Thursday, December 31, 2009

Review Of The Decade Part 1: 100 Best Films

100. Primer (Shane Carruth, 2004, UK release 2005)
This low-budget, hugely claustrophobic science fiction feature, brilliantly and mercilessly concise at just 78 minutes, suggests there is still life in independent American film-making. It’s ostensibly about a well-worn movie subject - time travel, but there is something mysterious, elusive and intriguing at its core. The physics is no doubt questionable I’m sure.

99. Brick (Rian Johnson, 2005, UK release, 2006)
I am a bit of a sucker for a good high school movie, for there is no more competitive, political and claustrophobic an environment than a school. ‘Brick’ was a devious, imaginative and, it must be admitted, slightly geeky take on the genre. In combining the high school movie with sleuth noir, this could easily have turned out to be a sterile formal exercise, or a whimsical conceit. However, the energy and spirit with which Johnson carried out this high-minded exercise in lowbrow film-making rendered it immensely enjoyable.

98. Dodgeball (Rawson Marshall Thurber, 2004)
Some will probably assume this film is in here merely to prove that I’m not an arthouse cinema snob. To some extent, that’s probably true, but I do genuinely love this film. It’s one of those great comedies where the gags get better with familiarity and Ben Stiller’s performance as the repulsive caricature White Goodman may be his finest achievement to date. Completely silly, of course, but we can all use some levity from time to time.

97. The Queen (Stephen Frears, 2006)
Here is a film I would never have expected to like in a million years – but somehow Stephen Frears and Peter Morgan’s speculative examination on the inner life of the monarch following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales is fascinating. It’s also a politically astute film, demonstrating the shrewd opportunism of Tony Blair (that great impersonation from Michael Sheen).

96. Wild Combination – A Portrait of Arthur Russell (Matt Wolf, 2008)
95. The Devil and Daniel Johnston (Jeff Feurzeig, 2005, UK release 2006)
These two films are the most personal, revealing and intelligent of many documentary profiles of musicians released during the decade. Jeff Feurzeig’s documentary is first and foremost an affecting portrayal of a troubled individual, but it also makes a valiant attempt at explaining Johnton’s appeal as an artist, in spite of his lack of technical ability, to the relatively uninitiated. Matt Wolf does a brilliant job given the relative paucity of footage of Arthur Russell performing – and his labour of love film has played a major part in the rediscovery of Russell and his music over the last few years. There is something particularly moving about the contributions from Russell’s parents.

94. Red Lights (Cedric Kahn, 2004)
Kahn is an adaptable and assured film-maker and this adaptation of a Georges Simenon novel is full of uncomfortable tension. It’s a tight, carefully orchestrated thriller that deserved a wider audience. It will be interesting to see what Kahn does next.

93. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michael Gondry, 2004)
The romantic comedy is such a debased genre now that it’s always a revelation when a film turns up and fulfils the brief with wit and imagination. Gondry’s surrealist and absurdist take is joyful and ingenious, with a typically intellectual, game playing script from Charlie Kaufman. All the manipulations could easily become irritating were it not for the charming and unsentimental performances from Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet. Indeed, by way of contrast, Gondry’s subsequent film, ‘The Science of Sleep’ amplified all of the quirks without any of the substance, and may well be one of the most infuriating films of the decade.

92. Belleville Rendezvous (Sylvain Chomet, 2002, UK release 2003)
Chomet’s playful animation is full of bright ideas, visual humour, caricatures of stereotypes and warm invention. It is an absolute joy to watch.

91. The Constant Gardener (Fernando Meirelles, 2005)
This is, I think, a greatly superior film to Meirelles ‘City of God’. That film, whilst exciting and impressively made, threatened to glamorise the violence of street youth living in depravation in the favelas of Sao Paolo. ‘The Constant Gardner’ is a taut, entertaining thriller with a strong ethical heart. It is an impassioned film.

90. Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004)
As brilliant as Channel 4’s comedy ‘Spaced’ was, few could have expected its creators to go on to make a sprightly paced parody of a zombie movie with a razor sharp script, plenty of brilliant jokes. Even fewer could have expected it to be quite so successful – a fact that suggests British audiences prefer intelligent comedy to the lowest common denominator material routinely churned out.

89. The Sun (Alexander Sokurov, 2005)
I’m more than a little bemused by the films of Alexander Sokurov, which are largely very slow, fuzzy and impressionistic. I have to admit I loathed the highly acclaimed ‘Russian Ark’ – its one 90 minute shot technical achievement was remarkable, but it really was little more than a tour through the Hermitage museum, complete with historical reconstructions and lavish costumes. This, for me, does not make for a good piece of cinema. Much more interesting is this bizarre, deeply mysterious portrait of the downfall of Hirohito. The film presents Hirohito as isolated and perhaps mad, and it brilliantly captures the sense of a deluded divine God realising that his divinity is temporary.

88. Together (Lukas Moodysson, 2000, UK release 2001)
‘Together’ is the slightly better of Moodysson’s initial breezy feelgood films, shot through with humane charm and empathy. A hippy commune is a ripe target, of course, but Moodysson’s film is gentler and more sensitive than simply an all-out attack. It is brilliantly funny, but finds room also for anxiety, loneliness and thwarted love.

87. Knocked Up (Judd Apatow, 2007)
The films of Judd Apatow, often dismissed in some quarters as macho or juvenile, are actually rather sweet, sensitive and entertaining pictures. Bizarrely, this film prompted protests from pro-choice campaigners on the grounds that it was anti-abortion. Clearly, this was not the film’s concern – had there been a termination early on, the film would have been cut crudely short, or may well have become a decidedly more melancholy and reflective picture. Instead, it’s a deeply enjoyable, frequently thoughtful look at how to manage a supposedly unwanted pregnancy, and a real affirmation of the abilities of human beings to change and mature through experience.

86. Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009)
Arnold’s ‘Red Road’ is much admired but, for me, a flawed film with laudable ambitions. ‘Fish Tank’ is the feature that has really established her as a director to watch – and it is a film of great empathy and powerful observation. Arnold creates a brilliant sense of restriction and claustrophobia – and the desire for escape in the teenage Mia is palpable.

