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Image: Gerard Butler in "300"
Warner Bros. Pictures
“300” catapulted Gerard Butler to leading man status.
updated 12/31/2009 12:38:40 PM ET 2009-12-31T17:38:40

Because we can never have too many lists, we’ve compiled our own chart of the greatest Geek picture pleasures of the past 10 years. No easy task, mind you, since the first decade of the 21st century is arguably the greatest 10-year period for science fiction and fantasy films since the 1970s. It was certainly the greatest period for comic book films ever, although that’s really not saying much, is it?

What is most impressive about the slate of films is that it came in the face of tremendous competition from the Internet, TV, video games, even books! Yet, pound-for-popcorn-butter-basted-pound, the multiplex still provides our greatest escape route from the mundanity of the real world.

Aside from an ever-expanding output of quality genre films, Fanboys and girls were able to enjoy something else they had never really experienced before: influence.

The decade saw the rise of the Geek Collective. Devoted followers of vampire novels, video game code breakers, and collectors of underground graphic novels and spandexed comic book heroes became the most important people in Hollywood. No longer did fans get sand kicked in their faces. The studios understood they had to start taking these films based on beloved characters and stories seriously, or else they would catch an Archy Slap right across the virtual kisser.

Of course, all the scrutiny in the world couldn’t save certain projects from miserable failure. Who can forget “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” “Alien vs. Predator,” “Catwoman,” and TWO Punisher movies? (How I wish I could). The lesson there? Sometimes a stinker’s a stinker.

Overall, however, this sea change has provided us with cinematic goodies we could only dream of back in the nostalgia boom times of the 80s. So take a bow, pop culture enthusiasts. You are now the straws that stir the drink. Geeks rule!

Enjoy the wave of epically budgeted genre fare coming to theaters in the next few years. But always remember, with Great Power Comes Great Responsibility. So use this newfound power wisely, because it’s doesn’t take much to have it slip away. Just ask the folks in the action-adventure and indie film categories, if you need proof.

In putting together this Top 10 list, a variety of judging criteria were applied. Some made it for their innovation, others for their influence. Ultimately, the one common trait the movies chosen all shared was watchability. Because a great film, a film for the ages, is one that stands up to that brutally simple test of multiple viewings.

10. ‘Gladiator’ (2000)
The first film on the list also was the decade’s first great spectacle. Director Ridley Scott’s third classic genre picture (“Alien” in 1979, “Blade Runner” in 1982) is a gritty story of revenge and redemption set against the backdrop of Ancient Rome. In the hands of a lesser director and a less talented actor than Russell Crowe, this could have been a forgettable period film. Instead, it’s a ferocious and enthralling epic (with a tremendous Hans Zimmer score) that not only kickstarted a sword-and-sandal movie revival, but also won Best Picture and earned Crowe the Best Actor Oscar. Watching the film again now only heightens the disappointment that the Aussie resisted the temptation to do more action roles back when he still cared about his physical condition.

(beat out: “King Kong”)

9. ‘District 9’ (2009)
I went back and forth over whether to include a film from this past year on ‘Decade’s Best’ list. After all, the passage of time is crucial in deciding a movie’s enduring strength. Ultimately, I decided it would be unfair to not have a representative from perhaps the best crop of sci-fi/fantasy movies of any year this decade.

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Neill Blomkamp’s allegorical tale about aliens stranded on our planet symbolizes everything that is great about science fiction. It entertains, thanks to a breakneck pace and one of the great debut performances in recent history by Sharlto Copley, it engages and it makes you think. It raises many questions, and not just about what we would do if aliens suddenly appeared in our airspace, asking for help. It asks what is it that we should do? Does our humanity only need apply to those who look like us, and bleed red like us?

In my review of the film when it debuted in August, I compared the South African ghetto to which the ‘Prawns’ are confined, to the Rio slums depicted in “City of God.” Like that tremendous film, the sheer force of “District 9” will only grow with time and repeated viewings.

