Here’s an updated list of the Top 100 films of the 21st century. I’ve included reviews where I’ve written them.
- The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)
One of the greatest movies ever made about childhood. Terrence Malick captures the way we actually remember it – not in coherent episodes but in intensely apprehended moments, like Jessica Chastain cooling her feet with the garden hose or the older boy’s feeling of envy and exclusion as his brother accompanies Brad Pitt on guitar. The film veers from Texas in the 1950s to the beginning of time, with the obvious insight that we’re pretty small in the scheme of things, but the cosmic sections are so beautiful that they induce a state of awe. It has its longueurs – it’s about twenty minutes too long, with rather too much of Sean Penn looking glum – but Malick’s film feels as big as life.
- Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)
- Best in Show (Christopher Guest, 2000)
- The Hours (Stephen Daldry, 2002)
- Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014)
The movie opens with a shot of blue skies and Coldplay blasting on the soundtrack; it’s basically a square, sunny presentation of childhood. The Coldplay serves another purpose, however: one of the film’s chief pleasures is the way it serves as a time capsule of 2000s culture, from “Oops! …I Did It Again” to midnight Harry Potter book parties to Obama vs. McCain. It’s The Tree of Life without the cosmic interludes; there are a few decisive moments, but mostly time flows on in an unhurried fashion, its passing marked by haircuts and subtle changes in the actors’ faces. (The philosophy comes in bull sessions with Ethan Hawke as the kids’ father.) The movie’s focus alights – like memory – on commonplace moments that seem representative of whole eras.
- Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, 2010)
From the opening sequence, so true to the way children jumble characters and worlds in their play, to the political overtones of the day care centre – the hard slog of the new arrivals underwriting the privileged existence of the few – this is an extraordinarily rich movie, beautifully conceived. It echoes the previous Toy Story, both in its preoccupation with obsolescence and in its constant movement, but I think it goes further: once it reaches the dump we experience the horror of being, literally, junk. It probes the toy/child relationship, too, in a way that makes the second film’s focus on collectors seem clever rather than deep. Facing Andy’s impending adulthood, Woody has arrived at (or is anyway working towards) a love without any expectation of return – a parent’s love. Pixar’s greatest film.
- Punch-Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2002)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s smallest film is his most perfect, a jewel of whimsy and impacted rage. The movie’s whimsical elements – the organ left in the road, Shelley Duvall on the soundtrack, the way Emily Watson is both straightforward and a bit out of it – are balanced against its cruelty, unkind sisters multiplied into a tormenting chorus, or the way a lonely phone call invites the forces of chaos into Adam Sandler’s life. There’s so much tension in Sandler’s downtrodden salesman that you feel the moments when he’s thwarted, unable to communicate, as intensely as his violent outbursts. He and Anderson draw us into an uncomfortable empathy: understanding his anger, waiting for something to break. His rapport with Watson feels like fragile magic, and when Anderson flies them both to Hawaii it’s romantic, absurd, and moving.
- Avatar (James Cameron, 2009)
From the contrast it sets up between the harmonious warrior culture of the Na’vi and the technological militarism of the Americans (embodied by Stephen Lang in his robotic exoskeleton), to its matter-of-fact, and largely unsexualised, presentation of an action heroine, to the way movement is intoxicating to its paraplegic hero (we feel, with him, the exhilaration of movement and size), to the way it asks us to identify with the insurgents in its war-in-Iraq allegory, Avatar is, for a James Cameron film, extraordinarily complex. It also, as no other movie has in years, restored me to a child-like state of wonder. Cameron’s world on Pandora has Day-Glo intensity without turning gaudy, suppleness and grace without being soppy, ferocity that does not brutalise the audience.
