Archive | August, 2012

Best movies by decade: The 2000s (21-25)

13 Aug

The story of an infighting family of self-pitying geniuses.

21. Royal Tenenbaums/Shaun of the Dead—Wes Anderson’s last good movie for a while, or perhaps the movie where things begin to go wrong. Bold colors, beautiful designs, eccentric characters and a killer soundtrack, yes, but also mannered acting, offbeat (and off-putting) storytelling and a smugness that feels petulant and unearned. Gene Hackman plays Royal, a sneaky scoundrel exiled from his family of former child prodigies. In an attempt to win them back, he pretends to be dying of cancer. Hackman is superb, a feisty end of career performance, and Angelica Huston is excellent, but it is Alec Baldwin’s narration that is the real wonder. Anderson’s skills are on full display, but it his design acumen that gets him into trouble; the emphasis on style has diminished his storytelling abilities. All of Anderson’s films are interesting, but it isn’t until The Fantastic Mr. Fox that he would fully regain his footing.

Two slacker fools try to navigate a zombie apocalypse.

Shaun of the Dead—Inspired horror comedy that limps along with a slacker’s gait. An underemployed Brit loses his girlfriend due to his inability to grow up. Then a zombie apocalypse hits, and he must try to stay alive, win her back, and lead his ragtag group of friends across a city bloated with the undead. His plan is to hole up in his favorite pub and eke out their survival until the cavalry arrives. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost co-star, and their comic on-screen chemistry is reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy. Hot Fuzz, their second film together, is equally funny, a send-up of action films in the Naked Gun mold (although the movie wears out its welcome about two-thirds of the way through). An effortless first movie from a very talented bunch of comedians.

The dark and dreary world of America’s first spies.

22. The Good Shepherd/Inglorious Basterds/Punch Drunk Love—Robert DeNiro’s epic character study about one of America’s first spies. Matt Damon plays the title role, a quiet, intelligent spy in the George Smiley mold. The characters are loosely based on real OSS, and later CIA, operatives. Damon is there at the beginning of the American spy apparatus, just at the end of World War II, and the movie follows his moral decline as the job demands more and more compromise. He becomes increasingly paranoid as the job gets nastier and nastier. With his first directorial debut, DeNiro borrowed from Scorsese in the very fine A Bronx Tale. Here, fittingly, he pulls from Coppola, and the feel and sweep of this exquisite spy movie is reminiscent of The Godfather, Part II. (Coppola was originally signed on as the director.) The movie divided critics; some, unaccountably, found it boring. Shaggy and full of ideas.

Murderous counterfactual history at its tawdriest.

Inglorious Basterds—Tarantino had a hell of a decade, first with the Kill Bill movies, followed by Grindhouse, and then this, his war movie about war movies. The Kill Bill movies have a lot going for them, with exceptional fighting sequences and an intriguing mythology of female globe-trotting assassins. But it’s excessively self-involved, a kind of Moebius strip of self-references, and the second movie is too damn long. Grindhouse was a novel concept, two B-movies shown together with a stock set of actors, but the real problem was the budget. Tarantino and Rodriguez should have limited themselves to the same budgetary constraints as the movies they were aping. Instead, you have enormously expensive trash. (The fake previews were great, though, and to be fair, the car chase scenes in Deathproof, Tarantino’s half of the movie, were incredible.) But with Basterds, Tarantino continues to defy—and strangely fulfill—expectations with this fantastical re-imagining of World War II. He sets a crew of tough, special forces Jews into the treacherous world of occupied France. Their enemies are the Nazi high command, in Tarantino’s hands an urbane, swishy and deranged group of dandy killers, embodied in Hans Landa’s performance as the multi-lingual Nazi officer who uses words as the most basic of weapons. A smashing tour through a counterfactual history.

A love story, pulled through some cosmic distortion field.

Punch-Drunk-Love—Paul Thomas Anderson’s lightest movie, a romantic comedy-drama stretched through a strange cosmic distortion field. He pulls the arrested man-child character out of Adam Sandler into a more complex personality, adding damaged layers of sadness to the raging core. His is a short fuse. He comes to loggerheads with an unscrupulous businessman with anger management issues of his own, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman sends some goons to beat up Sandler, Sandler tries to woo Emily Watson, and the whole thing watches somewhere between a farce and a tragicomic episode of the Twilight Zone.

Two friends on a journey to change the world.

23. The Motorcycle Diaries/Pulse—Before he was Che, he was Ernesto, an earnest medical student with the wanderlust bug. The year is 1952, and with his best friend Alberto, Che rides a junker motorcycle on a 3,000-mile trip through South America. That was the plan, anyway, but when the bike breaks down, the two men hitchhike their way through labor camps, copper mines, and a leper colony, picking up odd jobs along the way. They drink, they fight, they woo. Che keeps a diary, and slowly starts to realize the immense inequality, and suffering, of the various South American peoples. The episodes hang together by Che’s burgeoning revolutionary consciousness and the excellent performances from its two leads. A faithful dramatization and a stirring movie. Beautiful stuff.

The terrible dread of being alone in the universe.

Pulse—A new, peculiarly Japanese mental illness appeared in the late 90s, where young people would lock themselves into their rooms and refuse to come out. Pulse takes this very real social problem and turns on the scares. Japanese horror—nicknamed J-horror—starting in the 90s, took on dark new dimensions, combining elements of social decay, Buddhist religious notions, mass communication and Lovecraftian cosmic horror. The horror often stems from social isolation, loneliness. A whole batch of these appeared, kick-started by Ringu, and they operate with a disturbing techno-occultic language. Ghosts inhabit televisions, videos, telephones, and the world wide web. They don’t kill you; they destroy your capacity to live. They cause suicidal loneliness, they turn your heart to ice. Pulse is the scariest of the lot, a terrifying vision of the pointlessness of the universe, a kind of 21st century The King in Yellow. Terrifying stuff.

Pitch-perfect comedy from the Katherine Hepburn school.

24. Bridget Jones’s Diary/All About Lily Chou-Chou/Munich—The lightest of movie confections, held together by a strong cast, a witty script, and on-point, unfussy direction. Renee Zellwegger, prone to over-acting, is excellent as an always-out-of-love British working woman tripping through a variety of romantic misadventures. She’s a self-involved, neurotic bumbler, infatuating with detailing her own physical shortcomings. Two men vie for her affections, Daniel Cleaver, played by the rakish Hugh Grant, and Mark Darcy, by the stalwart Colin Firth. Daniel is playful and witty, Mark serious and dour. Far from the riots, the social unrest, the brutal bullying and the soccer hooligans, London here is a type of upscale restaurant and shopping scene. A very funny, pleasant and quaint movie.

A boy left alone to the vagaries of a bullying existence.

