10) American Beauty (2000), US
After Hollywood's most shallow decade, Sam Mendes' critically acclaimed film signalled a changing undercurrent. As well as confirming Kevin Spacey's status as one of the best actors of his generation, American Beauty was rare in its sombre, almost minimalistic portrayal of middle-class neuroses and prejudices. With a loser/hero as main character, a good succession of put downs as well as a subtle blend of humourous and tragic, American Beauty is almost British in the way it narrates absurdity and emptiness.
9) Mon Meilleur Ami (2006), France
When Francois (Daniel Auteuil), a forty-something middle-class Parisian, is told by his colleagues that he's a billy-no-mate, he takes them up on a bet: within ten days he'll have to introduce them to a "best friend". Yet the odds are against him. When Francois contacts his acquaintances one by one, he's met with nothing but rejection. Until, that is, he bumps into a fairly odd and gobby taxi driver (Dany Boon). A succession of embarassing, sad and comical situations follows- contemporary French cinema at his best.
8) This Is England (2006), UK
The touching story of a group of young skinheads who see their unique bond hijacked and shattered by Combo, an extremely paranoid far-right psycho. The 80s references, as well as its charming, endearing narrative, grip you right from the start. Along with his previous work Dead Man's Shoes (2004), This Is England sanctioned Shane Meadows as the torch-bearer of British kitchen-sink once both Mike Leigh and Ken Loach hit retirement.
7) All or Nothing (2002), UK
Right at the peak of Love Actually and Bridget Jones, the British public was presented with this excellent alternative. A gentle, moving depiction of life on a south London estate, it confirms Mike Leigh's mastery at using loose ends and subplots to describe humanity through its most ordinary and intimate details.
6) The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2009), US
Slammed as "Forrest Gump backwards", The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a modern fairy tale but with added poetic power and a series of touching questions about mortality. Extra marks also for not ticking the now obligatory blockbuster boxes of gimmickry and speed. Its gentle pace (as well as Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett's performances, of course) is one of its most endearing qualities.
5) It's A Free World (2007), UK
The rightwing likes to call it a "taboo subject", yet immigration has become this country's obsession. But while many are subconsciously soaking up the tabloids' myths and hatred, the real story goes often untold. Ken Loach's social realism and brave depiction of the world of temporary and agency work (often based on "wealth creators" taking advantage of desperate migrants) deserved an Oscar.
4) Castaway (2000), US
The gripping story of Chuck (Tom Hanks), a FedEx employee who ends up stranded on an island after crashing into the ocean. A precursor to Lost, except that there's only one character, who has to battle total isolation and obvious practical adversities for over four years. If that wasn't touching enough (especially the heart-breaking bit when he loses his only friend, a Wilson volleyball from one of the FedEx packages), when Chuck is finally rescued he discovers he'd been presumed dead all along.
3) Downfall- Der Untergang (2004), Germany
Even if you're not interested in history and Nazi Germany, this incredibly realistic portrayal of Hitler's final hours is extremely compelling. The acting is supreme, even though to viewers who cannot speak German it would come across as natural and authentic anyway. Placed against the dozens of films about Nazi Germany, Downfall is unique for centering its plot around the Nazis, with added claustrophobic effect rendered by the bunker. Also, extra kudos for the internet virals that it spawned.
2) Little Miss Sunshine (2006), US
Possibly the one I enjoyed the most in the last few years. Absolutely hilarious in the way it sketches today's obsession with victory at all costs, it even received a Best Original Screenplay Academy Award. The actors are so expressive, intriguing and quirky that they'd probably all be able to pull off an individual film centred around each of them, especially the porn-obsessed grandad, suicidal uncle Frank and uber emo teenage wreck Dwayne.
1) Brokeback Mountain (2005), US
The fact alone that on release it pissed off American bible-belters, the Chinese regime and Muslim fundamentalists (Israel was the only country in the Middle East that showed it uncensored) makes it a film worth watching.
Through Ledger and Gyllenhaal's memorable interpretations, Brokeback Mountain tells the touching story of a closeted homosexual relationship in America's Deep West. Every single bigoted bully and religious zealot should be strapped to a seat and forced to watch it.
(*)Note: with the following I'm just expressing my own personal taste. If you disagree, remember that this is exactly why the saying 'each to their own' was created.