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Dennis Price: Very Nearly A Star

Describing himself in a 1969 TV Times interview, Dennis Price wryly said he was “very nearly Britain’s biggest film star”. By the late 1960’s, after experiencing 30 years of ups and downs in British films, Price had seen all too clearly how haphazard the life of a “movie star” could be. For my money, Dennis Price is up there with Olivier, Richardson and Guinness (more on him later!) as the consummate British actor, but he is now almost a forgotten name, certainly a neglected one, even among film buffs. The reasons are many fold and pretty much a textbook example of a tragic film career. A brief look through his film roles offer possible answers as to why he is such a forgotten star, but they also remind us how he was one of the greatest actors of his generation.

His first film role could hardly have been any grander – a starring part in the excellent 1944 war drama A Canterbury Tale from the prodigious Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, which sees Price in thoroughly serious acting mode, hiding the naturally dry comic style with which he became known. The film was not a box office hit but is now regarded as one in a number of Powell & Pressburger classics. But the Dennis Price of this era seemed just another in a line of dashing leading men appearing in slushy melodramas that were ten a penny from Gainsborough studios, albeit with some good performance notices. But his leading role in The Bad Lord Byron (1949) didn’t even have those and met with a critical backlash, halting any chances of a move to Hollywood.

Then things took a turn with Kind Hearts And Coronets, the film that if anything Price is today best remembered for. His role as the devilishly suave psychopath Louis Mazzini showed how charismatic and funny Price could be. But he was cast against a certain Alec Guinness, appearing chameleon like as no fewer than eight members of the doomed D’Asgoyne family, a feat which largely stole the film’s plaudits. But Price’s performance in the film is absolutely pitch-perfect, a model of ruthless manipulation and cruel composure, surveying his victims as obstructive nuisances to be neatly swept aside. Despite his top billing, and being arguably Price’s best film and best role, Kind Hearts And Coronets is now only ever referred to today as the ‘classic Ealing black comedy” or ‘the film where Alec Guinness plays eight parts’. Another false start, it seemed. Price never made another Ealing comedy and Guinness went on to star in another four before launching an international career. Price seemed to make do with lesser comedies such as Lady Godiva Rides Again (1951) and a run of B-movie crime thrillers.

Thanks to the Boulting Brothers, Price finally got another slickly diabolical role to get his teeth into with Private’s Progress (1956). Sharing top-billing with Richard Attenborough, Price’s performance as the corrupt Brigadier Bertram Tracepurcel simply oozes ‘dispicable bounder’ from every pore. Invited to reprise the role in the landmark sequel, I’m All Right Jack in 1959, Price more than holds his own in a cast of British comedy goliaths: Peter Sellers, Terry-Thomas, Irene Handl and Margaret Rutherford.  But once again, Price’s role is somewhat neglected, given the stellar cast, the fact that the wonderful Ian Carmichael pretty much dominates the action and, like Guinness in 1949, Peter Sellers won all the plaudits in 1959. Price provided sterling support in many comedies from this British golden age – in The Naked Truth (again with Sellers and T-T), School For Scoundrels (with T-T and Carmichael), Double Bunk and What A Carve Up! (both with Sid James), and Go To Blazes (1962), but these roles were often all too throwaway and barely did his talent justice.

The 1960’s showed Price making a number of brief pit stops with stardom, mostly in notable supporting roles. In 1960 he was Sophia Loren’s analyst in The Millionairess (again with Sellers), but then the same year Tunes Of Glory presented a rare chance for Price to combine his persona of inscrutable upper-class cad with his some real dramatic meat. But yet again his role is somewhat obscured, given that the film is essentially a two-hander between John Mills and Alec Guinness (who actually used his considerable clout to make sure Price was cast, clearly demonstrating a professional respect Guinness had for him). It’s well worth revisiting Tunes Of Glory to take in Price’s delicate and subtle performance. The following year he gave what many considered a deeply personal performance as an actor blackmailed over his homosexuality in the controversial drama Victim, with Dirk Bogarde and Sylvia Syms. A small role but an effective one, contemporary critics have made much about how Price’s own homosexuality informed the part, which no doubt it did, but more striking is how it perhaps laid bare Price’s own insecurities about the trappings of fame and the fragile nature of success.

