Never an easy task, confining the best films of the decade to a top 10 list seemed particularly difficult for 2000-2009. Does a single big-screen story that amounts to more than nine hours count as “one” film? How about one that’s nine minutes? Consequently, this retrospective list goes way over 10, and considers the points of connections between the decade’s best films and definitive talents.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The Two Towers (2002) and The Return of the King (2003): “The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air.” The first words of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkein’s beloved fantasy trilogy uses down-to-earth details to convey the weight of the past, a persistent approach that makes The Lord of the Rings feel more like a lived-in historical epic than a glossy fantasy tale. Jackson’s craft with spectacular battle scenes and terrifying, monstrous set pieces remains unsurpassed, but beneath the archetypal tale of good vs. evil lies a theme of the corruptibility of the righteous (particularly in the first film). Andy Serkis’ motion-capture performance as Gollum offers a haunting, timeless portrait of obsession and, incidentally, blazed the trail for such spectacles as Avatar. With the extended DVD editions, the three films comprise more than 10 hours of running time, but remain one sprawling, inextricable story that will take its place alongside the likes of The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back as classic screen entertainments.
Spirited Away (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006): Japan’s Hayao Miyazaki and Mexico’s Guillermo del Toro used the contrast between reality and the fantasy world to explore Lewis Carroll-style coming-of-age stories with girlish heroines. Spirited Away offers one of the crowning achievements of Miyazaki’s animation to show a little girl’s personal growth and self-reliance at a phantasmagoric spa for spirits, while Pan’s Labyrinth’s female protagonist goes on a far darker journey in the wake of the Spanish Civil War, where real life seems nearly as bad as the often nightmarish supernatural realm. Henry Selick’s Coraline (2009) nearly matches Miyazaki and del Toro’s visionary visits to their own personal wonderlands.
The Incredibles (2004) and Up (2009): Pixar Animation Studios could have sustained a career simply imitating the success of its kid-friendly comedies with toy-like heroes and A-list voices. (2003’s Finding Nemo doesn’t stray from the Pixar formula but remains an excellent film.) Its two most impressive films push computer-animated adventures into knottier territory, while keeping a foot in the familiar. Brad Bird’s The Incredibles turned out to be the best superhero film in a decade seemingly overstuffed with caped crusaders. It used the notion of secret identities to explore midlife crises and dysfunctional family dynamics before building to a sock-o finale. Pete Docter’s Up considered a widower’s sunset years, and the flights of Indiana Jones-worthy fancy didn’t entirely erase the melancholy of a life’s burdens and a lost marriage. Pixar’s initial films for the next decade — Toy Story 3 and Cars 2 — suggest it’s regrouping a bit, as if the company recognizes the challenge of topping itself.
Y Tu Mamá También (2001): Road movies and sex comedies may be some of cinema’s least surprising genres, but Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón offered a hilarious and wrenching variation in his portrayal of two adolescents (Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna) who drive across Mexico with an older woman (Maribel Verdú) in search of a mythic beach. Against the backdrop of Mexico’s institutional and economic changes, the film almost subliminally reveals the costs of growing up and the acceptance of mortality. Cuarón took on similar themes with even more explosive politics in 2006’s superb Children of Men. One of the most thrilling, innovative filmmakers of the decade, Cuarón can craft lengthy tracking shots and unbroken scenes that take viewers on emotional journeys more rewarding than other directors’ entire films.
Adaptation (2002) and Synecdoche, New York (2008): With his breakthrough Being John Malkovich in 1999, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman established possibly the most original, complex and uncompromising sensibility in contemporary cinema. Reality and imagination collide with quirky dream-logic that short-circuits audience expectations and offers unique perspectives on heady notions, such as the nature of love and memory in 2003’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Adaptation, directed by Spike Jonze, may be his most accessible film, even though it riffs on evolution and the creative process while starring Nicolas Cage as both Kaufman and his (nonexistent) twin brother. Synecdoche, directed by Kaufman, could be his most difficult work, as a sad-sack theater artist (Philip Seymour Hoffman) embarks on an apparently endless dramatization of his own life on a cavernous soundstage. At their best, Kaufman’s films seem to be reinventing cinema for the new millennia.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Shaun of the Dead (2004): Some of the decade’s most beloved films cross-pollinated radically different genres and found hybrid vigor. Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon took the high-flying style of martial arts films for an adventure that parallels the plot of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility with unexpected fidelity, at least until its haunting, tragic conclusion. Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead offered a “zom-rom-com,” a romantic comedy about a loser (Simon Pegg) who finds his inner hero when the dead rise from their graves. Although Wright’s debut film shows a command of action-horror clichés and spatter effects worthy of any blockbuster director, Shaun’s first act, in which the characters remain hilariously oblivious to the zombie holocaust, has real metaphorical punch.
Zodiac (2007): Like HBO’s “The Wire” (the best television show of the decade), David Fincher’s docudrama of the hunt for San Francisco’s Zodiac Killer redefines and expands the police procedural story. Having opted for style over substance with Se7en in 1995, Fincher explores the complexities of law enforcement and newsroom processes as detectives, reporters and an amateur researcher attempt to track down the elusive mass murderer. Zodiac not only reveals the disheartening realities of the criminal justice system, it also examines the hold real and fictional serial killers can have on our collective psyches.
“The Accountant” (2001) and “Rejected” (2000): No movies were better — though most were longer — than these two short films with lasting cultural repercussions. Ray McKinnon’s 37-minute, Oscar-winning “The Accountant” viewed an attempt to rescue a family farm with dark comedy genuinely worthy of Flannery O’Connor — and perhaps the greatest insight into the New South of any film in recent memory. Don Hertzfeldt’s nine-minute viral hit carries sick humor to delirious levels in a portrait of a cartoonist’s failed attempts to sell out. When the unseen animator suffers a breakdown and the cartoons turn chaotic, “Rejected” ends on an apocalyptic note that’ll leave the viewer breathless.
Other films deserving mention for being practically flawless were You Can Count on Me (2000), The Pianist (2002), Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), Brokeback Mountain (2005), No Country for Old Men (2007), There Will Be Blood (2007) and The Hurt Locker (2009). Incidentally, some of the decade’s best films that you may have never heard of include China’s Blind Shaft (2003) and Up the Yangzte (2007), the Czech Republic’s I Served the King of England (2006) and Russia’s 12 (2007).