100. Old Joy
(Kelly Reichardt, 2006, USA)
Two old friends (Daniel London and Will Oldham) drive to a secluded hot spring in the Oregon mountains, and find they’ve grown apart. That’s all there is to Rechardt’s quiet little breakthrough, a magnificent little jewel of character study that does all the things that American independent filmmaking is supposed to be good at, but so very rarely even attempts. There are no hopped-up stylistic tricks or hip references (unless the perfectly-suited Yo La Tengo soundtrack counts as hip), just a hushed tone and unobtrusive, observant camera that follows with long but never stretched-out takes as these two sides of U.S. maledom – self-satisfied hedonism and reluctantly willing maturity – look for some kind of concord that might never arrive.
99. Millennium Actress
AKA 千年女優 (Sennen joyû)
(Kon Satoshi, 2001, Japan / South Korea)
A demanding, sometimes frustrating, ultimately revelatory exploration of how memories are created and corrupted by movies, mixed with a metaphorical consideration of how Japan has grown and changed in the latter half of the 20th Century, Kon’s second feature – and, I’d warily suggest, his best work, period – doesn’t push the limitations of animation as much as some better-known anime. It doesn’t have to. The film’s free-form, logic-defying blend of the “real” and the “fictional”, could only work this well in a medium that already bends “realism” to the point where it almost breaks; the dream-logic inherent to animation matches perfectly with the dream-logic of the sneakily non-linear narrative. The best argument in favor of a director who deserves much broader acclaim in this country. (Reviewed here)
98. The Descent
(Neil Marshall, 2005, United Kingdom)
Nothing is easier to make than a horror movie; by my observation, nothing is harder to make than an honest-to-God scary horror movie, and for that alone we should never stop thanking Marshall. But it might even be the least of the writer-director’s achievements that he was able to make the usual creepy sub-humans and off-camera invisible children seem genuinely terrifying; greater still is that the film looks for horror not in the shocking deaths of horny teens but in the imperceptibly slow unravelling of real-live adult characters, with real-live adult issues, like the searing pain of losing a child. Add in Sam McCurdy’s outstanding anamorphic cinematography, which uses negative space in the form of thick swatches of black all around, making for a more claustrophobic cinematic underground than I have ever seen, and what we have here is an excessively sophisticated and well-crafted scare machine. (Reviewed here)
(David Fincher, 2007, USA)
By the time this unsmiling, brutally long serial killer procedural ends, we’ve long since figured out that, notwithstanding two perfectly-constructed attack scenes (one right at the start) that will give you the heebie-jeebies as much as anything in any other thriller of the decade, this isn’t really a serial killer film according to any rules you’ve previously encountered. It’s a study in the sheer unmitigated weariness of being obsessed with the unsolved and unsolvable, a worrying peek into the cracks of the American id. Anchored by three perfectly-keyed performances by Robert Downey, Jr, Jake Gyllenhaal and especially Mark Ruffalo, the film is piercing and uncomfortable; blessed by a directorial hand that finds Fincher at his most calculating and disciplined in using the visual flourishes that have peppered all his films, it could not possibly tell its story in a more wholly cinematic idiom. (Reviewed here)
96. Batman Begins
(Christopher Nolan, 2005, USA / United Kingdom)
A year and a half after the new movie smell has worn away from its fancier, more popular brother, I’ve come back around to the idea that this one is still the best superhero movie ever made, and Nolan’s reigning triumph as a director – to say nothing of his key collaborators Wally Pfister on camera and Nathan Crowley on design, who do so much to make this film’s evocation of Gotham City look like a foggy urban wasteland out of some hideous breeding of comic books, 1940s film noir, and somebody’s nightmare vision of Detroit. The idea that superhero stories are contemporary America’s own mythology is altogether tired and clichéd, which is how you know that it’s true: and I can think of no filmed superhero story which in both its stately narrative and its impossible, otherworldly imagery, is so successfully, self-consciously mythological as this one. (Reviewed here)
95. Away from Her
(Sarah Polley, 2006, Canada / USA)
It’s almost impossible to believe that Polley – all of 27 when her directorial debut was completed – should have made such a perfect study of the sorrows of old age. But the evidence is in this tremendously moving, low-key story about an aging couple, Grant and Fiona (Gordon Pinsent and a stunning Julie Christie, giving one of the best performances of her career), who must painfully deal with her encroaching Alzheimer’s; and even that’s not as heartbreaking as the second half of the film, when Grant must come to terms with the knowledge that Fiona has forgotten who he is. Armed with her own excellent screenplay, trading in some measure of strict realism for emotional truth, and with the noblest and most under-used of all tools of the cinema, the close-up, Polley crafts a chamber drama of the most exquisite sensitivity and haunting sense of loss.
