THE 10 BEST (In Alphabetical Order)
1. FAR FROM HEAVEN (2002; Todd Haynes). It's a little frightening to realize exactly what writer-director Todd Haynes has managed to pull off with this audacious endeavor. Channeling the spirit of filmmaker Douglas Sirk (Imitation of Life, All That Heaven Allows), he has replicated the look, the feel, the technique and the simmering subtext of those color-soaked melodramas from the 50s -- and yet not once does his movie even remotely feel like a goofy gimmick, a high-minded stunt meant only to draw attention to its creator's cleverness. As the happy homemaker whose life begins to unravel once her husband steps out of the closet and her black gardener steps into her affections, Julianne Moore delivers a heartbreaking performance that easily endures as one of the finest of the decade.
2. HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH (2001; John Cameron Mitchell). On an emotional level, it's hard to do much better than this brilliantly staged, scored and performed rock odyssey about a transsexual drag queen from Germany who's obsessed with issues of self-worth and self-identity. In this difficult role, show co-creator John Cameron Mitchell delivers a magnificent performance, one that's matched by a soundtrack which continues to receive ample exposure on my CD player.
3. LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003; Sofia Coppola). While most other Saturday Night Live vets have seen their careers flame out or get neutered, Bill Murray has quietly been building an impressive resume full of quirky character parts, culminating in the staggering performance seen here. This picture about two American strangers (Murray and Scarlett Johansson) in Tokyo (presented as a garish wonderland on a permanent psychedelic high) is a deeply moving and insightful study of two "old souls" making a meaningful connection that temporarily tames their inner angst. As an added bonus, the movie also does a better job than any other film in memory of conveying the "walking dead" sensation that plagues travelers forced to spend too much time roaming hotel corridors.
4. MEMENTO (2001; Christopher Nolan). Like Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep -- a movie so confusing that even Raymond Chandler (who wrote the original novel) couldn't figure it all out -- this audacious neo-film noir about an amnesiac (Guy Pearce in a well-tuned performance) searching for his wife's killer is so mesmerizing, you'll gladly see it again and again just to keep rearranging all the pieces and making them fit in any number of ways. Christopher Nolan went on to direct another of the decade's best films, seen below in the Honorable Mentions (The Dark Knight).
5. MILLION DOLLAR BABY (2004; Clint Eastwood). The story, about a female boxer (Hilary Swank) who's given little chance of going the distance, doesn't sound like much. Yet what director Clint Eastwood and writer Paul Haggis (adapting stories by F.X. Toole) have pulled off with this hoary outline is remarkable, neatly upending the expected clichés until what's left is a movie experience with transformative powers. The first half plays largely as expected (albeit with astute attention to characterization and dialogue), but the second part heads off in its own direction and never looks back. The result is a real stunner, an incisive drama marked by sterling turns from Swank, Morgan Freeman and, in the finest performance of his lengthy career, the grand master himself.
6. MINORITY REPORT (2002; Steven Spielberg). Spielberg. Cruise. Science fiction. Summer blockbuster. Sure, it'd be easy to dismiss this expansion of a Philip K. Dick short story as mere popcorn entertainment -- it'd also be completely imbecilic. Even more than the Star Wars prequels and (dare I say it?) the Lord of the Rings trilogy, this futuristic stunner creates its own self-contained universe and then invites us to get lost in its synthetic splendor. Yet this isn't simply a triumph of set design; instead, Spielberg and company employ an astonishing and intricate plotline to punch across a treatise on this nation's simultaneous erosion of personal responsibility and individual freedom. It's one of the decade's most topical releases -- even if it is set in 2054.
7. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007; Joel & Ethan Coen). This instant Coens classic is a pessimistic movie for our pessimistic times, but to say it's devoid of humanity is to undervalue the efforts of its more upstanding characters as they struggle to survive in a world which no longer makes sense. The ideal movie for our post-9/11 existence, it's a terror alert gone haywire, pondering not only whether our world can withstand the eternal struggle between good and evil but whether this world is even worth saving. With Anton Chigurh, Javier Bardem creates the most memorable screen monster since Hannibal Lecter, and the movie is further bolstered by one of the most startling character bait-and-switch tactics since Janet Leigh went under the knife in Psycho.
8. REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000; Darren Aronofsky). The film medium has given us a number of exemplary "drug addiction" movies over the years, so it's saying reams of copy that this adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.'s novel has emerged as the best of the bunch. Full of astonishing imagery, propelled by a terrific score by Clint Mansell (with a major assist from the Kronos Quartet), and anchored by Ellen Burstyn's fearless performance as a lonely widow hooked on diet pills, this sense-shattering achievement has burrowed under my skin like few other films from this past decade. The Honorable Mentions section below also contains a second Aronofsky feature, The Wrestler.
9. SIDEWAYS (2004; Alexander Payne). Although Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church), two buddies who book passage to California's Santa Ynez Valley to tour the local wineries, don't actually spend much screen time in their car, the film nevertheless has all the trappings of the best "road movies": individuals who hit the highway looking for adventure, only to learn valuable life lessons about America, about its occupants (repped here by Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh) and, most tellingly, about themselves. Like the fine wines that figure in the plot, this exquisite motion picture ages beautifully, as repeat viewings uncork new emotions and new insights -- and allow us to spend more time with these wonderfully flawed, wonderfully recognizable people.
10. SPIRITED AWAY (2002; Hayao Miyazaki). Surprisingly, the best animated achievement since 1991's Beauty and the Beast didn't come from the Pixar factory, although that studio certainly cornered the market on producing the majority of the decade's crowning animated achievements (among them Monsters, Inc., The Incredibles, Ratatouille and Up). Yet the finest toon tale of the '00s hails from Japan, courtesy of a master whose dazzling displays of imagination and innovation are often unlike anything else to be found on movie screens. This animated masterpiece -- cinema as hallucinatory dream -- will continue to haunt us for years to come.
Honorable Mentions (In Alphabetical Order):
Almost Famous (2000; Cameron Crowe)
The Constant Gardener (2005; Fernando Meirelles)
The Dark Knight (2008; Christopher Nolan)
Milk (2008; Gus Van Sant)
A Prairie Home Companion (2006; Robert Altman)
Spellbound (2003; Jeffrey Blitz)
The Station Agent (2003; Tom McCarthy)
United 93 (2006; Paul Greengrass)
Up in the Air (2009; Jason Reitman)
The Wrestler (2008; Darren Aronofsky)