Top Films of the Decade


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Updated to include all 25 of the top films.

In truly diverse fashion, the last 10 years offered us some of the richest motion pictures the medium has seen. Some stretched the boundaries of cinematic spectacle and redefined the popcorn flick, while others captured poignant moments of humanity, expressing our generational uncertainties through vivid tapestries of images and ideas. The following list reflects the strong variety of the films released this decade. Leaping at us from the silver screen, these movies evoked the spectrum of the human experience in their own ways: comedic and tragic, mysterious and revelatory, nihilistic and profound, disillusioned and hopeful.

-David Liu


Brad Bird, 2007

Brad Bird's "Ratatouille" combines some of the world's most universally loved things into one universally lovable movie. It's got romance, underdog (er ... under-rat?) heroes, a gorgeous European backdrop, a heartwarming message and-above all-food. In premise, a film called "Ratatouille" about a rat who wants to become a chef may sound like a stretch. In practice, it is nothing short of scrumptious. The script is clever enough to satiate older viewers and every scene is a new feast for the eyes.

In the aughts, Pixar outdid itself with nearly every movie. (Sorry, "Cars.") Its canon of innovative animated features rivals that of Disney's golden age, but none of them is more beautiful or surprisingly delightful than "Ratatouille."

-Jill Cowan


Noah Baumbach, 2005

In "The Squid and the Whale," Noah Baumbach takes a handful of the outsiders, peacocks and assorted oddballs that we've seen so often in quirky Wes Anderson movies and hurls them into the real world, where they proceed to tear each other apart. Set in 1980s New York, the film depicts two self-absorbed authors and the emotional havoc that their divorce wreaks on their precocious children. It's full of remarkable performances-Jeff Daniel's Bernard Berkman is a memorable blend of erudite charm and seedy desperation-and there's not a director alive who can match Baumbach's merciless mastery of awkward moments.

-Zachary Ritter


Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006

The pitch-perfect pacing and execution of "The Lives of Others" make it one of the finest directorial debuts of the decade. Helmed by then-33-year-old Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, the film follows a celebrated playwright and his girlfriend living in Communist East Berlin in the 1980s, unaware of the state police secretly wiretapping their residence. Ulrich Muhe is unforgettable as the chilly Stasi officer assigned to their predicament. A watershed moment in German cinema, Henckel's film is proof that a century of cultural turmoil, regardless of the oft-devastating consequences, can result in stunning and shattering works of art.

-David Liu


Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 2007

"No Country for Old Men" welcomes us to West Texas, 1980, with corpses roasting in the desert sun. Tommy Lee Jones plays an aging sheriff of a town in which a man (Josh Brolin) comes across $2 million, and unwittingly sets an unapologetic murderer (Javier Bardem) on his trail. Directors Coen and Coen skillfully twist the lives of several characters against a backdrop of sparse dialogue and scanty scores, only to resolve with the lives of three men: two alive, one dead, all goners eventually. For such a quiet film of could-have-beens, the consequences of fate are unequivocally clear.

-Helen Weng


Richard Curtis, 2003

"Love Actually" taught the 2000s that even in a romantic comedy, even at Christmas, you can't always get what you want. But you usually can. And it will involve an impossible (though bumpy) romance with a handsome, affable, carefully disheveled bachelor Prime Minister Hugh Grant. Yes, this delicious and witty 2003 comedy, written and directed by Richard Curtis, was a star-studded ode to British love in all its stubborn cruelty. Its gracefully interlooping storylines range from the absurd and trivial to the grimly realistic, each more charming than the last. Love, actually, is all around.

-Hannah Jewell


Ang Lee, 2005

"Brokeback Mountain" traces the trajectory of a romance born straight from the bosom of America. Two cowboys, played by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, fall in love while corralling a flock of sheep in Wyoming. Director Ang Lee elevates the two men's story to a larger allegory about love's power and its resilience to temporal and societal pressures. But the film has tragic dimensions: This is a romance that never had a chance to fully blossom. Most remarkable is Ledger, whose painfully restrained, soft-spoken cowboy speaks volumes about the toll of putting up a life-long facade.

