50) All the Real Girls (David Gordon Green, 2003): David Gordon Green (aka mini Malick) got much acclaim for this film, which starred the then little known Zooey Deschanel and Paul Schneider. It’s the best breakup film of the decade (sorry (500) Days of Summer!).
49) Amelie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001): This was the foreign film that made everyone fall in love with Paris. Again. It also defined a highly color-saturated, “magic realist” style that would be oft-imitated in subsequent years.
48) Ballast (Lance Hammer, 2008): No one saw Ballast, but it’s one of the decade’s best independent American films. Watch the trailer. The film is a thing of quiet beauty that begs to be experienced.
47) Thirteen Conversations About One Thing (Jill Sprecher, 2001): There’s a decidedly melancholy tone and Edward Hopper-esque look to this “interlocking stories” ensemble film, but it ends up being far from just another artsy downer.
46) Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola, 2006): The colors, textures, and indulgent opulence of this film would be annoying if it wasn’t all so absolutely fitting and perfectly executed. A classic story retold through Sofia Coppola’s delicate and distinctive 80s shoegazer lens.
45) Black Hawk Down (Ridley Scott, 2001): Though it had the unfortunate luck to be released just months after 9/11, this stunning action film remains one of the best, most punch-you-in-the-gut depictions of modern urban warfare that we have.
44) Wall E (Andrew Stanton, 2008): Pixar topped themselves yet again with this cautionary tale/robot love story. More than just a triumph of the craft (the best animated movie of the decade), Wall E is a film that speaks to the cultural moment with grace and provocative insight.
43) 25th Hour (Spike Lee, 2002): Shot in the shadows of the blue-light specters of the World Trade Center, Spike Lee’s film eloquently captures the complicated post-9/11 mood of America. Ostensibly about one man’s (Edward Norton) last night before heading off to prison, 25th Hour is really a letter to NYC and America—full of all the rage, love, sadness, and hope that Lee so keenly conjures up in his films.
42) The Road (John Hillcoat, 2009): Based on the novel (by Cormac McCarthy) that is arguably the definitive piece of fiction for the 2000s, The Road is a triumph of cinematic adaptation that manages to visually render a book some called unfilmable and offer us an unsettling forecast of what nightmares may come if we don’t “carry the fire” and pass it on to the next generation.
41) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004): This Charlie Kaufman-penned film is as unconventional as romances get, what with its trippy examinations of memory, time, and psychology. And yet it all comes together perfectly, capturing quirky blips of spellbinding truth that more conventional films could never offer.
40) Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006): Heart-pounding and compelling from start to finish, this action/thriller is more than just a showcase for ear-ringing bombs and spectacularly elaborate single-take gun battles. It’s a film that jolts us awake to the miracle of life.
39) Traffic (Steven Soderbergh, 2000): Probably the best drug-themed film of the decade, and Soderbergh’s most significant contribution to cinema since Sex, Lies & Videotape. It was pivotal in the way that it energized the “social problem” film genre and proved that films about complicated issues could be made stylishly and for mainstream audiences.
38) Silent Light (Carlos Reygades, 2007): This film about a Mennonite love triangle set in Northern Mexico is original to the core (aside from a very literal nod to Dreyer’s Ordet) and shockingly visceral. The opening and closing shots are truly unforgettable.
37) Kill Bill Vol 1 (Quentin Tarantino, 2003): More indulgent and outrageous than Vol. 2, but even more stylish and painfully entertaining. Who can forget the epic fight scene climax in Japan or the “let’s have us a knife fight” matchup with Uma and Vivica?
36) Letters From Iwo Jima (Clint Eastwood, 2006): This “other side of the story” companion piece to Flags of Our Fathers puts the stunning maturity and storytelling genius of Eastwood on full display. There was no more heartbreaking war film than this in the 2000s.
35) The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007): Taking a page out of Malick’s stylebook, Dominik renders a contemplative existential portrait of Jesse James through images and sound, not so much with words. Brad Pitt is at his best, but the real star is Casey Affleck, whose “cowardly” Robert Ford proves to be a most unexpected tour de force.
34) In the Bedroom (Todd Field, 2001): Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek are at the top of their game in this gripping, stays-with-you domestic drama about normal people reacting to abnormal trauma.
33) Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood, 2004): The best of Eastwood’s late career prolific period, Million Dollar Baby is a sports movie (boxing) that packs a real punch. The third act takes a turn unlike anything I’ve seen this decade.
32) The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001): Wes Anderson’s most complete, satisfying cinematic entrée, Tenenbaums is a gloriously somber iteration of the sort of hipster/retro nostalgia that has defined the 00s. Anderson’s hyper-stylized, immaculately arranged art direction and mise-en-scene launched innumerable trends in both film and television.
31) Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas, 2009): This exquisite French film is about the beauty and meaning of life, and how it is so much more than objects and mementos and the bric-a-brac of our everyday accumulations. It’s about the hours we spend with our families, running around on a summer evening in a forest or field, sipping wine or eating quiche. It’s about the love and passion and sadness we share.
30) A.I. (Steven Spielberg, 2001): This film ushered in the 21st century with a particularly 21st century gimmick: the mashup. The Spielberg/Kubrick film is also thoroughly modern in its dystopic imagery and technophobic preoccupations: the all-too-immediate question of what happens when our technology becomes more real to us than our fellow humans.
29) The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008): Not only the best comic book movie ever, but one of the best action/blockbuster films as well. Heath Ledger is one thing (a big thing), but this movie is impressive on so many levels. It’s reassuring that films like this can still get made—super smart films that can still make $700 million.
28) Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000): Before The Dark Knight, Nolan gave us this breakthrough indie hit—a told-backwards film that revels in unorthodox structure and kicked the door wide open for a decade of non-linear narrative exploration.
27) Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Peter Weir, 2003): In terms of historical costume epics, Weir’s elegant seafaring drama delivered all the goods. It’s an exciting, beautifully made, well-acted film with profound themes and the increasingly rare (but wonderful) blend of regal grandiosity and intimate character development.
26) L’enfant (Jean-Pierre Dardenne/Luc Dardenne, 2005): Shocking both in how spare it is and how affecting it becomes, L’enfant is one of the true gems of recent European cinema. As usual for the Dardennes, the film withholds catharsis until the final few frames, leaving us abruptly stunned, paralyzed, and unsure what to feel as the screen goes black.