85. Mysterious Skin (Gregg Araki, 2004, UK release 2005)
This may be too relentlessly bleak a film even for me, but I include it here because of the major transition it might mark in the careers of Gregg Araki and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. It was Levitt’s first really substantial role, and he handles the difficult material adroitly and convincingly. For Araki, it was a step away from doomed generation cliché, and lightweight movie making into something more powerful and genuinely confrontational.

84. Sicko (Michael Moore, 2007)
Yes Moore is crude, crass, patronising and misleading. He is not a documentary maker, but a polemicist. Some of his more grandstanding claims are ludicrous – and, even in this film there are plenty of them (the lauding of the ‘perfect’ health systems of Britain and France and, even worse, the admiration of Cuba). However, intelligent viewers who are able to distinguish the valid points from the glaring holes should still be affected by the real human stories he brings to his films. The amount of suffering that the American insurance-based system has caused is nothing short of scandalous, and Moore is right to highlight its failings for the vulnerable.

83. Vera Drake (Mike Leigh, 2004, UK release 2005)
It’s usual for Mike Leigh films to be superbly acted – but Imelda Staunton’s performance in this is one of the greatest performances in a British film this decade. It is impossible not to become immersed in her story. A cup of tea, it would appear, can’t quite solve everything.

82. My Summer of Love (Pawel Pawlikowski, 2004)
Pawel Pawlikowski’s second film neatly balances a tender intimacy with danger and confrontation. It’s beautiful to watch and blessed with effortlessly natural performances from Natalie Press and Emily Blunt.

81. Lilya-4-Ever (Lukas Moodysson, 2002, UK release 2003)
This disturbing, upsetting film relies solely on spiritual images of angels and ideas of ascension for levity. It represented a sharp turn for Moodysson, previously the maker of gentle and charming films such as ‘Together’. ‘Lilya’ is an entirely different beast, a bleak tale of abandonment, depravation and desperation in youth. Unfortunately, it seemed to lead Moodysson up an experimental cul-de-sac as his subsequent features dealt in pretentious posturing and gonzo pornography.

80. Gomorrah (Matteo Garrone, 2008)
I need to watch this film for a second time, for its labyrinthine portrayal of the Neopolitan mafia is difficult to follow. These story strands are careful to include the real life cost of the Camorra’s activities, and this film has a shocking and powerful impact.

79. Turtles Can Fly (Bahman Ghobadi, 2005, UK release 2006)
‘Turtles Can Fly’ may achieve some sort of classic status simply for being the first film to be made in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein. That it is also a film of tremendous power, detailing the resourcefulness and resilience of children in terrible circumstances, suggests that it is worth recognition for much more than that.

78. London to Brighton (Paul Andrew Williams, 2006)
For sheer, gut-wrenching tension, there have been few films this decade to match this. With a British film industry preoccupied to the point of tedium with gangsters and violent crime, it’s hard to pick out the films with some substance. This film is more concerned with grim reality than with the glamorisation of criminals, and the thrill of its chase is extraordinary.

77. Secretary (Steven Shainberg, 2002, UK release 2003)
Well, it’s one way to spice up the mundanity of office life, I suppose. Shainberg’s kinky film is, beneath its unsubtle surface, a credible and intelligent piece of work. James Spader must surely be getting concerned that he continues to be typecast in roles where some kind of sexual perversion is called for.

76. Blackboards (Samira Makhmalbaf, 2000)
This film presents a vivid and empathetic portrait of displacement, as itinerant teachers roam the land with blackboards strapped to their backs. The film has that distinctively Iranian absurdist humour, mostly emerging from seemingly endless circular arguments. The teachers struggle valiantly to find children to educate – instead their blackboards largely offer protection in a violent world.

75. Roger Dodger (Dylan Kidd, 2002, UK release 2003)
Between them, director Dylan Kidd and actor Campbell Scott create a truly loathsome figure in anti-hero Roger Swanson, an advertising expert and frequenter of bars who decides to educate his visiting 16-year old nephew in the art of seduction. It is simultaneously satisfying and distressing to watch his downfall.

74. Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly, 2001, UK release 2002)
Richard Kelly’s absorbing, entrancing fantasy was deservedly popular (although I sincerely hope I never have to hear Gary Jules’ version of ‘Mad World’ ever again). It’s funny to think that it made a career for Jake Gyllenhaal, who is offbeat and quirky here, before becoming a reliable bland lead. What a shame Kelly has disappeared into the realms of the ludicrous with his subsequent films.

73. The Proposition (John Hillcoat, 2005, UK release 2006)
An Australian western with a typically malevolent performance from Ray Winstone and a script from Nick Cave, ‘The Proposition’ has all the ingredients of a dark, magnetic thriller, and it does indeed deliver. It’s a film with terrifying moments, and it is undoubtedly negative in outlook – infused as it is with the dry fatalist spirit of Peckinpah.

72. 13 (Tzameti) (Gela Babluani, 2005, UK release 2006)
This extraordinary piece, filmed in monochrome, is a taut and ice cold piece of cinematic confrontation. Here is a film that lays bare the dangers of gambling in unbearably tense style, with detailed photography of terrified faces.

71. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000, UK release 2001)
This may not be Ang Lee’s most original or profound film, but there is simply no denying how stirring and exciting it is, even on repeated viewing. It’s an old-fashioned romantic yarn and the action sequences are staggering.

70. Code Unknown (Michael Haneke, 2000, UK release 2001)
‘Code Unknown’ gave the first hint of Haneke’s bid for world domination – a film in which he ratcheted up his ambitions and attempted to reposition his austerity as popular cinema. This is a sceptical, questioning and thoughtful film which, characteristically for Haneke, asks most of its questions of its complicit audience without providing any clear answers or direction. Juliette Binoche, as ever, is superb.

