(Mike Leigh, 2008, United Kingdom / USA)
Having long since proven himself the master of mirthless studies of broken characters in films like Secrets & Lies and Naked, Leigh took a completely unexpected swerve with the lightest movie he’d made since the 1980s: not a comedy nor a drama, it’s nothing more than two hours spent in the company of the rarest of all human beings: a person who is genuinely happy, not because she is naïve or innocent, but because she chooses to be. Sally Hawkins gives an excellent, unfathomably nuanced performance as Pauline “Poppy” Cross. Without denying the existence of pain or spouting trite bromides, Poppy demonstrates that unmitigated satisfaction and good-spirit can be every bit as intellectually compelling and beautifully crafted as the miserable lives of tragic figures; not a stitch is out of place, and it’s more genuinely uplifting than any of the saccharine that the Hollywood studios put out every December. (Reviewed here)
39. You Can Count on Me
(Kenneth Lonergan, 2000, USA)
Uplift of a very different sort, but uplift nonetheless: the first and so far only film directed by Lonergan (When. The. Fuck. Is Margaret going to be completed?) is, simply, one of the great films about family dynamics, ever. Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo had both appeared in a fair number of movies before this, but it was their portrayals of the estranged Prescott siblings that proved them to be among the great American actors of their era (it remains, for both, their crowning achievement). The story is barely present: just a couple of people who love each other and hate each other discovering by the slowest fits and spurts that they can also like and respect each other, with a little bit of effort. It is slow, but the reward for your patience is one of the most heartfelt movies of a generation.
38. Full Frontal
(Steven Soderbergh, 2002, USA)
A director always given over to structural and formal investigation gets his chance to go completely batshit crazy, finding every way he can to break down the concept of “A Movie” to its atoms, without any notion of whether what he finds at the end will be the salvation or ruin of narrative film. Oh, it’s certainly possible to enjoy Full Frontal as the indie character ensemble comedy it appears to be – some very outstanding performances help with that – but for the full effect, you have to just stare down the whirlwind with the same gonzo intensity that Soderbergh made it, reveling in each unconscionably ugly but precisely designed image, delighting at the thick layers of meta-textual gags, and most importantly, sharing the filmmaker’s joy in watching the grammar of narrative cinema laid out like a watch with all its gears turned out. (Reviewed here)
37. What Time Is It There?
AKA 你那邊幾點 (Ni na bian ji dian)
(Tsai Ming-Liang, 2001, Taiwan / France)
Probably the easiest of Tsai’s features to fall in love with on the first try, though if any living filmmaker fails to earn the adjective “easy”, it’s Taiwan’s poet of tableaux and static shots drawn out sometimes minutes past what seems sane. Nothing could be simpler than the director’s aesthetic, and his plot: boy meets girl (Tsai regulars Lee Kang-Sheng and Chen Shiang-Chyi), girl goes to Paris, boy changes all the clocks in Taipei to Parisian time, girl meets a man who is probably actor Jean-Pierre Leaud, face of the French New Wave. With paranormal and supernatural elements hanging around the edges of the scenario, this plays a bit more like a puzzle than some of Tsai’s films, but at heart it’s quite basic: lost connections, lost loves, lost time. Really, it’s all about the human desire for contact with other humans – not much of a puzzle in that.
