75. Vera Drake - 2004
This drama about a housekeeper who helps out young women "in trouble" by inducing miscarriages is a typically engrossing character driven drama from Mike Leigh, who takes on issues of class and state mandated morality in post-war Britain. Imelda Staunton delivers a heartbreaking performance as the kind and motherly Vera, whose world collapses when one of her good deeds goes awry.
74. Milk - 2008
This was Gus Van Sant's return to the mainstream after spending almost the entirety of the decade in self-imposed art-film exile. (That's not a criticism; I was a big fan of all of his '00s work, and one of those films appears very high on this list, and another nearly made it.) The moving biography of gay rights pioneer Harvey Milk is, on the surface, a formula biopic, but Van Sant reaches deep enough into the bag of tricks developed in his smaller, more experimental work this decade to make it something more. An amazing performance by Sean Penn in the lead certainly doesn't hurt his cause.
73. The Departed - 2006
Scorcese finally picked up his long overdue Oscars with, of all things, a remake of a Hong Kong police procedural. His version turns the tightly wound and economical original into an epic Boston crime saga. Jack Nicholson makes an over-the-top scene-chewing turn as an organized crime boss pulling strings within the police department, in a performance that might have dominated and sunk a film with less operatic leanings and a hand not as sure as Scorcese's at the helm.
72. Wall-E - 2008
Pixar changed the face of children's movies in the '00s, not because they did so much to advance the technology of computer animation (though they did), but because they showed that pop culture references were not the way to make kids films palatable to adults. Rather, it was about a good story, well told. So while Shrek was busy making fart jokes, Pixar was busy making great cinema. This story of a junkyard robot, one of the last sentient beings on earth after humanity destroys the planet, took a big risk in making a children's film that was largely devoid of dialogue, and it pays off with a poignant, funny, and perhaps undeservedly optimistic look at possible redemption for mankind's failings.
71. 25th Hour - 2002
With just a day left on the outside before a long prison sentence, a convicted drug dealer played by Ed Norton is forced to reevaluate his life and say goodbye to his friends. There's nothing flashy or special about this Spike Lee joint, just a beautifully crafted story of regret with beautiful performances throughout.
70. In Bruges 2008
This film was met with mixed reviews when it was released — in early 2008 — to the late winter graveyard where throwaway movies are often sent to die. Count me on the glowing side of that mix. Martin McDonagh, who has a reputation as the Tarantino of the British stage with his hard-nosed and violent dramas, takes his usual intellectually profane style and moves it to the big screen with a surprisingly assured directorial hand. His story of two hitmen stuck in what is either the most picturesque or dull town in all of Europe (depending on which you ask) is original, engaging, and a shocking reminder of just how sensitive an actor Colin Farrell can be.
69. Gomorra - 2008
With a focus as deeply varied as The Wire and the breathtaking pace and atmosphere of City of God, this Italian crime drama takes on the difficult task of detailing the country's intricate crime world, and the centuries-old Camorra organizations that have made Neapolitan suburbs like Scampia into practically lawless towns where the only rule is that of the crime families. Based on a book by Roberto Saviano that earned the author a price on his head from a number of those Camorra families, the film takes five tangentially related stories and cross-cuts them into an enthralling look at one of the world's most entrenched and ruthless criminal networks.
68. La pianiste (The Piano Teacher) - 2001
Michael Haneke occupies more positions on this list than any other director save one (who is tied with him at three), and really only made one film the entire decade which is skippable. The rest are must-sees, even if Haneke's cold and distancing style doesn't exactly welcome viewers. Based on a Nobel Prize-winning novel by Elfriede Jelinek, this film's themes of sexual obsession and repression, devastating jealousy, sado-masochism, and violence make it difficult to watch once, let alone multiple times; yet it's a film that refuses to leave you once you've watched it.
67. El espinazo del diablo (The Devil's Backbone) - 2001
When not making franchise comic book movies for Hollywood, Guillermo del Toro made two Spanish-language films this decade that dealt with the Spanish civil war and Franco's fascism via darkly imaginitive horror-fantasies. This one, the lesser known, and more specifically a horror film of the two, focuses on a haunted orphanage in a secluded village as the war is drawing to a close.
66. Eastern Promises - 2007
A dark London thriller from Cronenberg about the Russian mafia, the flesh trade, and the competing powers of loyalty and morality.
65. In the Loop - 2009
Laugh for laugh, quite possibly the funniest movie of the decade. A feature-length, trans-Atlantic reimagining of the BBC sitcom 'The Thick of It' satirizes the ridiculousness of government bureaucracy on both the British and American side via a slip of the tongue from a British official that ends up escalating into an international incident. Whip smart and relentlessly fast-paced, with jokes that come with such blinding and profane rapidity that it requires repeated viewings just to get all the jokes you laughed through on previous viewings.
64. Before Sunset - 2004
Richard Linklater has developed into a remarkably versatile director, capable of both charming studio comedies and thoughtful, wordy indies. This is the rare sequel that isn't part of a franchise, or just cashing in on an established commodity, but rather an unexpected, but totally welcome addition to a movie that was already complete on its own. The film rejoins the same two characters from his previous film, Before Sunrise, as they randomly run into each other in Paris again, nine years after their previous romance. The film is small and sweet, filled with ideas and a quietly absorbing romance.
63. Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi (Spirited Away) - 2001
Perhaps the pinnacle of the career of Japanese animator Miyazaki, there is so much symbology, mythology, and subtext in this story of a young girl who finds herself transported into a fantasy world that it's really impossible to take in on the first viewing. Most films made for adults don't contain a fraction of the complexity of this film, yet Miyazaki packs all this into a story that is ostensibly for children, demonstrating once again that he is a storyteller on par with Grimm, Aesop, or Andersen.
