The Top 25 Films of the Decade

Click here for 101-76, here for 75-51, and here for 50-26.

Thanks to everyone who has followed along with this countdown. I had a great time putting it together, and I hope that it has provoked many nods of agreement, cries of outrage, and trips to your Netflix queue. Evaluations of the significance of years, decades, and eras of film history, and of the quality of films they produced, are always hot topics among both amateur and professional film scholars.

In the larger narrative of American film history, the 1970s are widely regarded as an exceptional and critical decade. Those years saw a number of exciting cinematic developments from talented auteurs who experienced unprecedented creative freedom. The 1970s also introduced the “blockbuster;” a phenomenon which has largely charted the course of the industry ever since.

As rapidly-developing technological advances continue to make our blockbusters bigger, brighter, and louder (though not always better), it is also becoming easier than ever for small filmmakers to realize their personal vision without the input of of a major studio marketing department. Meanwhile, new technologies have opened up more opportunities for people to find and enjoy these alternatives to big-budget Hollywood spectacles and to share those experiences with others.

Perhaps when historians look back on the 00s, they will see it as a small turning point from the market-driven ’80s and ’90s. And while it may never take on the glow of a decade like the 1970s, I think we can all agree that film remains vibrant and innovative, and that the last 10 years have been very kind to moviegoers.

25. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)

Marketed as the ultimate revenge fantasy, Tarantino’s homage to the Dirty Dozen subgenre of World  War II films is so much more than that. It is a (somewhat ambiguous) critique of cinema violence and how audiences respond to it. It is an apologetic for the power of cinema to rewrite (and perhaps even to redeem) history. Above all, though, it is a demonstration of Tarantino’s ability to create and sustain a nearly unbearable level of dramatic tension while characters converse casually and lives hang in the balance.


24. Downfall (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004)

This is a compulsively watchable, German-made account of Hitler’s final days in his bunker in Berlin, told primarily from the perspective of his private secretary, Traudl Junge (who died in 2002). It does not attempt to explain Nazism or to impose any obvious message onto the events, merely depicting the madness and chaos of the Third Reich and its leader in their death throes.


23. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Peter Weir, 2003)

Master and Commander is a killer naval drama based on an awesome book series. The duo of Captain Jack Aubrey and ship’s surgeon (and spy) Stephen Maturin, here played perfectly by Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany, are among the greatest literary characters ever created, and their adventures together during the Napoleonic Wars definitely live up that potential.


22. Little Children (Todd Field, 2006)

It may seem like just another “suburban malaise” movie, but its top-notch execution, powerful performances, and complex thematic qualities indicate otherwise. The title refers both to the literal kids who inspire the culture-shaping cry of “for the children!” and to the decidedly juvenile behavior of the adults who produced them. Everything is covered with a layer of irony (thanks in part to the voice-over narration, which strikes the perfect tone), but not so thick as to transform the characters into caricatures.


21. Junebug (Phil Morrison, 2005)

This film understands the life and culture of the American South in a genuinely profound and respectful way that I have seldom (if ever) seen in a movie, and it does so by resisting the almost universal cinematic urge to regard Southerners as the Other. Among its charming features is an Oscar-nominated performance by Amy Adams, and a moving look at the bonds of family, the gaps between American cultures, and the difficulties of communication.


20. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (Tommy Lee Jones, 2005)

After a gung-ho border patrolman accidentally guns down an illegal immigrant, a local rancher kidnaps the killer and forces him to dig up the body and take it back to Mexico. Every time I re-watch Tommy Lee Jones’ directorial debut, I appreciate it a little bit more. Transplanting the sensibilities of a Flannery O’Connor story to the Texas/Mexico border, Jones populates his film with weird characters, darkly-humorous situations, beautiful scenery, and a strong undercurrent of redemption.


19. Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002)

In 1997, Charlie Kaufman was hired to adapt The Orchid Thief into a screenplay. After reading the novel, he promptly developed a severe case of writer’s block, and ended up writing a screenplay about his struggle to translate the novel into a film instead. The result is surreal, as you are literally watching a movie that is about its own creation, but also funny, masterful, and (Kaufman’s hallmark) unlike anything you’ve ever seen.


