anderson film in both content—with its concerns over human connection—and style, it doubles as a critique of lead Adam Sandler’s film persona. That it’s also given Sandler the one genuinely good screen performance of his career is nothing to scoff at.—J.S.
The Ring (2002) It’s a pity this film opened up the floodgates on any number of half-baked remakes of dreary Japanese horror films, since Gore Verbinski’s The Ring is the real deal. Based on Hideo Takata’s J-horror film Ringu (1998), Verbinski manages to improve upon the original in every conceivable fashion. It’s moody, atmospheric horror at its very best. -JS
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) This is the film that introduced me to Wes Anderson, and while I still think it’s a great movie (especially when I’m watching it), I admit it’s just not quite in the same league as his later films. I’m not sure why that is either, but I notice it tends to be held in somewhat lower esteem by most Anderson fans. Even so—and maybe it’s just because it was my introduction to Anderson’s work—it strikes me as the perfect film to start newcomers on. But I could be wrong.—K.H.
Running With Scissors (2006) It’s too bad that this film from Ryan Murphy never really found an audience. (Locally, I think the mistake was booking it into a multiplex rather than an art house.) While Running With Scissors isn’t without its problems, it’s also a film with far more than its fair share of things that work splendidly. Alternately funny and disturbing, it’s a movie that has a lot more heart and humanity than it at first seems. Subsequent viewings pay huge dividends.—K.H.
The Science of Sleep (2006) Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep is one of the filmmakers most accomplished—and difficult—works. What at first seems a charming comedic fantasy gradually reveals itself as something altogether different and considerably darker. Yet somehow, Gondry never loses the charm of the film in the process.—K.H.
Scoop (2006) Generally dismissed as lesser Woody Allen, Scoop has always struck me as one of Allen’s most assured and funniest films. But I think what perhaps makes it even more worth noting is it marks the first time Allen—as a performer—was able to come to terms with his age, thereby getting him off the path of late-in-the-day Bob Hope, which he was edging precariously down.—K.H.
A Serious Man (2009) The Coen Brothers’ most recent film is a bleak affair—at bottom it’s about the basic inability of religion to solve anything—and not everyone’s sort of movie. I’m not even sure it’s my sort of movie, but it’s a film that keeps revealing new aspects of itself to me in a way that I’ve never quite experienced before. I figure in a year or two I might really understand its mysteries.—K.H.
Shadow of the Vampire (2000) Whatever became of E. Elias Mehrige? After a stint in the indie world, he made the remarkable Shadow of the Vampire, followed it up years later with the disappointing Suspect Zero (2004) and then almost completely fell off the radar. Maybe he’s simply not commercial enough, though this brilliant, vastly entertaining and often very funny shaggy vampire story suggests otherwise. The film is an imagining that the actor Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe) in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) actually was a vampire. Despite the fact that the film goes completely over the top in its last few minutes, it’s a premise that, for most of its length, almost makes a compelling case.—K.H.
Sherlock Holmes (2009) Guy Ritchie’s take on Holmes and Watson—with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law respectively playing each brilliantly—is popcorn filmmaking done right. It’s got the usual panache you expect from a Ritchie film, all the while never forgetting to be thoroughly entertaining.—J.S.
Shortbus (2006) It’s John Cameron Mitchell’s follow up to Hedwig and the Angry Inch—and it’s almost as good. The problem is that Mitchell opted to include hardcore pornography in the film—and in so doing, made a case for such as artistically defensible—which greatly limited its audience, and in fact, theaters that would show it. A reader asked me about the film and I cautiously recommended it—explaining what was in it. To this he said, “So I shouldn’t take mom?” Most emphatically, no.—K.H.
Sin City (2005) Probably the most faithful comic-book adaptation ever made, Robert Rodriguez teamed up with Sin City creator Frank Miller to make the most fluid page-to-screen creation ever. The movie revels in it’s bad taste—misanthropy, dismemberment, cannibals, perverts, you name it—but gets away with this because, somehow, it never forgets all this macho tough-guy fantasy stuff is supposed to be fun.—J.S.
Snatch (2000) Still Guy Ritchie’s best, it took him eight years (and a marriage to Madonna) to get back to anywhere near the quality of this heist comedy. Playfully nasty and with style to spare, its tangled up plot lines are a staple of the director’s work, but this is the time he nailed it with frenetic verve. Few have made films with more pure energy.—J.S.
Speed Racer (2008) A friend recently mentioned to me how, in an interview, James Cameron mentioned that Avatar was the movie he’d always wanted to see as a kid. Apparently Cameron never watched Speed Racer, he could have saved himself the time. Whatever shriveled-up vestiges of my inner-child remain, it loves this movie. What the Wachowski Brothers have created is energetic and colorful, a near perfectly tuned visual assault and cinematic bombardment that’s as groundbreaking as it is entertaining.—J.S.
The Spirit (2008) With comic-book movies becoming more and more serious, Frank Miller’s version of Will Eisner’s The Spirit came as a relief. Occasionally goofy and always carrying around its own bizarre sense of humor (Samuel L. Jackson in a Nazi uniform, anyone?), this is the antithesis of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, a carefree oddity that’s hated less for what it is than what it’s not. To paraphrase Jackson’s villainous character The Octopus, it’s just damn weird. And that’s what makes it so enjoyable.—J.S.
Spirited Away (2001) I think I’m still a little cheesed that Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away stole a lot of the thunder (and the awards) from Lilo & Stitch in 2001, but it’s long enough ago that I’m ready to concede that this is a wonderful film—perhaps the director’s best of the decade.—K.H.
