The Best Films of the Decade

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Yes my friends, I took a hiatus from blogging for a while. Between end of the semester grading and other professional commitment, as well as my family’s raucous Chrismakkuh celebrations, there simply was not any time. These are my excuses, anyway, for producing a “best of the decade” list weeks after you ceased having the desire to read such arbitrary lists. My bad, ya’ll.

Still there? Okay then, before you read, you should know a few things:

1. I spent much of the 2000s with my DVD/VHS player, dutifully watching non-contemporary films as part of my Film Studies degree. Consequently, I did not see nearly as many new releases as I would have liked.

2. I am not a big fan of blockbuster/franchise films, so I refuse to put any of The Lord of the Rings films on a “best of” list.

3. I favor films with a melancholy bent because I enjoy a good cry.

Now here, in no particular order, are my favorite films from the last 10 years:

Brokeback Mountain (2005, Ang Lee)

To me this is a near perfect film. Flawless cinematography (I am thinking of long shots of white sheep running up the side of a green slope), intelligent mise en scene (the slow death of Anne Hathaway’s sexuality is marked by her ever-blonder coif and increasingly talon-like nails) and a spare script. And then there’s the cast. Everyone in this film was wonderful, but the stand out was, of course, Heath Ledger, who plays Ennis as a man whose desires are so tamped down that he literally swallows his own words before uttering them. When Ennis embraces Jack’s denim shirt in the film’s final scene, it’s a moment that rips your heart apart. Timely, beautiful, perfect. Fuck Crash (2005, Paul Haggis). Yeah, I’m still bitter.

Amelie (2001, Jean-Pierre Jeunet)

Overly precious at times? Sure. But it’s irresistable in its preciousness. One of my favorite sequences occurs early in the film, when the narrator explains the little things in life that Amelie enjoys: “Plunging her hand deep into a sack of grain, cracking creme brulee with a teaspoon and skimming stones on the Canal St. Martin.” Here we are treated to a dizzying, high angle shot of the canal which sweeps over Amelie (Audrey Tautou) as she squats on a bridge to skip stones. Little moments like that take my breath away.

Memento (2000, Christopher Nolan)

Trapped in the head of Leonard (Guy Pearce), who lost his short-term memory after the traumatic murder of his wife, we experience life as he does — en medias res. We, like Leonard, find ourselves in the middle of situations — at one point Leonard finds himself running and doesn’t know if he’s being chased or the one doing the chasing — that only make sense when we move backwards and retrace our steps. Luckily, Leonard has a “system”–tattoos, notes, reminders placed around his abode. Yes, it’s a gimmicky concept for a film, but what always grabbed me about Memento is how it provides such a useful allegory for the mourning process. Leonard’s unceasing drive for revenge is a sublimation of his desire to work through the trauma of his wife’s death. At one point Leonard explains “I don’t even know how long she’s been gone…I lie here not knowing how long I’ve been alone. So how can I heal? How am I supposed to heal if I can’t feel time?” See, now I’m all shivery.

Once (2006, John Carney)

I’ll be totally honest: this movie could have been total crap and it would still be on this list as long as it retained its glorious, haunting soundtrack. But thankfully, Once isn’t crap. On the one hand it’s standard musical fare:  a heart-broken guy (Glen Hansard) and a lonely girl (Marketa Irglova) have a meet cute (he’s singing on the streets, she needs her vacuum cleaner fixed) and discover that they make beautiful music together. Really, really beautiful music. What is wonderful about Once though, is how seamlessly musical numbers are woven into the fabric of the diegesis. Every time the guy and the girl (they are never given proper names) open their mouths or tickle the ivories, it makes perfect narrative sense. And when they sing “Falling Slowly” in the middle of a piano store, their voices tentatively coming together for the first time, it’s absolutely magical. I’m talking full goosebumps. I should also add that, next to this year’s Up in the Air, Once contains one of the most realistic and refreshing conclusions to a love affair that I’ve seen in years.