A late career upturn took place with the role of Jeeves in the BBC’s The World Of Wooster (1965 – 67) but sadly recordings of the show barely exist today. Continued financial troubles forced Price to become a tax exile on the island of Sark in 1967, making it hard for him to accept regular work. So it’s always a bonus to see Price briefly crop up in some good comedies of this era – The Magic Christian (1969), Some Will Some Won’t (1970) and The Rise And Rise Of Michael Rimmer (1970).  For the last few years of this life however, Price fell into something of an undignified trough and many a cult horror fan will recognize him for his many bit parts in a whole range of horror films – from the half-decent Twins Of Evil, the enjoyably bad Haunted House Of Horror and Horror Hospital, the below-par for Hammer Horror Of Frankenstein, to the downright awful Tower Of Evil and Vampiros Lesbos! One of his last roles was a good one though, as a bitchy theatre critic in the deliciously over-the-top Theatre Of Blood (1973), but Price died of heart failure after a hip fracture and a long battle with alcoholism before the film’s release.

So Dennis Price, one of the great underrated British film stars? There are a dozen film roles which stand as testament to his huge talent and natural gift for comedy, a handful of striking dramatic roles, and a flurry of enjoyable supporting turns. But perhaps he never fulfilled the potential he displayed in Kind Hearts And Coronets. Although did he ever really hunger after the role of revered leading man? As he once admitted, with sharp self-awareness: “I am a second-rate feature actor. I am not a star and never was. I lack the essential spark, you see.” Of course, he was quite wrong about the spark.

Recommended reading: Elliot J. Huntley’s excellent and thorough Dennis Price: A Tribute – The Life And Death of Dennis Price, which had a limited print run but it’s well worth tracking down a copy.

The 100 Films Of The Decade: 5 – 1

And the five greatest films of the decade are …

5     Hidden (2005)

Dir. Michael Haneke

A bewildering puzzle of a film, as well as a disturbing and gripping thriller, Michael Haneke dissects both bourgeoisie society and cinematic voyeurism in his greatest film to date. Mysterious videotapes sent to the home of TV host Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and his wife Anne (Juliette Binoche), contain endless footage of the outside of their house filmed from a hidden static camera, ultimately forcing Georges to confront terrible secrets from his past. Not only a tragic personal story of a man stalked by his past, Haneke also offers a scathing attack on a self-satisfied intellectual class who share and deny a buried collective guilt, explicitly referring to the massacre of Algerians in 1961, but the idea applies on a more general level. Hidden sustains its incredible disturbing tension throughout, so that when one particularly horrible scene arrives, it is all the more shocking. An extraordinary multi-layered thriller, with a final subtle twist in its tail.

4    Let The Right One In (2008)

Dir. Tomas Alfredson

A stunning romantic horror film, Let The Right One In is such a richly moving work that any genre pigeon-holing does it a disservice. This is technically and emotionally superb filmmaking, with Tomas Alfredson’s delicate capturing of time, place and character absolutely pitch perfect. In a bleak snow-drenched suburb of 1980’s Stockholm, introverted 12-year old Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) finds salvation from his bullying schoolmates when he develops a friendship with his young neighbour Eli (Lina Leandersson), who is actually a vampire over 200 years old. Like warm red blood melting through crisp white snow, this film will thaw any hard heart with its strange and poetic central friendship. By turns sensitive and shocking, Let The Right One In is a beautiful and frightening work of nuanced genius, where every detail matters.

