The best film of the decade wasn’t nominated for any Oscars, which we think says a lot more about the Oscars than it does about Punch Drunk Love. After a trio of excellent but increasingly Altman-esque films, Paul Thomas Anderson defied expectations by making an Adam Sandler "comedy" about a pathetic and unloved man with anger issues gradually coming out of his shell as the result of a blackmail plot, a chocolate pudding contest, and the world’s sweetest woman. Some interpretations think aliens are at involved as well. Anderson’s unique use of color and pacing, impeccably off-putting comedic timing, and bizarre music choices (the soundtrack to "Popeye" has never been so haunting) make Punch Drunk Love the most unique American film of the decade… a bravura display of unexpected storytelling heights and the finest quality of showmanship. Punch Drunk Love’s been at the top of this list since it was released in 2002, and nothing has come close since.
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
This summer, Transformers 2 opened to atrocious reviews, which were in turn met by dismissive comments about how blockbuster entertainment isn’t expected to be "good." How quickly we forget. For three years in a row, director Peter Jackson (who had never even directed an action film before) brought J.R.R. Tolkien’s supposedly unfilmable trilogy to life with beauty, excitement and class. Anchored by pitch-perfect performances by Sir Ian McKellan, that kid from "Flipper," that kid from "Rudy," and many more, and filled to the brim with groundbreaking (and often low-tech) visual effects from the previously unknown Weta Workshop, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy set a new standard for quality big budget filmmaking. (The uncut version of The Two Towers is our favorite.) Some argue that The Return of the King takes too long to end, and they’d be right if The Return of the King was a single film. It’s not… It’s the last act of an over nine-hour epic that needs just as long to wrap up as it did to get going in the first place.
No stranger to unusual love stories (The Chungking Express is practically a textbook on the subject), director Wong Kar-wai nevertheless crafted his finest film in In the Mood for Love, starring two of cinema’s finest actors – Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung – as married neighbors who begin to suspect that their respective spouses are sleeping with each other. Drawn together by their loneliness and a little bit of shame, they drift through Wong Kar-wai’s impeccable cinematography, unwilling to confess that they’re falling love. So beautiful, and so sad, that it’s impossible to look away.
A few directors have tried making films about 9/11 – Spike Lee, Oliver Stone, Uwe Boll – but all of them suffered from overpowering points of view. (Well, not Uwe Boll’s…) Paul Greengrass directed the harrowing and tragic tale of United 93 – the hijacked plan that was retaken by its passengers and crashed before reaching its target – without any hint of pretension of melodrama. The result is terrifying, watching people just like ourselves gradually realize that the unthinkable has occurred, and that something equally unthinkable now has to be done. It’s that rare kind of film that is so good you’ll only want to watch it once.
"After 700 years of doing what he was built for, he’ll discover what he was meant for." Pixar’s most inspiring film (no small feat) starred a robot whose only inhuman attribute was his overwhelming cuteness. As Wall-E travels the universe – for love, of course – he ends up the unwitting x-factor that breaks humanity out of its corporate-run, machine-dependent routine. With its faith in humanity only matched by its extreme cynicism, Wall-E showed that Pixar doesn’t make "family films," it makes films for every audiences everywhere. Smart, funny, action-packed and perfectly constructed, Wall-E isn’t just the finest animated film of the decade, it’s also the finest family film of the decade and the finest science fiction film while we’re at it.
On the surface it seemed like a gimmick movie: a hard-boiled film noir taking place in a modern high school, complete with Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s anti-hero telling his superior (in this case a vice principal played by Richard Roundtree), "If you have a disciplinary issue with me, you can write me up or suspend me… and I’ll see you at the parent-teacher conference." It’s a good gimmick, but if you stripped it all away and set Rian Johnson’s debut feature in the 1950’s where it by all rights belongs, it would still rank among the best detective stories of all time. A sharply plotted, heartfelt story of regret and loss, Brick proved the finest debut film of the decade.
Honestly, we’d have been happy with another Batman Begins – Christopher Nolan’s first exceptional foray into his gritty Batman mythology – but The Dark Knight blew us away with its explosive storytelling, Heath Ledger’s instant-classic interpretation of the Joker, and controversial themes that had audiences and critics alike debating whether the film was pro-Bush, anti-Bush, or just totally awesome. (The answers are "Sort of," "Sort of," and "Dear God, yes.") Some people think the climax is too hopeful. We think those people are too cynical. The Dark Knight was some of the most exciting filmmaking of the decade. Maybe ever.
Prolific but inconsistent, Woody Allen had already spent half the decade re-hashing his familiar stories of love triangles and infidelity with limp comedies like Anything Else and Small Time Crooks. But in 2005, he broke the mold with Match Point, a striking drama about… well, love triangles and infidelity. But by taking the story seriously and marching rationally towards an unthinkable, terrifying conclusion Woody Allen made Match Point the best film of his career. Jonathan Rhys Meyers has smoldering chemistry with Scarlett Johansson, but risks everything to preserve a life of comfort and simplicity with the adorably normal Emily Mortimer. As shocking as it is believable, this understated classic deserves far greater recognition.
In the very near f*ture, a class of ninth graders is selected every year to travel to an island. There they are outfitted with exploding collars that will go off if more than one of them is alive after three days. What should by all rights have been an exploitative mess became, in the hands of Japanese director Kinji F*kasaku, a powerful science fiction tale of survival against all odds. The students, trained to be overcompetitive in the first place, are each believable characters, some weakly trying to survive without being corrupted, some killing themselves rather than do the unthinkable, and others who embrace the opportunity to revel in their darkest ids. Barely released in the United States (for obvious reasons), Battle Royale remains the darkest tale of the century, and one of the most unforgettable.
In Edgar Wright’s sly comedy, a 20-something loser played by Simon Pegg gets his life together over the course of a single day, which just so happens to be the first day of the inevitable zombie holocaust (not that we’re allowed to use the "zed" word). Hilarious homages abound – "We’re coming to get you Barbara!" will ALWAYS be funny – but the real story here is one of growing up, accelerated by conflict. As Shaun comes to terms with his stepfather, proves his worth to his girlfriend, says goodbye to his best childhood mate, and, in one of the decade’s most powerful scenes, performs euthanasia on his own mother, he stands in for a generation of young people who are capable of great things, but not until they grow up a bit.