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The Top 101 Films of the Decade: 50-26

Click here for 101-76, here for 75-51.

50. Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, 2008)

Slumdog Millionaire is a fairy tale, set in India, in which the hero must rescue the heroine by appearing on a live quiz show that (although he doesn’t know it) he has been preparing for his entire life. Boyle’s style is energetic, stylized, and totally absorbing. His film runs the audience through the full spectrum of emotions, but ends, of course, on the highest of highs.

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49. Munich (Steven Spielberg, 2005)

Munich is a film of deep, unresolvable ambiguities. That doesn’t play well with audiences who need to know who to hate and who to cheer for, but it’s the only honest way to deal with the history of conflict in the Middle East and the roots of modern terrorism. It’s also an interesting change of pace for Spielberg, whose considerable talent has most often been employed in the service of less nuanced stories.

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48. Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson, 2009)

Wes Anderson’s first animated film, and adaptation of a story other than his own, is one of the best examples of either process I have ever seen. In a tour-de-force of inspired hilarity, Anderson tells Roald Dahl’s original story, and then proceeds to make it his own, spinning a fable about a fox-man whose inability to domesticate his wilder urges endangers his family and his whole community. Despite its light tone, the movie hits hard with its theme of repressing identity to fulfill one’s communal responsibility.

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47. Joyeux Noël (Christian Carion, 2005)

Forget schmaltz, sentimentality, and cheap warmth. This film takes the Christmas message about “peace on Earth” as literally as possible, fictionalizing the events of the spontaneous “Christmas truce” which transpired in the trenches during World War I. And layered comfortably alongside all the “goodwill toward men” is a hard-hitting look at the complicity of the Church in the evils of war.

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46. Kill Bill: Vols. 1 & 2 (Quentin Tarantino, 2003-2004)

Tarantino’s two-film revenge saga is full of all the fabulous dialogue and stylistic flair his audience has come to expect, and on a grand scale. He creates an unforgettable cast of characters, most of whom want each other dead and are both skilled and creative in their pursuit of this goal. Opinions vary on which volume is better (I lean towards the second), but really they’re best viewed as a single work.

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45. Sunshine (Danny Boyle, 2007)

What seems like a less-than-brilliant plot (a spaceship carries a nuclear payload to the center of the solar system in a desperate attempt to restart our dying sun) is elevated here into one of the greatest science fiction films of the last ten years. Boyle totally sells the concept with the help of an amazing cast and a perfect balance of action, suspense, and existential musings.

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44. Flags of Our Fathers/Letters from Iwo Jima (Clint Eastwood, 2006)

While Letters from Iwo Jima is by far the better of these two films, it is well-worth acknowledging Eastwood’s accomplishment (which, I believe, is entirely unprecedented in film history) in simultaneously creating a pair of films which depict different sides of the same battle. Together or apart, they tell amazing stories (and tell them well), strikingly illustrating the devastation of warfare, whether it ends in victory or defeat.

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43. The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005)

The most painstaking of auteurs, Malick has directed only four films in the past 35 years. This one explores the well-known story of John Smith and Pocahantas. I say “explores” because this quiet, beautiful film is less about narrative and more about image and emotion, capturing what it might have felt like to set foot on a land unknown to, and untouched by, Europeans, and to experience the first encounters between such radically different cultures.

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42. Gone Baby Gone (Ben Affleck, 2007)

Who would have guessed that Ben Affleck could direct, especially a film like this? Gone Baby Gone hits like a punch to the gut, rubs the emotions raw, and asks serious, difficult questions that are meant to challenge without imposing its answers on the audience. I defy anyone to come out on the other side of this movie without a deep feeling of ambiguity that will hang around long after it’s over.

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41. 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002)

28 Days Later hits the ground running and never lets up for a second until it’s over. When apes infected with an experimental “rage” virus are released by activists, an outbreak sweeps across London like wildfire. 28 days after the incident, Jim awakes from a coma in a deserted hospital and finds the people of London replaced with raging, bloodthirsty “infected,” and the quest for survival begins.

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40. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)

The Nolans’ first Batman movie breathed new life into a franchise that had gone off the rails in the ’90s. Their follow-up transcends the superhero genre entirely. It is an epic crime drama that uses dense philosophical problems as an excuse to stage jaw-dropping action sequences. The opening scene, which introduces the late Heath Ledger’s brilliant Joker character, is one of the best bank heists ever filmed.

