How do you begin to pick the best movies in an evolutionary-revolutionary decade of film? In 10 years, the movies went digital (and not just the cartoons). Great talents emerged, greater talents reached their zenith, new genres were born, new ways of telling stories materialized.
If you think, as I do, that the true measure of a great film is one that you can't channel-surf past when you see that it's on, one that you make time to see again out of pure pleasure or because you know you'll be rewarded with new insights on life, love, human nature and the cinema, then winnowing a decade that went from Amelie to Zodiac, City of God to City of Men down to two handfuls of films that matter isn't as hard as one would think.
Here are 10 that I make the time to watch again, that "changed things," or the likes of which we might never see on a big screen again.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003): It's disheartening to think that we might never see a historical action epic like this again. Sure, there will be attempts (the upcoming Robin Hood, with Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett). But a great filmmaker having sailing ships built (or renting them) so that cast and crew could utterly immerse themselves in an era and take us with them? With real sets and locations and precious little digital trickery? Peter Weir channeled his inner David Lean for this throwback classic, the only film of its kind and caliber to come out of Hollywood since Titanic. And in Titanic, the ship often was a model or a computer-generated illusion.
Memento and Amores Perros (2000): The "puzzle picture" genre was perfected and launched pretty much at the same time in Christopher Nolan's told-out-of-order thriller about a man (Guy Pearce) with short-term memory loss on a mission of revenge, and in Alejandro González Iñárritu's Mexican street-life thriller. Films including Crash, 21 Grams, City of God, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead and the current The Burning Plain (by the Amores screenwriter) have copied the style and attention-grabbing narrative technique. Excepting the last film, each of these has been a bravura example of innovative storytelling. Filmmakers have learned that if you can pull off the technique, the finished film can't help but be all-engrossing.
Finding Nemo (2003): Other parents will back me up on this. This is still the Pixar film that holds up best under repeated viewings. Nemo set the bar so high — in terms of story, performance, look and box-office expectations — that Disney gave up hand-drawn animation altogether after this one. They've brought it back for The Princess and the Frog, but Nemo, an epic, heartfelt quest tale starring a clown fish, is the best film in computer-animated history.
Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004): The "essay" documentary was invented by others (Ross McElwee, Sherman's March, 1986). But the passionate, political point-of-view jeremiad came of age during the 2004 presidential election, when Michael Moore made a movie that said a lot of things that enraged half the country and invigorated the other half. Super Size Me is just one of the scads of documentaries that have mimicked Moore's style, if not his success.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004): The sensibilities of writer Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry eccentrically collide in the best romance of the past 10 years, a movie of poignant longing and love, wistfully remembered. No matter what memory-scrubbing science might come up with, even the pain is worth hanging onto after a romance goes wrong. Kate Winslet was a romantic spitfire to end all spitfires, and Jim Carrey will never, ever be better in a serio-comic role. This summer's lighter (500) Days of Summer owes much to Spotless.
Bloody Sunday (2002): For my money, Paul Greengrass was the director of the decade. His nervy, political thrillers, with their pacing, their passion, their seizure-inducing editing, set the tone for what action looks like on the big screen. This Northern Ireland history lesson — a step-by-step re-creation of that fateful march on that fateful day in 1972 — prefigured the attention to historical detail of United 93 and the pulse-pounding excitement of the best of the Bourne movies, which Greengrass went on to make.
Millions (2004): If the dazzling warmth and humanity of Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire took you by surprise, that's only because you missed his earlier kids-coping-with-adult-dilemmas piece, this gloriously life-affirming child's view of money, magic and innocence. Slumdog is an embraceable epic. Millions was more intimate, just as thrilling and every bit as emotional. And just plain adorable, too.
300 (2006): Sin City gave us the whole green-screen sets, lurid comic-book movie look, first, back in 2005. But turn that technique loose on an epic battle, with epic heroes and history filtered through comic book genius Frank Miller, and you have the best comic book/graphic novel adaptation. Ever. "This is Sparta!"
The Departed (2006): Martin Scorsese's Oscar winner isn't his all-time best film, but it is a riveting, ticking-clock thriller that gave birth to a new genre — the cell-phone thriller (Body of Lies, State of Play) — with stars like Leonardo DiCaprio acting, emoting, shouting, living and dying by Verizon. Or AT&T.