94. Bad Education
AKA La mala educación
(Pedro Almodóvar, 2004, Spain)
One of the finest living directors riffs on one of the finest directors of all time: it’s Almodóvar Does Hitchcock, with a healthy splash of film noir just for the sake of making the darkest film by far of the director’s current new wave of popularity that much darker. Like all of his films, it’s a ludicrous melodrama shot through with glowing colors; but where they usually have a cheeky good nature even to their blackest moments, this all-male story about lies, sexual abuse, the cruelty of masculine sexual desire, and how hard it can be to find a good movie story is uncharacteristically nasty, even as it is more sensual and erotic than the rest of Almodóvar’s recent work. As unforgettable as it is squirm-inducing, it’s a genuinely unnerving thriller whose depiction of exaggerated, rotten human feeling is made enjoyable only thanks to its candy-colored surface.
(Jonathan Glazer, 2004, USA)
One of the best music video directors to jump to features in the last ten years, Glazer followed his immaculately profane crime thriller Sexy Beast with this confounding, magnificent picture of a woman torn by confusion, doubt and hope, and then promptly vanished. Let us pray that he returns sometime; but until then, Birth makes for a fine coda to a much-too-short career. Nicole Kidman plays Anna, a woman visited by a 10-year-old boy claiming to be her reincarnated husband; for all the squickiness promised by that concept (and the unfair pre-release buzz), the actual film is a shattering, beautiful study of Anna’s response to this news. Besides Glazer’s delicate handling, the film has a clutch of career-best moments: Harris Savides’s gorgeous, evocative cinematography, Alexandre Desplat’s indescribably haunting score, and Kidman’s amazing performance, one of the greatest of the decade. The opera scene alone is cinema in its purest form.
92. War of the Worlds
(Steven Spielberg, 2005, USA)
Under-appreciated even by the faithful who refuse to allow that Spielberg’s tremendous financial success and admittedly embarrassing sentimentality make him a wretch, this might be the bleakest popcorn movie of the decade: even more than Nolan’s Batman films, it’s a non-stop 116-minute ride of misery and viciousness. Starting with a drama about a man who, as far as we can tell, really doesn’t like his children, Spielberg and the invaluable Janusz Kaminski freely quote imagery from some of the most horrible events in modern history: floods, earthquakes, the Holocaust, 9/11. Ultimately, even that isn’t enough, and in its final 25 minutes, the movie presents a barren hellscape straight out of Hieronymus Bosch. A dreadful late turn towards one of the stupidest happy endings in the director’s filmography doesn’t change how effectively he’s packaged so many nightmares into one impeccably-crafted blockbuster, laying bare Western culture’s darkest fears for everyone to see.
91. Summer Hours
AKA L’heure d’été
(Olivier Assayas, 2008, France)
One of the most uncharacteristic movies from a director who’s never been easy to pin down; and yet there’s a refreshingly classic French-ness to this film, with its country house full of unhappy people trying to figure out why they aren’t a better family. Quoting Chekhov in the plot and Renoir in the visuals, Assayas has put together one of the most sincerely moving family dramas in many a year, a judgment-free study of all the little ways that we move apart from each other. But even as it presents a chain of events leading only to dysfunction and alienation, it’s as warm and ephemeral as the title makes it sound, loving all of its characters – given life by an absurdly strong ensemble cast – even as they don’t know how to love each other. (Reviewed here)