-Max Siegel


Paul Thomas Anderson, 2002

Paul Thomas Anderson's minimalist "Punch-Drunk Love" set the stage for mainstream indies that followed, featuring a narrative at the speed of human emotion. Anderson invested Adam Sandler's comic quirks into a deeply troubled, emasculated character, redeemed by the lovely Emily Watson. Jon Brion's whimsical score makes audible protagonist Barry Egan's volatile psyche. Foregrounded by its vibrant humanity, the film is hopped up on shouting matches with Philip Seymour Hoffman, harmonium therapy and the cinematic perfection of two imperfect people falling in love.

-Hayley Hosman


David Fincher, 2007

A police procedural revolving around the eponymous serial killer who created a sensation in 1970s Northern California, David Fincher's "Zodiac" masterfully exposes the fears and obsessions of a bygone era. As reporters and detectives become hopelessly consumed by the case, the passage of time emerges as the film's central device, fueling their desires and foiling their advances. And what a cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo embody their real-life counterparts with skill and pathos to match. With a painter's eye, Fincher and cinematographer Harris Savides recreate San Francisco history to a degree of unsettling urgency.

-David Liu

17. WALL-E

Andrew Stanton, 2008

Leave it to robots to teach us a thing or two about our own humanity. A stunningly animated film set in an eerily familiar dystopia, Pixar's "WALL-E" tells the tale of the little robot left on Earth to clean up the mountains of waste we left behind. It's famous for its first half-hour-void of dialogue but pervaded by a level of emotion that even live-action films often lack. But perhaps the film's greatest quality is its dual audience: The message it bears is poignant for both children and adults. "WALL-E" offers us all a word of caution, but also a bit of hope.

-Arielle Little


Martin McDonagh, 2008

"Milk" may have taken the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, but that was based on a true story, and "In Bruges" writer and director Martin McDonagh thought up his complex masterpiece in his head. Alone, McDonagh writes a plot almost as inevitable and precise as history itself, 100-percent quotable and over in under two hours. The story unfolds like hindsight, and the inconclusive ending seems perfectly obvious even after scenes with coke-snorting dwarves and characters arguing over fight-scene choreography while shouting "this is a shootout."

-Travis Korte


Tim Burton, 2003

Tim Burton's "Big Fish" pits fact against fiction. By number 15 on our list, we're rooting for the latter. Albert Finney delivers a heartbreaking performance from the confines of the deathbed of Edward Bloom, with Ewan McGregor as the heartstoppingly charming younger version of the same character.

Daddy issues never sounded so good as they do with these genteel Southern accents. Burton uses his magic touch to create a humbling back and forth between a larger-than-life adventure story and a cold, cruel realism. The place where they merge is a beautiful crossroads of storytelling, much like film itself.

-Hannah Jewell


Cristian Mungiu, 2007

In the wintry desolation of Romania in 1987, two university students arrange an illegal abortion before running into unforeseen repercussions. Their dilemma forms the core of Cristian Mungiu's masterful throwback to the fragmented social fabric of the Ceausescu regime. Employing a spare aesthetic that juxtaposes naturalism and film noir, Mungiu indelibly captures the plight of women victimized by the oppression of the Romanian New Wave-harrowing, horrific and absolutely essential.

-David Liu


Michael Haneke, 2005

Part social allegory, part psychological thriller, Michael Haneke's "Cache" turns a cynical eye toward the veneers of modern society even as it resurrects the ghosts of unresolved grievances. Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche play a well-to-do French couple terrorized by a stalker who sends them cryptic videotapes. Frustrations arise; lies build. By the time the film's central revelation has surfaced, Haneke's elliptical narrative echoes the grim portent of Faulkner's timeless words: "The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past." A strange, haunting masterpiece.

-David Liu


Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001

Jean-Pierre Jeunet's "Amelie" shares something sacredly intimate with you. With rich sensory detail and Yann Tiersen's brilliant soundtrack setting a delightful ambience, you may get the feeling that you are joining the leading lady (brought to life by a vibrant Audrey Tautou) for a chat about the best ways to improve the world through tiny deeds. The film's heartfelt simplicity and divine textures allow the story to float effortlessly forward with distinctly Parisian touches. With storytelling perfection, "Amelie" celebrates the purity of the human heart and the delights of being one of a kind.