All About Lily Chou-Chou—Japan has a thriving film culture, but it can be unwelcoming to outsiders. They have their own genres, and an acting style influenced by Kabuki. The result is a film culture that is, at times, insulated and strange. I often feel that I’m missing the context when I watch Japanese movies; I often feel I’m watching a sequel to a movie I’ve never seen. There’s a perverse undercurrent to their cinema, which gives their movies an edge. I’ve seen boatloads of these—I went through a Japanese period in the mid-2000s—but I think Lily Chou-Chou is the best, better even than Battle Royale—itself a very influential Lord of the Flies murderous romp. (While Departures, the best foreign film of 2008, is diverting treacle.) Chou-Chou is about a group of young boys obsessed with a pop star Lily Chou-Chou. The boys exist in a dreary twilight, half-child and half-adult. Hoshino is a popular, handsome student, who outside of school pimps out his classmates and humiliates his friends. Yuichi is a decent, if disaffected outsider who falls under Hoshino’s influence, and must endure a series of increasingly cruel tribulations. Told in a disjointed, intentionally confusing style, the film is equal parts genius and blowhard, a riveting yet strange meditation that like a complicated mandala disappears and withers into nothingness when examined too closely. Still, we must look, and upon looking, weep for the future. Kids these days, they be scary.

The killer with a mission and a conscience.

Munich—Steven Spielberg is a dynamo, a one-man moviemaking machine. He produces, develops his own projects, and directs an astonishing output of films. His technical abilities are superior, as is his understanding of how stories play out on screen. He only occasionally missteps, and even his weaker movies are well made. He operates in the old studio mold; he makes lots of movies and there’s quality control in the product. In the oughts, he made Catch Me if You Can; Minority Report; A.I.; War of the Worlds; The Terminal; and this, the best of the lot. Munich tells the truish story of a group of Mossad agents who are sent to assassinate those responsible for the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. The five assassins travel all over the world in their quest, falling into a complex web of international spies from all over the world. Eric Bana is very good as the leader of the group, grappling with the moral consequences of his increasingly immoral actions. A sinister feeling that very bad people run the world begins to sink in. Paranoia and confusion, misinformation and deceit, the band of loyal Israelis are soon immersed in the impossibility of their quest; they cannot murder their way to any kind of peace or safety. Bana carries the weight of the movie in his face, and the supporting cast, including Geoffrey Rush and Claran Hinds, are also very good. The visuals are excellent, but it’s a different, rougher Spielberg, coming to terms with the two American wars in the only way he knows how, on celluloid. Tony Kushner wrote the script. The movie would be much higher on my list, save for a snaking sideplot that is implausible and distracting. Like A History of Violence, Munich is interested in cause and effect, how violence spirals out of control. In a way it’s interrogating itself, pondering the morality of its own message.

A near-perfect comedy about a young man attempting to reverse history and encase the world in amber.

25. Goodbye Lenin/Pan’s Labyrinth/Moscow, Belgium —A young man’s mother—a dedicated East German revolutionary—falls into a coma shortly before the fall of the Berlin wall. To protect her fragile heart from the shock of the enormous changes taking place in her beloved city, her son attempts to recreate the Soviet-era world. This very funny, and ultimately very touching, movie has great set pieces, such as how he explains an enormous Coke billboard outside her window, and the amount of work he must put in to maintain the illusion exhausts him. The very talented Daniel Bruhl plays the son, and he had a great decade with parts in The Edukators and Inglorious Basterds, among others. One of those great, effortless movies, where everything sort of clicks and unfolds, and a pleasure to watch over and over again.

An evil flesh-eater lurking beneath the world; above, the Spanish fascists are so much worse.

Pan’s Labyrinth—Guillermo Del Toro is a talented director in love with old school special effects. He also loves monsters, Victorian-era horror novels, ghosts and ghouls and goblins and adventure stories. He’s a pulp scholar, a well-read connoisseur of weird fiction. His first film, The Devil’s Backbone, is a ghost story set during the Spanish Civil War. The key to the movie is that the ghosts are murdered young boys, whereas the actual villain is a fascist sympathizer. Del Toro’s message is clear: all the phantasms in the world are less dangerous than one evil man. Hellboy is very good, a funny, faithful adaptation of the comic. (Hellboy II is bad; Del Toro let his love of fantastic pageantry and monster building interfere with a good idea.) But Pan’s Labyrinth is a continuation of Backbone’s theme, and Del Toro’s best movie. A young girl’s mother marries a fascist commander of a Spanish prison camp. The bookish little girl, dropped into a wretched existence, escapes into a dark inner world of mythological creatures, quests and spells. In that world, she must complete three gruesome tasks to become princess. The best sequence in the movie involves the little girl fleeing an eyeless, bleached white creature in a baroque chamber beneath the earth. The movie stays focused on the all-too-human cruelties of the girl’s stepfather, however. By the movie’s end, the flesh-eating creatures feel harmless in contrast. Del Toro makes argument with cleverness and panache: We are infinitely worse than our worst nightmares.

The touching, funny story of an oddball relationship sprung up in the most unlikely of places.

Moscow, Belgium—A little gem of a little movie, the story of love found in the unlikeliest of places. Matty, a sour-faced, bitter woman raising two children while her husband has an affair with a much younger woman, begins to re-engage with life when she meets a bullish, younger truck driver named Johnny. Improbably, the two begin a love affair, and soon are in something akin to love. Barbara Sarafian, the actress playing Matty, gives an incredible performance of a woman slowly remembering how to feel. A very fine comic drama filmed in Belgium of all places. A warm, open-hearted movie made with skill and plenty of funny lines, this is the type of romantic comedy Hollywood used to be able to produce all the time. A Flemish Two for the Seesaw.

Honorable mention: Sexy Beast; Memento; The Wrestler; Love, Actually; The Pianist; Almost Famous; High Fidelity; Chicago; Million Dollar Baby; Grindhouse; Revanche; Half Nelson; Battle Royale; Nicholas Nickleby; Sweet Sixteen; The Battle for Algiers; Adventureland

(Intro and part 1 here; parts 2 and 3 here and here)

Best movies by decade: The 2000s (17-20)

8 Aug

Inspired comedic kung fu madness.

17. Kung Fu Hustle/Vicky Cristina Barcelona/Junebug—Hong Kong funnyman Stephen Chow’s ode to Warner Bros cartoons combining chop sockey karate with inspired manic madness. A down on his luck wannabe tries to join the notorious Axe gang in a hard knock neighborhood in 1940s China. His striving brings him into a slum, where two of the world’s greatest warriors are hiding out. The ensuing battle escalates into cosmic proportions. Chow is a very fine filmmaker, improving upon the very funny Shaolin Soccer. He manages to balance humor, action, and drama, and the resulting film is the best slapstick action cum fantasy-comedy since Army of Darkness.

The young and the sexually restless in Woody Allen’s best movie in years.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona—Woody Allen spent the 2000s traveling the world, and we are all the better for it. Leaving New York behind, Woody Allen found renewed strength and vigor first in London, then in Spain. Whereas Matchpoint was a British reworking of Crimes and Misdemeanors (without the jokes), and Scoop was a diverting but slight picture, Vicky Cristina Barcelona offers up an intriguing story of beautiful young people looking for love in the cosmopolitan areas of the Iberian peninsula. Javier Bardem is excellent, Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johanansen are strong, but Penelope Cruz is superb as the tormented artist who punishes the people around her. Allen’s take on young people is spot-on—how an old curmudgeon who hates contemporary music managed this I don’t know—and his filmmaking has taken on a relaxed, insouciant appeal. He’s an old master now, spinning yarns on celluloid.

