20 About Schmidt (2002)
A perfect tragicomedy from Alexander Payne, About Schmidt‘s measured pace and delicate wit make it a refined joy to watch. After the death of his wife and subsequent discovery of her affair, retired insurance actuary Warren Schmidt takes a road trip across America to regain some control over his life. Jack Nicholson acts with surprising restraint throughout in one of his subtlest performances since Five Easy Pieces, a film directly referenced here with a roadside café scene in which Schmidt dutifully accepts the waitress’ ordering policy, in contrast to the confrontational encounter from 1970. This scene neatly sums up the overall tone of About Schmidt – the grudging realisation that life is just a series of flawed relationships and quiet disappointments. Painfully funny in every sense.
19 WALL•E (2008)
The world has become uninhabitable through pollution and a surplus of junk, with a cleaning robot and a VHS copy of Hello Dolly! pretty much all that’s left of civilisation on earth. The opening section of Wall-E is an ingenious, dialogue-free account of WALL-E falling in love with advanced probe robot EVE, only for her to attempt to blast him to pieces at every opportunity. As you’ll no doubt gather, Wall-E is a very unusual animated film, even by Pixar’s standards. The film unapologetically refuses to pander to young children (or even some adults!) in its political and ecological agenda, or with its subtle visually driven story, but embraces anyone happy to ride the film’s daring science-fiction concepts. In fact, it’s almost unthinkable that the Disney corporation would put out a film openly criticising the homogenous consumer society of America, considering their huge merchandise range and theme parks, but here it is! With a bold scope of ideas, a delicate emotional impact and stunningly realised artistry, Wall-E can sit proudly alongside Fantasia, Beauty And The Beast and Toy Story as one of the greatest animated films of all time.
18 Amores Perros (2000)
The film that first catapulted the Mexican New Wave on to the international scene, Amores Perros is an astonishingly visceral and profound viewing experiences. Consisting of three starkly different stories, all featuring dogs and all centred around a pivotal car accident, the opening ‘Octavio and Susana’ sees Gael García Bernal become involved in the dangerous pursuit of dog fighting and the closing ‘El Chivo and Maru’ is the surprising story of a professional hitman (Emilio Echevarría) living as an apparent vagrant surrounded by his pack of beloved mongrel dogs. But my favourite segment is the central ‘Daniel and Valeria’, a curiously moving tale of a supermodel confined to a wheelchair who loses her dog beneath the floorboards of her new apartment, the trapped pet paralleling the restraints of her life and relationship. The first, and best, of Iñárritu’s loose ‘Death Trilogy’ along with 21 Grams and Babel, Amores Perros is a smouldering cinematic powder keg waiting to explode across your senses.
17 United 93 (2006)
Five years after the September 11 bombings seemed the appropriate time for a series of dramatic responses to the event. Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center was a disaster movie with a heart, but the twin towers attack could hardly be presented with more affecting power than in the startling 2002 real-footage documentary 9/11. So Paul Greengrass approached the tragedy from a different angle, presenting in real-time the brave resistance of passengers aboard United Airlines Flight 93, the hijacked plane that failed to reach its planned target. Filmed with permission from the victim’s families (though one can barely imagine the heart-wrenching catharsis they must have experienced watching it), United 93 is almost unbearably explicit in its unfolding of events. A difficult and controversial film for sure, but a defining piece of emotive cinema, with Greengrass’ vérité style simply documenting the horror without compromise.
16 Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004)
The fractured and deceptive nature of memory forms the basis for this mind-bending romantic comedy from writer Charlie Kaufman. Taking the pioneering visual trickery of his music videos to the big screen, Michel Gondry perfectly channels Kaufman’s stream of consciousness into a beautifully lucid flow of imagery. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet appropriately play against type in a film that essentially reinvents cinematic storytelling as it goes along. Structured with dizzying ingenuity and presenting its ideas with impressive clarity, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind is one of the most satisfyingly contorted assaults on mainstream cinema.
15 The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (2007)
The greatest exhumation of the Western since Unfogiven and one of the most beautiful films of the decade, The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford is a rueful psychological study of the criminal mind, of lonely landscapes and eager mythologizing, all filmed with impeccable mood and lighting. Brad Pitt embodies the ageing Jesse James with a growing paranoia and gradual acceptance of his own inevitable demise, manipulating his friendship with the young wayward gang member Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) to seal his legendary standing. Affleck is an absolute revelation in the complex role of the troubled and insecure Ford and several sequences, including a shocking train hold-up, are among the best the genre has ever delivered. A stunningly photographed, epic character assassination.
