The decade from the years 2000 to 2009 will always hold a special place in this writer’s heart. It was during this time that I came of age and discovered my own love of film. Though my tastes have changed considerably since the early years of my growing cinephilia, some of the very films that ignited this passion in me have remained significant in my mind – In the Mood for Love, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Spirited Away, and Lost in Translation. And, some I’ve only recently discovered for the first time, but they have moved me in ways I could have never expected – Werckmeister Harmonies, The Headless Woman, Platform, and The Intruder.
Now, with five years of this new decade behind us, I hoped to compile a list of my personal favorites from that decade. I found it too difficult to rank them, but Wong Kar-wai’s staggering In the Mood for Love is easily the film of the decade. I narrowed my list down to twenty, but couldn’t help including a long list of honorable mentions. There are films here from all over the world, from directors as disparate as seasoned veterans Hou Hsiao-hsien and Abbas Kiarostami to newcomers Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Lucrecia Martel. I anticipate the impact of these twenty films to last well into the decades to come, and each will always hold a special place in my own personal canon as works that influenced how I understand and approach cinema as art.
Before Sunset (Dir. Richard Linklater, United States, 2004)
Cleverly shot to give the appearance of its story unfolding in real time, Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset brings actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy back nine years after his ode to youthfulness and bright futures that was his beloved Before Sunrise. In this sequel, fans of the first film are given an answer to its hopeful, yet ambiguous finale. Did Celine and Jesse meet up six months later as planned? Before Sunset answers no, but Linklater proves there’s much more for these one-time lovers to sift through. The pair has grown up – their concerns have changed, their paradigms have shifted, they’re a bit more jaded. But, isn’t that a lot like life? We change and we grow, sometimes for better and other times for worse. This follow-up, then, is a wholly unique experience that allows us to see how two characters we thought we knew so well change with the real passing of time.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Dir. Michel Gondry, United States, 2004)
Postmodern screenwriting genius Charlie Kaufman teams up with talented music video director Michel Gondry to create this generation’s Annie Hall – a whip-smart spin on a tired Hollywood genre. Continuing the inventiveness of his wacky sci-fi set-ups, Kaufman injects his typically cold work with a welcome, warm emotional core with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Committed to practical special effects and an unbelievable premise – a company can erase painful memories of those customers would most like to forget – Gondry works wonders with Kaufman’s script directing a pair of outstanding leads in Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet who deliver career-high performances as the troubled lovers. Gondry takes us on a whirlwind trip through the mind and through memory, and in the end makes a convincing case that relationships are essential to life despite their inevitable difficulties.
Flight of the Red Balloon (Dir. Hou Hsiao-hsien, France/Taiwan, 2007)
Hou Hsiao-hsien’s recent fascination with modern urban living reaches its apex with his Paris-set Flight of the Red Balloon. Based on Albert Lamorisse’s popular short The Red Balloon and financed by the Musée d’Orsay, Hou’s film is also a delightful celebration of contemporary Parisian life filtered through the perspective of those whose stories are not often told: a single, working mother, her precocious son, and his nanny, a Taiwanese woman studying film in France. Together, the three rely on one another for friendship, security, and a place to call home. Hou’s always-evolving style finds him still favoring the long take but his camera moves constantly, gently bouncing along like the film’s titular candy-colored orb. The action of Hou’s elliptical narrative barely rises above a murmur, but Flight captivates nonetheless as he paints a very real portrait of modern day life.
The Headless Woman (Dir. Lucrecia Martel, Argentina, 2008)
In Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman, psychological decline directly corresponds to moral and societal decay. Superficially, Martel’s finest work yet recounts the story of one woman’s negligent car accident that may or may not have taken the life of a young boy, but with The Headless Woman subtext greatly overrules narrative. Martel affixes her camera to the film’s subject, intensely studies her behavior and gestures, and draws metaphorical parallels to the fallout of her accident and her bourgeois privilege. All the while, Martel demands our utmost attention to piece together this wondrously oblique narrative and arrive at our own conclusions as to what exactly happens when. Beneath this surface of exquisite framing and meticulous mise-en-scène, the film offers a glimpse of a woman subtly teetering on the verge of a mental breakdown, but in choosing not to absolve this subject of her possible, unintentional crime, Martel uncovers an unflattering human trait to distance ourselves from our own poor choices and their subsequent consequences.