3    Mulholland Dr. (2001)

Dir. David Lynch

Hurrah for David Lynch. Without his skewed psychological dreamscapes the cinema would be a far duller place. There’s something about Lynch’s unique off-kilter aesthetic that keeps me riveted to the screen, even in muddled but brilliant films like Lost Highway and Inland Empire, but with Mulholland Dr. he succeeds in making a work so unremittingly captivating that it doesn’t matter when none of it seems to make any sense. Of course, half the fun on repeated viewings is trying to work it all out (clue – it’s literally a film of two halves). If you thought Billy Wilder nailed feverish Hollywood noir with Sunset Boulevard, this menacing and surreal response to that film presents warped Tinseltown paranoia at the level of a carnivalistic nightmare. Mulholland Dr. is a monumental piece of intoxicating cinema, ranking with The Elephant Man and Blue Velvet as David Lynch’s third out-and-out masterwork.

2    Lost In Translation (2003)

Dir. Sofia Coppola

A beautiful and totally charming tale of the unlikely friendship formed between an ageing movie star and the young wife of a celebrity photographer, both caught at emotional crossroads in their lives. Bonding over a shared sense of alienation and culture shock, a poignant relationship blossoms within the hotel’s sterile interiors. The couple’s final inaudible words together leave the audience floating with possibilities, but the impact is simply breathtaking. With career best performances from Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, an irresistible shoegaze soundtrack, and exquisite direction from Sofia Coppola, Lost In Translation is simple, sweet and so effective. Appropriately enough, this is a film to fall in love with and to lose yourself.

And The Film Of The Decade …

1    There Will Be Blood (2007)

Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson

So here it is, a film so devastating in its ambition and execution that no other came close to claiming the top title. The film’s many great aspects are all too clear when compared against other great cinematic jewels – There Will Be Blood offers a complex character dissection similar to Citizen Kane, it has the same themes of destructive greed as The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, the same bold visionary style of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the same sprawling social commentary as The Godfather etc. In summary, this is one hell of a film. Channeling John Huston with frightening skill, Daniel Day Lewis’s tour-de-force performance as Daniel Plainview fully realises the character’s remarkable descent into evil. From a penniless wreck crawling over miles of hills with a broken leg to an insane ageing millionaire prowling madly around his empty mansion, the character arc of Plainview is truly terrifying. With this film, Paul Thomas Anderson cements his reputation as America’s greatest modern auteur. From its no-nonsense opening title to its closing dedication to Robert Altman, There Will Be Blood is an astonishing, mad, surprising, thematically rich, visually audacious masterpiece.

Look out for the next 100 Films Of The Decade list which will be published in January 2020.

The 100 Films Of The Decade: 10 – 6

10   Amélie (2001)

Dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet

A picturesque postcard of Paris from the imagination of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Amélie is a romantic comedy in which the word whimsical could almost have been invented. But that’s not to say it isn’t also extremely clever, witty, poignant and absolutley gorgeous to look at. Audrey Tatou plays the waitress Amélie Poulain, who goes to great lengths to surreptitiously alter the lives of those around her for the better, the role of guardian angel giving her lonely existence a purpose. The film is filled with the most wonderful comic touches (and conversely, touching comedy) such as when Amélie is mistakenly assumed to have a heart defect since the only time her heartbeat raced was during her medical inspections – the only physical contact with her father. The whole film has a glorious and unique colour scheme of glowing greens and yellows, giving it the quality of an eccentric fairytale. Endlessly inventive and engaging, Amélie is a total delight from start to finish.

9    Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Dir. Guillermo Del Toro

Disturbing and enchanting in equal measures, Pan’s Labyrinth is a tour-de-force of allegorical adult fantasy from Guillermo Del Toro, restoring the traditional fairy tale back to it’s dark and twisted roots. In Spain 1944 at the close of the Civil War, the viscous Captain Videl hunts out anti-Franco guerilla fighters whilst his stepdaughter Ofelia discovers a fantastical world in an ancient labyrinth. The horrific and graphic realities of war are mirrored by an underground world of scary yet compelling creatures, with the film presenting a delicate balance between the brutal and the beautiful. The seamless mix of CGI, make-up and animatronic effects is quite incredible, making huge strides in this area. Pan’s Labyrinth perhaps overreaches itself with its overwhelming flow of ideas and conceptual levels, but there’s no denying the film’s incredible bewitching aesthetic and stunning cinematic vigour, which alone make it worthy of the top ten.

