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The 30 Best Films of the Decade (2000-2009)

As we look back at the films made from 2000-2009, these are the 30 best.
By  · Published on December 22nd, 2009

We’re all in that humanistic mode of evaluating our lives – coming up on the end of the year and the last time a zero will be the third digit on our calendars. We’re all (from Variety to Cat Fancy) also waxing expert on what films were the best of the best of the best of the past ten years.

Which is why there is an unnavigable sea of opinion polluting the internet right now. Neil and I thought, ‘If everyone else is doing it, why can’t we? And why not do it better?”

You may ask (since I’m forcing you to rhetorically), “How can giving your opinion be better than everyone else’s tepid version of an almost-arbitrary-seeming list?”

I’m glad you asked.

Neil and I anticipated this task back in October and began planning what would become far too much work for two people who essentially sit around watching Animal House all day. Still, despite the cyclopean nature of the beast, we dug our feet in and compiled just over 3,000 films that were released from January 1, 2000 to December 31, 2009 (the future!).

We then forcefully shoved that list into an algorithm that neither of us understood (which is why I got my Masters Candidate in Applied Mathematics Friend to construct it for us (and why we didn’t scoff when he charged us $20 and our Powder Blue DVD for it)).

The algorithm, which we’ve nicknamed Simon, spat out just over 300 films, reducing our master list by 90%. Then, the brutal stages of cutting came where Neil and I would agonize over which movie’s locker to leave a red flag in and which ones would continue on to the next round.

After 6 cutting sessions and over 4 hours of arguing, we’d chopped the list down to 60. From there, the real heartache began as we saw films we loved scratched off the list. Also from there, we employed a new tactic which will, like the secret herbs and spices, remain veiled in mystery. A hint: the process involved paprika.

Drooling and exhausted, Neil and I emerged from the fray with the 30 Best Films of the Decade. 4 documentaries. 12 comedies. 13 dramas. 5 in-betweens. 9 foreign. 6 fuck-the-establishment choices. 3 sci-fi. 1. horror. 3 from 2000. 1 from 2001. 2 from 2002. 4 from 2003. 4 from 2004. 2 from 2005. 5 from 2006. 4 from 2007. 3 from 2008. 2 from 2009. A sprawling list, and most likely, the most balanced of all decade examinations.

We can’t wait to do it all again next year when the decade is actually over.

But for now, debate, discuss, curse at, fawn over, and let the warm glow of great film wash over you like a much-needed cinematic baptism.

These are The 30 Best Films of the Decade:

30. The Bourne Ultimatum

No super-spy has touched the world of cinema quite like Jason Bourne in this decade. He made James Bond (until the onset of Daniel Craig in the role, at least) look like a relic. He also made Matt Damon a bona fide star, and sadly, Paul Greengrass’s shakey-cam technique a norm. Either way, his third adventure was his most brutal and captivating, a fast-paced race toward an identity found. In this third frame, Bourne’s journey was finely tuned, kinetic and propulsive experience – certainly the peak of action seen in this decade. -NM

29. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

There are geek films, there are films about geeks, and then there are both. Yet the existence of King of Kong works in a way that transcends all of these geek themes, rising above to be a documentary about something geeky, made for geeky people, that also plays like an epic battle of good and evil, fit for an audience of everyone. Instead of making a doc about playing video games, director Seth Gordon gave us the essential modern-day David and Goliath story, filled with laughs and tears and every emotion in-between. -NM

28. Son of Rambow

Charming isn’t even an apt starting point for describing the second film from director Garth Jennings. Through the story of two unlikely friends and their quest to make the perfect Little Tikes version of First Blood, he captured the essence of childhood friendship, bonds that transcended class or religious background. He captured a story on film that felt natural while being fantastical, was honest while being impressively creative, and was at its core, truly heartwarming in every way. This is what great movies do, they move you. -NM

