60. Vera Drake
(Mike Leigh, 2004, United Kingdom / France)
The most hushed film of a notoriously unshowy director: in its dim visuals, in its unhurried presentation of a politically scorching topic, and above all in the subdued, hauntingly natural performances of the outstanding cast. None of whom outshine Imelda Staunton’s portrayal of the title character, one of the greatest works of acting of the ’00s (it’s also one of the best performances in any Mike Leigh film, which might even be the bolder claim). Guided by the sure hand of a true master of the art, we move slowly through the story of an indefatigably sweet woman who performs abortions on poor young girls out of the most generous of impulses, until she runs afoul of the law in an unbearably mordant scenario, even for the mirthless Leigh. The last we see of Vera, alone and desperate and confused, is surely among the most soul-wracking images of the decade.
59. The Limits of Control
(Jim Jarmusch, 2009, USA / Japan)
The idiosyncratic filmmaker spends the whole movie disproving his title: there are no limits to his control over the building blocks of cinema, the shots and cuts that make his glibly plotless noodling about with the idea of “film representation” so exhilarating. It is a film that is about many things (the triangulation of Europe, the U.S., and the developing world; the nature of personal identity; the history of cinema), but all of these things revealed in dialogue and incident are ultimately secondary to the director’s willful attempt to strip everything he can that typically gives a movie “meaning”, then to step back and see what meaning remains in the heady, minimalist leavings. My one grave concern is that it makes no effort to open itself to anyone not already firmly on Jarmusch’s wavelength, and that’s a pretty rare place to be. Otherwise, it surely would have ranked much higher. (Reviewed here)
58. Finding Nemo
(Andrew Stanton, 2003, USA)
At $339,714,978 (and that’s just domestically!), this is the highest-grossing film in Pixar’s canon, and as it happens the highest-grossing film anywhere on this list. So you probably don’t need me to tell you why it’s so great: the outstanding characters voiced by unlikely, perfectly-cast actors like Albert Brooks, Ellen DeGeneres and Willem Dafoe; the hefty emotional weight of the narrative based in the earth-shattering loss a parent feels for a missing child, of all family-unfriendly themes; the parade of wonders that is the endless ocean depicted with such loving care by the Pixar animators, once again raising the bar for what you can possibly depict in computer-rendered cartoon imagery. But I’m going to tell you anyway: because dammit, it really is pretty much excellent all around, and untouched by the sometimes-imperceptible flaws that very occasionally crop up in the studio’s other films. (Reviewed here)
57. The Wind That Shakes the Barley
(Ken Loach, 2006, Ireland / United Kingdom / Germany / Spain / France)
A film about the early 20th Century manifestations of the conflict between the United Kingdom and Ireland, presented by one of British cinema’s longstanding social realists with the kind of single-minded, savage representation of violence that almost makes you feel physical sickened watching the film – not because the violence is especially disgusting onscreen, but because Loach never lets us forget for one second that it’s mired in historical truth, that every vile act we watch is only one step removed from events that occurred just barely outside of living memory. Unabashedly pro-Republican, but the director is sensible enough to know that terrible acts took place on both sides, and he’s mercilessly unafraid to show the viewer the awful human cost of committing that violence to both Irish and English alike. One of the most brutal films of the decade, but absolutely necessary for every single frame. (Reviewed here)
56. Ocean’s Twelve
(Steven Soderbergh, 2004, USA)
Every single one of the common complaints is unanswerably true: it’s self-indulgent, the plot hangs together not at all, and the whole thing is an excuse for famous people to hang out in Europe having fun; and I love it for exactly those reasons. It’s not half as good a heist picture as the enormously satisfying Ocean’s Eleven, but it’s infinitely better in the shallowest, most delightful way possible: a dash of pure, loopy escapism, made with Soderbergh’s customarily perfect craftsmanship. The fact is, I’m never going to chill with George and Brad and Matt at Lake Como, so I am profoundly thankful that this movie exists to let me do exactly that and more for two hours. And bitch all you like about the notorious “Tess plays Julia” scene; but Roberts is plainly having an insane amount of fun doing it, and I can’t help but respond in kind.