8    No Country For Old Men (2007)

Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen

After over twenty years of brilliant and fiercely individualistic filmmaking, The Coen Brothers made possibly their greatest film with this adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s meditative crime thriller novel. Whilst sharing similar themes of chance, free-will and fate, as well as the corruptible effect of crime, with landmark Coen thrillers Blood Simple and Fargo, this study of nihilistic violence presents us with characters whose routes along the path of greed and violence is never assured or controllable. The whole film is neatly summed up by a quirk of psychopath Chigurh (a chilling Javier Bardem), who flips a coin to decide the fate of his victims and his decisions – every character’s actions and consequences in the film are equally haphazard. As well as its rich characterisations and evocative landscapes, No Country For Old Men is also a masterclass in taut suspense. A staggering achievement.

7    Children Of Men (2006)

Dir. Alfonso Cuarón

In a dystopian Britain of 2027, reporter Theo Faron (Clive Owen) becomes involved with an underground group of rebels who are fighting to save mankind from a mysterious global infertility epidemic. Like all great science-fiction, Children Of Men is a thrilling (and here, grimly terrifying) vision of the future, as well as exploration of contemporary anxieties (immigration, homeland security, social cohesion). The film is notable for several remarkable one-camera tracking shots, particularly the seemingly real birth of a child and an exhilarating action sequence of a car being attacked by a guerilla army. Also worth mentioning is Michael Caine, giving one of his best performances in years as an ageing hippie activist. Children Of Men is best British film of the decade and one of the greatest works of speculative science fiction.

6    The Lives Of Others (2006)

Dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

A powerful and moving tale of humanity and self-sacrifice within the oppressive regime of 1980’s East Germany, Stasi surveillance officer Gerd Wiesler (a wonderful performance from Ulrich Mühe, who died shortly after the film’s release) is assigned to listen in on playwright and suspected spy Georg Dreyman in his apartment. But as Wiesler develops an increasing emotional attachment to the life of Dreyman and his wife, the tragic Christa-Maria, he becomes compromised between his duties to the state and his compassion for the artistic ideals of his target. The film met with criticism for its controversial depiction of the Stasi, especially the idea of a Stasi officer being the hero. With compelling plot turns, subtle characterisations and outstanding cinematography (capturing the grim setting of the GDR with dour greens and greys), I can’t recommend The Lives Of Others enough – watch it and let its poignant beauty overwhelm you.

The 100 Films Of The Decade: 20 – 11

20    About Schmidt (2002)

Dir. Alexander Payne

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)

Dir. Andrew Stanton

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)

Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu

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)

Dir. Paul Greengrass

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)

Dir. Michel Gondry

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)

Dir. Andrew Dominik

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)

Dir. Oliver Hirschbiegel

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)

Dir. David Fincher

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)

Dir. Wong Kar-Wai

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)

Dir. David Cronenberg

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.

The 100 Films Of The Decade: 30 – 21

30    Bowling For Columbine (2002)

Dir. Michael Moore

In the decade’s best documentary feature, Michael Moore attempts to examine the complex problems of America’s culture of violence and gun ownership, centred around the 1999 Columbine high school shootings. The causes and solutions are many and complicated, but Bowling For Columbine definitely teaches us to be wary of the media, huge corporations and Charlton Heston. Presented with a darkly comic tone throughout, the film also has moments of unbearable sadness in its description of tragic incidents. As a dramatic polemic, Bowling For Columbine is far more convincing than Moore’s follow up feature, Fahrenheit 9/11, which may have raised the profile and popularity of the documentary genre but did so by stating it’s case with amplified bias. Bowling For Columbine certainly has an agenda, but presents itself with sincerity and understanding of the broad range of issues involved.