- Gosford Park (Robert Altman, 2001)
- Y Tu Mamá También (Alfonso Cuarón, 2001)
- Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (Adam McKay, 2006)
- Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006)
- Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015)
This technological Bluebeard suggests what A.I. might have been if it weren’t so sentimental about the relationship between robots and humans. It has the simplicity and cruelty of a fairy tale: Ava (Alicia Vikander), the robot at its centre, is victim, heroine and destroyer. As Nathan, the Bluebeard who manufactures his wives, Oliver Isaac is a fascinating tech creep, aggressively casual in his bare feet, manipulating social situations like algorithms. Caleb (Domhnall Gleason), the employee Nathan invites into his Bond villain’s lair, is a different kind of geek: he’s ineffectual, mild, hoping this will pass for decency. Writer/director Alex Garland performs a clever moral recalibration over the course of the movie: what at first seems like an experiment in gleaming, glassed-in spaces is shown to be a species of torture. Sympathetic as he is, Caleb participates willingly, secure in his human superiority: he deserves his comeuppance (the movie’s improved by its ending) as richly as does Nathan.
- Bad Education (Pedro Almodóvar, 2004)
- The Incredibles (Brad Bird, 2004)
- Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)
Quentin Tarantino continues to indulge his inner film student as his dexterity increases – where the heroines’ stalking of the villain in Death Proof felt too much like a feminist thesis, here the audacity of his re-writing of history (the Nazi elite slain by a Jewish woman and a black man) is part of the excitement, as is his obsession with the film medium (the denouement takes place in a cinema with film, literally, a weapon). He pulls off his endless conversations as well – included, as always, not just to build tension but for their own sweet sake – thanks in large part to Christoph Waltz, who commandeers his every scene as imperturbably as Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. Affectionate stereotypes abound – my favourite is Mike Myers’ brief appearance as a British officer – and by the time of the climax, there are so many strands in play that you wonder if Tarantino can pull them all together. He does. It’s a smashing film.
- Aquarius (Kleber Mendonça Filho, 2016)
Kleber Mendonça Filho’s film opens with a party sequence that rivals the famous one in Fanny and Alexander for warmth and the precise way it sketches family relationships. With the assured, steady way he moves the camera, his zooms, his attention to faces and feet, his gift for fixing images with pop songs, Filho suggests a less hectic Scorsese, in a way that seems related to the warm Brazilian pop he favours (as opposed to Scorsese’s love of Phil Spector). This is not only a stylistic triumph, however: like Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria, this presents a complex portrait of a woman in her 60s (the marvellous Sonia Braga) – her instinctive solitude, her sexuality, her prickly relationships with family. It’s a social panorama of fast-changing Recife: Braga’s Clara is a member of the ruling class, and the movie does not shy away from the way she takes her privilege as her due. It’s also a profound meditation on the way that memory collects in places and things.
- Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015)
In the crowd of goons pursuing Charlize Theron there’s an electric guitarist in red velvet and a gimp mask; he swoops in a loose harness, his instrument ejaculating fire. He’s an emblem for this noisy, rococo movie, with its ravening appetite for the grotesque. The title is a feminist bait-and-switch: it’s Theron’s film, with Tom Hardy’s Mad Max brought along as a helpmeet. Its most daring quality is the way it forgoes narrative: it’s two hours of continuous action, with only the barest nods to character and motivation, and its onrush has a thrilling, almost abstract force. Even a simple fistfight in the sand is staged with so many elements in play – a hose, a number of guns, and an enormous pair of bolt-cutters – that it becomes a whirling contraption. At the times the movie suggests Baz Luhrmann, if Luhrmann employed his pet techniques – the densely packed misc-en-scene, the florid performances in full close-up – not to ingratiate himself with audiences but to knock us flat. Miller delivers an expert pummelling.
- Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012)
On one level, this is an actor’s life presented as a glamorous fantasy of mobility and transformation: Denis Lavant cruises the streets of Paris in a white stretch limo, a master of disguise and various styles of performance. He keeps a series of “appointments” across town, each in a different genre. Each time he walks away without consequences, untouched even by death. In some ways Holy Motors recalls Terry Gilliam’s Doctor Parnassus, but unlike that film this is never twee or precious. In large part this is due to Lavant: with his grave manner and grizzled features he’s like one of those fairytale creatures whose magical abilities carry with them a hint of menace. (In one appointment he is literally a monster who dwells in the sewers.) His transformations are magical, as is the assurance with which director Leos Carax moves from mode to mode, from the urban naturalism of a conversation between father and daughter to an underworld hit to a handsome bit of Henry James. Each mode is expertly achieved; each is provisional in a way that draws attention to its artificiality, to the beautiful tricks Carax is playing.