14 Downfall (2004)
The first major German film to feature Adolf Hitler in the central role, Downfall presents us with the last ten days in Hitler’s bunker, Oliver Hirschbiegel filling every moment with a chilling tension and a true sense of irrevocable decay. Bruno Ganz, a legend of the German New Wave, pulls off a remarkable feat by humanizing Hitler as a dimensional character but offering no sympathy for him, instead we are witness to his spiralling madness and pain as power slips from his hands. But there’s an emotional attachment from the Führer, with all activity in the bunker seen through the eyes of young personal secretary Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara) who is not complicit to the evils of the Nazi regime and offers an important central heart to the film. Downfall is one of the most powerfully vivid depictions of a specific time and place you could ever see.
13 Zodiac (2007)
Having perfected the serial-killer shocker with Se7en (1995), David Fincher turned the whole concept on its head with this amazing procedural thriller. Following the lives of Crime Reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downney Jr), Political Cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) and San Francisco Detective Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) over a 20 year period, this is a serial-killer film where the destructive evil is not so much in the perpetrator as within those who obsessively hunt him down and the effect on their relationships and careers proves devastating. Although Fincher punctuates the narrative with several bravura murder (or attempted murder) sequences, and even sneakily offers a false suspenseful ending, the majority of Zodiac is taken up with the gripping and insightful study of three characters destroyed by their own haunted quest for the truth. With its ambitious and subtle use of effects, its refusal to make things easy for the audience and a unique approach to its topic, I’ll stick my neck out and say that Zodiac is Fincher’s finest film to date.
12 In The Mood For Love (2000)
Having made the greatest romantic film of the 1990’s with Chungking Express, the great Wong Kar-Wai repeated the achievement and then some for the 2000’s with the sublimely gorgeous In The Mood For Love. No film has ever achieved the same mesmeric beauty seen in this tale of unrequited love in 1960’s Hong Kong. Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) fall for each other after discovering an affair between their respective partners, but refuse to take the same destructive path themselves. Imbued with deep reds and yellows, and put to an incredible string score from Michael Galasso and Shigeru Umebayashi, In The Mood For Love is a sumptuous treat for the eyes and a tender sensation for the heart. Also highly recommended is the 2004 sequel 2046 which traces the aftermath of the unconsummated affair.
11 A History Of Violence (2005)
One of the few out-and-out Horror directors to carve out a critically lauded career of art house/genre crossover films, David Cronenberg distilled the best of both areas with his incredible noir-thriller A History Of Violence. Viggo Mortensen plays the mild-mannered diner owner Tom Stall, whose past catches up with him when he becomes a local hero after an attempted robbery. With a dark nod to the bleak character studies of film noir and an obvious debt to Straw Dogs, this riveting thriller is rich with social and evolutionary metaphors, Tom’s secrets representing mankind’s innate need for violence both for success and survival. Allowing plenty of scope for Cronenberg’s brilliantly explicit gore, but also for a revealing meditation on the nature of violence, A History Of Violence has become the essential first port of call in this director’s remarkable “body horror” of work.
50 Almost Famous (2000)
A semi-autobiographical comedy drama from rock journalist-turned-director Cameron Crowe, Almost Famous tells the story of 15-year old William (Patrick Fugit), assigned by Rolling Stone Magazine to write an article on the road with ‘almost famous’ rock band Stillwater, on the false assumption that he is a much older and experienced journalist. Amidst the raucous rock ‘n’ roll comedy, a charming romance blossoms between William and band groupie Penny Lane (Kate Hudson). But the emotional heart of the film comes from Frances McDormand as the anxious disapproving mother whose two children have both escaped the trappings of home life, only for them to find truth in the adage ‘home is where the heart is’. The film’s wonderful enveloping rock soundtrack, containing choice cuts from Led Zeppelin, Simon & Garfunkel, Elton John and The Beach Boys among others, became just as popular and influential as the film itself. Hilarious, uproarious but also deeply touching, Almost Famous perfectly encapsulates the fundamental driving forces of love and music.