The best movie about the (white) south.

Junebug—The best movie about the (white) American south. Madeleine, a British art collector, falls in love with George, a debonair southerner. They marry in New York and make a life for themselves in the city. But, when Madeleine discovers a bizarre folk artist near George’s hometown, they journey to his tiny hamlet in North Carolina. His family finds her strange, as she finds not only the people but also the land. This rich, quiet drama follows the cultural misunderstandings that follow, leading to tragedy. Quirky characters and an off-the-beaten path storyline, plus a fantastic soundtrack by Yo La Tengo, make this one of the best American movies of the 2000s. Scott Wilson—who also has a cameo in The Host—steals the show with his hushed performance, and Amy Adams is a revelation, providing all the humor. The movie has one of my favorite scenes of the decade, when George sings an acapella hymn for a whole picnic of people, while a confused Madeleine looks on. Junebug captures the storytelling tradition, with all its contradictory weirdness.

A brief respite before the world falls apart in the bleak, dour, but hilarious The Wedding.

18. The Wedding/The Messenger/Wonder Boys—Pity the poor, miserable Polish. This ferocious satire follows the precipitous decline of a Polish businessman as he marries off his daughter to an unethical slime. Using the stress, expense and chaos of the wedding to expose the fissures in contemporary Polish society, the director escalates things to absurd proportions. The reception and after-party devolve to an immense bacchanalia, and the entire structure of Polish society begins to unwind. There’s a touch of cosmic tomfoolery here—the toilets begin to gush rivers of bile, the drunken orgiastic revelry exceeds Fellini’s Satyricon—and the petty gangsterism of the Polish state comes into clear view. The whole thing plays like a comedy, but by movie’s end, amidst the shit-stained sheets and broken glass, it’s clear that this movie is the most serious of indictments. Vicious, but entertaining.

A study of men at war at peace.

The Messenger—A very fine movie about men of war at peace. Ben Foster plays a returning Iraq War veteran haunted by the things he’s seen and struggling to find his way in the civilian world. He is given a horrifying new job with the military—he must, in person, tell family members that their sons and daughters have died in combat. Woody Harrelson plays his accompanying officer. Their day-to-day deliveries, ruining lives, demands intense courage and fortitude. The toll of the job wreaks havoc on their personal lives, but these two soldiers confront the horror with stoic conviction. And what could have been a saccharine weepy is instead a taut little gem of a movie, constructed in such a way that the emotional devastation of the characters sneaks up on you by film’s end. Probably the best movie about veterans ever made.

A little gem that has been all but forgotten.

Wonder Boys—A very fine movie that, somehow, didn’t connect with audiences. It’s a shame, because this Curtis Hansen-directed film has great performances from Michael Douglas, Frances McDormand, Tobey MaGuire, and Robert Downey, Jr., and a very funny storyline following one weekend in the life of an unraveling professor. Douglas plays an unhappy writing teacher who suffers from the opposite of writer’s block; he can’t figure out how to stop writing an immense novel of some 2,000 pages. Meanwhile, he’s impregnated a married colleague, and his star student has stolen a priceless heirloom from the cuckolded husband. The movie doesn’t overreach, staying within the academic setting, allowing the characters to breathe. Very funny stuff, made with old-school craftsmanship.

Intrigue and murder, both upstairs and down, in Robert Altman’s last great movie.

19. Gosford Park­/Mysterious Skin/Rocket Science—Altman’s triumphant return. Before he created the smash PBS hit Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes co-wrote this Robert Altman-directed period drama. A reworking of Renoir’s near-perfect The Rules of the Game, Gosford follows a hunting weekend amongst the upper and lower classes on an English country estate. But unlike Downton, it is mostly the upper class peoples—who don’t work or contribute to much of anything—who intrigue, conspire, and destroy. Witty and charming, but with dashes of menace and the coming doom, this movie accomplishes more storylines than 12 hours of Downton. Altman was a master storyteller, and this is his best film since Short Cuts.

A haunting rumination on two decimated lives.

Mysterious Skin—The Enfant terrible of 90s indie cinema, Greg Araki in the oughts produced one of the great movies about sex, love, and lost childhood. The story follows two boys who grow up to be disturbed men. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Neil, a heartless gay hustler prostituting himself without any care of the damage he’s inflicting on himself or others. Brady Corbet plays Brian, a sexually ambiguous loner obsessed with alien abductions. What connects their two stories is the abuse they both suffered at the hands of a predatory coach when they were children. Araki’s films always straddle the line between parody and art; here he manages to imbue the proceedings with a tawdry gloss, a stand-in for the boys’ fractured memories. The movie is creepy and almost surgical in its examination of disaffection, but above all, it’s a real heart-breaker.

A small-scale movie that is almost perfect in its wit and charm.

Rocket Science—A low budget gem. Rocket Science follows a stuttering young teenager who decides to join the debate team, while a star senior debater has lost his voice. A very sharp script and fine acting highlight the teenager’s attempts to overcome his stutter and achieve some kind of limited greatness. The material is handled with a subtle touch, such as the boy’s divorced parents or his mother’s doomed romance with the next door neighbor. Writer-director Jeffrey Blitz—the director behind the very fine Documentary Spellbound—handles his characters with warmth and acceptance. They’re quirky, but loved. Whipsmart, elegant and eccentric, like a great New Yorker short story.

The perfect American thriller with a Gallic twist.

20. Tell No One/After the Wedding/Amelie—A French adaptation of an American crime novel and the result is a visceral thriller made with aplomb. A doctor loses his wife in a horrible crime, and years later receives an email with video footage of his wife still alive. Attempting to see if the footage is real, he is soon gallivanting through France, dodging police and henchmen alike. It’s a white knuckle, pulse-pounding movie, streaking along like a comet.

Mads Mikkelson faced with a heart-rending decision in the moving After the Wedding.

After the Wedding—Susanne Bier is one of the bright spots from greater Scandinavia. She makes intense, moving dramas about people facing external danger and internal turmoil. She does melodrama in the age of globalization and she does it well. Mad Mikkelson plays a good-hearted do-gooder managing an orphanage in India. He is a reformed rake, and feels fatherly to one of the orphans in particular. But he is called back to Denmark by Jorgen, a wealthy businessman interested in donating to the orphanage. The culture shock isn’t all he has to face, however; the businessman has an agenda of his own. Mikkelson discovers he has a daughter with an ex, the current wife of Jorgen. A very fine movie. She would go on to make the excellent In a Better World.

A blast of whimsical romantic comedy, shot in a timeless corner of the Paris of your dreams.

Amelie—One of the great romantic comedies, taking place in a strange, parallel world of idiosyncratic synchronicity. Amelie is an eccentric, lonely French girl who decides to make the world a better place, one person at a time. She’s resourceful, clever, and shy, but when angered she is just as creative in her wrath. Filmed far from the Paris of riots and looting and street crime, here we have the quaint Paris of our dreams. Jeunet, with his writing partner Caro, made waves in the 1990s with Delicatessen and City of Lost Children, both engaging tales of whimsical weirdness, but slight. But Amelie is their best movie, as the skewered view of the world is Amelie’s, and the cutesy is touched by pain.

