The world changed in the 2000s, and not just because the years started with “2” now (although that was huge). In movies, the spread of digital technology made filmmaking less expensive than before, resulting in a new batch of young directors entering the playing field. Out in the real world, the events of September 11, 2001, would influence movies for the rest of the decade and beyond. Here are 20 films from 2000 to 2009 that we consider the best of the decade.
1. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
It remains the highest-grossing foreign-language movie in U.S. box office history, and even adjusting for inflation, the highest since at least 1980. Such is the power of Ang Lee's masterful, breathtaking action epic that changed martial arts movies forever and was most Westerners' first introduction to Michelle Yeoh. Timeless romance and flying warriors never blended so well.
2. Almost Famous (2000)
Cameron Crowe's semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story about a 15-year-old Rolling Stone correspondent embedded with a touring rock band didn't turn a profit in its initial release but has since come to be one of the most beloved movies of its kind, with excellent performances by Kate Hudson, Billy Crudup, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and more.
3. The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003)
We're cheating by counting three movies as one entry, but Peter Jackson's adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy trilogy was filmed as one giant project, not three separate ones—and besides, it means we don't have LOTR taking up three spots. Aside from being a monumental technical achievement, with special effects that still look good today, it's a rousing spectacle full of weighty themes, inspiring heroes, noble sacrifices, and Viggo Mortensen.
4. Memento (2001)
Before he gained legions of fans with his Batman movies and Inceptions and Dunkirks and whatnot, Christopher Nolan (along with co-writer/brother Jonathan) made Memento, an ingeniously constructed neo-noir about a man with short-term memory loss trying to find his wife's killer—oh, and the movie starts with the final scene and works its way backward. More than a twisty thriller, it's about the tricks our memories play on us and the lies we tell ourselves.
5. The Hours (2002)
Stephen Daldry's story about three women in different eras each impacted by Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway offered brilliant performances by a trio of Hollywood's best actresses: Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, and Nicole Kidman (who played Woolf herself and won an Oscar for it). And the rest of the cast: John C. Reilly, Toni Collette, Margo Martindale, Ed Harris, Allison Janney, Claire Danes, Jeff Daniels!
6. Spirited Away (2002)
The fervor with which people love Hayao Miyazaki's imaginative animated films—particularly this one, about a girl who travels to the world of spirits—rivals the passion felt for Disney and Pixar (albeit without the same level of box office success). The inspired, magical weirdness of Spirited Away offers a glimpse at worlds most other animated films never even thought of.
7. About a Boy (2002)
There are movies on this list that are more hoity-toity, but few as breezy, charming, and heartfelt as this comedy about Hugh Grant becoming friends with a bullied kid (Nicholas Hoult) and his mom (Toni Collette). Deceptively simple, it turns rom-com and other clichés on their heads while delivering a frankly beautiful story about connecting with others.
8. The Triplets of Belleville (2003)
It wasn't Disney, Pixar, Studio Ghibli, or even DreamWorks that made one of the decade's most visually hilarious animated films, but Frenchman Sylvain Chomet. His gentle yet insane, almost dialogue-free adventure has something amusing or wonderful to look at in every frame—everything from surrealism to caricatures to Looney Tunes-style anarchy.
9. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
A 21st-century love story from the brilliantly sad mind of Charlie Kaufman, directed by the visionary Michel Gondry, in which Jim Carrey seeks to erase his memories of a lost love (Kate Winslet). Visually, it's ingenious; thematically, it's melancholy and insightful (not to mention funny) in its exploration of true love and the persistence of memory.
10. The Incredibles (2004)
Everything Pixar put out in the 2000s could have made this list (except Cars, obviously), but we’re going with Brad Bird’s widescreen action comedy about a family of superheroes. Even without the “animated” qualifier this is one of Hollywood’s best superhero films, with vivid characters, relatable problems, dynamics visuals, and a sly sense of humor.
11. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
After writing Lethal Weapon and a handful of other noisy, ludicrous buddy-cop movies, Shane Black made his directorial debut skewering the genre, mocking the very conventions that Black helped create. A pulpy detective story a la Raymond Chandler, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang has a pre-Iron Man Robert Downey Jr. and a post-Batman Val Kilmer yukking it up with a Hollywood mystery and a screenplay full of screwy one-liners.
12. Brokeback Mountain (2005)
In an alternate universe, Ang Lee’s beautifully rendered adaptation of Annie Proulx’s short story about love between two cowboys won the Oscar for Best Picture and Crash was never spoken of again. In our universe, we have Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal’s emotional, taciturn performances centering a powerful film that taps into the universal aspects of falling in love.
13. Pan's Labyrinth (2006)
More than a decade before he would win Best Director and Best Picture Oscars for The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro dazzled audiences with this lush, dark fairy tale for grown-ups set in fascist Spain. Existing in a world between fantasy and nightmare, Pan’s Labyrinth is morbid, stunning, gorgeous, thematically rich, and chock-full of amazing things to see and consider.
14. CHILDREN OF MEN (2006)
We knew at the time that Alfonso Cuarón’s dystopian sci-fi thriller—about a woman getting pregnant in a world where no children have been born for 18 years—was technically brilliant and thematically layered. What we couldn’t have known was how prescient its depiction of a society trying to hold onto hope would seem in 2019.
15. No Country for Old Men (2007)
Joel and Ethan Coen have made at least one film in each decade since the 1980s that could reasonably be considered their best, and each of those bests is better than most of the other films released that decade. Such is the case with this Best Picture winner, a perfect marriage of filmmakers and material (Cormac McCarthy’s novel already had Coen-esque touches) that ruminates on fate, luck, and destiny.
16. There Will Be Blood (2007)
It was Citizen Kane for the new century: a sprawling epic about a flawed, wealthy man who lets his own power destroy him, directed by a wunderkind already revered by most of Hollywood. Paul Thomas Anderson and stars Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano all do some of their best work in the story of a duplicitous oilman who meets his match in the fiery son of a preacher.
17. Synecdoche, New York (2008)
After scoring with screenplays for loopy, melancholy comedies like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation., and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Charlie Kaufman directed this one himself and out-weirded everything he’d done before, with Philip Seymour Hoffman as a theater director who creates a massive stage production based on his own life. Surrounded by whimsical, surreal details, it’s an unforgettable piece of art about how life can slip away while you’re not looking.
18. Tropic Thunder (2008)
Surely there was no better Hollywood satire in the 2000s than Ben Stiller’s scathing, piercing, merciless mockery of showbiz egos set during a disastrous film shoot in the jungles of Asia. Among the most astonishing achievements: Tom Cruise nearly unrecognizable as a vicious studio exec, and Robert Downey Jr. being in blackface the whole time—and getting away with it.
19. In the Loop (2009)
An extension of the British TV series The Thick of It and predating Veep, this profanely scabrous political satire directed and co-written by Armando Iannucci depicts both English and American politicians as cynical, petty, conniving opportunists. It’s a dismally accurate view but a hilarious one, and the film features the decade’s best, most creative swearing.
20. The Hurt Locker (2009)
Several films about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan emerged in the second half of the decade, but this one, directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by journalist Mark Boal, is unique in its emotional resonance. Jeremy Renner stars as a bomb technician so numb to the dangers of war that he’s become addicted to it, resulting in a sharp, tight, and suspenseful action drama.