The Lives of Others (2006) – A German film about a surveillance expert who spies on a playwright in Communist Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall, The Lives of Others won the Best Foreign film at the Oscars and for good reason. Unbearably suspenseful and surprisingly moving, The Lives of Others shows that the best films don’t always come from Hollywood.
Memento (2000) – The woefully underrated and underused Guy Pearce stars as a detective who searches for his wife’s killer after losing his short-term memory. The film plays out in reverse, revealing the story piece by piece like a jigsaw puzzle. Gimmicky to some, the premise demands your attention the more you watch this masterfully chaotic film. Repeated viewings required.
WALL-E (2008) – Of all the post-apocalyptic films I’ve seen, WALL-E is by far the cutest. Two robots—a clunky trash-compactor and a sleek land-rover—meet by chance and fall in robot love? It’s a match made in Pixar heaven. From the skillfully rendered 20-minute wordless opening sequence to WALL-E and Eve’s beautiful ballet in space, WALL-E is animation at its best.
Once (2007) – Boy meets girl. The concept has been overdone, but in Once it’s taken back to basics with two Irish musicians who meet and make beautiful music together and become companions fighting against loneliness. A musical in the most unorthodox way, the deceptively simple songs anchor what is one of the most uplifting and honest love stories I’ve ever seen.
Unbreakable (2000) – Most people prefer writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s 1999 mega-hit The Sixth Sense but Unbreakable is surely the superior work, if only for its restrained pace and fascinating characters. Subtly structured in the classic comic book superhero frame, everything in the film from the color palette to the redemptive love story makes Unbreakable perhaps the most underrated film of the decade.
Zodiac (2007) – Paranoia and dread permeate this noir thriller from director David Finch about the Zodiac killer of 1970s San Francisco. Based on the book by a cartoonist who tried to solve the murders, Zodiac represents the best in boiler-plate drama with its slow-building tension, superb ensemble acting, and stunning camera work. There’s no happy ending, but there’s no film like it.
In America (2002) – An overlooked film from director Jim Sheridan, In America features an Irish family newly immigrated to New York City drudging through the trials and tribulations of living in near-poverty. Told through the 10-year-old daughter’s point of view, In America shows a family fighting against tragedy and heartache and sticking together throughout it all.
High Fidelity (2000) – John Cusask is Rob Gordon, music snob and man in crisis. After his latest relationship ends, Rob catalogs his five biggest break-ups and the music that guided him through them. Underscored by a top-notch soundtrack, High Fidelity spotlights the vulnerability that stews beneath masculine hubris. Bonus points for the Bruce Springsteen cameo.
Children of Men (2006) – In a not-so-far-fetched future, the terror-wracked world in Children of Men is in chaos after women become completely infertile. Clive Owen plays a world-weary has-been who reluctantly escorts the only pregnant girl on Earth to safety. Featuring groundbreaking cinematography, Children of Men manages to inspire a ray of hope in the darkest of places.
Almost Famous (2000) – A semiautobiographical work from writer-director Cameron Crowe, this 1970s coming of age tale of a teen rock writer who goes on the road with an up-and-coming rock band is funny and serious, nostalgic and brutally honest. Patrick Fugit shines as the boyish protagonist who enters a world of sex, drugs, and rock and roll and comes out the other end a new person.
The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (2001) – While Return of the King proved a satisfying conclusion to a grand trilogy, Fellowship of the Ring remains the stand-out installment for its sweeping scope and emotional core. A game-changer in every way, everything from its breathtaking locales to the expertly created creatures makes Fellowship the new standard for the cinematic epic.
Brokeback Mountain (2005) – Sorry, Crash; Brokeback Mountain was the best film of 2005 and one of the best of the decade. Against stunning Western vistas and an elegant score, Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger help turn the “gay cowboy movie” cliché into a tragic and somber requiem of a dream deferred. Forget the Joker; Ledger as Ennis del Mar is the best performance of his short career.
A History of Violence (2005) – The only think more enigmatic than the title is the film itself, a profound meditation on violence disguised as a family drama and gangster movie. Viggo Mortensen proves a wonderfully complex character struggling to maintain his identity in spite of himself, while Maria Bello plays the supportive wife stuck in the middle of it all.
Casino Royale (2006) – For the last few Bond movies, James Bond was a joke. But with Casino Royale, nobody’s laughing at him anymore. Daniel Craig, the best Bond ever, turned him back into a fist-wielding badass with class, and Eva Green’ Vesper Lynd proves a sultry Bond girl who won Bond’s heart against his better judgment. Add to that exciting chases and poker games and you’ve got a Bond movie worth watching.
Into Great Silence (2005) – This is a film nobody saw but should. A German documentary about the monks who live at the Blank Monastery in France, there is hardly any talking at all for the almost 3-hour run time instead, we get to watch what the monks do every day, which is, for 6 days a week, live simple lives in complete silence. It’s an exercise in patience, but very rewarding and immensely gratifying to the soul.
The Best of the Rest
No Country for Old Men (2007), Finding Nemo (2003), Grizzly Man (2005), United 93 (2006), The Dark Knight (2008), Minority Report (2002), Stranger than Fiction (2006), Half Nelson (2006), Pan’s Labyrinth (2007), The Squid and the Whale (2007)