80. Far from Heaven
(Todd Haynes, 2002, USA / France)
It would have been the easiest thing in the world for Haynes’s tribute to the gorgeous Technicolor melodramas of master director Douglas Sirk (especially All That Heaven Allows) to play like a game of Spot the Reference; while the seemingly trite choice to expand Sirk’s class-based social satire to include race and homosexuality could easily have resulted in just one more tiresome example of twitting Those Conservative Fifties. Instead, the film, and its immaculate re-creation of period filming techniques (kudos to DP Edward Lachman and editor James Lyons), proves a sublimely heartbreaking story of love, self-fulfillment, and loss, with a never-better Julianne Moore embodying far more than just one another repressed Eisenhower-era housewife. For Haynes didn’t just recreate the look and the kinkiness of those magnificent old Sirk films; he succeeded as well in recreating the devastating emotional sucker punch that only a real soap opera can provide.
This massive, dyadic story of the controversial Marxist revolutionary – a film that Soderbergh has since tacitly disowned, or at least downplayed its value – surely does look like it ought to be a biopic. But really, this lusty structural experiment is much more a commentary on the inherent unreliability of the biopic form, telling a fragmentary version of Che Guevara’s life story in a very deliberate act of subversion. We are not given the easy thematic propositions that This man was a monster or This man was a saint; this man was a man, the films state at the end of their combined 4.5-hour running time, and his problems began at exactly the moment that he chose to forget that fact. And of course, being a Soderbergh film, it’s a formalist’s dream, providing what remains the best argument in favor of the RED ONE digital camera. (Reviewed here)
78. Russian Ark
AKA Русский ковчег (Russkiy kovcheg)
(Aleksandr Sokurov, 2002, Russia / Germany / Japan / Canada/ Finland / Denmark)
It’s so easy to get sucked in by the obvious gimmick at the heart of Sokurov’s most widely-seen film (the whole movie occurs in one uninterrupted 96-minute tracking shot) that it’s equally easy to lose sight of just how valuable that gimmick – and if I’m going to keep praising it, I should quit calling it a “gimmick” – is to the film’s meaning. The film is a tour of St. Petersburg’s State Hermitage museum, with the camera occupying the perspective of an anonymous Russian (voiced by the director) journeying with a 19th Century European (Sergei Dontsov) through a series of staged moments representing Russian history over the last 200 years. With no distracting edits, the film’s fluid, non-chronological amble through time becomes increasingly fervid and dreamlike, as Sokurov’s deeply critical appreciation of his country’s history insinuates itself directly into our minds, with no extraneous mediation or framing elements necessary.
77. The Proposition
(John Hillcoat, 2005, Australia / United Kingdom)
The latest in a long and noble history of Aussie Westerns was among the first films in the unexpected and entirely gratifying explosion of neo-Westerns that hit in the middle of the decade and hung on for a couple of years. It’s closest in spirit to the films of Sergio Leone, using landscape and violence brought almost to the level of abstraction as counterpoints to its simple, nihilistic story of civilisation’s miserable failure to secure a victory over the wilderness. It’s more about creating a mood than anything else: from Benoît Delhomme’s haunting imagery to Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s outstanding score, to the worn-out, soulless (in a good way!) performances by just about every single member of the cast, The Proposition is shatteringly bleak, but it comes by it honestly, and it does something far more profound and unsettling with that bleakness than just indulging in lazy cynicism. (Reviewed here)
(Gus Van Sant, 2002, USA)
Van Sant wears his influences a bit too much on his sleeve, but the first and best film of the achingly spare Death Trilogy is honest enough about itself and its intentions that the mere fact that it couldn’t possibly play more like Tarr Lite feels like a misplaced criticism. Two men named Gerry are wandering in the desert, and… And what? That’s not a question that Van Sant is ever terrible concerned with pursuing; this is neither a plot-driven film nor a character-driven one, but something much more about mood and presence. It’s about the sounds and imagery and feelings of being lost; first liberation, then confusion, and finally frustration, anger and fear. With minimal metaphysical puffery, the film captures the moment of terror when “the wilderness and I” becomes just “the wilderness” with eminently pleasing simplicity, and top-notch Harris Savides cinematography.