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39. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2009)

The first (only?) good movie about the Iraq War, The Hurt Locker succeeds by taking the (one would think) obvious step of putting story above politics. This is war as suspense thriller, depicting the intense missions of an elite bomb squad. As they go from near-death experience to near-death experience, each responds differently to the incredible pressure of the job they do.

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38. Ratatouille (Brad Bird & Jan Pinkava, 2007)

The pitch for this movie must have sounded like the ramblings of a madman: A cartoon about a rat who wants to become a French chef? Fortunately, the folks at Pixar can do anything they want. Here, in addition to telling a story that is funny, charming, and a feast for the eyes, they produced one of the most profound statements about art, artists, and criticism to ever grace the screen.

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37. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, 2000)

This was the first Coen brothers film I ever saw, and I was instantly hooked: An adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey set in Depression-era Mississippi? That idea is solid gold! O Brother is witty, literate, and laugh-out loud hilarious from beginning to end. Several years and countless viewings later, I’m still catching up with all of the cultural references and in-jokes, and enjoying the smash-hit soundtrack of “old-timey” hymns, bluegrass, and folk music.

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36. In Bruges (Martin McDonagh, 2008)

This film, written and directed by an award-winning Irish playwright, follows an odd-couple of hitmen who are sent to cool their heels in the oldest medieval city in Europe after a job goes wrong back home. It is the blackest of comedies, sustaining an impossible balancing act between humor and pathos before finally arriving at a weird sort of redemption for its protagonists.

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35. The Departed (Martin Scorsese, 2006)

This is the film that got Scorsese his long-overdue notice from the Academy (and thank goodness it wasn’t for The Aviator). After a decade of Oscar-baiting, he finally reminded us of what made him so good in the first place. A remake of a Hong Kong crime thriller called Infernal Affairs, the film tells the story of two mortal enemies who have never met. One is a cop buried in deep cover in a mobster’s organization. The other is the mobster’s mole in the police force. Suspense and violence ensue.

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34. Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe, 2000)

William Miller, a 15-year old budding writer and music critic, finagles a commission out of Rolling Stone to tour with the up-and-coming rock group Stillwater and write a story about them. However, as days on the road turn into weeks, Will seems to have come down with a major case of writer’s block. From beginning to end, the film feels like nothing less than a labor of love, a semi-autobiographical story about great music, the fans who are passionate about it, and the all-too-human bands that make it happen.

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33. Artificial Intelligence: AI (Steven Spielberg, 2001)

David is a prototype android child, programmed to love his human “mother” unconditionally. But, when his mother rejects and abandons him, David embarks on a weird, unforgettable quest to earn her acceptance. Directed by Spielberg, but developed by Stanley Kubrick (who died in 1999), AI is a fascinating collaboration that film buffs will be debating and discussing for decades to come. Maybe philosophers will, too.

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32. Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)

We already knew Fincher was capable of creating a terrifying serial killer movie that would sear itself into the memory, but with Zodiac he surpasses his earlier work. I’m not sure what it is: Maybe the painstaking attention to period detail, the unsettling atmosphere, or the brilliantly obsessive performance by Jake Gyllenhaal (and the spectacular supporting cast). Most likely though, it’s the fact that the events in this movie closely follow the real-life Zodiac murders that took place in the ’60s and ’70s, and the fact that they remain unsolved to this day.

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31. Moulin Rouge! (Baz Lurhmann, 2001)

I’ve never been able to come up with a satisfactory reason for why this movie should work at all, let alone succeed so perfectly on nearly every level. Maybe it’s because it seems to be trying so earnestly to tell the truth. Luhrmann clearly understands how to stage a musical when you don’t have to confine it to . . . well, a stage. The leads have incredible chemistry, and the movie dazzles and enchants with light, color, and a slate of anachronistic pop tunes transplanted into the Bohemian revolution in 1899 Paris (the story is based on the opera La boheme).

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30. The Incredibles (Brad Bird, 2004)

Not constrained by the weight of established characters, story arcs, and origin stories that burden most superhero movies, but free to explore all of the limitless possibilities that comic books have made available, The Incredibles delivers on its title in a big way. Throwing one great idea after another at the screen, the movie offers almost non-stop, mind-blowing action without sacrificing plot or character along the way.