49 Persepolis (2007)
In bringing her own graphic novel to the screen, Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical account of growing up during the war and revolution in late 20th-century Iran becomes a captivating and poetic animated feature. Although set against a harrowing depiction of war-torn Iran, with an honest portrait of Iranian families’ hopes and fears, Persepolis‘s amusing coming-of-age tale is indicative of humanity’s resilient sense of humour when surrounded by tragedy. The teenage Marjane secretly buys banned western rock music, wears punk clothing and submerges herself in Austria’s bohemian youth culture during an expatriation, but her rebellious streak is offset by her shame at rejecting her own Iranian routes. The superb black and white animation flows from scene to scene with dazzling invention, faithful to both the stylised immediacy of graphic novels and smooth fluidity of the animated movie.
48 Moon (2009)
Just as Arthur C. Clarke’s prophetic decade of discovery came to a close, a film came along to conjure up comparisons with 2001: A Space Odyssey and revive interest in the great British science-fiction film. Sam Rockell gives a tremendous virtually solo performance as Sam Bell, stationed alone for three years at a lunar industrial base, with only the HAL-like robotic servant GERT (the sedate tones of Kevin Spacey) for company. But after a concussive accident in a lunar rover, Sam wakes in the infirmary to discover that he might not be quite as alone as he’d thought. Duncan Jones’ first feature makes excellent use of it’s relatively low budget, with superb sterile sets and impressive split-camera effects. Also of note is the excellent model work – a refreshingly tangible quality in an age of predominant CGI. But all this would mean very little if it weren’t for the film’s thoughtful and engrossing narrative. A brilliantly sustained claustrophobic puzzle of lost identity, Moon is no mere space oddity. (sorry!)
47 Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street (2008)
Stephen Sondheim had not licensed one of his musicals for the cinema since his dissatisfaction with A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, but he wisely let Tim Burton make a film of his macabre stage masterwork. Leaving all the songs virtually intact, Burton adds his own visual opulence with a fantastically stylised recreation of back-street Victorian London. The score is fantastic, the gore is revolting and Johnny Depp sings like Anthony Newley. The greatest live-action musical since Cabaret, Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street is a Grand Guignol triumph of razor-sharp excellence.
46 Control (2007)
Retelling the troubled life and tragic suicide of Ian Curtis could have been a painfully morose experience, but Dutch photographer Anton Corbijn’s adaptation of Deborah Curtis’ Touching From A Distance is as richly rewarding as Joy Division’s own awe-inspiring music. Control‘s stark black and white presentation acutely reflects the haunting mood of the era, as if the iconic monochrome photographs of the band come to life before our eyes. Newcomer Sam Riley conveys great poignant apathy in a complex examination of depression and isolation. A poetic counterpoint to 24 Hour Party People, Control is one of the most beautiful British films ever made.
45 Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
A terse excercise in passive-aggressive strangeness, I was initially perplexed and confounded by Paul Thomas Anderson’s unusual romantic comedy, but repeated viewings revealed a quite extraordinary work of subversive, unconventional romance. Casting Adam Sandler is the first great provocation, his character of Barry Egan being a darker, more damaged version of the actor’s usual misfit persona. Then there’s the soundtrack, with Jon Brion fusing random off-kilter drum rhythms and an oppressive harmonium together with Shelley Duvall singing ‘He Needs Me’ from Popeye. The screen fills with bold splashes of colour seemingly at random, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman turns up as a violently abusive phone sex-line supervisor. Disorienting and odd, Punch-Drunk Love is a typically daring assault on a generally bland genre by a true cinematic visionary.
44 Frost/Nixon (2008)
Who’d have thought David Frost would be at the centre of the greatest cinematic clash since Hans Gruber fell to his death. But Peter Morgan creates another exciting rendering of real events after his success with The Deal and The Queen. Shaping the film as an intellectual boxing match, the heavyweight self-satisfied ex-president Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) squares up against lightweight wheedling showbiz playboy David Frost (Michael Sheen). But the encounter soon develops into a crucial opportunity for both parties to salvage their reputations. It could be argued that Ron Howard makes little concessions to cinema in adapting the play, but it hardly matters since the acting and dialogue are pitch-perfect. A riveting dramatic duel.
