The scene was not unlike 12 Angry Men (or, in this case, 3 Shlubby Men, 1 Exasperated Woman, And A Dude On Speaker Phone From Arkansas): Armed with lists of their favorite movies of the decade, the five core A.V. Club film writers spent days sequestered in a stuffy, un-air-conditioned room—okay, it was actually just a few hours, and we were comfortable—in an effort to forge consensus on the Top 50 films of the ’00s. The result: A ranked list that is in no way arbitrary and will serve as the canonical standard for decades to come. You’re welcome.
50. Oldboy (2003)
Oldboy comes in the middle of Park Chan-wook’s “vengeance trilogy”—three unrelated films about the obsessive, destructive pursuit of revenge—but it’s the best of the lot. Park’s insane fable follows a man (Choi Min-sik) imprisoned in a single hideous room for 15 years by an unknown enemy, and then abruptly set free on a bloody mission to track down what just happened to him and why. The results are downright operatic in their violence and outsized drama, but a dark thread of humor runs throughout, in scenes like the bravura, long-take hammer battle (see our best scenes of the decade list) and the moment where Min-sik sets out to determine whether a decade of martial-arts theory alone in an apartment can translate into real-world adeptness against a bunch of bullying punks. Spoiler: It can. If Min-sik wasn’t capable of staggering acts of brutality, this film would be a lot shorter, and a lot less outrageous.
49. Gerry (2002)
After his dabbling in Hollywood (or at least Indiewood) projects hit bottom with Finding Forrester, director Gus Van Sant went through a kind of artistic detox that resulted in a series of dream-like minimalist films that cut against the grain and revitalized his career. The first of a “death trilogy” that concluded with Elephant and Last Days, Van Sant’s Gerry proceeds from a simple, seven-word premise: “Two guys get lost in the desert.” Though Van Sant is making a statement about modern man’s disconnection from nature, Gerry works mainly as a hypnotic and beautifully abstracted exercise in style, with carefully composed landscapes and soundscapes that draw receptive viewers into a unique headspace. Each sequence has its own topographical marvels, but the film is also surprisingly hilarious at times, suggesting a cross between Samuel Beckett and Abbott & Costello.
48. Crimson Gold (2003)
Iranian cinema didn’t have as elevated a presence by the end of the ‘00s as it did in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, but that’s through no fault of Jafar Panahi, who made three of the decade’s best films. Crimson Gold is arguably Panahi’s fullest work, finding a world of meaning in Abbas Kiarostami’s screenplay about a bulky pizza deliveryman (played by Hossain Emadeddin) trying to earn enough money to buy his girlfriend a wedding ring. The key scene of the movie is an early one, where Hussein tries to make a delivery to a party but is stopped by the authorities, who are arresting anyone going in or coming out. Emadeddin sits against a wall and grumbles to a teenage soldier that he’s taking the punishment without getting any of the action. Crimson Gold follows a narrative loop, starting at the end of the story and jumping back to show the events leading up to it, and Panahi underlines the circularity by cutting on motion and sound, bridging scenes in ways that make that make the movie feel like one continuous action. But it’s actually episodic, lurching forward through moments where Emadeddin is subtly (and not-so-subtly) humiliated. Hussein makes a shushing noise when he walks because of his layers of slick jackets and coats, but he doesn't walk or move much at all—mostly he sits stock still on his motorcycle or stands motionless at his customers’ doors, quietly hoping someone will ask him to come in and rest.
47. Moulin Rouge! (2001)
Baz Luhrmann’s candy-colored musical is all about ridiculously joyous fusions: squeezing popular songs into energetic mash-ups and illustrating the whole thing with vivid colors and a CGI wonderland, he creates a world that rarely looks remotely real, and is never really meant to. He recreates the traditional romantic melodrama and the traditional musical by recognizing and heightening the artifice in both, going for big, swooning moments and equally big, flashy setpieces. His leads, Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor, play the conceit to the hilt as a poor writer and a famed courtesan who fall in love—the kind of love that seems like it should be written in flashing red capital letters—and villain Richard Roxburgh and his ambitious foil Jim Broadbent similarly give it their all in roles calculated more for comic effect than drama. And yet the love story, so unashamedly broad in its execution, actually winds up being fairly touching, perhaps because it’s so shameless. Still, those who aren’t touched still get to enjoy the sheer gleeful spectacle of the thing, particularly as the crazed Roxburgh chases the squealing Broadbent around the room in a campy, gloriously ridiculous take on Madonna’s “Like A Virgin.”
46. Adaptation (2002)
The major events of Susan Orlean’s digressive, intimate nonfiction book The Orchid Thief make their way into its offbeat adaptation Adaptation: Meryl Streep plays Orlean, chasing the story of a crackpot Florida flower collector played by Chris Cooper, and the movie even includes some of the author’s ruminations about passion and biology. But director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman add an extra layer to the piece, by casting Nicolas Cage as Kaufman himself: a pudgy, balding neurotic who can only articulate that he wants to make a movie “about flowers,” though inwardly he’s bursting with ideas about natural selection, mutation, chemical attraction and how it all applies to lumpen, insecure Los Angeles screenwriters. The term “adaptation” also applies to the act of a weak entity developing into a stronger one, which Adaptation explores via the introduction of Kaufman’s twin brother Donald, an affable guy who woos pretty women and effortlessly knocks out screenplays about sympathetic serial killers. The first two-thirds of Adaptation plays much better than the somewhat spirit-deflating final third (which becomes a dopey Hollywood version of the story), but philosophically the movie’s all of a piece. Jonze and Kaufman play around with the paralyzing multiplicity of their choices in life and art, and discover—ironically—that the rigidity of conventional storytelling can be liberating.