- Elle (Paul Verhoeven, 2016)
The plot outline – a woman (Isabelle Huppert) attempts to discover the identity of the masked man who raped and continues to stalk her – doesn’t begin to convey the complexity of what Huppert and director Paul Verhoeven are up to here. Yes, it’s a thriller with the requisite twists and the heroine alone in her house at night, but it’s also a harsh comedy about sex in middle age, a portrait of her extended family, and a profound meditation on both the roles we play with our sexual partners and how trauma figures in the imagination of survivors. The movie opens formally, the sudden sound of broken glass like a bell announcing the action: it’s both ferocious and controlled. The sex – whether rape, consensual, or somewhere in between – packs real, transgressive heat, disrupting the categories. Huppert’s Michèle insists on her own individual responses; she resists any sort of label.
- Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002)
- Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008)
- Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003)
Character is incidental in Gus Van Sant’s account of a high-school shooting. The names of a number of teenagers are flashed briefly on the screen: we’re left then to follow them down school corridors. There are very few scenes in the shaped, dramatic sense. The kids are not all that articulate, and you may find yourself becoming attached – in the absence of other information – to their mannerisms and physical attributes. Van Sant encourages such a basic level of identification that when the killings begin it affects you in a way unlike other movies. At the same time – for all the apparent simplicity of his surface – Van Sant is very deliberate in his effects. One of the boys wears a red sweatshirt emblazoned with a white cross, just in case we’d forgotten he’s a walking target.
- The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, 2008)
One of the surprises about Darren Aronofsky’s film is the warmth of its depiction of the wrestling world – the friendly way the men clasp hands and compare the results of their fitness routines, the consensual working out of boundaries before they go into the ring (“Go easy on the staple gun.”). It’s that warmth as much as the ritual performance of physical prowess that makes it so hard for Mickey Rourke’s Ram to walk away. In that world he’s esteemed: in that world he has stature. (One of the pleasures of the film is how we pick up on his past glories through peripheral details – action figures and Nintendo games.) Everyday life makes different demands: bullied by his supermarket manager, locked out of his trailer, it’s hard to disagree with his daughter’s assessment that he’s a “fuck up”.
- Mother (Bong Joon-ho, 2009)
- Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013)
It’s easy to forgive the moments of Hollywood philosophising (George Clooney’s condescending pep talk is the worst offender) because at its best, this movie is existentialism made flesh: human identity asserted by small acts against a background of darkness. I expected it to be impressive – Emmanuel Lubezki’s images have a sober beauty – but I didn’t expect it to be so emotional. Alfonso Cuarón has the confidence in his material that Danny Boyle didn’t, quite, with Sunshine: he trusts that we will find the astronauts’ expertise fascinating. Most of the movie’s drama is in their work, in the way they negotiate their environment. Sandra Bullock is perfect as the heroine: her very ordinariness encourages us to identify with her on the most basic level, as a human whose panicked breathing is exhausting her oxygen supply, as a body made clumsy by its cumbersome suit.
- Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004)
- Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016)
This breaks new ground, not only in the specificity of its black, gay perspective, but in dispensing with the coming out narrative altogether. Both Chiron’s peers and the adults in his life take his sexuality for granted; the film is more interested in the larger question of masculinity – of how to be a man in a culture where any softness is a dangerous weakness. Chiron finds his flawed answer in Juan (Mahershala Ali), whose generosity and gentle self-possession are compromised by his participation in the drug trade; he undermines Chiron’s safety even as he provides him with his only haven. The three-act structure is reminiscent of Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay for Steve Jobs – the same characters confronting the hero across time – but this has the sense of development that film lacked. Partly it’s the skill with which Barry Jenkins inflects settings and gestures – like the way two different characters cradle Chiron’s head on the beach; partly it’s the amazing continuity of spirit of the three Chirons, from skinny kid (Alex R. Hibbert) to stiff teen (Ashton Sanders) to jacked young man (Trevante Rhodes), so that he seems to grow up before your eyes.
