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The 20 Best Films of the 2000s

20. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

A glorious union of Eastern martial arts and Hollywood production values, Ang Lee’s timeless 18th-century story is magical, exciting, romantic and sweeping, one of the most beautiful and bewitching action films ever made.

19. Finding Nemo (2003)

Pixar’s classic revisited the standard Disney theme of parental loss combined with children suddenly gaining their independence but added the crucial twist of telling the story almost entirely from the point of view of a bereft parent. Perhaps no movie was a more effective signal to children that parents care and have their reasons for being cautious in the face of potential dangers. Albert Brooks’s clownfish Marlin is one of the screen’s most fiercely dedicated dads, one who learns both the lesson that overprotectiveness can backfire and that  courage can save the day in the face of calamity. Ellen DeGeneres and Willem Dafoe provide lots of laughs in support.

18. Bad Santa (2003)

Along with Team America (see below), this Terry Zwigoff film was the decade’s most irreverent, political correctness-murdering comedy. A priceless Billy Bob Thornton provides a contemporary update on the Grinch as an alcoholic department-store Santa dedicated to ripping off his employers. Grudgingly he befriends a chubby and clueless little boy who thinks the thief is the real Kris Kringle, and the black-comic script by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa gradually morphs from savagely nasty to big-hearted in a cleverly twisted way.

17. Up (2009)

One of Pixar’s most sober and grownup films, this story of adventure among the aged takes a fantasy setup (an old man dreams of attaching enough balloons to his house that he can sail away and realize a childhood dream by visiting South America) and applies to it a sense that aging should be a process of unceasing exploration. The film’s wordless summary of married life is one of the finest four minutes the Walt Disney Co ever put on film.

16. Ratatouille (2007)

A movie about a rat who becomes a chef, this Pixar entry typified how nutty ideas seemingly pitched at children can be developed into richly engaging grownup entertainment. Patton Oswalt plays the rat, Remy, who stands for ordinary aspirational humans, a character who embodies Oscar Wilde’s famous quip that “We’re all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” Remy, rising above his lowly station, sneaks into a Paris restaurant where he becomes the brains of an incompetent kitchen boy and creates art in the guise of food. As the fusty critic who is won over by Remy’s genius, Peter O’Toole gives one of his final great performances. The movie peaks at the scene in which the snooty food writer is swept away by Remy’s brilliant meal and the memories it unlocks.

15. Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Cinematic excursions into Third World poverty tend to be heavy on the condescension: For the benefit of wealthy white audiences they pretend that there is something magical and even triumphant about destitution, and even go so far as to suggest that poor minorities have a more direct connection to authentic experience than do the well-off. Slumdog Millionaire, colorful and exuberant as it is, doesn’t pretend (like, say, Beasts of the Southern Wild) that poverty has its own pungent delights but that it is a villain from whose clutches our hero must escape. Consequently, Dev Patel’s resourceful scamp Jamal is anything but an object of pity in Danny Boyle’s kaleidoscopic adventure.

14. Memento (2000)

Christopher Nolan’s taut, twisty, inventive psychological noir thriller about a man (Guy Pearce) who has lost his short-term memory marked then-young Nolan as one of the premier directors of his age, a master storyteller who could create knockout visual thrills on a low budget.

13. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

A vaguely depressed, bittersweet and yet somehow joyous comedy-drama, Wes Anderson’s family saga is about the frustrations and heartbreak of youth, when emotion can seem unbearable and thoughts unsayable. At the core of the picture is a tortured romance between a glum tennis player (Luke Wilson) and the lost girl (Gwyneth Paltrow) he loves from a careful distance because she’s his adopted sister. Anderson’s use of songs by Nick Drake, Nico and Elliott Smith gave the film much of its lilting, wrenching quality even as Anderson’s droll sense of humor made it winsome and funny.

12. Love, Actually (2003)

Melding together and reworking romantic comedy tropes, Richard Curtis’s film was an Encylopedia Brittanica of the genre, miraculously blending more than a dozen principal characters into one of the earliest and most accomplished examples of “hyperlink cinema,” the multiple-storyline films that stole techniques from today’s best television shows and later became associated with glum message movies like Babel and Crash. Curtis’s film probably would have met with more acclaim if it had been called Eros and Thanatos, and yet the mixture of the tragic and the romantic in the movie as it exists is inescapable.

11. Black Hawk Down (2001)

The defining war movie of the post-Cold War, pre War on Terror era in which America serves as a global police force, Ridley Scott’s intense and grippingly detailed film highlights the amazing capability and esprit de corps of modern U.S. troops while also serving as a jarring cautionary tale about the dangers of political overreach.

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.

3. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)

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.