Top 20 Greatest Movies Of The 2000s
VOICE OVER: Tom Aglio
WRITTEN BY: Saim Cheeda
These are the films that defined a decade. For this list, we'll be looking at the most critically-acclaimed and entertaining films from the aughts that still hold up. Our countdown includes “Almost Famous”, "Iron Man", "The Dark Knight", “Avatar”, "Mean Girls", and more!
Top 20 Movies of the 2000s
Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 20 Movies Of The 2000s.
For this list, we’ll be looking at the most critically-acclaimed and entertaining films from the aughts that still hold up. We’re excluding animated movies, because they all deserve a list of their own.
Which 2000s movies are part of your fondest memories? Let us know in the comments!
#20: “Zodiac” (2007)
Taking place across decades, “Zodiac” is about the search for the titular killer, whose identity is shrouded in mystery. The psychological thriller establishes the criminal’s streak of madness as he claims innocent lives and stirs up interest in who he is. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., and Mark Ruffalo, each protagonist quickly finds themselves engrossed in the investigation. The film’s pacing is kept deliberately slow to create a sense of paranoia among viewers, as the characters lose themselves in the hunt. Although its open-ended nature can be confusing, “Zodiac” is a nuanced work that gives us plenty to think about.
#19: “Almost Famous” (2000)
A coming-of-age story, this film is more about the characters’ traits and personalities than the plot itself. It follows teenage journalist William’s tour with an up-and-coming band, whom he grows too attached to. Although things do get heavy as different problems come to light, the movie is largely heartwarming in the way it calls back to the rock mentality of the ‘70s. With a particular focus on its music-based backdrop, there are plenty of moments that give us a taste of the exciting rockstar lifestyle. Of course, William’s experience teaches him that there’s more to life than the supposed glory of fame. But from the fun times to the tough ones, this film is sure to keep you entertained.
#18: “Casino Royale” (2006)
Daniel Craig's debut as James Bond ushered in a new era for the franchise. Presenting a younger Bond who’s a lot rougher around the edges, “Casino Royale” shows the agent in a gritty and more complex backdrop. Focusing on Bond’s mission to bankrupt evil financier Le Chiffre, it also depicts the protagonist truly falling for his partner, Vesper Lynd. A departure from the relatively flashy style of the series, “Casino Royale” is devoted to humanizing Bond by focusing on his vulnerability and tendency to make mistakes. The inclusion of practical effects make the action feel authentic, and there’s enough classic “James Bond” charm to delight long-time fans as well.
#17: “Mean Girls” (2004)
We’ve all heard of – or experienced – the pains of high school drama and clique mentality. But “Mean Girls” takes it up several notches. Here, teenager Cady is a fish out of water who’s unaccustomed to American schooling, and must find her place in “girl world”. Among the most quotable movies to be released in recent memory, it acknowledges teen slang in humorous ways while sticking to its premise. It also contains characters that allude to the stereotypical personalities found in high school, but ultimately gives them more depth than you’d expect. Although there’s lots of laughs to be had, “Mean Girls” successfully depicts the pitfalls of such a class-based environment. In doing so, it shows viewers that there’s always another way.
#16: “Pan's Labyrinth” (2006)
Essentially a dark take on the classic fairy tales we know, this story is about young Ofelia, who’s swept into a labyrinth by a mysterious being. Soon, she learns that she’s the reincarnation of Princess Moanna, the person intended to one day rule the underworld. It’s more of a cinematic experience than a straight-up fantasy, as writer, director and co-producer Guillermo Del Toro constructed an entire realm full of surprises. There’s a combination of drama and horror, with Ofelia facing terrifying challenges while completing the trials that will grant her immortality. Plus, the special effects enable “Pan’s Labyrinth” to appear as close to reality as possible. Considering the dark creatures that live in the film’s domain, this makes for a unique viewing experience.
#15: “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004)
Jim Carrey traded in his funnyman persona for this one. He plays Joel, a man who decides to purge himself of the memories of his ex Clementine, who’s done the same thing. As he revisits the times they shared before they’re erased forever, he falls in love with her all over again. A creative take on the sci-fi genre, the story uses a blend of comedy and drama to portray how far a person can go to avoid facing a painful heartbreak. Although the main appeal is the dynamic between Joel and Clementine, the supporting characters are given compelling subplots that tie everything together. In the end, “Eternal Sunshine” presents the possibility that a “maybe ever after” might just be enough to go on.