Best movies by decade: The 2000s (11-16)

7 Aug

A rich, exquisitely terrifying experience.

11. Tale of Two Sisters/Tristram Shandy—So. Fucking. Scary. South Korea became an enormous hot bed of cinema in the 2000s. Dozens of great movies and interesting directors emerged from what now seems like a movement in the French New Wave paradigm: J.S.E., Memories of Murder, Oldboy, 3-Iron, Chaser, Mother, I saw the Devil, Treeless Mountain, and Antarctic Journal, among others. South Korea had a hell of a decade. A Tale of Two Sisters is the most perversely gothic of the bunch, a claustrophobic scarefest that follows two sisters and their distant father, removed to the countryside, dealing with some unnamed tragedy while terrifying weirdness unfolds. Spooky things occur: weird visions, poltergeist, hauntings. The film is gorgeous, the colors rich and bold like a Renaissance painting. The frights rival the scariest of the J-horror movies infecting the world from Japan. Unnerving horror tinged with regret.

Inspired meta-comedy madness with life imitating art imitating life.

Tristam Shandy—My vote for the best comedy of the 2000s, a wry, very funny movie about the pitfalls of attempting to adapt an unfilmable novel, in this case Lawrence Sterne’s bizarre postmodern novel from the late 1700s. Steve Coogan is excellent—and wouldn’t be again until he made a sequel of sorts with The Trip—as himself, playing a vain, self-involved narcissus with a penchant for self-sabotage. Just as the novel is essentially Shandy failing in his attempts to explain his life in any sort of simple manner, so does Coogan’s navigation of his own life become more and more incomprehensible as the audience witnesses his self-destruction. As the filming becomes more and more difficult, Coogan’s personal life also begins to unravel. The movie makes its point; life, even simulated life, is so much bigger and more complicated than art.

Three young people navigate the immense changes to Italian life in the sixties, seventies, and eighties.

12. Best of Youth/Adaptation/In the Loop—A five-hour Italian television event released theatrically, and a kind of condensed period piece precursor to Mad Men. Best of Youth follows two brothers, Matteo and Nicola, through three decades of Italian life. They begin as young university students in the 1960s, backpacking through Europe, drinking too much, falling in and out of love. The catalyst to the plot is their attempt to save a mentally ill woman named Giorgia from a mental asylum. The fallout from this haunts them both for the remainder of their lives. Nicola becomes a doctor. Matteo joins the army. Physical distance becomes emotional distance. Political differences widen. The movie follows their lives into middle age. The tone is nostalgic, warm, and humane, but the movie’s approach is that of a mortician, examining the corpse of Italian society, one layer at a time. Sharp writing, good acting, solid direction, and an obsessive devotion to period details.

The performance of Cage’s career holds this postmodern farce together.

Adaptation—Writing as a form of madness. This, the best of the Spike Jonze-Charlie Kaufman films, offers an incredible performance from Nicolas Cage. He plays twin brothers, Donald and Charlie Kaufman, living in Hollywood. In the late 1990s, Charlie was hired to adapt a short non-fiction article called “The Orchid Thief.” But a severe writer’s block took hold, and Kaufman, at a loss, wrote himself, and his writerly struggles, into the screenplay. Adaptation is the result. This meta-comedy is a sophisticated information system, funny and complex, but at its core, the movie feels like an exercise in solipsism. The movie begins feeding on itself, and by the end the audience seems secondary to Kaufman’s own neurotic desire to be recognized. Funny, twisty, and complex, yes, but this type of movie can only be made once . . . and Kaufman has written a version of it three times. I loved it the first time, liked it the second, felt hoodwinked the third. The ending seems by design to invalidate the film, erase its good qualities. Still, Cage is very good, offering a more refined version of his amped up sardonic hero, every bit the star. (Strangely, soon after, Cage would give up his acting ambitions altogether, squandering the rest of the decade in trifle.)

Scabrous, barbarous wit at play in the corridors of power.

In the Loop—Hilarious, scathing, disturbing, unsettling and revealing. A group of low-level bureaucrats, with slight data manipulation, push two countries into war. In England, an under-the-radar secretary of state (played by the very talented Tom Hollander) slips up in a radio interview; he calls the looming war unforeseen. The director of communications, a bully named Malcolm, begins his damage control, while also working with a mid-level bureaucrat in the U.S. to facilitate the war. Characters exchange pithy and not-so-witty cutdowns as various factions stumble through meetings, press conferences, and hotel rooms. The whole thing watches like an updated Marx brothers movie, rapid-fire verbosity delivered in deadpan style. Some critics found the movie’s cynicism off-putting. Probably the best movie about the Iraq war.

Love is a dog from hell in this bleak, gripping drama of crime and canines.

13. Amores Perros/Master and Commander/The Lord of the Rings—A muscular new Mexican cinema. Following the Pulp Fiction format—three stories told out of order, but interlocking in a variety of ways—this film details three people and their relationships to dogs. The first is a tough teenager who falls into dog fighting; the second is a troubled married couple who lose their dog into the crawl space of their house; and the third is a lonely old man who looks after stray dogs as a way to find meaning and comfort in his solitude. The first and best collaboration between director Alejandro Unarritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga, Amores Perros is a visceral and thrilling movie that uses the characters’ relationships to their dogs as a method of scrutinizing contemporary Mexican society. Tragic and harrowing, but also (unlike their other films) compulsively watchable. Lean and sinewy as a junkyard dog.

Rousing high seas adventure from Aussie wonder Peter Weir.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World—I’ve always loved Peter Weir. Starting with Picnic at Hanging Rock, one of the creepiest movies ever made, to The Mosquito Coast and The Truman Show, he’s consistent, making beautiful, thought-provoking movies. Here he delivers a rousing sea adventure, with Russell Crowe as Captain Jack Aubrey, pursued and pursuing a clever French captain on the open seas. Aubrey’s best friend, Maturin (played by Paul Bettany) is also his foil, as the two debate and argue over ever aspect of the ship. The backdrop is the Napoleonic Wars, but the two ships soon find themselves in a cat and mouse game around the island of Galapagos. And it is here, where Darwin would make his big discoveries, that Aubrey and Maturin have their biggest debate. The details of the innerworkings of a ship are minute and carefully observed. The creak of the ship, the make of the muskets, the cut of the costumes—it is an exercise in perfecting the small things. Perhaps not a lasting work of art, but superior entertainment.

Hobbits everywhere and the film would be lost without them.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy—An epic, teeth-rattling exercise. Underground horror comedy director Peter Jackson adapts the great Tolkein trilogy into nine hours of (mostly) rich, buttery, exciting confection. Jackson understands the material, and has the (very difficult) skill of balancing the characters against the epic sweep. New Zealand helps, binding the three movies with a gorgeous, and at times forbidding, set of panoramic backdrops. The cast is very strong, making some of the sillier lines believable. The Two Towers is the strongest of the three, in large part due to Brad Dourif’s astonishing performance as Wormtongue, the human turncoat who realizes he has betrayed his human race too late. But the storyline opens up in Towers, full of a cosmic majesty, and the Battle at Helm’s Deep is a landmark sequence in film history, a grueling 30 plus minutes of sword and sorcery action. The third film is too long, with some aspects that should have been cut (especially the army of the dead). But Towers feels just right. The films are linked by a sweeping, grand look. A financial juggernaut, yes, but also a great set of movies.