43 Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
The boundless creativity and imagination of Studio Ghibli proved the perfect company to bring Diana Wynne Jones’ fantasy novel to the screen and brought anime supremo Hayao Miyazaki out of his short-lived retirement. The story brims over with elaborate fantasy and frankly defies a one-sentence summary, but among the many fantastic creations on display are Calcifer the vivacious fire demon, the repulsive Witch Of The Waste, and the devoted prince-turned-scarecrow Turnip Head. Howl’s Moving Castle casts an intoxicating animated spell and is another sparkling gem on Studio Ghibli’s rich cinematic crown.
42 Frozen River (2008)
A powerful first feature from Courtney Hunt, Frozen River is a timely reminder of those living on the literal peripheries of society during the economic downturn. In a remarkable début film performance, Melissa Leo plays struggling single mother Ray Eddy, who resorts to smuggling immigrants across the dangerously icy Canadian border as a means of supporting her children over christmas. Entirely filmed on location in snowbound Upstate New York, the grim setting adds a menacing power to this intense story of despair. Close-ups of Ray’s stark pale face and dry cracked skin have the same dramatic impact of Dorothea Lange’s famous photos of Depression-era mothers, and this film is an equally significant document, albeit fictionalised, of a financially stricken era. Frozen River offers the rare merging of a sharp socially conscious drama with an urgent edge-of-the-seat thriller.
41 I’m Not There (2007)
The intrepid Todd Haynes revealed the dramatic strategy of his remarkable film by explaining “He’s like a flame: If you try to hold him in your hand you’ll surely get burned. Dylan’s life of change and constant disappearances and constant transformations makes you yearn to hold him, and to nail him down”. Of course, this most distinctive and audacious of biopics isn’t really a biopic at all. The name Bob Dylan is only mentioned once, in the opening credits as ‘inspired by the music and many lives of Bob Dylan’ (hence he’s ‘not there’). Six disparate actors, including Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, Ben Whishaw and even Cate Blanchett, portray six fictional songwriters at various junctures of creative life. I’m Not There brilliantly captures the extraordinary, multi-faceted career of a musical giant in a bold cinematic style.
60 Sideways (2005)
Purveyor of sophisticated and satirical comedies like a latter-day Preston Sturges, Alexander Payne continued his brilliant track record with this comic-drama of two 40-something friends (Paul Giametti and Thomas Haden Church) taking a road trip to the vineyards of Santa Barbara. Sideways famously raised the profile of Pinot Noir and worldwide sales of Merlot actually dropped after Giametti’s Miles exclaimed “I am NOT drinking any fucking Merlot!” I feel obliged to make a wine analogy, so let’s say that Sideways has a complex and elegant flavour with witty aromas and it’s ageing nicely.
59 Dancer In The Dark (2000)
Another emotional wrench from Lars Von Trier, Dancer In The Dark takes the redemptive themes of Breaking The Waves to new agonizing levels. Bjork is excellent as Selma, a blind factory worker who makes the ultimate sacrifice to save her son’s eyesight. Criticised by some for all too clearly manipulating the audience’s response to Selma’s plight, the combination of extreme sentimentality and Dogme 95-style reality (although all the rules of that restrictive doctrine are in fact ignored) turn the film into something wonderfully unique. And importantly, Von Trier understands the powerful essence of the film musical – that the songs represent the soul crying out to be heard where dialogue just won’t suffice. An extraordinary film.
58 The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
The third Jason Bourne film, and the second from Paul Greengrass, leaves the first two standing as the heart-pounding action cranks up to dangerously high levels. Bourne (Matt Damon) continues to search for his true identity across Paris, London, Madrid, Tangier and New York, each location providing a sensational dramatic set-piece. Greengrass’ camera rarely settles for the two-hour running time, so expect your head to be reeling as the final credits roll. Undoubtedly the most exhausting and exhilarating action movie of the decade.
57 Syndromes And A Century (2006)
With a steady camera and delicately precise framing similar to Yasujiro Ozu, Weerasethakul succeeds in creating a sweet and subtle portrait of two separate hospitals 40 years apart. The first is a calm rural retreat and the second is a bustling city medical centre, with identical scenes played out in both but differing outcomes, suggesting that certain times and places can transform people. The film was initially banned in its homeland of Thailand after Weerasethakul refused to remove scenes considered inappropriate by the censors, stating that “there is no reason to mutilate them in fear of the system. Otherwise there is no reason for one to continue making art.” Limited screenings later showed a blank screen during the missing sections in protest. Syndromes And A Century is a beautiful testament to a director’s artistic conviction.
