I’ve been working on this for months now – I planned to release it at the same time as my albums list in December. The researching phase took a lot longer than expected, but I’m not complaining, because it meant I got to watch a whole bunch more awesome films, some of which are listed here, some didn’t quite make the cut. There are still a few I’d like to check out or revisit, so I guess this list will never be quite finished. Also, I feel that most of my paragraphs don’t really do the films justice, so don’t pay too much attention to them.
But if you just take it as 20 movie recommendations (actually 50 if you include honorable mentions and tied placings), I hope it will be interesting and informative!
By the way, despite the titles of this and the music list, both are intended to be placed somewhere between the extremes of objective and subjective… I don’t know if it’s possible to be completely one or the other. Taking a cue from Roger Ebert, these all provoke in me the feeling of “elevation” (most of them anyway).
1. Lost In Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003)
A story that is externally similar to Chekhov’s “The Lady With The Little Dog”, in which the place where the characters meet is a parable for the place in life they are finding themselves. Lost In Translation finds hilarity in the way that nobody around the two protagonists seems to understand the pointlessness of it all; and beauty in their connection when they sense that each other does understand.
It’s Sofia Coppola’s best work; well and truly establishing her as worthy of that famous family name. It’s Scarlett Johansson’s best work, portraying one of those characters you can’t help but fall in love with and making me keep hoping she’ll be able to reach those heights again after her inconsistent work since then. It’s Giovanni Ribisi’s best work, too, and for better or worse it helped typecast Anna Faris as “annoying girl”. I’d even go so far as to say that it’s Bill Murray’s best work. It’s also the best work anyone did all decade.
2. Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004)
This is what all sequels should be like. Not only is it better than the original, it even makes the original (1994’s Before Sunrise) better, as throwaway comments from the original become important foreshadowing for this film. Not only the film, but its characters build on the original story, revising, critiquing and celebrating it.
The characters, two needles in the haystack of the world, meet again because one of them has written a book about their first meeting, which brought him to the other’s favourite bookstore (Shakespeare and Company) on a promotional tour. As they walk around Paris for 80 minutes (this comprises the entire film: if you’ve seen the original, you won’t expect any more or less), they gradually let their facade of “I’m doing great” lapse into the admission that they’ve never been able to find a connection quite like the one they shared that one night in 1995. The actors (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, who also co-wrote), could be saying the same thing about their careers; nothing they’d done since had been as good as Before Sunrise, until this.
This is a film I’ve watched many times, sometimes by itself and sometimes as a double feature (You can watch both in three hours: do it!), and I’ll watch it many times more. It also has one of the greatest endings of any film I’ve ever seen.
Honorable mention by same director: Waking Life (2001)
3. Yi Yi [A One and a Two] (Edward Yang, 2000)
When I rented this, the DVD cover had one of those outrageous claims: it said that by the end of its three hours, you’ll know the Jian family as well as your own, or you’ll feel for them as much as your own family, or something. Well, I watched it, and it almost manages to pull it off. It’s one of those movies that follows various family members over time (about a year, while their mother/grandmother is in a coma) and lets you get to know them as they live their lives and have things happen to them, etc. Sort of reminded me of The Godfather, oddly, only this is a normal middle-class Taiwanese family rather than a rich Italian-American mob family. The characters are rich, full and genuine, revealing a great knowledge of and love for people by the writer/director. In simply lifting the lid off a family and showing us their lives, this does what more ambitious drama films want to do.
4. Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)
What if you could delete someone from your memory? Can human selves and human relationships survive without memories giving them context? If you’ve loved and lost, is it better to think you never loved at all, or to retain the memories, the pain and the lessons of that loss? This “romantic sci-fi” asks questions like these. Jim Carrey was my favourite actor when this decade began (I was 12): this is his best work, and he manages to hold his own against Kate Winslet, my favourite actress at the end of the decade. The story is also perfectly suited to Michel Gondry’s style.
(Fun fact in case you care: this is not the only movie on this list in which Kate Winslet acts alongside a guy called David Cross/Kross).
5. Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002)
This could be called Being Charlie Kaufman; it is an illuminating, disconcerting and highly entertaining trip into a creative mind; a mind so full of doubts, imagination, ideas, ideas within ideas, self-loathing, narcissism, mixed motives and genius that it needs two characters, a zany quest featuring Meryl Streep and orchids, a variety of cinematic techniques and even “lazy” voiceover to represent it onscreen. We end up grateful for his having let us in, and relieved that we don’t have to stay there.
Honorable mention by same writer (let’s be honest – as much as I like Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufman is the real genius* here): Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, 2008) (see also Eternal Sunshine above – he wrote that one too)
*Yes – that word being used twice in as many paragraphs IS warranted.
6. Juno (Jason Reitman, 2007)
Haven’t we all already seen this? Don’t we all already love this? Well, apart from one guy I know, whose twin desires for absolute integrity of film-making industry motives, and for not being even a weensie bit of a cliche, have consumed his heart. I don’t think I need to write a spiel about this one; on the off-chance that you haven’t seen it, drop everything and watch it now.
7. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)
An Alice-in-Wonderland-esque fairy tale depicting a girl’s monomythic quest to learn the requisite lessons about the good and bad sides of humanity before entering adulthood. Its depiction of humanity, played out on the spiritual plane, is often powerful – the spirit of a polluted river is particularly memorable – and never simplified. If she wants to survive, keep her true identity and save her parents, Chiharo must not simply seek protection from powerful baddies by siding with more-powerful goodies; she must try to bring out the good within complicated souls, and if she acts with integrity, determination and audacity she’ll hopefully be able to get even her oppressors on her side.
This is one of the best kids’ movies I’ve seen; it beats all of Pixar’s hands down. The Pixar/Disney people idolise its director (master animator Hayao Miyazaki), and arranged and distributed the English dubbed version, but in contrast to their films, Spirited Away‘s sense of wonder and mystery, and the subtlety of its messages, makes it intriguing, not just amusing and admirable, for viewers of all ages. If a kid has seen and enjoyed this movie, I think they’re gonna be OK.
8. In The Mood For Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000) and 2046 (Wong Kar-wai, 2004)
In The Mood For Love is a very smooth and stylised film embodying the concept of mamihlapinatapai. This is the most sensual film imaginable, with or without any actual hanky-panky. Like quite a few films on this list, it depicts an unexpected bond between two characters; in this case neighbours united by a shared pain. Particularly powerful is their unusual way of coping as they try to support one another, while denying the inevitable consequence of doing so.
Also of interest, though arguably only if you’ve seen In The Mood For Love, is its semi-sequel 2046 (actually they’re both loose sequels to 1991’s Days of Being Wild, which I haven’t seen). This one is jarringly different in mood as it shows how one of the characters reacts to what happens in In The Mood for Love. We sometimes follow this character – an author – and sometimes the characters in a sci-fi book he’s writing about a place where jilted lovers go to live in their memories. Needless to say the lines between the two are often blurred as the author puts his loss and loneliness onto paper. I’m always a sucker for that kind of thing.
9. Caché [aka Hidden] (Michael Haneke, 2005)
A simultaneously gripping and boring thriller about a man whose chickens might or might not be coming home to roost. Someone is messing with Daniel Auteuil, and he doesn’t know who, or why, but it might as well be a MacGuffin; it’s how he and his family react to it, and what it dredges up, that the film is really about. I wonder how we would react? I might have said too much; but please watch it, preferably before Martin Scorsese remakes it in America.
Apparently this director’s newest film The White Ribbon is really good too… it’s been winning some “Best Foreign Language” awards, which often seem to represent better films than “Best Picture” awards.
