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Posted on Dec 31, 2009

By Peter Z. Scheer

2009 was a record year at the box office, but there are those who worry that Hollywood has gone into decline over the last decade. Moviegoers are reportedly much more interested in gimmicks than substance, and people supposedly would rather watch talking robots than talking humans, let alone stories about the human condition. But the oughts turned out to be a vibrant decade for politically and culturally enlightened movies, after all.

The last 10 years were abundant with films that pushed limits and attacked real issues in real time. The documentary and the foreign film both gained unprecedented mainstream acceptance, the studios experimented with edgier independent movies (though many have now given it up) and even the biggest blockbusters sometimes needled the Establishment.

Of course it helps to have had a frenemy as president for the majority of the decade. There was no love lost between George W. Bush and Hollywood, and there are dozens of movies illustrating the nature of the relationship. But that’s too simple an explanation for all the politics in cinema these past years, and besides, a lot of those on-the-nose current-event movies were just plain uneventful.

Here are 20 of the best socially conscious, topical, progressive movies from a crazy decade. It is an imperfect list, as these things inevitably are. Feel free to make corrections or suggestions by contributing to the readers’ comments section at the end of this article.

1. “City of God” (2002)
Fernando Meirelles’ Brazilian masterpiece oozes style while capturing a remarkable authenticity. It’s a kick in the gut and a gift to the eyes, at the same time. Rio’s slums come alive in this favela epic, one of the most enjoyable good-for-you movies ever made.

2. “Children of Men” (2006)
Another masterpiece, this one set in the near future when humanity has lost the capacity to reproduce. This film did not get anywhere near the acclaim it deserved. Film nerds gush at the impossibly long shots, but they aren’t just parlor tricks. The stunning direction and top-notch acting make this dystopia so real—and it’s a landscape already too familiar for comfort. This is the world George W. Bush made, 17 years from now.

3. “Y Tu Mama Tambien” (2001)
Alfonso Cuarón, who also directed “Children of Men,” is frequently lumped together with other Mexican directors who have found success in the U.S., but he’s easily the best. This movie is one reason why. It’s a love letter to Mexico and maybe the best coming-of-age flick ever. It’s a story about teenagers, but it’s not adolescent. Where he might have settled for titillation, the director gets at something raw and truthful. Like his characters, Cuarón journeys far and collides with class, culture and sexuality in a way that feels as fun as it does rich.

4. “The Fog of War” (2003)
Errol Morris takes a straightforward interview and turns it into one of the most important pieces of journalism of the decade. Robert McNamara, one of the chief architects of the Vietnam War, talks about killing millions, about mistakes, about good and evil. For the generation that fought against the war, McNamara’s contrition is historic and personal.

5. “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” (2006)
Is Sacha Baron Cohen’s lawsuit magnet a sophomoric romp or a disturbing snapshot of American prejudice? Why not both?

6. “Wall-E” (2008)
Pixar makes great movies everyone can enjoy, but the studio doesn’t always play it safe. There isn’t any human dialog in “Wall-E” for the first 39 minutes, by IMDb’s count. There is, however, plenty of message. “Wall-E” rails against obesity, the destruction of the environment, technologically-assisted paralysis and much more.

7. “Brokeback Mountain” (2005)
They just don’t make them like this anymore, and in one way, they never did. The first movie to take an honest-to-God nonmetaphorical gay love story mainstream (and not in that lame-1990s-“Philadelphia”-it’s-OK-for-same-sex-movie-stars-to-dance-together way) has some pretty great writing and direction, courtesy of Larry McMurtry and Ang Lee.

8. “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” (2005)
Alex Gibney later won an Academy Award for “Taxi to the Dark Side,” his exposé on America’s torture chambers, but his fascinating deconstruction of the Enron failure is where it’s at. Californians, especially, will boil as they see how this Texas company mugged their state.

9. “Why We Fight” (2005)
America spends more money on the military than all other countries in the world combined. Eugene Jarecki’s documentary explains why.

10. “Farenheit 9/11” (2004)
Michael Moore has been on a roll, and each of his last four major releases could be on this list. He doesn’t call his movies documentaries, apparently. Fair enough, but as a document of the Bush years, it’s hard to beat “Farenheit,” which might be required viewing in history classes one day. Moore is known for inserting himself into his movies, but “Farenheit’s” genius is the pastiche of footage the director collected and assembled from across the front lines of Bushdom. If nothing else, it gave us the president reading a children’s book for seven minutes after learning that the nation was under attack on 9/11.

11. “Murderball” (2005)
MTV had trouble getting anyone to watch this documentary about paraplegic rugby players, but those who did were treated to a powerful film about what people go through when they lose almost everything.

12. “V for Vendetta” (2005)
How on earth did a major studio come to release such an anti-Establishment movie? The hero of this film, which came out several years after the start of the war on terror, is a terrorist. The character’s Guy Fawkes mask has since been adopted by the anti-Scientology movement known as Anonymous.

13. “Syriana” (2005)
Confusing was a word a lot of people used to describe this movie, but that might have been by the filmmakers’ design. It’s as if writer/director Stephen Gaghan tried to take in the whole solar mass of the Middle East and ended up speaking in tongues about sheiks and oilmen and suicide bombers who all have their reasons. The source material, Robert Baer’s memoir about life at the CIA, shines through in the revelation that pretty much all American maneuvering boils down to oil profits.

14. “Milk” (2008)
If only gay rights activists would pay more attention to Harvey Milk, we would all be better off. The pioneering politician’s warning not to go looking in the closet for equal opportunity is as relevant now as ever.

15. “Waltz With Bashir” (2008)
This unique animated documentary is hard to pin down, but one word for it is breathtaking.

16. “Michael Clayton” (2007)
Fight lawyers with a lawyer. “Michael Clayton” really nails what’s wrong with this country—people simply don’t risk their asses anymore. So what if your employers are poisoning people? Are you supposed to lose your job and your Mercedes turning them in? Yes!

17. “The Queen” (2006)
It’s good to remember Tony Blair before the fall, when he was the wide-eyed young prime minister who fell for Her Majesty.

18. “An Inconvenient Truth” (2006)
Oh my God, global warming is real? Can we do something about this? The Gore-bot has never been more expressive—or convincing.

19. “Good Night, and Good Luck” (2005)
It took almost as much chutzpah to take on Joe McCarthy in the 1950s as it did to make a black-and-white movie in the 21st century. This film was less a condemnation of the blacklist than a bitch-slap to The New York Times and CNN and everyone else who kept the great Ed Murrow spinning in his grave in those early Bush years.

20. “Outfoxed” (2004)
Robert Greenwald’s timely-documentary factory scored an early hit with “Outfoxed,” a point-by-point breakdown of Fox News that didn’t just vent, but exposed the most popular news network’s most devilish techniques.

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