75. Burn After Reading
(Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, 2008, USA / United Kingdom / France)
Political satire would seem to be an easy fit for a pair of filmmakers noted for their fixation on human idiocy and destructive self-importance. Sure enough, when they turned their eye for farce onto America’s badly defective intelligence-gathering community, the results were just as savage as you’d hope. That’s not the only reason for loving their best outright comedy since the 1990s: for starters, it enjoys a terrific ensemble cast (one of the best they’ve ever put together), operating on exactly the right warped wavelength to make their characters just likable enough without dulling the edge of the brothers’ most scabrous screenplay ever, a hilarious and angry dissection of the real-world effects of the widespread stupidity that marks all of their work; in the outstanding final scene, they even manage to indict the viewer who would dare to take the film seriously. (Reviewed here)
74. Songs from the Second Floor
AKA Sånger från andra våningen
(Roy Andersson, 2000, Sweden / France / Denmark / Norway / Germany)
Andersson’s follow-up, You, the Living, managed to rob some of the thunder from his breakthrough (and his first feature in 25 years), using virtually the same aesthetic and themes to decidedly better effect. But even knowing that the later film exists, there are as many reasons to love Songs as there are sad-sack characters inhabiting its icily-perfect static frames. Mining breathtaking black comedy from the dourest of subjects – the soul-crushing loneliness of the individual, the mortal dread that comes when nothing, not work, family, religion, or even death itself can be counted on any longer – Andersson traps his subjects like bugs in a jar, watching them batter about helplessly against a world they can’t control or understand. But even as we’re laughing at their pathetic lives, we can’t help but feel the deepest sympathy: for despite its grotesque nature, this is a mirror, and no mistake.
73. Monsters, Inc.
(Pete Docter, 2001, USA)
Even in a post-WALL·E, post-Dug world, is there any character in the Pixar corpus as utterly darling as Boo, the guileless toddler at the center of the drama in the studio’s last genuine “kid’s” movie? And if there was absolutely nothing else besides Boo that made the film soar, I might even still consider it for a spot on this list, but besides that, it creates one of the most absorbing, fully-realised alt-universes of any animated film in modern history, full of invisible throwaway details that combine to give Monstropolis the lived-in, flesh-out tactility of any real-life city in any live-action movie you can name. Add the playful, cartoon-logic energy of the third-act chase, some of the most charming, silly humor in any of Pixar’s movies, and proof positive that Billy Crystal can give a truly good performance, and this one makes me embarrassingly happy every time I see it.
72. Blissfully Yours
AKA สุดเสน่หา (Sud sanaeha)
(Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2002, Thailand / France)
The film that put a love-him or really-hate-him director on the international map, and it’s never even been available in his native country in anything approaching the form that he intended, largely because of its explicit sexual nature. Explicit or not, nothing could be further from pornography than Weerasethakul’s thoughtfully detached consideration of why people have sex, a subject often ignored in cinema. In his characteristically bifurcated story, the first 40 minutes detail a soullessly functional world that the remaining 85 minutes treat as a forgotten bad-dream, presenting his lovers in an absurdly Edenic woodland, filmed in such glacially-paced, artfully artless shots that even the second half feels more like a dream than not, and one that we know the protagonists are going to have to awake from eventually. But for a few precious moments, it’s all so perfect that the title doesn’t even play as irony.
71. The Day I Became a Woman
AKA روزی که زن شدم (Roozi ke zan shodam)
(Marziyeh Meshkini, 2000, Iran)
The best film by Iran’s prolific Makhmalbaf family (Meshkini’s husband, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, co-wrote this picture and has directed scads of others, most famously Kandahar; her daughter, Samira Makhmalbaf gave us the criminally under-seen Blackboards) is this three-part study of how “womanhood” is defined and understood in a country where being female is the next worst thing to a capital crime. Meskhini considers the three key stages in a woman’s life – childhood, adulthood, old age – and prods and pokes about at the ways Iran seeks to dominate her gender at each of those stages with quiet, understated passion. Though the segments aren’t equally effective (the third sequence in particular takes a symbolic and absurdist approach to its subject that doesn’t sit well with the others), all in all, this is a devastating film that collides the personal and political as well as I have seen it done all decade.