29    The Orphanage (2007)

Dir. Juan Antonio Bayona

The opening caption ‘Guillermo Del Toro Presents’ helped to raise the profile of this excellent Spanish horror film, the enchanting style and subtle special effects as seen in Pan’s Labyrinth all present and correct here. But that’s not to take anything away from Juan Antonio Bayona, making an impressive feature-length film début. Belén Rueda gives a powerful lead performance as the distraught mother desperately seeking her missing child, and look out for Geraldine Chaplin in a nice supporting role as a wonderfully dotty medium. With a neat twist and an atmosphere of bubbling intensity, The Orphanage is a spine-chilling ghost story in the best tradition of The Haunting and The Innocents.

28    The Squid And The Whale (2005)

Dir. Noah Baumbach

An important name in the wave of American independent cinema along with this film’s producer Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach made the most strikingly personal film to emerge from the scene with The Squid And The Whale. Baumbach drew on his own childhood experiences of his parent’s divorce to present a remarkably frank portrayal of selfishness and mixed loyalty from both the adults and the children. Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney are superb as the parents in crisis, but even better are Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline as the young Walt and Frank, both exceptional in presenting the raw anger and confusion resulting from a family break-up. The Squid And The Whale is a short, savage and incredibly funny depiction of domestic fallout, but also displays a convincing tone of melancholy, giving potentially unlikable characters a tender depth.

27    The Triplets Of Belleville (2003)

Dir. Sylvain Chomet

An irresistably charming slice of French whimsy, The Triplets Of Belleville has to stand as one of the singularly most bonkers pieces of animation you could hope to see. The extraordinary angular character designs of Sylvain Chomet, and the deliriously winding narrative, are a joy to behold. The plot summary points someway towards the barmy tone of the film –  an elderly woman and her dog encounter an aged music hall trio whilst cycling to rescue her grandson, a Tour de France cyclist, kidnapped by the mafia for use in an unusual form of gambling. And there you have it. With very little dialogue and an emphasis on 1930’s musical pastiches and physical comedy, The Triplets Of Belleville is highly recommended to anyone with a love of ingenious animation and a fondness for the bizarre.

26    A Cock And Bull Story (2006)

Dir. Michael Winterbottom

Laurence Stern’s supposedly unfilmable novel The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy was deconstructing its own comic framework as early as 1759, being a fictional autobiography about a man’s attempts to tell his own autobiography but failing to do so, the digressions of the narrator becoming the main body of the book. Michael Winterbottom’s master stroke was to turn the novel into the story of an actor (Steve Coogan) trying to film the adaptation but failing to do so, the “making of” occupying most of the film. Therefore it’s a film-within-a-film of a novel-within-a-novel. But it goes further, with Coogan also playing ‘himself’ as an actor playing a more arrogant version of Steve Coogan, whilst also acknowledging the fact – there’s metatexuality for you! The sparring between friendly rival actors Coogan and Rob Brydon, playing Uncle Toby, is a constant joy. Like the painting disappearing within itself to the point of infinity, A Cock And Bull Story playfully uncoils all the conceits of cinematic storytelling in a totally unpretentious way, revealing one of the great unsung works of British cinema.

25    Elephant (2003)

Dir. Gus Van Sant

Another film based around the Columbine High School Massacre, Gus Van Sant observes the events leading up to a school shooting with an eerie calm detachment. Filmed from multiple perspectives, tracking backwards and forwards within a 24 hour period in the lives of twelve students, Elephant‘s superb cinematography captures the characters with a dreamlike, almost surreal, beauty. The camera steadily tracks down corridors following the characters as they glide hopelessly towards their fate, and the largely non-professional cast add a great deal of compassionate realism to the film. Van Sant’s bold approach to the controversial topic and his unique style helped the film win the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2003. The titular elephant, inspired by an Alan Clarke BBC play, refers to the ‘elephant in the room’ – that which nobody dare talk of or recognize, but is an ever-present threat. But Elephant refuses to explain or understand the horrific events, instead it simply captures the personal tragedy of it in a strangely beautiful fashion.

