The new millennium had many wondering if the zeroes on the big computer would send the world into an apocalyptic state of eating food out of cans and trying to survive the new dark ages. For movie buffs, however, fear was replaced with excitement for a fresh slate of cinematic fare. And feasts for the senses the decade churned out.
Brimming with feel-good rom-coms and epic fantasy films, and dominated by the resurgence of the superhero movie and the franchise that wouldn’t die, the 2000s welcomed a variety of quality cinema. We also saw technological advances in the realms of special effects and animation reach new heights, as well as met some of our greatest fashion heroes (Miranda, Elle, Regina) who are still pinned to the tops of our mood boards.
It was a good time for film. And because it’s obvious we can’t enough of the Y2K trend—from fashion’s fixation on parachute pants to music’s biggest stars sampling ditties from the decade—we’re here to offer our highly subjective list of the best the movie industry had to offer. So, in no particular order, here are the best movies of the 2000s.
Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, a crime drama that chronicles a drug dealer’s last day of freedom before serving a jail sentence, was the first film to incorporate the events of 9/11 into its narrative. Creatively ripe with a melancholic soundtrack that mirrors the mood of a somber city, contemplative dialogue that Edward Norton sinks his teeth into, and, of course, a few of the director’s trademark dolly shots, 25th Hour is a Spike Lee Joint that is no doubt dissimilar from his other films, yet still one of his best.
Audrey Tautou stars as Amélie Poulain, a 23-year-old Parisian do-gooder who unexpectedly finds love on her mission to help others, in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s oh so charming French romantic comedy. Adorned with a now-iconic choppy bob as whimsical as the film itself, Amélie spends the reel indulging in life’s simple pleasures, making others smile, and enchanting audiences across the globe. If you haven’t seen it yet, now’s the time to fall in love.
Director Ang Lee’s meditative drama is a cinematographer’s paradise, with shots of rolling countryside and unobstructed sunsets, but it’s also an epic love story. The two men at the heart of the film, Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis (Heath Ledger), find comfort in Wyoming’s secluded vistas, allowing their true feelings for each other to blossom. In doing so, Lee’s groundbreaking film helped pave the way for queer romances to be shown on the big screen to mainstream audiences.
Another visual masterpiece from contemporary filmmaker Ang Lee, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a wuxia tour-de-force starring international legends including Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh. The story itself is difficult to sum up, but all the drama and action essentially boils down to the whereabouts of a sword: who’s wielding it and who’s stealing. Of course, as the quest for the precious metal unfolds, there’s breathtaking martial arts choreography, sweeping romances, and bitter betrayals to behold.
Movie musicals have been around since Dorothy was shuffling down that yellow-brick road, but by the turn of the century, they had become a subgenre: No longer the norm, they were a departure from conventional storytelling. Our favorites include Moulin Rouge!, Chicago, Walk the Line, Ray—these films are an escape, they are visual masterpieces, massive cinematic feats that make you want to dance. Same goes for Dreamgirls, Bill Condon’s soul-stirring dazzler that gave Beyoncé and Jennifer Hudson the mic and let ’em do their thang.
The 2000s can also be called the initial decade of dominance for Jennifer Lopez. The actress was all over the big screen, starring in romantic comedies like Maid in Manhattan, Monster-in-Law, and The Wedding Planner, but making us feel all warm and fuzzy wasn’t her only talent. That’s where our J.Lo fave, Enough, comes in. Flexing her drama muscles and, well, actual muscles, she plays Slim Hiller, an empowered woman who straps on the brass knuckles and puts an end to her husband’s abuse for good.
Breaking up is hard to do. So hard, in fact, some would like to forget it ever happened. Which is exactly what the core players in this achingly romantic sci-fi drama from director Michael Gondry and co-writer Charlie Kaufman do. It stars Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet as former lovers Joel and Clementine, their relationship relived as they undergo the erasure procedure. Funny thing, though, as they were working to wipe their memories clean, the film became engrained in ours as one of the best of all time.
