The past ten years have not been the strongest internationally in the history of the art form. Certainly, as with the previous, vaunted decade-and-a-half, wherein notably Iran and the new cinemas of the Chinese world emerged, vital and compelling art has come from unexpected places: in the present decade, Argentina, Germany, Romania and Southeast Asia have all developed into new epicenters of the medium. Likewise, masterpieces have continued to stream in from these earlier hot-spots, and particularly from Taiwan, whose trio of masters - Hou Hsiao-hsien (Millennium Mambo, 2001; Café Lumière, 2003; Three Times, 2005; Flight of the Red Balloon, 2007), Tsai Ming-liang (Goodbye Dragon Inn, 2003 - pictured; I Don't Want to Sleep Alone, 2006) and the late Edward Yang (Yi Yi, 2000) - produced some of the very best work of the 2000s, even if the greatest director of last fifteen years of the twentieth century, Iran's Abbas Kiarostami (whose 2002 Ten continued his virtually unbroken streak of master works), has largely left the festival circuit for the gallery. However, with the exception of Tsai, none of the aforementioned has done their greatest work during the past ten years.
This perhaps is the first theme for the 2000s decade: major filmmakers continuing their mastery, though perhaps not quite at the peak of their achievement. To the above list, one might add the names of Terence Davies (The House of Mirth, 2000), centenarian Manoel de Oliveira (I'm Going Home, 2001; The Uncertainty Principle, 2002; A Talking Picture, 2003; Belle Toujours, 2006), Béla Tarr (Werckmeister Harmonies, 2000; here the director was very close to his pinnacle, producing a film that was for the second consecutive decade the finest European film) and Wong Kar-wai (In the Mood for Love, 2000; 2046, 2004 ); each again made genuinely great films during the past ten years, though not entirely to equal their absolute best. (For the record, Distant Voices, Still Lives, 1988; Doomed Love, 1978; Sátántangó, 1994; and Days of Being Wild, 1991, respectively.)
While the same was technically true of the active French 'New Wave' masters, the very fact of their continued high level of achievement - unseen in this depth since at least the twilight of the Hollywood classical period - ranks as one of the decade's most important cinematic stories. Among the many exceptional works produced by this contingent were Claude Chabrol's Merci pour le chocolat (2000) and The Flower of Evil (2003); Jean-Luc Godard's Notre Musique (2004); Alain Resnais's Not On the Lips (2003) and perhaps the finest nouvelle vague film of the decade, Private Fears in Public Places (2006 - pictured); Resnais's 2009 Wild Grass, on the other hand, may be the decade's most significant film for which this writer will have to wait until the 2010s; Jacques Rivette's The Story of Marie and Julien (2003), The Duchess of Langeais (2007) and Around a Small Mountain (2009); Eric Rohmer's The Lady and the Duke (2001; a landmark in the nascent digital medium) and swansong The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (2007); and Agnes Varda's essayistic The Gleaners and I (2000).
French cinema remained otherwise strong thanks to the highlights of mid-career filmmakers Olivier Assayas (Summer Hours, 2008), Catherine Breillat (Fat Girl, 2001), Claire Denis (Friday Night, 2002; 35 Shots of Rum, 2008; White Material, 2009), Arnaud Desplechin (Kings and Queen, 2004; A Christmas Tale, 2008), and Michael Haneke (Caché, 2005). Laurent Cantet continued his profile on the art circuit (The Class, 2008), while Nicolas Philibert directed one of the decade's better documentaries (To Be and to Have, 2002). Belgium yielded two more Bressonian encoded major works by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, The Son (2002) and L'Enfant (2005), as well as one of the decade's finest first films in Lucile Hadzihalilovic's strongly metaphorical Innocence (2004). Italian cinema was less impressive, but did produce high points in Marco Tullio Giordana's The Best of Youth (2003) and especially Paolo Sorrentino's The Consequences of Love (2004). Spain, however, fared better with Pedro Almodóvar doing the best work of his career (Talk to Her, 2002; Volver, 2006), José Luis Guerín breaking through with the exceptional In the City of Sylvia (2007), and Albert Serra renewing the time image to particularly haptic effect (Birdsong, 2008). Portugal likewise proved every bit as noteworthy, due to the combination of the seemingly eternal Oliveira's continued productivity and ultra-formalist Pedro Costa's festival breakout Colossal Youth (2006), which was in some distant recess of cineaste culture the film of its year.
Among the more newly alive corners of European cinema were once again Germany and Romania. In the former, the critically lower profile of the two stateside, Valeska Grisebach (Longing, 2006 - one of the most under-appreciated films of the 2000s), Stefan Krohmer (Summer '04, 2006), and Christian Petzold (Jerichow, 2008) produced the best work - which coincidentally or not all shared the subject of bisecting romantic entanglements. (Austrian director Götz Spielmann's Revanche  manifested many of the same virtues.) Much more popular, though to substantially lesser effect, was Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's Oscar winner The Lives of Others (2006). In Romania, the similarly temporally obsessed The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu, 2005 - pictured) and Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu, 2009) rank as the high points, easily besting, in both instances, critical favorite 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007).