24    Wallace & Gromit In The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit (2005)

Dir. Nick Park, Steve Box

A work of indisputable genius from the good people at Aardman Animations, The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit takes the same rollicking pace and stunning animated technique of the Wallace and Gromit short features, but successfully sustains the style for a whole 90 minutes. In fact, this film offers more in mood and tone from the lighting and set design than the majority of live-action films. There isn’t a moment where you don’t wonder in amazement at the extraordinary use of “claymation” – except you’ll be too caught up in the hilarious story to take it all in. Revelling in their obvious love of cinema (particularly Hammer Horror) and their tireless pursuit of the pun, directors Nick Park and Steve Box pull off the rare trick of creating a family film loved equally across the ages. Wallace and Gromit’s big screen début could not have been more perfect – now pass the crackers and Wensleydale!

23    City Of God (2003)

Dir. Fernando Mierelles, Katia Lund

Spanning fifteen years and dozens of characters, the explosive and shocking City Of God put Brazilian cinema on the international map by presenting the tumultuous life of young “hoodlums” and the growth of organized crime in Rio de Janeiro’s troubled Cidade de Deus suburb. The film’s invigorating energy and naturalistic atmosphere breathed new life into the crime genre in the same way Goodfellas had ten years earlier but, unlike Scorsese’s mobsters, City Of God presents its vast range of flawed characters with heartfelt understanding of their bleak predicament. A truly electrifying piece of cinema.

22    Spirited Away (2001)

Dir. Hayao Miyazaki

This landmark anime brought the distinguished Studio Ghibli to a wide international audience, winning over many fans to their wildly imaginative films. Spirited Away follows the experiences of 10-year old girl Chihiro as she discovers an amazing alternative universe of spirits and monsters, a world which makes Alice In Wonderland look like a stroll in your local park. Absolutely teeming with weird and wonderful creations, the many narrative themes and concepts might not be fully appreciated on first viewing due to the film’s sheer spellbinding impact. But on repeated viewings, Spirited Away reveals itself as a rich coming-of-age tale, a satire on Japanese culture and society, and a deep meditation on life, death and identity. Treat yourself and take a dip into the fantastic mind of Hayao Miyazaki.

21    Adaptation (2002)

Dir. Spike Jonze

In case you thought things couldn’t get any more weirdly subversive than Being John Malkovich, director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman take deconstruction to new levels of invention with Adaptation. Kaufman presents a version of himself played by Nicolas Cage who, buoyed by the popular success of Being John Malkovich, attempts to adapt non-fiction novel The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep). Living in his flat is his twin brother Donald, who also decides to take up screenwriting and scores a big success with his genre-driven spec script – the two brothers clearly representing the twin conflicting interests of the creative writer: success and integrity. Cage gives an unusually subtle performance (two in fact) but Brian Cox steals the film in a great supporting turn as tough-talking preacher of  ‘story and structure’ Robert McKee, asserting “God help you if you use voice-over in your work … Any idiot can write a voice-over narration to explain the thoughts of a character” after a typically adroit Kaufman voice-over. Adaptation may well be the best and certainly the smartest film ever made about the gruelling pursuit of writing.

The 100 Films Of The Decade: 40 – 31

40    Ghost World (2001)

Dir. Terry Zwigoff

Based on Daniel Clowes dark cult graphic novel of the same name, Terry Zwigoff’s first non-documentary feature presents a strange and fascinating look at adolescent sorrow. Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) are two socially anomalous best friends who, after graduating from high-school, struggle to adapt to an adult world of disappointment. After setting up a prank meeting with a lonely heart subscriber, Enid strikes up an unusual friendship with middle-aged Seymour (an excellent Steve Buscemi), whilst loosening the bond between herself and Rebecca. A bitingly funny and tender film about the death of friendships and the agonies of maturity, Ghost World is a startling work of nuanced melancholy.