56 The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
The Coen Brothers’ lovingly crafted film noir is as good as the best entries from the 1940’s and 1950’s. Like a cracking James M. Cain story, The Man Who Wasn’t There concerns barber Ed Crane’s (Billy Bob Thornton) predicament as he attempts to blackmail his wife’s lover, only for things to spiral out of control. Great support is given here by James Gandolfini, Scarlett Johansson and Coens regular Frances McDormand. With steady but gorgeous cinematography, where every bristle of hair and puff of smoke sparkles, this sensational noir homage is recommended to anyone who may think things always look better in colour.
55 Big Fish (2003)
A joyous, free-falling fantasy from Tim Burton, taking a break from the adaptations and re-imaginings of recent years to present a completely original and dazzling story. Big Fish floats from one extraordinary event to another, making the viewing experience all the more surprising. In his best film since Ed Wood, Burton gives us another Ed who is equally full of tall tales and big ideas. Ed Bloom recalls a life filled with unusual characters and bizarre incidents, only we’re never quite sure who or what to believe. Excellent ensemble work from Ewan Macgregor, Albert Finney, Jessica Lange, Billy Cruddup, Helena Bonham-Carter, Steve Buscemi and Danny De Vito in a charming and personal film from the dark master of Hollywood.
54 Up (2009)
The unbroken chain of brilliant films from the Pixar studios from Toy Story onwards could be compared to Disney’s own gold run after their late 1980’s revival. But after the release Up it seems clear that the company had reached a maturity and prodigious creativity comparable to Disney’s original golden era of the 1930’s and 1940’s, where consistent artistic excellence and innovation were the order of the day. Incredibly, Up has the same dramatic poignancy of Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, a similar story of a widower taking a touching road trip with a young companion, but still manages to reach a wide family audience. A momentous achievement.
53 The Diving Bell And The Butterfly (2007)
Based on the inspiring memoir of journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby, who wrote an account of his life after a paralyzing stroke left him with only the ability to lift his left eyelid, Julian Schnabel does a poetic and moving job of bringing this supposedly difficult-to-film story to life. Mathieu Amalric portrays Bauby, displaying great apathy and sincerity in a performance that largely involves him blinking a single eye. Bauby’s physical confinement juxtaposes with lively flashbacks of his time as editor of Elle magazine, as well as his own vivid fantasies of idyllic beaches and mountains. Along the way we encounter other characters who are similarly confined, including a friend who was held captive for years, and Bauby’s father (Max Von Sydow) who is too frail to escape his high-rise flat. The Diving Bell And The Butterfly is a rich and inspirational viewing experience.
52 The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004)
Critics seemed to miss the boat on this one, but it’s my personal favourite of all Wes Anderson’s films. A colourful and quirky ocean adventure, like Woody Allen adapting Jules Verne, The Life Aquatic maintains Anderson’s dry comic approach to dysfunctional family life. A tribute to Jacques Cousteau as well as a thoughtful paean to childhood and a child’s spirit of adventure, the film mixes beautifully surreal sets and stop-motion animation from Henry Selick with a soundtrack of Seu Jorge covering David Bowie songs in Portugese – what’s not to like? Bill Murray leads a great cast including Cate Blanchett, Michael Gambon, Jeff Goldblum, Angelica Huston, Owen Wilson and Willem Dafoe. Uniquely Wes Anderson yet still unlike anything else ever made.
51 Heaven (2002)
Krzysztof Kieslowski died before filming his love-on-the-run screenplay, so it was left to Tom Tykwer to bring it to the screen. Part of an uncompleted trilogy (with Hell and Purtgatory), Heaven opens as Phillipa (Cate Blanchett) plants a bomb designed to murder a corrupt Italian businessman, but unknowingly kills four people including a mother and child. But young Carabinieri clerk Filippo (Giovanni Ribisi) falls in love with Phillipa during her questioning and helps her to escape. The critical backlash against this film now seems absurd because Heaven clearly succeeds in every respect. Moments of unbearable tension sit alongside moments of astounding beauty and, despite committing a heinous act, the audience’s sympathy towards the fugitives is affectingly palpable. Possibly the most underrated film of the decade.