10. Coffee and Cigarettes (Jim Jarmusch, 2003)
Nikola Tesla perceived the world as a conductor of acoustical resonance. I don’t know what Jim Jarmusch and his friends – a veritable who’s who of leftfield musical/film talent and people Steve Coogan or Iggy Pop would like to rendezvous with – perceive the world as, but it certainly looks good in black and white… that’s white cigarettes, if they let you smoke them inside, and black coffee, if you mess with caffeine. In a sense it’s just eleven great short films with an arbitrary common theme (the first three, which were actually shot in past decades – woops! and the last five are the best – it slumps in the middle a bit). But there’s also just enough commonality between the vignettes; in conversation topics, phrases, references, songs, actors etc; to make you wonder if there’s some overarching theme. There’s not, of course. The film is just a conductor of conversational resonance.
This is actually my favourite movie on this list, despite it being the least critically acclaimed (haven’t seen it on anyone else’s best-of-decade list). I’ve seen all ten of Jarmusch’s movies, and this – the first one I saw, by accident, Philistine that I was, after winning tickets off the radio – is still my favourite. And I don’t really know why. But if we’re going for “elevation”, this gets me there by the last scene.
11. The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001)
At one point, absent family patriarch Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) tells of how his best friend Pagoda once saved his life by taking him to hospital he was stabbed, adding as an afterthought that it was Pagoda who had stabbed him. This is the story of Royal trying to do the same thing for his family.
Like a straightfaced version of Arrested Development, this is Wes Anderson (and co-writer/actor Owen Wilson) doing what they do best, and it is their best work apart from 1996’s Rushmore. A starstudded cast delivers a film about a family of unrealistically extreme characters, all exhibiting that trademark Wes Anderson emotional aloofness, but it somehow manages to conjur up very real emotions along with its dry laughs.
12. Le Fils [The Son] (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2002)
This movie doesn’t tell, it shows. I know, that describes all movies, and books too, but this one especially. I don’t even want to say much about it, for fear of interfering with its slow, subtle, undramatised, fly-on-wall way of unfolding itself. Hopefully it doesn’t give too much away to say that the film is sort of about redemption versus revenge; a situation that could be restorative justice or it could be something more sinister. A character’s wife asks him what he’s doing, fraternising with someone who has deeply hurt them. He replies “I don’t know.” We don’t know either.
13. Dogville (Lars von Trier, 2003)
Sort of the anti-Le Fils, this is a fascinating parable dealing with issues of hospitality, the other, gift and quid pro quo, grace and arrogance, and calls to mind Gerard’s theory of scapegoating as well as Derrida’s ideas about hospitality. It was criticised for a perceived anti-Americanism in its portrayal of a small American town, but I think von Trier is saying something much more universal about humanity.
The spartan stage set-up – shot on a single soundstage with alternating black and white walls for day and night, with houses and props represented by chalk marks on the ground – lays bare the overall strong acting; actors from The Big Sleep, The Godfather and Good Will Hunting crop up alongside leads Nicole Kidman and Paul Bettany.
Honorable mention by same director: Dancer in the Dark (2000)
14. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2006)
This one is sort of the anti-Juno: the same general setup – how a girl and her best friend deal with an unwanted pregnancy – but this is set in Romania in 1987, under the communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu and his natalist policy where abortion was not only outlawed, but considered treason. And because the context is so different, the mood of this film could not be more different to Juno as it follows a day in the life of two young women seeking an illegal abortion.
This is (apparently) the best of the Romanian New Wave which developed through the second half of the decade – “austere, realist and often minimalist” (cheers Wiki) films looking back at Romania’s years under the communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu, and how the nation has moved on from there.
As (apparently) in other Romanian New Wave films, the political context is shown not blatantly as (apparently) in the reactionary Romanian films of the 90s, but from an intensely personal point of view. In doing this so effectively, the film sheds light on wider issues, not so much the ethics of abortion (I think its stance is anti-abortion but anti-prohibition-of-abortion, but maybe I’m just reading my own views into it), but more on the political landscape of 1987 Romania and life under modern dictatorships. The way the characters deal with their particular plight could perhaps be universalised to the rest of the country – doing what you must to survive, and then “we’ll never speak of this again” – but this is not to discount the deeply personal nature of the story.
15. Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh, 2008) and Vera Drake (Mike Leigh, 2004)
I am very grateful for having discovered Mike Leigh. These are the only two of his I’ve seen so far, but they’re both brilliant humanistic films about good people trying to get by in a not-always-good world. These are the kinds of films whose compassion is infectious. Happy-Go-Luckyeven managed to make me consider that perhaps being happy is better than being morose or angry after all.
I know I’m using this word a lot, but the realism is striking too. This is largely due to Leigh’s casting of actors, not stars, and his directorial style. He sets out with a general story but not a script (for this reason he found it hard to get film funding for the first few decades of his career and worked mainly in television and theatre instead!), and lets the scenes unfold in a natural, improvisational way. He will sometimes shoot extra scenes never intened for the film, in order for the actors to become comfortable and natural in their roles and relationships. He also reveals the story to the actors as it goes along; in Vera Drake, the actors portraying Vera’s family were kept in the dark about the central “about” of the movie – what Vera had been up to – and the actors were as surprised as their characters when the police knocked on the door. This technique means that both films play out very naturally, which is something I seem to enjoy in a film.
With that much in common, the mood of each is very different; Vera Drake is a sad story about a poor woman who goes to jail for doing for free what the rich do legally for a fee, while Happy-Go-Lucky is a comedy about a relentless optimist whose happy-go-lucky, ever-lighthearted personality can be grating as well as charming, and disguises the serious and deeply compassionate nature underneath. So it’s hard to say which one is more deserving of a place on this list, but either one comes highly recommended by me.
16. Hable con Ella [Talk to Her] (Pedro Almodóvar, 2002)
“Girlfriend in a coma, I know, I know, it’s serious.” A very Spanish movie, with bullfighting, dancing, heartbreak, love, crime, art, compassion, perversion and various forms of life and death. This has no easy moral answers, which is the way I like ’em, and it whet my appetite for checking out some more of Almodóvar’s work.
17. My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, 2007)
Winnipeg, Winnipeg. What a splendid imagination this man has. Guy Maddin, who was commissioned by Winnipeg’s city fathers to make a film about their town, muses on why he’s never managed to escape his home town… telling stories about it, lamenting its lack of appreciation for its architectural treasures, and even hiring his family to re-enact his childhood in case that will offer some clue. He shows no sign of acknowledging a distinction between fact and fiction. Roger Ebert stressed that this movie is great because it’s about all of our hometowns, but there’s more to it than that; if all the greatest raconteurs of my hometown got together to spin their best yarns about it, I doubt they could come up with a delight like this.
18. The Reader (Stephen Daldry, 2008)
This is my favourite Holocaust film, because it doesn’t just remember the horrors of the Holocaust like The Pianist, or tell a goodies-versus-Nazis story like Schindler’s List or Inglourious Basterds; it tries to show how and why atrocities like the Holocaust happen. Ordinary people respond to their specific situations and difficulties, and follow the path of least resistence (like how most of us live our lives), but because of the extreme circumstances they find themselves in, they end up performing vicious acts of cruelty that most films can only show being performed by “baddies”.
We sympathise with a war criminal, and we receive insight into those aspects of human society and human behaviour that allow such horrible things as the Holocaust to happen. We are also confronted with other questions about (I’ll quote my original review here) “shame, choice, guilt and excuse, the inadequacy and ruthlessness of law and punitive justice, hierarchy, herd mentality, power dynamics, forgiveness, and different ways of dealing with the past”. As well as all these challenging ideas – or perhaps giving them their potency – is how we are drawn into the personal stories of the two main characters; one played by up-and-comer David Kross and then Ralph Fiennes, and the other by Kate Winslet in her well-deserved first Oscar win after six nominations (Ricky Gervais was right, after all…)
19. You Can Count On Me (Kenneth Lonergan, 2000)
I can’t believe this isn’t more well-known. Well, maybe it was pretty well-known, just not by my friends. A very touching movie looking at the relationship of a brother and a sister, completely different in personality but bound together by having lost their parents at a young age and having to count on each other. The relationship between the brother and his nephew Rudy (“Rudy is eight years old, which is the age Terry was when he lost his parents, which is another way of saying that Terry is still eight years old” – the director) is interesting too.
Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo are great actors, and Mack Culkin’s littlest brother, Matthew Broderick and the director in his cameo all do well too. Everything about this movie is well-done, apart from (according to some of the 5% of Rotten Tomatoes critics who didn’t like it) some technical aspects, but who cares?
20th equal… Some More Honorable Mentions
Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe, 2000)
Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (Adam McKay, 2004)
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Larry Charles, 2006)
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Julian Schnabel, 2007)
Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002)
Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich, 2003) and Wall·E(Andrew Stanton, 2008)
Garden State (Zach Braff, 2004)
The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008)
Little Miss Sunshine (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, 2006)
The Lord of the Rings (series) (Peter Jackson, 2001, 2002 and 2003)
Me and You and Everyone We Know (Miranda July, 2005)
Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood, 2004) and Mystic River (Clint Eastwood, 2003)
Once (John Carney, 2007)
El Laberinto del Fauno [Pan’s Labyrinth] (Guillermo del Toro, 2006)
Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky, 2000) and The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, 2008)
Stellet licht [Silent Light] (Carlos Reygadas, 2007)
The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach, 2005)
Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring (Kim Ki-duk, 2003)
Y Tu Mama Tambien (Alfonso Cuarón, 2001) and Children of Men(Alfonso Cuarón, 2006)
Special entry: Mullholland Dr. (David Lynch, 2001)
When the Velvet Underground’s song “The Murder Mystery” (consisting primarily of two simultaneous spoken word rambles, one in each speaker) came out, fans spent hours listening to one side of their headphones at a time, writing down what they thought it said and trying to figure out what it meant. Eventually Lou Reed admitted it didn’t mean anything, it was just words that sounded cool.
David Lynch has given fans no such release; he refuses to say what this movie means or if it means anything, and Mullholland Dr. is still discussed online by people who think they know what it’s all about. And some of them do a pretty good job of making relative sense of it. But at the same time I get this nagging feeling that Mullholland Dr. is the emperor’s new clothes; we’re supposed to pretend we like it or understand it or are moved by it, because it’s David Lynch and it’s arty and it does such a good job of pretending to have deep meaning; the same way its characters pretend to act or sing or be.
The fact that it is so hard to “get” seems to indicate that it’s not really meant to be “got”. There may or may not be an overall meaning (that dream theory seems to make a bit of sense, but even that doesn’t tie up all the loose ends), but you have to admit that the individual parts are pretty damn cool. Club Silencio, for example. Or the espresso scene. Or that cowboy guy.
I suppose ideas can be transmitted through fragments just as well as through a coherent overall story. If this is the case, it’s pretty safe to say that this film is about the karaoke way people live their lives: this and Hollywood are metaphors for each other. I suppose it puts these ideas forward effectively, as well as boggling the mind like it’s never been boggled before. I suppose it’s an achievement that it did make me actually WANT to do all the googling and reading and thinking afterwards. Like the Velvet Underground and their song, David Lynch andMullholland Dr. are fascinating enough to send you on a wild goose chase to find a “meaning” regardless of whether there actually is a goose (or a meaning).
I’ve watched it twice, and both times it provoked a constant feeling of “what the hell?”, as well as pissing me off, making me feel that perhaps Lynch was playing a trick on me, and – yes – fascinating me. Did I like it? I really couldn’t say. So, it’s neither on the list, nor off the list. I’m not quite willing to put it on the list, but I also feel like it shouldn’t just be ignored. I know, this is trying to have my cake and eat it too, but, I like cake. Or, I DON’T like cake.
Many thanks to everyone who recommended me any of these films:
(in rough order) Lukas, Bomber, Hadlee, Josh, Gemma, Scarlett, Steve, Kim/Belinda etc, Alex/Bex etc, Thom, Lou, James, They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?, Roger Ebert, lbangs,Stylus Magazine, indieWIRE, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Rotten Tomatoes, Allmovie.