The final days of December are not just an excuse to eat, drink and be merry, but also to organize our most beloved cultural offerings into a series of lists. Who am I to buck the trend? With 2009 winding to a close, the time is right to reflect on the past decade and the movies that made it great. Among those honored: Michel Gondry, the French-born auteur whose Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Science of Sleep proved two of the most poignant romances in recent memory, and Jake Gyllenhaal, the quietly effective star of Donnie Darko, Brokeback Mountain and Zodiac.
1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Michel Gondry's stirring contemplation of love and its bitter aftermath poses a simple question: Would we be better off if we could erase the memory of heartbreak? There's no easy answer, but Gondry, a visual artist of the highest order, finds a persuasive argument in Charlie Kaufman's boundlessly inventive screenplay.
Director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo) has described WALL*E as his attempt to make an R2-D2 movie, but there is an irrepressible humanity in his storytelling that George Lucas should envy. While one might be thrown at first by Stanton’s approach – there is very little dialogue during the first hour, just beeps, bangs and garbled robot-speak – his ballad of a lonely ’bot seamlessly marries space-age adventure with classic romance, all to deeply compelling effect.
3. There Will Be Blood
There Will Be Blood is a rare achievement, an epic of perfect narrative symmetry that benefits as much from Daniel Day-Lewis’s blazing ferocity as from Paul Thomas Anderson’s direction. More than Boogie Nights or Magnolia, this is Anderson’s masterwork, the mark of an artist coming into his own with a hellishly unsettling vision of greed and heedless ambition.
Studiously based on a pair of bestsellers by Robert Graysmith, David Fincher's compelling true-crime thriller is as much about the author, a former San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist turned self-proclaimed expert on the unsolved murders that rocked Northern California during the 1960s and early '70s, as about the killings themselves. Riveting from the start, it feels satisfyingly complete despite the lack of a definitive ending.
5. 25th Hour
Spike Lee's snapshot of post-9/11 New York is masterfully restrained melodrama, driven by an impressive ensemble cast (featuring Edward Norton, Barry Pepper and Philip Seymour Hoffman) and wonderfully realized characters whose night in the city reveals as much as it resolves.
6. Mulholland Dr.
Rarely have the convoluted logic and jarring distortions of a nightmare been recreated so effectively. David Lynch's surreal fantasy doesn't make much sense – few dreams do – but it plays on our emotions as skillfully as anything the director has ever committed to film.
7. The Science of Sleep
Gondry's story of a Chaplinesque oddball (Gael Garcia Bernal) struggling to win the affections of his pretty neighbor (Charlotte Gainsbourg, of Antichrist) is a perfect companion piece to Eternal Sunshine. It is an achingly bittersweet feat of the imagination that seems less interested in presenting a conventional narrative than in capturing a succession of moods; at that, Gondry, who embraces his zaniest impulses even more freely than he did in Sunshine, is successful.
8. Talk to Her
Perhaps no director made better use of the last decade than Pedro Almodóvar, who tired of making slapstick farces and emerged as one of the world's foremost dramatists with Bad Education, Volver and this year's Broken Embraces. Yet it was the Spanish director's first offering of the new millennium that remains his most affecting: Talk to Her, a bittersweet story of strangers whose lives are forever changed by love, tragedy and arbitrary twists of fate.
9. Bowling for Columbine
At its most manipulative, Michael Moore's populist rabble-rousing is disingenuous, loaded with cheap setups designed to elicit a single, expected response. Yet Columbine, more than any of the documentarian's efforts before or since, presents a forceful argument with sobering clarity, chronicling America's obsession with guns and its unsettling consequences.
10. Sin City
With all due respect to Zack Snyder, whose carefully crafted adaptations of 300 and Watchmen reflect the outsize ambition of their creator, Sin City brings the graphic novel to life with unsurpassed visual style. Robert Rodriguez's potent slice of pulp fiction, a triumph of digital cinematography and casting, captures Frank Miller’s shadowy red-light districts and whiskey-breathed anti-heroes in all their blood-soaked glory. It is, in short, a landmark achievement, and a wild ride to boot.
11. Brokeback Mountain
Ang Lee's adaptation of Annie Proulx's short story is most devastating in its quieter moments, when the passion that binds Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis (Heath Ledger) seems to resonate more powerfully than words could express. Ennis wishes Jack would just go away – he'd rather suffer in solitude than acknowledge feelings he's been taught to hate – and that is the tragedy both men endure in a beautiful, lyrical film that observes pain without exploiting it.
12. Eastern Promises
Eastern Promises is set in a treacherous world of London-dwelling Russian mobsters, but for all the blood spilled in David Cronenberg's harrowing drama, it feels neither sensational nor gratuitous. Cronenberg has rarely shied away from the sight of a mutilated body – on the contrary, it has become one of the Canadian director's calling cards – but rather than focusing on the violence that links his characters, who are richly developed, he seems more inclined to consider the consequences of their choices, both for their victims and each other.
13. Kill Bill, Vol. 2
If its predecessor plays like a daring exercise in style, with Quentin Tarantino paying heady tribute to the grind-house genres that continue to inspire him, Kill Bill, Vol. 2 builds on its promise, with richer dialogue and deeper, more soulful characterizations.
14. In the Bedroom
The shattered lives examined in Todd Field's bruising directorial debut are impossible to forget, much as it might be tempting to try. Countless films strive to depict the darkness that lingers in the souls of the deeply wounded; few ring truer, or cut deeper, than In the Bedroom.
15. The Dark Knight
Beneath its dazzling surface, The Dark Knight is a big, brooding meditation on the moral conflict that rages even in the noblest soul, an existential drama about what it means to be a caped crusader. It's also a breakneck roller-coaster ride, with director Christopher Nolan and star Heath Ledger (whose deranged Joker easily eclipses Jack Nicholson's campy clown) riding the accelerator and never easing up.
16. High Fidelity
Adapted from Nick Hornby's novel and transplanted from its original London setting to downtown Chicago, High Fidelity is a smart romantic comedy about real people, the kind you know, love and sometimes loathe. Rob (John Cusack) is a self-absorbed audiophile obsessed with making mixed tapes and incapable of sustaining a healthy relationship; he's married to the music, at the expense of the women who drift in and out his aimless existence. Entrusted to a lesser actor, the character might seem intolerable – he's an emotional boor, laughably mired in self-pity – but Cusack, whose charm is subtle yet irrepressible, gives Rob's quest to win back an estranged ex (Iben Hjejle) unreasonable appeal.
17. Wonder Boys
It's a screwball comedy set on a college campus, featuring guns, drugs, booze and a stolen car. If that makes Wonder Boys sound like another retread of Animal House, it's not. But its pleasures, including a career-best performance by Michael Douglas and finely nuanced supporting turns by Tobey Maguire and Robert Downey Jr, are every bit as timeless.
18. Minority Report
Before War of the Worlds, a handsome but perfunctory technical exercise, Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise first collaborated on Minority Report, a chilling techno-thriller that realizes the terrifying potential of Philip K. Dick's short story and ranks among the director's most riveting adventures.
19. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Peter Jackson's understandably sentimental finale took home all the Oscars, but it was The Two Towers, not Return of the King, that elevated the Rings trilogy to the first order of epic fantasies.
20. The Orphanage
Juan Antonio Bayona's feature-length debut is elegant in its simplicity, a classic ghost story that doesn't rely on cheap gimmicks or grisly eviscerations. It is a rare thriller that plays on the power of suggestion, menacing our imaginations rather than turning our stomachs.
Honorable Mentions: Donnie Darko, Pan's Labyrinth, The Constant Gardener, O Brother Where Art Thou, Amélie