69. The Beat My Heart Skipped (Jacques Audiard, 2005)
Audiard is a film-maker who keeps getting better (indeed, his latest film ‘A Prophet’ sounds like a contender for film of 2010) . ‘The Beat My Heart Skipped’ is a gangster film, ostensibly a remake of James Toback’s ‘Fingers’, but so much more compelling and exciting than that description suggests. Romain Duris’ presence is magnetic, and the film is muscular and stylish.

68. Control (Anton Corbijn, 2007)
I’m not generally a fan of biopics – they are frequently by their very nature predictable and conventional – but photographer Anton Corbijn’s first film about Joy Division’s Ian Curtis is brilliantly constructed and hypnotic. The film somehow manages to be sensitive to the long-suffering Deborah Curtis and to Ian himself, who emerges as something of an unreliable, duplicitous romantic, if such a thing is possible.

67. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008, UK release 2009)
It would have been quite easy for this beguiling film to get lost amongst the current craze for all things vampiric. Instead, it became one of the most successful foreign language films of the decade in the UK. It’s a blackly comic, charming and gruesome story that still finds room for a brave and intelligent investigation of burgeoning emotions and attractions at the dawning of adolescence.

66. Sweet Sixteen (Ken Loach, 2002)
Ken Loach’s Palme D’Or victory with ‘The Wind That Shakes The Barley’ seemed like one of those victories designed to recognise a whole career rather than highlight one of his best works. ‘Sweet Sixteen’ was arguably his best film of the decade – superbly scripted by Paul Laverty and with a naturalistic, urgent performance from newcomer Martin Compston.

65. Of Time and the City (Terence Davies, 2008)
Davies’ return to the cinema, wonderfully, proved to be a huge event, ironically celebrated by the very institutions that had previously failed to fund him. This love letter to Liverpool also comes with a barbed, acerbic side, and huge helpings of working class pride and homosexual anxiety. It’s at turns funny, moving and provocative. As ever, Davies has thought carefully about the music – and the sequence of images of high rise blocks set to ‘The Folks Who Live on the Hill’ is extraordinary.

64. Howl’s Moving Castle (Hiyao Miyazaki, 2004, UK release 2005)
I think I prefer this to the much loved ‘Spirited Away’, if only because the source material (the children’s novel by Diana Wynne Jones) reminds me of my childhood. Miyazaki has made his own wonderful version of this story, with superbly exciting sequences and memorable images.

63. Head-On (Fatih Akin, 2004, UK release 2005)
Akin, a Turkish man living in Germany, established himself as a director to watch with this harsh, gritty and impassioned film detailing a marriage of convenience between a brutal alcoholic and the daughter of strict Turkish Muslims. The film is initially savage, but a form of compassion comes through towards the end. Throughout, it is brave and honest film-making.

62. The Man Without A Past (Aki Kaurismaki, 2002, UK release 2003)
Kaurismaki’s eccentric, wacky comedies are certainly not to everyone’s tastes. This is comfortably his best film to date though, filled with hilarious deadpan wit and ingenious repetition. There are so many unusual characters delivering peculiar dialogue to relish.

61. Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2008)
Visual artist Steve McQueen made a hard hitting impact with his debut feature, one which conveyed the degradation and brutality of the Maze prison both immediately before and during the hunger strikes in torrid detail. The film is not presented as a conventional narrative – but rather juxtaposes its scenes of desperation and rage against a crucial and brilliant central scene, in which Bobby Sands (convincingly portrayed by Michael Fassbender) discusses the prospect of the strike with a Priest. The ghostly, chilling voice of Margaret Thatcher hovers over the whole piece – and there was understandable anger that the film risked sympathising with terrorists by refusing to show the complete picture. Yet McQueen’s film is not even about the complete picture – it is about the violence, rage and inhumanity of these horrendous conditions.

60. Best In Show (Christopher Guest, 2002)
There’s a sense in which Christopher Guest goes for easy targets with his comedies – and those who compete in dog shows (both the animals and their owners) are certainly ripe for comic attack. Like ‘Waiting For Guffman’ before it, ‘Best In Show’ is hysterically, laugh-out-loud funny throughout.

59. Roberto Succo (Cedric Kahn, 2001, UK release 2002)
Kahn’s kinetic true-crime drama is disturbingly watchable in its portrayal of a brutal, seemingly insane killer who also maintains a completely rational and convincing alternate identity. Stefano Casseti’s performance is breathtaking.

58. The Pianist (Roman Polanski, 2002, UK release 2003)
Polanski’s artistry as a film-maker now again threatens to be overshadowed by his dreadful actions many years ago. ‘The Pianist’ is one of the best films of his uneven later career – with brilliant sets recreating the Poland of the holocaust. It’s a disturbing and harrowing picture, with even its central survival narrative failing to bring much levity given the total terror of the time.

57. The Magdalene Sisters (Peter Mullan, 2002)
Mullan’s broadside against injustice to women in the Magdalene laundries left the Catholic Church enraged. Perhaps that is testament to the power of his vision and his assured touch as a director. His film, a combination of searing attack and black comedy, is well-judged and features some superb performances from Anne-Marie Duff and Geraldine McEwan.

56. Touching The Void (Kevin Macdonald, 2003)
Kevin McDonald’s reconstruction of Joe Simpson and Simon Yates’ attempt to climb Siula Grande is tense and viscerally exciting, in spite of our foreknowledge of Simpson’s survival. Macdonald bravely avoids backstory or context – this is simply a story of the expedition, the terrible decision made by Yates and Simpson’s extraordinary will to survive. The mountain scenes look sumptuous and the combination of interview footage and reconstruction works brilliantly. Whilst ostensibly a documentary, Macdonald tentatively steps into the world of drama here, with engaging results. He would go on to make a promising feature adaptation of Giles Foden’s novel ‘The Last King of Scotland’.

55. Three Times (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, 2005, UK release 2006)
Hou had a somewhat uneven decade – with some of his films being rather stifling and impenetrable. This elegant triptych of love stories (each of which sees the same lead actors take on different roles) though remains one of my favourite films of recent years – a poignant and fascinating cinematic experiment.