Adaptation (2002, Spike Jonze)

Adaptation is a film about, well, adaptation: cinematic, biological, and social. Charlie Kauffman (Nicholas Cage) is asked to adapt Susan Orlean’s novel, The Orchid Thief, into a splashy screenplay and it is his struggles to do so that create the fascinating film we watch. A skewering of Hollywood,  a meditation on passion (and its absence), and, weirdly, an action adventure story, Adaptation is Kauffman’s most inventive script to date. And as a result of his performance in this film Nic Cage has an eternal free pass to make shit, which he continues to do with impunity.

Half Nelson (2006, Ryan Fleck)

In his best screen performance to date, Ryan Gosling plays Dan Dunne, an idealistic Brooklyn teacher trying to teach History to his primarily African American and Hispanic middle school students. Dan cares about teaching and about his students. Dan believes he can make a difference. Sound like a cliché yet? Oh right, there’s one more thing: Dan’s got a wicked crack addiction. When a favorite student, Drey (Shareeka Epps), catches him smoking crack in a school bathroom, the two form an unlikely alliance. Drey wants Dan to stop doing drugs and Dan wants Drey to stay out of the drug trade. Both ultimately let each other down. The film is equally effective as a parable about the frustrations and despair of the political Left and as a portrait of America’s failed  school systems.

Royal Tenenbaums (2001, Wes Anderson)

There are so many things to love about this movie: the deadpan narration by Alec Baldwin, the quirky cast, the soundtrack. But best of all is the mise en scene. Every shot in the film is crammed with details — Henry Sherman’s fastidious bow-ties (Danny Glover), Margot Tenenbaum’s (Gwyneth Paltrow) bookshelves crammed with slim plays,  and the endless rows of Richie’s (Luke Wilson) framed drawings, dutifully hung by his adoring mother (Angelica Houston). Yet despite it’s loopy surface, the film is filled with moments of deep human connection. One of my favorite scenes in the film is an exchange between Chas Tenenbaum (Ben Stiller) and his future step-father, Henry. Over the course of the film we learn that Chas reacts to his wife’s untimely death, not by mourning, but by keeping his two young sons on a short leash — expecting the next disaster to strike at any moment. Rather than break down, he takes control. On the day of his mother’s marriage to Henry, a union Chas has opposed through much of the film, Chas is confused to discover that Henry has an adult son named Walter (Al Thompson). Henry has to remind Chas that he has been married before and that his wife died. He is a widower. As Henry, Walter and Richie adjust their ties in the mirror, Chas approaches the group of men and begins to adjust his own tie as well. He then announces, as if the news were completely new, “You know, I’m a widower myself.” Henry pauses, turns towards Chas, and places his hand on his shoulder  “I know you are, Chas.” It’s a simple exchange, a throwaway moment, but it grabs me every time.

Old Boy (2003, Chan-wook Park)

If someone kidnapped you and kept you imprisoned in a bland apartment for 15 years with only a television for company and the same dumplings to eat day after day, you’d be pretty pissed off, right? Old Boy follows Oh Dae-Su (Choi Min-sik), businessman-turned-martial arts expert, as he seeks revenge for his years of imprisonment, and boy is he mad! The film is riddled with graphic violence but my favorite scene by far is the infamous “hammer scene” in which a wounded Dae-Su fights a horde of men with nothing but a hammer. Here the fighting is lugubrious and painful, men groan and creep and fall. And the best part is that Park films it in one long take like a slow, bloody waltz.

Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003, Quentin Tarantino)

I have always been critical of Tarantino’s reluctance to engage in the necessary task of editing his films. For me, Inglorious Basterds (2009) was long and flabby. Kill Bill: Vol. 1, on the other hand, felt just right to me (perhaps because Tarantino had to cleave the film into 2 volumes?). I suppose I’m a sucker for films in which women are given meaty, kick ass roles. How can you not love a film in which Uma Thurman informs the survivors of a massacre created by her own hands, “Those of you lucky enough to have your lives, take them with you. However, leave the limbs you’ve lost. They belong to me now.” Kick. Ass.