45. Audition (2001)
Given Takeshi Miike’s notoriety as the prolific source of extreme J-horror, newcomers to his work could be forgiven for spending the first hour of Audition thinking they’d walked into the wrong theater. Nothing shocking here, just a subtle, gently comic, even Ozu-like story of a widower who uses his position as a TV producer to “audition” actresses to be his girlfriend. Then he finds a prim, mysterious young woman to play the part, and the movie shifts gears dramatically. Beyond the mayhem and horrors that follow lies a female revenge tale that’s simultaneously psychotic and righteous, as she executes a “hell hath no fury” scenario worthy of Medea. Ideally, Audition should be watched with no knowledge of Miike or the twists to come, but even for the jaded horror junkie, it’s as bracing and original as the genre gets.
44. 4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days (2007)
The sudden emergence of Romania on the international scene was one of the great revelations of the ‘00s, and no film better typified the urgency and political bite of the movement than Cristian Mungiu’s agonizing drama about two women seeking an illegal abortion during the Ceausescu regime. Anamaria Marinca is especially fine as a friend who escorts her pregnant roommate through a harrowing series of obstacles, from a suspicious hotel clerk to a creepy black-market abortionist who extracts payment beyond money. And this is before the procedure itself, which has its own set of dangers. 4 Months plays out like a thriller in real time, and tours unforgettably through an era where fear, paranoia, and repression prevailed over the citizenry.
43. Brokeback Mountain (2005)
It can be prohibitively difficult to separate the considerable aesthetic merits of Brokeback Mountain from the culture-wide wave of controversy, snickering jokes, and embarrassed tittering it unleashed upon its 2005 release. Honestly, it was as if Americans had never seen a serious film about gay cowboys before. Four years on, it’s much easier to extract Ang Lee’s tragic romance from the hype. In a powerfully internal lead performance, Heath Ledger plays a tormented ranch hand who stumbles into a passionate affair with rodeo cowboy Jake Gyllenhaal while tending sheep one summer. Over the next two decades, their forbidden bond looms over their doomed attempts to conform to society’s narrow conception of masculinity. Brokeback Mountain attains a devastating cumulative power as time, circumstances, and Ledger’s profound ambivalence and self-loathing conspire to keep these two lovers apart. Though the seemingly incongruous juxtaposition of cowboy iconography and homosexuality made Brokeback Mountain a pop-culture phenomenon, it endures as a powerful, universal story of love won and lost.
42. L’Enfant (2005)
Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s social-realist thrillers are so stylistically distinctive—with their handheld close-ups, long follow-shots, and nerve-jangling plots—that “Dardennes-like” became an acceptable term of art among cineastes in the ’00s. L’Enfant may be their most Dardennes-like movie: a harrowing slice-of-life that tracks the moment-to-moment existence of petty crook Jérémie Renier, his girlfriend Déborah François, and their newborn baby. Flush with the spoils of a recent robbery, Renier treats his makeshift family to a spree, but when the money runs out, Renier brokers a business deal that is, at minimum, unconscionable. By the end of the movie, he’s alone, zipping through Belgian streets on a scooter, trying to elude the police and the people he’s ripped off. The title of L’Enfant could refer to Renier’s baby, Renier himself, or even the gang of schoolboy robbers he recruits. But beyond the film’s metaphorical leanings, what lingers are the details grounded in everyday life, like the emphasis on what everything costs, and exactly how much money Renier has (or doesn't have) to pay for it all.
41. The Dark Knight (2008)
Christopher Nolan redefined how deep a comic-book movie could cut with this sequel to his own Batman Begins in which good and evil battle for the soul of a city. Except that good takes the form of a vigilante with often-questionable methods (Christian Bale’s Batman), and evil, in the form of the late Heath Ledger’s stuff-of-nightmares Joker, has a nagging way of not being wrong beneath his madness. Nolan’s action scenes match the stunningly grand scale of the themes he raises by depicting a political landscape that’s become corrupt and self-serving.
40. City Of God (2002)
Fans of The Wire (you might have heard of that TV series via the writers at this site once or twice…) would do well to seek out the Brazilian/French co-production City Of God, if they haven’t already—it doesn’t entirely have the same top-to-bottom exploration of the drug trade, but in its focus on kids going in different directions in a Rio de Janeiro slum, it takes a similarly detail-oriented, uncompromisingly deep-focused angle, and it’s even rawer and more visceral. As two slum kids try to find their way in the world via their natural talents—one as a photographer, one as an uncompromisingly murderous drug dealer—directors Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund use their personal story to explore larger issues of the causes and effects of violence and the drug trade, from incidental collateral damage to the lives that go wrong early in the shadow of a society of corruption and ferocity.
