OK, so I really haven’t seen enough of the rest of the world’s cinema to call this the Definitive Top 25 Movies of the Decade Period. Lots of good stuff—movies and, later, the directors themselves—gets imported over here, but who knows how much more never even gets a shot. This is a limited perspective, but a consistent one; I can’t pretend that watching, say, a couple of Almodovar movies gives me a full sense of Spanish cinema. What I’ve found exciting about Mostly American Cinema over the past ten years is the adaptation: not just making movies out of novels and comics and TV shows and other movies (indeed, that grew quite tiresome), but the way directors both established and relatively new explored their pet themes and styles in mashed up, reoriented ways.
1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)
I’m not sure if Eternal Sunshine ranks as my personal favorite movie of the past ten years—for sheer entertainment and rewatch value, that would probably be The Royal Tenenbaums—but I’m equally unsure if I can name a better representative for this decade than this Charlie Kaufman/Michel Gondry collabo about the persistence of memory and the inconsistency of love. It’s beautifully written, and maybe the most moving of Kaufman’s many scripts; it’s the perfect vehicle for Gondry’s freewheeling visuals; and it offers a particularly delightful balance of hilarity and sadness, a mixture present in so many of this decade’s directors’ work. Almost all of its acting represents a major peak, from the best of many great performances (Kate Winslet) to a breakthrough in subtlety (Jim Carrey) to a starlet imbuing her persona with surprising humor and depth (Kristen Dunst) to effective work from a typically one-trick pony (Elijah Wood). I also get the sense that this is the rare movie that everyone in a certain age group pretty much loves: like Braveheart or Lord of the Rings for smart people. Seriously, do you have any friends who don’t love Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? And if you do, don’t you kind of want to smack them?
2. Moulin Rouge! (Baz Luhrmann, 2001)
Baz Luhrmann did his damndest to save the movie musical, and while Hollywood may have responded by repeatedly hiring Rob Marshall, Luhrmann did manage to make the best musical of the past, oh, I don’t know, let’s say fifty years. His insane cutting and mashed up songs inspired a lot of old-school carping: “You can hardly even see the dancing! They never finish a song!” naysayers cried, as if musicals should, in fact, be stagy reproductions of Broadway. But Luhrmann’s editing (which starts out frenzied and grows smoother and more powerful over the course of the film, just as it did in his Romeo + Juliet) shows a genuine rhythm that most recent musicals sorely lack, not to mention a sense of unapologetically cinematic style.
3. The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001)
With its picture-book framing (and framing device), soothing Alec Baldwin narration, and altiverse New York City, The Royal Tenenbaums is undoubtedly the most fastidious and carefully arranged of Wes Anderson’s dysfunctional family comedies. It’s also fall-down hilarious and deeply moving, owing to the wonderfully glum Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, and Gwyneth Paltrow performances as grown-up child geniuses, yes, but especially Gene Hackman as the roguish patriarch of the title, a storybook deadbeat with gambling debts and stab wounds.
4. Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe, 2000)
Dismissing Cameron Crowe’s rock and roll tour diary, which manages to strike notes of cross-country epic and small-scale autobiography simultaneously, as too square or sweet sort of misses the point. Crowe isn’t writing about punk rock, lasting art, or revolution; he slides into a mid-seventies dead spot, the better to evoke pure, life-sustaining fandom.
5. Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)
TV has offered us so many procedurals in recent years, yet this 160-minute David Fincher joint pretty much destroyed countless hours of Law & Order by turning an unsolved mystery into the stuff of unknowable dread.
6. Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff, 2001)
A decade full of comics adaptations, and the best contains zero superhero costumes, unless you count the various uniforms of teenage alt-culture defiance worn by Enid (Thora Birch) as she navigates wasteland life after high school. Terry Zwigoff’s clear, blunt framing recalls the original Daniel Clowes panels without gimmickry, and Steve Buscemi gets his role of the decade as Enid’s older, meeker, but equally malcontent buddy.
