The 20 Best Movies of the 2000s

iStock/danr13 and IFC Films
iStock/danr13 and IFC Films

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.

When Mississippi Once Banned Sesame Street

Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images
Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images

Since it began airing in the fall of 1969, Sesame Street has become an indelible part of millions of children's formative years. Using a cast of colorful characters like Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, and Oscar the Grouch, along with a curriculum vetted by Sesame Workshop's child psychologists and other experts, the series is able to impart life lessons and illustrate educational tools that a viewer can use throughout their adolescence. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone—even Oscar—who would take issue with the show’s approach or its mission statement.

Yet that’s exactly what happened in early 1970, when a board of educational consultants in Mississippi gathered, polled one another, and decided that Sesame Street was too controversial for television.

The series had only been on the air for a few months when the newly formed Mississippi Authority for Educational Television (also known as the State Commission for Educational Television) held a regularly scheduled meeting in January 1970. The board had been created by the state legislature with appointees named by Governor John Bell Williams to evaluate shows that were set to air on the state’s Educational Television, or ETV, station. The five-member panel consisted of educators and private citizens, including a teacher and a principal, and was headed up by James McKay, a banker in Jackson, Mississippi.

McKay’s presence was notable for the fact that his father-in-law, Allen Thompson, had just retired after spending 20 years as mayor of Jackson. Highly resistant to integration in the city during his tenure in office, Thompson was also the founder of Freedom of Choice in the United States, or FOCUS, an activist group that promoted what they dubbed “freedom of choice” in public schools—a thinly veiled reference to segregation. Mississippi, long the most incendiary state in the nation when it came to civil rights, was still struggling with the racial tension of the 1960s. Systemic racism was an issue.

Entering this climate was Sesame Street, the show pioneered by Joan Ganz Cooney, a former journalist and television producer who became the executive director of the Children’s Television Workshop. On the series, the human cast was integrated, with black performers Matt Robinson and Loretta Long as Gordon and Susan, respectively, appearing alongside white actors Jada Rowland and Bob McGrath. The children of Sesame Street were also ethnically diverse.

Zoe (L) and Cookie Monster (R) are pictured in New York City in November 2009
Astrid Stawiarz, Getty Images

This appeared to be too much for the Authority, which discussed how lawmakers with control over ETV’s budget—which had just been set at $5,367,441—might find the mixed-race assembly offensive. The panel's participants were all white.

The board pushed the discussion aside until April 17, 1970, when they took an informal poll and decided, by a margin of three votes against two, to prohibit ETV from airing Sesame Street—a show that came free of charge to all public television stations. (The decision affected mainly viewers in and around Jackson, as the station had not yet expanded across the state and was not expected to do so until the fall of 1970.)

The members who were outvoted were plainly unhappy with the outcome and leaked the decision to The New York Times, which published a notice of the prohibition days later along with a quote from one of the board members.

“Some of the members of the commission were very much opposed to showing the series because it uses a highly integrated cast of children,” the person, who did not wish to be named, said. “Mainly the commission members felt that Mississippi was not yet ready for it.”

The reaction to such a transparent concession to racism was swift and predictably negative, both in and out of Mississippi. Board members who spoke with press, usually anonymously, claimed the decision was a simple “postponing” of the show, not an outright ban. The fear, they said, was that legislators who viewed ETV as having progressive values might shut down the project before it had a chance to get off the ground. It was still possible for opponents to suffocate it before it became part of the fabric of the state’s television offerings.

The concern was not entirely without merit. State representative Tullius Brady of Brookhaven said that ETV exerted “a subtle influence” on the minds of children and that the Ford Foundation, which funded educational programming, could use its influence for “evil purposes.” Other lawmakers had previously argued against shows that promoted integration.

Grover is pictured at AOL Studios in New York City in May 2015
Slaven Vlasic, Getty Images

Regardless of how the decision was justified, many took issue with it. In an anonymous editorial for the Delta Democrat-Times, a critic wrote:

“But Mississippi’s ETV commission won’t be showing it for the time being because of one fatal defect, as measured by Mississippi’s political leadership. Sesame Street is integrated. Some of its leading cast members are black, including the man who does much of the overt ‘teaching.’ The neighborhood of the ‘street’ is a mixed one. And all that, of course, goes against the Mississippi grain.”

Joan Ganz Cooney called the decision a “tragedy” for young people.

Fortunately, it was a tragedy with a short shelf life. The following month, the board reconvened and reversed its own informal poll result, approving of Sesame Street and agreeing that ETV could air it as soon as they received tapes of the program. Thanks to feeds from Memphis, New Orleans, and Alabama, Sesame Street could already be seen in parts of Mississippi. And thanks to the deluge of negative responses, it seemed pointless to try to placate politicians who still favored segregation.

In the fall of 1970, the Sesame Street cast appeared in person in Jackson and was met by representatives from the board, which helped to sponsor the live performance, though it’s not clear any apology was forthcoming.

Sesame Street would go on to win numerous awards and accolades over the proceeding 50 years, though it would not be the only children’s show to experience censorship on public television. In May 2019, ETV networks in Alabama and Arkansas refused to air an episode of the PBS animated series Arthur in which a rat and aardvark are depicted as a same-sex couple getting married.

Attention Movie Geeks: Cinephile Is the Card Game You Need Right Now

Cinephile/Amazon
Cinephile/Amazon

If you’ve got decades worth of movie trivia up in your head but nowhere to show it off, Cinephile: A Card Game just may be your perfect outlet. Created by writer, art director, and movie expert Cory Everett, with illustrations by Steve Isaacs, this game aims to test the mettle of any film aficionado with five different play types that are designed for different skill and difficulty levels.

For players looking for a more casual experience, Cinephile offers a game variety called Filmography, where you simply have to name more movies that a given actor has appeared in than your opponent. For those who really want to test their knowledge of the silver screen, there’s the most challenging game type, Six Degrees, which plays like Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, with the player who finds the fewest number of degrees between two actors getting the win.

When you choose actors for Six Degrees, you’ll do so using the beautifully illustrated cards that come with the game, featuring Hollywood A-listers past and present in some of their most memorable roles. You’ve got no-brainers like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill (2003) and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall (1990) alongside cult favorites like Bill Murray from 2004's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Jeff Goldblum in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984). Of course, being a game designed for the true film buff, you’ll also get some deeper cuts like Helen Mirren from 1990’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and Sean Connery in 1974's Zardoz. There are 150 cards in all, with expansion packs on the way.

Cinephile is a labor of love for Everett and Isaacs, who originally got this project off the ground via Kickstarter, where they raised more than $20,000. Now it’s being published on a wider scale by Clarkson Potter, a Penguin Random House group. You can get your copy from Amazon now for $20.

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