54. All Or Nothing (Mike Leigh, 2002)
This marked a return to familiar territory for Leigh after his experiment in Gilbert and Sullivan film ‘Topsy Turvey’. The brilliant performance from Timothy Spall dominates the film, again demonstrating Leigh’s aptitude for working with actors. Indeed, he draws so much from his performers that he hardly needs any other resources. His films have an intimate, searching quality for which Leigh can be easily defended against misguided charges of misanthropy and caricature.

53. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007, UK release 2008)
I’m deeply sceptical of the rush to proclaim Paul Thomas Anderson as the great saviour of American cinema – a new legend to rival Scorsese. His debut ‘Hard Eight’ remains his best film, if only because it lacks the grandiose ambitions of much of his subsequent work. ‘Boogie Nights’ showed promise but ultimately saw Anderson overreach himself, while tepeated viewings of ‘Magnolia’ reveal it to be overblown and horribly contrived (as well as hugely derivative of Altman’s ‘Short Cuts’). ‘Punch Drunk Love’ was by comparison oddly lightweight and insubstantial. ‘There Will Be Blood’ is the first of his films to suggest some of the gravitas may be real – it’s a film that occupies its own dark and sinister space, tremendously aided by Jonny Greenwood’s searing soundtrack.

52. The Man Who Wasn’t There (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2001)
The prolific Coen brothers’ first great film of the decade – this is an idiosyncratic, hypnotic contemporary film noir. It is stylised in the best sense of the word – involving the creation of a parallel world in film – one that evokes the murky world of great American crime fiction. It’s one of the Coens’ least extravagant and most controlled pictures.

51. The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke, 2001)
Haneke’s stark character study, adapted from the novel by Nobel winner Elfriede Jelinek is as uncomfortable a film as this great director has made. Its examination of sexual repression and domination is both unfashionable and uncompromising – we tend not to want to discuss or accept more perverse aspects of human sexuality. Isabelle Huppert’s performance is among the best of her illustrious career.

50. Kandahar (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 2001)
Made before 9/11, legendary Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s humble, simple but quietly illuminating film assumed a new popularity and importance in light of the calamitous geo-political events of this decade. ‘Kandahar’ is disarmingly direct and almost anti-dramatic. It seems to end without resolution and has little of the conventional elements that draw audiences to films. It is all the more intriguing and original for this. It provides a vivid, visually arresting study of an oppressed nation.

49. I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone (Tsai Ming-Liang, 2006, UK release 2007)
The oblique side of Tsai Ming-Liang’s film-making reached an apotheosis in this murky, peculiar film. Indeed, when I saw it at a London Film Festival screening, patience was running thin and a large portion of the audience walked out during the first thirty minutes. They actually missed a treat – perseverance revealed a surreal but humane and engaging film with its own unique rhythm and shape, a film concerned with the very unfashionable subject of care.

48. Morvern Callar (Lynne Ramsay, 2003)
I was agnostic about Lynne Ramsay’s much admired ‘Ratcatcher’, largely because of its heavy reliance on banal imagery of the countryside and its lack of narrative substance. ‘Morvern Callar’, an adaptation of Alan Warner’s novel, is, for me at least, much better, because Ramsay’s impressionism works much more effectively in the context of a conventional story. This is a striking, memorable film with a superb lead performance from Samantha Morton.

47. Beyond Hatred (Olivier Meyrou 2005, UK release 2007)
46. Capturing The Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki, 2003, UK release 2004)
45. Aileen – Life and Death of a Serial Killer (Nick Broomfield, 2003)

Here are three documentary films that go right to the dark heart of human existence – and all three manage to do so with elements of healthy scepticism and compassion. I usually find the lumbering presence of Nick Broomfield and his boom mic incredibly annoying, especially when he’s trying to concoct a conspiracy theory. In recent years, he has mellowed somewhat, and has begun to investigate significant subjects. This update of his portrait of the serial killer Aileen Wuornos is potent and unsettling. Broomfield treates Wuornos and her horrible, deeply troubled life with patience and care, and a case emerges for her as a woman turned violent through persistent neglect and abuse. That being said, the space Broomfield affords Wuornos to talk reveals her as misleading, her willingness to confess but then retract obfuscating her already complicated story.

Jarecki’s film is the most difficult in that he stumbled across this story of the collapse of a family following a paedophilia case when preparing a movie about party clowns. His film certainly raises the question of ethics in documentary making – with one family member refusing participation, did he have any right to use this extraordinary home video footage? At what point does this become mere voyeurism and no longer in the public interest? Yet his film also asks important questions about guilt, evidence and the presumption of innocence.

Less widely seen is Meyrou’s wonderful, dispassionate study of a French family coping with the murder of their gay son by homophobic skinheads. This is a sobering, moving account showing compassion for both the victims and the angry, ignorant criminals.

44. The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach, 2005, UK release 2006)
Noah Baumbach graduated from his assistant writing work with Wes Anderson to make what is arguably a better movie than anything Anderson has yet produced (although I do admire ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’). It has its fair share of brilliant cringe-inducing moments, but has excised Anderson’s tendency towards irksome self-conscious eccentricity. Also, beneath the surface laughs, ‘The Squid and the Whale’ is a convincing and excoriating portrait of family disintegration.

43. L’Enfant (Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardennes, 2005, UK release 2006)
The Dardennes may have perfected their distinctive strand of neo-realism here, in this meticulously controlled, brilliantly acted drama. In light of the success of their previous movies, they could no doubt have extended their budget and resources for this picture. How refreshing it is that they stuck doggedly to their guns, and made a believable and engaging drama with no trickery or manipulation.

42. Lantana (Ray Lawrence, 2001, UK release 2002)
41. Jindabyne (Ray Lawrence, 2006, UK release 2007)
When ‘Lantana’ emerged in 2001, Australian director Ray Lawrence had not made a film since his 1985 adaptation of Peter Carey’s novel ‘Bliss’. With these two films, he revealed himself, quite unexpectedly, to be a master of the thriller genre, and a film-maker developing a new cinematic language for Australia. These are tense, edge-of-the-seat dramas with intelligence and nuance, and both dominated by superb lead performances (Anthony LaPaglia in ‘Lantana’, Gabriel Byrne in ‘Jindabyne’).

