The 50 Best Movies of the 2000s

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The 50 Best Movies of the 2000s

If comparing music from Gillian Welch and Outkast in our 50 Best Albums of the Decade is like apples and oranges, ranking films like Amélie, The Dark Knight and Mulholland Drive is more like apples, ice cream and foie gras. But despite the wild variety among our 50 Best Movies from 2000-2009, each is an exquisitely made, exceptionally satisfying piece of cinema that we believe will endure well after the decade has ended. There are masters like Martin Scorcese and Lars Von Trier, and relative newcomers like Fernando Meirelles and Anna Boden. There are documentaries, comedies and dramas, as well as animated films and even a super-hero flick. Mirroring a decade of globalism, the filmmakers are from the United States, New Zealand, Taiwan, Germany, Ireland, France, Japan, Canada, Mexico, Denmark, Romania, Thailand, Brazil, and nearly every part of the U.K. Let these be our recommendations for your Netflix queue—or in the case of #21, a theater near you. Personally, after reading the loving descriptions in these pages, I’ve already got films I missed the first time around—like Syndromes and a Century and Beau Travail—on the way.—Josh Jackson, Paste editor-in-chief

50. The Squid and the Whale (2005)


Writer/Director: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline
Studio: Samuel Goldwyn Films
Borrowing themes from his previous films—children of failed marriages; characters whose bookish smarts seem to work against them; a floating sense of fatalism—The Squid and the Whale creeps ever closer to Noah Baumbach’s own tempestuous past. His parents’ faltering union isn’t just a detail used to add depth to a certain character. It’s the whole story—a gorgeous, candid portrait of the messy car crash of divorce, from all angles. “It’s hard to even put myself in the mindset of those movies anymore,” he told Paste in 2005. “With Squid, these are reinventions of people that are close to me, and this is the movie I identify with the most. It is a natural extension of what I have intended and what I feel. I trusted myself more on this one.”—Keenan Mayo

49. High Fidelity (2000)


Director: Stephen Frears
Writer: Nick Hornby (novel)
Stars: John Cusack, Jack Black, Lisa Bonet, Todd Louiso
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
Funny, insightful and insanely quotable, High Fidelity plays like an ultra-hip Woody Allen movie. Writer Nick Hornby tapped into the psyche of the 20th century male, with John Cusack playing an everyman who retraces his past girlfriend history only to find he let the perfect woman slip through his fingers.—Jeremy Medina

48. Flight of the Red Balloon (Le voyage du ballon rouge) (2008)


Writer/Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Stars: Juliette Binoche, Hippolyte Giradot
Studio: IFC Films
It’s tempting to put the latest movie by Hou Hsiao-hsien into a neat little box. Although it’s not a film for kids, it’s an homage to Albert Lamorisse’s endearing children’s short “The Red Balloon,” and at times it seems as buoyant and aimless as a helium-filled toy. Hou is working in France instead of his usual Taiwan, and with Academy Award-winning actress Juliette Binoche instead of his cast of regulars. This makes the entire project feel like a detour for an artist best known for complex, austere films about Taiwan’s pulsing present and tumultuous history. Lamorisse’s short is about a loner of a boy who has the best of all possible friends, an amazingly reactive balloon, but Hou’s film is a realistic look at the inside of this fantasy, at the modern-day stresses on close-knit families. He slips behind Lamorisse’s facade like the Taiwanese amateur filmmaker who takes a job as Binoche’s nanny, an echo of Hou within his own story; the nanny even tells us how special effects make the balloon move. Since Flight falls at the simple-but-elegant end of Hou’s spectrum, the mysterious and lyrical finale in the Musée D’Orsay comes as a surprise; this balloon is anchored by some heft.—Robert Davis

47. Grizzly Man (2005)


Writer/Director: Werner Herzog
Stars: Timothy Treadwell, Werner Herzog
Studio: Lions Gate Films
This pro?le of nature lover Timothy Treadwell, who unwisely tried to live among wild bears in Alaska until he was devoured, cuts a Herzogian swath across the hillside: A man attempts to ?nd harmony with nature but instead ?nds, as Herzog puts it, “chaos, hostility and murder.” Looming over the ?lm is not only the horror of Treadwell’s demise but also an audio recording of the tragedy, taped inadvertently by the video camera in Treadwell’s tent. Herzog tastefully omits it from the ?lm, but he makes the viewer aware of its existence. “The question of the tape which recorded Timothy Treadwell’s death and Amie Huguenard’s death is something that I had to address,” Herzog told Paste in 2007. “So I listened to it, and that’s the only time I appear in the ?lm. You only see me from behind, listening to it with earphones. The interesting thing is that Jewel Palovak who was working with Treadwell and living with Treadwell for 20 years tries to read my face, and it’s very, very intense and moving for her. The moment I heard the tape it was instantly clear: Only over my dead body is this tape going to end up in the movie. I’m not into doing a snuff ?lm, and I have to respect the dignity and privacy of two individuals’ deaths.”—Robert Davis

