Any movie can offer a couple of hours of distraction from daily life. Truly important films live beyond the end credits, altering the ways we live and think, changing how and why movies are made and marketed. • Here, in chronological order, is a Top 10 list of the past decade's most important cinematic achievements, either at the time or someday sooner than we think.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
Ang Lee's martial arts epic was a shock to the U.S. movie system, proving moviegoers really can read subtitles, if the story is strong and crowd-pleasing. Consider that without this crossover hit, we might not have Slumdog Millionaire, Pan's Labyrinth and Hero at theaters near you by the end of the decade.
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-2003)
The decade's most fully realized storytelling through sheer devotion to its literary sources. Peter Jackson's epic was a watershed event for devotees of J.R.R. Tolkien's books (or any literary cult) realizing they aren't alone, and Hollywood realizing they have money to burn. For better or worse, without the Ring trilogy, we might not have the Harry Potter and Twilight movie franchises.
Minority Report (2002)
If the prescient novelist H.G. Wells made movies, they might look like this. Director Steven Spielberg fashioned a future of cars driving themselves to programmed destinations, virtual computer screens controlled by hand motions, personalized shopping mall ads, cyber-invasive surveillance and the "precrime" concept of jailing people for crimes not yet committed. Your future is now available on DVD.
Bowling for Columbine (2002)
Michael Moore became the most admired/despised liberal in Hollywood with this gun control documentary, won an Oscar and used his acceptance speech to lambaste former President George W. Bush. Two years later, Fahrenheit 9/11 continued Moore's rant, with Bowling for Columbine ensuring people would pay attention, one way or the other.
The Passion of the Christ (2004)
Mel Gibson's controversial crucifixion drama sparked worldwide debates on religious differences, biblical interpretation and movie violence in the name of God. Faith among the masses made it the highest-grossing R-rated film ever, and taught Hollywood that marketing to middle America, especially churches, can mean better ticket sales.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
At first, it was the "gay cowboy movie." Then audiences saw it and realized that great love stories can't be marginalized. By blending a macho American archetype with homosexuality, director Ang Lee challenged perceptions and cemented pop culture's embrace of gay living, widening a few narrow minds along the way.
The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)
With this film, writer-director-producer Judd Apatow became the decade's comedy franchise, making extremely dirty jokes and stoner humor into a reputable profession. Even the Farrelly brothers (There's Something About Mary) can't keep up (or down) with Apatow's raunchy output and stable of breakout stars, including Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd.
United 93 (2006)
By believably placing viewers on the lone hijacked Sept. 11, 2001, airliner that didn't reach its terrorism target — and honoring the passengers' heroism in bringing it down — Paul Greengrass' film was a cathartic milestone. Without a trace of exploitation, United 93 captured a sliver of time when Americans facing the worst were at their best.
Snakes on a Plane (2006)
Web sites selling movies aren't new, but allowing visitors to make creative choices — such as adding a profane catchphrase for Samuel L. Jackson by popular demand — was a step toward democratized cinema and predicting success through Web hits. Yet despite enormously positive chatter, this cheesy horror flick tanked, teaching Hollywood that not everyone online actually means what they type, so don't bank on it.
Don't worry if you haven't seen James Cameron's state-of-the-art sci-fi fantasy. You'll see what he wrought for years to come; actors and locales digitally "painted" on film more realistically than ever, and action without any boundaries except imagination. Like Jurassic Park in the 1990s, even more modest, earthbound movies will use the tricks Avatar uncovered, if only in small bytes.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.