Elsewhere in Eastern Europe, Aleksandr Sokurov did some of his finest work, including his single-take, DV masterpiece Russian Ark (2002) and in his ineffable, Hirohito biography, The Sun (2005). Kazakhstan produced at least two major films in Chouga (Darezhan Omirbaev, 2007) and Tulpan (Sergei Dvortsevoy, 2008). While in Scandinavia, Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson returned after a quarter-century hiatus with the estimable Songs from the Second Floor (2000) and You, the Living (2007); Liv Ullmann's Faithless (2000) bested maestro Ingmar Bergman's final film, Saraband (2003); in neighboring Denmark, Lars von Trier did his best work when furthest removed from his 'American trilogy': namely The Five Obstructions (2003) and The Boss of It All (2006); and in Finland, Aki Kaurismäki directed one of his best films, the 1930s, socially conscious Hollywood inspired The Man without a Past (2002).
In Asia, the southeast emerged, largely due to the considerable achievement of Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Indeed, were I to single out a single director as the key figure of the decade, it would have to be Apichatpong, who was responsible for no less than three structuralist-inspired masterpieces - Blissfully Yours (2002 - pictured), Tropical Malady (2004) and Syndromes and a Century (2006) - each of which was among the very best films of their respective years. Beyond Apichatpong, fellow Thai's Aditya Assarat (Wonderful Town, 2007) and Pen-ek Ratanaruang (Last Life in the Universe, 2003), Indonesian Garin Nugroho (Opera Jawa, 2006), and the Malaysian-born Tsai (in return to his country of birth with I Don't Want to Sleep Alone) all contributed to the region's cinematic vitality. Significantly, the 2006 "New Crowned Hope" initiative, marking the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth, was responsible for three of the above films, as it was also for Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's Daratt (2006), which rated along with the director's 2002 Abouna as among the finer African films of the decade.
In East Asia, mainland China presented another of the major figures of the 2000s, director Jia Zhangke, whose ambivalent depictions of his nation's progress, Platform (2000 - pictured), Unknown Pleasures (2002), The World (2004) and Still Life (2006), bested nearly everything else China produced. Among the only works to merit discussion alongside the aforesaid were 'Fifth Generation' filmmaker Tian Zhuangzhuang's remake of the greatest of all Chinese films, Springtime in a Small Town (2002), and Wang Bing's outstanding non-fiction Fengming: A Chinese Memoir (2007). Outside the mainland, Taiwan witnessed the aforesaid continued prominence of its greatest directors, though they were often led to work outside the Republic of China, as Hou did with Flight of the Red Balloon in France (his best of his uniformly strong works this decade). Taiwan also lost the very great Edward Yang, who created one of the two extraordinarily great films released in 2000, Yi Yi, which promised a qualitatively continuation of the 1990s that the decade ultimately did not keep. Indeed, in this spirit, Hong Kong witnessed a further decline from the earlier decade, though Wong's first two features of the decade and Johnnie To's work (Throw Down, 2004; Exiled, 2006; Sparrow, 2008) were undeniable high points.
Korea and Japan were likewise contenders on the world stage, with Hong Sang-soo ranking as the leading figure of the former, thanks to his twice-told Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (2000), Turning Gate (2002) and Woman on the Beach (2006). Additional major works were produced by Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder, 2003; Mother, 2009), Im Kwon-taek (Chihwaseon, 2002), Lee Chang-dong (Peppermint Candy, 2000), Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, 2003) and Park Ki-yong (Camel(s), 2002). In Japan, the heights and depth of accomplishment were even more considerable with Hiyao Miyazaki's Spirited Away (2001 - pictured), the best animated film of the decade, and Kiyoshi Kurosawa's career peak Tokyo Sonata (2008) on top, with the latter director's Doppelgänger (2003), Shinji Aoyama's Eureka (2000), Hirokazu Kore-eda's Nobody Knows (2004) and Still Walking (2008), Takeshi Kitano's Dolls (2002) and Zatoichi (2003) - Kitano, however, did not equal his '90s stature - and Seijuin Suzuki's late period Pistol Opera (2001) not far behind. Outside of the art cinema, Japan also produced Mamoru Oshii's fine, animated Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004) and some of the truly outstanding comedies of the decade, including The Taste of Tea (Katsuhito Ishii, 2004), Linda Linda Linda (Nobuhiro Yamashita, 2005), Adrift in Tokyo (Satoshi Miki, 2007), and Fine, Totally Fine (Yosuke Fujita, 2008).
