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The Top 50 Films of the Decade: Part One

Shane Steinberg | Monday, January 18, 2010

Over the five day week, “The Observer” will count down all of the movies that made us laugh, cry, reflect and sit on the edge of our seats — all of the best films of the decade. These 50 films all share an essence of filmmaking genius that were exceptional amongst the thousands of films released in the last 10 years, and some of them will one day be viewed as “classics” in film history. So here they are, the best films of the decade.

50. The Aviator (2004) — One of the few biopics to crack this list, “The Aviator” does so because it is just that, a biopic — one that plays by the rules, but goes one step further into the man that was aviation tycoon Harold Hughes than most biopics dare to go. The mind behind the man is on full display here, and there are few better able than Leonardo DiCaprio, in a brilliant turn yet again, at handling the task of playing the troubled, eccentric, womanizing, power-hungry genius that Hughes was.

49. Maria Full of Grace (2004) — Lead actress Catalina Sandino Moreno is mesmerizing as a poor Colombian woman caught in a web of murder as a drug mule sent to New York City with bags of heroin inside her stomach. Caught within the frames here are the sense of being lost and utter fear felt by someone with no human connection and no way of understanding what is going on in her surroundings. And the way in which that feeling is caught is the true triumph here. Her feeling is dually felt by the audience, which makes this eye-opening film all the more powerful.

48. Monsters Inc. (2001) — Pixar struck gold with this hilarious, wildly imaginative and altogether unforgettable little charmer about monsters whose job is to scare sleeping children in order to generate energy for their own world. It’s all about the energy at the company, Monster Inc., and with the film “Monsters Inc.”, it’s also all about the energy — the boundless creative energy that results in a film audiences of all ages can love.

47. Almost Famous (2000) — Tasked with the dream job of interviewing a new hot rock band during their cross-country tour, a high schooler (Patrick Fugit) discovers love, the true essence of rock music and even himself along the way. The real showstopper here is Kate Hudson, the band’s groupie, who steals the show as a free-loving drug-addict caught between innocence and that point in life where we all just have to grow up. Simply put, it’ll have you air-guitaring ‘til your fingers just can’t strum anymore.

46. The Hurt Locker (2009) — Director Kathryn Bigelow’s muscle-flexing, full-throttle portrayal of a special unit of bomb disarming soldiers in Iraq, “The Hurt Locker” stands as a king among men in the small but growing group of Iraq War films. What’s different here is that the movie is neither action-driven nor overly story driven, and it avoids what has thus far been a pitfall in trying to pass itself off as a psychological analysis of soldiers in the heat of the current war. Instead, “The Hurt Locker” is a beautiful marriage of a bare bones portrayal of human nature when the line between life and death is so thin and momentary and a classic tension-ridden portrayal of the heat of combat.

45. Elephant (2003) — In the wake of the tragic Columbine shootings, director Gus Van Sant creates an affecting, stunningly shot and somehow blissfully paced account of a school shooting that takes the lives of dozens of unsuspecting students. It plays like a still-image cast against the backdrop of a clear sky, which makes it bearable, yet all the more powerful nonetheless.

44. Little Miss Sunshine (2006) — 2006’s little engine that could is like a cute and cuddly stuffed animal. Yet it has a way of making you cry. And then laugh. And then cry again. Then stand up and cheer, wide-eyed with an ear-to-ear grin across the face. Made with starry-eyed beauty and injected with a sense of enjoyment shared by the audience, “Little Miss Sunshine” is a true crowd pleaser.

43. Letter From Iwo Jima (2006) — Director Clint Eastwood packs a visceral punch in the form of a beautifully shot, ferocious yet delicate letter from the doomed Japanese abandoned on Iwo Jima. Upon its release, this was the best American war film since “Saving Private Ryan”.

42. Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) — The first film in the trilogy was groundbreaking and made the success of the next two installments inevitable. Perhaps the most faithful adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy, Peter Jackson’s first foray into Middle Earth is the most Shire-like of the three films, and what a refreshing two and a half hours at the Shire it is.

41. Donnie Darko (2001) — I cannot for the life of me explain why I’m drawn to this film, but there’s just something about it, some inexplicable quality that grabs and never lets go. A “cult classic” if there ever was one, “Donnie Darko” is like a roller coaster ride of confusion, Smurf sexology, and most central of all, let’s just throw in the theory behind time travel. It just gets in your mind and stays there, for better or for worse.