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The Top 101 Films of the Decade: 101-76

This list is utterly futile. I felt that I should begin by making that perfectly clear. It is futile for three reasons: the problem of quantity, the problem of selection, and the problem of criteria. Allow me to explain.

First, according to industry numbers, 7152 films were released in America during the past decade. I have seen slightly more than 10% of them. To see them all, one would need to average nearly two films a day for the entire decade. Now, of course, the vast, overwhelming majority of these movies are not worth seeing at all, but even assuming that I can weed most of those out before I waste time on them (which I can), I still haven’t had time to see everything worth my attention. As a result, there will automatically be films missing from a list such as this which should be on it.

Second, assuming (as I do) a better than average ability to select quality films, although I have only seen a fraction of the films released during the past decade, more than half of those were films that I greatly enjoyed. If you’re keeping up with the numbers, you’ll realize that I’m going to end up excluding a whole lot of movies that I really like; even a lot of movies that I would wholeheartedly recommend. These movies really ought to be on this list, but I don’t want it to go on forever, and blanket inclusiveness would cheapen the entire enterprise.

Finally, there is the problem of how to go about deciding what a “top film” is. There are essentially three qualities to consider for an endeavor like this: artistic significance, cultural significance, and personal significance. It is impossible for one list to meaningfully encompass all three of these qualities, although there would be a certain amount of overlap between them. In the end, I did not feel qualified to create a list of the greatest films of the decade. It is still too soon to do so, I have not seen enough films, and such a list would include a number of films that I recognize and appreciate as great works of art, but that I do not necessarily enjoy. I rejected the idea of “decade-defining” films, as well, because (despite my intense interest in films which somehow speak for a particular time and place) such a list would be made up of so many films which I personally dislike.

So, in the end, this is simply a list of many of my favorite films from the first decade of the 21st century. I think it reveals that while I take a very broad approach in my film experiences, my tastes remain decidedly Americentric, and even somewhat populist in a middle-brow sort of way. This list is changing even up to the moment that it is published here, and will continue to change immediately afterward. Nevertheless, on the whole I am quite satisfied with it, and I hope that (as with all such lists) it will generate both healthy discussion and debate, and some memorable movie-watching experiences. Enjoy.

101. Coraline (Henry Selick, 2009)

Selick brings Neil Gaiman’s  dark, thrilling take on an Alice in Wonderland story magically to life with stop-motion animation. I can’t think of many films which have so skillfully walked the line between enchanting and disturbing; this one keeps the visual surprises coming even as its story keeps you on the edge of your seat.

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100. Ocean’s Eleven (Steven Soderbergh, 2001)

Who doesn’t love a good heist film? This movie (which features George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, and company knocking over a casino) is one of the slickest, most stylish of its kind, oozing debonair charm from every pore. Everyone in it is having a great time, and the fun is infectious.

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99. Avatar (James Cameron, 2009)

12 years of obsessive planning and production paid off in a big way for Cameron. His latest mega-blockbuster is pure escapist spectacle, in the best possible way. Avatar may be a lightweight when it comes to story and character development, but Cameron really knows how to hit audiences where they live, by transporting them somewhere they’ve never been.

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98. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (Gore Verbinski, 2003)

This movie based on a Disney theme park ride was the surprise hit of the summer when it first hit theaters, thanks in no small part to Johnny Depp’s brilliant, now-iconic performance as the cocky, out-of-his-depth Captain Jack Sparrow. With a smart balance of action, comedy, and romance, Pirates is hard to beat for pure entertainment (and the two sequels aren’t half-bad, either).

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97. Chicken Run (Peter Lord & Nick Park, 2000)

With three glorious stop-motion shorts starring eccentric inventor Wallace and his canine caretaker Gromit already under their belts, Park and Lord turned their incredible skill towards the creation of a feature film. The result was Chicken Run, a hilarious, affectionate parody of The Great Escape starring a group of feathered fowl who concoct a desperate plan to avoid the chopping block.

