30. Gosford Park (d. Robert Altman; 2001)
A late masterpiece by that towering giant of the American Renaissance (and may he rest in peace), Altman borrows from “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “The Rules of the Game” to capture the decay of the British upper class in the early 20th century while also uprooting the servants who aid them. Veiled in a murder mystery, this ensemble piece has all the best of Altman’s films: drifting cameras that capture various layers of sound, unending amounts of great actors doing pitch-perfect, and a rich tapestry of the story that’s not so much about what’s going on as how people are reacting to it. As in Altman’s best films, he casually subverts narrative and generic motion while focusing on the actors.
29. The Man Who Wasn’t There (d. Joel Coen; 2001)
The Coens are doubtless one of the most creative filmmaking teams working just above the radar, and their 2001 ode to the murky morality of old-school noir is a classy, beautiful odd-ball dip inside in the genres. Billy Bob Thornton, as a man trying to cover up an accidental murder, gets caught up in a whirl of lyricism. As Coen movies go, it’s one of their calmest, evolving at a slow and deliberate pace, but operating in black and white seems to free up their usual composition styles to lots of high contrast invention and daring plays with light and movement. As with many of their films, it’s also an elegy for the common man, an overtly class-based examination of society’s construction.
28. Grizzly Man (d. Werner Herzog; 2005)
Subject and nature are in a battle of respect and existence in almost every Herzog film – “Rescue Dawn,” “Encounters at the End of the World,” and “Bad Lieutenant” are just some of this decade’s examples – but in this quirky and sad documentary, Herzog seems to hit one of his most profound notes on humanity’s existence. Constructed mostly from archival footage of Timothy Treadwell, a bear activist mauled to death by bears, Herzog mostly lets the subject speak for himself in all his bizarre and self-righteous glory, but he’s also akin to the irony, and manages to extrapolate it to our own continued negotiations with our environment.
27. Mystic River (d. Clint Eastwood; 2003)
The emerald jewel of late-Eastwood’s colorful decade pours everything the director knows about directing and filmmaking into a single work. “River” is a kinetic American tragedy, a film about flawed people continually undone by their pride and their society. A stunning feat of powerhouse ensemble acting and moody filmmaking, it journeys into a tight-knit neighborhood and pries open the festering wounds, using one act of violence as the catalyst for an exploration of many.
26. Cache (d. Michael Haneke; 2005)
Haneke’s Hitchcockian anti-narrative about surveillance, guilt, internal torment, and ambiguous violence is a maddening puzzle of a film. On the surface it makes very little sense and lacks any resolution, but in denying that resolution Haneke peels back our own ties to the cinema and its voyeuristic properties with menacing implications. His is a film of deep ideas that ebb out instead of consolidate, with a final shot so infuriating it begs us to think about how we watch films on the most basic levels.
25. Pan’s Labyrinth (d. Guillermo del Toro; 2006)
Del Toro’s most visionary and accomplished piece takes the director’s creativity and conceptual flair and gives it a mature and complex voice. A beautiful and dark fairy tale that balances the horrors of war against the limits of childhood imagination, “Pan’s Labyrinth” is about the most essential function of fantasy: an escape, an abandonment of the problems of reality in favor of an experience that somehow corrects these wrongs. While the film smartly acknowledges the limits of our dreams, it also shows us their magic and potential.
24. City of God (d. Fernando Meirelles; 2002)
There were dozens of films about urban crime and the suffocation of impoverished environments throughout the decade. Many of them were great, and many of them have opened our eyes to the terrifying conditions of developing countries, but none was more captivating, more intense, more cinematically invigorating than Meirelles’s look into Rio’s favela culture. Using all the cinematic devices at his disposal, the film twists the violence inside and out as it builds action-reaction, choice-consequence into a frank portrait of a crumbling world where all the players are on the brink of their own apocalypses.
23. The Royal Tenenbaums (d. Wes Anderson; 2001)
Anderson had a terrific decade, hoveringly lightly outside the studio as he worked out his complex relationships with family through his unique storytelling methods. “Tenenbaums” is arguably his best film to date. It splashes with beautiful colors, hovers and glides around the closeted sets like a diorama on a pinwheel, and features some of the clearest, quirkiest character writing of the decade. Beneath that, though, there’s a solemn melancholy, a sad look at a group of geniuses too smart or too unwilling to completely fix their broken pasts. Anderson makes the mundane feel spectacular, and perhaps vice versa. He’s one of the cinema’s most unique and enjoyable voices.
22. The Squid and the Whale (d. Noah Baumbach; 2005)
Should be ranked among the decade’s most idiosyncratically perfect films, and one that defines the American independent film movement in the 21st century: a deeply personal, subtly performed, aesthetically controlled masterwork that is both invisible and probing in its affect. In deconstructing the rifts of his own adolescent awakening, Baumbach verges on the absolute profound, staging this tragi-comedy as a tremendous dissection of our coldest moments, and then transforms his film into something profoundly celebratory.
21. Memento (d. Christopher Nolan; 2001)
In part it’s a glorious novelty – what if a film was told in reverse chronology? Would knowing the end make the beginning any less thrilling? Chris Nolan’s revenge story-as-identity crisis is a precise noir that juggles multiple chronologies and a confused storyline that confines the spectator to the protagonist’s perspective like a vice grip. Working backwards ultimately leaves more things confused in this tricky inversion of narrative, but it’s completely absorbing.