40. Etre Et Avoir (Nicholas Philibert, 2002, UK release 2003)
Philibert’s documentary about life in a small French rural infant school is charming in the best sense of the word. It’s a film that, like the teacher on whom it focuses, exercises great patience, understanding and consideration.

39. Under The Sand (Francois Ozon 2000, UK release 2001)
It’s tempting to dismiss Francois Ozon as a ‘Jack of all trades but master of none’ and there are times when he seems close to being a French Michael Winterbottom – following his every whim in every conceivable direction. He makes a lot of films, many of them bold and distinctive but ultimately flawed. Every so often there comes along one which stands out, and ‘Under the Sand’, along with his thoroughly disturbing short ‘See The Sea’ is probably the best example of the artistry of which he is capable. It’s his most restrained picture – a quiet study of grief and its effect on the mind that draws the very best from the characteristically brilliant Charlotte Rampling.

38. The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmark 2006, UK release 2007)
This is a brilliant dramatisation of lives under the Stasi in East Germany, suspenseful and compelling and delivered with a strong moral purpose. The conflict and doubt felt by surveillance operative and interrogator Wiesle is sensitively handled and superbly portrayed.

37. A Scanner Darkly (Richard Linklater, 2006)
36. Persepolis (Vincent Parranaud, Marjane Satrapi 2007. UK release 2008)
35. Waltz With Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008)
These three films make superb, intelligent use of animation to produce very adult, questioning and moving cinematic statements. ‘Waltz With Bashir’ is effective in its use of animation to produce a dream-like fog of obfuscation, a sense enhanced by Max Richter’s languid score. The contrast with news footage at the film’s conclusion brings home the brutal reality buried in the director’s subconscious. ‘Persepolis’ is a visual memoir, and all the more intriguing for being animated – a brilliant combination of creative imagination and shocking reality. ‘A Scanner Darkly’ might be Richard Linklater’s best film – and a brilliant harnessing of his longstanding fascination with the rotoscoping animation technique to create something edgy and unsettling. Both Keanu Reeves and Robert Downey Jr. deliver career-best performances. I find all three films, in their varying ways, striking and moving.

34. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (Christian Mungiu, 2007, UK release 2008)
This film is unflinchingly grim – but about as accurate and disturbing a microcosmic picture of communist Romania as could be made. It tells the story of an illegal abortion and its impact on the friendship between two female students. It is terse and skeletal – with nothing artificial to heighten the palpable drama and horror. It is a brilliant example of the burgeoning new cinema in Eastern Europe.

33. Shortbus (John Cameron Mitchell, 2006)
For me, this is one of the most underrated and misunderstood films of the decade. It’s mostly dismissed as a ‘sex film’ (yes, it contains a lot of explicit real sex and yes, it still managed to obtain a BBFC 18 certificate) when it is actually a film about sex. More importantly, it’s a film about sexual anxiety, a subject rarely covered in American films, at least outside the awkward comedies of Woody Allen. Its great achievement is to make the intimate stories of its characters involving and affecting, and to present aspects of modern sexual lives (both straight and gay) in a candid, matter-of-fact and inclusive way. It’s also uproariously funny in places, as any film about sex should be. Compare this with Catherine Breillat’s disastrous ‘Sex Is Comedy’, which manages to be horrifically pretentious and funny for all the wrong reasons.

32. Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000)
Many may feel that ‘Memento’ should be higher on this list – but, along with films such as ‘Seven’ and ‘The Usual Suspects’, it’s one of those pictures with a markedly diminished impact on repeated viewing. Still, the shock of the new that comes with its reverse structure, taut plotting and technical virtuosity remains viscerally exciting and its memory lingers long in the mind.

31. The Return (Andrey Zwyagintsev 2003, UK release 2004)
‘The Return’ deservedly took the top prize at the Venice film festival, its tense story about a previously absent father taking his two sons on a ‘vacation’ through the Russian wilderness being thoroughly unnerving and compelling. The film is visually fascinating too – portentous and brooding. It’s hard not to feel the film’s pathos enhanced by the knowledge that its fifteen year old star died in a tragic accident shortly after filming was completed.

30. Moolaade (Ousmane Sembene, 2004)
Stylistically, the last film from the ‘father of African cinema’ is about as direct, unadorned and unpretentious as possible. It’s also an enlivening and entertaining film about a thoroughly unpleasant subject – female genital mutilation. It’s both vital and wonderful that Sembene was able to make this brave and radical picture, and it stands as proof that male directors are capable of making feminist films. Also important is the reminder that Moolaade offers of the importance of the radio in providing access to impartial news.

29. Requiem For A Dream (Darren Aronofsky, 2000, UK release 2001)
I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with this remarkable film and I have learned through experience that it is about as far as you can get from a ‘date movie’. I’ve watched it several times, and I must say that I find its relentless, stylised suffering rather difficult to endure. I’m also a little agnostic about some of the MTV-style funky split screen effects Aronofsky likes to use. Yet, beneath its surface is a harrowing, horrifying and brilliant nightmare in which the beautiful Jared Leto and Jennifer Connolly are thoroughly destroyed and degraded. The performance of Ellen Bursteyn is perhaps even more tragic, an undeserving and vulnerable victim in this simultaneously repellent and compelling descent into hell.

28. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Julian Schnabel, 2007, UK release 2008)
Jean-Dominique Bauby’s dictated memoir of life after an unexpected severe stroke seems like one of those works of literature that should be impossible to film. Julian Schnabel brilliantly turns it into a vividly cinematic experience, and goes as far as possible in his quest to empathise with Bauby’s state, both physically and emotional. His techniques are simple and direct, but also virtuosic – and he expands on Bauby’s book by providing more sensitive roles for the women in Bauby’s life.

27. Unrelated (Joanna Hogg, 2008)
A film about a group of middle class people on holiday sounds like a tedious and lifeless experience. In actual fact, Joanna Hogg’s picture is one of the best British debuts in many years, full of dramatic tension and genuine sadness. It’s both compelling and convincing.

26. Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2005, UK release 2006)
Herzog has always been an unpredictable film-maker but these days he’s also uneven. ‘Grizzly Man’ certainly brought out the best in this maverick, wayward director who is capable of real genius. It’s hard to accept that this is a documentary, given how ludicrous and reckless its subject, bear-obsessive Timothy Treadwell, appears to have been. He could easily have been one of those characters Klaus Kinski might have played in the early Herzog dramas. There’s a sense that Herzog’s directorial presence is minimal here – much of the film uses Treadwell’s own recovered footage of the bears and of himself. Yet its testament to Herzog’s skilful oversight that he manages to find both the sadness and the comedy in Treadwell’s extreme persona.

25. 3 Iron (Kim Ki Duk, 2004, UK release 2005)
Kim Ki-Duk has made some of the strangest films of recent times, many of them combining savage violence and brutality with an almost sentimental romantic core. 3 Iron may well be the best of these, both enigmatic and engrossing. Most of the essential dialogue occurs without language and the performances are accordingly nuanced and effective. It is a deeply unconventional story filled with brilliant and often baffling ideas.

24. Saraband (Ingmar Bergman, 2003, UK release 2005)
The great Ingmar Bergman signed off with a film as confrontational and tense as any in his career, brilliantly performed by Erland Josephson and Liv Ullmann. Some noted the fact that the film was made for Swedish TV, but then so was the brilliant Fanny and Alexander – the small screen never seemed to limit Bergman’s stately mastery of the chamber drama, nor mute his overwhelming seriousness. Ostensibly a sequel to 1973’s ‘Scenes From A Marriage’, ‘Saraband’ also stands independently as a self-contained, brilliantly hermetic work. It is both austere and severe, and full of characteristically agonising emotional revelations – but, even in his 80s, Bergman retained an unflinching acuity and desire to unveil the dark secrets of domestic life.

23. Vendredi Soir (Claire Denis, 2002, UK release 2003)
I am aware that ‘Vendredi Soir’ is less appreciated than many of Denis’ films, particularly ‘Beau Travail’, but I think this may be her bravest, most direct work. It is the cinematic depiction of a one night stand and the events leading up to it – nothing more and nothing less. Few directors would ever present these events in such a matter of fact manner, and there is an empathetic physicality and eroticism in the sensitively filmed, almost solemn act itself. This film unfolds in what seems like near-real time, and with a quiet grace and composure.

22. Old Boy (Park Chan-Wook)
Park Chan-Wook’s dark, hyper-violent nightmare fantasy is one of the most sophisticated and ingenious of all revenge thrillers – so much so that it basically reinvents the genre.

21. The Consequences of Love (Paolo Sorrentino)
Sorrentino is the leading light in an Italian cinematic revival, not least because he is a film-maker of tremendous technical flair who loves deploying visual tricks and clever editing. Yet, beneath the tremendous style of ‘The Consequences of Love’ is a story of great substance and my lingering impression was of a deeply sad narrative with a brutal ending. It also contains a wonderful performance from Toni Servillo, a man rapidly staking a claim to be one of the best actors not just in Italy, but in Europe.

20. No Country For Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007, UK release 2008)
The combination of the Coens’ mischievous irony and Cormac McCarthy’s disturbing literary landscape makes for one of their finest films. The irritating side of their oeuvre (chiefly the goofy comedy) is jettisoned in favour of a relatively straight but brilliantly tense and dramatic reconstruction of McCarthy’s novel. It’s faithful to the source text but the Coens add plenty of their own, and Javier Bardem’s performance is terrifying in its unhinged lunacy.

19. The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009)
The more I think about this unsettling, intelligent film, the more I think it is another of Haneke’s spellbinding masterpieces. No other director of recent times has such a questing spirit and such consistency in their results. It’s a characteristically open-ended film, leaving many questions unanswered and with provocative detail to be spotted in its fascinating closing scene. The brilliant monochrome photography creates a claustrophobic, disturbing mood.

18. The Son’s Room (Nanni Moretti, 2001, UK release 2002)
Before this deeply moving and satisfying film, Moretti was better known as a director of quirky comedies. Whilst those films were often entertaining, they didn’t have the international impact of this serious, highly involving story of family tragedy and the pain that can come as a result of cruel chance. ‘The Son’s Room’ is an intimate piece, brilliantly capturing the disorientation and confusion of grief. Moretti directs himself with consummate ease, something not always achieved by actors who are also writers and directors, largely perhaps because his presence seems light and lacking in ego.

17. Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002, UK release 2003)
Todd Haynes’ best film is a beautiful homage in the guise of a mischievous subversion. This is a deeply moving and thoroughly accurate account of racial and sexual prejudice in 1950s suburban American, issues that could not be confronted in the cinema of that time. In contriving to combine the two, Haynes pulls off an intriguing and enticing dramatic coup, and produces a beautifully designed work of intensity and power. Yet the film is also a genuine paen to the day-glo Hollywood melodramas of Douglas Sirk, a passionate defence of cinema at its most extravagant. Although it is a film containing great sadness and cruelty, the superb performances of Julianne Moore, Denis Quaid and Dennis Haysbert imbue it with a resonant dignity and compassion.

16. Sideways (Alexander Payne, 2004, UK release 2005)
There is a disturbing dearth of comedy in this list – perhaps because film writers seem unable to come up with scripts as sharp as the great comedies of the past (various Billy Wilder films spring to mind, or Joseph Manciewicz’s ‘All About Eve’). Even Woody Allen appears to have largely thrown away his talent. There may be an heir to the throne however in Alexander Payne. ‘Election’ was a brilliantly acute high school satire with much wider social implications. ‘Sideways’ is a similarly well observed study of mid-life males in crisis, blessed with a superb performance from the ever-endearing Paul Giamatti. This is hilarious in the most intelligent of ways, simultaneously acerbic and wistful.

