This list was much harder for me than my television list. Even more than before, this is definitely a list of my favorite movies of the decade, not the best. There are movies not on this list that I know are qualitatively better than some of the ones on it. This line of reasoning affects the order of the list as well. The only real objective sacrifice I made was in leaving Kingdom of Heaven off. I love that movie. It was the first movie I bought on Blu-ray. But I couldn’t bring myself to list it here. I was also hindered by the fact that there are a lot of movies, some of them likely outstanding, that I just never got around to seeing. So really, this list is flawed, but it’s the only list I’m qualified to write. Here goes, my 25 favorite movies of the past decade:
25) Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)
Those of you who read my television list will probably not be shocked to find this on my movie list; I’ve been a big Jason Segel fan since the Nick Andopolis days. I also liked Mila Kunis in this, which is surprising, since she annoys me in pretty much everything else she does. And while I’m concerned that the upcoming spin-off movie Get Him to the Greek will end up being a disappointment, I love Russell Brand as Aldous Snow. He’s perfect as a narcissistic and selfish rock star who turns out to be both charming and mostly warm-hearted. Which I guess shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, considering that seems to be pretty much who he is in real life.
24) 9/11 (2002)
I love documentaries that, through luck, fate, or circumstance, end up becoming far more interesting than the filmmaker probably initially imagined. Would anyone remember The War Room if Clinton hadn’t ended up winning the election? One of the movies listed in the honorable mentions below, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, morphs from a movie about the making of a record and the inner workings of a band into a movie about the failures of the record industry when Reprise rejects Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Probably the best example of this, though, is 9/11 by Jules and Gedeon Naudet, who set out to make a documentary about the life of a rookie firefighter on the FDNY, and end up right in the middle of the defining event of the past ten years. The movie features one of the few existing shots of the first plane hitting Tower 1, and contains fascinating footage of firefighters attempting to coordinate rescue efforts from inside the lobby of the WTC. Johanna and I seem to get on a kick of watching things about September 11th every three years or so, and when we do, this is the first place we turn.
23) 24 Hour Party People (2002)
I don’t know how I heard about this movie. I don’t know what motivated me to buy it on DVD. I hadn’t even heard of half of the bands depicted in it when I first watched it. It just seemed to appear on my DVD shelf one day, and then quietly, over repeat viewings, become one of my favorite movies. It’s a fast-paced depiction of the music scene in Manchester in the 1980s and 1990s, and it might have been somewhat forgettable if not for the great performance of Steve Coogan as Tony Wilson. Like pretty much everything in this movie other than Joy Division and New Order, I hadn’t heard of either Coogan or Wilson before watching it, but I quickly became fans of both.
22) Up (2009)
I love Pixar. It’s amazing that they make animated movies ostensibly targeted at children, yet I still have three of them listed on my “Favorite Movies of the Decade” list and another one in the honorable mentions. This movie is notable for its tear-jerking opening act, and also for the fact that it caused me to incessantly say “Hi there!” in my “Dug” voice to my dog. As is the case with a lot of Pixar movies (The Incredibles, and most notably, in my opinion, Finding Nemo), the story starts to drag a bit near then end. But I still had a great feeling leaving the theater.
21) 28 Days Later (2002)
I may be confusing things (one of the movies may actually have been the remake of Dawn of the Dead), but I’m pretty sure I bought this movie along with Shaun of the Dead in one of the “Two Sort of Related DVDs for $12” packs at Best Buy. If so, that was the deal of the century. At its heart, this is a pretty basic zombie movie, but everything just feels smarter and cooler about it for some reason. Introduced me to Cillian Murphy, who really seemed like he was going to have a big career there for a minute.
20) Wall-E (2008)
The second of the Pixar movies on the list. This was pretty much a toss-up with Up, but ended up winning out because of the aforementioned pacing problems of that movie and because of the fact that I was more charmed by the character of Wall-E than I was by anything in Up. It’s amazing how much they pull off with a character that doesn’t speak for much of the movie and doesn’t have traditional human features. Owes a great debt to R2D2, which probably just makes me like him more.
19) The Departed (2006)
The problem with this movie is that there was a very swift backlash against it, and, like Crash before it, it just became too easy to dismiss it as overrated. Now when I think about it, the first things that come to mind are the movie’s flaws. But then I start to remember the great performances of Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, and the rest of the secondary cast, and all of the great lines and great moments start coming back to me. No other movie of this decade’s legacy will be as affected by its closing shot as The Departed’s is by the shot of the rat on the railing. Yes, it’s a bit heavy-handed. And yes, this is not Goodfellas. But this is still great filmmaking, and this is still a great movie.
18) The Lives of Others (2006)
I don’t remember all the details of this movie, and I don’t want to ruin my next viewing of it by doing any research, so all I’ll say is that I loved it when I saw it. I am fascinated by German reunification and the periods just before and after it, so I’m a sucker for movies like this and Good Bye Lenin!. What a bizarre society in which to live.