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96. Defiance (Edward Zwick, 2008)

I don’t know how filmmakers keep digging up brand new stories to tell about World War II, but this is one of the most interesting I’ve ever run across. Defiance is about one of the few major efforts by a group of Jews to openly resist genocide. The story that emerges is astounding and inspiring, but also refreshingly complex in its portrayal of both heroes and villains.

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95. Finding Forrester (Gus Van Sant, 2000)

I’m not totally sure why I have such a soft spot for this movie, but I find watching it to be an incredibly cathartic experience. The characters are easy to connect with, the themes resonate, and I love what it has to say about writing, even if it is a bit cliche. Plus, this is the last good movie to feature the legendary Sean Connery before he retired from acting.

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94. Away We Go (Sam Mendes, 2009)

I can’t quite account for my affection for this movie, either. I imagine it has something to do with the irresistible charisma of the two leads, an amazing supporting cast, and a catchy, soothing soundtrack. I could also point to my own identification with the main characters’ dilemma: not sure where they want to wind up or what they want to do when they get there, and feeling that they’re too old not to have this figured out already.

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93. Maria Full of Grace (Joshua Marston, 2004)

Maria Full of Grace is a major work of social conscience about a subject that few people understand. That makes it potentially important, but would matter very little if the story weren’t so relentlessly compelling. Maria is a pregnant Colombian teenager who becomes a drug mule, running cocaine to the United States. The film is intense, and features a stand-out debut performance by Catalina Sandino Moreno (who received an Oscar nomination).

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92. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher, 2008)

Even if you can’t quite connect with the central character (born a very old man, he ages backwards, growing younger every day), it is difficult not to admire Fincher’s mastery of the visual aspects of cinema. Benjamin Button is a gorgeous film to look at, and it genuinely evokes the sensation of quietly traveling through history via a lifetime of experiences.

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91. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (Seth Gordon, 2007)

I absolutely love documentaries that illuminate bizarre, marginalized subcultures I’ve never heard of. This is probably the best of those. It is an epic account of the battle for video game dominance between an egotistical arcade champ and the underdog challenger who is determined to break his Donkey Kong high-score record.

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90. Garden State (Zach Braff, 2004)

When I first saw this movie several years ago, I felt that it spoke directly to my generation of directionless twenty-somethings; perhaps the most privileged generation in history, all they really want is meaning and purpose. Now, it doesn’t seem quite as profound as it once did, but it is still by turns poignant and hilarious, strikingly filmed, and has a killer soundtrack.

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89. The Bourne Ultimatum (Paul Greengrass, 2007)

The Bourne trilogy essentially deconstructed the spy thriller genre with a three-movie arc questioning the secret agent’s license to kill, while at the same time delivering marvelously kinetic action flicks. The third chapter even managed the rare and difficult feat of surpassing the first.

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88. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (Tom Tykwer, 2006)

A baby is born in 18th-century France with a supernatural sense of smell. When he comes of age, he apprentices himself to a perfumer, which eventually leads him to become a serial killer on a quest to concoct the ultimate scent. This is a beautiful, often-disturbing, very challenging movie quite unlike anything else I’ve ever seen.

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87. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008)

A Swedish vampire movie that gets everything right, this is the high-brow answer to the Twilight phenomenon (and, incidentally, predates it). It is flawlessly paced, with gobs of atmosphere, a delightfully creepy ambiguity, and an excellent understanding of what to show and what to leave to the viewer’s imagination.

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86. A Mighty Wind (Christopher Guest, 2003)

Christopher Guest and his regular collaborators are improvisational comic geniuses, as they’ve been demonstrating with side-splitting “mockumentaries” since This Is Spinal Tap. That magnum opus aside, A Mighty Wind (which takes on the folk music scene) is probably their best work. The laughs are non-stop, the music is fantastic, and there is a lived-in, human quality to the characters that makes them feel totally real.

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85. Chicago (Rob Marshall, 2002)

It didn’t quite bring back the big Hollywood musical, but it reminded us all of what was so great about the genre. Chicago has catchy songs, loads of razzle-dazzle, and paints a wickedly cynical portrait of the media, the American justice system, and the people who are adept at manipulating them both.