70 Wonder Boys (2000)
An unfinished novel, a murdered pet, a pregnant lover, an unstable student and a coat worn by Marilyn Monroe on her wedding day are just some of the elements that make up Curtis Hanson’s wonderful comic drama Wonder Boys. In his finest screen role, Michael Douglas plays Professor Grady Tripp, a lecturer suffering from a seven-year bout of writer’s block as well as a failed marriage. The supporting cast is excellent, particularly Toby Maguire as the darkly enigmatic student with a fixation for Hollywood suicides. A charming, witty and engaging portrait of troubled characters all looking for resolutions to the trappings of marriage, education, emotional trauma and creative impasse.
69 Eastern Promises (2007)
A British midwife (Naomi Watts) gets mixed up with London’s Russian mafia in David Cronenberg’s riveting crime thriller. Reunited with the director after their success with A History Of Violence, Viggo Mortensen continues to show his brilliant range as Nikolai, the driver of a powerful mafia boss hiding a dangerous secret. With Cronenberg’s typical flair for startling gory violence (notably during an incredible fight sequence in a Turkish bath) and an impressive plot twist, Eastern Promises is a brilliantly constructed and electrifying slice of cinema.
68 Hunger (2008)
Making an impressively assured switch from Turner Prize-winning art to award-winning cinema, first time director Steve McQueen brings the harrowing events of the 1981 Irish Hunger Strikes to the screen in this frighteningly honest depiction. At the centre of Hunger is a 17-minute one-camera take (and the longest single shot in mainstream cinema) of a priest trying to convince strike leader Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) to call off the protest, giving the film a rich political discourse amidst the graphic prison sequences. This is an unflinchingly brutal drama, certainly not an easy or pleasant watch, but powerful and important filmmaking.
67 Babel (2006)
The ambitious cinema of Alejandro González Iñárritu may seem to overreach itself with its grandiose themes of universal suffering, but there’s no denying the minute-by-minute dramatic punch of his films. Taking the multi-narrrative single-location style of Amores Perros and 21 Grams and transplanting it to an international stage, Babel presents four interlocking stories of personal tragedy set across Morocco, Japan, United States and Mexico. The Tower of Babel association is clear enough, since each story is built around misunderstandings caused by language barriers, particularly the moving tale of confused death-mute Japanese teenager Chieko. Babel‘s power lies in its sheer determined bravado.
66 Coraline (2009)
Another stunning animated gem from stop-motion maestro Henry Selick, following The Nightmare Before Christmas and James And The Giant Peach. Based on Neil Gaiman’s fantasy-horror novel about a girl who finds a passage to an almost identical world in a strange old house, Coraline spills over with imaginative concepts and design. Revelling in delicous dark comedy and an occasional almost-inappropriate nakedness (you’ll know the scene), the 3-D technique only added extra visual novelty to an already faultless 2-D animated fantasy.
65 The Piano Teacher (2001)
Along with Lars Von Trier, Michael Haneke is perhaps the last great European aueteur of cinema, having built up an imposing body of work, often bleak and alarming but always significant. Winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes, The Piano Teacher continues Haneke’s trend for grim visceral horror. Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert) teaches piano at the Vienna Conservatory and lives with her oppressive mother (Annie Girardot), but after being seduced by one of her students she starts to unleash a dangerous and uncontrollable desire. Disturbing, demanding and overlong, but well worth the effort for those who can take it.
64 The Departed (2006)
In his remake of Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs, Martin Scorsese adds an extra hour of screen time and again dissects the American gangster scene to present a typically epic portrayal of mobsters and informants in the Massachusetts State Police. Winning Best Film and Best Director Oscars may have seemed like compensatory awards for decades of Scorsese’s Academy losses, but that really belittles the achievements of this excellent crime thriller. The ridiculously starry cast includes Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen and Scorsese’s favourite 21st century lead, Leonardo DiCaprio. Violent epic grandeur and his best film since Goodfellas.
