And since I couldn't just mention only 10, here are ten more (not in any order) that should not be forgotten.
- The Lord of the Rings. The pure cinematic achievement of Peter Jackson's adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's classic fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings is absolutely stunning. The films were box-office blockbusters and universally critically acclaimed, even by people who had never read the book(s). I first read the book(s) at the age of 9 and loved these perfect filmic realizations even more than the original(s). Director: Peter Jackson. Released: 2001, 2002, 2003.
- Memento. I still remember the sense of wonder and amazement I felt during and after watching Christopher Nolan's debut feature film. My mind was blown but I knew that I wanted to see it again, and that I would make sure to see everything this director would ever release in the future (The Dark Knight, The Prestige, Batman Returns, Insomnia). Director: Christopher Nolan. Released: 2001.
- Avatar. Yes, believe the hype! James Cameron confounded all the doubters who refused to believe that the director of Aliens and Titanic could (again!) reinvent the cinematic experience with an(other) original story. I saw the film twice in the first weekend of release and know that I will see it again several times. This is the current generation's Star Wars: a film which restores the sense of wonder to cinema. Director: James Cameron. Released: 2009.
- The Incredibles. From the director of the instant classic The Iron Giant and the wizards at Pixar came this incredibly poignant and action-filled story of a family of superheroes. The Incredibles, like Finding Nemo, Up, WALL-E and Ratatouille demonstrate that animation can be as emotionally powerful as live-action. Whenever I see this film on TV I must stop what I'm doing and watch it all the way to the end. If I believed in God, I'd pray for a sequel! Director: Brad Bird. Released: 2004.
- Tell No One (Ne Le Dis A Personne). An innocuous little French thriller that grabs your attention from the first scene and leaves you breathless at its satisfying conclusion. The story is adapted from Harlan Coben's thriller "Tell No One." It also does a very good job of illustrating contemporary life in Paris, subtly challenging preconceptions that ideal living standards must be American. Director: Guillaume Canet. Released: 2006 (France), 2008 (United States).
- House of Flying Daggers. Although Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was more widely acclaimed (winning the 2000 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and being nominated for Best Picture) I think that this film is the more amazing cinematic achievement, although this is admittedly a very close and somewhat arbitrary call. Together with this director's Hero, this trio of films (all featuring the incredible Zhang Ziyi) are must watching for anyone who likes martial arts and gorgeous spectacle. Director: Zhang Yimou. Released: 2005.
- Dreamgirls. Who said the musical was dead? Openly gay writer-director Bill Condon achieved the impossible by adapting the thinly veiled 80s-era musical about the 60s supergroup The Supremes and finding someone who could handle the tsunami posing as a song "(And I'm Telling You) I'm Not Going." Jennifer Hudson won a well-deserved Oscar in her debut movie role and Beyoncé showed that she was born to inhabit the role of Miss Diana Ross. Director: Bill Condon. Released: 2006.
- Spirited Away. This is not a Disney cartoon! Any serious student of film in general and animation in particular knows the name of Miyazaki. The Japanese filmmaker makes emotionally resonant films with curious stories that contain heart-stoppingly strange and beautiful images that are hard tp forget. In Spirited Away Miyazaki is at the top of his game and we are all the richer for it. Director: Hayao Miyazaki. Released: 2004.
- Far From Heaven. Written and directed by Todd Haynes but animated by Julianne Moore's heart-wrenching performance as a 1950s-era wife married to a man with a secret played by a surprisingly good Dennis Quaid, this film is like a nearly perfect confection: short and sweet and leaves you wanting more. Director: Todd Haynes. Released: 2002.
- Brokeback Mountain. The first film to have millions of gay men leave the theater shattered at finally seeing an emotionally true depiction of homosexuality in a major motion film. The relationship between Heath Ledger's Ennis Delmar and Jake Gyllenhaal's Jack Twist is the core of the film but it is the story and beautiful direction that really twists the knife. And, yes, I'm still bitter it didn't win Best Picture! Director: Ang Lee. Released: 2005.
Honorable Mentions: Pan's Labyrinth, Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit, The Prestige, Finding Nemo, Juno, Slumdog Millionaire, Kill Bill, United 93, Milk and Moulin Rouge!