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84. Signs (M. Night Shyamalan, 2002)

As a filmmaker, Shyamalan has a lot of bad, egotistical qualities, but he also takes a lot of his cues from the likes of Alfred Hitchcock. Signs is a very well-constructed alien invasion thriller, with a slow, ominous build-up and a tense climax. And if it falls prey to the Achilles’ heel of such films (the monster is neither scary nor convincing once you finally see it), it more than makes up for it with fine performances by Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, and Abigail Breslin (in her film debut!).

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83. Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly, 2001)

There are some movies that make you think, and some that make you think deeper. And then there are movies that just want to screw with your mind. That’s what Donnie Darko is. Kelly hasn’t done much yet, and what he has done has been uneven and deeply weird. But this movie put him on the map, and with good cause. Just take a look at the cast list: there is a reason that all of those high-quality performers signed onto a project so far outside the mainstream.

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82. District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009)

I didn’t know what to expect walking into District 9, and it totally blew me away. Part mockumentary and part action thrill ride, this movie is all sci-fi brilliance. Producer Peter Jackson gave director Blomkamp a modest budget to do something with after their Halo project fell through, and he created an immersive alternate world in which aliens come to Earth, not as friends or invaders, but as refugees that no one wants to deal with.

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81. The Majestic (Frank Darabont, 2001)

At one point Jim Carrey was best-known as a comedian, but the past decade has made it clear that his real gift is in drama. The Majestic is a simple, sentimental story about a blacklisted Hollywood writer who gets amnesia and finds himself in a sleepy little town, hailed as a war hero that everyone thought was dead. Its warmth, reminiscent of a Capra film from 50 years ago, conceals some very serious themes. And it’s just a great movie about movies.

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80. A Beautiful Mind (Ron Howard, 2001)

This film is far more fascinating than a biopic about a theoretical mathematician has any business being. Thanks to great performances by Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, Ed Harris, etc., I was drawn completely inside John Nash’s life, and even into his titular mind. And, if the movie is not entirely accurate about its subject, it at least has the admirable quality of inspiring viewers to go find out more for themselves.

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79. Lake of Fire (Tony Kaye, 2006)

It would be impossible to make a case for or against abortion in a single documentary, but two and a half hours is a good start towards illuminating the deceptive complexity of the issue. What emerges is a disturbing portrait of two factions in the most highly-charged battle of the culture wars. Both sides are extreme, a little scary, and completely intractable. Ultimately, the film suggests that neither side can give ground because, in the end, neither is entirely right or entirely wrong.

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78. Monsters, Inc. (Pete Docter, David Silverman, & Lee Unkrich, 2001)

Pixar’s films are visual feasts; each successive effort breaks new ground in computer animation. But that wouldn’t matter very much if they weren’t such amazing and original storytellers. This movie imagines a world in which monsters are terrified of little children (whose touch is toxic), but need children’s screams to power their cities. And that’s just the beginning.

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77. Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004)

The minds behind the hilarious British TV show “Spaced” produced a zombie comedy that is one of the best movies ever in either genre. All good zombie movies have something to say about their social context. This one slyly (and hilariously) suggests that most people already go through life like the walking dead: mindlessly following routine without ever really living at all.

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76. Crash (Paul Haggis, 2005)

What I love most about Crash is not that it features a powerhouse ensemble cast, that it effectively juggles a number of riveting overlapping stories, or that it is incredibly moving (although all of those are true). What I love most is the way that it deals so honestly with the very real difficulties of connection and understanding across cultural boundaries, even among people who live side by side.

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75 – 51 are here.

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~ by Jared on March 12, 2010.

One Response to “The Top 101 Films of the Decade: 101-76”

  1. I definitely agree with a lot of these. It looks like I have a ready made list of places to look when I feel like watching a movie. My list, would, of course, be quite different, but I’m happy with what you’ve decided so far.

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