-Sara Hayden


Hayao Miyazaki, 2001

Hayao Miyazaki is a professional overwhelmer. His 2001 film "Spirited Away" left young audiences manic and would have pissed off a lot of exhausted parents if it hadn't taken care to keep things introspective. Listen to a kid describe it: "This one guy has eight arms and he has pets made out of dust and a zillion shelves and one character is actually a dragon and the bad guy barfs a lot. I didn't know why they were all taking baths but it was amazing I want to go see it again!" Don't you wish it came out when you were little?

-Travis Korte


Spike Jonze, 2001

Try to wrap your head around "Adaptation": Nicolas Cage plays two versions of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman as he attempts to adapt a novel about orchids into a film. "Adaptation" is deeply funny when we witness the character Kaufman's frustration with his script verge on frenzied neurosis, but the film is also a serious exploration of the way a person struggles to rediscover passion for life by flirting with danger. Those orchids, as Kaufman discovers during an unforgettable chase through the Everglades, aren't so innocuous.

-Max Siegel


Wes Anderson, 2004

On the heels of "The Royal Tenenbaums," Wes Anderson was due for some backlash. "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou" gave critics plenty of fodder. It was long, slow, self-indulgent and the story (a fallen man trying to redeem himself ) wasn't particularly original.

But it's perfectly cast. Its cinematography and animation are gorgeous. Between Mark Mothersbaugh's score and Portuguese covers of Bowie, it has the decade's best soundtrack. It's escapism to a fantastic world you already know.

-Bryan Gerhart


Christopher Nolan, 2008

The 2000s were full of super hero movies trying to ride the success of "Spiderman," and the gimmick got old fast. Even toward the end of that wave though, "The Dark Knight" proved to be not just one of the best movies of its kind, but one of the most entertaining of the past few years. As a film where the good guy didn't always win, each moment was a potential life or death scenario. Heath Ledger's performance, capturing both the insanity and the humanity of the Joker, also crafted one of the most terrifying villains of all time.

-Camden Andrews


Rian Johnson, 2005

Out of nowhere came "Brick," vibrant and tense, reincarnating the hardboiled detective noir in the hallways of a modern-day high school. Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) roams Los Angeles for the story behind his ex-girlfriend's murder. "I've got all five senses and I slept last night-that puts me up six on the lot of you," he snarls at the scum lurking at the next locker. With breathless wordplay and rich cinematography, the low-budget film pays homage to an earlier era but also stands on its own. So why can't we stop watching "Brick," even when we know the answers? Ah, there's the mystery.

-Stephanie M. Lee


Sofia Coppola, 2003

We go to the movies to get lost in another world, but it's easy to forget there are realms of magic on Earth. Sofia Coppola's understated second feature revels in this transcendent earthly beauty, whether it's Japan's nature and pop culture or the appealing desperation of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson's performances. It's also one of the most distinctive love stories on film, a spiritual romance rather than a physical one. This film is full of images you can't shake-the best kind.

-Sam Stander


Alfonso Cuaron, 2001

Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron's "Y Tu Mama Tambien" is a meditation on death, life and sexuality as the ultimate validations of existence. The story masquerades as a simple coming-of-age tale: On an impromptu road trip, maternal Luisa (exquisitely played by Maribel Verdu) facilitates the unexpectedly emotional and erotic awakening of teenage best friends Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal).

Cuaron saturates the narrative with the nuanced spirit of his homeland but delivers a universal message. The director captures every moment with the unfiltered observation of a documentary, yet creates an allegorical aura through perfectly scripted narration. The film is often remembered for its explicit eroticism-but in stark contrast to the rampant exploitative sexuality of our time, the increasingly raw encounters are essential to the story, symbolically revealing the need for intimacy and the jolt of vitality felt most strongly in sex.

"Y Tu Mama Tambien" offers a deceptively quiet presentation of a heavy subject matter. Cuaron's honest, devastating and tender storytelling ensures that this celebration of life will arouse the humanity in generations to come.

-Jennafer McCabe


Alfonso Cuaron, 2006

Alfonso Cuaron's "Children of Men" is an anomaly among great films. Generally, important films are important because they raise the bar in some aspect or another of filmmaking. They do one thing well, and people notice. "Children," however, is important not because it did one thing very well but because it did several things incredibly well. It's a deep, disturbing, inspiring humanist narrative, told via a before-unseen level of cinematography inside an incredibly fleshed-out universe.