17) The Pianist (2002)
Two vaguely creepy and off-putting guys, Roman Polanski and Adrien Brody, come together to make one of the most affecting movies of the decade. The first time I attempted to watch this movie, I had rented it from Blockbuster and only had time to watch the first half or so before I had to return it. I then went several years without knowing what happened to Wladyslaw Szpilman. Luckily we both avoided tragic ends, as I did eventually see the movie, and he survived the war.
16) The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)
For better or worse, this movie, along with Wedding Crashers, officially transitioned us away from the character-based, high concept, Will Ferrell era of comedy. It moves along at a quicker pace than either Wedding Crashers or Knocked Up, and because of that is more rewatchable (although, really, when I stumble onto any of them on cable, I pretty much always leave them on). I remember, having not yet seen Weeds, thinking that Romany Malco was absolutely hilarious and wondering why I didn’t know who he was. And as much as I love The Office, this might be the best Steve Carell has been in anything.
15) City of God (2002)
While I love the story, this movie is more about production, visuals, and form than it is plot for me. It just works so well, with the slick, high production values juxtaposed with the raw, amateur ability of the actors. It’s a really, really fun movie to watch. It’s been compared quite a bit to Quentin Tarantino’s movies, but this is really the movie that Quentin Tarantino would make if he weren’t so gleefully nerdy. This movie is effortlessly cool.
14) Frost/Nixon (2008)
I expected to enjoy this movie, but I thought I would be sort of bored. Instead, I was completely riveted. Other than his narration of Arrested Development, this is, by far, the best thing Ron Howard has ever done. Here are the movies he directed this decade: How the Grinch Stole Christmas, A Beautiful Mind, The Missing, Cinderella Man, The Da Vinci Code, Frost/Nixon, Angels and Demons. One of these things is not like the other.
13) The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003)
They filmed them at the same time, so what the hell, I’m going to count them as one movie. Considering that I don’t especially like the books and I actively dislike pretty much everyone in the cast other than Ian McKellan, it’s a minor miracle that I like these movies as much as I do. Credit due to Peter Jackson, I suppose. The only truly cohesive major science fiction/fantasy movie series left, now that George Lucas released the Star Wars prequels. If I remember correctly, The Two Towers is my favorite, because it has Treebeard and the Ents, and also because of the completely awesome battle for Helm’s Deep.
12) Munich (2005)
It’s odd that two of my top twelve movies of the decade feature plots driven by vengeful Jewish people. This movie is Spielberg at his best; artful, well-oiled, middlebrow entertainment. It also continues his post-eighties streak of having approximately every fourth movie he directs be very good, following in the footsteps of Catch Me If You Can (2002), Saving Private Ryan (1998), Schindler’s List (1993), and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). Beyond Eric Bana, it has a great cast that includes Daniel Craig, Ciarán Hinds (Rome), and Mathieu Kassovitz (Amélie).
11) The Dark Knight (2008)
Definitely the best superhero movie of all time, although I have high hopes for the upcoming Green Hornet movie with Seth Rogan and Christoph Waltz. Like so many other movies this decade, this was just too long; twenty minutes could be cut easily. I also wish they hadn’t killed Two-Face; he would have been a great villain for the next movie. The story here, however, is obviously Heath Ledger. I went into this movie expecting to be underwhelmed by his performance; I had assumed that the Oscar talk was mostly post-death hype. I was blown away, though. His performance was by far the best part of the movie, and one of the most singular performances of the decade. Without spending too much time thinking about it, the performances that I think will immediately come to mind ten years from now when I think of this decade, not entirely based on quality, but mostly on how memorable they were, are: Johnny Depp as Capt. Jack Sparrow, Christoph Waltz as Hans Landa, Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview, Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh, Audrey Tautou as Amélie Poulain, Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly, Matt Damon as Jason Bourne, Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter, and Heath Ledger as the Joker. That’s it, off the top of my head.
10) The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)
When the first place I hear about a movie is Electronic Gaming Monthly, I don’t generally expect it to end up in my top ten favorite movies of the decade, but that’s exactly what happened in this case. A great cast of characters for a documentary, with the egomaniacal, self-promoting Billy Mitchell, the sickly sycophantic Brian Kuh, and the quiet, unassuming junior high school math teacher turned underdog hero, Steve Wiebe. It’s great to see a mundane, even slightly pathetic hobby turned into high drama by director Seth Gordon. Provided me with one of my favorite quotes of the decade, “There is a potential Donkey Kong kill screen coming up if anyone is interested.”
9) No Country for Old Men (2007)
Like the number one movie on this list, this is a rare example of a movie that I think is actually better than the book it’s based on, although in this case it’s only a slight improvement. It seems to me that most stories that take place in a desert setting are really helped by a visual medium; apparently I like watching wide-open, desolate spaces. This movie started a nice run for Josh Brolin, with American Gangster, W., and Milk to follow. I also love seeing Kelly MacDonald getting good roles. Give an Oscar to whoever decided to cut Javier Bardem’s hair like that.