In the Mood for Love (Dir. Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 2000)
If film is defined as art in motion, a holy union of story, image, and sound, then Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love is not only the finest example of film as art from this decade, but it also stands as one of cinema’s greatest achievements ever. More than any other film on this list, Wong’s intimate portrait of unconsummated, forbidden love blends breathtaking aesthetic with a deeply felt narrative that commands our undivided attention. There’s rich beauty in the vibrant colors as Christopher Doyle’s camera delicately follows the two lonely souls at the center of the film and heart-wrenching strings that accompany every slow-motion stroll through the dimly lit alleyways of mid-century Hong Kong. Wong’s opus also represents the apex of his career-defining exploration of urban loneliness and personal longing as the film’s would-be lovers accept their fate as casualties of time itself.
The Intruder (Dir. Claire Denis, France, 2004)
With The Intruder, Claire Denis bursts the tidy bubble of traditional narrative cinema with ferocious aplomb. Ever concerned with ambiguous storytelling in favor of minimal dialogue and contemplative visuals, Denis’ The Intruder is easily her most challengingly oblique work yet. No more than a few words are uttered throughout the entire film, and its loose narrative thread is nearly indecipherable upon first viewing. Instead, Denis continues her intimate exploration of the human mind via a visual fixation on the human body accompanied by a rush of non-linear images that blur narrative reality and imagination. To discern which pieces of the puzzle fit where, Denis’ film demands repeat viewings, but one gets the impression it’s likely never intended to be fully solved. There’s a transfixing mystery surrounding Denis’ work, one that clearly invites innumerable interpretations.
Memories of Murder (Dir. Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 2003)
Bong Joon-ho has built his career on appropriating classic Hollywood genres into a modern South Korean context. His second film Memories of Murder is his police procedural. This first-rate crime saga’s grounding in the real world – with the disturbing real-life events that inspired it – lends an extra dose of horror to Bong’s film. And yet, what is perhaps most impressive about his sophomore feature – and his entire body of work for that matter – is Bong’s uncanny ability to oscillate between screwball comedy and heart-wrenching pathos within a matter of seconds. Bong’s film is refreshingly palatable, both an entertaining and visceral watch. Furthermore, Bong brilliantly courts familiar tropes of the genre – the collision of an urban and rural cop who must work together to solve the case, suspense-building thrills, jump scares, promising leads that turn to dead ends – yet none of them ever appears stale.
Mulholland Drive (Dir. David Lynch, United States, 2001)
Thrillingly operating in a mode of absurdist dream logic, David Lynch’s nightmarish depiction of the dream factory that is Hollywood as a horror show brilliantly subverts our expectations of what fame and fortune promise. In Mulholland Drive, the entertainment industry’s capital city is unfit to nurture the talents of aspiring newcomers and either destroys or bends them to its own crooked will. Lynch plunges us into the story of one such wide-eyed wannabe star Betty as her well-made plans quickly turn sour in a noirish set-up that spirals into a surrealist nightmare with altered identities, shifting narratives, and confounding plot detours. Lynch’s mesmerizing work is a masterstroke of twenty-first century cinema, reverential to the medium’s halcyon days of old as well as blazing new territory for an era of postmodern art and thought.