#14: “Gladiator” (2000)
Vengeance is always sweet, but even more so within a sprawling story that’s designed to bring a note of catharsis. This film follows former Roman general Maximus, who becomes a gladiator to avenge the death of his family at the hands of the tyrannical Commodus. “Gladiator” is largely credited with reigniting interest in films about ancient civilizations, carrying a hard-hitting aesthetic even if it isn’t historically accurate. The acting might just be the strongest aspect of the film, with Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix really making us feel the resentment between their characters. Along with the fantastic cinematography on display during the fights, the desire to see Maximus achieve his revenge never fails to suck viewers in.
#13: “Avatar” (2009)
There’s arguably never been a movie as visually dazzling as “Avatar.” It breathes life into its 3D effects, making Pandora appear like a world that’s beyond anything we could’ve imagined. The story is about Jake Sully, who enters into an avatar of Pandora’s Na'vi people to gain their trust while working to mine the area’s resources. But his love for Indigenous inhabitant Neytiri puts him on the path to siding with the Na'vi as they look to protect their homeland from humans. “Avatar’s” landmark achievements in cinematography and design propelled it to become one of the most financially successful films of all time. Years later, its effects not only hold up, but remain a cut above the rest.
#12: “The Hurt Locker” (2008)
While there’s no shortage of war films out there, “The Hurt Locker” is one that dives into the psychological ramifications of being in such an environment. It depicts the struggles of American soldiers in Iraq, who must contend with the difficult realities of battle. Along with featuring captivating dialogue, “The Hurt Locker” throws viewers into the heart of the action by showing them the soldiers’ point of view. Between watching them fight to stay alive and try to move on, you’re sure to be on the edge of your seat the whole time. While it definitely carries a somber atmosphere, the film is a chilling reminder that these things really do happen, and deserve to be talked about.
#11: “Brokeback Mountain” (2005)
This tragic western drama spans decades, telling a complex love story whose themes are still relevant today. It deals with two men, Ennis and Jack, who fall in love but are unable to be together because of the societal taboos surrounding LGBTQ+ relationships. We watch as they live the lives they think they’re supposed to while contending with their unmatched connection and its never-ending impact. We’d be remiss not to mention the stellar performances by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, who make us believe in the forbidden love between their characters. Through the men’s relationship, “Brokeback Mountain” challenges traditional ideas of romance and family, and spotlights just how damaging prejudice can be.
#10: “Iron Man” (2008)
“Avengers: Endgame” arguably gave us the biggest payoff to long-term storytelling, and it’s all thanks to Iron Man. The superhero’s debut movie is also the MCU’s first official entry. It features Tony Stark on his journey toward taking up the mantle of Iron Man and the responsibility that comes with it. Robert Downey Jr. turned the character into a pop culture icon with his suave and charismatic performance. As such, “Iron Man” is credited with injecting much-needed comedy in the superhero genre without compromising on the explosive action. We’ll never tire of the way the movie infuses Stark’s path to becoming a hero with a sense of fun. Watching him suit up is just as satisfying now as it was back then!
#9: “The Departed” (2006)
The film that finally won Martin Scorsese his “Best Director” Oscar, “The Departed” is a crime thriller that captures your attention and never lets go. The cat-and-mouse premise follows two diametrically opposed men who go undercover – one within the mob, and the other within the police. Billy Costigan serves as the Massachusetts State police’s informant, while Colin Sullivan fulfills the same role for Frank Costello’s gang. Filled with twists and turns, the plot increases in tension as both sides attempt to cover up their involvement before their identities are exposed. The story doesn’t hold back, dealing with themes of morality, corruption, and justice in a thrilling yet realistic fashion.
#8: “City of God” (2002)
Filled with shocking moments, this 2002 picture lays bare the horrifying plight of people in Rio de Janeiro’s “City of God”. The story, told in part through flashback, focuses on the abundance of organized crime and the ways in which gang warfare regularly ruins lives. It follows budding photographer Rocket, as he looks for – and struggles to find – a better life. There’s no doubt the content will be disturbing for many, but it’s also a thought-provoking tale of what people are forced to do to survive. At its core, the film depicts how carnage can be without meaning – and it makes a pretty compelling case.
#7: “Children of Men” (2006)
When humans are unable to have babies for years on end, their existence is threatened, with society falling into a global depression as a result. Protagonist Theo Faron is tasked with transporting refugee Kee, the only pregnant woman in the world, to a sanctuary. The movie carries a healthy mix of chase scenes, grand set designs, and a fast-paced style that matches its tone. Director Alfonso Cuarón ups the ante even more through single-shot sequences that make audiences feel all the calamity. “Children of Men” is everything from an action thriller to a dark dystopian drama that looks into human behavior during times of mass panic. Still, there’s a sense of hope that mankind will survive, making the film a must-watch.