8 ) Superbad (2007)
Judging by the entertainment we’re making for them, it seems like we’re giving high school kids a lot more credit than we used to. Just compare this movie to American Pie. Or maybe this movie was actually made for adults, in which case it’s sort of weird and voyeuristic for all of us to try to delve into what is best left as an insular, time-specific world for those who are living it. Either way, this movie is absolutely hilarious. This is the most likable Michael Cera has been, post-Arrested Development, and I’m guessing the most likable Jonah Hill will ever be. And I liked Emma Stone so much in this that I very nearly mustered up enough excitement to see Zombieland. I didn’t, though, because I really do not like Jesse Eisenberg.
7) There Will Be Blood (2007)
Prior to this movie, I’m pretty sure I had only seen Daniel Day-Lewis in The Last of the Mohicans and Gangs of New York, so I wasn’t quite sure what the hubbub was all about. This is obviously no longer the case. This is a period piece that feels like it takes place on another planet, and I mean that in the best possible way. The past should seem completely unfamiliar; if you can picture the craft services table ten feet to the left of the shot, the cast and crew aren’t doing their jobs. The final scene in Daniel Plainview’s bowling alley is riveting, and the closing line is one of my favorites of all time.
6) The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
This is the point at which the list becomes somewhat arbitrary; these six movies are in a different class than the rest of the movies on the list, and for the most part I would be happy to list them in whatever order. When it comes to how much I love them, they are only separated by the smallest degree of affection or admiration. I don’t enjoy this movie as much as Rushmore, which had a simplicity that makes it feel tighter and more timeless. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t applaud Wes Anderson for his ambition here. There are transcendent moments in this movie that are matched by nothing else this decade, including the rest of Anderson’s output. Richie Tenenbaum’s televised, mid-tennis match nervous breakdown is one of the best depictions of heartache I’ve ever seen, and it manages to remain darkly comic. Set a standard that most people other than Richard Brody of The New Yorker (author of this bizarre list) agree Anderson has had trouble reaching again.
5) Shaun of the Dead (2004)
My favorite comedy of the decade. Probably my second favorite comedy of all time, after Rushmore (which is usually the easy answer I give people when I’m asked what my favorite movie of all time is). Just great British humor; understated wit combined with slapstick physicality, sort of like The Office with zombies. Even if Simon Pegg never tops this (which I’m starting to suspect he won’t), he should die a happy man.
4) Ratatouille (2007)
As much as I love all of the Pixar movies, this is by far my favorite, and I’m not really sure why. I’m not a Francophile, but this makes me want to go to Paris. As I described in my notes for Up above, I think a lot of Pixar movies start to drag near the end, but this one feels like the perfect length, even though it’s actually the third longest Pixar movie after Cars and The Incredibles (the length of Cars being only one of its many problems). It’s perfectly paced, and it just feels more organic than the rest of Pixar’s output. Hopefully the phenomenal three year run of Ratatouille, Wall-E, and Up will help me muster up some enthusiasm for the Pixar offerings of the next two years, Toy Story 3 and Cars 2.
3) Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Produced the most excited post-theater discussion between me and Johanna of any movie we’ve seen other than the number one movie on this list. I’ve heard a lot of criticism that certain scenes were too long, which just confuses me, because I thought it was as tight as a drum. The opening scene is transfixing, and serves as a great introduction to Hans Landa, played by Christoph Waltz in one of the best performances of the decade. He makes me want to learn new languages. Definitely my favorite Quentin Tarantino movie, which is saying quite a bit.
2) Amélie (2001)
I am a complete sap for this movie. It owns me in a very embarrassing way. I get totally sucked in by the singular aesthetic and the score by Yann Tiersen. Probably the most beautiful movie of the past ten years. I still can’t believe it didn’t win the Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, although I’ve never seen No Man’s Land, so I guess I can’t judge. It gives Johanna and me something to watch on our anniversary every year.
1) Children of Men (2006)
One of the few cases of a movie being much, much better than the book on which it’s based. I knew as soon as the title card appeared after the explosion in the café that I was going to love this movie, and I was both shaken and literally shaking by the time it was over. I love all of the details, like Theo’s “London 2012” fleece and Banksy’s British Cops Kissing at the Ministry of Arts. The oft-discussed single-shot sequences, like the country road ambush scene, are amazing. My favorite bit is near the end, when Theo, Kee, and the crying baby walk past the shocked onlookers in the battle of Bexhill. This is the type of movie that makes me appreciate the work that went into making it without distracting me from the movie itself. A remarkable film.
Honorable Mentions: 21 Grams, Adaptation, American Psycho, Amores Perros, Atonement, The Devil Wears Prada, Doubt, Elf, Enemy at the Gates, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Good Bye Lenin!, Every Harry Potter movie, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, The Illusionist, Kill Bill Pts. 1 and 2, Kingdom of Heaven, Knocked Up, Lost in Translation, Milk, Monsters, Inc., O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Old School, Pirates of the Caribbean, Punch-Drunk Love, Slumdog Millionaire, Step Brothers, Traffic, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, V for Vendetta, Wedding Crashers, The Wrestler, Zodiac