36. Children of Men
(Alfonso Cuarón, 2006, United Kingdom / USA / Japan
At its best, science fiction is the genre of pure ideas, but its best comes along horribly infrequently. Then, sometimes, you get something like Cuarón’s positively staggering vision of a post-apocalyptic future, an achievement of narrative (it’s one of the cagiest commentaries on the resource-devouring appetite of the modern industrialised world that you’ll ever see) and visual storytelling like nothing else. The fine art of world creation is rarely so insanely effective as it is here: Jim Clay and Geoffrey Kirkland’s production design is dripping with information both expressed and powerfully subtle, and it’s captured with miraculous invention by Emmanuel Lubezki’s roving, Godlike camera; I have other potential nominees, but I might even call it the best work of cinematography of the decade, in the whole world. Point being: the world serves the story, the story serves our world, and it’s so damn smart that it’s bone-chilling. (Reviewed here)
35. My Winnipeg
(Guy Maddin, 2007, Canada
One of the weirdest little pleasures of the decade was a tiny explosion of auteur-driven autobiographical documentaries, though Maddin’s is by far the least accurate. Have you ever had a dream about the town you grew up in, and your family is in it, but when you wake up you think about it, and you’re certain that those weren’t real places or real people? Then you’ll recognise the basic thrust of Maddin’s tribute to Winnipeg, his mother, and the art of filmmaking, impossibly waxing nostalgic for places and events that only exist in the world of the film. The film is shot broadly in the same aesthetic that Maddin has been refining all decade, the look of a silent film with hyper-modern sexuality and irony; but it’s fresher than most of them, beholden only to the filmmaker’s own incomprehensible dream logic. That’s why it’s called My Winnipeg, not Our Winnipeg. (Reviewed here)
34. Code Unknown
AKA Code inconnu
(Michael Haneke, 2000, France / Germany / Romania)
The notorious director’s most successful, sustained effort at breaking the rules of conventional narrative cinema is this series of plot fragments, filmed almost without exception in long takes that cut only when the scene does. The film’s French subtitle translates as “Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys”, and that’s the best description of its content as you’re going to get: other than the opening, in which most of the characters’ plotlines intersect, this is an exercise in watching scraps of lives, moments that have a meaning that we can sometimes piece together, and sometimes not. Superstar Juliette Binoche gets first billing; but the real star of the film is French society itself, a slurry of different classes and cultures mixing together with no little tension. Haneke presents only questions: What is the relationship between the self and the world, and how can our greater understanding of the world change our identity?
33. The Man Without a Past
AKA Mies vailla menneisyyttä
(Aki Kaurismäki, 2002, Finland / Germany / France)
As dry as ancient dust, as black as pitch at midnight, this is the funniest movie you will ever see to begin with its protagonist being clubbed almost to death on the Helsinki streets. That man, played with dignity and stoicism by Markku Peltola, subsequently loses his memory and ends up living in a shantytown of eccentric homeless people.. In the hands of one half of the directors of this world, that would be the cue for a soppy feel-good story about a man rebuilding his life from the ground up; for the other, a serious, grim tale about social justice and mercy. Rare is the unmeasurable genius of a filmmaker like Kaurismäki, who can combine those two traits and leaven the mixture with astringently absurd humor that keeps the sentiment from becoming gooey and the social observation from becoming too preachy. Humane as it is grotesque, and totally indispensable.
32. George Washington
(David Gordon Green, 2000, USA)
In a decade heavy with truly outstanding debut films, no new filmmaker was more promising and terrifyingly fully-formed out of the gate than the 25-year-old Green, whose first movie, made with the cocksure enthusiasm of youth, took as its primary influence no smaller a figure than the great Terrence Malick. Unbelievably, it measures up to that impossibly high bar: a story born of lengthy close observation, George Washington captures something more than real about the small North Carolina town where it takes place, and the essential and characteristic rhythms of life there, especially as it’s lived by the most perfectly-realised children in all of ’00s cinema. Dripping with humidity, humming with the inaudible buzz of a summer afternoon, and overpoweringly human, it’s a vital masterpiece that the filmmaker hasn’t matched yet, and sad to say, likely won’t – but then, the great bulk of long-established middle-aged directors haven’t, either.
31. Kings & Queen
AKA Rois et reine
(Arnaud Desplechin, 2004, France)
An unclassifiable mixture of comedy, melodrama, and tragedy, as directed by a man bent on finding new and unexpected ways to frame his material, whether its in the angles he uses or the sometimes shocking editing choices, this is a truly marvelous set of parallel stories that give two exemplary actors two absolutely phenomenal roles. Emmanuelle Devos is Nora, faced with an unexciting wedding and a dying father; Mathieu Amalric is Ismaël, locked in a mental institution and trying to find a way out; they’re exes, we learn, and watching their stories converge and overlap is at the heart of this sprawling, messy playground of cinematic invention and human emotion. It covers a lot of ground in 150 minutes, not all of equal interest; but the film’s expressions of how we represent ourselves, what family means, and how it feels to love all add up to time extremely well spent.