With the first decade of the 21st century now behind us, I thought it’d be fun to see what films stood out and marked the best cinema had to offer between 2000 and 2009. I’ve placed them in order of release year, since trying to rank them seems like a fool’s errand (and I’m lazy). Also, as I was compiling the list, I realized that were I ranking each year individually, I might change the order of some things if I was doing it all over again so don’t be too persnickety with me when I place something that was #3 one year over higher ranked films of the same year.

And while I’m sure there will be disagreement about what I’ve included (or left out), that’s fine. I’d love to hear what you think. Think of this as a conversation starter and maybe a way to add a few items to your rental queue.

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Donnie Darko

Donnie Darko (2001)

— Although writer/director Richard Kelly has yet to live up to the promise shown in this film, “Donnie Darko” remains one of the best and thought provoking films I’ve ever seen. The subtle use of the 80s time period, the emergence of Jake Gyllenhaal (sister Maggie gets a supporting role) and the glorious/creepy use of a bunny suit make this probably my favorite Halloween film as well.

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Memento

Memento (2001)

— Non-linear storytelling, or perhaps more appropriately reverse-linear storytelling, is done to perfection here by director Christopher Nolan (fyi, another great memory loss film is “The Lookout“, which barely missed this list). Guy Pearce is sublime as a man with anterograde amnesia and the audience is held to a higher standard here, you either get it or you don’t. This also was the jumping off point for Nolan, who may not have a long list of films to his credit, but when you have this, “The Prestige” and the revival of the Batman franchise under your belt, you’re doing something right.

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Open Hearts

Open Hearts (Elsker Dig For Evigt) (2003)

— As one could surmise from reading my reviews on any regular basis, I tend to enjoy films that exhibit minuscule amounts of actual happiness. In director Susanne Bier’s “Open Hearts”, the Danish filmmaker employs Dogme 95 principles (no artificial lighting, make-up, post production effects) and delivers a heart wrenching tale of relationships torn apart after a car accident leaves one man paralyzed. All of the performances are pitch perfect and when I say that there is beauty in sadness, I’m almost always thinking of this film.

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Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

— Writer Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry channeled their creative energies into something remarkable with this film. It’s a complicated approach to exploring what drives the human desire to connect with one another but the disjointed storytelling pays off in spades. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet give their relationship a hauntingly romantic quality that still hits me each time I re-watch this.

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History of Violence

A History of Violence (2005)

David Cronenberg delivered one of the grittier films of the decade with “A History of Violence”. The way he juxtaposes Viggo Mortensen’s dual nature is brilliant and while I’ve never read the original graphic novel to see what differs, this may be the best film I’ve seen based on one.

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Children of Men

Children of Men (2006)

— While I’ve copped out to present this list chronologically, this easily would be in the top two or three of the decade. Director Alfonso Cuarón (who also made the best Harry Potter film – “Prisoner of Azkaban”) presents a dystopian look into our future which isn’t so far off from what could happen … aside probably from the whole inability for us to procreate anymore but this sci-fi element adds so many ways to examine humanity. Clive Owen, Julianne Moore and Chiwetel Ejiofor are all in top form here and as with “Memento”, the film doesn’t pander to the lowest common denominator and expects the audience to pay attention, put some of the pieces together for themselves and draw their own conclusions. Sadly, these cinematic opportunities are rare, as the masses seem to prefer being led by the hand to the expected ending we’ve all seen time and again. Kudos to Cuarón and everyone involved for holding true to their own artistic vision.

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Half Nelson

Half Nelson (2006)

— While there are some pacing issues brought about by co-writer/director Ryan Fleck and co-writer Anna Boden as they adapt their short film “Gowanus, Brooklyn” into a feature length presentation, this intimate portrayal of a troubled school teacher and his equally troubled student is one of the most spectacular acting duets I’ve ever seen. Ryan Gosling shows why he’s one of the best actors in his generation and Shareeka Epps is decidedly up to the task of keeping up with him in this role. If you’re a fan of good acting and independent film, it’d be a crying shame for you to miss out on this one.

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Atonement

Atonement (2007)

— In many ways, this feels like the biggest surprise on this list – just as it was one of the biggest surprises of 2007. When I see Keira Knightley in a period piece, my eyes sort of glaze over (though truth be told I’ve liked just about every film she’s been in, even though I feel like I shouldn’t). However, Knightley is perfect for this film, as are Saoirse Ronan and James McAvoy. All of the elements, from production design to score to costuming to acting to direction, are top notch and unlike the disturbingly over-hyped “Titanic”, this is how you make an epic romantic tale and it’s a shame more people didn’t see it.

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Slumdog Millionaire

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

— While this may be the most critically acclaimed film on the list, I just can’t ignore director Danny Boyle’s moving tale of poverty, crime and redemption among Indian orphans. The gimmick of using a game show to allow for flashback sequences could easily have gone wrong but in Boyle’s hands, the story is like an onion being peeled layer by layer. The main characters are presented in three age groups, and each set of actors does a remarkable job of serving the character as well as their counterparts. Those more sensitive to the harsh conditions and events the children are put through in the film may find it a bit too bleak but the true power in the film is seeing them rally for one another to beat the odds, despite the consequences they may incur as a result.

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A Single Man

A Single Man (2009)

— This may prove to be the hardest one for me to justify including in the decade’s top ten, simply because of its recent release. It takes some time for initial reactions to settle and figure out where a film rates among the best of a certain time period. Maybe in a few years, my estimation of this will fade but as of right now, the strikingly poignant tale that director Tom Ford delivers thanks to Colin Firth’s amazing performance has to be on this list. The mood and visual aesthetic that Ford creates is stunning and matches so well to Abel Korzeniowski’s score. It also fits with my general tendency to appreciate films that are on the depressing end of the spectrum … and I’m okay with that.


Honorable Mention

While they didn’t quite make the cut, it was close enough I decided to cop out a bit and list these films too.

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    Rabbit Proof Fence

    Rabbit Proof Fence (2002)

    — This truly was one of the under appreciated films of the decade. I always make sure to recommend it to people when they’re looking for something to rent and I’m happy to be able to have a medium to do so. The tale of three Aboriginal sisters ripped from their home as part of a cruel cultural genocide instituted by the Australian government and their attempt to walk home across the Outback is simply amazing, made even more so because it’s a true story. Seriously, if you haven’t seen this one, put it on your To Do list and follow through.

    The Wrestler

    The Wrestler (2008)

    — Marking the resurgence of Mickey Rourke’s career, director Darren Aronofsky (who also made the challenging but remarkable “Requiem for a Dream”, another film that could have made this list) didn’t bow down to studio pressure about using Nic Cage and instead found financing on his own. This pays off big time, allowing him to present the story he wanted to tell and audiences should see, utilizing as much realism as possible (from some actual super market patrons to actual wrestling match crowds). Even if you’re not a fan of pro wrestling, the journey that the characters undertake is fantastic to watch … and if you are a longtime WWE(F), WCW, ECW, CZW, etc. etc. fan, there will be additional layers to enjoy here.

    Let the Right One In

    Let the Right One In (2008)

    — I’m not a part of the vampire craze. Sure, I like plenty of vampire related material but I’d be okay if most of the current hype died a quick death (maybe it’s because I’m far past my teenage years … chronologically anyway). “Let the Right One In” is a vampire story but it’s more so about two kids trying to find their place in the world. The story is beautifully presented against the stark, snowy Swedish landscape and director Tomas Alfredson delicately examines how the pair find what solace they can in each other. I’m not ecstatic about the American remake coming in the fall of 2010 but maybe they’ll surprise me, just like this did.


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