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Couch Comfort: From 'Avatar' to 'Mean Girls,' the best of the 2000s by year

Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana in "Avatar."

 Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana in "Avatar." Credit: 20thCentFox/Everett Collection

The aughts, the noughties, the zeros — we never did find a widely accepted term for the 2000s, did we?

That’s fitting, because aside from the trauma of 9/11 there wasn’t much of a unifying theme to the decade. At the movies, audiences turned out for the swords-and-sandals epic “Gladiator,” Pixar’s instant family classic “The Incredibles,” the oddball comedy “O Brother, Where Art thou?” and just about everything in between. Generally speaking, it was an era of just-right cinematic entertainment — not too heavy, not too light.

We looked back at the decade’s wide range of releases and picked a winner from each year. All titles are available on Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu and iTunes.

2000: HIGH FIDELITY A record-store owner (John Cusack) begins to wonder if his obsession with rock history and pop culture is preventing him from growing up. Stephen Frears’ adaptation of Nick Hornby’s book captured the plight of aging Gen-Xers with agonizing accuracy; it also helped introduce audiences to Jack Black, who plays the store mascot. It’s one of the decade’s sweetest and smartest movies.

2001: GOSFORD PARK One of Robert Altman’s last films was this unexpected mystery-comedy, set in England in 1932, which touches on themes of class and the end of empire. It’s written by Julian Fellowes and contains the kernels of his wildly popular series “Downton Abbey,” including the great Maggie Smith as a dowager countess. The A+ cast includes Kristin Scott Thomas, Derek Jacobi, Stephen Fry, Helen Mirren and Richard E. Grant.

2002: THE BOURNE IDENTITY Matt Damon’s first outing as a CIA agent who can’t remember his name (but remembers how to kick all manner of butt) was a throwback to the action thrillers of the previous decade. But thanks to Damon’s intense performance, Doug Liman’s white-knuckle directing and a tough screenplay cowritten by Tony Gilroy (from the Robert Ludlum novel), “The Bourne Identity” made an old genre crackle again. “Taken” owes it a debt, as do the newer James Bond and “Mission: Impossible” movies.

2003: WHALE RIDER In patriarchal New Zealand, a young Maori girl (Keisha Castle-Hughes) bucks tradition by attempting to become the first female chief of her tribe. It’s difficult to oversell Niki Caro’s crowd-pleasing family film: It’s magical yet grounded in reality, easy to grasp yet far from simplistic, filled with love but never sugary. Over the years it's become a word-of-mouth favorite.

2004: MEAN GIRLS Tina Fey’s smash hit about the piranha pit known as high school not only gave Lindsay Lohan her best film role — Cady Heron, a home-schooled newbie to North Shore High — it helped boost female visibility in popular culture. By the way, whatever happened to the spinoff sequel, “Mean Moms,” with Jennifer Aniston? We’re still waiting.

2005: THANK YOU FOR SMOKING Somewhat forgotten since its release, this satire from writer-director Jason Reitman (working from a Christopher Buckley novel) follows the misadventures of what seems like the least moral man on Earth — a tobacco lobbyist, played by Aaron Eckhart. This is a cynical comedy that asks what happens when you spread lies, pervert the truth and scoff at any notion of shame or guilt. The answer: You win, of course.

2006: LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE A family of misfits takes a road trip to California so that little Olive (Abigail Breslin) can perform in a beauty pageant. Smart, funny and very dark, with a fine cast playing memorable roles (Steve Carell as a suicidal gay professor, Alan Arkin as a heroin-snorting grandpa), the movie became a hit and won two Oscars (for Arkin and for original screenplay). It became a model for “small” and “quirky” titles hoping to break into the mainstream, though few succeeded like this one.

2007: SUPERBAD The story wasn’t much: Two teenage boys (Michael Cera and Jonah Hill) have a series of adventures on their way to a cool party. But “Superbad” announced the arrival of a new comedy posse led by co-writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (already under the tutelage of Judd Apatow), and their M.O. would be unabashedly raunchy humor aimed at the man-boy crowd. Also in the cast: Bill Hader, Dave Franco, Emma Stone and an uncredited Danny McBride.

2008: MAN ON WIRE In 1974, a French entertainer named Philippe Petit arrived in Manhattan, illegally strung a high-wire between the Twin Towers and performed a graceful, terrifying ballet some 1,300 feet above a crowd of open-mouthed onlookers. James Marsh’s documentary explains how and why Petit’s stunt became a piece of performance art — a gift, even — that somehow turned two unlovely buildings into something beautiful.

2009: AVATAR James Cameron’s blockbuster was essentially a sci-fi version of “Titanic,” a Romeo-and-Juliet romance between a U.S. Marine (Sam Worthington) and an alien tribeswoman (a motion-captured Zoe Saldana). The detail in the movie is incredible, from the jungle foliage of the planet Pandora to the 1000-word language spoken by the Na’vi creatures. Even on your living-room screen, the movie will still dazzle.

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