The cult movie of the decade, scary and touching study of disaffected youth. And time travel. And the possible end of the world.

14. Donnie Darko/Sugar/The Squid and the Whale—The best cult film of the 2000s, a failure upon its release and now a roaring giant that outshines its creator. Donnie Darko is a disaffected teenager in the 1980s, a somnambulist who scares his teachers with his intellect and mystifies his family with his strangeness. He dreams of a giant silver rabbit that tells him when the world is going to end, and the rest of the movie lurches towards this peculiar apocalypse. A great cast and a superior soundtrack help, but the film is ambiguous to what is actually happening; it teases you into extrapolation, but resists interpretation. I’ve watched it a number of times and I’m left with the impression that Darko is being manipulated by the adults, but it isn’t clear why. Director Richard Kelly, after Darko, would lose his way, falling into decadent and incoherent trash.

The story of what happens after you fail.

Sugar—Sports films tend to be stories of redemption. They highlight the superior skills of the athlete in question, usually juxtaposed with personal shortcomings. But what of the athletes who are merely good and not great? Sugar follows a young Dominican Republic baseball player trying to break into the major leagues. He begins pitching for a farm league team in Iowa, and as a stranger in a strange land, slowly realizes that he is not good enough to make it in the pros. What follows is a beautiful, taut little movie that feels both epic and personal. The power of failure is palpable, and can transform a no-future athlete into something else. )Co-directors Boden and Fleck also made Half-Nelson, the movie that inspired me to become a teacher. They’re superb realists, throwbacks to Hal Ashby and Bob Rafaelson.) The best sports movie ever made.

Filmmaking as a method of exorcising family demons, and funny as hell.

The Squid and the Whale—Noah Baumbach, after making the interesting if dated Kicking and Screaming, lost some years to the Hollywood machine. He co-wrote The Life Aquatic with Wes Anderson, and then made this, a scathing portrait of bad parenting in New York City. Baumbach uses his own life story, following a few months in the life of a troubled, pretentious teenager’s parents break up. His younger brother chooses his mom, played by Laura Linney, while he opts for his father, played by Jeff Daniels. The scenes are short and the script is laced with strychnine. Jesse Eisenberg is excellent as Baumbach’s stand-in, awkward and smarmy and full of self-loathing. Alongside Adventureland. C.R.A.Z.Y. and Rocket Science, this is the finest coming of age movie of the decade.

A sterling coming out and coming of age film.

15. C.R.A.Z.Y./Barbarian Invasions/Soul Kitchen—A great film. From Canada. It can happen. A repressed, closeted gay boy in French speaking Canada and his relationship with his cool, macho dad. The movie has style to spare, a great soundtrack and head-scratching touches of French-Canadian culture. But there’s an underlying mysticism at the heart of the movie, that provides this coming of age and coming out tale that special something that so many great movies have. What could have been a middlebrow melodrama becomes something powerful and strange. Truly excellent.

The decline of western civilization through the eyes of a dying history professor.

Barbarian Invasions—This sequel to the very fine (if a touch dated) The Decline of the American Empire picks up 15 or so years later with the same group of characters. This time, Remy, the history professor, is dying of cancer. The film follows Remy’s son attempting to make his father’s death as painless and meaningful as possible. His attempts to do so force him to navigate the entire spectrum of contemporary Canadian society—the buckling socialized hospitals; the underground drug trade; the empty churches; the meandering lack of a common goal or purpose. A brilliant movie about confronting death with courage and resolve, as well as facing the hard banalities of a secular society unsure of its own values.

A great feel-good comedy, of food and finding your way through the world.

Soul Kitchen—Those Germans, god they’ve been making great films. Directed by Fatih Akin, one of the rising stars of German cinema, Soul Kitchen follows Zinos, a struggling owner of a rundown diner in Hamburg. He is the cook, the accountant and the promoter, and he is horrible at all three. The movie follows his misadventures in the restaurant trade, as he tries to reinvent both himself and his little diner into something he can be proud of. A very funny, touching comedy, made with absolute control. One of those movies you can watch over and over again.

Von Trier’s damning, and damned good, indictment of these United States.

16. Dogville/The Boss of It All—Lars Von Trier’s antics have resulted in a bad reputation. It’s a shame, because his films are on the whole intriguing, even fun to watch, and even his misfires (I speak of Antichrist, which is just miserable and Manderlay, which is just bad) are worthwhile. Dogville is his first stab at the heart of America. The film is set in the old South; the whole thing is filmed on a clear sound stage with no houses or doors, just tapelines signifying where things rest. A strange woman wanders into a small town. She’s fleeing men who mean her harm. The townspeople help her at first, but soon begin extracting larger and larger payments from her. Superior, but disturbing.

A hilarious comedy by the bleakest Scandinavian on the block.

The Boss of it AllThe Boss of It All is a comedy, and it’s funny as hell. A cowardly business owner manages his employees with a fake boss to avoid confrontation. But when his business is confronted with an acquisition by an Icelandic company, he hires a pretentious actor to play the boss. The actor, so dedicated to the role, begins to destroy the company’s morale in a series of hilariously awkward scenes. I cannot recommend this little movie enough.

Best films by decade: The 2000s (6-10)

6 Aug

The tiny little robotic savior of the human race.

6. Wall-E/Werckmeister Harmonies—A wonder. Wall-E is the last of the garbage gathering robots, left behind by the humans who abandoned Earth to an environmental end-times event. Wall-E spends his days roaming an urban wasteland with his only friend, a cockroach, making enormous mounds of compacted trash, and his evenings watching old movies and marveling at the cast-off products of the now absent human race. Through his eyes, we get to rediscover the immense magnitude of the human imagination. But his discovery of a small sapling, followed by meeting an advanced searcher robot Eve, whisks the shy little robot away on a cosmic mission to save the last humans, grown lethargic and sickly through inactivity. The result is a love story, a comedy, a science fiction thriller, and a space odyssey of the first order. The best film from Pixar, which is high praise indeed.

Confronting the problem of evil and suffering in the dense but spectacular Werckmeister Harmonies.

Werckmeister Harmonies—A wonder of a different sort. Bela Tarr isn’t for everyone, and many of his movies aren’t for me, either. He’s slow, ponderous and often intent on punishing the viewer with glacial pacing. He’s similar to Tarkovsky—operating with a very different cinematic language than the one we’re used to—with the same dedication to his art and craft. Satantango is almost eight hours, with incredibly long shots of cows and pastures; The Man from London is a thriller with no thrills; but Werckmeister Harmonies is stunning. It’s beautiful, moving, unsettling and even scary as hell. The movie follows a youngish man with strange, perhaps mystical talents, as he and his fellow townspeople are invaded by a traveling circus populated with eerie freaks. The town falls apart with the circus presence, led by a shadowy figure called the prince, transforms them into a mob of rapists and murderers. The movie is an astonishing piece of formalism, the whole shebang something like nine or ten long takes. It’s a superb film, but also trying and bleak. Not for the faint of heart, but for those willing, an unforgettable movie experience.

