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The 100 Best Films of the Aughts

Auteurist artistry and genre craftsmanship remain vital filmmaking avenues throughout the decade.




The 100 Best Films of the Aughts
Photo: Warner Bros.

To tidily summarize a decade in world cinema is to attempt the impossible, yet if there’s one overriding theme of Slant’s Top 100 of the aughts, it’s that despite a mainstream movie culture dedicated to increasingly expensive, techno-enabled infantilism, auteurist artistry and genre craftsmanship remain vital filmmaking avenues. Between the proliferation of cheap digital tools and the rise of non-theatrical distribution channels, small-scale idiosyncratic works have grown in number even as they’ve been crowded out of the general consciousness by Happy Meal-tie-in tent-pole series that have now become the major studios’ primary means of revenue generation. Which is to say, James Cameron and Michael Bay are still the real kings of the filmic world, proffering easily digestible large-scale popcorn to a youth-driven mass audience that craves spectacle over all else.

Nonetheless, if box-office coffers begin ringing with the announcement of every subsequent Transformers, our Netflixed society now has options to such big-budgeted cacophony, allowing the most remotely located cinephile access to the legion of groundbreaking filmmakers whose works rarely make a theatrical dent even in New York or L.A. For those interested in seeking out more than the latest CG-ified sound and thunder, directors as diverse as Terrence Malick, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Michael Mann, Wong Kar-wai, Béla Tarr, David Cronenberg, and Gus Van Sant (to name only a scant few) took cinema to unique and exciting unexplored realms, experimenting with the form’s marriage of image and sound in ways that push the boundaries of both aesthetics and narrative. Despite the dominant ’00s story of franchises-run-amok, it was audacious, inventive artists like these that truly made it a decade worth remembering. Nick Schager

The 100 Best Films of the Aughts

100. Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky)

A triumph of balls-out B-movie aesthetics, Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream was among the decade’s most influential pictures. It was also one of its most divisive—and understandably so. As in the world of Hubert Selby Jr., it wants for our sense of identification before titillatingly, risibly even, inviting our revulsion. With the film, it seemed as if Aronofsky was announcing himself as a kind of kitchen-sink Sirk, and only a person who’s never fallen under the spell of substance abuse can fail to relate to the powerful sense of anguish summoned by its high-wire performances (and music)—or fail to see how Aronofsky’s cannily and freakishly operatic conflation of the grotesque and beatific constitutes a supreme act of compassion. Ed Gonzalez

The 100 Best Films of the Aughts

99. Time Out (Laurent Cantet)

Even in the early part of the aughts, the economic state of the world was taking a shift toward the miserable, with unemployment sweeping through the white-collar community like a plague. Existential terror sets in when one realizes how much you define yourself by your job. In Laurent Cantet’s Time Out, middle-class office manager Vincent (Aurélien Recoing) has been laid off, and lies to his family about the downsizing while making a daily adventure of hauntingly sterile office buildings, maintaining his impeccable image as a man in a business suit, dutifully reporting to the workplace. His desperate clinging to hollow values builds to a final scene where Vincent, sitting in an office, proclaims, “But I am not afraid.” It’s chilling: a man trying to believe the corporate lie. Jeremiah Kipp

The 100 Best Films of the Aughts

98. Café Lumiere (Hou Hsiao-hsien)

For his first film outside his native Taiwan, Hou Hsiao-hsien commemorates Yasujirô Ozu’s 100th birthday by channeling the Japanese master for this Tokyo-set tale of a young reporter coping with impending pregnancy. Once again charting the essential bond shared by the past and the present, Hou uses his trademark long takes and doorway-framed compositions to delicately convey the tug-of-war constantly waged between the then and now, as well as of time’s inexorable forward march, here encapsulated by pensive Ozu-indebted imagery of passing trains. Schager

The 100 Best Films of the Aughts

97. The Fountain (Darren Aronofsky)

A grand concept album about human mortality with a persistent backbeat of hopefulness, Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain fulminates, Zeus-like, against the gross inequity of inevitable bodily failure through Hugh Jackman’s emo mad scientist, questing to save a beatific Rachel Weisz from her brain cloud. His fist-shaking fury and point-blank denial of reality point the way to religious obscurantism, a path to which this resplendent, secular hymn presents two deceptively grounded alternatives: a narrative in which eternal life is achieved through surviving memory and fiction, and one for those comforted by the body’s ultimate transmutation into (and resurrection as) vegetation, then nebulae. Ryan Stewart