Grizzly Man (2005, Werner Herzog)

Using the 100 hours of footage that Timothy Treadwell, aka, the “Grizzly Man,” left behind after his brutal death, Herzog attempts to make sense of the man’s seemingly insane desire to live among wild bears. Was Treadwell crazy? Probably. But this is not the only message of the film. Treadwell was also a man filled with passion and love. The film could have been exploitative, but it’s not. It’s simply sad.

Up in the Air (2009, Jason Reitman)

Critics have been stumbling over each other to praise this movie, but for once the praise is deserved. As so many have already noted, Up in the Air is a timely portrait of today’s dire economic climate. As I sat in the darkened theater, listening to real Americans explain how losing their jobs was going to impact their lives and their families, I couldn’t help but think of all the people I know right now who have lost their jobs, have had their hours cut or who simply cannot find work. But then,oddly enough, the film also soars as a romantic comedy. The rapport between Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) and Alex (Vera Farmiga), two commitment-phobes addicted to air travel and impersonal hotel rooms, is honest and funny. And can we talk about George Clooney for a minute? Every look, every gesture, every half-smile was perfect. Take the scene at Ryan’s sister’s wedding reception. In a few dialogue-free shots we see Ryan’s walls come crashing down. We can actually see him falling in love (0r what he believes to be love) with Alex. And then there’s Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), who was truly wonderful as a smart, ambitious young woman who realizes, as most of us do around the age of 23, that the “grand plan” we had for ourselves in college doesn’t really translate in the real world. Finally, the film’s ending (I promise, no spoilers here) was the perfect balance between realism and idealism, despair and hope. It’s the kind of film that makes you appreciate your own very heavy backpack.

And the rest:

Lost in Translation (2003, Sofia Coppola)

Thank you Ms. Coppola, for not letting us hear what Bob (Bill Murray) says to Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson).

American Splendor (2003, Shari Springer Berman)

Paul Giamatti is a god.

District 9 (2009, Neil Blomkamp)

A science fiction social problem film turned explode-y action adventure film. I was literally on the edge of my seat throughout the entire film. Then I bawled like a baby. I’m not sure that’s ever happened before.

City of God (2002, Fernando Meirelles)

This film is noteworthy for its  stunning cinematography and kinetic editing alone, but it’s translation of the classic gangster formula to the slums of Rio de Janeiro is what makes this one of the stand out films of the decade.

There Will Be Blood (2007, Paul Thomas Anderson)

Dirty, greasy and bloody. If movies had an odor, There Will Be Blood would smell like sweaty men and rust. I drink your milkshake!

Children of Men (2006, Alfonso Cuaron)

OK, I’ll admit it: My husband and I watched this one with English sub-titles  because we found the British accents too difficult to understand. And we still loved it. So there.

Talk to Her (2002, Pedro Almodóvar)

You have to love a film containing a beautifully shot, black and white silent film, “The Shrinking Lover,” depicting a tiny man and an enormous vagina. Enough said.

Brick (2005, Rian Johnson)

Sure, you all fell in love with Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 500 Days of Summer (2009, Marc Webb).  But I fell in love with him here, spouting hard-boiled lines like “Throw one at me if you want, hash head. I’ve got all five senses and I slept last night, that puts me six up on the lot of you.”

Shaun of the Dead (2004, Edgar White)

Genre mixing at its finest.

Knocked Up (2007, Judd Apatow)

Debbie (Leslie Mann): I’m not gonna go to the end of the fucking line, who the fuck are you? I have just as much of a right to be here as any of these little skanky girls. What, am I not skanky enough for you, you want me to hike up my fucking skirt? What the fuck is your problem? I’m not going anywhere, you’re just some roided out freak with a fucking clipboard. And your stupid little fucking rope! You know what, you may have power now but you are not god. You’re a doorman, okay. You’re a doorman, doorman, doorman, doorman, doorman, so… Fuck You! You fucking fag with your fucking little faggy gloves.
Doorman (Craig Robinson): I know… you’re right. I’m so sorry, I fuckin’ hate this job. I don’t want to be the one to pass judgment, decide who gets in. Shit makes me sick to my stomach. I get the runs from the stress. It’s not cause you’re not hot, I would love to tap that ass. I would tear that ass up. I can’t let you in cause you’re old as fuck. For this club, you know, not for the earth.
Debbie: What?
Doorman: You old, she pregnant. Can’t have a bunch of old pregnant bitches running around. That’s crazy. I’m only allowed to let in five percent black people. He said that, that means if there’s 25 people here I get to let in one and a quarter black people. So I gotta hope there’s a black midget in the crowd.