In the rest of the non-English speaking world, Kiarostami's disciple, Jafar Panahi, in the former's absence, developed into Iran's leading director (with The Circle, 2000, and Crimson Gold, 2003). 2000, in particular, proved a very good year for the Iranian cinema with Marzieh Makhmalbaf's The Day I Became a Woman (2000) and Bahman Ghobadi's A Time for Drunken Horses (2000) joining The Circle. Nuri Bilge Ceylan emerged in Turkey with the Tarkovskian Distant (2002) and especially Climates (2006). Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir (2008) was the highest profile Israeli film of the decade, while Dover Kosashvili's Late Marriage (2001) was also noteworthy. In Latin America, Mexico proved quite vital with the best of Carlos Reygadas (Japon, 2002; the masterful Silent Light, 2007) and Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth, 2006) ranking above art film juggernauts Amores Perros (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2000) and Y tu mama tambien (Alfonso Cuarón, 2001; Cuarón, however, did make a franchise best with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, 2004). Uruguay featured the strong, droll Whisky (Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll, 2004), while Argentina, lastly, proved to be one the western hemisphere's cinematic epicenters with the films of Lisandro Alonso (the super-Bazinian Los Muertos, 2004; Liverpool, 2008), Lucrecia Martel (La Ciénaga, 2001; her full masterpiece The Headless Woman, 2008) and Celina Murga (Ana and the Others, 2003; A Week Alone, 2008) all among the finest films made anywhere in the 2000s. (By contrast, Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund's art film blockbuster City of God  looks threadbare indeed.)
Then there was Hollywood, which as always was the source of the majority of the films I saw in the past ten years (as I suspect was also true of most of this blog's readers), even if came nowhere near dominating the category of great art similarly - as it might have during, say, the classical era. That Hollywood wasn't what it once was - hardly a new sentiment; the same could be said with authority since at least the mid-1960s - is not to say that the American cinema failed to produce very strong work, however. Indeed, David Lynch's career best Mulholland Drive (2001 - pictured) was one of the truly great "art films" of the 2000s, imbibing a surreal logic for its Hollywood critique, while refracting Rivette's Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974). Lynch also provided the even more opaque, though no less moving Inland Empire (2006). Among other Hollywood directors of note to do their best work (at a very high level) in the 2000s were David Fincher with his exceptional, Dirty Harry inversion Zodiac (2007) and his digital era Oscar picture of quality The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008); James Gray, with his elegant Two Lovers (2008); Curtis Hanson, whose Wonder Boys (2000) bested, however marginally, his universally critically acclaimed L.A. Confidential (1997); Michael Mann, who produced an organic masterpiece in Collateral (2004), which he followed impressively with his Miami Vice (2006) remake; and most implausibly of all, perhaps, Tony Scott, who released the surprising Domino (2005) before providing one of the best American films of the decade, Déjà Vu (2006). Additional major works by auteurs, most often just below their directors' respective peak achievements, included Robert Altman's Gosford Park (2001), Brian De Palma's Femme Fatale (2002), Jim Jarmusch's The Limits of Control (2009), Richard Linklater's Before Sunset (2004), Terrence Malick's minor masterpiece The New World (2005), Steven Soderbergh's surprisingly successful remake of Solaris (2002), Steven Spielberg's A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) and Catch Me if You Can (2002), Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, Vol. 2 (2004), and Gus Van Sant's Elephant (2003) and Paranoid Park (2007).
Scott's film, moreover, joined Paul Greengrass's impressively sober United 93 (2006) in engaging fruitfully with 9/11, as did one of Spike Lee's most generous - and finest - works, 25th Hour (2002). While Hollywood did not seem equally suited to dealing with the ramifications of the Iraq war, Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker (2008) was a highlight. Politics, of course, would play a very large role in the decade's documentaries, as it did in one of the peak achievements of the form, Errol Morris's The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003), though Nathaniel Kahn's My Architect (2003) and Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man (2005) were equally impressive on the apolitical end of the spectrum. In fact, politics even made its way into children's entertainment with Pixar's WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008) the most conspicuous example. Yet, Pixar's finest achievements belonged to auteur Brad Bird, whose depictions of individual excellence, The Incredibles (2004) and Ratatouille (2007), equaled the best entertainments Disney ever produced. Outside of Pixar, the finest work of Hollywood animation may have been Gil Kenan's Monster House (2006).