(beat out “Watchmen”)

8. ‘Spider-Man 2’ (2004)
Hard to say this about a film that earned nearly $800 million and a spectacular 94% rating on the Tomatometer, but the sophomore Spidey effort seems somewhat underappreciated. “The Dark Knight” earned a lot of praise for giving comic book adaptations a certain credibility among the non-comics reading crowd. But “Spider-Man 2” had done that four years earlier.

Director Sam Raimi improved upon the first film in just about every facet of production, from the handling of the love story between Peter and MJ, Harry’s descent into madness, and Doc Ock. Oh, Doc Ock. Alfred Molina was born to play Otto Octavius. The battle on the train between Spidey and Ock may be the single greatest comic book movie scene ever.

“X-Men” deserves credit for showing Hollywood that “there’s gold in them thar comic books’, and it nearly made this list. But “Spider-Man 2” is a vastly superior film; one that proved superhero movies could make amazing gobs of money and be incredible motion pictures, too.

(beat out “X-Men”)

7. ‘300’ (2007)
On the back of Zack Snyder’s technical resourcefulness and a star-making lead turn by Gerard Butler, “300” ushered in a new era with its blockbuster debut in March of ’07. It was exhilarating, inspiring and made blood spilling an art form. Snyder’s rock video approach to sword and sandal throw downs is still being mimicked nearly three years later (check out the trailer for the “Clash of the Titans” remake for an example). While “Avatar” and its breakthrough 3D technology may be the future of movies, the impact of “300” has already been felt.

The success of “300” also opened eyes to the potential of graphic novel adaptations that had nothing to do with capes or cowls. For better or worse, the floodgates opened for any films based on a comic or graphic novel.

The movie catapulted Butler to leading man status, helped Snyder scored directing duties on the Holy Grail of comic films, “Watchmen,” and landed Frank Miller a job directing “The Spirit.”

Of course, Butler has struggled to recapture lightning in a bottle, fanboys revolted against Snyder for his spin on “Watchmen” and “The Spirit” was a major flop. Is it too soon to talk about The Curse of Sparta?

(beat out “Avatar”)

6. ‘28 Days Later’ (2002)
When Cillian Murphy’s character wakes up in London from a month-long coma, he has no idea what’s waiting for him outside the hospital doors. Neither does the audience. Danny Boyle combined two enduring elements of genre cinema, post-apocalyptic life and zombies, into a terrifying story of survival that remains the high-water mark of the recent zombie movie revival.

Boyle’s zombies are rage-fueled cannibals who run instead of plod after their victims. That break from classic zombie protocol may have peeved zombie purists (including Simon Pegg), but it gives the film an edge and urgency unlike any horror film in recent years.

Boyle gets double extra bonus points for pulling off one of the decade’s most chilling scenes, the shot of a deserted London. The director used his daughter and her friends to delay traffic while he captured the shot on his digital video cameras.

(beat out “Shaun of the Dead”)

5. ‘Casino Royale’ (2006)
It’s a tricky business, these reboots. Pulling the pin on the grenade that blows up a franchise so it can start over from scratch takes some kind of fortitude. Of course, the producers behind the Bond money tree knew they had an ace in the hole: Daniel Craig.

From his first moment onscreen as the Mi6 bad boy, Craig owns 007 like no one has since Connery. Rugged, angry and as cool as Jules Winnfield, his Bond is too cocky to see the mistakes he’s making until it’s too late. The film is taut as piano wire, blending action and characterization in perfectly proportioned doses. The high-stakes poker match is perhaps the most tense scene in a Bond movie in two decades.

Re-starting the Bond property was not only genius, but long overdue. ‘Casino’ grounded Bond back in something closer to reality. Many of the familiar tropes are still there, the gadgets, the nice car, exotic locations, gorgeous women. What’s gone is the wink-wink. We’re no longer in on the joke. Craig doesn’t want us in on it. And that’s just fine.

(beat out “Iron Man”)

4. ‘Almost Famous’ (2000)
How does a film with no superheroes, no swords or sandals (unless they were Birkenstocks) no spaceships, aliens or even animation make the list?