Note: thank you to the poster on who transcribed this wonderful exchange from Knocked Up so I didn’t have to.

I would love to hear your thoughts on your favorite moments from these films or about any glaring omissions.

26 thoughts on “The Best Films of the Decade

    Annie Petersen said:
    December 30, 2009 at 3:37 pm

    Apart from *Up in the Air,* which I enjoyed but didn’t love, we’re basically taste twins. I particularly love that you emphasize the perfect moment in *Amelie* (paired with the most perfect moment on the soundtrack) and the equally perfect moment in *Once.*

    And Herzog! I’m teaching documentary filmmaking this coming semester, and he’s going to DOMINATE the syllabus. I’m hoping you’ve also seen Encounters at the End of the World….

    Amanda's brother said:
    December 30, 2009 at 5:17 pm

    Decent list, a bit too artsy fartsy for me, but not bad. I’d add, off the top of my head: The Pledge, No Country for Old Men, The Departed and Blackhawk Down. I loved Grizzly Man, maybe one of the best documentaries ever. Did you see The King of Kong? Another great one.

    princesscowboy responded:
    December 30, 2009 at 5:35 pm

    @ Annie I’m surprised to hear you were so lukewarm on UP IN THE AIR. I loved it. I’ve not seen ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD–but I’m guessing I should?

    @ Amanda’s Brother I do love it when you play the disgruntled Everyman. I toyed with putting THE DEPARTED on my list, but ultimately it’s a movie composed of many good scenes that don’t add up to one great movie. I also thought NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN was overrated. THE KING OF KONG was awesome but best of the decade? Nah.

    Anna said:
    December 31, 2009 at 10:05 am


    OK, you knew that was coming…..great list! I’m happy to finally read one of these and have seen all but 2 of the films on it.

    princesscowboy responded:
    December 31, 2009 at 3:06 pm

    Yes Anna, you are right. Big oversight on my part which I shall correct posthaste.

    Nick said:
    December 31, 2009 at 4:53 pm

    This gives me a lot of films to check out in the near future, having only seen a few on your list.

    Have you seen THE WEATHERMAN? It has some flaws, but it’s a pretty decent Nic Cage movie. I liked it for many of the same reasons you cited in your summation of

    Nick said:
    December 31, 2009 at 4:54 pm

    UP IN THE AIR is what I meant to say :p

    Kelli Marshall said:
    January 1, 2010 at 3:21 pm

    According to several of the above, if we compared movie reviews on Flixster/Facebook, we’d probably be “Good Friends” or perhaps “Soul Mates.” =)

    Sorry (!), but like Annie, I found UP IN THE AIR okay but not one of my favorites. When I think of that movie, I keep going back to this quote from’s Stephanie Zacharek:

    “By putting these [jobless] faces in front of us — faces of people who have, most likely, suffered through some pretty rough times in real life — [Reitman] isn’t making a grand statement about the precarious world we live in; he’s turning the misfortunes of others into a gimmick, a convenient hook on which to hang his movie. That makes him less honorable than his smooth-talking, high-flying antihero. At least Ryan Bingham knows he’s selling us a line of bull.”

    I think that’s my main problem with the movie; but you’re right, the performances in UP IN THE AIR are indeed fantastic.

    LOVE, LOVE both KILL BILLs, but can I trade you KNOCKED UP for THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN? =) Also, I’d love to see GRIZZLY MAN, but by now, I think you know my stance on animal movies–yikes! Other films I’d add if I had a longer list:

    — THE INCREDIBLES (and perhaps UP)
    — SOMETHING’S GOTTA GIVE (yeah I know, I know)

    princesscowboy responded:
    January 2, 2010 at 2:14 pm

    @Kelli I am on my way to read that Salon review right now. But I must disagree that the use of real people in the film was a gimmick. Given that the film is dealing with events that are happening right now, it was refreshing to see the faces of people who are currently experiencing those traumas. Sure, Reitman could have just interviewed these people and then had actors recite their words. But after losing their livelihoods it’s nice that these people had a chance to speak–in a mainstream Hollywood movie no less! I heard a story about this on NPR and apparently the folks who participated in the film said the experience was really cathartic–they liked that America got to hear them speak.

