90. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
AKA 臥虎藏龍 (Wòhǔ cánglóng)
(Ang Lee, 2000, Taiwan / Hong Kong / China / USA)
Despite some lingering concerns that this is an Asian movie for a U.S. audience – beginning with the alleged fact that the two leads, Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun-Fat sport laughably bad accents throughout – I still can’t help but be sucked in by the visual grandeur and heaving emotional splendor of this unlikely pastiche of wuxia and soap opera. There’s such a velvety richness to the whole affair, from the sumptuousness of the sets to the succulent melodrama of the love story to the ridiculously gorgeous photography used to capture all of it. Even as a number of later films of similar provenance have been given splashy international releases, none of them have matched the across-the-board quality of this one, a film in which Lee indulges all of his strengths while managing to keep away from all of his weaknesses.
89. La ciénaga
(Lucrecia Martel, 2001, Argentina / France / Spain)
Martel’s outstanding debut didn’t just usher in the career of one of modern cinema’s most important new voices: it helped to remind the outside world that, in fact, Argentina made movies, and thus helped to drag that country into the fertile boom of New Latin American Cinema. None of which should distract from the very real achievement of this very specific film: a morbidly hilarious look at the decay of the Argentine bourgeoisie, embodied by two miserable families spending a humid summer in the country. Without apparently doing anything unusual, the director breaks most of the rules of conventional narrative to present her slice-of-life tale (based on her own family memories) with a directness that is both discomfiting and liberating; yet the movie is far too entertaining at every moment to ever seem as revolutionary as its off-kilter construction and aggressively symbolic social commentary would suggest.
88. The Story of Marie and Julien
AKA Histoire de Marie et Julien
(Jacques Rivette, 2003, France / Italy)
A deceptively simple, devastatingly effective exploration of two human beings. Rivette’s very precise, very characteristic, very filmic aesthetic is far enough from almost anything else in contemporary cinema – while looking for all the world like it’s not terribly unique at all – that it’s not hard to imagine why an unprepared viewer would be horribly confounded by the film’s intensely slow pace and refusal to submit its characters to the rules of normal behavior. But given enough space to unravel Rivette’s pushy and yet completely subtle clock/time metaphor, to appreciate the paranormal elements that creep rather unexpectedly into the story, and above all, to fully soak in the sometimes erratic, inexplicable behavior of Marie (Emmanuelle Béart), Julien (Jerzy Radziwilowicz), and their blackmail victim Madame X (Anne Brochet), the film starts to reveal itself in breathtakingly poetic ways that can only be experienced, not described.
87. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
(Tommy Lee Jones, 2005, USA / France)
Jones-the-director gave Jones-the actor the delicious lead role in the best screenplay Guillermo Arriaga has ever written, and Jones-the-actor paid him back in full with the best performance of his estimable career. But Jones’s feature directorial debut isn’t one of the finest actor-gone-director projects in recent memory simply because he was canny enough to know that he was a great actor. It’s a brilliantly conceived neo-Western on all fronts: Arriaga’s mindfuck screenplay holds together even better the more times you see it, and the legendary Chris Menges frames shots so casually that they almost seem messy until you look closely enough to see how expressive each and every image is. Jones might have had the good fortune to surround himself with gifted collaborators, but he still gets credit for a movie which nimbly exploits Western iconography as a frame to critique both American masculinity, and “the Western” as a concept. (Reviewed here)
86. The Edge of Heaven
AKA Auf der anderen Seite
(Fatih Akin, 2007, Germany / Turkey / Italy)
The hyperlink narrative style that become popular early in the decade produced a lot of arch, irritating stories that play like a parlor game, and a few legitimate masterpieces. Falling firmly in the latter camp is Akin’s giddily novelistic exploration of “European” identity in the 21st Century. A tripartite story concerning six individuals in Turkey and Germany, and the threads both known and undiscovered that connect them, it would be easy for the whole thing to collapse under the weight of its own contrivance; instead, it hums with the vitality of its characters and their messiness, brought to life by a top-notch cast (including the timelessly great Hanna Schygulla). Marveling at the fragility of human life while marveling even more at how durable human beings manage to be in times of stress, it is a great human story that never tips into cloying sentimentality or shallow humanism. (Reviewed here)
85. Man Push Cart
(Ramin Bahrani, 2005, USA)
If I can be permitted to disagree with my own list: this one is too damn low. I mean, we’re talking about the debut film, and still the best work, by arguably the most important independent filmmaker working in the United States today: in this unassuming 87-minute frame, he was able to pack all the observations you could ever hope to see about life on the fringes of Manhattan, the U.S., the urban world; giving voice to the voiceless without coming across as even a little bit political or polemical. With bottomless sympathy for his protagonist, a Pakistani ex-rock star who now sells coffee and bagels on the street from a cart, and with a carefully artlessly non-style that is something akin to neo-realism but rather different, Bahrani here made a truly essential work, as natural and unforced as breathing.
