10. Talk to Her
AKA Hable con ella
(Pedro Almodóvar, 2002, Spain)
Contemporary cinema’s grand master of fucked-up sexuality and gender relationships topped even himself with this story of two men and the comatose women they love: would any other filmmaker even think of presenting an act of rape as a gesture of true love from a tragic hero? But focusing too much on the melodramatic excess, while always a viable approach to Almodóvar, means missing out on the incredibly delicate ways his script parallels and contrasts the two couples, or the way that dance is played throughout as a metaphor for the story. There’s no missing his innocently perverse tribute to cinema history (a mock silent film in which an inch-tall man enters his lover’s vagina), nor the usual candy-colored palette that sets off the roiling emotions of his potboiler; and make no mistake, for all its kink, this is as robust a love story as you can hope to find.
9. The Best of Youth
AKA La meglio gioventù
(Marco Tullio Giordana, 2003, Italy)
It’s one of the best things you can say about a movie that you wish it had been longer; especially when that movie goes on for six hours. A stunning, ambitious treatment of modern history, written by Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli, the film isn’t flawless (at that length, could it be?), but it is so rich in detail and scope, in emotion and in intellect, that you could watch it doubly as long and not grow tired. The filmmakers pair the story of Italy, from the ’60s to the end of the century, with the story of the Carati brothers, Nicola (Luigi Lo Cascio) and Matteo (Alessio Boni), who find themselves tossed about by stormy political events and personal triumphs and tragedies in an epic narrative that unfolds like a great novel, though Giordana’s smart treatment of the material is always keenly and essentially cinematic.
8. Werckmeister Harmonies
AKA Werckmeister harmóniák
(Tarr Béla, 2000, Hungary / France / Italy / Germany)
One of those movies that grabs you and won’t let go from the very first shot; though Tarr cheats a little, with a first shot that lasts almost ten minutes. But it’s a corker: an enthusiastic amateur astronomer uses the patrons of a bar as living props in a demonstration of the movements of the solar system. And it perfectly sets us up for a movie that from its title on down is a mixture of esoteric theories and gloriously mesmerising long takes (a kingly total of 39 shots in 145 minutes), that build with stately deliberation from universal order to universal chaos. It sounds overbearing and pretentious, but in its own way, it’s as thrilling as any superhero adventure, and resolutely human-sized in its concerns. It’s like an especially urgent dream, driven so far into your head that it seems impossible that just anybody could have the same experience. (Reviewed here)
7. Moulin Rouge!
(Baz Luhrmann, 2001, USA / Australia)
The director’s shtick, heavily presentational treatments of barbarically simple plots, has earned him as many enemies as fans; but I am almost indecently eager to throw my lot in with the fans, especially as concerns this radiantly garish love story that shamelessly rips details from the operas La bohème and La traviata to make the most clichéd love story imaginable; all the better to serve as the base for a kaleidoscopic musical with defiantly anachronistic pop songs, and Jill Bilcock’s blitzkrieg editing that offers us barely a moment to catch our breath and admire the lavish sets and costumes designed by Catherine Martin. Five minutes of the film can be exhausting; two hours is the most invigorating, blissful experience that cinema can offer, the creation of a world that doesn’t and can’t exist, so beautiful and wildly alive that you can almost jump right into the screen. “Spectacular, spectacular”, indeed. (Reviewed here)
6. Grizzly Man
(Werner Herzog, 2005, USA)
When the Discovery Channel commissioned a documentary edited from the thirteen years of videotapes made by amateur bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell, devoured by a rogue grizzly in 2003, they might have wanted a sober tale of nature’s power, a sad tribute to Treadwell’s enthusiasm with caution to beware his example. Instead, they gave the footage to Herzog, who made the only film he possibly could: an indictment of Treadwell as a fool who made the cardinal sin of sentimentalising nature as beautiful when it is full of hunger, murder and despair. But at the same time, Herzog’s omnipresence as narrator (and onscreen subject) reminds us constantly that this film is an act of interpretation, not description; and by Herzog’s own admission, he cannot grasp Treadwell’s life and character, but only present an idea of what his death indicates. The truth is in the eye of the very discomfited beholder.