7. Brick (Rian Johnson, 2006)
It could be any number of frivolities: gimmicky spoof, genre exercise, elaborate wunderkind calling card. But Rian Johnson’s smart, funny, visually snappy teen noir hits just as hard as its grown-up relatives, anchored by one of several terrific aughts performances from Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
8. Superbad (Greg Mottola, 2007)
I’ve liked more of the Apatow productions than not, especially his shepherding of Will Ferrell/Adam McKay insanity, but it’s this Greg Mottola-directed one-wild-night comedy that best integrates the laid-back Apatow style, heavy with improv riffs and extra character bits, with a propulsive (if appropriately digression-heavy) narrative. Like Swingers the decade before, this is a small, simple boyland comedy that line for line, scene for scene, is damn near perfect (and also: way funnier than Swingers).
9. The Incredibles (Brad Bird, 2004)
Truthfully, any number of Pixar movies are worth a spot in the top ten (including the several that appear below), but Brad Bird making the best superhero movie out of nothing more than some Fantastic Four cues and the collective Pixar imagination is worth particular celebration. What a fast, funny, flat-out wonderful piece of feel-great entertainment—a Pixar specialty.
10. Minority Report (Steven Spielberg, 2002)
Supposed populist hack Steven Spielberg had a great run of sci-fi movies this decade that not all that many people—film snobs or regular folk—seem to love, and none with more stunning craft than Minority Report, his future-murder mystery adapted from the Philip K. Dick story and starring the surprisingly malleable Tom Cruise (even Cruise haters can enjoy this performance, which sees him smacked around, temporarily blinded, face-drooped, and eventually chasing his own eyeball down a hallway). Yeah, OK, the ending is a little less ambiguous than we might prefer, but the levels of topicality, dark humor, and superb cinematic showmanship make up for it.
11. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
Daniel Day-Lewis continues his tour of American history as Daniel Plainview, Plainview, inching his way into the twentieth century. The film that barely contains him is a mesmerizing one-man epic about oil or, if you will, obsession, fathers, sons, capitalism, religious fundraising, the American dream, and the usefulness of milkshakes in illustrating economic metaphors. Anderson exercises so much stylistic control—he still loves the long takes, but they don’t come on as fast or as showy as they did in Boogie Nights or Magnolia—in order to make the film’s growing, menacing, glorious strangeness all the more stark and unavoidable.
12. Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002)
It’s actually hard to do meta well—to make it meaningful, not just a wink—and this Spike Jonze/Charlie Kaufman special manages the bizarre trick of achieving wicked satire (of Hollywood story structure) and emotionally affecting truth (about why we look to formulas in the first place) all at once. So if you ever walk into an argument about whether the movie’s last half hour is an ironic goof or utterly sincere, hooray, everybody’s right!
13. Snow Angels (David Gordon Green, 2008)
Before David Gordon Green took a so-far amusing sojourn into stoner comedy, he gave his offbeat, uneventful indie drama style a lyrical send-off with this wintry small-town tragedy. This being Green, it’s less inevitable descent into miserabilism than beautifully observed and sometimes hilarious cross-section of humanity.
14. Punch-Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2002)
Paul Thomas Anderson was the first guy to challenge Adam Sandler, and to challenge us with him; a dubious achievement, maybe, but Punch-Drunk Love is also just about the tensest, most dangerous romantic comedy I’ve ever seen.
15. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)
Hey, a comic-book superhero movie that’s actually based on a superhero comic! Not a particular one, mind; Christopher Nolan steals liberally from a number of classic Batman stories and synthesizes them into a breathlessly paced crime saga—finally, a popular entertainment that earns its Empire Strikes Back comparisons! I have a soft spot for Tim Burton’s freakish Batman Returns, but Dark Knight represents the definitive cinematic take on this character.