63 American Splendour (2003)
One of the great portraits of creative anguish, American Splendour is quite unlike any other biopic. Paul Giametti plays underground writer Harvey Pekar, who reflected the poignant monotony of his own life through the comic book series American Splendour whilst being treated for cancer. The real Harvey Pekar also appears throughout in the flesh and in animation, commentating on the film’s inaccuracies. Amusingly, Pekar’s actual appearances on the Letterman show are seamlessly spliced into the dramatic reconstructions. With its floating jazz score, bleak humour and off-kilter structure, American Splendour is a beautifully sad jewel of a film.
62 Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
The remarkable international success of Danny Boyle’s triumph-against-adveristy tale mirrors the film’s own ascending underdog status and somehow tapped into a global aspirational mood during a world financial crisis. But Slumdog Millionaire is no gentle ride and certainly not the ‘feel good movie’ labelled by advertises. In fact, it’s a tough, uncompromising film that only allows a feel good ending after subjecting the viewer to all the pain, suffering and heartache of it’s struggling protagonist. For a film with a comparatively low-budget, a bleak tone, a harsh subject matter and recurring subtitles, Slumdog Millionaire‘s international acclaim, particularly at the Oscars, only reaffirms the film’s great aptitude for dramatic storytelling.
61 Donnie Darko (2001)
‘Harvey on acid’ may sound like a trite IMDB review title, but it’s perhaps the best way to describe Richard Kelly’s strange soporific fantasy. Devilishly blending science-fiction mystery, college drama and dark comedy, the varied meanings and interpretations of Donnie Darko are still well up for debate, but thankfully the film is smart and witty enough to withstand repeated viewings needed whilst attempting to make sense of it all. Or maybe it’s just more fun not to make sense of things, afterall where’s the feeling of wonder in fully comprehending everything? Definitely the weirdest and coolest of the US indie new wave.
80 Black Book (2006)
After two decades of Hollywood blockbusters, Paul Verhoeven returned to the Netherlands with honed skills and hefty financial backing to make this fantastic World War II thriller, a pet project with frequent co-writer Gerard Soeteman for over twenty years. The story of Jewish singer Rachel Steinn’s (Carice van Houten) infiltration of the SS is a welcome throwback to all the large-scale war movies of the fifties and sixties – a huge, lush and exciting two-and-a-half-hour adventure. But Black Book breaks away from certain genre clichés by controversially depicting sympathetic Gestapo officers and selfish resistant fighters, as well as presenting all nationalities speaking in their mother tongue. This lavish tale more than indulges Verhoeven’s penchant for copious amounts of sex and violence, and few films are able to sustain a driving narrative with such a staggering amount of plot twists. Marvellous.
79 Lost In La Mancha (2002)
When Terry Gilliam began filming his long-desired adaptation of Don Quixote with budgets, schedules and a cast of Jean Rochefort and Johnny Depp in place, he couldn’t have imagined that the only film to emerge from the project would be the documentary Lost In La Mancha. Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe’s behind the scenes footage followed each step of the way, as the delicate production completely unravelled beyond Gilliam’s control. Aircraft noise disruption, flash floods, an injured leading man, crippling insurance claims – the unluckiest production shoot ever is all caught on film in this remarkable document, as the director’s mission becomes almost as impossible as Quixote’s own quest. Gilliam’s second attempt to film The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is now underway.
78 Team America: World Police (2004)
South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone defiantly take on a broad range of satirical targets, including action movies, musicals, terrorists, liberals, fascists and the Iraq war, for their polarizing masterpiece Team America: World Police, all done in the unique style of Gerry Anderson’s “supermarionation” (I wonder what he made of it all?). Any criticism of excessive bad taste, or the fact that the film is oddly not as politically biting as South Park could be, pale into insignificance against the sheer onslaught of outrageousness on display. Offended nations world over could take solace in the fact that liberal Hollywood A-listers come out of the film far, far worse than anybody else. One of the most consistently hilarious comedies of all time? Fuck yeah!
77 Sunshine (2007)
Before gaining international acclaim for Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle made Sunshine, an intelligent science-fiction film that became all but critically and commercially buried. Cillian Murphy is part of a team sent on a mission to reignite the fading sun and save the dying Earth in this atmospheric, contemplative sci-fi along the lines of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris and Alien. This was a risky project for Boyle, adding an entry to a practically defunct genre in the UK, and Sunshine was ultimately a commercial failure, but one which stood alone as a testament to the great British science fiction film (certainly until the release of Moon in 2009). Definitely a neglected gem ripe for rediscovery after only three years in the wilderness.