18. The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001)

Royal Tenenbaum, the absentee patriarch of a family of prodigies, learns that he is terminally ill and returns home in an attempt to reconnect with his now-grown children (who seem to want nothing to do with him). Wes Anderson’s movies tend to be variations on the same themes, and thus have a lot in common with each other. This is the perfection of his formula, and it remains probably his best film to date, with a wonderfully quirky script and an amazing cast.


17. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007)

The title says a lot, but doesn’t say it all. This is the ultimate revisionist western, and its aim is nothing less than to interrogate the intimate relationship between history, myth, and reality. The lyrical, contemplative pacing is complemented by Roger Deakins’ artful cinematography, and Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck are perfect as the title characters: celebrated outlaw and desperate wanna-be.


16. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003)

This is an incredibly funny, incredibly sad, and shockingly good film about two very different people who experience a profound connection through their mutual feelings of alienation during a visit to Japan. Bob is a well-respected actor, somewhat past his prime, who is shooting a commercial. Charlotte is a neglected newlywed whose photographer husband is busy on assignment. Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson have never been better.


15. Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008)

Former Israeli soldier Ari Folman (the filmmaker as protagonist) finds that he remembers nothing of his role in the Lebanon War two decades before, and sets out to interview other soldiers about their experiences in an effort to revive his own memories. This film’s striking animation style flows smoothly between the highly naturalistic and the semi-surreal dreamscape, illustrating a statement about the terrible nature of war as powerful as anything since All Quiet on the Western Front (1930).


14. City of God (Fernando Meirelles & Katia Lund, 2002)

This Brazilian film presents an intricate, absorbing account of the rise of organized crime in the “Cidade de Deus” slum of Rio de Janeiro. The story takes place across several years during which the main character grows up to become a photographer, while most of his friends become gangsters. It is a chilling, but very human, depiction of the vicious cycle formed by corruption and poverty in the Third World.


13. Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton & Lee Unkrich, 2003)

Marlin, a somewhat neurotic clownfish, sets out across the ocean to find his son Nemo, taken by divers for a dentist’s aquarium. Along the way he is befriended by forgetful Dory and meets a host of weird and wonderful creatures. Colorful characters (in every sense of the term) abound in Pixar’s enchanting undersea adventure. The humor is timeless, the story is completely involving, and the scenery is gorgeous.


12. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)

Daniel Day-Lewis delivers a towering, grandly-tragic performance as oil-field entrepreneur Daniel Plainview in what may be the most important and ambitious American tragedy since Citizen Kane. Everything about Anderson’s epic masterpiece invites such lofty comparisons, from the grand scale of the production to the fiery magnetism and tragic flaws of the central character. This is definitely a must-see.


11. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006)

In a future where all women are barren and the youngest person in the world is 18 years old, Theo finds himself sucked into major events when his ex-wife (leader of a revolutionary group called the Fishes) requests a political favor. Cuaron brings his unique storytelling sensibilities to a great novel, and puts his own spin on it. On the surface, this dystopian sci-fi action thriller might seem like one long chase scene, but a radical illustration of hope lurks just beneath the surface.


10. Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky, 2000)

Movies warning against the dangers of drug addiction have been around for several decades, but surely this is the most harrowing anti-drug film ever made. It follows a young man, his girlfriend, his best friend, and his mother down the rabbit hole into their own private hells of addiction and through the horrifying consequences that follow. If this doesn’t convince someone to just say “no,” then nothing ever will. The film is so well-made that I’m not sure I could ever bear to sit through it again.


9. A Serious Man (Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, 2009)

An absolute masterpiece of dark comedy and theodicy, A Serious Man essentially transplants the story of Job to a Minnesota suburb in 1967. The protagonist is a complacent shmendrik who goes looking for an explanation from God when his life suddenly spins out of control. What ensues is both hilarious and enlightening (though not for our hero).


8. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)

In this gloriously animated fairy tale, a young girl must go to work in a bath house that caters to denizens of the spirit world in order to save her parents, who have been transformed into pigs. Miyazaki’s greatest film is a thorough charmer, full of surprising and delightful characters and ideas. It gives the sense of a fully realized world, with something new and exciting waiting to be discovered around every corner.


7. Road to Perdition (Sam Mendes, 2002)

The best gangster movie (and adaptation of a graphic novel) of the decade is an unforgettable story about fathers, sons, sin, sacrifice, and redemption. The film’s origins are obvious from its strikingly beautiful visual style and iconic storytelling. Exclusive to the movie, however, are a sublime soundtrack and memorable performances from Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Daniel Craig, Jude Law, etc.


6. Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005)

Located at the center of so much controversy (and humor), it was (and may still be) difficult to have an opinion of this film without appearing to make some sort of statement. I can’t put it any better than Entertainment Weekly: “Everyone called it ‘The Gay Cowboy Movie.’ Until they saw it.” I thought it was powerful, touching, and extremely well made when I first saw it in theaters. Curious to see if it lived up to my initial impression, I rewatched it a few years later and found that, if anything, Brokeback Mountain exceeded my memory of it.


5. Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, 2006)

Guillermo del Toro brings a fantastically dark world to life in this fairy tale for adults set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. Young Ofelia journeys to the countryside with her pregnant mother to join her new stepfather, a ruthless army captain tasked with cleaning out an isolated pocket of rebels, and discovers a hidden, parallel world of fairies and monsters in which she must complete a series of increasingly dangerous tasks. Del Toro’s ability to bring fantastical creatures vividly to life on-screen is rivaled only by his strength as a storyteller.


4. No Country for Old Men (Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, 2007)

Every second of the Coen Brothers’ extraordinarily faithful adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy novel is note-perfect, from the haunting voice-over by Tommy Lee Jones that opens the film, to the abrupt, uncompromising ending. A West Texas man finds a satchel full of money from a drug deal gone bad, and is pursued by an assassin who is as unstoppable and implacable as he is evil. Meanwhile, the local sheriff follows in the wake of destruction the two leave behind, wondering what larger implications this outbreak of violence may have. The Coens show a Hitchcockian talent for building an incredible level of suspense that, even after multiple viewings, never fades.


3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)

Charlie Kaufman brings us the definitive relationship drama of the decade. Lacuna, Inc. gives its customers the option to remove specific memories from their minds, prompting a quarreling couple to erase each other. As Clementine disappears from Joel’s mind, we see their relationship play out in reverse, reminding him of why he cared about her so much in the first place. Meanwhile, will forgetting their experiences together simply doom them to repeat the same mistakes? This film is mind-bending, awesome, and way better than that dating book you’re reading.


2. The Lord of the Rings trilogy (Peter Jackson, 2001-2003)

Peter Jackson’s critically and commercially successful adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic, multi-volume fantasy saga is an incredible achievement in any decade, but it would have been unthinkable before now. Jackson combined revolutionary digital effects, fantastic creature, costume, and set designs, and a grueling production schedule to bring this 11-hour megastory to the screen over a period of two years. And, while no true fan could ever be completely satisfied with anything less than the original, we can all rejoice in a trilogy that overwhelmed expectations and sparked a genre revival.


1. WALL·E (Andrew Stanton, 2008)

The first half-hour of WALL·E is one of the purest, most blissful examples of cinematic storytelling ever conceived. Pixar went out on a limb by denying the protagonist of a feature-length film the power of speech (though not of communication), and found themselves blazing trails in territory largely uncharted since the Silent Era. The result was the decade’s greatest romance (between two robots!) and most thrilling adventure. This is a funny, touching, exciting, infinitely-rewatchable movie full of hope, as we enter a new millennium, that the power of the human imagination will ultimately prove a match for our destructive nature.


~ by Jared on March 29, 2010.

One Response to “The Top 25 Films of the Decade”

  1. Your number 1 is certainly unexpected! But I agree with what I’ve seen of the top ten. “No Country” is probably my favorite Coen Bros movie, and Mizyaki is AWESOME on any level.


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