16. Up (Pete Doctor, 2009)
Like I said earlier, Pixar’s latest animated masterpiece chases a devastating, lyrical passage of love, disappointment, and aging with a lovably wacky child, a daft exotic bird, and pretty much the last word on talking dogs in cinema. In other words, it’s sort of miraculous.
17. 25th Hour (Spike Lee, 2002)
One of the best reputation-growth stories of the decade has to be Spike Lee’s meditation on regret, 9/11, and New York Fucking City, which was sort of lost in the awards shuffle of late 2002 only to turn up on a bunch of ten-best lists at decade’s end. Though my first viewing left me in unexpected tears, I can see why the movie’s stature only grew: 25th Hour has the immediacy to work right away, but also a reflective quality only enhanced by repeat viewings, encapsulated by the film-ending Brian Cox monologue, one of recent film’s most powerful, unexpectedly perfect endings.
18. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006)
I can’t say much that hasn’t already been rhapsodized about those extraordinary one-take sequences, so let me point out a smaller moment of Alfonso Cuaron’s virtuoso visual storytelling: when we’re first introduced to Michael Caine’s aging-hippie activist character, we don’t get a bunch of clunky exposition in his dialogue. Instead, the camera makes a quick pan across a series of press clippings on the man’s wall, and joins our characters mid-conversation. In about thirty seconds, we get everything we need to know. The whole movie pretty much goes like that, thirty amazing seconds at a time.
19. No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007)
Those Coen Brothers began the decade in a relatively jovial mood—O Brother, Where Art Thou? is one of their most delightful films, while later comedies Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers seek to recapture that mirth—but came back in a heck of an existential funk, as well as a filmmaking groove. The deadpan comedy of life’s emptiness seen in Burn After Reading and A Serious Man has a more foreboding ancestor in their Cormac McCarthy adaptation, a horror western with a stunning lack of catharsis. Haunting and mesmerizing, it’s the feel-bad movie of whenever.
20. Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2001)
Back in 2001, it seemed like pretty much every ambitious movie was trying to make sense of dreams and memories and consciousness: Mulholland Dr., Vanilla Sky, Waking Life, etc. Memento is arguably the least trippy of the bunch, and easily the most successful: Christopher Nolan takes his beloved noir yarn-spinning and reverses it—brilliantly—for an impaired murder mystery.
21. Wall-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008)
One more Pixar, a bunch more genres: it’s sci-fi, it’s romance, it’s silent comedy, and all of it can hold you rapt starting around age four and, hopefully, continuing more or less forever.
22. The Departed (Martin Scorsese, 2006)
Wait, is this a Bro Movie of tomorrow, a la Gladiator and the aforementioned Braveheart, or even, yikes, Scarface? If it happens, it’s only because Scorsese makes his return to the gangster genre so much ridiculous, twisty fun.
23. The Prestige (Christopher Nolan, 2006)
Maybe giving Chris Nolan three spots on this list seems like overkill, or maybe he’s just the decade MVP, crafting noirish fantasias with unpretentious skill.
24. A.I. (Steven Spielberg, 2001)
More Spielberg sci-fi, even stranger and more alienating, from a Stanley Kubrick treatment. Kubrick’s coldness and Spielberg’s empathy make for a terrific, once-in-a-lifetime pairing; their vision of robot life is fascinatingly detailed and disturbing. The film’s bleak (if oddly handled) ending is often mistaken for a syrupy one.
25. Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino, 2003/2004)
When Tarantino’s torn-in-two post-grindhouse mash-up arrived circa peak adulation for the Lord of the Rings series, I breathed a sigh of relief: here is a massive, epic undertaking that—despite layers upon layers of homage, reference, and cribbing—I actually care about. The Bride’s vengeful mission couldn’t be more simple, but when you emerge from Tarantino’s annotations, you find a kung-fu hero you’ve come to understand, played with movie-star grace by Uma Thurman.