84. Amores perros
(Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2000, Mexico)
Kickstarted the often-dubious “hyperlink narrative” trend, and got the careers of González Iñárritu and Guillermo Arriaga off to a promising start that their subsequent collaborations did nothing to pay off. But let’s not use hindsight to beat up on this film, which remains a majestically busy, complex study of Mexican society in the form of three people driven to despair over love and money. And, of course, their dogs. It’s a heady, well-considered film that raises some very probing, unanswered questions about life and morality while hiding in the clothes of a routinely trendy crime flick, and its erratic, inventive form is a perfect match for its content. Bonus points for introducing the rest of the world to two of Mexico’s most important cinematic exports of the decade, the lovely and talented Gael García Bernal, and the great rough-n-tumble cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto. (Reviewed here)
(Park Chan-Wook, 2003, South Korea)
If I’m being perfectly honest, I probably enjoy the first film in Park’s loose “Vengeance Trilogy”, Sympathy for Mr. Vengance, more than the second. But then again, there’s absolutely no denying that Oldboy is by far more creative and inventive, and I don’t mean in terms of how many ways the protagonist (Choi Min-Sik) finds to exact revenge on his former captors, although the film’s American and Asian imitators often don’t look any further than that. It’s the kind of film that refuses to settle down into one style or favored manner of representing reality, instead chasing down one idea after another: center-punched close-ups with a certain kind of lighting here, a string of oddly-edited wide-shots here, and over there, a fight sequence that’s framed like an early-’90s street fight arcade game. Hectic and alienating, maybe: exhilarating and endlessly surprising, without a doubt.
82. Broken Flowers
(Jim Jarmusch, 2005, USA / France)
The great American director’s most accessible, commercial project ever – and only for Jarmusch would an arrhythmic, four-part story in which the central question of the drama is left unanswered and unanswerable count as “accessible” and “commercial” just because he has Billy Murray at the center of it all. That funnyman-turned-dramatist has never been better than as Don Johnston, a man confronted with a long-lost son in an anonymous letter from an ex-lover, whose actions in the film consist of variations of doing almost nothing at all, and being full of regret. Filled with great cameos by everyone from Jeffrey Wright to Sharon Stone to a blink-and-miss-her Tilda Swinton, the film is ultimately always about Don: probing his mind madly and unceasingly as he simply stands, too weary to do anything else. That this can even exist in a watchable state is testament to Jarmusch’s incredible command of the medium. (Reviewed here)
81. A Time for Drunken Horses
AKA زمانی برای مستی اسبها (Zamani barayé masti asbha)
(Bahman Ghobadi, 2000, Iran)
One of the strongest films to come from Iran during a period when that country’s films were consistently among the most aesthetically brave in the world was Ghobadi’s feature debut, the first Iranian film ever produced in Kurdish. It’s a unblinking, bleak study of the life near the Iraq border, filtered through the figures of four orphaned children, the eldest of whom (Ayoub Ahmadi) is obliged to go through miseries that would have made Oliver Twist blanch in shock in order to keep his siblings alive and healthy. Eschewing even the surface-level innocence of most child-centric movies made in Iran, Ghobadi’s film is serious and harsh, with a minimalist aesthetic that puts its clear-eyed lack of sentiment in all the sharper relief. An outraged story of the hell faced by the Kurds, it never gets so wrapped up in politics to lose sight of the human story at its center.