    I think Zacharek is being pretty silly in her reading of these moments–and to call it a “hook on which to hang the movie” is ludicrous since there are only about 3 scenes featuring these people.

    Also, I forgot about THE INCREDIBLES–that was a great movie!

      Kelli Marshall said:
      January 3, 2010 at 5:00 pm

      Yeah, I completely understand what you’re saying.

      While Zacharek’s review does stand out to me, I am really still up in the air (hehee) on my opinion of the film. Parts of it were indeed great (e.g., the unexpected twist at the end), and as I mentioned earlier, the acting was superb (I especially enjoyed Kendrick’s performance). But I’ll admit that there were a few times when its tone and content reminded me of films made shortly after 9/11. Too much, too soon? i.e., is this crapped-out economy too fresh on our minds?

    Denny said:
    January 4, 2010 at 10:11 am

    I understand that you don’t like blockbusters because they can be annoying, loud, and dumb, but the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy is in no way the same thing as TRANSFORMERS or G.I. JOE. To consciously ignore those films is to miss out on good film-making and really fun viewing. That being said, your list is good, though I’d personally scratch KNOCKED UP for a film like 25th HOUR, Spike Lee’s excellent post-9/11 movie starring the kick-ass Edward Norton and Philip Seymour Hoffman, and ADAPTATION for ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, a better Charlie Kaufman ( Kauffman?) scripted movie which still rouses emotional responses from me even now. Also, for me, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN was not over-rated. That would be THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, which I liked a lot at the time but now seems overly precious like a 1960s dollhouse and emotionally aloof in that special Wes Anderson way that his work has struck me in the wake of everything he’s done since THE LIFE AQUATIC. (RUSHMORE is still my fave, though that’s a ’90s film.) We must agree to disagree on that one as well. Still, this is a grand list with a lot of great choices that are not obvious but are totally worth it. It also takes great courage to compile a list like this b/c you’re leaving yourself open to Internet snark from jackasses like me, as if to say, “This is my taste, everyone! Care to get your shots in?” Even if I disagree with some of your choices, your choices show that you know your film and TV so I must bow to you anyway.

    I also agree with you on UP IN THE AIR. I think it’s a great film that speaks of and to our times and has an unexpectedly dour but poetic ending for the protagonist. I do wonder, though, if it will hold up in my view in 10 years’ time. For instance, in 1999, I thought AMERICAN BEAUTY was a classic and that FIGHT CLUB was a darkly fun bit of nihilism that I’d outgrow as I got older, but it’s actually been the opposite for me. Are there any movies like that for you that seemed groundbreaking and/or monumental at the time but did not age well?

      princesscowboy responded:
      January 5, 2010 at 9:54 am

      @Denny Well it wasn’t that I was consciously ignoring blockbusters, it’s just that “big” movies like THE LORD OF THE RINGS with massive marketing tie-ins, CGI and the giant casts just don’t have the magic that the other films I’ve listed do (for me, that is). Don’t get me wrong–I really enjoyed the RINGS trilogy. It was about as good as a blockbuster franchise can be. But do I think it deserved all of those Oscars? No.

      I loved ETERNAL SUNSHINE and debated putting that one on the list but I stand by my claim that ADAPTATION was a better film. There were so many layers to ADAPTATION, such interesting work being done with the script.

      It’s interesting that you bring up AMERICAN BEAUTY. I too marveled at AMERICAN BEAUTY in 1999 but since then I’ve only heard the film being trashed. In a future blog post I want to revisit this film and see for myself.

