This decade proved a great one for genre films.
If anything, it could be remembered as the decade that fantasy/sci-fi/action films really grew up. Of course, Peter Jackson created the critically and commercially successful "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, capping it all off with the first Best Picture win for a fantasy movie ever in 2004. Looking back at the best works from 2000-2009, there are plenty of films that creatively combined genre elements to reach a higher cinematic truth. It was extremely hard to pick just 10.
10. Munich (2005) and A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2002)
Steven Spielberg made both of these soul-shaking films in the first half of the decade. "Munich" is set in the early 1970s, but grapples with the still unsolvable Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Rather than give us a civics lecture, Spielberg uses his skill at concocting thrillers to put the viewer in the shoes of Eric Bana and his conscience-stricken team of Israeli assassins as they violently avenge the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre. Concurrently, viewers must weigh the human consequences of an escalating terrorist war. "Munich" is mature, thought-provoking work from a director who, despite complicated turmoil from his own political/religious camp, is not afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve. With "A.I.," Spielberg profiled a robot boy (Haley Joel Osment) programmed to give unconditional love. Finishing an ambitious project originally started by Stanley Kubrick, it remains a rumination on the lengths at which people will go to counter a devastating loss. The tricky (and often misunderstood) ending theorizes that trying to remedy the situation with technology could result in heartbreak a million fold.
9. Where the Wild Things Are (2009)
Spike Jonze's adaptation of the controversial Maurice Sendak children's book turned out to be - guess what? - controversial. Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers re-imagined the mysterious "wild things" as tightly wound balls of insecurity and brought them to life with a combination of giant furry costumes, wonderful computer-generated facial expressions, and expressive voicework. After lashing out as his mother and sister, 9-year old Max spends his time on the island confronting his own feelings and doing some growing up of his own, especially after realizing how hard it is to be a leader. While they may not understand the storytelling devices used in the movie, children will understand the raw emotion and relate to a kid who's just trying to figure out the world he lives in. Also - parents, be warned: There are some moments that may frighten small children, just like other classic children's movies such as "Bambi" and "The Wizard of Oz." Watch our video review.
8. The Aviator (2004)
Martin Scorsese's detailed and epic biopic of Howard Hughes' early years in Hollywood is filled with all the glitz and glamour of Tinseltown in its heyday, but profiles a larger-than-life public figure whose daring and confidence were soon to be destroyed completely by mental illness. Leonardo DiCaprio is so restrained and natural as Hughes that it's easy to overlook the magnitude of this performance - the actor is in virtually every scene in the two-and-a-half hour film and undergoes a thorough transformation. Cate Blanchett earned a well-deserved Oscar for channeling screen legend Katherine Hepburn, and Scorsese is at the top of his game, juggling one historic event after another while keeping the story rooted in Hughes' growing alienation. That personal focus gives "The Aviator" an emotional wallop that's quite unexpected. Read our full review.
7. The Wrestler (2008)
Here's a film that hinges on the authenticity of its main character even more than "The Aviator." Since director Darren Aronofsky went for an ultra-realistic narrative style with point-of-view camerawork, Mickey Rourke had to be thoroughly convincing. The result was one of the most poignant films of the past 10 years, even if it does revolve around a big guy in green tights who gets beat up for a living. "The Wrestler" chronicles his attempts to connect with a single-mom stripper (Marisa Tomei) and his struggle to come to terms with his wreck of a life. Rourke is eminently likable, and his formidable charisma also results in some unexpectedly funny and tender moments as well. "The Wrestler" comes with all Rourke's hard-scrabble emotional baggage, and it feels so real, it doesn't even look like acting. Watch our video review.
6. Memento (2000)
How often does a thriller come along that feels like a reinvention of the genre? Before he reinvigorated the superhero movie as a serious crime drama in "The Dark Knight," Christopher Nolan helmed this ingenious low-budget head-spinner about Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), a man who is trying to solve the murder of his wife but has no short-term memory. In order to similarly handicap the audience, Nolan tells Leonard's story in reverse-order 10-minute snippets while also advancing a flashback memory chronologically. Believe it or not, for all its structural gimmickry, "Memento" delivers in spades. It explores the ultimate reason for memory's existence and how it relates to our identity as human beings.