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29. Hotel Rwanda (Terry George, 2004)

In 1994, genocide was taking place in Rwanda while the world stood by and did nothing. With no help forthcoming from outside the country, the victims were forced to save themselves. This is the unbelievable, inspiring true story of how Paul Rusesabagina saved the lives of over a thousand people (including his wife and children) by sheltering them in the Belgian-owned, four-star hotel he managed when the hotel’s foreign employees and guests abandoned the country.

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28. Traffic (Steven Soderbergh, 2000)

A top-notch ensemble cast populates several intersecting storylines (each one tinted with a different color) in this hard look at the progress of our decades-old War on Drugs. In addition to being an intensely well-crafted and compelling character drama, Traffic understands the biggest lesson of all: true change begins at home, in the family. It doesn’t pretend to have the solution to America’s drug problem, but it knows where the conversation should begin.

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27. Hero (Yimou Zhang, 2002)

In describing this film, one might be tempted to note only the perfectly-controlled, indescribably beautiful aesthetics and almost absurdly over-the-top fight scenes on display. To do so, however, would miss an intricately constructed tale reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa’s magnificent Rashomon. The result is a legend that plays like history . . . or maybe vice-versa.

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26. Dogville (Lars von Trier, 2003)

Lars von Trier has a somewhat interesting approach to cinematic storytelling. Some might call him a purist. With Dogville (a story about a small town that is transformed by the arrival of a woman fleeing the mob) he set out to make a feature-length film on a stage with a bare minimum of scenery. The result is a difficult but rewarding film which draws constant attention to its own artificiality, but also forces our attention onto the narrative and the performers (who are amazing).

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Top 25 coming soon . . .

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~ by Jared on March 20, 2010.

3 Responses to “The Top 101 Films of the Decade: 50-26”

  1. I laughed my way through Sunshine. Did not make me concerned for the characters at all, the plot was utterly ridiculous, and the melting man toward the end was one of the most unintentionally funny things I’d seen in film in a long time. Sorry, bud, gotta disagree with you on that one.

  2. No no no, the plot isn’t the point (I kind of hinted that), it’s just an excuse to explore certain themes. I don’t think you’re supposed to be concerned for the characters. They generally don’t seem concerned for themselves; this is basically supposed to be a suicide mission . . . the mission itself is the concern, which worked for me.

    And, yes, it goes off the rails at the end (and I don’t even totally hate that portion, it just isn’t of a piece with the rest), but *before* that it unfolds so perfectly: Starting with “2001,” it’s drawing on the greatest cinematic elements of the genre from the last 4 decades. The pacing is flawless. The images are unforgettable. And I love the role that the sun plays as a psychological and spiritual force. By basically making the sun (or perhaps “sunlight”) the main character, the film invites exploration into a lot of interesting ideas.

    Anyway, that’s kind of my very rough, very brief defense, fwiw. I should note that I saw this movie with *very* low expectations, knowing only that a few people regarded it very highly, but having heard almost nothing about it other than its absurd-sounding premise. That sort of thing could potentially account for our extreme difference of opinion, or at least for that part which is not related to differing tastes. Wouldn’t it be cool to have some solid notion of how all of that stuff fits together to decide what we like and what we don’t? Sometimes I feel like the most subtle of factors push my opinion wildly one way or another . . .

  3. I definitely get that, and I may have to see it again in a different environment. I picked it up because 1. My coworker highly recommended it and I like Danny Boyle, and 2. Cilian Murphy’s in it. And I ended up being really disappointed, and, as I said, spent most of my time making fun of it.

    I’ve realized that for me, story and writing are a much larger part of the movie-going experience than anything else. If a film doesn’t have solid, well-written, and often, original, story telling behind its characters, and (I consider this hand in hand), compelling characters to relate the story, then it’s not worth seeing. That’s why I loathed Avatar so much; it was a story that had been told over and over before, and didn’t contribute anything new to the discussion. “Sunshine” had just enough of a ridiculous premise that I couldn’t buy anything else it may have been saying, just because the premise was so beyond believable. I think, for me, writing is what makes or break a film.

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