#6: “No Country for Old Men” (2007)
The Coen brothers have a reputation for stellar films, and this is one of their best. “No Country for Old Men” is about three characters whose connected stories serve as the story’s framing device. Assassin Anton Chigurh pursues Llewelyn Moss, who’s found a lot of cash that doesn’t belong to him. Meanwhile, sheriff Ed Tom Bell investigates the case. Violence is a central motif in the movie, yet it never feels gratuitous, instead providing a commentary on the world it creates. And the gray morality of the characters is such that their motivations can be understood, at least to an extent. By the end, we’re left contemplating if money can drive men to shed their principles – and whether they have a say in the matter.
#5: “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000)
Set in 19th century China, this film is part of the wuxia genre, presenting a martial arts-based story that has the characters traverse the land. Its plot kicks in when protagonist Li Mu Bai’s fabled sword is stolen, leading to a chase to recover the weapon. The fight scenes are so spectacular that they act as standalone art pieces. Yet the tale goes beyond that, incorporating love as a central theme through Mu Bai’s feelings for Yu Shu Lien. What’s more, the female characters are notably each one given a significant arc and part in the action. It’s easy to understand why “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” sparked major interest in the wuxia genre, though Ang Lee’s distinct direction is hard to replicate!
#4: “Inglourious Basterds” (2009)
Quentin Tarantino proved his filmmaking technique works in any genre with “Kill Bill”. So of course, it also translates into this war film set in an alternate history. “Inglourious Basterds” depicts two distinct plans to eliminate Hitler, and takes us on a journey that leads to their simultaneous culmination. The film’s dark sense of humor somehow manages to fit perfectly into the war-based backdrop, thanks largely to the quirky band of characters on display. The sadistic personalities involved mean that everyone’s out for blood in gruesome and creative ways. Between the grim violence and questions of morality, it’s no wonder the movie is beloved to this day.
#3: “The Dark Knight” (2008)
Director Christopher Nolan skillfully played with larger-than-life themes earlier in his career with “Memento”. But this movie is on another level, presenting an epic battle between true evil and incorruptibility. The villainous Joker, portrayed masterfully by the late Heath Ledger, wreaks havoc on Gotham City, testing Batman’s grit and resolve in the process. There’s something memorable in just about every scene, as the Joker seeks to create a state of permanent chaos. The movie immortalizes Batman as the symbol that Gotham needs to fight corruption, while also carving out Two-Face’s tragic origin story. “The Dark Knight” set the gold standard for superhero films, encouraging the genre to embrace thematic qualities that go beyond the usual formula.
#2: “There Will Be Blood” (2007)
A masterclass of studying a character to their core, this film follows Daniel Plainview across decades as he goes to extreme lengths to gain wealth and influence. He essentially sells his soul, even using his adopted son as a pawn to perfect his image. “There Will Be Blood” portrays ruthlessness building to its peak with each evil act, as Daniel resorts to lying, harming, and even killing. Although it seems bleak, the movie proves that living purely for personal gain can never bring true happiness, as the main character never finds fulfillment. This gripping epic has a lot to say, and it’s all worth hearing. Plus, we won’t soon forget Daniel Day-Lewis’ amazing performance!
Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.
“Slumdog Millionaire” (2008)
A Rags to Riches Story With a Whole Lot of Heart
“The Pianist” (2002)
This Tale Is Music for the Soul
“Lost in Translation” (2003)
It Proves That Life Crises Can Happen at Any Age
“Shaun of the Dead” (2004)
Because It Changed the Zombie Genre Forever
“Before Sunset” (2004)
Who Knew a Movie About Walking & Talking Could Be So Invigorating?
#1: “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” (2003)
It’s unlikely a fantasy film will ever again have as big an impact on cinematic culture as “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy did. Winner of numerous Oscars, “The Return of the King” wraps things up by depicting the final stand against Sauron and the destruction of the One Ring. There’s no question that the film’s visuals are incredibly appealing, as they perfectly depict the incredible war taking place. But there’s also a deeply emotional and important story of brotherhood to be found. With thoroughly moving music and a tear-jerking finale, this farewell to the Middle Earth saga gives fans everything they could ask for and more.