55. There Will Be Blood
(Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007, USA)
Starting with its very title, four monosyllabic thuds of pure threat, Anderson’s wicked epic of the American Dream curdled and rotten in the very last moments when the West was still the Frontier, is more monument than movie; like Citizen Kane (a film it readily quotes without shame, and rightfully so) it is an epitaph to the charming notion that progress and ingenuity can remain pure in the face of money. Everything from Robert Elswit’s grainy photography to Daniel Day-Lewis’s twitchy John Huston parody gives it the distinct feel of a museum piece, but this works immensely to its advantage in depicting an era long dead, but still alive in the eyes of greedy plutocrats the world over. It could almost be a classical tragedy, if only Daniel Plainview had lost something he wanted, instead of his pesky ol’ soul. (Reviewed here)
(Henry Selick, 2009, USA)
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: a little girl enters a parallel world that seems marvelous, until she discovers its dark side and returns to her own home, wiser and less innocent. But adapted from the decidedly off-kilter children’s book by Neil Gaiman, Selick’s treatment of this common fairy-tale scenario vibrates with sparkling dark energy: thanks to the use of heightened-realistic (and labor-intensive) stop-motion animation, the Other World that Coraline visits has a succulent, tactile appeal that is can hardly be matched in any other medium. It’s also the first and so far only film to use that swanky new digital 3-D in a frightfully rigorous, narratively-driven manner that only adds to the fantastic appeal of Selick’s visions; and all of it is so seductive that when, inevitably, it turns to nightmares, it’s maybe even more traumatising and blood-chilling for the audience than it is for the resourceful protagonist. (Reviewed here)
(Gaspar Noé, 2002, France)
Famous as that movie with the 10-minute rape scene – and that’s not even the first atrociously gruesome moment in a film that is, by any conceivable yardstick, a horrendously unpleasant way to spend 99 minutes. But there’s so very much more than just Noé trying to shock and disgust every conceivable viewer. Far more discomfiting than the violence is the film’s whirling camera and aggressive backwards-chronological narrative, which begins with a for-the-moment uncontextualised act of brutal vengeance, moves to the rape and the moments leading up to the rape, and then – and this is the most horrible part of all – to the day before, when the couple about to enter the mouth of Hell putters about, unconcerned and unknowing. It’s a bleak-unto-nihilistic look at hindsight and inevitability that, sickeningly, almost becomes blandly sentimental: “Cling to these blissful moments, because they don’t last. Enjoy your fake happy ending”.
52. Time Out
AKA L’emploi du temps
(Laurent Cantet, 2001, France)
A slow, simple movie that will haunt you for the rest of your days. Vincent (Aurélien Recoing) has lost his job, and can’t face telling his wife and children, so he concocts all sorts of lies for them, while relying on money from his friends – also gotten from lies, under the pretext that it’s going to some investment. You’d call Vincent a con man, except there’s no avarice or greed in his actions; before too long, we can start to openly wonder if he’s even aware that he’s lying, or if he’s so crushed by the world that he can do little more than wander about in a haze. Visually and aurally spare, in the way that only French art films can get away with, it’s a subtle indictment of the modern world and a worrying investigation into personal identity that can’t be shaken or ignored.
51. Brokeback Mountain
(Ang Lee, 2005, USA / Canada)
An impossible mash-up of the Western, queer cinema, and the ricketiest kind of old-fashioned weeper that sounds, literally, like a South Park punchline: and it could hardly be a richer, more moving experience. I’ll let the theorists hash out what sort of social meaning the film possesses, in its appropriation of the quintessentially masculine iconography of the Western for a story that abandons easy concepts of gender, or a gay film in which we see more female breasts than man-on-man love scenes. I’m always too busy sobbing like a baby at that final scene to give a shit about identity politics. Which, for me, remains the ultimate triumph of this movie, that far outstrips the moment of its creation: it magnificently re-creates the abject, desperate longing of the finest romantic dramas, telling a proudly old-fashioned story and doing a painfully exquisite job of it. (Reviewed here)