      Thanks for the comments!

    t$ said:
    January 5, 2010 at 3:28 am

    oh, A – i love you and your blog. great list, with only a few i haven’t seen (brick? that’s moving to the top). we are bosom buddies, kindred spirits (no anne of avonlea on your list?)

    i think i was too high for district 9. sadly. i wanted to like it, but i felt it was hitting me over the head the whole time. it made me want to steal someone’s sneakers right off their feet. did you see The Host? a genre-bender i think you’d like.

      princesscowboy responded:
      January 5, 2010 at 9:56 am

      T$! I did see THE HOST and it was awesome! A lot like DISTRICT 9 in it’s mix of sci fi, action, social commentary and heart break.

    Randall Martoccia said:
    January 6, 2010 at 12:13 pm

    I’m curious what you think of Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, NY. Like Adaptation, it has layers–actually, layers upon layers upon layers. It differs from Adaptation in that it takes no more than an hour (maybe half that) before the film loses audience’s interest. At times the filmmaker himself seems to have lost interest.

    The first half of Adaptation stacks up against any movie in the last decade. However, the last half has a typical Charlie K. problem: over-reaching cleverness. All of his scripts ultimately cave in on themselves–in my opinion–except Eternal Sunshine. That one is reigned in by focusing on the characters. You come away from Eternal Sunshine thinking about these doomed, yet hopeful lovers rather than the novelty of the premise or the nesting doll-like plot. Eternal Sunshine is my pick of the movie of the decade.

    One last thing on Charlie K…. He may tend to over-reach, but at least he has artistic ambition. Also, he doesn’t fear disappointing, alienating, or utterly baffling the audience. In this industry of pedestrian panderers, Charlie K. should be celebrated.

    Aside from the absence of Eternal Sunshine, I can live in peace with your list.

    Amanda's brother said:
    January 6, 2010 at 2:25 pm

    Also: Oh Brother Where Art Thou.

    Christie said:
    January 8, 2010 at 1:33 pm

    Fuck Crash indeed. That movie was awful. I’m also still upset Brokeback didn’t win over that piece.

    Great list Amanda!

    Steve the former TA said:
    January 11, 2010 at 2:40 am

    Excellent list, even though it is always hard to make lists like this. Something is always left out. So glad to see Half Nelson up there, that movie was so very excellent. Up In The Air was very refreshing for me as well, even if Clooney’s character seems a bit unrealistic at times.

    Amanda, did you see The Road yet? That is on my list for sure, and I’m not sure I ever even want to see it again!

    Also, Glen and Marketa recently released a new album together under the artist title The Swell Season, in case you are interested in giving it a listen.

    Tracy said:
    January 14, 2010 at 5:46 pm

    Love the list. I agree with others about Up in the Air. I really liked it but felt like I’d seen it before. I’m not sure if others would agree but I really loved Garden State (especially the soundtrack). I agree about the Departed. American Beauty. Maybe Sideways. Finding Nemo? Borat (I mean, I never laughed so hard in a movie theater – pretty original)? And, as fabulous as Leslie Mann was in Knocked Up (loved this movie!), her driving scene in 40-Year-Old Virgin was an instant classic too.

    silvertrace said:
    January 15, 2010 at 7:13 am

    agree with all of those listed, especially Children of Men for the long take in Bexhill, which is visually stunning

    to add from some of my favorites of the decade- The Constant Gardener, The Cooler, Hot Fuzz, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Lives of Others, Sideways, Sunshine

    Liz said:
    January 29, 2010 at 1:28 pm

    I didn’t read all the comments so there may be some overlap, but a few gems I would have added are The Departed, No Country for Old Men, Almost Famous, Juno, Garden State, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (though I hate everything else Carrey’s ever done), Little Miss Sunshine, Michael Clayton and Slumdog Millionaire.

      princesscowboy responded:
      February 27, 2010 at 9:19 pm

      LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE and JUNO were way too twee for me, kid.

    Joe said:
    February 27, 2010 at 6:52 pm

    No nods to Mike Nichols’ *Closer*?

      princesscowboy responded:
      February 27, 2010 at 9:19 pm

      Oh my, Joe. I thought CLOSER was poop. Sorry!

    flavored coffee said:
    August 8, 2011 at 5:58 pm

    This was a really nice post.

    […] The Best Films of the Deacde […]

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