39. The Prestige (2006)
Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s adaptation of Christopher Priest’s novel The Prestige is a movie about magic that features a piece of misdirection so sly that many viewers miss it. Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman play rival magicians in Victorian London. Bale’s the solemn perfectionist, Jackman the ambitious, curious type always looking for shortcuts. One man’s secret becomes so obvious so early that some may feel disappointed (or smug) about predicting the twist, but while the Nolans hold the promise of superficial revelations in front of viewers’ eyes, they’re hiding something deeper and darker. Like Memento and The Dark Knight (and Insomnia and Following, for that matter), The Prestige is partly about the fragmentation of self, whether it be a division so severe that a magician’s assistant can’t be sure which knot he’s tied from performance to performance, or a division so subtle that a man can’t tell who he really is. (Words to live by: “They’re all your hats.”) But The Prestige is also about the role technology plays in our alienation, as science makes possible feats that were charming as magic tricks, but horrific as reality. And so here we are, whether we like it or not: the transported man.
38. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… And Spring (2003)
The festival circuit in the early ‘00s was awash in an unofficial “cinema of cruelty” movement, and one of its most active participants was Korean filmmaker Kim Ki-duk, whose films The Isle and Bad Guy punished audiences with horrific images they could never un-see. Kim left shock behind with Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… And Spring, a gentle Buddhist parable set at a temple floating in the middle of a mountain lake. The story takes place over 30 years, as a boy grows to manhood under the guidance of a wise old monk. The film's lessons are plain, and deal with the close relationship between what can be shed in this life and what binds people to the world in spite of their best efforts to purify. In the final section of the film, Kim himself plays the student, now an adult, still grappling with how to spend a life in service to other people without forming lasting emotional attachments. This is a different conception of cruelty from Kim: a movie that contends, persuasively, that the very act of living is impossible.
37. A History Of Violence (2005)
David Cronenberg used to make films in which repressed instincts manifested themselves in physical form. They were scary, but just as scary in its own way is this look at the persistence of bloodlust in a gentle man with no discernible past (a revelatory Viggo Mortensen) and the heartland whose wholesome, neighborly values he appears to embody.
36. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Guillermo del Toro tends to get a little distracted by his fantasy visuals—in the Hellboy movies, for instance, he seems to be concentrating more on making the creatures look amazing than on telling a story that’ll appeal to people not entirely caught up in his fairy-tale-with-teeth world. Which is why Pan’s Labyrinth is such a wonder: It finds him again working at the top of his considerable game with the visuals, but also telling a story with some depth. The ultimate moral about the escapist qualities of fantasy is more chilling than comforting, but again, del Toro’s fairy stories have teeth, so it’s no surprise that this allegorical tale of a child in 1944 fascist Spain goes in dark, ugly directions, and leaves the application of light up to individual viewers. It’s uncommonly ambitious and beautiful, but tragic as well. And was there anything scarier in cinema this decade than the hideous Pale Man sitting at that food-laden table, just silently waiting for his victim to forget the rules of the game?
35. Waking Life (2001)
With Waking Life, writer-director Richard Linklater returned to the freeform philosophical meanderings, laconic rhythms, and college-town sociology of his cult debut Slacker, only this time the proceedings are a whole lot more animated. Literally. Linklater filmed the film’s spiritual seekers and amateur philosophers in digital video, then had Bob Sabiston and his team of animators trace and color the images through low-fi rotoscoping. Like Slacker, Waking Life is informed equally by its creator’s gentle humanism and insatiable curiosity about the world around him. It’s a trippy, mind-expanding journey through the world of ideas, populated by a motley assortment of free-thinkers, eccentrics, actors (including Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, reprising their iconic roles from Before Sunrise), and crackpots. Linklater and Sabiston succeed in creating a hypnotic cinematic dream state that transformed a defiantly non-cinematic parade of monologues and abstract theorizing into a deliriously visual feast for the senses.
34. American Psycho (2000)
For a while, it appeared that Bret Easton Ellis’ controversial bestseller might never make it onto the big screen. Everyone from David Cronenberg to Oliver Stone to Stuart Gordon was bandied about as a potential director before the job fell to I Shot Andy Warhol director Mary Harron. Working from a script she co-wrote with Genevieve Turner, Harron gives the film a Kubrickian sense of sleek, deadpan detachment, a glossy sheen perfectly in keeping with the vacuous, image-obsessed spiritual emptiness of its characters. In a star-making performance, Christian Bale transforms Patrick Bateman, Ellis’ yuppie mass murderer, into an unspeakably cruel, hilariously funny caricature of Tom Cruise’s creepy, smiling, gung-ho All-Americanism. He’s a phantom impersonating a human being, a preppie monster who’s the very image of upscale sophistication, but dead at his core.
33. Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
Leave it to P.T. Anderson to unravel the enigma that is Adam Sandler. After years of playing rage-filled man-children in the lowbrow likes of Billy Madison and The Waterboy, Sandler Punch-Drunk Love is both an unexpected revelation and completely in keeping with his screen persona. Anderson amps up the actor’s silly naïveté and hair-trigger temper until they’re as sharp and vivid as his bright blue suit, casting Sandler as a novelty plunger salesman who overcomes tremendous obstacles to pursue a gentle, patient woman (Emily Watson) who’s uniquely capable of caring for him. The discordant rhythms of the film, due in large part to Jon Brion’s radical score, give Punch-Drunk Love a dark, nerve-wracking tension that defies romantic-comedy convention, yet there’s an overwhelming sweetness to Sandler and Watson’s relationship that brings it into the light.
32. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)
Realizing a long-in-the-works project left unfinished by the late Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg may not have made the film Kubrick would have made, but he stayed true to his friend’s obsession with how humans react when pushed to extremes. The film doesn’t focus on a single character challenged by isolation, war, violence, or jealousy, but turns instead to a creation whose very existence raises uneasy questions about what makes us human: a robotic boy who marks the edges of humanity by almost, but never quite, perfectly imitating his creators. An outcast from a family (and species) where he never fit in, Haley Joel Osment’s Danny travels the border country between humans and machines, finally finding the place where that border has no meaning, only to discover loneliness, isolation, delusion, and death.
31. In The Mood For Love (2000)
The semi-improvisational style of director Wong Kar-wai has often been likened to jazz, as he builds film universes out of colorful riffs and repetition, and intuitive, on-the-fly cinematography that captures small moments out of time. With In The Mood For Love, his breathtaking tale of unrequited love in ‘60s Hong Kong, Wong’s style perfectly captures the push and pull between the passion of would-be lovers and the strictures that ultimately keep their relationship from flowering. Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, two of the world’s most glamorous stars, have unforgettable romantic chemistry as lonelyhearts whose spouses are cheating on them, but they refuse to do likewise. The whole movie unfolds like a bittersweet memory, with a rich nocturnal atmosphere and a gorgeous soundtrack that expresses in sound and image the feelings they cannot act upon.
30. WALL-E (2008)
The decade saw no shortage of documentaries explaining how we were ruining the planet, but none made the case as strongly as the first, wordless moments of WALL-E. A wasted Earth lies nearly dead, and the images carry a stark beauty and a blood-stirring sense of loss. Pixar’s film opens with absolute devastation, then proceeds to depict a path to transcending it, as a robot, spurred by love, inadvertently begins to piece together what it means to be a responsible human.
29. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
Watching Ang Lee’s wu xia epic the first time through, it’d almost be easy to miss the fact that it has a plot—the visuals are so stunning, and the fight scenes so cinematic that they overwhelm the senses. The story, about a nobleman’s daughter, a thief, two aging martial artists, and a stolen legendary sword, is a secondary concern. It’s also fairly standard for a traditional Chinese martial-arts saga. But a terrific cast—headed by Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh, but also depending heavily on the charm and physical prowess of Zhang Ziyi—makes this a personal story worthy of its breathtaking cinematography and choreography.
28. Morvern Callar (2002)
Could Lynne Ramsey’s existential wallow be the coolest film of the decade? Based on the soundtrack, presented in the form of a mixtape a writer leaves his girlfriend upon committing suicide, the answer is unquestionably “yes,” with cuts ranging from contemporary acts like Boards Of Canada, Broadcast, and Aphex Twin to classic cuts from The Velvet Underground, Lee Hazelwood, and The Mamas And The Papas. But Morvern Callar isn’t just attitude, in spite of a heroine (played by a not-quite-detached Samantha Morton) whose grief isn’t so easy to detect behind her dark sunglasses and propensity for mischief. Ramsey, a former photographer who excelled at short films before making her feature debut with Ratcatcher, accumulates small, vivid, offhand moments to access the behavior of a woman who’s dealing with loss in her own peculiar and sometimes unfathomable way. The mixtape gives her misadventures a through-line and leads to an ending of unexpected transcendence.
27. What Time Is It There? (2001)
A master of melan-comedy, Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang spent the decade doing minor variations on his patented fusion of deadpan comedy and urban alienation (and an occasional dollop of musical fantasy), but never quite with the exquisite balance of What Time Is It There? Volleying between the rhyming destinies of a son (Tsai alter-ego Lee Kang-sheng) mourning his father’s death and a young woman (Chen Shiang-Chyi) adrift on the streets of Paris, Tsai captures their loneliness and uncertainty without losing his sense of humor or mystery. Shooting in single, static, exquisitely composed takes, he pays subtle homage to silent greats like Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton while revealing his usual strong affinity for characters who are unmoored from the world around them.
26. The Incredibles (2004)
Brad Bird’s superhero story doesn’t entirely have the tender nuance of Up, the childish glee of Ratatouille, or the stunning sweep of Wall-E, but it does have a crackerjack story (written by Bird) in which every character trait and every fleeting moment are all part of a well-honed machine that serves a precise purpose. It’s also exciting as hell, with expansive setpieces tuned into tightly controlled thrill-rides where only immense cleverness as well as superhero muscle can save the day from the latest threat. What makes it exceptional, though—and noticeably a Pixar project—is that on top of being a terrific superhero story, it’s also a terrific family story, in which five people with different problems learn how to overcome their flaws, see each other as people instead of obstacles, and use their natural talents and their love for each other to meaningful purpose. With a lot of explosions.