27. 28 Days Later…

Through all of the zombie and vampire-crazed filmmaking that occurred in this past decade, the finest example is in the gritty, realistic, virus-ridden world created by director Danny Boyle. He went on to win a Best Picture prize with Slumdog Millionaire, but with 28 Weeks Boyle delivered an intensely scary experience that rivals any slasher, any vampire flick or any bit of torture porn that this decade could produce. -NM

26. The Five Obstructions

Pretend for a moment that you met your artistic idol. You’d torture him, right? If you were really his friend you would. Which is exactly why Lars Von Trier forces Jorgen Leth to remake his first film repeatedly, under stricter and stricter circumstances. At one level, an exhausting insight into the hand-wringing of moviemaking, and on the other, a philosophical look at why we create at all. Both elements are blended perfectly with two insane Danish directors that left us confused and hungry for lobster. -CA

25. The Devil and Daniel Johnston

As far as documentaries go, it’s difficult to create a better portrait of a troubled mind than the one made by this film. Not only an indie music lover’s siren song, the flick is a revealing character study of a simple man whose complicated brain keeps him isolated from the rest of the crowd. This rare glimpse inside that world is taken to the pinnacle of intimate documentary-making and also manages to question if great music is really worth the personal torture. -CA

24. Thank You For Smoking

Before Jason Reitman was telling of impregnated teens and the ultimate corporate road warrior, he was honing his skills with this sharp, satirical look at one of our nations great domestic wars – sense vs. the tobacco industry. At its heart, this film delivers the breakout performance of Aaron Eckhart, who would later go on to throw weight around in another movie found later on this list. Here though, he’s a wry, despicable fella who is oh-so-delightful, just like his director’s debut. -NM

23. District 9

Science fiction never saw it coming. At Comic-Con in 2007, the halls of the San Diego Convention Center warned us with ‘Humans Only’ signs from a mysterious district. And in 2009, as the world awaited James Cameron’s game-changer Avatar, a first time director from South Africa named Neill Blomkamp shocked and awed the world with his inventive, guerrilla masterpiece District 9. Made for $30 million under the tutelage of Peter Jackson, District 9 was perhaps the most inventive work of science fiction – one that smashed together cultural relevance and groundbreaking alien effects – a perfect storm of vision, character and intense action. It was a geek’s wet dream, and one of those rare sci-fi films that will be relevant well past this decade and the next. -NM

22. Hustle and Flow

This film about the depression of failure and emptiness of dreams is probably the truest portrait of blues and hip hop music making ever burned into celluloid. Director Craig Brewer dropped us right into the dilapidated shanty house of a pimp in a world where nothing came easy. The greasy sweat of Memphis all but poured out of the screen while Terrance Howard made the role and the audience his bitch. And then, he somehow managed to get Three Six Mafia a fucking Oscar. -CA

21. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

At a certain point this decade, a director pushed aside family film sensibilities, said, “I got this one, guys,” and man-handled the world’s largest cultural phenomenon into his own brand of beast. Making a great film is one thing, but elevating something beyond its children’s book roots (not to mention doing so in line with the tone of the source material) is a juggling act lesser directors have lost bowel function at the sight of. No wonder Alfonso Cuaron appears on this list twice. -CA

20. Super Troopers

Say what you’d like about the movies they’ve made since, but don’t spread ill-will toward Broken Lizard’s breakout hit. The first ten minutes of this film might be some of the best scripted comedy in history, let alone the decade. This is one of two most-quotable films on our list, one that forever popularized the mustache ride. It has just as much wackiness as it does earnest human moments, which makes all the difference. -NM

19. The Wind That Shakes the Barley

The poem and namesake for the film is about a young man leaving his love behind to face the tumult of rebellion and dirt and death. Fitting, then, that Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or winning film faces the harsh reality and struggles of Ireland and England in the early 20th century with dirty realism. Cillian Murphy practically introduces himself to the world as a premier acting talent, and Loach’s vision was so startling that it earned him a comparison to Leni Riefenstahl. Hard to watch, yes, but even harder to miss out on it. -CA