76 The Mist (2008)
After two hugely successful Stephen King adaptations – the massively overrated The Shawshank Redemption and the turgid The Green Mile – Frank Darabont got it just right with this sleeper horror hit. Something of an homage to 1950’s B-movies, The Mist presents an impressive array of terrifying and repulsive monsters from another dimension, provided by the studio behind Pan’s Labyrinth’s creations. But the real horror lies in the Lord Of The Flies style mob that emerges within a local community trapped in a grocery store, who resort to human sacrifice at the command of religious zealots. Also, kudos must be given for one of the most downbeat endings in cinema history! If possible watch Darabont’s preferred black-and-white presentation of the film, which adds an agreeably authentic period feel absent from the colour version.
75 DiG! (2004)
Filmed over seven years and drawn from 2,000 hours of footage, it’s fair to say this incredible story of rock rivalry is as cleverly constructed as any fictional narrative. But the finished product is a hugely enjoyable distillation of all the dangerous trappings and foibles of rock stardom – drink, drugs, luck, misfortune, compromise, jealousy and ego. The developing careers of two bands – The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols – develops into a tragi-comic expose when Jonestown singer Anton Newcombe believes his band is set for superstardom, only to be confounded by the international success of the Dandy’s. The tragedy is that Newcombe destroys all possible chances for success through his own destructive excesses and the film ultimately presents little proof of his oft-mentioned “genius”. A true-life Spinal Tap with added pathos.
74 The Queen (2006)
What sounds like a rather sensationalist idea for a drama – focusing on the Royal Family and the Prime Minister in the immediate wake of Princess Diana’s death – becomes a superb and riveting character study by playwright Peter Morgan. The drama boils down to a fascinating culture-clash between the detached emotional restraint of the House Of Winsor and the exposure-hungry hysteria of 1990’s media. An excellent sympathetic performance from Helen Mirren takes the film away from any imitative novelty and presents the figure of a grandmother caught up in an extraordinary chain of events. But the most striking element is the black comedy laced throughout, notably when the Royal Family go out on a shooting trip whilst the rest of the country are in apparent mourning. Surprisingly effective.
73 Y tu mamá también (2001)
The new wave of Mexican cinema injected the last decade with the same fresh vigour and bold approach that the Nouvelle Vague did in the 1960’s. One of the first, and best, is Alfonso Cuarón’s vivacious road movie, which certainly has shades of Jules et Jim. Following the journey of teenagers Julio (Gael García Bernal) and Tenoch (Diego Luna) as they travel to an illusory paradise beach with the older and more sexually aware Luisa (Maribel Verdú), the trip takes place against the backdrop of a political shift in Mexico, although these events merely colour the landscape and actually seem to heighten the focus on the sincere coming-of-age narrative. Very funny, very sexy and with a fantastic soundtrack to boot.
72 Synecdoche New York (2008)
Charlie Kaufman’s obsessive mission to examine (but never really understand) the role art plays in resolving life’s issues was well explored in Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, but reaches unrestrained fever pitch in his directorial début. The problems of Adaptation’s protagonist appear frivolous compared to the deep-rooted neurosis of theatre director Caden Cotard (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Given a genius grant to pursue his artistic ideal, Caden spends decades attempting to perfect a full-scale recreation of New York life in a giant warehouse, populated by an ever-changing, increasingly imitative cast. With all the logic of an Escher painting, Synecdoche New York is art-imitating-life-imitating-art to the power of ten. Frustrating, perplexing, wildly ambitious and unmistakably brilliant.
71 28 Days Later (2002)
Jumping between genres with Kubrickesque ease, Danny Boyle brought British horror kicking, screaming and indeed raging into the 21st century. Alex Garland’s screenplay depicts a chilling and barren post-apocalyptic England a mere four weeks after animal rights activists free a less-than-cuddly chimp from a research facility. Presenting another revolutionary (or is that evolutionary) stage in the zombie sub-genre, which in this case means not actually featuring any zombies, the “infected” are instead fuelled by a viral rage and have the rare ability to out-run their victims. Incidentally, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s 28 Weeks Later (2007) did more than justice as the sequel to this truly exceptional horror.