A delight from start to finish, this technically groundbreaking Pixar classic takes viewers under the sea on a thrilling adventure, as a clownfish and his blue tang sidekick set out to find his son, Nemo. There are run-ins with the ocean’s creatures, a deeply personal storyline about the fear that comes with parenthood, and—perhaps best of all—the lessons and musings of a fish called Dory that we all still use today. Just keep swimming, just keep swimming …
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The 2000s are also marked by an insatiable quest for new fantasy films. Hollywood saw a significant rise in the genre dedicated to stories of faraway lands, mythical creatures, and epic narratives—The Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Chronicles of Narnia all fit in here. But the most epic of all has to be the Harry Potter franchise. A comforting brew of wizardry, adventure, and young love, the Potterverse was introduced in 2001 and released an installment nearly every year until its conclusion in 2011. Our favorite? Alfonso Cuarón’s Prisoner of Azkaban.
Not sure if you noticed, but Y2K had a thing for martial arts. And rightfully so. There’s nothing quite like watching finely tuned actors master succinct choreography and gravity-defying stunts. From Rush Hour and Kung Fu Hustle
to Charlie’s Angels and even Kung Fu Panda, Hollywood’s finest were crane beak striking and double-fist punching their way through bad guys. Don’t think it gets better for the decade, though, than Uma Thurman as Beatrix Kiddo slicing her way through a list of enemies in Kill Bill: Vols. 1 and 2.
Pink. It’s a color whose popularity can be traced back to ancient India and 18th-century European society. So, no, Elle Woods didn’t invent the blushing shade, but she certainly did her part to help launch Y2K’s obsession with it. Played by Reese Witherspoon, the aspiring attorney treated the courtroom like her own personal runway, and she’s quite possibly to thank for the following decade’s fixation on millennial pink, and the next one’s passion for Barbiecore. Plus, this empowerment rom-com just rocks.
For better or worse, teen comedies at the turn of the century were dominated by the male sexual odyssey—his conquest to either lose his virginity or take the V-card of a nubile ingénue taking center stage (see: American Pie, Eurotrip, Can’t Hardly Wait). Tina Fey said eff that and gave us this gem now crowned as one of the most iconic teen movies in the canon. It stars Lindsay Lohan as a transfer student who infiltrates a mean-girl clique led by Rachel McAdams, and it will forever be the reason we wear pink on Wednesdays.
John Carney’s Irish treasure Once is a once-in-a-life-time film. It’s that movie that is so painfully beautiful, so perfectly un-perfect you can’t help but cry, applaud, and believe in love. The tears that will roll as the two leads credited only as Guy and Girl realize they have found a soul mate in one another but can do nothing to act on this love will dry up. And the pure feelings you have as the credits roll will disperse. But there’s nothing like your first time watching this film. Until you watch it again.
Guillermo del Toro’s fascination with monsters reaches its pinnacle with this Spanish-Mexican fable about a little girl named Ofelia, who escapes the harsh realities of war by venturing into a mythical and at times frightening fantasy land. Merging historical fact and fiction into a visually stunning period drama buoyed by magical realism yet anchored in the brutality of man, del Toro delivers a gripping, emotional, and astonishing fairy tale for mature audiences.
Graphic novels were often looked to for screen inspiration in the aughts (300, Sin City, V for Vendetta, every superhero offering), but in the case of Marjane Satrapi, a filmmaker who grew up in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution, her comic-book memoir was more than just inspiration for a movie—it was a way for Satrapi to reinvent genre themes and illustrate them in a new way. Unraveling in black-and-white 2D animation, Persepolis injects humor and heart into one girl’s journey to self-discovery.
Queer cinema is having a banner year with 2022—Universal’s Bros, Hulu’s Fire Island, Netflix’s Heartstopper are all raking in the critical acclaim. But back in 2004, Alice Wu made her directorial debut with an indie love story that has become a hallmark of queer cinema. About a Chinese American 20-something whose queerness is ignored by her mother, the film is not only an achievement for queer Asian cinema, but quite possibly the first to feature a Chinese American cast since 1993’s Joy Luck Club.