25. Together (2000)
Swedish writer-director Lukas Moodysson has become disappointingly didactic over the past few years, but he used to be capable of warm, humanistic films like the shambling comedy Together, in which varying countercultural types convene in a commune in 1975 and spend more time debating the nature of their social experiment than they do actually living their principles. Moodysson divides his attention between the bickering grown-ups and the impact their life of rigid idealism has on their kids, who dream of toy guns and hot sausages. Nobody is too good or too bad in Together; they’re all just muddling through, the same as anyone. At a time when we seem increasingly divided by our beliefs, it’s useful to be reminded that no matter how much people posture in public, in private we all have something in common: we’re all compromised.
24. Yi Yi (2000)
In Yi Yi (A One And Two…), late Taiwanese director Edward Yang’s gentle but unblinking look at life in turn-of-the-millennium Taipei, one era gives way to another like the changing of seasons. A multi-generational saga concerned more with repetition and unseen connections than dramatic happenings—though the film has those as well—Yang’s film puts together a universally recognizable picture of family life out of the particulars of a single place. It’s an abundant, humane film, but also a bittersweet one filled with the knowledge that the coming of the new invariably means the fading of the old.
23. The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
The Coen brothers’ predilection for ripping up genres and eras to reveal what’s really behind them reached arguably its purest form with The Man Who Wasn’t There, a film-noir homage as much about the times that shaped noir as it is about dark shadows and stained men. As stoic barber Billy Bob Thornton deals with an unfaithful wife and a murder rap, the Coens inject sci-fi paranoia, commentary on post-war American expansion, and contemplation of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle into their usual mix of dry comedy and pristine art direction. The Man Who Wasn’t There effectively analyzes the underpinnings of noir and why the genre emerged when it did, but it’s also unmistakably a Coen brothers movie, full of broadly drawn supporting characters and a chilly protagonist frustrated by what he can’t control. (Thornton is a fastidious man, yet he’s surrounded by clumps and strands of human hair, which never stops growing.) The result is a film that some found too aloof and bizarre—one for the hardcore Coen-heads, in other words.
22. United 93 (2006)
Immediately after 9/11, some cultural commentators predicted an end to big Hollywood movies about exploding buildings and mass murder, while others were certain that it was only a matter of time before one of the worst days in American history became fodder for one of those Hollywood fireball-fests. Paul Greengrass’ vérité approach to the subject turned out to be the right way to go, seeming not so much sensationalistic or jingoistic as merely considerate and thorough. Greengrass recreates the events of the day one piece after another, prompting viewers to recall their own reactions to 9/11. What does this mean? What do we do now? How could this happen? United 93 touches on those big issues, but only inasmuch as they relate to the smaller details, from the military response to the terrorists' anxiousness. Greengrass doesn't oversell the ironies (like the title plane being delayed just long enough for the passengers to learn what was happening elsewhere, but not long enough to prevent takeoff) and he doesn't oversell the heroism of the passengers, who look alternately horrified and feral. United 93 is a restrained but gut-wrenching piece of you-are-there filmmaking, and an explication of how the five years after 9/11 quickly evolved from shock to violence to exhaustion
21. Zodiac (2007)
David Fincher is notorious for his hyper-demanding, Kubrickian pursuit of perfection, where even the simplest shot can demand a hundred takes. With that in mind, rarely have filmmaker and subject been as compatible as in Fincher’s Zodiac, a mesmerizing procedural that follows the still-unsolved case of a Bay Area serial killer all the way down an obsessive-compulsive rabbit hole. What begins as a gorgeous evocation of a region under the grips of a cryptic serial killer—the opening, from the fireworks on July 4, 1969 to the haunting “Hurdy Gurdy Man” sequence that accompanies the first murder, is as good as it gets—becomes all the more fascinating once the case goes cold and only a miserable few can’t bring themselves to let it go. It’s an obsessive movie about the nature of obsession, made by a man who can’t distance himself from the puzzle any more easily than his bleary-eyed characters can.
20.The Squid and The Whale (2005)
Noah Baumbach reportedly wanted friend and writing partner Wes Anderson to direct The Squid And The Whale, but Anderson wisely turned the project down, arguing that only Baumbach was qualified to direct such a personal project. Baumbach has played down the autobiographical aspects of his film about the messy divorce of elitist professor and has-been writer (Jeff Daniels) and his more successful writer wife (Laura Linney) in Reagan-era New York, but it certainly feels ripped from the most agonizing moments of its creator’s past. Baumbach is especially unsparing and uncompromising in his depiction of his surrogate (Jesse Eisenberg), a pretentious young intellectual-in-training who has internalized the worst aspects of his father’s sneering disdain for everyone he considers inferior. (Which is to say, the sum of humanity). Prominent among the film’s many virtues is its brevity: At 81 minutes, it’s a little less than 70 minutes shorter than Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and arguably the better film.
19. The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
Really, the entire Lord Of The Rings trilogy should be on here as a collective entry; seen back-to-back, the entire thing plays like a single immense, episodic film. But we grudgingly decided that a) that would be cheating, and b) we couldn’t cough up three slots on this list for it. So by reluctant group consensus, we pointed to The Two Towers as the slight standout of the lot, if only for the David Lean-esque majestic sweep of the battle of Helm’s Deep. The whole Rings series is a tremendous cinematic accomplishment, but virtually no part of it offers the visceral thrill of that seemingly doomed last stand against an unimaginable force—or at least one that seemed unimaginable before Peter Jackson put it up on the screen in all its gritty glory.