62. Ying xiong (Hero) - 2002
I felt about this film the way it seems most people felt about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which honestly left me a little cold. Jet Li plays a warrior who tells the stories, illustrated by extensive flashbacks, of how he dispatched a number of assassins who were going after a powerful leader of one of the kingdoms of China before the country was unified. But who even needs a story with a film as visually arresting as what Zhang Yimou has accomplished here, a colorful, gorgeous, and balletic work that transcends the simple label of martial arts film.
61. Batoru rowaiaru (Battle Royale) - 2000
Despite an ending which I still find to be a little bit of a cop-out, this violent dystopian work — one of the last from prolific Japanese director Kinji Fukasaku — is a horrific look at one possible future intersection of society in collapse and a public obsessed with reality television. A group of high school miscreants are rounded up and turned loose on an island with no hope of escape; their only chance of getting out alive is to kill all of their peers and be the last one standing before time runs out, otherwise they'll all be killed.
60. Persepolis = 2007
Marjane Satrapi's graphic novel about her upbringing in Iran comes to life in an animated film that wisely doesn't try to reinvent the wheel when adapting a story that was already visually striking on the page. The movie looks like the book in motion, telling a fascinating coming-of-age story alongside the rise of the Islamic state.
59. Lake of Fire - 2006
Nearly two decades in the making, Hollywood outcast Tony Kaye's abortion documentary, filmed in stark black and white, is one of the most beautifully shot films of 2006, documentary or otherwise. That all that beauty surrounds a punishing examination of both sides of one of the ugliest public debates running is just one of its surprises. Surprising also is the remarkably even-handed tone, which takes in arguments on both extremes to try to meet somewhere in the middle. Unlike the film essays of Michael Moore, Kaye isn't looking to change any minds. There's plenty of material in the lengthy film to reinforce true believers on either side of the debate. It simply stands as a document of a nation at an impasse, and a document both shocking and elegantly beautiful.
58. Dogville - 2003
The first movie in a planned trilogy symbolically criticizing the United States, provacateur Lars Von Trier shoots this entire story on a blackened soundstage with imaginary buildings marked by lines on the floor, doorways and portions of structures the only sets. It could have come across as an empty exercise in style from a director always looking for innovative (and attention-drawing) methods to tell a story. But Von Trier uses the allegory of a woman on the run from the mob who hides out in a small town to illustrate the opportunism he views as inherent in human (and perhaps American?) nature, as the town ends up victimizing the woman for taking advantage of their initial kindness.
57. The Prestige - 2006
Refusing to be typecast as comic book/superhero movie director, Christopher Nolan made this in between his two entries in the Batman franchise. Some directors might have just used the opportunity to divert their attention with a tossed-off stop-gap film, but Nolan, using much of his cast and crew from Batman, actually improves upon his work in Batman Begins with this dark mystery of two competing magicians.
56. Ratatouille - 2007
If there is one complaint with even the best Pixar films, it's that no matter how good they are, at some point, they are forced to fulfill their destinies as kids films with cartoonish action third acts, which sometimes don't match the mood set by the early portions of the movie. Ratatouille, about a culinary genius of a rat, isn't devoid of that cartoonish action, but never has the jarring gear-switch, managing to maintain the most consistent mood and storytelling voice of any Pixar film under the sure hand of the studio's strongest director, Brad Bird.
55. George Washington - 2000
David Gordon Green, at the time of filming this first feature, was barely 25 years old. Yet he expertly channels influences from Faulkner to Terrence Malick in this story of a group of poor southern kids dealing with the aftermath of a tragic accident. The film manages to meld visuals and written dialogue that borders on dreamlike with a stark social realism.
54. Kill Bill, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 - 2003
No director working today has done more to bring the look and feel of the cultish genre cinema of the 60s and 70s to the mainstream than Quentin Tarantino, who manages to authentically recreate the feel of kung fu cinema, spaghetti westerns, and violent female vengeance sagas (the latter of which he would revisit later in Death Proof) in a four-hour epic that would be split in two for marketing purposes. The surprising grace of the first part in particular proved that Tarantino wasn't just a savant with composition and wordsmithing; he could make complicated and well-choreographed action sequences with just as much skill.
53. Der Untergang (Downfall) - 2004
A detailed and painstaking reconstruction of the final hours of Hitler's Germany, which pays particular attention to the delirious detachment from reality that gripped the leader as the Reich crumbled around him. Bruno Ganz delivers the definitive screen portrayal of Hitler, portraying both his madness and magnetism, never making him sympathetic, yet making him human enough that he never becomes a two-dimensional caricature of evil.
52. Inglourious Basterds - 2009
While on the subject of Hitler and Tarantino, there's the director's elaborate alternate-reality WWII revenge fantasy centering on dual plots to go after the German high command, one by an elite gang of Nazi-hunting Jewish-American soldiers, the other by a Jewish theater owner in Paris. Tarantino, as his his habit, overloads his film with homage, yet it is never weighed down or slowed, even with its long running time. The director delivers some of the best writing of his career, and Christoph Waltz, as a Nazi Jew-hunter, creates one of the most memorable villains of the decade.
51. Brokeback Mountain - 2005
From Annie Proulx's story of a love affair between two cowboys isolated for long periods of time from their families and civilzation, much was made of Ang Lee's sensitive depiction of a gay love affair in a mainstream movie. That was good for a lot of attention and press, but even setting aside the groundbreaking particulars, the film is just one of the great cinema romances, anchored by an immersive performance from Heath Ledger, who was beginning to demonstrate just how powerful an actor he could be.
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