Sexual yearning and obsessive love painted with bold Spanish colors.

7. Talk to Her/Volver—Almodovar emerged as one of the major artists of the decade with three fabulous films and a handful of very good ones. Talk To Her is his most serious movie, following two men and their obsessive love for their women. It’s a great movie, a real tearjerker, and a departure from his usual garish style. Some of his fans didn’t like it, but I believe it was the beginning of a renaissance in his career. He made Bad Education next, a twisty little thriller about sexual abuse in Catholic schools in Spain, and the ruined sexuality of the little boys grown up. Bad Education is a very good movie, complex and tricky, but Volver is a great film.

Penelope Cruz gives her best performance of her impressive career in Volver.

Volver—follows Penelope Cruz, a battered housewife who kills her bully of a husband and then sets out to start over a new life for herself. She takes over a closed restaurant, and it’s clear that Almodovar has taken the basic premise of Mildred Pierce, but allowed for his heroine to carve out meaning and success instead of failure and regret. Cruz gives the performance of her career, and the movie feels like an Iberian hybrid of James Cain and Douglas Sirk.

Portrait of a crumbling family or a cunning, barely concealed evil?

8. Capturing the Freidmans/Fog of War/Bowling for Columbine—Documentaries before the 2000s, with a few exceptions, were guided by a firm set of rules. They looked plain. They resolved their conflicts with talking head interviews and often bland voice-overs. They lacked style. All of this changed in the oughts, and half a dozen other documentaries could justifiably be on the list. Capturing the Friedmans is a bold exploration of a crime, its consequences for a community and family, and the delusions, lies, and false memories that carry misinformation along. At the center of the film is the accusation of a horrible crime. Arnold Friedman, a bookish computer tutor caught with child pornography, is accused of abusing his students in a series of bizarre sexual games. Through testimony and old family videos, the filmmaker examines the collective derangement that can seize hold of an entire town. The truth is lost, and regained, by the end of the movie. Unbelievable.

The architect of the Vietnam War explains what he’s learned from his mistakes.

The Fog of War—The Fog of War is a superb examination of U.S. foreign policy during the Vietnam War, juxtaposed with the invasion of Iraq, through the voice of Robert McNamara. Called by some the architect of Vietnam War—including Halberstam in his book The Best and the Brightest—McNamara is intelligent, charming, learned, and almost wise. The lessons he’s learned through his former mistakes are illuminating, chilling, haunting. His mercurial intelligence leads him into some harsh self-scrutiny, and by the movie’s end his inner demons—those goddamned regrets—are exposed. Directed by the great Errol Morris, a fantastic stylist and a superb interviewer.

Michael Moore gets a gun in a bank, and examines our hysterical, and terrifying, contradictions.

Bowling for Columbine—Michael Moore is the best political filmmaker we have, a satirizing humorist with a surgeon’s eye for obscure film clips. Here he investigates America’s internal contradictions through the massacre at Columbine high school. He’s tendentious, scabrous even, and unafraid to make bold, sweeping claims. The movie sort of falters right near the end, but in its sweep and tone, it captures the feeling of the early 2000s in the way that is indispensable. It’s funny, shocking, but always entertaining. Unforgettable.

A film of lust, yearning and unparalleled beauty.

9. In the Mood for Love/Cache—An unabashed blast of romantic yearning. Wong Kar-Wai is one of the great filmmakers, but he’s made a number of mediocre films. This is, alongside Chungking Express, his best film, a beautiful meditation on lust and almost-love. Two neighbors discover their respective spouses have left them for each other. They re-enact their ex-lovers’ courting, and begin a sly courtship of their own. The simplicity of the story belies the magic, the titillating artifice, the glamour and the period details that make this a bewitching movie experience. Moody, erotic, and powerful.

History isn’t just in the past, it carries an axe.

Cache—The turning point for Haneke, and his first great film. The movie begins with a four-minute shot of an exterior apartment. The calm steadiness of the shot first makes you squirm, then scrutinize. You begin to look for meaning. The shot, it turns out, is a videotape sent to a struggling married couple, and it’s the outside of their apartment. It’s a riff on David Lynch’s Lost Highway—Haneke is a self-professed big Lynch fan—although Haneke moves his movie into a very different direction. The video tugs at the strands of their relationship, sending the husband into his childhood memories, and into the collective guilt of France. Haneke uses his old obsessions—human cruelty, casual violence, the audience’s duplicitousness with the onscreen nastiness—to scrutinize a not-so-decent man under the microscope. A deeply unsettling and disturbing movie experience, but the first time Haneke uses his vast talents to do more than shock and satirize; here he also tells a moving story.

Two men spend their lives pursuing an elusive killer. With kung fu and jokes.

10. Memories of Murder/The Host/Wolf Creek—Bong Joon-ho is the best of a very talented bunch of South Korean film directors, with three superior films under his belt (Mother is the third). The first was Memories of Murder, a South Korean Zodiac, the story of the first serial killer of the fledgling republic and the men who obsess over catching him. It’s haunting, thrilling, scary, and at times hilarious. Like Zodiac, the movie unfolds in docudrama style, ensnaring the viewer with the same labyrinthine complexity of a real murder case. Great acting, superior pacing.

A mutated sucker fish amok in South Korea, and one hell of a wild ride.

The HostJoon-ho’s second film is a monster movie of the finest order, probably the best of its kind since Jaws. The movie follows a city besieged by a mutated sucker fish gone amok, and an eccentric, in-fighting family trying to rescue their little sister from its lair. The same funny/scary/thrilling tone is there—and this is the hardest tone for a movie to sustain—and the movie ratchets up the unsettling discomfort into a climax of fog and fire. Much better than it sounds.

Nature offers little solace, aiding and abetting a vicious psychopathic killer.

Wolf Creek—Australia has for three decades had a strong film culture, and the 2000s were no exception. (The excellent documentary Not Quite Hollywood documents, hilariously, the country’s turn toward genre filmmaking in the 1970s.) The Box was superb, Animal Kingdom was good, but Wolf Creek was near perfection. This nightmarish horror film—think The Texas Chainsaw Massacre meets Picnic at Hanging Rock—is as much about the obliterating power of nature as it is about the perverse inner sickness that lurks in the hearts of evil men. Three students making their way through the outback breakdown near a giant crater in the desert. They are rescued by a jolly redneck, who tricks them into a murderous cat and mouse game. The movie’s viciousness is balanced by the director’s superior technical skills and a sumptuous painter’s eye for the rugged land. Beauty can eviscerate. Nature can destroy. Fascinating and intense.

Best films by decade: The 2000s (intro and movies 1-5)

3 Aug

If the movies of the seventies were glum and dilapidated; the eighties overblown and reactionary; the nineties garish and silly; the 2000s were sincere and unpredictable.

