10. Almost Famous (2000)
Cameron Crowe’s reflection on his years as a teen Rolling Stone correspondent has all the warmth, directness and immediacy of a candid first novel — but, critically, Crowe didn’t make it until many years later, giving the film an additional layer of bittersweet nostalgia and emotional depth. The film wriggles with youth and echoes with maturity at the same time.
9. Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Both an homage to WWII adventure films and a fine yarn about a fanciful plot to kill Hitler, Quentin Tarantino’s best film of his post- Pulp Fiction era marked the discovery of Christoph Waltz, one of the great villains in screen history, Michael Fassbender as a German-speaking English officer, and Mélanie Laurent as a Jewish girl bent on taking revenge in a way only Tarantino could dream up — by using Hitler’s well-documented love of cinema against him.
8. Team America: World Police (2004)
Only South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone would dare go after Matt Damon, North Korea, the Film Actors Guild and musicals about AIDS at the same time. The movie is not only hilarious but it takes your breath away in its willingness to execute sacred cows. Perhaps no film in the last 50 years made the point more clearly that comedy is about questioning the powers that be. Satire, f–k yeah!
7. Once (2007)
Mesmerizing in its simplicity, this tale of a boy and a girl musician who meet on the streets of Dublin won an Oscar for Best Original Song (“Falling Slowly”) but half a dozen other great numbers are equally strong. Lacking any nonsensical plot contrivances, gross-out scenes or other Hollywood touches, this low-budget indie shimmers with feeling, its onscreen and offscreen lovers Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova effortlessly creating the screen chemistry that has eluded so many big-name performers.
6. Amélie (2002)
A sexy, funny contemporary Parisian fairy tale that’s adorable without being cute, this honey-colored romcom fantasy made unforgettable use of its impish star Audrey Tautou, who came a close second to the city itself in charm.
5. Batman Begins (2005)
Christopher Nolan’s inspired reboot discovered that injecting uneasy, complicated real-world dilemmas and allegories, together with a shadowy, more serious style, could bring the blockbuster superhero film to a whole new level. The Dark Knight films simply continued down the path Nolan created with this true game-changer.
4. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)
A chamber piece set mostly inside the imagination of a man who is completely paralyzed after a stroke, this devastating but remarkably uplifting film found in mere consciousness a miracle, as the author of the book it was based on painstakingly wrote about his newfound appreciation for life via his only form of communication — blinking.
An old-school, maritime, war adventure told with vastly better special effects than Clark Gable or Errol Flynn could have dreamt, Peter Weir’s adaptation of the beloved novel starred Russell Crowe in perhaps his most quietly engaging work, as a British naval captain in the Napoleonic wars whose resourcefulness and courage inspire his men. Patriotic and moving, this is one of the few great military films of our era.
2. United 93 (2006)
Director Paul Greengrass set himself the goal of recapturing, in near-documentary detail, what happened on 9/11, and his exactitude is almost unbearable to watch. Watch it you must, though, to understand the heroism aboard that doomed flight that crashed in Pennsylvania as well as the evil of the attackers. The film functions as very nearly a historical document of the defining American moment of the 21st century.
1. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
Stanley Kubrick’s long-in-development update of Pinocchio was passed off to Steven Spielberg after the older man’s death, and the juxtaposition of the talents and tastes of these two very different cinematic masters is a thing of wonder. A.I. unites Kubrick’s majestic, awe-inspiring sense of time and foreboding about technology to Spielberg’s deeply human, kid-focused sense of dreaminess and familial bonding. It’s a desperately haunting and beautiful film about loss, memory and most of all, unconquerable love.