10. 'Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban' (2004)
During his third year at Hogwarts, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) learns that Lord Voldemort's acolyte Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) has escaped Azkaban prison with an eye toward making Harry's "Boy That Lived" moniker an overstatement. No worries, Harry's friends Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermoine Granger (Emma Watson) are on hand to help him sort out the shifting allegiances -- and shapes! -- in a tale where nothing is as it seems. Darker than the first two Potter films, to legions of fans the third installment of J.K. Rowlings' juggernaut may or may not be the best of the bunch; but, really, what Muggle wouldn't enjoy this.


9. 'The 40-Year-Old Virgin' (2005)
The movie that put director/writer Judd Apatow on everyone's radar (and arguably the best feature he's done to date) stars Steve Carell as a likable, action-figure-collecting nerd who's never been laid. A stock company of laugh-getters, including Jane Lynch, Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd and Catherine Keener keep this uproarious comedy thrumming on all cylinders. Most Iconic Scene: Andy's body-wax appointment where more hair is painfully removed than the Cheyenne achieved at the Little Bighorn. Yeeooow!


8. 'The Departed' (2006)
Irish Mob boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) maneuvers his protégé, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), into a state trooper job with the Massachusetts police -- the perfect vantage point for an informant willing to relay back valuable intel. It isn't long before his cohorts (including Leonardo DiCaprio) begin to smell a rat, leading to more rubouts than you'll find at your neighborhood drycleaners. It doesn't get much better than Jack waxing evil; and DiCaprio, Damon and Mark Wahlberg turn in command performances. Director Martin Scorsese won a long overdue Oscar, as did the film for Best Picture.


7. 'The Incredibles' (2004)
What a concept! A wry, animated spoof of the live-action superhero genre (which is itself largely fueled by special effects). Written and directed by Pixar's Brad Bird, the movie won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature and follows the surefire square peg-in-a-round hole comic scenario. To wit: The Parr/Incredible family are ex-superheroes living a "bearded" existence out in the suburbs (Mr. Incredible is an insurance adjuster), but they spring into action -- with hilarious results -- when duty calls.


6. 'Brokeback Mountain' (2005)
In the early '60s, a pair of cowboys (Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal) spend a summer together herding sheep in the "high lonesome" of Wyoming's Brokeback Mountain, where they surrender to a strong mutual attraction. The beautifully shot movie was adapted by Larry McMurtry from an Annie Proulx short story; McMurtry won Best Adapted Screenplay and director Ang Lee picked up a Best Director Oscar. Not just a "gay cowboy movie," this is a truly elegiac film about mutual attraction being a force of nature that irresistibly steamrolls everything in its path.


5. 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' (2004)
The febrile mind of Charlie Kaufman (who won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay) is the real star of this startlingly original romantic dramedy about a couple on the outs (Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey) who undergo a procedure that erases each other from their respective memories. After becoming just déjà-vu blips to each other, they begin to realize the enormity of what they really had together, which is now lost -- or is it? The leads are wonderful in this off-kilter movie that is almost uncategorizable; particularly an anguished Carrey, who plays it straight without a rubberfaced contortion in sight.


4. 'The Dark Knight' (2008)
The best movie in the Batman canon sees the Caped Crusader (Christian Bale) squaring off against worthy nemesis the Joker. Jack Nicholson's prior take on the "malevolent master of mirth" takes a backseat to Heath Ledger's disturbing (and wry) interpretation of one of Batman's most memorable arch-fiends. Ledger won a posthumous Best Supporting Actor Oscar as the droll and disfigured criminal mastermind who's mad at the world and wants payback from Gotham City for slights (perceived and otherwise) that are way past due.


3. 'Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring' (2001)
The best film rendition by far of J.R.R. Tolkien's phantasmagorical novel of a fellowship formed and an epic quest begun to save Middle-earth from evil found a worthy champion in director Peter Jackson. The casting, look (all three 'LOTR's won Best Visual Effects Oscars), even the score (another Oscar winner) coalesced beautifully like, say, a certain golden ring forged in the fires of Mordor. More importantly, all the carefully crafted elements were carried over in the next two installments of the opus setting the stage for a "perfect storm" trilogy of excellence the likes of which hasn't been seen before or since.


2. 'City of God' (2002)
The ironically named City of God was a well-intentioned housing project built in the 1960s that, in 20 years' time, became one of the most dangerous favelas in Rio de Janeiro. This is the true story of two boys (Rocket and Li'l Zé) growing up in the slums who take divergent paths; one dreams of becoming a photographer, the other a gangster. Uncompromising in its depiction of the wanton cruelty and depravity of Rio's gangs, the movie illumines a world where civility is as rare a commodity as hope. No tacked-on, Hollywood happy endings here.


1. 'Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King' (2003)
Tolkien's trilogy comes to a glorious and satisfying close with the One Ring destroyed, Aragon (Viggo Mortensen) united with Arwyn (Liv Tyler) and crowned King of Gondor, and the Hobbits rightfully hailed as heroes. Recognizing (albeit a trifle late) the significance and sublime craftsmanship of the trilogy, AMPAS didn't hold back on Oscar night. Winning 11 Oscars out of 11 nominations, including Best Picture and Director (Jackson), the movie is the first fantasy film to ever take the Academy's top honor.



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