46. Iraq in Fragments (2006)


Director: James Longley
Studio: HBO Documentary Films
Applying the full spectrum of cinematic technique to a nonfiction film, Longley made one of the most striking movies this year, an immersive view of life in Iraq; a record of opinions and faces from across the country, all captured at close range.—Robert Davis

45. Whale Rider (2002)


Director: Niki Caro
Writers: Witi Ihimaera (novele), Niki Caro (screenplay)
Stars: Keisha Castle-Huges, Rawiri Paratene
Studio: Newmarket Films
Whale Rider tells the story of a young girl, Paikea, who lives in New Zealand with a stern grandfather who, apparently, needs to get modern. Every scene tells us this and gives us an opportunity to tsk-tsk his staunch rejection of his granddaughter who he believes, despite her lineage, can’t inherit the leadership of this Maori village because of her gender. She’ll need to convince her grandfather she can lead just as well as the boys can, and she’ll need to do it before the end of the movie. But just when you think you have the film pegged, its sincerity manages to break through the thin characterizations and age-old plot. Young actress Keisha Castle-Hughes gives Paikea a richly expressive voice, and the turning point is an astonishingly heartfelt speech she delivers at a school program for parents. Castle-Hughes’ grace and beauty on the screen is probably the main reason Whale Rider became a surprise art-house hit.—Robert Davis

44. Hotel Rwanda (2004)


Director: Terry George
Writers: Keir Pearson, Terry George
Stars: Don Cheadle, Sophie Okonedo, Nick Nolte, Joaquin Phoenix
Studio: Lions Gate
While Hotel Rwanda attempts to document the country’s genocide in 1994, it does so by focusing on the character of Rusesabagina (played by Don Cheadle), who gave refuge to hundreds of fleeing Tutsis. Calling in dozens of favors with his extensive network of contacts, he was able to hold the Hutu extremists (the Interahamwe militia) at bay, until the Tutsi rebels drove the Hutu from power. Cheadle portrays Rusesabagina as an efficient manager who cares deeply about his family and the people in he looks after It’s a gripping film that bears witness to both a historic tragedy and one man’s bravery. “I never thought I was doing something different,” Rusesabagina modestly told Paste just after the film’s release. “I thought I was just acting as a normal hotel manager.”—J. Robert Parks

43. In America (2004)


Director: Jim Sheridan
Writers: Jim, Naomi and Kristen Sheridan
Stars: Paddy Considine, Dijmon Hounsou
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Approximately one minute of this film is all it takes to fall in love with the two girls in the lead roles (real-life sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger). Four minutes later, you’re in love with the parents (Samantha Morton and Paddy Considine), too. This Irish family is recovering from tragedy by immigrating to the tenements of New York. Their attempts to mend their broken hearts and scarred psyches after the death of their son—with the help of AIDS-stricken Djimon Hounsou, and a new baby—is heartrending, but the wide-eyed candor of the girls and writer-director Jim Sheridan’s sense of humor save it from being maudlin.—Emily Riemer

42. The Last King of Scotland (2006)


Director: Kevin Macdonald
Writers: Giles Foden (novel), Peter Morgan and Jeremy Brock (screenplay)
Stars: Forrest Whitaker, James McAvoy
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
The brutality of this film is at times difficult to bear, but harder still would be tearing your eyes away from Forrest Whitaker, who is fully inhabited by the charismatic monster Idi Amin. Director Kevin Macdonald pulls us gradually into the world of the Ugandan dictator through Amin’s Scottish personal physician, making for a Faustian seduction with horrific returns.—Josh Jackson

41. L’Enfant (2006)


Writer/Directors: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Stars: Jérémie Renier, Déborah François
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
The Dardenne brothers specialize in poetically ambiguous titles, and in their latest film, it’s the new parents and their cohorts who seem like children. But the Dardennes love them anyway, telling their story in the unvarnished style that’s become their trademark.—Robert Davis

40. The Departed (2006)


Director: Martin Scorsese
Writers: William Monahan, Felix Chong, Alan Mak
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Whalberg, Alec Baldwin
Studio: Warner Bros.
At times truly funny and at others brutally violent, Scorsese’s latest ambitious gangster flick spends equal time exploring the deceitful inner workings of the Boston Special Investigation Unit and it’s pro-crime counterpart, the Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson)-led Irish mafia.