Simple. “Almost Famous” is the best film about geeks ever. William Miller is a teenager whose whole life revolves around his passion. William’s passion is music, but you could swap out the Lps for comic books or video games and the movie’s message wouldn’t change. It’s a coming-of-age story for the ages.

Cameron Crowe’s own incredible life experiences writing about bands like Led Zeppelin and The Allman Brothers Band inspired the screenplay for “Almost Famous.” Crowe was a Geek. Instead of collecting comics, he collected Lps (and interviews with big-time rock stars). In the movie, William gets to realize his dreams of writing about the bands he listens to. Imagine being a writer for Rolling Stone — at the age of 15?? Sounds like a fantasy, doesn’t it, journeying across America with a famous rocknroll band. It’s an honest, heartfelt and verrrry complicated trip, punctuated with spectacular music, unforgettable characters and more poignant moments than any 10 movies had combined that year.

“Almost Famous” is a movie with a soul ten miles wide, and a direct line to those of us whose passion for something magical, runs a little deeper than it does for others.

We are all Geeks.

3. ‘WALL-E’ (2008)
Choosing among the Pixar offerings of the past 10 years is nearly impossible. They each have their own magical spell that draws you to them. What makes “WALL-E” such a masterpiece, such a joy to watch over and over, is not the incredible animation or its careful balance of youthful entertainment and some surprisingly adult themes. It’s not even the fact that a human voice isn’t heard for nearly the first 30 minutes.

It’s the love story. The relationship that develops between a scrappy, outdated little waste removal robot and a sleek new prober is so touching, so real, that it melts your heart. Watching

Wall-E try to win over Eve is like peeking in a courtship between two inexperienced teenagers, or two elderly people rediscovering the power of love. Watching the space dance between the two love struck robots is pure Pixar magic.

Calling this an animated classic doesn’t even begin to do this film justice. It’s the romance of the decade.

(beat out: “Monsters, Inc.”)

2. ‘Batman Begins’ (2005)
“Superman: The Movie” has been the gold standard in terms of superhero movies for more than 30 years. It’s time to pass the torch. Christopher Nolan’s redefinition of the Caped Crusader is now the new benchmark for comic book films.

Let’s set aside the incredible set pieces and stellar supporting cast. Those are obvious pluses. How about how this Batman is grounded in the closest semblance of reality, at least, as close to reality as you can ground a person who runs a round in a cape and cowl. In Nolan’s Gotham, a superhero isn’t patrolling the street. A hooded vigilante is. This is closer to Watchmen than Detective Comics.

Nolan also understands the importance of Bruce Wayne to Batman. The biggest flaw in “The Dark Knight” is that Bruce gets short changed in the story. In “Batman Begins,” Christian Bale lays out Bruce’s haunted soul for all to see. What we discover is that the man beneath the mask is more interesting than his more intimidating alter ego.

(beat out: “The Dark Knight”)

1. ‘Lord of the Rings: Return of the King’ (2003)
The greatest cinematic feat of the decade, the “Lord of the Rings” showed that the impossible was truly extinct in Hollywood. After all, not only was the unfilmable novel finally filmed, but also it won a dozen Oscars for good measure.

Many writers are choosing to list all three ‘Rings’ movies as one on their ‘Best of the decade’ charts. No cheating here. “Return of the King” makes the list because not only does it provide the culmination of the onscreen journey for the characters in Tolkien’s beloved saga, but it also happens to be one of the most satisfying conclusions in movie history.

Along with the Harry Potter series, which launched around the same time “The Fellowship of the Ring” arrived in theaters, Peter Jackson touched off one of the decade’s most lucrative movie trends – the fantasy novel franchise. But his lasting legacy will be much more personal. It will be how he delivered a motion picture experience unlike anything else this generation of movie fans had ever experienced. Something grand and ambitious, with the heart and soul of an independent feature.

(beat out: “The Fellowship of the Ring”)

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