The New World (Dir. Terrence Malick, United States, 2005)
Terrence Malick’s fourth film The New World builds upon the breathtaking visual style he mastered with Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, but it also marks a new chapter in his slowly expanding body of work. He nearly forgoes the linear storytelling of traditional narrative cinema altogether – something he experimented with some in Red Line – to craft a collage of beautiful images, exhilaratingly edited to uniquely tell his story – a feat matched in this decade only by Denis’ The Intruder. The effect is utterly intoxicating. This blurring of images as they flash across the screen, sometimes for no more than a second or two, functions as a fitting visualization of his usual exploration of the intersection where humankind and its environment meet. In focusing on the English settlement of a pre-colonial America and the ensuing collision of cultures, Malick seems to have unearthed the perfect subject for his particular brand of wonder.
The Royal Tenenbaums (Dir. Wes Anderson, United States, 2001)
Wes Anderson’s greatest film The Royal Tenenbaums is an aesthetic wonder, the work of an artist refining the traits that would go on to mark his entire idiosyncratic oeuvre. His pastiche of late ‘70s/early ‘80s style, ironic, deadpan humor, comically overblown characterizations, carefully detailed mise-en-scène, and geometric camerawork are on full display here. But, what helps Anderson’s film rise above a mere exercise in gimmicky self-aware stylization is his denial of the cynicism inherent in his dark comedy by granting his characters redemption. In this way, Anderson wisely dodges the nihilist accusations his comic contemporaries the Coen brothers frequently face. He never asks us to take this portrayal of the Tenenbaum family very seriously, but in so doing, the fitting ending that provides healing for this hilariously dysfunctional family adds an unexpected layer of humanity to his particular brand of comedy.
The Son (Dir. Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, Belgium/France, 2002)
Champions of contemporary cinematic verisimilitude, the Dardenne brothers have crafted their masterpiece with The Son. Lacking the stylistic inventiveness or densely layered narratives of some of this decade’s greatest works, the brothers’ film may seem like a lightweight on a list that includes Lynch’s and Wong’s cinephilic monoliths. But, this would be a misreading of the film’s surface-level simplicity. The Dardennes’ work boasts a rigorous aesthetic that serves its skeletal narrative to underscore the bubbling conflict at its core. In this way, The Son is a hushed thriller, at once allowing us silence and space to meditate on its protagonist’s dilemma – perhaps even asking us to put ourselves in his place – and chillingly building suspense until the brothers brilliantly release it in the film’s final moments. In its third-act appeal for forgiveness in answer to its central conflict, the Dardennes’ film becomes a biblical parable of sorts, which only serves to highlight the filmmakers’ wise choice of carpentry as a visual metaphor for the film’s backdrop.
Spirited Away (Dir. Hayao Miyazaki, Japan, 2001)
As a compelling metaphor for growing up, Hayao Miyazaki’s beloved Spirited Away already transcends its studio-assigned demographic to achieve universal appeal, but it’s the director’s decision to allow his narrative to breathe – visually, thematically, morally – that solidifies his film as one of the decade’s best. For though the plot that drives the story centers on a young girl’s path toward self-discovery, it also functions as a mirror held up to Miyazaki’s home country. Through the film’s various subplots and narrative detours, Spirited Away reflects a Japan in need of change. In turn, Miyazaki skewers crippling consumerism, loss of spirituality, and irresponsible treatment of the environment all in spectacularly imaginative fashion. That viewers could read optimism in its depiction of personal growth, urgency in its call to action for societal change, or both speaks to the film’s tremendous depth.
Summer Hours (Dir. Olivier Assayas, France, 2008)
To counter the onslaught of hyper-relevant films falling over each other to define our current moment, Olivier Assayas delivers a quiet and moving alternative in Summer Hours that forgoes contrived narrative connectedness and plot threads ripped from the headlines to comment profoundly on the time in which we live. Assayas sidesteps the pitfalls of his contemporaries by honing in on something more universal and timeless than national current events: the family. Summer Hours, then, is a classic family drama, but it’s anchored in its early twenty-first century setting. A modern family strewn about the globe must face nostalgia and memory, learning how to carry their past into their future without clinging too tightly to what they’ve left behind after the matriarch unexpectedly passes away. Summer Hours shows the faces and personalities of those affected by this increasingly globalized world without reducing them to archetypes.