15. What Time Is It There? (Tsai Ming-Liang, 2001, UK release 2002)

Tsai is one of the world’s most idiosyncratic and uncompromising directors, his speech-less films initially seeming oblique, but eventually conveying far more than words in their gestures, soundtrack music and bizarre set pieces. ‘What Time Is It There?’ moves at a typically glacial pace, and requires some degree of patience. It feels like a thoughtful rumination on love and loss, characterised by long takes and the compulsive behaviour of its characters. Given time, it reveals itself as a work of gentle beauty.

14. Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003, UK release 2004)
Van Sant is the kind of film-maker who oscillates wildly between personal, esoteric projects and Hollywood-funded exercises in conventional tedium. ‘Elephant’ falls proudly into the first category, part of a long run of listless films said to be inspired by Bela Tarr, beginning with ‘Gerry’ and ending with ‘Paranoid Park’. This is the most successful picture in that sequence, although it seems designed to obfuscate and frustrate more than to elucidate. It simply portrays a Columbine-style high school massacre, thoroughly determined not to explain it or apportion blame. Various possible explanations are hinted at (including violent video games), but the film is ultimately much more about its capturing of a listless, uneventful atmosphere, where mundane reality is punctuated in the most brisk and violent of means. For a film about terror and tragedy, it’s remarkably beautiful and technically virtuosic.

13. Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, 2002)
‘Ten’ is an important movie – in its mischievous blending of documentary and fiction, in what it reveals about personal and social relations in Iran and in the way Kiarostami effectively absents himself from the action by placing two fixed cameras in a car and simply filming the ensuing conversations. All the direction happens before (in preparatory conversations with the actors) and afterwards, in the editing process. In between, the actors are effectively free to act however they like – and it is perhaps through this freedom that Kiarostami elicits such naturalistic and real contributions. Kiarostami’s critics maintain that ‘Ten’ is the type of film anyone could make. In practical terms this is no doubt true – the resources required are minimal, and footage can easily be edited creatively now on a home computer. But would anyone else decide to make this film? Would just anyone see it as the best route to providing illuminating social and political commentary on contemporary Iran? Would anyone else be so preoccupied with the position of women?

12. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001, UK release 2002)
‘Mulholland Drive’ is one of Lynch’s weirdest and greatest creations. With two powerful central female performances (Naomi Watts and Laura Harring), it avoids the charges of misogyny levelled at films such as ‘Blue Velvet’. It’s certainly all seen through Lynch’s male gaze (with a familiar Lynchian helping of violence against women), but its world is a good deal more sensitive and sensual, albeit nightmarishly fraught with danger and menace. Ridiculous and illogical as ‘Mulholland Drive’ is, it is possibly Lynch’s most compelling and convincing film. Writing this now, I’m also struck by the similarities between this and Weerasethakul’s parallel worlds in ‘Tropical Malady’. Where Weerasethakul presents his weird transitions in a matter of fact way, Lynch amplifies the craziness and distorts situations self-consciously. With ‘Inland Empire’, this tactic became too self-indulgent and extravagant – here, it is creepily disorientating and distinctive.

11. Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze, 1999, UK release 2000)
This seems to have been omitted from all the decade reviews I’ve seen, yet the UK release date was March 2000. It’s certainly a far superior film to Jonze and Kaufman’s more convoluted follow up ‘Adaptation’, one of the most stylistically and dramatically inventive American films of recent times. The action is of course wildly fantastical but this film brilliantly encapsulates Orson Welles’ dictum that great film need not be real, but should convey truth. The truth inherent in ‘Being John Malkovich’ is the human preoccupation with wanting to be someone else, or to inhabit someone else’s thoughts. The film creates its own unique and bizarre world (floor 7 ½!) and is rich in both vibrant, quirky humour and believable desperation. At the centre of it all is Malkovich’s own splendidly game self-mockery.

10. Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004, UK release 2005)
Weerasethakul, or ‘Joe’ as he conveniently likes to be known, is responsible for some truly bizarre and original films. There’s the unforgivingly slow, dreamy and erotic ‘Blissfully Yours’ and the mysterious dramatic reconstructions of ‘Mysterious Object at Noon’. Most successful are his two bifurcated features ‘Syndromes and a Century’ and this, what may already be an early masterpiece. The first half of the film is a tender, sweet and romantic depiction of a burgeoning gay love affair. When one of the two protagonists disappears, we are suddenly transported into what appears to be an alternative parallel world, in which the characters reappear as a hunter and a tiger. This is a very oblique, but deeply fascinating commentary on desire and obsession. It’s the kind of film that can be watched repeatedly, but still provoke new thoughts and leave questions unanswered.

09. The House of Mirth (Terence Davies, 2000)
This beautiful and assured adaption of Edith Wharton’s novel should have established Terence Davies as Britain’s greatest living film director – versatile and confident enough to work both at home and in the States without compromising his methods or his artistry. Instead, although acclaimed, it appeared to condemn him to a near-decade in the cinematic wilderness, unable to make a film through lack of funding. Whilst his British films, most notably ‘Distant Voices, Still Lives’, have now been re-established in the public consciousness, few speak of his work in America in the same breath. ‘The Neon Bible’ was a flawed but fascinating project – ‘The House of Mirth’ is a masterpiece.

Much of the film’s success is a result of Davies’ audacious and inspired casting. As the perennially sceptical Dana Scully in The X-Files, Gillian Anderson gave scant indication of the magisterial control and steely determination she demonstrates here as Lily Bart, a much weightier role. Similarly, Dan Aykroyd, an actor better known for his role in screwball comedies such as ‘Ghostbusters’, demonstrates considerable skill. These performances, combined with Davies’ fluid, atmospheric direction, make ‘The House of Mirth’ so much more than simply a period drama. It is a deeply sad, elegiac and haunting story of one woman’s downfall in a restrictive and prejudiced society.

08. Uzak (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2002, UK release 2004)
‘Uzak’, which translates as ‘Distant’, is the kind of challenging film few people wish to see (indeed, it was dismissed as ‘dreary’ by the New York Times). It is minimal, spacious, languid and reflective, with little dialogue and even less direct action. It becomes more and more immersing and mesmerising with each repeated viewing. It is, at least in part, a film about isolation and boredom. It captures the difficulty in making intimate, meaningful connections, especially where communities are broken. Yet it is not without lightness, and plenty of ironic, visual humour. It is a beautiful film to remember and savour, one that amply rewards the close attention demanded when watching it.

