Well, as it’s now 2010, I’m sure you’ve been eagerly anticipating another in a long line of lists dedicated to the best of the decade. You might have run across one in print or on TV sometime over the past few weeks.
But I’ll spare you from ranking this following list of cinema standouts between 2000-09. Frankly, it’s kind of arbitrary when it comes to determining which one’s worthy of sixth place vs. seventh place. Plus, to be perfectly honest, I don’t know if I could accurately rank them. Heck, I couldn’t even filter my list down to 10 (this one’s 21, folks). Why 21, you ask? Well, evidently, I can't count. (Yeah, that's right. By the time I finished this behemoth, I realized I had 21, not 20. So consider this a bonus gift from me to you. You're welcome.)
Now, keep in mind, this isn’t any definitive compilation of all of the superior films over the past 10 years. I’m sure I haven’t seen every film that would deserve consideration for the list. So, if you see one of your favorites missing from the 20 on my chart, I simply might not have seen it or else it just didn’t quite make it into this illustrious field of cinematic greatness.
With that said, here’s the 20 (in alphabetical order) I believe merited this prestigious honor. Hold your applause until the end.
Now, in fairness, the only version I’ve seen of this movie is the director’s cut DVD, which went by “Untitled,” the original name that writer-director Cameron Crowe wanted. It’s a longer version by about 36 minutes, and is pretty spectacular. Crowe always makes great use of music in his films, and centering it in the music scene of the 1970s was right in his comfort zone. After all, Crowe was writing about real bands for Rolling Stone during the period, much like the central character, teenager William Miller (Patrick Fugit). So, you know there’s some autobiographical stuff in here.
And what a cast on hand for the proceedings: Billy Crudup, Frances McDormand, Kate Hudson, Jason Lee, Zooey Deschanel and Philip Seymour Hoffman. I could go on, but you get the point.
Now if Crowe would only make movies a little more frequently ... (I mean, three in a decade?! Come on!)
Clearly, America didn’t know what to expect when Sacha Baron Cohen’s creation took to the big screen in this surprisingly successful 2006 comedy. Having originated from his “Da Ali G Show” on HBO, it certainly pushes the envelope in good taste. But his intrepid reporter from Kazakhstan is generally so good natured in his putdowns or cultural misunderstandings, it’s a little easier to not take offense. Of course, try telling that to the Kazakhs.
The film is consistently funny throughout, with Cohen disappearing into his role so fully, you forget you’re watching an actor at work. The story, such as it is, is really secondary to the interactions that Borat has with an unsuspecting public. Their reactions to him are priceless. How he was able to remain in character without cracking up (which continued all the way through the promotion campaign of the film), I’ll never know.
“Capturing the Friedmans”
With the original intent of being a short film about a children’s entertainer, director Andrew Jarecki fell into much more compelling and disturbing subject matter when his research into the family discovered convictions of child sexual abuse. A 1980s investigation and subsequent court case would center on Arnold Friedman and his son, Jesse, on child molestation charges.
What makes this story really stand out is the director’s access to the family, who are featured prominently in home videos that they themselves shot. Some of the videos were filmed during the preparation for trial and while it was in progress. It provides some exceptional insight into the emotional trauma this family was going through at the time, while maintaining a largely objective view on the guilt or innocence of the accused.
“City of God”
With the Olympics coming to Brazil in 2016, it’s safe to say this movie won’t be promoted by the country’s board of tourism, as it tells a tale of crime and poverty in a particularly violent suburb over parts of three decades. Adapted from a novel by Paulo Lins, director Fernando Meirelles’ crime drama pulsates with energy and eye-catching visuals.
It features a cast mostly made up of local Brazilians, some from the very neighborhoods where the filming takes place. It could be seen, in part, as a Brazilian version of “Goodfellas.” But the locale itself differentiates it from that Oscar-winner, making it a rare glimpse into making tough life choices when the options and opportunities are scarce.
“The Dark Knight”
Pulling off the rare feat of a sequel that surpasses the film it follows, “The Dark Knight” is able to step away from the origin story and character introductions to become what may well may be the best movie of all time based on a comic book. Featuring a top-notch cast, including a seamless recasting move (Maggie Gyllenhaal replaces Katie Holmes), the story is fast-paced, yet doesn’t skimp much on character development – a rarity for summer movies.
While Christian Bale as the Caped Crusader gets some moments to shine, the movie is at its best when Oscar-winner Heath Ledger is on screen. His portrayal of the Joker is one of the all-time great villain performances. This is a film franchise that is thrillingly alive after seemingly facing death a mere decade ago.
“Deliver Us from Evil”
With so many reports in recent years about sexual abuse of children involving priests, it would seem only a matter of time before a filmmaker would document the taboo topic. Thankfully, director Amy Berg handles the weighty subject matter with a deft touch, largely focusing the spotlight on one Catholic priest, Oliver O’Grady, who committed sexual abuse against more than 20 children between the mid-1970s and early 1990s.