Syndromes and a Century (Dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2006)
Building upon its predecessor’s themes, structure, and even a few of its anecdotes, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century takes his now career-defining fractured narrative form to its logical conclusion: a story twice told. Weerasethakul pays homage to his parents – one from the country, the other from the city – by telling the sort-of tale of the beginning of their romance. Eschewing traditional storytelling, Weerasethakul utilizes the same actors and the same scene-setting premise to launch both halves – one set in a rural hospital, the other in a bustling urban medical center – to deliver a quiet, yet affecting meditation on the rural/urban divide. But, rather than structure the second half as a mere replica of the first, Weerasethakul cleverly subverts viewer expectations with diverging subplots that tell different stories, yet mirror the themes of those in the first. As two sides of the same coin, Weerasethakul’s film is contemplative cinema at its finest: rife with symbolic depth, yet subtly humorous in its casual execution.
Ten (Dir. Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 2002)
One of cinema’s greatest living masters challenges his chosen medium once again, this time by intentionally limiting the role of the director and constructing narrative cinema within highly restrictive constraints. With Ten, Abbas Kiarostami captures his subjects entirely within the confines of a car roaming the streets of Tehran – the logical conclusion of his vehicular-obsessed cinema. An Iranian woman carries on ten conversations, split into numbered segments in the film, with relatives, friends, and strangers – mostly women – as she goes about her day. The film, almost exclusively composed of dual static shots of the driver and passenger seats, bears a naturalism indicative of all Kiarostami’s work, but these ten conversations strung together form a thesis statement of sorts on what it looks like to be a woman in modern-day Iran. Thus, perhaps taking a cue from his former protégé Jafar Panahi, Kiarostami’s always-challenging work welcomes a social commentary that lends this filmic experiment a remarkably powerful pull.
There Will Be Blood (Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, United States, 2007)
Two pillars of American individualism – capitalist entrepreneurialism and personal faith – collide in Paul Thomas Anderson’s towering There Will Be Blood. Many a critic read relevant political subtext in Anderson’s film, citing a skewering of a nation’s unpopular conservative administration, but this kneejerk interpretation ultimately proves unhelpful in hindsight. How does one account for the opposing forces in Anderson’s work that were strategically tied together in the then-current conservative platform? Instead, it seems, Anderson’s allegory here is far more nuanced, perhaps even suggesting a failure of the traditional American spirit that transcends the nation’s entire history. Given its loose narrative and wandering trajectory, There Will Be Blood is first and foremost a film of powerful images. Anderson’s every frame is filled with metaphorical depth, and the ferocity with which he builds his jaw-dropping set pieces serves to overturn the long-standing notion of American exceptionalism for an increasingly disillusioned age.
Tropical Malady (Dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2004)
If directors Hou and Kiarostami collectively dominated the Nineties, then this decade belongs to Apichatpong Weerasethakul. His answer to the formalist deconstruction of Kiarostami and the elliptical storytelling of Hou is a living, breathing cinema – one boasting a modernist self-reflexivity that draws attention to itself as cinema accompanied by a humble spirituality and a playfulness to counter the skepticism of a former age – that feels refreshingly of the moment and far enough removed from any given moment that it also appears timeless. Thus, it’s only fitting that the director of the decade should have two films on this list. His later Syndromes and a Century may be the finest example of his bifurcated narrative structure, but Tropical Malady remains his most readily engaging, delightfully enchanting, and emotionally resonant. The first half’s unhurried romance unfolding linearly abruptly ends halfway through and is given new, allegorical life in the second as a mystical fable involving animals and spirits that echoes the story in the first. Both segments beautifully complement one another, and taken together Tropical Malady is one captivating watch.