5. No Country for Old Men (2007)
Joel and Ethan Coen's Best Picture winner is a white-knuckle suspense movie and an existential discourse. Adapting Cormac McCarthy's novel, the Coens use the widescreen pallet of the Old West as a backdrop to sustain a pit-in-your-stomach feeling of unpredictable dread. Tommy Lee Jones' philosophical musings anchor the film as he searches for meaning in life through the actions of his father and Texas lawmen of the past. Enter Javier Bardem's pageboy from Hell - Anton Chigurh - who besides being the scariest movie character since Hannibal Lecter, also represents the whole of that uncaring universe. When the plot goes off the rails toward the end, it is nothing less than the destruction of the suspense movie. There is no final showdown. The main character is dispatched offscreen, and it throws the audience off completely. Don't worry. Jones' Sheriff Bell is confused too, and the only thing he can do is stick to the code of justice that he's familiar with. It's that uncertainty that drives the entire movie. Read our full review.
4. Almost Famous (2000)
Cameron Crowe's semi-autobiographical masterpiece is set in the '70s and brimming to the top with perfectly realized period detail and authenticity, but its story is timeless. A budding teenage rock journalist (Patrick Fugit) learns some hard truths about friendship, loyalty and being true to oneself when he goes on the road with a second-tier rock band. Crowe received a richly deserved Oscar for the ambitious screenplay - which contains some of the funniest, smartest and most quotable lines of any movie in recent memory - and elucidates the both blissful transcendence and pitiful ironies of rock 'n' roll. Let's not forget the actors who round out the movie's amazing ensemble: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kate Hudson, Jason Lee, Frances McDormand, Billy Crudup, Zooey Deschanel, Anna Paquin, Noah Taylor and Fairuza Balk.
3. There Will Be Blood (2007)
From the first "silent" reel of Paul Thomas Anderson's epic paean to corrupted American ambition, "There Will Be Blood" is a uniquely gripping experience. Anchored by an Oscar-winning, tour-de-force performance from Daniel Day-Lewis, the film is a disturbing and darkly funny portrait of a man who slowly and completely loses his humanity. Gorgeous 35mm cinematography makes the sprawling desert and spurting oil rigs come alive. "There Will Be Blood" is also shot with enough "magic hour" natural light to rival even Terrence Malick's famously ethereal "Days of Heaven." Anderson's script explores and sometimes celebrates (in its own twisted way) the unchecked ambition of extraordinary men. When Plainview's insatiable greed meets the driven appetite of a young preacher (Paul Dano), it brings out the worst in both men and sets up a classic conflict of the ages. Read our full review.
2. Children of Men (2006)
Alfonso Cuaron's stirring sci-fi drama has in spades what many of its contemporaries lack: a sense of immediacy. This comes partly from an apocalyptic setting that's 20 years in the future but doesn't seem too far from today and partly from the most visceral action scenes in years. Cuaron's single-take, single-camera point of view during two remarkable sequences keep the audience rooted in the urgency of the crisis while the film keeps the audience thinking. The human race's sudden, unexplained infertility plunges the world into chaos, but it's just a more aggressive extension of modern issues. Clive Owen is the perfect modern hero - a cynical, emotionally bruised man who must rise to the occasion when a huge responsibility comes out of nowhere. A shell-shocked former political activist, he carries the burden with the rugged determination of someone who hasn't had a reason to live in years. It may have been filmed during a time of political upheaval, but with new worldwide economic and environmental directions being plotted every day, Cuaron's exceptional piece of pure cinema is a timely plea for rational thought and hope against all odds. Read our full review.
1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Director Michel Gondry and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman put together that rare film that fits easily into no genre and intrigues both the mind and the soul. Repeated viewings only increase the notion that this movie is an undisputed classic. Through a broken-up couple that wants to "erase" each other from their memories, the film poses many questions about love, fate and memory while teasing the viewer with a narrative that gives new meaning to the word "fractured." The most impressive part? It all makes clear emotional sense. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet are the perfect complicated couple - they fight just as much as they love, experiencing the highs and lows of their time together. The film reminds us that even the bad memories are key to our very sense of being. As Carrey struggles to regain his memories, they disappear before our very eyes with unmatched creativity. Gondry's endless bag of lo-fi visual tricks fits perfectly with the idea that a mechanical device the shape of a carburetor could suck specific memories out of your head forever. But don't let the inventive special effects fool you. "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" is as honest and true an examination as you'll ever get about the intricacies of romantic companionship, and it is the best film of the decade. Read our full review.
— Photos special to the Journal-World.