The Irish priest, who was deported back to his native Ireland after serving seven years in prison, is remarkably candid about some of his past transgressions, sometimes to chilling effect. The documentary also includes some staggering videotaped depositions involving others in the hierarchy of the church who were knowledgeable about abuse allegations, yet chose to essentially sweep it under the rug.
Through Berg’s interviews with a few of the victims and their families, you’re left with the feeling that some wounds will never truly heal. And as a result of what has happened, a sense of betrayal from the institution they should be able to trust the most permeates their lives. “Deliver Us From Evil” will (and should) leave you angry and disturbed.
“House of Flying Daggers”
A true feast for the eyes, director Yimou Zhang’s film makes great use of costumes, cinematography and set design to craft a martial arts epic that also doubles as a very effective romance.
The story, which centers around a rebel faction operating in the declining days of the Tang Dynasty in 859 AD, involves a romantic triangle between a blind dancer and two police captains. Sometimes the story seems to be at the service of the visuals, but when the look of a film is as spectacular as this, you can hardly mind.
With the veritable glut of superheroes movies released over the past decade, the folks at Pixar also got into the act in 2004, creating “The Incredibles,” a fast-paced and highly entertaining animated adventure.
By this point, Pixar had already established itself as an animation powerhouse, and this film, written and directed by Brad Bird, might just be its most fun offering. Lots of humor and action is interjected throughout, serving up a winning mix for both children and adults alike.
Quentin Tarantino’s revisionist and fictional World War II-era film is a bloody good time that is right up among the director’s best. As with pretty much all of his movies, Tarantino receives little studio interference, allowing him to cast and film his script as he sees fit. Of course, having a big movie star such as Brad Pitt heading up your cast can’t hurt the bottom line.
As Lt. Aldo Raine, a gruff, take-no-prisoners leader, Pitt has some quite funny moments heading up a highly motivated band of Jewish-American soldiers. Still, he and most of the cast take a back seat to the stellar work on display by Christoph Waltz, playing a supremely confident Nazi colonel with a bit of a mean streak. The film is thrillingly alive whenever he’s on screen, building to a memorable showdown among many of the characters at a Parisian movie theater.
“The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers”
The middle chapter of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy is able to move past some of the protracted exposition of the first film, with the quest to destroy the ring fully engaged. By now, most of the characters have been established, allowing the actors and director Peter Jackson to build on the solid foundation set before them.
Picking the best of what was a wonderfully realized trilogy might seem a bit arbitrary, and the more obvious choice would be to go with “Return of the King,” as it won the Best Picture Oscar. But “The Two Towers” was a slight standout over the other films, deepening the drama, and fully revealing the fantastic CGI creation of Gollum. The character, as fully realized in motion capture and voice of Andy Serkis, felt as real as any actor on the screen, giving the story an obsessed and tragic figure to showcase.
“Maria Full of Grace”
This harrowing tale of a pregnant Colombian teenager becoming a drug mule out of pure desperation is a triumph not only for writer-director Joshua Marston, but for star Catalino Sandino Moreno, who was nominated for an Academy Award in her film debut.
Marston generally lets the power of the material speak for itself, rather than using flashy visuals or action sequences to pick up the pace. It’s a straightforward story that isn’t based on any particular true story per se, but its gritty realism certainly makes it feel like it is.
A thriller with more twists than a pretzel, “Memento” isn’t one of those movies with an ending that pulls the rug out from under you. It openly does that from the first scene, keeping viewers mentally engaged as they try to decipher the investigation that Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) conducts.
The film, written by Jonathan and Christopher Nolan, puts you in Leonard’s head – a scary place to be, as he suffers from short-term memory loss. Like him, you’re unsure of what the truth is and what people’s true motivations are. Few movies engage the mind as fully as this one does, with a narrative structure that makes pretty much everything open for interpretation.
Offering various moments of pensive examination into the worth of retribution as well as the violence associated with its pursuit, "Munich" is a brutal, yet conscientious movie. Director Steven Spielberg dramatizes the events involving the killing of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich and the violent response from Israel.
Spielberg doesn't aim for the film to choose sides in the conflict. But it does effectively question the worthiness of revenge. Is killing people responsible for terrorism, as Israel chooses to do in this film, a morally acceptable response? "Munich" works not only as a strong historical drama, but an effective and tightly wound thriller.
Winning the Grand Jury prize at the Cannes film festival in 2004, “Oldboy” is the kind of film you can’t easily forget. In what had to be a grueling experience, Choi Min-sik delivers a powerful performance as a man hellbent on revenge after 15 years of captivity for reasons unknown. His character undergoes emotional and physical exhaustion in his unwavering obsession to discover who decided to ruin his life and why.