5. Mulholland Dr.
(David Lynch, 2001, France / USA)
Given the opportunity to finish up a pilot commissioned and discarded by ABC, Lynch did what anyone would do: he added explicit lesbian sex and nightmarishly incoherent scenes possibly implying that the whole story is the depressed hallucination of a character whose existence is uncertain. A fiendishly difficult puzzle box, it’s also a tremendously effective condemnation of commercial filmmaking: explicitly in scenes which make L.A. look like a gaudy whore pit, implicitly in the very bones of the movie, which scoffs at “linearity” and “meaning”, making a hell of a lot more sense emotionally and intuitively than it can intellectually. Open enough that you could argue almost any meaning you like out the material, but precise enough that any attempt to do so – including the one I just wrote – fails; the film is palpably smarter than we are, which is by far the most disturbing thing about it. (Reviewed here)
4. Yi yi
(Edward Yang, 2000, Taiwan / Japan)
All about everyday people facing everyday problems, it’s an unusually well-observed and nuanced human story; it rises to the level of sheer art through Yang’s incredible sense of how to present the story of the Jiang family visually. Very few movies have ever used the possibilities of color to such great extent; we learn more about the characters and their emotions because of how they fit into the palette of a space then because of anything they necessarily do or say. By the same token, the static shots that overwhelmingly dominate the film, and the way that movement changes the sense of those shots, gives us a powerful sense of the relationship between the Jiangs and their environment. But formally perfect as it is (very, very perfect), the formal elements are always used in strict service to character and emotion. The fulsome humanity is what makes it a masterpiece. (Reviewed here)
3. Inland Empire
(David Lynch, 2006, USA / France / Poland)
Five years after punking Hollywood with Mulholland Dr., Lynch came back with an anti-movie that finishes the job with a diabolically intense non-narrative story that plays like a series of connecting fibers between incidents we never witness, while using digital video to make something so defiantly ugly that it effectively comes right back all the way around to beauty. If I can’t explain the 2001 film, I can’t even describe Inland Empire, which shares with Lynch’s feature debut Eraserhead a terrifying knack for dazzling us with images that are half-nightmare and half-religious vision, while having a dialogue with our subconscious that dredges up all sorts of unpleasant sensations. In the center of this whirlwind, Laura Dern gives a fearless performance that virtually eschews characterisation; she becomes instead Lynch’s vessel for exploring the question of how there can actually be such a thing as a human being in a film. (Reviewed here)
(Sembene Ousmane, 2004, Senegal / France / Burkina Faso / Cameroon / Morocco / Tunisia)
Cinema as a living, breathing entity. Sembene’s last film is all at the same time a tribute to human beings and our indomitable vitality; a political screed demanding gender equality and the abolition of a truly hideous ritual designed to punish women for being women; and and extraordinary work of visual genius, using color and frame to present a picture of a word where even the moments of greatest stillness quiver with potential energy. It’s hard to describe the film without making it sound very artsy and important, but at the same time the film is made with such a warm love of humanity that bursts out at every opportunity that it is one of the most uplifting and even delightful movies I’ve ever seen – not bad considering that its plot is all about female genital mutilation. Don’t let that stop you; it’s completely, compulsively watchable. (Reviewed here)
1. In the Mood for Love
AKA 花樣年華 (Fa yeung nin wa)
(Wong Kar-Wai, 2000, Hong Kong / France)
Such a safe, consensus-ready choice that I very nearly swapped it with #2, just to keep things interesting; but that would have been a lie. The fact is, Wong’s tribute to the secret life of the human heart is one of the most moving love stories of all time; that it’s also an unmitigated masterpiece of design and form certainly helps quite a lot. Aching with romance even though the leads (Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, two brilliant actors at their very peak) don’t even share a stolen kiss, this story is mired in an exact place and time, but its feelings are universal; the director and his many gifted collaborators create an impossibly lush, involving mise en scène that’s never indulgent and gives the movie a heady splash of glamorous sensuality. This may be the most Impressionistic movie I have ever seen; both the story and the images are ultimately driven by the abstract experience of passion, made heartbreakingly tangible through means completely unique to cinema.