WALL*E (Dir. Andrew Stanton, United States, 2008)
In what is probably the most artfully composed piece of pop culture to bear the Disney brand name, the Pixar team works wonders with this tender tale of robots in love against a startlingly grim picture of our future world. Andrew Stanton’s WALL*E begins on a desolate, uninhabited earth where humans have escaped the consequences of their own recklessness, and only a curious, trash-collecting android remains to purge the land. The film’s first half is near revelatory as an inspired ode to an era of silent film comedies that then gives way to a rather frank critique of American consumerism, laziness, and careless treatment of our planet in its second half. These scenes of humankind at its worst are unfortunately remarkably prescient, as only a few years on from WALL*E‘s release, our race is already showing signs of alarming dependence on technology. Like Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, Stanton’s cautionary, yet ultimately hopeful work appropriately appeases its intended audience, then blows past this demographic to achieve something more.
Werckmeister Harmonies (Dir. Béla Tarr, Hungary, 2000)
Known for his unparalleled use of lengthy takes and stark black and white photography, Béla Tarr is the master of slow cinema. This decade he has crafted yet another masterpiece with his staggering Werckmeister Harmonies, a film comprised of not more than forty shots in an industry that favors several hundreds per film on average. What appears on screen, then, is understandably deliberately and meticulously choreographed and photographed. Harmonies is a film of powerful images – the opening barroom dance of metaphorical celestial bodies, a rotting whale carcass in the middle of a town’s square, rioters who ransack a hospital and only come to a halt when faced with the vulnerability and fragility of human life – and deep philosophical import. And yet, Tarr offers no easy interpretations as to what it all means, though an undercurrent of tumultuous Hungarian history in a post-Soviet world is present throughout.
Yi Yi (Dir. Edward Yang, Taiwan, 2000)
Perhaps Edward Yang’s optimistic corrective to his bleak masterstroke A Brighter Summer Day, the director’s final film Yi Yi functions as a fitting swansong for an artist who had an uncanny pulse on humanity. His last film is a family saga in the vein of his and his contemporary Hou Hsiao-hsien’s early work that takes its time in weeding out the details of multiple characters’ lives that, taken together, paints a holistic portrait of a modern-day Taiwanese family. Though, of course, these daily, relational, professional, and moral concerns are fundamentally universal. Yang’s characters experience successes, failures of their own doing, tragic loss, and ultimately growth over the course of the film’s lengthy runtime – essentially, we see them live. It’s a poignant and rewarding film that sheds light on the pitfalls of average people, but also ultimately celebrates what it means to be human.
35 Shots of Rum (Dir. Claire Denis, France, 2008) – for its beautifully choreographed scene that hinges tension and character development on body language and a perfectly cued pop song
2046 (Dir. Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 2004) – for its expansion of its predecessor’s themes by breaking apart that film’s tender linear narrative
Children of Men (Dir. Alfonso Cuarón, United States, 2006) – for its eschewal of dystopian genre tropes in favor of welcome religious allegory
The Circle (Dir. Jafar Panahi, Iran, 2000) – for its cleverly connected narrative threads that underscore the injustices that befall women living in modern-day Iran
City of God (Dir. Fernando Meirelles, Brazil, 2002) – for its brutal, yet stylish depiction of coming of age amidst gang violence in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Dir. Cristi Puiu, Romania, 2005) – for its realist meditation on the inevitability of death and failing bureaucracies
I’m Not There (Dir. Todd Haynes, United States, 2007) – for its schizophrenic depiction of its equally eccentric and enigmatic central mythic figure
Lost in Translation (Dir. Sophia Coppola, United States, 2003) – for its humorous depiction of a nation through the eyes of a tourist
No Country for Old Men (Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen, United States, 2007) – for its successful adaptation of a difficult work that establishes a firm authorial voice distinct from that of its source
Platform (Dir. Jia Zhang-ke, China, 2000) – for its subtly evolving aesthetic that mirrors the decades-spanning national changes at the center of its narrative
Pride & Prejudice (Dir. Joe Wright, United Kingdom, 2005) – for its dedication to its beloved text while exploring the cinematic possibilities of literary adaptation
Wendy and Lucy (Dir. Kelly Reichardt, United States, 2008) – for its intimate, realist depiction of the effects of a widespread economic downturn