Top 20 movies of the decade

As 2009 comes to an end, I thought I’d take some time and come up with a list of my favorite films from 2000 to 2009. My methodology is particularly sloppy – I combed through Wikipedia’s list of films this decade and copied down all the ones that stood out, then divided them into halves, quarters, and finally ranked them. I’m sure I’ve forgotten some I intended to include. But here’s my list with comments:

20) “Once” (2007). A charming musical with good songs that resists the temptation for a happy ending.

19) “The Bourne Supremacy” (2004). The best of the Bourne movies, a highly kinetic and intelligent action movie.

18) “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001). Typically quirky Wes Anderson; it has the advantage of being the first Anderson film I saw, making subsequent films seem derivative.

17) “The Dark Knight” (2008). Slightly overrated, it’s nonetheless a brilliant superhero movie with an unforgettable performance by Heath Ledger.

16) “Little Miss Sunshine” (2006). When I first saw it I enjoyed everything but the final scene; on reflection the ending has grown on me.

15) “Letters From Iwo Jima” (2006). I didn’t see Eastwood’s “Flags of Our Fathers”, but this story of the Japanese defense of Iwo Jima is both moving and tragic with moments of pure majesty.

14) “Amelie” (2001). The epitome of fey quirkiness, I find it just on the right side of delightful and sweet.

13) “No Country For Old Men” (2006). I found the ending to be disappointing, but like “The Dark Knight,” this is a film elevated by a brilliant, unforgettable antagonist.

12) “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” (2005). Judd Apatow fills this film with plenty of raunchy humor, but under it all is a serious, sweet and all-too-plausable main character.

11) “Where The Wild Things Are” (2009). The most unique movie on this list, Spike Jonze’s adaptation of the timeless children’s book doesn’t just capture the wonder and trials of childhood – it captures what it means to be human.

10) “Spirited Away” (2001). Transcends cultural boundaries with a tale of courage set in an unforgettable world.

9) “The Incredibles” (2004). Brad Bird made his thematic point better in “Ratatouille,” but his first Pixar film is more fun, drawing on “Watchmen” and other comics to combine action, comedy and family drama.

8) “The Lives of Others” (2006). I’ve seen this twice and I think both times were with French subtitles, but it’s a great portrayal of humanity deprived of freedom, even if I don’t think it was the best non-English-language film released in 2006.

7) “Finding Nemo” (2003). Not only a great – and funny – adventure, “Nemo” also addresses the father-child relationship in much more real terms than just about any film aimed in part at children.

6) “Garden State” (2004). I keep reading reviews claiming this film is too self-consciously quirky for its own good, and part of me wants to accept that. But while “Garden State” isn’t perfect – and while Natalie Portman’s undeveloped character epitomizes the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype – it’s still a fun and sweet romance that witheringly lampoons our modern tendency to view the human personality as something to be fixed and improved upon.

5) “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” (2003). I’ve always loved Napoleonic historical fiction ever since my uncle gave me a Horatio Hornblower book for my birthday in grade school. This painstakingly realistic work transports viewers seamlessly into the past while being a brilliant portrayal of men (and the movie is, like “Lawrence of Arabia,” devoid of women) under pressure.

4) “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004). Another movie where I’m forced to reject the backlash against it. Powered by a conceit that just barely holds itself together, “Eternal Sunshine” arrives at a more touching portrayal of longing and conflict by traveling backward in time than just about any movie does by moving forward.

3) “Children of Men” (2006). This movie deserves to be on this list simply for the brilliant, long-take cinematography. Its combination of a gripping adventure plotline, a believable dystopian setting and the exploration of the importance of hope propel it towards the top of the list.

2) “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006). Guillermo del Toro’s Spanish-language masterpiece seamlessly bends fantasy and reality while refusing – like the best works of this genre such as “Calvin and Hobbes” – to condescend to the reader by declaring either of the worlds to be “true” or “false.” A brilliant villain and courageous rebels anchor the “real” half of the movie while the “fantasy” half is as dark and dangerous as the reality Ofelia is allegedly escaping from. Watching del Toro’s commentary track, where he explains the filmmaking techniques he used to create the parallel worlds, only sealed the deal.

1) “The Lord of the Rings” (2001-2003). On final judgment, it’s impossible to separate the three movies of this trilogy (filmed concurrently). Each one was my favorite movie of the year it was released; each one I saw multiple times in theaters and on DVD, including extended editions and commentary tracks. As a gigantic 10-hour epic, “The Lord of the Rings” immerses the viewer in a meticulously created world filled with grandeur and terror and moments of indescribable grandeur. Everything in the movies, from the CGI to the acting, from Howard Shore’s majestic score to the brilliant on-site cinematography, combines into the signature movie event of the decade for me. I can quibble with bits and pieces, but in the end there is no piece of cinema over the past 10 years I enjoyed half as much as each installment of Pater Jackson’s trilogy.

Honorable mention: “District 9,” “O Brother Where Art Thou,” “9,” “Coraline,” “X2,” “Zombieland,” “King Kong,” “28 Days Later,” “Millions,” “The Door in the Floor,” “Anchorman”

Most Overrated: “WALL-E” (2008). I liked WALL-E. I really did. But ultimately this is a film with a superb first act, an excellent second act and a thoroughly pedestrian third act. None of the human characters are remotely as interesting as WALL-E and EVE are; the climax is a cheap, kid-focused action sequence and the ending where WALL-E loses his memory and then somehow gets it back is a sappy, un-intelligent transparent attempt to tug at the viewers’ heartstrings. It’s still a very good movie, but I don’t think it deserves the superlatives everybody throws at it.