18. Mulholland Dr. (2001)
Mulholland Dr. began as David Lynch’s attempt to return to network television, the medium that left him embittered after his experiences with Twin Peaks. He never got a chance to get frustrated a second time; ABC declined the pilot he shot. Where most directors would simply have walked away, Lynch reworked the material from Hollywood black comedy to a reality-warping tragedy that uses film-noir conventions and Lynch’s effortless ability to find the surreal in the banal everyday to show a soul getting warped and corrupted under the blaring spotlights and the warm California sun.
17. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Wes Anderson followed up his beloved breakthrough film Rushmore with The Royal Tenenbaums, a dazzlingly ambitious comedy-drama that filtered The Magnificent Ambersons and J.D. Salinger’s stories about the Glass family through his unmistakable sensibility. In a majestic lead performance, the great Gene Hackman plays the patriarch of an eccentric New York clan that had the misfortune of peaking early. The Royal Tenenbaums is a masterpiece of production design—every detail is perfectly in place and realized down to a molecular level—but the perfectionist visuals always serve the story and the melancholy mood instead of the other way around. Towering above it all is Hackman’s lovable rogue, a charismatic schemer in the autumn of his life.
16. Almost Famous (2000)
Between the underwhelming box office and mixed reviews of Vanilla Sky and Elizabethtown, Cameron Crowe had a rough decade, but it began on a transcendent note with Almost Famous, a funny, sad, deeply humane autobiographical coming-of-age story inspired by the writer-director’s experiences traveling with the Allman Brothers as a teen journalist for Rolling Stone. Just as François Truffaut eschewed the kneejerk cynicism that pervades most films about filmmaking in favor of swooning affection in Day For Night, Crowe offers a clear-eyed but overwhelmingly romantic take on the well-wrought mythology of the touring rock band. Crowe and his adorable surrogate (Patrick Fugit) are true believers who are able to see the glory and wonder in even a second-rate rock band like the film’s fictional Stillwater. Almost Famous populates its secondary cast with ringers who make the most of their minimal screen time, from Frances McDormand’s ferociously protective mother to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lester Bangs. Crowe even coaxes a great performance from Jimmy Fallon as Stillwater’s manager. Almost Famous is the film Crowe was born to make, the ultimate expression of his passionate devotion to rock ’n’ roll, and his deep affection for his characters.
15. Y Tu Mamá También (2001)
Alfonso Cuaron’s road trip through contemporary Mexico sends a woman and two men—boys, really—in search of an unspoiled bit of paradise. But like all road movies, it’s more about journeys than destinations. It’s also a movie about the moments before things change—before paradise gets spoiled, adulthood starts to close down the possibilities of youth, or life gives way to death—which Cuaron and his cast capture with a playfulness that never works against the grave themes just below the film’s beautiful surface.
14. Talk To Her (2002)
By the end of the ’90s, Pedro Almodóvar had already completed his transition from a creator of meaningful farces to a director of great dramatic weight. But his work in the ’00s showcased the full extent of his gifts in a more somber mode. The best of a decade of strong efforts, Talk To Her brings a plot filled with twists straight out of the pulpiest melodrama—its elements include matadors, comas, and what might be a miracle—but from those elements, it constructs a haunting examination of love, friendship, fate, unthinkable acts, fragile connections, and the way tragedy can unite as well as divide.
13. Grizzly Man (2005)
Obsessives and quixotic dreamers have long fascinated Werner Herzog, so he was perfectly suited to bring the tragic tale of Timothy Treadwell to the screen. A spacy former heroin addict and actor whose career peaked when he almost got the Cheers role that launched Woody Harrelson to stardom, Treadwell decided to devote his life to living among grizzly bears in Alaska. Treadwell set out to protect the bears he loved not wisely, but too well, but he was ultimately the one in desperate need of protection; it’s remarkable that Treadwell somehow managed to spend 13 summers with his beloved grizzlies before meeting a tragic, seemingly inevitable fate. Drawing on more than a hundred hours of footage shot by Treadwell and his girlfriend, Grizzly Man builds into a devastating cautionary tale about the dangers of idealizing and anthropomorphizing wild animals.
12. Before Sunset (2004)
The perfect “will they or won’t they” ending to Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise seemed like exactly the sort of ambiguous question that most emphatically doesn’t require an answer. It takes roots in the viewer’s imagination: Depending on who you are, romantic or cynic, you either believe that Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy reunited in Vienna exactly one year later, or that they would only have that one night together, and never see each other again. And yet from their very first scene together in Before Sunset, everything feels right about the sequel—better, even—because the conversation that Hawke and Delpy continue so naturally 10 years later is now seasoned by the experiences they’ve had in the interim. Turns out that one night meant a great deal to both of them, but they aren't necessarily in a position to pick up right where they left off. What follows is every bit as enchanting as the first film, but considerably more complicated and adult, too—and with its own tantalizingly open-ended denouement.
