100. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007, directed by Sidney Lumet)
I haven't always been the biggest fan of Sidney Lumet, but I was captivated by this movie. It's too rare these days to see a crime thriller that works, much less one that's so character-driven. By joining the crime to a family drama, it makes its characters both that much more sympathetic and that much more jaw-droppingly amoral. Maybe it's not a great film, but it's solidly constructed and rewarding.
99. Last Chance Harvey (2008, directed by Joel Hopkins)
This film seemed to get written off as soon as the trailers hit. I think that's a shame. Again, it's not an earth-shattering film, but it's a very nice one with fully-realized characters who have recognizable, believable emotions. Not only that, but it's concise; in a mere 92 minutes, it tells the story of two people who are lonely and who find something in each other to hold on to. I tend to prize movies about connections and understanding, and this one moved me with its honest simplicity.
98. Hairspray (2007, directed by Adam Shankman)
I haven't been digging the return of the musical, but this one was everything I actually want from a musical. It's fun, it's simple, it's pretty, and it doesn't take itself too seriously. And the songs are great. I don't have anything more complex to say than this movie's always a good time. Sometimes that's all it takes.
97. District 9 (2009, directed by Neill Blomkamp)
I know there are people who found this movie's Apartheid allegory thin and obvious but, honestly, I don't have faith in humanity that we would treat aliens any other way. A gripping, well-made thriller with points to make.
96. The Devil's Rejects (2005, directed by Rob Zombie)
Conversely, a well-made film with almost no point to make. It's more or less Rob Zombie's love letter or homage or whatever to road movies and crime thrillers from the 1970s. His influences are pretty obvious, but the movie's very well-acted and even well-written; it wants to entertain as well as shock, and if you can look past the sickening violence, Zombie has an excellent grasp of who his characters are. Fantastic soundtrack, too. I'll take this over a Saw movie any day of my life.
95. Superbad (2007, Greg Mottola)
There was a brief time that seems to be effectively over now when the comedies of this past decade really managed to hit on a personal level. There was more emotional resonance inside the absurdity and dick jokes. This was just one of my favorites. It's hilarious.
94. Lars and the Real Girl (2007, directed by Craig Gillespie)
I dismissed this one as it came out, but sitting and watching the movie was quite an experience. Another film about the inability to make a connection with the world, and another which shows that, however unconventionally, people will find a way to connect when it's time. Here, Lars does it through a sex doll. And the triumph of the film is in the way his community supports him through the experience, allowing him to grow and open up instead of retreating further into himself. It's a special movie.
93. The Last King of Scotland (2006, directed by Kevin Macdonald)
The real brilliance of this movie is not just in Forest Whitaker's performance as Idi Amin, but in the uneasy tone. It's unrelenting. Even when Amin is in a good mood, there's always the fear that someone is going to get killed. It's one of the more alive political biopics as a result, because we're not sympathizing with Amin or getting to know him, but--through James McAvoy's Nicholas Garrigan--we're experiencing the man. And what we really experience is the false domestication of a wild animal it turns out to be very foolish to drop your guard around.
92. Taken (2008, directed by Pierre Morel)
I'm sure this seems like a frivolous choice. And let's face it, it's not a serious movie. It plays on America's xenophobia and exploits parental fears. But it's also an incredibly satisfying action flick, and it makes no apologies for being what it is. And it's not incredibly stupid, which is nice.
91. Spartan (2004, directed by David Mamet)
Taken, but serious. Just a great, intelligent thriller with a smart central character on a mission. Like a great, economically-written military novel. Not much more to it than that, really, but it's an engrossing movie.
90. Sherrybaby (2006, directed by Laurie Collyer)
An emotionally arresting story about a woman fighting for a second chance with society, with her family, and with a daughter who barely remembers her. Maggie Gyllenhaal's performance is authentically human; Sherry is a woman who is a victim, who makes selfish mistakes in an almost innocent fashion, but who fights to change her habits and her circumstances.