Spy Kids (2001) Who’d ever have guessed that Robert Rodriguez would hit his creative potential with a kids’ movie? With a small filmography of good—but not great films—Rodriguez discovered his voice—and his swagger—with a kiddie fantasy flick about (what else?) kids who are spies. The results are nothing short of unmitigated fun, due in no small part to the fact that Rodriguez (with his signature stylistic flair) gives kids more credit than most Hollywood products do, making for family fare that’s surprisingly intelligent and thoughtful.—J.S.
Stay (2005) Marc Forster’s Stay is probably the single most brilliantly hallucinatory film of the decade—and that proved to be a problem for a lot of viewers who were simply perplexed by the whole thing. I’d like to think this film will one day get the serious re-evaluation it deserves. The problem with that is that it really needs to be shown on the big screen to fully appreciate it.—K.H.
Stranger Than Fiction (2006) Alphabetically, Marc Forster’s next film, Stranger Than Fiction, turns out to follow Stay. That’s strangely apt since the two films have more in common than might be assumed. Regardless of that, this is one of the sweetest—but never cloying—films of the decade. Look, this is a movie that can make Will Ferrell palatable. That’s an achievement you could probably build a religion around.—K.H.
Sunshine (2007) With a career bent on never attaching himself to a single genre, Danny Boyle finally ventured into science fiction with results that can only be described as spectacular. What could’ve been a generic sci-fi thriller turns into something else entirely in Boyle’s hands. It’s not just his usual humanity on display, but his flair for the unexpected and his knack for stunning visuals that makes the film exceptional.—J.S.
Syriana (2005). We’re all screwed. This is the gist of Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana, the most accomplished political thriller of the decade. But instead of moping around in its own pessimism, the film instead acts as a call to arms in its sense of urgency. And to top it all off, it’s one of the few times a film trading in high-mindedness has managed to justify its own importance, something that’s no small feat.—J.S.
The Tailor of Panama (2001) John Boorman’s film version of John le Carre’s novel The Tailor of Panama is one of the most overlooked films of the decade. Though similar in many respects to Carol Reed’s Our Man in Havana (1960), this is very much a film of its time—wickedly cynical and bitter to the core. Its view of spying as nothing more than a means to start wars (on bogus information) has actually become more relevant with the passage of time.—K.H.
Talk to Me (2007) Kasi Lemmons’ Talk to Me—a biopic on Washington, D.C., radio-show host Petey Greene (Don Cheadle)—has one basic flaw in that its dramatic high point occurs about 30 minutes before the film is over. That’s a problem, but it’s not enough to keep this from being one of the decade’s most overlooked gems.—K.H.
Tetro (2009) For my money, this boldly operatic explosion of creativity from Francis Ford Coppola is quite possibly the filmmaker’s best work ever. It is certainly his most visually striking. I’d suggest checking it out, but the film has yet to make it to DVD, nor is there any indication when that will happen.—K.H.
Up (2009) The only Pixar film on this list, this animated adventure is either a kids’ movie for adults or an adult movie for kids. Either way, it’s sneaky in its emotional weight and maturity and even heartbreaking—and that’s just in the film’s opening. But even with this, directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson never forget that the point is to have fun. Up is a near perfect piece of family entertainment in every respect.—J.S.
A Very Long Engagement (2004) A lot of people will be surprised to find this Jean-Pierre Jeunet film on the list rather than the far more popular Amélie (2001). The fact is that I simply think this is the better film—certainly it’s the more ambitious. But it’s an ambitious film that Jeunet is completely up to. Amélie, charming as it is, pales in comparison.—K.H.
Volver (2006) Okay, so it has a bit of child abuse, a justifiable homicide, the disposal of a body in a refrigerator, revelations about not-so-justifiable homicides and a few other oddities, but Volver is probably Pedro Almodóvar’s sweetest-tempered and warmest film. Maybe it was the joy of having his old star Carmen Maura back after 18 years, or maybe it just happened. Whatever the case, it’s one of the filmmaker’s most beguiling works.—K.H.
The Weather Man (2005) Maligned and pretty much ignored, Gore Verbinski’s The Weather Man was never much of a crowd-pleaser. Of course, when your film deals with a character coming to terms with him his own mediocrity (has there ever been a film more suited to Nicolas Cage and his talent as an actor?), you’re not going to make a ton of people happy. Many see it as depressing, but the beauty in Verbinski’s film lies in its own innate hope in coming to terms—and accepting—yourself. Easily his most accomplished work, it’s a pity it’s so often overlooked.—J.S.
Whatever Works (2009) Originally written in 1977 as a project for Zero Mostel, it’s not just Woody Allen recycling material from his days making Annie Hall (1977) or Manhattan (1979). No, instead this comes across more as vintage Woody, but modernized, a grouchy curmudgeon at war with the world. Fundamentalists, the NRA, people who ride bicycles on sidewalks—no one is safe from Allen’s bitterly funny onslaught. The movie is a line in the sand against everything pointless, antiquated, rude and just plain stupid, but beyond all that is a warm, hopeful film.—J.S.
X2: X-Men United (2003) After a succession of duds like Superman Returns (2006) and Valkyrie (2008), we’ve forgotten just how good Bryan Singer can be. On its surface, its hard to make a better superhero movie than X2, since it’s already an entertaining—but not intelligence-insulting—popcorn movie. But if we choose to dig deeper, there’s a whole slew of subtext underneath, dealing with Singer’s own sexuality, making it the rarest of movies: a big-budget summer movie that also reflects the director’s own personal concerns.—J.S..
Y Tu Mamá También (2001) Alfonso Curaón is one of the key filmmakers in the past decade, and this bold, yet ultimately rather gentle, examination of sexuality, coming-of-age and coming to terms is how he entered the era. He would do a better film before the decade was out, but this remains a major achievement.—K.H.