11. Time Out (2001)
The infamous true story that inspired Laurent Cantet’s Time Out concerned the terrible deceptions of a white-collar Frenchman who was leading an impossible double life—claiming to be a doctor working out of Geneva, Switzerland while in fact he’d never graduated from medical school, hadn’t had a job in two decades, and was living off a dwindling (and bilked) savings account. When his scheme reached its inevitable end point, he slaughtered his entire family and tried to make it look like a house fire. The small miracle of Time Out is that it de-sensationalizes this real-life tragedy and brings it back down to the everyday. By taking the murders out of the story, Cantet intensifies his focus on a man (Aurélien Recoing) who derives his entire sense of dignity and self-worth from the workplace, and gets walled in by denial. His is still an extreme case—his desperate scramble to keep his lies afloat recalls William H. Macy in Fargo—but anyone who’s lost a job can identify.
10. Children Of Men (2006)
The scenario of Children Of Men—a near-future in which humanity has lost its ability to bear children—is extreme. The details, however, are not. Alfonso Cuaron’s adaptation of a P.D. James novel takes the turn of the millennium’s most alarming political and social trends and follows them along a downward arc. Religious radicals battle fascists as the opposition either retreats to marijuana-filled isolation, or echoes the extremism of their opposition. It’s a desperate, dying place, but the appearance of a thin sliver of hope drives the film’s actions, and brings out the best and worst of everyone along the way. Cuaron’s gift for bravura filmmaking leads to some justly hailed setpieces, but it’s the unsettling plausibility of his world that makes the film work, as well as its insistence—sometimes hard to pick up under all the bullets and bloodshed—that the worst of times don’t have to bring out the worst of people. And that if we’re going to last as a species, they simply can’t.
9. The New World (2005)
Terrence Malick has long been captivated by how man strives to tame, shape, and live in the natural world, which makes The New World practically the filmmaker’s thesis statement. Here, Malick offers a deep submersion into “the unspoiled America,” set at a time when the settlers of Jamestown and the land’s native inhabitants advanced incompatible conceptions of civilization. The New World moves through three distinct phases, beginning with John Smith's infatuation with the lifestyle of the Powhatan Confederacy, then moving to the colonists' growing conflict with the natives, and ending with Pocahontas marrying John Rolfe and sailing to the ordered gardens of England. Throughout, Malick treats the humans and their environment with equal interest, showing them all as part of an unstable order. And throughout, Malick integrates every visual and audio element of the film into a meditation on one difficult question: “Shall we not take what we are given?”
8. Capturing The Friedmans (2003)
Moviefone co-founder Andrew Jarecki set out to make a documentary about popular New York children’s party entertainers like sought-after clown David Friedman, but he stumbled upon a bigger, darker, and richer story that formed the basis of his mesmerizing 2003 documentary Capturing The Friedmans. Friedman’s brother Jesse and father Arnold had both been convicted of child molestation. But is Jesse guilty, or merely a victim of the hysteria over child-molestation rings that swept the country in the ’80s and filled anxious parents’ heads with gothic images of Satanic sex cults and trenchcoat-wearing predators lurking around every corner? Though he creates a sympathetic portrait of an upper-middle-class Jewish family in a state of crisis, and the collateral damage that invariably accompanies child-molestation accusations, Jarecki leaves the question of Jesse’s guilt or innocence tantalizingly open. The use of home movies shot by the Friedmans as Arnold and then Jess awaited trial gives the film an almost unbearable intimacy. What began as a film about an unusually successful professional jester morphs into an American tragedy.
7. Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003)
Detractors have long accused Quentin Tarantino of being all style, no substance, a master craftsman with a pop-culture encyclopedia instead of a soul. 2003’s Kill Bill Vol. 1, Tarantino’s first film since 1997’s refreshingly mature Jackie Brown, would seem to validate that conception, but when you have style this audacious, inventive, and just plain fun, substance seems downright irrelevant. Tarantino’s giddy, overstuffed tribute to the movies that rattled his soul as a kid casts Uma Thurman as a professional assassin who goes bucking for revenge after her creepily paternal boss has her shot and left for dead on her wedding day. Much badass motherfuckery ensues as Thurman goes after her former partners in crime, leaving a trail of destruction in her wake. Tarantino’s kung-fu adventure soars as pure cinema, a sustained adrenaline rush that skips giddily from one unforgettable setpiece to another while quietly laying the groundwork for its quieter, more substantive, and dialogue-heavy second volume.
6. Spirited Away (2001)
All of Hayao Miyazaki’s animated films are finely crafted artifacts, steeped in old-school craft and a sense of joyous wonder. But Spirited Away may well be his magnum opus, first among comparable masterpieces. The fable of a lost, fearful little girl finding her courage after she and her parents are trapped in the spirit world, it has the usual Miyazaki hallmarks, including a fascination with flight, a deep respect for people of sincere good heart, and scary villains who aren’t really villains when seen up close. But even for a Miyazaki film, it’s uncommonly beautiful, and uncommonly moving. It’s the rarest of things: an animated movie safe for kids but equally suitable for adults, with no pandering to either group.