18. Brick

One of a few directorial debuts that made our list, Brick was crafted by Rian Johnson on a shoestring budget with a little-known actor named Joseph Gordon-Levitt leading this tale of high school corruption. It was an innovative, energetic and deeply thought-provoking mystery that captured the spirit of noir, but put us all back in high school. We look back at it now as the first in a career that will certainly yield great results, as well as one of the most inventive works of the decade. -NM

17. The Departed

It’s hard to make a list of the decade’s best and not include the work of Martin Scorsese, who finally broke into Oscar gold with this 2006 release. It wasn’t exactly his masterwork, but certainly his best in a decade of ups and downs. But much like his film, Scorsese was a fighter. And with The Departed, he assembled the perfect cast and writer to strike a tone that resonated in a big way, completing his epic knockout at the Academy Awards. And unlike a few of this decade’s Best Picture winners, this gritty drama was more than deserving of its prize. -NM

16. High Fidelity

What effing Ian Guy? If you didn’t connect with the tortured, music-loving soul of John Cusak’s Rob, there might be something wrong with you. With razor sharp performances from Jack Black (when he was funniest) and the eclectic Tim Robbins, along with a perfectly-pitched script adapted from Nick Hornby’s novel, High Fidelity is the modern rom-com of choice. Honest, fun and touching all the way around. -NM

15. Lord of the Rings: Return of the King

If director Peter Jackson did anything right in his run with the Lord of the Rings franchise (as if there were only one), it was building. He spent two films building up tension, piecing together Tolkien’s complex and eternally imaginative story and promising us that it would all pay off some 6 hours later. In 2003, he did just that with Return of the King. It was the biggest, most impressive display of epic storytelling to come about in this decade, and something that might never be matched in size and scope. And in a decade that seemed to be all about size and scope for a while, that’s certainly saying something. -NM

14. Whale Rider

If nine-figure budgets were a staple of this decade, Whale Rider is a quiet reminder of the power that can come from a modest budget, a deeply felt story, and the right actress bringing a character to life. Instead of expensive fireworks, the film does the hard work of exploring traditions, family, and our place in a changing society with humor and reverence. Scary, funny, painful, sweet – a perfect balance that makes for a brilliant family film disguised cleverly as a drama. -CA

13. Up

The hardest thing in this world of cinema appreciation to peg is that of the best film from Pixar Animation Studios. In this decade, they delivered six masterpieces, all near-perfect in their own right. And while The Incredibles seems to be the one that shot them into the stratosphere, we can’t help but think that they’ve gotten better at telling human stories in animated worlds with each successive release. It leads us to Up, their most touching, adventurous and vibrant movie to-date. -NM

12. Children of Men

Oh, you thought you understood what went into making a great tracking shot? Sorry to hear that. I imagine that since your jaw was probably already on the ground by the transcendent story and technical craft, it was digging its way to China by the time Alfonso Cuaron decided to let the camera run for four minutes straight. It took a special-made rig, a speeding car, and a ping pong ball, and Cuaron decided to outdo himself later on in the same movie. The exhaling sound you just made remembering that scene is proof enough that this film is the epitome of brilliance. -CA

11. O Brother, Where Art Thou

What can you say about a film who took a dormant genre of regional music and made it a national phenomenon? For the briefest moment, pop star blonds were knocked off the stage by an old blind man singing his bluegrass guts out. I’ve already gushed over this film once this year, and not only is it all true, it all stacks up viewing after viewing. The Coens have created some indelible films this decade, but this is an epic of great proportion. Not to be tellin’ tales out of school, but every thing about this film is soul-soaring amazement that will save you from eternal damnation. -CA

10. Big Fish

Painting the 1980s in black and white, Tim Burton made his mark on this decade by discovering primary colors. Every corner of imagination is explored here in a film that has made me cry every single time even after 15 viewings. The magical realism and tall tales act as a mirror to how we all view life – a little more inflated, a little more fantastical than it really is. Plus, Danny Devito plays a werewolf ringmaster. If that doesn’t warrant placement, I don’t know what does anymore. -CA