Among those films receiving Oscar recognition in non-animated categories, none were better than Clint Eastwood's back-to-back, culturally attuned master works, Mystic River (2003) and Million Dollar Baby (2004 - pictured). In so doing, Eastwood matched his 1990s feat with Unforgiven (1992) and A Perfect World (1993), while reaffirming himself as Hollywood's greatest living director - which his revisionist Gran Torino (2008) further confirmed. Other relatively deserving Oscar winners included Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003), this Griffithian structured work was easily the best of the trilogy; and Joel and Ethan Coen's fine, revisionist No Country for Old Men (2007). (Two strong, noteworthy, similarly Oscar nominated companions to the last two were Peter Weir's Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World, 2003, and Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, 2007.) Still, Oscar got it wrong far more often that it got it right with the atrocious A Beautiful Mind (Ron Howard, 2001), Chicago (Rob Marshall, 2002; Baz Luhrmann's striking Moulin Rouge!, 2001, was the more impressive work in every respect); Crash (Paul Haggis, 2004), and Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, 2008). Even Martin Scorsese's arguably belated Oscar came for one of his lesser films, The Departed (2006; Andrew Lau and Alan Mak's source Infernal Affairs, 2002, was the superior achievement). In general, the 2000s were not Scorsese's decade.
The 2000s, on the other, did belong to Wes Anderson and Judd Apatow, at least in the realm of US comedy. The former produced the finest American comedy of the decade, The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) and the woefully undervalued The Darjeeling Limited (2007). Apatow's mark, on the other hand, was even more significant with numerous producer credits joining noteworthy directorial efforts, Knocked Up (2007) and Funny People (2009). The latter, however, is perhaps more significant for contributing to the further revision of Adam Sandler's star persona, which was signaled by works like Paul Thomas Anderson's major Punch-Drunk Love (2002; for this writer, the aforesaid comedy ranks above Anderson's There Will Be Blood, 2007) and James Brooks's Spanglish (2004). Among Sandler's Saturday Night Live successors, Will Ferrell starred in some of the best Hollywood comedy of the decade, such as Adam McKay's Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006), while appearing in others, including David Dobkin's exceedingly funny Wedding Crashers (2005). In a more commercially modest, auteurist vein were Jared Hess's Nacho Libre (2006), Harold Ramis's The Ice Harvest (2005) and Terry Zwigoff's Bad Santa (2003).
In the realm of the action blockbuster, Christopher Nolan directed the notable Batman Begins (2005) and decade box office champion The Dark Knight (2008); Greengrass elevated visceral experience over visual decipherability in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007); Matt Reeves theorized the digital image in Cloverfield (2008); and Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor made one of the decade's most singular works (for better or for worse) in Crank (2006). Working in a more genre-based tradition, substantial work was done by David Mamet (Redbelt, 2008) and Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler, 2008); the latter of these films, significantly, was built around a reference to Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004), a work of sacred art that was one of the decade's biggest money-makers. On the other end of the commercial spectrum, the American avant-garde, there was the 'devotional' cinema Nathaniel Dorsky (Song and Solitude, 2006; Sarabande, 2008) and the structuralist corpus of James Benning, the leading American experimental director of the decade, whose 13 Lakes (2004), Ten Skies (2004) and RR (2007 - pictured) articulated the minimal conditions for the art form. In the gallery world, Tacita Dean's Kodak (2006), as with RR, eulogized the death of the 16mm medium. At the same time, Michel Gondry sought to bring theatrical distribution into contact with the art world, which he did to increasing success in The Science of Sleep (2006) and particularly Be Kind Rewind (2008). Gondry's collaboration with Charlie Kaufman, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), was likewise successful, as was Spike Jonze's Adaptation. (2002) - in both instances far more than Kaufman's miserablist directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York (2008). (Stronger American first features included David Gordon Green's George Washington , Kenneth Longergan's You Can Count On Me , Phil Morrison's Junebug .)
North of the border, David Cronenberg continued his outstanding run of achievements with directorial signature Spider (2002), masterpiece A History of Violence (2005), and the criminally under-valued Eastern Promises (2007); Cronenberg was clearly another of the decade's leading figures. His countryman Guy Maddin did some of his best work in the quasi-avant garde, as for instance with his Cowards Bend the Knee (2003); likewise, Canada also produced the extraordinary, first-ever Inuit-language picture, Zacharias Kunuk's The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat) (2001). In the United Kingdom, Mike Leigh (Vera Drake, 2004) and Stephen Frears (The Queen, 2006) made some of the better films, while in Australia, Jane Campion made of a comeback at the decade's conclusion with Bright Star (2009).
Michael J. Anderson's Ten Best Films of the 2000s
Blissfully Yours (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2002, Thailand)
Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2007, France)
Goodbye Dragon Inn (Tsai Ming-liang, 2003, Taiwan)
The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel, 2008, Argentina)
I'm Going Home (Manoel de Oliveira, 2001, France)
Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001, United States)
Mystic River (Clint Eastwood, 2003, United States)
Russian Ark (Aleksandr Sokurov, 2002, Russia)
Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr, 2000, Hungary)
Yi Yi (Edward Yang, 2000, Taiwan) - pictured