07. A One and a Two (Edward Yang, 2000)
Edward Yang’s sad, premature death robbed contemporary cinema of one of its brightest talents. Perhaps even sadder is the fact that, whilst one might have expected his death to prompt greater attention, it still remains virtually impossible to see a Yang film in the UK. I went to see ‘A Brighter Summer Day’, his masterpiece, at the BFI a few years ago, but the cinema was unable to source a full length print. There has been no attempt at a full retrospective and, with ‘A One and a Two’ now deleted, none of his films are available on DVD in the UK. This is a travesty that should be rectified as a matter of urgency.

The ensemble piece can have its limitations, but Yang surpassed them all with this patient, carefully observed family drama. Whilst this is a film that shows how the pressures of modern life make us uncertain, perhaps even unmindful, of our happiness, it is not grandiose or depressing. It is certainly melancholy in places, but it also has a charming lightness and room to breath. This is a film with plenty of space for thought and reflection. The performances are assured and the drama both surprising and believable.

06. Lust, Caution (Ang Lee, 2007, UK release 2008)
Whilst many prefer Lee’s ‘Brokeback Mountain’ for fairly obvious reasons, I still feel that ‘Lust, Caution’ is the superior, more convincing film. Discussion of the film inevitably focussed on its explicit sex scenes, although commentators failed to identify precisely why those scenes were necessary – the audience needs to experience and understand the devastating and dangerous intimacy at the heart of the picture. Critics also decried the film’s length and detail, and the manner in which Ang Lee holds back its pivotal scenes. To my mind, the careful delineation of 1930s Chinese society, and the carefully constructed life stories of the characters – it is at least in part this process that makes the film’s final scenes so harrowing and imposing.

05. Talk To Her (Pedro Almodovar, 2002)
‘Talk To Her’ was such a brave and impressive film that Almodovar has, to my mind, struggled to work out what to do next. He made a convoluted, garish mess with ‘Bad Education’ and then repeated himself, albeit enjoyably, with ‘Volver’ and ‘Broken Embraces’. With ‘Talk To Her’, Almodovar perfected his art, retaining plenty of the humour and stylistic flourish whilst sacrificing some of the extravagance and farce. The film has the kind of sharp script rarely seen since the glory days of Hollywood and also a teasing moral ambivalence that draws us to sympathise with a character who acts unforgivably. Perhaps ‘Talk To Her’ is also unusual within Almodovar’s recent body of work in that the focus is as much on its male characters as on the women. It’s a film of tremendous compassion.

04. Hidden (Michael Haneke, 2005, UK release 2006)
Haneke is clearly the major directorial presence of the decade, having made five world class features in the last ten years (‘Code Unknown’, ‘The Piano Teacher’, ‘Time of the Wolf’, this and now ‘The White Ribbon’), six if you’re among the few people who thought the US remake of ‘Funny Games’ had any purpose. That is a pretty astounding work rate, and a great big slap in the face to the golden ageists who think all the great filmmakers are gone. ‘Hidden’ may be the most powerful and subversive of his films in that it deploys his austere, rigorous style to something approaching the thriller genre. It is also a film that poses difficult questions about collective guilt and morality.

03. Werckmeister Harmonies (Bela Tarr, 2000, UK release 2003)
Bela Tarr is notorious chiefly for being ‘unwatchable’ – his films epitomising austerity and drudgery. He made the 7 ½ hour ‘Satantango’, with its lengthy shots of cows, rain and people walking. Yet there’s a haunting quality, an irony and mystery to all his films. ‘Werckmeister Harmonies’ has the feel of a medieval chronicle – filled with portents, signs and unusual happenings. It is weird, fascinating and difficult to fathom but its eerie mood is pervasive and highly original and its portrayal of societal breakdown somehow both dreamlike and convincing.

02. Time Out (Laurent Cantet, 2001, UK release 2002)
01. In The Mood for Love (Wong Kar Wai, 2000)

These two films deal respectively with the two most important elements of most people’s lives: love (as distinct from lust or sex) and work. For this, they are singular and unfashionable works, even accounting for the swooning style of Wong’s direction and Christopher Doyle’s sumptuous cinematography. Laurent Cantet’s ‘Time Out’ struck me as a brave and audacious film on first viewing, but ‘In The Mood For Love’, with its languid pacing, long silences and meaning found in gestures and glances is a film that took several viewings to appreciate fully. Both, I think, are masterpieces.

‘In The Mood For Love’ deals with unrequited love in the face of strong conventions and moral codes. Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung’s characters develop a relationship that is affecting, honest and wholly convincing without ever becoming physical. The beauty is found in restraint – in what is held back and, in this case, the elegance of Wong and Doyle’s visual style aids the emotional impact of the film. Very few words are spoken, but so much feeling is conveyed. The locations and images linger long in the mind. It’s a film where every element – soundtrack, dialogue, performances, cinematography, lighting and editing – are carefully controlled.

Many lists will understandably include Cantet’s Palme D’Or winning ‘The Class’. As good as that film is, I can’t help feeling that ‘Time Out’ is the better work, by some considerable distance. A big factor in this is Aurelien Recoing’s remarkable performance, which somehow enables the audience to sympathise with a man who essentially becomes a serial liar and duplicitous fraudster.

Many dramas are based in workplaces, but this often serves purely as a springboard for more trivial romantic and sexual plot strands between characters. ‘Time Out’goes well beyond this in recognising the pivotal importance of work in defining people’s identities. Without it, people can easily and quickly become devastatingly lost. Cantet maintains an unflinching gaze as the lies at the heart of the film unravel, his use of music enhances the haunting power of his images and his film is meticulously constructed and compelling to watch.


Manish said...

Terrific list with many gems for me to watch for the first time. Absolutely delighted to see In The Mood For Love sitting at the top. Also wanted to compliment you on the quality of your blog. Fantastically well written and always thought provoking. Keep up the great work in the next decasde :)

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