39. Spirited Away (2001)


Writer/Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Stars (U.S.): Daveigh Chase, Jason Marsden, Suzanne Pleshette
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki perfectly exemplifies what happens when adults never lose their childlike curiosity and sense of wonderment. Beautifully animated, it’s the crowning achievement in his filmography thus far, a dreamlike (and at times, frightening) adventure about a young girl who discovers an alternate reality filled with some rather fantastical inhabitants. (And, in typical Miyazaki form, an epic battle between good and evil). There’s a strangeness to the wonder, and there’s beauty in the most nightmarish corners. A Disney film like no other, Spirited Away is a triumph for the imagination.—Jeremy Medina

38. Donnie Darko (2001)


Writer/Director: Richard Kelly
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, James Duvall, Mary McDonnell
Studio: Newmarket
Richard Kelly was just 25 when he got funding for his first full-length feature, Donnie Darko, but it became a cult classic, thanks to mind-bending twists and a gigantic talking bunny named “Frank.”

37. Billy Elliot (2000)


Director: Stephen Daldry
Writer: Lee Hall
Stars: Jamie Bell, Julie Walters, Julie Walters, Gary Lewis
Studio: Universal Focus
On the surface, Billy Elliot appears to be the archetypal tale of an outsider who is driven to follow his own path at all costs. But this story of a boy from depressed, working-class England who mortifyingly discovers that ballet is his life’s ambition, is saved from cliché by Stephen Daldry’s slightly quirky, at times witty, and deeply sympathetic portrayal of the pain of finding one’s voice in adolescence. The tearjerker caused such an impact worldwide, it was made into a Tony award-winning musical scored by none other than Elton John.—Emily Riemer

36. Millions (2004)


Director: Danny Boyle
Writer: Frank Cottrell Boyce
Stars: Alexander Nathan Etel, Lewis McGibbon
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Danny Boyle is a gifted director with a range seldom (if ever) seen—from the frenetic druggie movie Trainspotting to the zombie thriller 28 Days Later, from the science fiction of Sunshine to Oscar-winner Slumdog Millionaire. But Boyle’s best work to date was the family film Millions. He brings the energy, creativity and vibrancy that are his hallmarks to the most fully realized and satisfying story he’s committed to film. Boyd and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce imbue a simple tale of found money and family loss with a degree nuance and sophistication rare even in art films, let alone family fare. In Millions, idealism and fantasy meet gritty reality in an inspiring tale that deals with life’s complications before transcending them. —Tim Regan-Porter

35. Junebug (2005)


Director: Phil Morrison
Writer: Angus MacLachlan
Stars: Amy Adams, Embeth Davidtz, Alessandro Nivola, Celia Weston
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Phil Morrison’s debut is marked by strong sense of place, genuine feeling and a delicate, non-denigrating humor. Set over one long, intense weekend, the story details how the seductive presence of Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz) challenges the mores and affects the fragile equilibrium of a Southern family whose dynamics and socioeconomic makeup are most particular. Deliberate pacing and contemplativeness—qualities associated with the South—inform the movie, which boasts sharp characterization, crisp dialogue and meticulous attention to physical locale. And Amy Adams gives one of the best performances of the decade.—Emanuel Levy

34. Little Miss Sunshine (2006)


Directors: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Writer: Michael Arndt
Stars: Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Abigail Breslin, Steve Carell, Paul Dano, Alan Arkin
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
If the key to comedy is timing, then Little Miss Sunshine proves that what’s true for performers is also true for filmmakers. Mom, Dad, two kids, Grandpa, and Uncle Frank—a suicidal college professor recently spurned by his lover—sit down for a chaotic dinner scene that pops like syncopated jazz, setting the tone for a warm, funny that somehow includes Friedrich Nietzsche and Marcel Proust in a story about a road trip and a beauty contest. All the adult actors, save Carell, had played dramatic parts in the past; their versatility is critical, and Carell proves more than ready to join their ranks.—Robert Davis

33. Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2 (2003, 2004)


Writer/Director: Quentin Tarantino
Stars: Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, Daryl Hannah, David Carradine
Studio: Miramax
With Kill Bill, Tarantino managed to pay homage to all the kung-fu films, spaghetti westerns and exploitation flicks he grew up with. The four-hour epic was split into two films filled with Uma Thurman violently, unrelentingly serving up revenge.—Josh Jackson