The 100 Best Films of the Aughts

96. Birth (Jonathan Glazer)

Do we fear the 10-year-old boy who claims to be Anna’s reincarnated husband with such definitive intensity because of Cameron Bright’s spooky chubbiness, the script’s refusal to play straight with us, or (the most likely answer) Nicole Kidman’s painfully convicting, glassy-eyed and terrified belief? As darkly intimidating as director Jonathan Glazer makes the idea of pithily sentient resurrection, thinking back on the film’s horror is mostly a precisely emotive slideshow of Kidman’s strenuously controlled, yet invitingly organic, reactions—the way her body trembles and her pupils dilate when the boy tells her things he shouldn’t know and then dissolves into the cool, deep shadows of her grimly vintage apartment. Joseph Jon Lanthier

The 100 Best Films of the Aughts

95. Little Otik (Jan Svankmajer)

Recalling Terry Gilliam’s fairy-tale phantasmagoria by way of It’s Alive, Jan Svankmajer evokes a culture’s icky sexual subconscious through the eyes of a precocious girl, Alzbetka, who asks inappropriate questions during dinner and snoops on the neighbors, an infertile couple who out of desperation carve a wooden baby and treat it as their own offspring. Alzbeta’s vivid imagination seemingly portends every impending disaster that befalls the couple, but Svankmajer suggests that she, unlike her repressed parents, is keenly aware of and even fascinated by all the sick shit that goes on around her. When Otik comes to life and starts eating the building’s tenants, she takes matters into her own hands, and Svankmajer makes delirious use of bloodletting—a gruesome satire of society’s mores bursting at the seems. Paul Schrodt

The 100 Best Films of the Aughts

94. Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog)

By now, Werner Herzog’s doom-laden pronouncements intoned in his heavy Germanic drawl have become something of a stale trademark, but before the filmmaker’s persona started to harden into shtick, it had its fullest flowering in 2005’s Grizzly Man. Juxtaposing his own view of a malevolent nature with the far more optimistic philosophy of the film’s bear-loving subject, Herzog draws on the video footage left behind by the late Timothy Treadwell during his sojourn in the grizzly habitats of remote Alaska to reflect on not only the moral orientation of the universe, but the art of the filmmaker as well. Andrew Schenker

The 100 Best Films of the Aughts

93. House of Flying Daggers (Zhang Yimou)

Hyper-hypnotic with intoxication to spare, House of Flying Daggers is a ravishing martial arts melodrama with a mythic/political slant. It’s also seriously fucking cool. The almost overwhelming visual heft suggests a silent film (though music, like the sounds relied upon by a sword-savvy blind girl, is key), with each inspired set piece a spellbinding evocation of allegiances in combat (for self, for love, for country), while emotionally color-coded templates are used to simple yet profound effect. From the poetic swooshes of blood to the way CG snowflakes tickle the frame, every detail is a wonder. Rob Humanick

The 100 Best Films of the Aughts

92. Forty Shades of Blue (Ira Sachs)

Set against the backdrop of the Nashville music scene, this slow burn of a movie centers on a Russian trophy wife named Laura (Dina Korzun), who remains emotionally dormant as she struggles with her raucous good-old-boy producer husband (Rip Torn). Korzun’s glacial performance reveals surprising depth; a character we might initially write off as unknowable slowly draws us in. For all the joyous country music, filmmaker Ira Sachs created a film like the surface of an icy lake, with chilling depths underneath. The final shot of Laura walking away from a glaring pair of headlights is either an act of empowerment or a refusal to accept a life of hell. Either way, it haunts and resonates. Kipp

The 100 Best Films of the Aughts

91. Intimacy (Patrice Chéreau)

The unnerving eroticism and visual precision of Patrice Chéreau’s pictures pegged the filmmaker early on as a kindred spirit of the great Bernardo Bertolucci. Indeed, not since Last Tango in Paris has a film so fiercely elaborated on the fine and fiery line between desire and obsession. A grubbily grandiose tapestry of discordant gazes, furious clawings, and other furtive appeals for affection, Intimacy’s genius derives not only from its alternately tantalizing and gloomy sexual primalism, but also from its unspokenness: Every gesture Claire (Kerry Fox) and Jay (Mark Rylance, in one of the decade’s great performances) exchange in the film becomes a profound indication of their most desperate and pained desires. To these actors, like Chéreau, sex becomes like theater: lived-in, improvisatory performance art. Gonzalez

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