39    The Hurt Locker (2009)

Dir. Kathryn Bigelow

A fiercely tense war movie, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker revisits the themes of her adrenaline-charged thriller Point Break by presenting characters who actively thrive on their dangerous pursuits. Naturally you’d expect any decent film about bomb disposal to generate a certain amount of nail-biting tension, but Bigelow heightens the strain further by casting well-known faces in discardable roles and framing each explosive encounter with a sincere depth of character. Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) is a man totally addicted to war and, having diffused over 800 bombs, approaches each new engagement with steely arrogance and exhilarating glee. This film is not concerned with the politics or strategies of the Iraq war, but more interested in man’s insane addiction to warfare and the competitive machismo of the soldiers. A brilliant, urgent and agonizing piece of cinema, The Hurt Locker is Bigelow’s best film to date and one of the great modern war movies.

38    Shaun Of The Dead (2004)

Dir. Edgar Wright

Inventing its own unique sub-genre of the rom-zom-com, Shaun Of The Dead pulled off an impressive feat by combining sweet romantic charm, genuinely horrific gore and side-aching comedy. But perhaps this successful blending of styles isn’t all that surprising, since they were all the hallmarks of the TV sitcom Space, the film’s direct stylistic influence. Space director Wright and cast members Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (and even Jessica Stevenson in a bit part) bring their groundbreaking 25-minute sitcom to the cinema and sustain the central zombies-in-suburbia theme for 100 minutes with brilliant invention, clearly revelling in their love of George A. Romero films. Hot Fuzz tried the same trick with action movies three years later but didn’t quite have the originality of Shaun Of The Dead.

37    Before Sunset (2004)

Dir. Richard Linklater

In Before Sunset Richard Linklater seamlessly recaptures the charm and impetuous joy of Before Sunrise nine years earlier, but now with an added poignancy of regret and the sense of lost opportunities. Set against the beautiful backdrops of Parisian cafés and winding paths, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy excel as the mature Jesse and Celine, still passionate about life’s great questions but clearly fractured by the intervening years of doomed relationships which seem like a direct result of their years apart. Handled with sweetness and subtlety, it’s the perfect conclusion to one of the screens great romantic pairings.

36    In The Loop (2009)

Dir. Armando Iannucci

The great guru of modern British comedy, Armando Iannucci, made an equally expert transition to the big screen with this ferocious satire on Anglo-American relations. When Minister for International Development Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) publicly states that war in the middle east is “unforeseeable”, he triggers a series of frantic political gesturing on both sides of the Atlantic from pro- and anti- war advocates, but he soon realises he’s being used as the pawn in an international game. Fans of The Thick Of It will be amusingly thrown by the presence of familiar faces with different names and professions – so Ollie becomes Toby, Terri becomes Roz, Sir Julius becomes Sir Jonathan. Perhaps Iannucci is implying that certain character types always recur throughout government and civil service. But of course there’s only ever one Malcolm Tucker and Peter Capaldi dominates the film with his insatiable prowling performance. Filmed in an immediate semi-improvised style and with a perfectly structured narrative, In The Loop is the most savage and incisive comedy this side of Network.

35    Waltz With Bashir (2008)

Dir. Ari Folman

Essentially a documentary framed by the fictional meeting between ex-infantry soldier Ari Folman and an old friend with whom he shares his nightmares and fantasies about his role in the 1982 Lebanon War, Waltz With Bashir met with huge acclaim for its honest and striking depiction of a harrowing conflict. The film has a unique style, combining traditional hand-drawing and flash animation based on video footage, which proves the ideal medium for presenting Folman’s partly vivid, partly hazy recollections. His memories take on an almost hallucinatory abstract sense, emphasizing the horrors of the war but capturing them with an oblique beauty. As with Grave Of The Fireflies and When The Wind Blows, it takes an animated movie to artistically realise the all-too-graphic scenes of warfare and, like those two films, Waltz With Bashir is a work of devastating visual poetry.