32. Ratatouille (2007)


Writer/Directors: Brad Bird, Jan Pinkava
Stars: Patton Oswalt, Lou Romano, Peter Sohn, Brad Garrett, Ian Holm
Studio: Walt Disney Studios (Pixar)
While consistently fun, many of Pixar’s film’s succeed by taking an obvious universe impossible to really capture with live action—anthropomorphizing toys, fish, monsters, cars, etc.—and crafting a solid story around it. But Ratatouille is anything but predictable: a rat (Patton Oswalt!) who dreams of becoming a chef. With The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille, Bird has carved his name, not just among the animation greats, but the storytelling masters.—Josh Jackson

31. Gosford Park (2001)


Director: Robert Altman
Writer: Julian Fellowes
Stars: Michael Gambon, Alan Bates, Derek Jacobi, Hellen Mirren, Kristin Scott Thomas, Bob Balaban, Clive Owen
Studio: USA Films
Robert Altman’s ambitious murder mystery aptly demonstrates his signature style of filmmaking. He assembles a large cast of superb actors and allows them to act out their roles, in some cases even improvising, while the cameras roll. The result is an Agatha Christie-whodunit meets a post-modern exploration of the dying class system in England. Not unlike the British Sam Mendes’ treatment of American suburbia in American Beauty, no one but an outsider can so acutely skewer a culture’s idiosyncrasies as Altman does here. And only this famed “actors’ director” could have attracted such an illustrious and talented cast, who can make the tautly written lines sing and the emotionally fraught scenes hum with intrigue and tension.—Emily Riemer

30. Once (2007)


Writer/Director: John Carney
Stars: Glen Hansard, Markéta Irglová
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
This low-key story of a busker on the streets of Dublin (The Frames’ Glen Hansard) who meets a girl that digs his songs is one of the most heartfelt celebrations of music ever filmed. Its handheld realism is the cinematic equivalent of a great live show—a palette-cleanser that strips away layers of studio lacquer in favor of warm tones and deeply soulful characters.—Jason Killingsworth

29. Man on Wire


Director: James Marsh
Starring: Philippe Petit
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
In 1974, high-wire walker Philippe Petit fulfilled a longstanding dream by sneaking into New York’s World Trade Center, stringing a cable between the tops of the two towers, and—with almost unfathomable guts—walking across it without a net. The man is clearly a nut, but he’s also a great storyteller with a heck of a story, and Man on Wire gives him a chance to tell it. Petit’s stunt was both an engineering challenge and a test of, well, a test of something that most of us don’t possess in this much quantity. Filmmaker James Marsh uses standard documentary techniques, combining new interviews with a satisfying pile of footage and photographs, but his film has the suspense of a caper movie. The title comes from the report written by a police officer who was more than a little uncertain about how to respond to the audacity on display.—Robert Davis

28. A History of Violence (2005)


Director: David Cronenberg
Writers: John Wagner, Vince Locke (graphic novel), Josh Olson (screenplay)
Stars: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt
Studio: New Line Cinema
A devious genre tale that’s so much more, this thriller/action film plays its audience like a marionette with a mix of taut suspense, humor and a myriad of implicit questions about our response to violence. This first Cronenberg/Mortensen collaboration led to another fine film, Eastern Promises.

27. Caché (Hidden) (2005)


Writer/Director: Michael Haneke
Stars: Juliette Binoche, Daniel Auteuil, Maurice Bénichou
Studio: Sony Picture Classics
Michael Haneke’s aptly named Caché (Hidden) is a multi-layered, open-ended thriller, an onion sliced by taut piano wire. It’s the story of a family with blocked communication channels. It’s a look at the way buried trauma seeps into daily life. And it’s an examination of fear and vulnerability so palpable that a long sequence—in which the main character simply enters the house, draws the curtains and lies down for a nap—drips with dread. Despite these provocative layers, Haneke develops the themes in concrete terms so Caché also works as good-old-fashioned suspense. He works against the genre in one way; he’s more interested in the mystery’s existence than in solving it, leaving plenty of room in his fertile construction to accommodate the intelligence of his audience.—Robert Davis

26. Ghost Dog (2000)


Writer/Director: Jim Jarmusch
Star: Forest Whitaker
Studio: Channel Four Films
After making Dead Man, a Western film about a meek Ohio accountant and a Native American warrior, indie auteur Jim Jarmusch blended Oriental philosophy with gangster reality in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. Forest Whitaker plays the title character, a hit man who adopts the code of the Hagakure, a training manual for 18th-Century would-be samurai.—Josh Jackson