40. Man on Wire (d. James Marsh; 2008)
It’s kind of hard to believe “Man on Wire” is actually a documentary, for it’s such an amazing story, and so well-told. Mixing testimonial, archival footage, and dramatic recreation allows director Marsh to slyly subvert usually doc form by turning his movie into a joyful heist film about pushing oneself to the limit. His secret weapon is his subject, who retells his story with such skill and charm. Its central image of a man suspended in the air between the Twin Towers is a fitting eulogy – reminding us not of their loss, but of their marvel.
39. United 93 (d. Paul Greengrass; 2006)
Unfolding in near real-time, Greengrass unflinchingly recreates the events of 9/11 from the perspective of the fourth plane: its passengers and the flight control desperately scramble to avoid catastrophe even as their hope fades. What by all rights should have been a cheap, exploitative shot at memorializing a tragedy became instead a riveting exercise in historical documentation and dramatization. Greengrass’s devotion to the “event” only refines its importance. With the help of his editors, he keeps everything in perfect balance, and while the final moments may be nerve-wracking to watch, they also feel like some of the decade’s most vital and cathartic: in them, we recognize heroism in the wake of tragedy.
38. I’m Not There (d. Todd Haynes; 2007)
A fascinating reimagining of the life and career of Bob Dylan, Haynes divides the musician into five different characters, embodied by different actors. Each actor’s segment in turn has a completely different style influenced by a particular filmmaker – Fellini here, Altman there, a splash of Lester. In doing so, Haynes has made a movie about the postmodern calamity of 21st century filmmaking that’s also about the search for identity. Can a unique voice exist in the wake of so much “homage” and so much shape-shifting, can so much intertextuality create originality? Yes, it can, as “I’m Not There” is a dazzling dream of a rock film. It’s an unbelievably complex dissertation on the self and the self’s place in culture.
37. The Hurt Locker (d. Kathryn Bigelow; 2009)
The Iraq war and the US involvement in the Middle-East has been the basis of dozens of films – documentaries and narrative alike. When it comes to narrative, they mostly devolve into gross simplicity, waging ideological warfare left and right. There’s no room for any of that in Bigelow’s air-tight film, which captures the intensity of ground troops in searing detail. To ratchet such suspense in five minutes of a film is impressive, to carry it for two hours with barely a moment to gasp is exhilarating filmmaking, not to mention important in how it takes depictions of our guerilla warfare in a mature (read: correct) direction.
36. Ghost World (d. Terry Zwigoff; 2001)
Disaffected youth becomes lightning in a bottle for Zwigoff, whose deadpan exploration of high school graduates struggling through a transition into adulthood makes a strong case for the best teen comedy in a decade full of raunchy fantasies about high school life. Also present is a magnificent subtext of female relations that borders on sexual repression, as Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson deftly play two girls whose friendship is more like a relationship years before the "Superbad" crew. With acidic wit on its surface and melancholy in its soul, it’s a razor-sharp exploration of social alienation and desire.
35. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (d. Larry Charles; 2006)
As damning and immersive a satire as we’re likely to get from a major comedian for years, “Borat” is at once focused and miraculously broad: Sacha Baron Cohen’s chameleon-like transformation and dedication to performance is a marvel in and of itself, but the film finds room to expose the inherent contradictions of modern Americanism. Taken most to task – our “holier than thou” attitude, ranging from third world politics, cultural customs, homosexuality, feminism, Christianity, and celebrity worship. In gutting unsuspecting real people, Cohen and Charles take the mockumentary to a dizzying new level.
34. Once (d. John Carney; 2007)
As two wandering souls try to heal their wounded hearts with a mutual affection for music, Carney’s shoestring musical/romance evolves into one of the most subtle and wonderful of all love letters. It perfectly captures music’s spiritual capability, using the film medium to observe and capture performance as much as it does human connection. As embodied by real life musicians Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, it’s a soothing duet of a film, and beats the pants off most of the flashy musicals Hollywood tried to generate.
33. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (d. Cristian Mungiu; 2007)
Countries from the former Soviet Bloc and throughout Eastern Europe certainly had a miniature renaissance, churning out controlled and visceral films that seem to signal a dazzling new wave from this largely unheard part of the world. None was more precise, more artistic, and more emotionally consuming than “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days,” an abortion film that denies political contrivance in favor of human complexity. Not to say it’s not a staunchly political film, but it captures a precise national moment with such conviction and yet without such artistic frivolities that would hamper nearly any other production of this nature.
32. In the Mood for Love (d. Wong Kar Wai; 2000)
Beautiful and haunting, poignant and quietly mesmerizing, “In the Mood for Love” joins the ranks of cinema’s most luscious unconsummated love affairs. Against China’s changing social climate, two people fall in love, even though their circumstances make it impossible for them to act on it. Using repetition and lyricism to his full advantage, Wong’s film is beautiful in its simplicity and its expanse, its wealth of emotion exchanged through simple glances, and its ultimate abandon into the sublime, where artistry ultimately consumes its indefinite conclusion.
31. Milk (d. Gus Van Sant; 2008)
It’s rare – almost unheard of, now – that a narrative period piece can actually find a way to reverberate off the current cultural or political discourse with a deafening cry, but Van Sant’s masterpiece does exactly that. It's a film that mixes documentary and drama with superb care, treating every moment and every reframing with a distinct voice and idea. The script by Dustin Lance Black beautifully details not only the rise and assassination of Harvey Milk, but also the budding years of the gay rights movement with pristine clarity. Released as it was in the wake of Proposition 8, “Milk” feels like one of the most immediate and important American films of the decade, if only for illuminating the complexities of the homosexual social movement with such personality.