9. Anchorman

Most quotable movie of the decade number two, and the movie that was the precursor to the Judd Apatow/Adam McKay takeover of great comedy that followed. Before there were old virgins, or Seth Rogen, there was Will Ferrell in his most impressive role to-date. He put the world in a glass case of laughter, delivering a character that will live on, and not just in frat circles, but also with those of us who enjoy a bit of intelligence in our absurdity. -NM

8. Spirited Away

It’s a fortunate thing in this art form that audiences often get to see a genius at his best. It was truly an achievement to see Miyazaki deliver his most creative-boundary-bursting story alongside some of the greatest hand-drawn visuals of the decade. Flawless and gloriously strange, it’s easy to see this film as the apex of the art form while still grinning and looking forward to seeing Miyazaki top himself. -CA

7. Old Boy

Despite art being completely subjective, you are wrong if you don’t like this film. Not content to tell a traditional story, Park Chan-wook celebrates revenge and taboo his own way. With a hammer. The story and Choi Min-sik’s grizzly acting is only matched by the beautiful look of the thing and a final act that drags you to the edge of your seat by your tongue. -CA

6. Almost Famous

Back in 2000, back in the 1970s, Cameron Crowe took us all on a journey across the country in a bus. It was his journey, and we all got to revel in the pure love and chaos of music. Each character sings – both from the writing and the acting – and made us wish we could reconcile with our friends by singing Tiny Dancer, made us wish Penny Lane was in our ears and in our eyes, made us wish that we had the coolest high school job of all time. -CA

5. There Will Be Blood

He was a simple oil man. A man whose keen eye for business opportunities led him across the west in a time when land and oil and opportunity were there for the taking. And while Daniel Plainview, the central character in Paul Thomas Anderson’s opus to an age, was all of these things, he was also something far more important. A vessel, through which the talent of Daniel Day-Lewis could thrive. It was the performance to beat all performances in this decade, a true showstopper. He drank our milkshake, and we loved every gritty, black gold-soaked minute of it. -NM

4. The Dark Knight

You can’t argue with the facts. And the fact is that with The Dark Knight, director Christopher Nolan did the unthinkable. He took a comic book hero, steeped in legend and an often silly history and gave him a rock-solid, earnest shot at being part of a grand, stunning and compelling detective story. The result is one of the most critically acclaimed and highest grossing films of the decade, beloved by fans, geeks and critics all around. Throw in a heart-stopping performance from the late Heath Ledger, the crafting of one of the most devastating forces this side of Hannibal Lector, and you’ve got yourself a truly unforgettable cinematic experience. -NM

3. Dear Zachary

There are two types of people in this world – and I don’t use that cliche lightly: those who have never curled up in a weeping, inconsolable ball on the floor and those who have seen Dear Zachary. Easily the best documentary of the decade, it’s impossible to over-hype it because it will deliver every time. With decidedly unpolished shots, and an amateur construction that actually adds to the tone perfectly, this letter to a young boy about the father he will never meet would rather see your heart thrown fastball-style against the nearest wall than beating safely and soundly in your chest. Just let it happen. The tears are temporary, but the effect is not. -CA

2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

I double dog dare you to say anything negative about this film. Michel Gondry may very well be the only human being on the planet that understands Charlie Kaufman, but thank the Film Gods that he does. A science fiction film that could have easily felt too tangled, it’s putty in Gondry’s hands, and the result is a film that breaks up with you while showing you home movies from your childhood. This is the movie I imagine is playing around the clock in Heaven. -CA

1. Memento

Admit it. You had no idea what film could do until you saw this movie. You had a strong idea, but you never knew it could be like this, and you were kicked out of the theater by an irate manager who had no intention to let you sit speechless in the darkened theater a full hour after the credits rolled. But you would have sat there longer if he’d let you. Of course, that’s if you could figure out whether you needed to see it again immediately or needed some time alone to figure everything out. When examining the decade, this is a film that absolutely cannot be forgotten. -C

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