89. The New World (2005, directed by Terrence Malick)
This film exists in at least three different versions; the one I saw was the theatrical version released on DVD. I haven't experienced the differences myself, but I thought the movie was beautiful. I don't always like Terrence Malick's films--I think he tends to ruin them with the voiceovers--but I think it worked here, because the narration and the editing of the film are both so impressionistic. This isn't a lead-you-by-the-hand, tell-you-how-to-feel historical epic. Instead, it's an observation on what happens when cultures meet, a first contact story that changes everyone involved. It's also exquisitely beautiful to look at.
88. Thirteen (2003, directed by Catherine Hardwicke)
What's especially amazing about this film is all the ways it could have gone wrong. It could've been played as a comedy (which it was almost written as), it could've been played as overdramatic, it even could've been a Lifetime-style scare flick. Instead, it's an emotionally genuine movie about the disconnect of that time between childhood and young adulthood, when kids aren't sure what being a teenager means and where the boundaries are. This film pushes the boundaries in ways that are shocking but never exploitative or unbelievable. These are girls I grew up with, girls I've taught, girls I'm related to. It's the tragedy of growing up in modern America in a cohort--teenage girls--that is typically undervalued and talked down to.
87. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004, directed by Kerry Conran)
I have no problem with artifice in film. In fact, I support it. Why shouldn't some movies, if the storytelling warrants, be filled with animation to make something otherwise unachievable? This is one of the modern arguments about film that I honestly don't understand, especially since it's applied so randomly. Bad in some, great in Lord of the Rings... maybe it doesn't always work, but shouldn't we be judging these things based on their story instead of the media used to execute that story? If you don't like a movie because of it's story, that's one thing; to even not like these special effects, I understand; but to argue that this kind of special effects environment is somehow wrong is ridiculous to me. As for this flick, it's the kind of old-fashioned pulp adventure tale that I love no matter what the VFX in question. It's like a moving Airboy comic.
86. Ghost World (2001, directed by Terry Zwigoff)
A lot of the coming of age movies about finding maturity don't often resonate with me as much as this one does. This is about a girl who had found herself isolated, and made a comfort out of it. She feels trapped by life, but enjoys it, anyway, or tries to. It's nice to see a movie that realizes that the comfort of isolation isn't always enough; this is a great movie about overcoming social awkwardness and finding a way to connect, even if you sometimes have to leave everything behind to do it. Growth is refreshing.
85. Grizzly Man (2005, directed by Werner Herzog)
As I make this list, it seems more obvious to me that one of the great subjects for films to explore now is disconnect. In this documentary we have the story of a man who was so disconnected from his own civilization that he found solace in the uneasy balance between humanity and nature. His desire to connect with the natural world was so great that he forgot or chose to ignore where the boundaries are and paid for it, sadly, with his life. It's a compelling story that touches something deep inside a lot of us, I think: the desire to be closer to nature, and the fear of it.
84. Match Point (2005, directed by Woody Allen)
I think Woody Allen is at his most vibrant when he's exploring the ramifications of an unordered universe. If there is no God, can there be consequences, crises of conscience, even guilt? For some people, the answer is no. And a surprisingly easy no, at that. This is the strongest film he's made in the past 10 years, maybe longer, and an exceedingly well-acted one. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, motivated solely by selfishness, makes the leap from simple greed to real sociopathy seem organic, compelling, and scary as hell.
83. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005, directed by Tommy Lee Jones)
This one took me by surprise when I first saw it. A deliberately-paced meditation on border relations between America and Mexico, but also a sensitive, quiet story about the meaning of loyalty and how far it's right to go in the name of friendship and keeping a promise. Pastoral and brilliant.
82. Hero (2002, directed by Zhang Yimou)
Visually magnificent; an epic of splendor and style. I was not one of the people who thought the film was advocating authoritarianism over individuality, but I do see how the film is a tragic exploration of how individuality suffers when war becomes necessary in order for peace to reign. I see it more in fantasy terminology, I suppose, but the beauty of warriors finding their destinies in love was very moving.
81. Open Range (2003, directed by Kevin Costner)
A tough, very satisfying movie. It makes a point about the realities of the West--as well as morality in men--and frames the range wars as what it mostly was: a move by greedy cattle barons to drive smaller outfits out of business and become monopolies. What I love especially about this movie is that this simply unfolds, rather than hammering points home. It begins as an assault and leads to a small war, from little to big, in a very believable way. This movie also has my favorite Robert Duvall performance of the last 15 years.