The decade began with commercial planes crashing into high rise buildings in New York; it ended with robotic planes reigning missiles onto villages in the desert sands. It started with Bush and ended with Obama. From boom to bust, the cycle of American capitalism kept spinning.

September 11 haunts the 2000s, a spectral shadowy ghost. The decade can only be understood through the attack and subsequent U.S. response. America flexed its muscles abroad. At home, we grappled with the nasty realities of life that we had been inoculated against for so long. The violence, the suffering, the uncertainty that so much of the world has to deal with was now a part of the daily American experience. Every movie, at home and abroad, seemed to be asking the same question: What does it mean to be American? And just what is America?

The big entertainment story of the 2000s was television. The Wire, The Shield, Arrested Development, Breaking Bad, Deadwood, Mad Men, Generation Kill, John Adams and The Office are all superb—and superior—entertainments that take the best of movies and combine these with the best of television. The result is an astonishing variety of shows that utilize the language of films, the patience of novels and the length of TV. The comedies got smarter, the dramas more cinematic. Internet-based movie sites allowed fans to watch television shows in huge chunks. Shows that failed, like Arrested Development, developed fan bases after being canceled. The paradigm of television changed.

There were two movie stories. The first was a tidal wave of foreign films, where directors around the world caught the moviemaking bug and, finally, eclipsed their American counterparts. It was the uptick of globalism, a cross-pollination of cinematic ideas.

World cinema re-emerged. Iran and South Korea birthed dozens of great filmmakers, and Germany/Austria stamped the decade with an astonishing output of films. Greater Scandinavia finally stepped out of the shadow of Ingmar Bergman, and Denmark in particular produced a crop of fantastic new filmmakers. Australia re-emerged with a newfound dedication to top-notch genre filmmaking.

Back in the States, the movies were relying more and more on special effects. Streaming movies online started as an oddity and ended the decade as the norm. U.S. movie companies responded with bombastic technique, pushing first big blockbuster movies with budgets that rival some small countries’ GDP, and then later with 3D.  Advances in technology allowed for superheroes to enter the fray, and they soon became a dominant force, crowding out other types of films. What was uncool, even fringe, became popular.

The U.S. filmmaking technique remains incredibly high—even our bad films are often very well made—but what’s often missing is daring, interesting writing, strangeness.

Still, some very fine U.S. movies appeared. The mavericks from the 1970s were still around: Spielberg, Scorsese, even Coppola returned to make a few films. And the filmmakers of the 1990s—Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher and Greg Araki, too—delivered on the early promise of their careers.

The second major movie story was documentaries. Digital film allowed for outsiders, skilled amateurs and old pros to make smaller, cheaper films. There was an explosion of documentaries—partly fueled by the reality TV boom that began in the mid-1990s—on a variety of subjects. I’ve excluded documentaries from my lists so far—they often feel starchy and affected to me, in a way that a great movie is not—but in the 2000s there were so many good ones that I had to include three.

Hollywood has always vacillated between two polar extremes: the lightweight superficiality of Los Angeles—sun-drenched happy people, middle brow melodramas and the unbearable lightness of living in a place with no past, only future. And the gritty artiness of New York—existential cops and drug addicts, struggling actors and the distinct weight of living in the entryway into America and the American dream. It’s new wealth versus old money, the suburbs versus the city. (The rural has never had much of a voice, or a presence, in Hollywood.)

The films of the oughts hovered between these two polar extremes, as did I. After graduating college, I went to my first job as an editor. I left Montgomery for Atlanta, Atlanta for Spain, Spain for Iowa, and Iowa for Chicago. I scrounged and scrimped. I roamed and I rambled. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I collected rejections. I watched too many movies. I started multiple careers. I got married. I even had a child.

Tough, stoic, piercing, beautiful, each frame a master class in moviemaking.

1. Army of Shadows/The White Ribbon—The best film of the 2000s was originally released in the 1960s, but never in the States. It’s Jean Pierre-Melville’s best film, high praise indeed, a beautiful and devastating exploration of the French Resistance during World War II. The Resistance fighters descend into a morally murky world, soon not fighting the Nazi occupiers at all; by movie’s end, they are essentially killing each other off to prevent any leaks to the enemy. The great Lino Ventura plays the lead with a world-weary stoicism, so deadpan that even when he’s killing Nazi soldiers he barely blinks. Each shot could be an Edward Hopper painting. The movie uses a number of techniques, including interior monologues, long tracking shots and shadowy lighting, and has some harrowing scenes, including multiple executions. But the movie unfolds with such a serene beauty—at times it feels like the visual equivalent of a Bach violin concerto—that the treacherous, violent world of the French Resistance feels radiant.

Darkness at the edge of town. A tour through small-town hell.

The White Ribbon— Director Michel Haneke appeared on the scene in the late 1980s, and made many interesting films. They shared a number of traits, including vicious characters, pointless violence, and beautiful compositions that mask a detached view of human depravity. I find his early films to be mechanical, cold, and annoying. His take on Kafka is humorless and pressed clean of eroticism (although dimpled with sex). Funny Games is brutal and brutalizing, unsubtle and punishing to the viewer. Then he made the excellent Cache (number 9 on the list). But nothing prepared movie fans for The White Ribbon, a somber, meditative black and white movie on a mysterious series of escalating crimes in a German village before World War I. The movie unfolds at a calm, measured pace, but the subject matter is so unsettling that it feels like a pulpy thriller. There are a few hundred people in the village, including a young tailor (narrating from some future time), his love interest, a misanthropic doctor, his two children, and a number of peasant farmers. The craft of the film is enthralling, and while watching it’s hard to find your moral bearings. Mistreated by the adults, the children begin to mistreat each other. There’s a causal chain of violence, intimidation, manipulation and exploitation. There are suicides and a murder, a bird is impaled ritualistically and a horse is killed. It’s a ghastly small town gothic with socio-political undercurrents. Haneke’s argument, by movie’s end, is clear: the heady stew of oppressive religiosity, racial purity, ethnic intolerance, and crippling poverty results in nothing less than the Nazi party. One to haunt your dreams.

The new pillar of fire—oil—in Paul Thomas Anderson’s best film.

2. There Will Be Blood/The Lives of Others—Paul Thomas Anderson emerged in the early ’90s as a filmmaker with superior talents. Every film was superb, but his adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s Oil is his best film so far, a riveting character study of a driven misanthrope mad for oil prospecting. Daniel Day-Lewis stars as Daniel Plainview, an unscrupulous oilman who begins prospecting on the land of the Sunday family. The teenage son, Eli, is a local fundamentalist preacher, and soon Eli and Plainview are working each against the other for control of the land, the oil, and the hearts and minds of the people of their west Texas town. Anderson’s images are so strong, he makes the whole moviemaking thing seem so easy, and he gets excellent performances from his actors. Anderson’s argument is clear: Oil is money is power. And religion is influence is power is money. And the two together is this country we call America. Feels classic and contemporary at the same time, an amalgamation of all of Anderson’s influences. You can see John Ford and Robert Altman, Orson Welles and Ingmar Bergman, Antonioni and Renoir and Kazan and just about every other great filmmaker since the Lumiere brothers first captured those happy people on the beach.