The film's premise is this: a dystopian society in which all women are infertile, aging inevitably toward extinction. Charities hand out suicide pills, which whisper to the desperate population: "You decide when ..." Clive Owen, a jaded ex-activist, finds himself embroiled in a byzantine series of events, culminating in the rescue of the first pregnant woman in two decades. This story is told via some of the most technically advanced cinematography, including the most astounding action scene ever filmed, done in one continuous shot. "Children of Men" is precious, excelling on every conceivable level.

-Daniel Kronovet


Michel Gondry, 2004

Boy falls in love with girl. Girl gets miffed. Boy tries to win girl back. You've seen this dozens of times, so why bother watching?

Twists like "girl and boy erase memories of each other" and "boy and girl admit that they look foolish in love but keep at it anyway" sucker you in to wanting more. Director Michel Gondry and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman make them focal points of "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." With these eccentricities paired with timeless themes and a candid assessment of human nature, you have a winner.

The film delves into these concepts, toying with chronology and perception. It creates sketches of two individuals weaving separate lives to make a single narrative. Kate Winslet as Clementine is as eccentric as the tangerine-colored hair she sports; Joel, played by a successfully serious Jim Carrey, is so normal that he hazards to be boring.

People are imperfect, and this couple's relationship is the same, yet it still manages to be beautiful, as the script dares people to be intimate. The film dissects affairs of the human heart, proving that romance can be cerebral, realistic and well, utterly romantic.

-Sara Hayden


David Lynch, 2001

The greatest of this decade's cinematic labyrinths, with corridors often leading to nowhere, "Mulholland Drive" is a mystery that begs to be solved but self-consciously knows it cannot. David Lynch's penultimate story of a woman in trouble (Naomi Watts), a narrative he has visited time and time again, "Mulholland" is a psychosexual nightmare of doubles, fallen Hollywood stardom and the sad songs of Roy Orbison.

Though Lynch offers a few elusive clues along the way, such as a blue box or a key or a woman uttering "Silencio, silencio!" in her sleep, the oddest and most maddening aspect of the film is that even the director himself doesn't seem to know where it's all going.

Instead, Lynch is at the mercy of this surreal journey while cultivating an experience that seems to emphasize feeling rather than thinking, very much like a haunted Impressionist painting. His muse is Watts herself, entirely subsumed in her role just as her character is lost in a mire of dark dreams and a taut sense of dread. Unless Lynch reveals anything at all, and he probably never will, "Mulholland Drive" will forever lend itself to an inexhaustible number of interpretations.

-Ryan Lattanzio


Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007

From its wordless opening to its jarring denouement, "There Will Be Blood" stands without peer in the expansive landscape of contemporary American cinema. Set in California at the turn of the last century, the film traces the rise and fall of an oil prospector who chases his dream with such heartless abandon that he eventually succumbs to its darkest excesses. We know him as Daniel Plainview, played with towering brilliance by Daniel Day-Lewis. Two years after the film's release, Paul Thomas Anderson's epic meditation on greed and ambition simply refuses to leave our minds. Its power overwhelms; its beauty strangles; its idiosyncrasy lingers.

In its unsettling collision of optimism and savagery, "There Will Be Blood" is a marvel of execution. The film's central conflict pits Plainview's ruthless capitalist against Eli Sunday's (Paul Dano) fanatical evangelist, creating an allegorical struggle that ends with Plainview coining the decade's most iconic movie phrase: "I drink your milkshake!" His eventual descent into madness is framed by Anderson's impeccable script and Jonny Greenwood's beautiful yet terrifying score.

Sweeping from the end of the nineteenth century across three decades through the metaphorical richness of oil wells, churches, wood cabins and vast mansions, Anderson's vision of America is at once awful and awe-inspiring. Like "Citizen Kane," "There Will Be Blood" deconstructs a single tragic soul, injecting his hubris directly into the bloodstream of our cultural consciousness. In doing so, Anderson and Day-Lewis have created a character of indelible proportions, forever destined to stalk the darkest corridors of the American experience.

-David Liu


Contact the arts desk of The Daily Californian at [email protected]

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