34    Good Night And Good Luck (2005)

Dir. George Clooney

At the height of Joseph McCarthy’s communist witch-hunt in 1950’s America, pioneering TV news journalist Edward R. Murrow and his team were alone in defying pressures from sponsors and the CBS network in their attempts to expose the Senator’s ruthless tactics. George Clooney had already made an impressive switch to direction with Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, but with this real-life story he came up with one of the greatest dramas of the decade. Presented in gloriously evocative black and white, allowing for real footage of McCarthy to be seamlessly woven into the story, Good Night And Good Luck is a rousing tribute to the occasionally noble arena of broadcast journalism. As well as a superb period feel it’s hardly surprising that Clooney also shows real talent for drawing out great performances, as this is very much an actors film. Whether in the naturalistic style behind the scenes of the television show or the stirring dramatic hyperbole in front of the studio camera, the tremendous ensemble cast of Clooney, Robert Downey Jr, Patricia Clarkson, Jeff Daniels, Ray Wise and Frank Langella do sterling work. But the movie belongs to David Strathairn, whose stoic performance as Murrow is the heart and soul of the film.

33    Where The Wild Things Are (2009)

Dir. Spike Jonze

Critics who sneered at the pretensions of taking a ten-sentence children’s book and turning it into a 100-minute screenplay completely missed the point of Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers interpretation. Where The Wild Things Are is clearly not an adaptation – it even ignores key elements of the book – but instead uses Sendak’s story as the springboard to a deeply personal examination of what it is to be a child dealing with all the extremes of emotion. One could go further – Max may very well represent every troubled soul trying to come to terms with the crazy world around them. Society, politics, religion, joy, sorrow – it’s all here, but being a Spike Jonze film means these ideas just happen to be played out by the supporting cast of Fraggle Rock. Praise must go to Max Records, who is on screen almost the whole time and handles his challenging role with remarkable depth for such a young inexperienced actor. Let the wild rumpus start!

32    Finding Nemo (2003)

Dir. Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich

A film that threatened to topple Toy Story from Pixar’s creative apex, Finding Nemo became the decade’s benchmark by which all subsequent computer-generated films were measured, with only a few Pixar films living up to its own outstanding artistry. The story of a clownfish looking for his son across Australia’s great Southern Ocean provides an enthralling adventure ride packed with tumultuous thrills and smart comedy, set against an incredibly lush underwater landscape. With a heartfelt emotional connection, shrewd widely accessible humour and gorgeous animated design, Finding Nemo is a film you’ll regularly want to search out.

31    The White Ribbon (2009)

Dir. Michael Haneke

A  year in the life of a rural German village before the outbreak of The Great War sees a series of unpleasant and unexplained incidents occur. My initial reaction to The White Ribbon confounded my expectations in just the way Michael Haneke had surely hoped. No explicit sense of chilling horror or inciting dramatic tension, but instead a deeply troubling and uncomfortable feeling of unease. If this is Mr Haneke’s fictionalised reasoning for the rise of fascism in Europe then it’s a convincing argument. The strict religious morality of the village contrast sharply with the sudden abhorrent acts of evil, but the latter inhabits and nurtures the former like an internal rot. Haneke offers no simple resolution to mankind’s lurking malice (despite wagging his finger fairly sternly at religion and social hierarchies), but captures the bleak inevitability of it all in stunning black and white.

The 100 Films Of The Decade: 50 – 41

50    Almost Famous (2000)

Dir. Cameron Crowe

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)

Dir. Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud

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)

Dir. Duncan Jones

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)

Dir. Tim Burton

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)

Dir. Anton Corbijn

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)

Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson

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)

Dir. Ron Howard

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)

Dir. Hayao Miyazaki

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)

Dir. Courtney Hunt

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)

Dir. Todd Haynes

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.