Today, the rest of numbers 11 through 20:

The Lord of the Rings

Year: 2001-2003
Director: Peter Jackson
Writer: Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens (from the novels by J.R.R. Tolkien)
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Andy Serkis

Why it’s one of the best: When I saw 2001’s The Fellowship of the Ring, the first installment of the trilogy, I didn’t understand what the fuss was about, so it was much to my surprise when its continuation, The Two Towers, landed atop my list of the year’s best films. For the purposes of this list I’m considering all three films as a single entity because, like Kill Bill, it’s not a film and its sequels so much as it is a single creative work divided into three parts, and when considered as a whole Peter Jackson’s 9-hour fantasy opus (12 hours if you’ve watched the DVD special editions) is one of the most audacious achievements in film history, as intimately attuned to character as it is grandly scaled and extravagantly designed.

Love Actually

Year: 2003
Director: Richard Curtis
Writer: Richard Curtis
Cast: Bill Nighy, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson, Keira Knightley

Why it’s one of the best: It’s not only the best romantic comedy of the last ten years, it’s all of them rolled into one. Fitting that it should have been the directing debut of Richard Curtis, the standard-bearer for romantic comedy writers (Bridget Jones’s Diary, Notting Hill). He assembled a remarkable cast to tell a mash-up of stories ranging from silly (Colin Firth woos Portuguese housekeeper) to absurd (stand-ins for a sex film make small talk in compromising positions) to heartbreaking (Emma Thompson discovers her husband’s affair). The central idea is that love actually is all around, and by exploring its myriad cinematic forms Curtis celebrates it in the world, positing that we are all an interconnected network of love stories, be they happy or sad, romantic or platonic, requited or unrequited. Of few films can it genuinely be said that it warms the heart.

Minority Report

Year: 2002
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: Scott Frank, Jon Cohen (from the short story by Philip K. Dick)
Cast: Tom Cruise, Samantha Morton, Max von Sydow, Colin Farrell

Why it’s one of the best: Spielberg in the 2000s was not as renowned as Spielberg in the ‘90s (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan) or even the ‘80s (Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Color Purple). Strange as it may seem to regard him so, I think he’s one of the more underrated filmmakers of the last ten years; as such, he is one of only two directors who will make a second appearance on my list. Set in a future of remarkable depth and detail, Minority Report stars Tom Cruise as a Pre-Crime detective who himself becomes a suspect in a murder yet to be committed. The film’s deep, rabbit-hole narrative, vivid characters, and thematic richness uphold science-fiction as a genre through which to explore new worlds and ideas rather than just show off CGI and pyrotechnics.

Pan's Labyrinth

Year: 2006
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Writer: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Ivana Baquero, Sergi López, Maribel Verdu, Ariadna Gil

Why it’s one of the best: Guillermo del Toro’s film is ostensibly a fantasy, but it’s reality that gives it its potency. The Pale Man — whose skin sags on his bones and whose eyeballs are in his hands — is one of the decade’s most indelible monsters, but so is Captain Vidal (Sergi López), an officer in 1944 Spain after the ascent of dictator Francisco Franco, hunting rebel forces still resisting from secret hiding places in the mountain forests. Meanwhile, his step-daughter Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) retreats to a fantasy world that mirrors the terror and uncertainty of her real world. Whether her otherworldly adventure is genuine or her imagination’s elaborate defense against suffering is left for us to decide. What is certain is the film’s beleaguered optimism about the resilience of the powerless in the face of power. It’s a devastatingly sad film whose despair is tempered with fragile hope.

Secret Sunshine

Year: 2007
Director: Lee Chang-dong
Writer: Lee Chang-dong (from the novel by Yi Chong-jun)
Cast: Jeon Do-yeon, Song Kang-ho

Why it’s one of the best: Secret Sunshine is the best film you’ve never seen, and probably have never heard of, because, inexplicably, it was never distributed here in the US. It floored me when I saw it at the 2007 New York Film Festival, after which I waited for a stateside release that never came, despite being South Korea’s official foreign-language entry at the Academy Awards and featuring a lead performance by Jeon Do-yeon that was awarded at the Cannes Film Festival. Jeon, whose work is among maybe a handful of truly towering acting achievements of the last ten years, plays a young mother whose husband’s death is followed shortly by her son’s. The rest of the film plays out as a battle with God, the kind you can never win, and in its depiction of unshakable grief it deserves mention alongside Sophie’s Choice.

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