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Leave it to Danny Boyle to inject a frenetic energy into a Bollywood-inspired drama about a Mumbai street kid (Dev Patel) who’s poised to win 20 million rupees on a popular game show. The director of films that share similar exhilaration (think: 127 Hours, Sunshine, Trance), Boyle crafts his rags-to-riches story with the vigor, optimism, and joy of a filmmaker who just loves making movies. And the chemistry onscreen between Dev Patel and costar Freida Pinto is just as palpable.
What Ferris Bueller’s Day Off did for playing hooky, Superbad did for dropping dick jokes. King of the new-class raunch comedies, Superbad came after director Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up and before co-writer Kristen Wiig’s Bridesmaids, and thanks to its unflinching crotch humor, everlasting catchphrases like “Down to fuck,” and a bromance narrative that echoes that of the film’s writers, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, Superbad changed the face of the genre.
Widely credited as the catalyst for the Academy’s decision to swell the Best Picture category beyond only five nominees, The Dark Knight was snubbed for top prize at the 2009 Oscars—not even nominated. But that’s okay; Heath Ledger’s brilliant Joker rightfully won his category, director Christopher Nolan revolutionized the genre with his moody origin story, and the film has transcended the decade to become the best superhero movie ever made.
Thanks to elite, legendary performances from his key actors—Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson, and Mark Wahlberg, among many others—the master of mob cinema, Martin Scorsese, could finally add a gold statue to his expansive trophy room. The helmer finally won Best Director, after being nominated seven times, in 2007 for what many believe is his best movie: this white-knuckle thriller about an undercover cop tangled up in the Irish gang in South Boston.
Before its summer release, Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Anne Hathaway, and Stanley Tucci couldn’t have known that their well-dressed workplace romantic comedy would achieve peak icon status. Or could they? With its costume department echoing the era’s obsession with high fashion and tapping into the trends while also indulging the classics, the film about a girl, her boss, and the gig “a million girls would kill for” had its gloved finger on the pulse of the times—not to mention features a masterful performance of fire and ice from Ms. Streep.
Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win Best Director at the Oscars with her engrossing war film, The Hurt Locker. Starring Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie as army bomb technicians, the film written by investigative journalist Mark Boal explores the brutalities of the Iraq War while shedding light on the psychological ripple effects, like post-traumatic stress disorder and readjusting to home life once the tour is up. The film is at once thoughtful and explosive, and has even earned honors as one of the best war films ever made.
Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams were one of the most iconic It couples of the aughts. But their short-lived romance didn’t actually begin until after they filmed The Notebook, a Southern-set melodrama adapted from the same-name Nicolas Sparks novel. We like to think they, too, were as turned on as we were after that “It still isn’t over” sex scene. It’s that scene, and the onscreen fire from the two leads, that has solidified the romance as one of the greatest of all time.
To watch a Wes Anderson movie is to enter his world as a panorama of charming absurdities—and never want to leave. Ever the auteur, he has meticulously filled his resume with 10 singular titles, each one dissected by his fans who can never agree on a supreme favorite. But setting aside the superlative debate, when we think of Wes Anderson, we think of The Royal Tenebaums, a tale of dysfunction that charts one patriarch’s journey to right his wrongs with his family. And, of course, that fur coat Gwyneth Paltrow dons throughout.
It took Denzel Washington decades to get his due, but get his due he did when he portrayed Alonzo in Antoine Fuqua’s thrilling narc drama. About a rookie cop, played by Ethan Hawke, who learns the laws of L.A.’s mean streets from a crooked cop on his first day on the job, the film is stellar on all accounts: writing (David Ayer), directing (Fuqua), cameos (Snoop, Macy Gray). But the real star here is Denzel, who became the first Black actor in nearly 40 years to win the Best Actor category at the Oscars.
A fixture in cinema since the 1970s, Pedro Almodóvar has worked with legions of A-listers and collaborators. Perhaps none as vital as PenélopeCruz, who has starred in seven of his last 11 films. Using the 2000s to achieve international fame, Cruz was all over the screen, from Blow and Vanilla Sky to Gothika and Broken Embraces. However, it’s with Volver—a sublime tale of mothers and daughters that sees the director merge again with his muse—that she snagged her first Oscar nomination.
This article originally appeared on Harper’s BAZAAR US.