Director Park Chan-wook shows a real eye for striking visuals with a story mixing violence, sex and humor into a concoction that shows the true toll that vengeance can take on all parties involved. Undoubtedly, the film has got aspects that are sure to be polarizing to audiences (those with sensitive stomachs need not apply). But for those willing to press on through its tough to watch sequences might just discover a film that actually has an emotional payoff. True, its conclusion is a bit drawn out, but it most certainly packs a wallop. That’s more than can be said for many of the more predictable denouements to American movies nowadays.
Fantasy and brutal realities of war come crashing together to amazing effect in “Pan’s Labyrinth,” easily one of the most visually creative movies to come along in years. However, the story doesn’t take a back seat to the special effects, as some big-budgeted Hollywood releases tend to do. The screenplay by Guillermo del Toro (who also directed) is endlessly inventive, but doesn’t pull punches. The central character is a young girl, who falls into mortal danger at times in the film, which takes place in 1944 war-torn Spain.
While the film’s great success hasn’t really done much to vault the cast into American consciousness, del Toro has benefitted greatly, having landed writing and directing duties for the highly anticipated “The Hobbit.”
“Requiem for a Dream”
With only one film under his belt at the time, it was hard to predict that director Darren Aronofsky would produce such a devastating piece of cinema as he did with “Requiem for a Dream,” the adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.’s book. Few, if any movies have done such a sensational job of depicting the vice-like grip that drug addiction can have on people.
While some movies depict drug use as hip and trendy, “Requiem” goes in quite the opposite direction, showing how the lives of seemingly decent people can be completely unraveled by their poor choices. Credit has to also go to stars Jared Leto, Ellen Burstyn, Jennifer Connelly and Marlon Wayans for their fearless performances in this memorable, yet difficult-to-watch drama.
“The Royal Tenenbaums”
After hitting comedy gold in 1999 with the great “Rushmore,” writer-director Wes Anderson had to have found himself in casting heaven when he got such a stellar collection of actors on board for his follow-up, “The Royal Tenenbaums.” A truly dysfunctional family comes back together to live under the same roof when their self-absorbed father (Gene Hackman) comes back into their lives.
There’s laughs aplenty in the well-written screenplay by Anderson and Owen Wilson (who co-stars). But there’s also some poignancy about the importance of family and desire to right wrongs of the past. Hackman as the self-absorbed patriarch of the family delivers one of his best performances of his illustrious career.
“There Will Be Blood”
Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie about an obsessed oil prospector is of a truly singular (and sensational) vision. It’s a bleak, yet undeniably fascinating character study of a man’s pursuit for fame and fortune – at any cost. With his portrayal of Daniel Plainview, Daniel Day-Lewis has crafted an indelible performance that can be paired with Charlize Theron’s work in “Monster” as the decade’s best.
“There Will Be Blood” certainly doesn’t toe the line with convention (witness the opening portion, which features no dialogue and only Jonny Greenwood’s haunting and mesmerizing musical score as accompaniment). That can make the film a bit polarizing for audiences. But the audacity and meticulous craftsmanship of Anderson makes him one to watch every time he steps behind the camera.
The latest offering from Pixar is another standout and its most poignant to date, focusing on 78-year-old Carl Fredricksen (voiced by Ed Asner), who decides to fulfill a lifelong ambition to travel to South America. Being a longtime balloon salesman, he decides to go there in an unconventional fashion, by tying thousands of balloons to his house. In the process, Carl finds an 8-year-old stowaway named Russell, a plucky, young wilderness explorer who helps him rediscover his heart.
Few live-action movies center around senior citizens, so for an animated film to do so is a real rarity. But the combination of the older Carl with the younger Russell is a winning one, and while the film becomes a little more conventional in its second half, its execution is spot-on throughout. One would assume Pixar will eventually make a bad movie, but it sure wasn’t going to happen this time out.
In its most ambitious film to date, Pixar centered a story around a hardworking, yet lonely robot, who finds love in the unlikeliest of places. “WALL-E” is a triumph of sight and sound, with the story going without dialogue for long stretches of time.
The filmmakers obviously had faith that audiences would respond to the storytelling risk, and the fact that you get invested in the fates of a pair of robots is a real testament to the work of director Andrew Stanton and the sound design team led by Oscar-winner Ben Burtt.
Serial killer movies have seemed to have taken on a genre all their own, in large part due to the success of “The Silence of the Lambs.” But no film since then has been as sensational at depicting the pursuit of one until 2007’s “Zodiac.” Headlined by a great cast featuring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr., the crime drama is based on the true story of the Zodiac killer, who terrorized nouthern California in the 1960s.
The killings and subsequent investigation by police are meticulously recreated, with David Fincher directing a expertly crafted screenplay by James Vanderbilt. It would have been easily to sensationalize the material, but Fincher has a much better idea of revealing just how painstaking and exhaustive the investigation became as time wore on. To be sure, Fincher has covered serial killer territory before (“Se7en”), but hits a new high here by letting the already compelling true story unravel with minimal embellishment.