The dangers of being passive in service to the evil state; you lose your humanity.

The Lives of Others (2006)—Greater Germany—I’m including Austria—had a banner decade. The White Ribbon, Revanche, Downfall, Soul Kitchen, The Beider Meinhoff Complex, and Mostly Martha all came out the 2000s, and every film on this list is an absolute smash. The Lives of Others is the tidiest and most theatrical of the films, made with warmth and love. It follows a stony Stasi agent assigned to ruin the life and career of a well-known East German playwright.  The playwright’s girlfriend is a great stage actress who has been forced into a sexual relationship with a high-ranking East German official. The Stasi agent’s slow realization that the state apparatus he works for is not only flawed but also evil is a wonder of writing and acting. The thawing out of his soul is one of the great stories of redemption. The best thing about this movie, however, is the pacing. The best dramas play out like thrillers, and this movie turns white knuckle before the end.

A devastating portrait of a couple falling in and out of love.

3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind/Zodiac—Charlie Kaufman often misfires. He’s wordy, precious, self-involved and more interested in internal digressions than telling a good story. (Look at the endings of his movies; they are almost all an unraveling of the story you just spent two hours watching. Synecdoche, New York is a criminal theft of the audience’s time.) He’s clever, often funny and has plenty of ideas, but he’s also solipsistic and, well, annoying. But here, with director Michel Gondry (who carries a predilection towards silliness), Kaufman wrote a great script with an idea ripped from a Philip K. Dick short story. A service will delete an ex-lover from your memory, leaving only tiny little ghosts of that person’s existence. Jim Carrey plays Joel, a man whose impulsive girlfriend, played by Kate Winslett, has paid for the service and had every memory of him surgically removed. Crushed, he decides to do the same, but in the middle of the process, he tries to hold on to the fleeting moments. What follows is a terrifying, and often very funny, surreal journey through his distorted memories. They’re subplots, some great acting, and a devastating portrait of a relationship falling apart. The movie is as visually inventive as the script, with disappearing walls and repeating patterns in libraries and streets. It really feels like peering into someone’s fragile mind, watching the tiny little lights go out. I wish Kaufman had made three films with Gondry instead of Spike Jonze.

The beautiful and terrifying true story of San Francisco’s most notorious serial killer.

Zodiac—The best film ever made about the police mind at work and the intricacy of investigative processes. Director extraordinaire David Fincher recreates the various personalities obsessing over the Zodiac murders in 1970s San Francisco. He cuts no corners, jamming the audience into the morass of paperwork and red tape, the competing law enforcement agencies and the messiness of solving a complicated case. The murder scenes are conducted with technical panache and a slavish devotion to the facts. The result is a movie that feels like the best of documentary and fiction. Fincher is the best craftsman we have, and when he has good material, he is a marvel. This is great material, with a great cast, including Mark Ruffalo, Jake Gyllenhall, Robert Downey, Jr. and Elias Koteas. A crime can shape a city in profound ways.

An artist’s heart, a pianist’s hands, and a gangster’s brain.

4. The Beat That My Heart Skipped/Pusher III—A French adaptation of the 1970s American cult film Fingers, and it’s absolutely stunning. Roman Duris, one of the busiest and best French actors, plays a disturbed young man working as a strong arm for his thuggish, unscrupulous father. His real love, however, is music, something he gave up long ago. But when he stumbles onto a piano tutor, he slides back into his real passion. With one foot in two worlds, he struggles with the existential weight of rehabilitating his soul with music. Meanwhile, his father comes to loggerheads with stone cold gangsters. The original is quirky, intriguing, and ahead of its time, but loses its footing halfway through. The French movie improves on the original’s mistakes. Durain does an excellent job playing an artist who has lost his art, a thug with a nagging conscience. As he rediscovers his gift for music—and the failures that accompany any art—he tries to remove himself from his father’s life. Audiard, the director, went on to make Un Prophet, another very fine crime film.

A drug-addicted middleman in a bewilderingly violent universe.

Pusher III: I Am the Angel of Death—The middle Pusher movie follows Tony, released from prison into an unforgiving world. Tony is a drug addict, cretin and creep, but Mads Mikkelson plays him with a warm humanity, and you end up cheering for him. But the episodic nature of the movie—each scene ends with Tony enduring some new humiliation—makes this the weakest of the three movies. But with Pusher III, director Refn delivers the strongest in the series. Mid-level Drug kingpin Milo—Frank’s enemy in the first movie and sort of lurking around the edges of the second—takes center stage, following 24 hours in his rough and tumble life. Refn frames the drug trade as a high stakes bureaucratic affair, and Milo is in trouble. He receives a shipment of new drugs. A young turk tries to rip him off. His daughter is getting married. He is fighting off his own drug addiction. And some old underworld types are making life difficult for him. And, perhaps worst of all, he’s a terrible cook, and slated to make the food for his daughter’s wedding. Refn mines each small situation for immense tension, and by the end of the film it’s almost unbearable. But there’s humor, too, much more than the first two films, a loosening up. Zlatko Buric, who plays Milo, delivers a sterling performance of a violent man trying to be a decent human being, trying and failing. Unforgettable.

The youth of Brazil, armed and running wild.

5. City of God/Mulholland Drive—A glittering diamond of a gangster film, beautiful, rousing, rambunctious, tragic and sad. Based on a true story, City of God follows a group of young poor Brazilians as they splinter into drug dealers, gangsters, murderers and thieves. The lead is a shy aspiring photographer who winds up, through his childhood group of friends, ensconced in a gang war between rival factions of drug dealers in the slums of Brazil. The movie lurches backwards and forwards in time, using every cinematic trick in the book, and the result is a genre-shattering work of iconoclasm. It’s a more stylized, adult-oriented Pixote—with an absolutely smashing soundtrack—but the hardship of the homeless children, the casual violence, and the petty strivings of the street urchins make City of God one of the best movies of the decade.

The nocturnal side of the dream life, a winding, craggy road through the Hollywood hills.

Mulholland Drive—A return to weird greatness from David Lynch. Lost Highway was an intriguing movie, marred by an overcooked visual style (percolating down from the world of music video that saturated the 90s; parts of Highway look like a Marilyn Manson video). But Highway has its acolytes, and it is a very disturbed movie-going experience. Straight Story was next, a major departure for Lynch and is mostly a success. Mulholland, however, was to be Lynch’s return to television. The first hour or so is the pilot. When the network passed on the project, Lynch took the footage, shot an extra hour or so, and then released it as a film. It’s a quintessential story of Hollywood, movies and acting. (Lynch reveals his hand having Penelope Ann Miller play the super of an apartment building.) The dream logic of the movie can only be understood through the quest for fame. Naomi Watts delivers a star-turning role as a woman bent on becoming a famous actress. She finds in her aunt’s Hollywood apartment a naked woman with no memory of how she got there. Along the way there are gangsters, hitmen, a dream that can kill you, and a theatre with a live show that can drive you mad. Lynch changes the rules once again. Magical, frustrating, and jaw-dropping. It must be experienced.