5. Memento (2000)
Here’s how to tell that a movie is innovative and watertight: Seen nearly a decade after release, Memento still feels experimental and daring, and it still holds up as a viewing experience. Director Christopher Nolan, working from a story by his brother Jonathan (later to be his writing partner on The Prestige and The Dark Knight), tells the story backward, starting with a killing that makes no sense out of context, then moving back through time to establish why that initial/final murder happened, and what it means in a tragic larger context. Along the way, he reveals a lot about protagonist Guy Pearce, a man with a baffling memory condition that opens him up to monstrous errors in judgment—and yet the exposition is so deftly handled that it never feels forced, in the usual Hollywood “people telling each other what they already know” way. In spite of its audacious structure, Memento manages to reveal its backstory more organically and smoothly than most linear films do. On top of that, the small cast is fantastic, the mystery is genuinely compelling, and Memento gave us one of the most outrageously funniest film moments of the decade, summed up with the lines “Okay, so what am I doing? Oh, I’m chasing this guy? [One gunshot later…] No, he’s chasing me.”
4. No Country For Old Men (2007)
When Joel and Ethan Coen accepted the Best Director Oscar for No Country For Old Men, Joel thanked “all of you out there for letting us continue to play in our corner of the sandbox,” which was an apt way to describe a career that can progress from the goofy Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers to an award-winning Cormac McCarthy adaptation. With No Country, the ever-inscrutable Coens reached beyond themselves and connected with a wider audience, turning McCarthy’s sparse, allegorical thriller into a finely tuned anxiety-delivery device. They were ably aided by Javier Bardem, playing a grinning jack-in-the-box who springs out every time the Coens turn the crank just enough, and by Josh Brolin, playing a muttering hunter who seems to be having a running conversation in his head. While those two chase each other (and a suitcase full of money) across the southwest, lawman Tommy Lee Jones stands off to the side, as the old man this newer, scarier country has left behind. Rarely do the Coens seem overly interested in any reality but their own, but with No Country For Old Men, they tapped into the waking nightmare of our age of terror, and did so in a way that made impending doom feel viscerally exciting.
3. There Will Be Blood (2007)
For a filmmaker with such a bold, unmistakable vision, P.T. Anderson has written and directed a remarkably eclectic array of films, covering everything from the hard-boiled world of professional gamblers (Hard Eight) to the porn industry of the ‘70s and early ‘80s (Boogie Nights) to the interconnectedness of humanity and the universality of suffering (Magnolia) to the romantic angst of a tortured man-child (Punch-Drunk Love). True to form, Anderson’s bruisingly intense 2007 Upton Sinclair adaptation There Will Be Blood looks and feels nothing like any of his previous films. It’s a brawling, two-fisted indictment of conscienceless capitalism built around Daniel Day-Lewis’ volcanic performance as a ruthless oilman who gains the world and loses what little is left of his soul. Anderson has made a film at once epic and intimate, a character study of a man whose lust for money and power knows no bounds. As long as we remain addicted to oil, Anderson’s gut-punch of a film will retain extraordinary contemporary resonance.
2. 25th Hour (2002)
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, filmmakers were rushing to digitally blot out any evidence that the Twin Towers ever existed on the New York skyline. Not Spike Lee. New York is his town, and he alone was committed to documenting it truthfully and poignantly, as an event that touched everyone’s lives in that specific time and place and should not be papered over. That sense of profound loss dovetails beautifully with David Benioff’s story of a convicted New York drug dealer (Edward Norton) spending his final day of freedom before serving a seven-year sentence. Lee connects his regret over the life he’s led—compounded by the realization that the world will keep turning without him—with the vibrancy and resilience of the wounded city he at one point professes to hate, but loves with bone-deep transparency.
1. Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004)
A film is many things, among them a defiance of mortality and a hedge against the fading of memory. All films—from the best to the worst—say something about the way we thought and acted and felt at a particular time and in a particular place. But they’re also artful lies, constructed realities that bend the world into a shape guided by the obsessions of those who make them. (Or the commercial interests of the marketplace, or a momentary whim.)
In this, they’re much like memories, which act more subjectively and self-servingly than any film. Painful rejections get blurred. Estranged friends fall victim to careless erasures. We can’t remake the past, but we constantly try to make it a place in which we’re more comfortable living.
The Michel Gondry-directed, Charlie Kaufman-scripted (from a story by Kaufman, Gondry, and Pierre Bismuth) Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind takes this process to an absurd, moving extreme by positing a world in which technology facilitates our ability to smooth out our past, eliding over the events that hurt us, and removing the people who did the hurting. It’s a freedom that comes, as the leads played by Kate Winslet and a never-better Jim Carrey discover, at a considerable cost.
Though Kaufman is hardly a purely cerebral writer, his philosophical inquiries find an added emotional weight under Gondry’s direction. Portraying the fading and flaring of love in gargantuan bookstores and on railway lines, Gondry captures a moment that’s quintessentially of the 21st century, and yet timeless. In 2000, the calendar rolled over to a new millennium. With it came a symbolic break with the past, but our old passions and conflicts reasserted themselves seemingly at the stroke of midnight. So it is with Eternal Sunshine’s lovers, whose circular path brings them back together for an ending that’s ambiguous but guardedly hopeful about the possibility of a future not necessarily doomed to reprise the hurt of the past, though it also may well revisit the same mistakes. It’s the rare film that shows us who we are now and who we’re likely, for better or worse, forever to be.