- Ponyo (Hayao Miyazaki, 2009)
- A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)
- District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009)
I thought at first that Neill Blomkamp’s channel-surfing construction – the film is put together out of TV news footage, webcams and talking heads – was both overheated and lazy, with the constant interviews with ‘experts’ a particularly easy way of fixing his meanings in place. But like Brian De Palma’s Redacted, the different kinds of footage are a part of the characters’ reality, especially once we bunker down with Sharlto Copley and his corporate employers – they narrate themselves to themselves, as a matter of course, all the time. There are striking similarities to Avatar in the antihero’s immersion in an alien culture – and though the Johannesburg ghetto is the opposite of Pandora visually, it’s just as sharply realised. The movie gets better as it goes along – Copley winningly ordinary, his character not necessarily improved by his ordeal.
- Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J. J. Abrams, 2015)
The real opposition in Star Wars was never between the Jedi and the Sith, or even the light and dark sides of the Force: it was between a technological superpower and a ragtag group of survivors. George Lucas’ failure to understand the dynamics of his own story wrecked his prequels, those deadly essays on intergalactic politics; J. J. Abrams’ ready grasp of them makes this the best Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back. Abrams captures the exhilaration of underdogs discovering their capacities. He’s aware of the politics of representation – the heroes here are a white woman, a black man and a Latino – without it once feeling token or humourless. Daisy Ridley is as fresh and determined as a young Keira Knightley, with the same disarming grin; Oscar Isaac is heir to Han Solo’s handsomeness and charm. The movie is dense with allusions to and variations on the original films: it’s an act of knowledge and love.
- WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008)
- Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, 2014)
Like Birdman, Oliver Assayas’ movie offers behind-the-scenes glimpses of the place where celebrity and theatre intersect, shot in intimate long takes and replete with topical references to the Marvel era. However, it does so to entirely different effect: where the roving camera in Birdman‘s cramped backstage environs is out to give you the dirty truth about its characters, Assayas prefers to leave his meanings open. He structures his film like a play, complete with acts and long scenes in contained environments; like a playwright, he locates drama in the interactions between his characters. The fact that the movie concerns the rehearsals for a (nonexistent) play could have sent it down a meta-fictional rabbit hole, but the unaffected, intense teamwork of Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart imbues it with reality and stakes. In the course of the film their identities become mutable; the dissolution of self is not (as in Birdman) a glamorous apotheosis but a professional hazard to be faced and defied.
- Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011)
For once, Kirsten Dunst’s child-actor thinness – she’s perpetually playing for response – is perfect; her Justine play-acts, giving each person around her what she thinks they want, to mask her numbness and estrangement. The impending catastrophe – the huge blue planet on a collision course with Earth – allows her to drop these pretences, and thus comes as a relief. Melancholia is a good deal more sumptuous than Lars von Trier’s previous films – both in its setting in the higher reaches of the bourgeoisie and its luxuriant imagery of the apocalypse; at the same time, his handheld camera continues its restless interrogation of his actors. For once, it doesn’t feel like he’s toying with his audience (or his heroine): it’s heavy going, but it’s probably his most deeply felt movie.
- Broken Flowers (Jim Jarmusch, 2005)
- Magic Mike XXL (Gregory Jacobs, 2015)
This is as stripped-down a quest narrative as Fury Road, and in its emphasis on female pleasure almost as feminist. Where the absence of story in George Miller’s film was about aerodynamics – building a chase with maximum forward momentum – here it’s about approximating the rhythms of friends on a road trip. We hang out with Mike (Channing Tatum) and his fellow dancers as they squabble in their tour van or sit by a beachside campfire. The bogus conflict between dancing and small-business respectability is gone: the spectre of aging hangs over these men, but the emphasis is on their intimacy and rapport. As on any good road trip, there are unexpected digressions, and it’s here that the movie’s different conception of stripping becomes apparent: it’s not self-aggrandising, men taking the stage, but in service of – a sort of tribute to – their female clients. These men are sexiest when pleasing women, and the movie makes the case that it’s a sort of vocation.
- No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007)
- Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog, 2007)
Werner Herzog identifies so freely with the eccentric inhabitants of the Antarctic stations that what might seem overly cute – and condescending – instead seems like a very human response to the sublimity of the landscape. (There’s a lapse in taste only once, when Herzog keeps his camera for longer than is kind on the silent discomfort of a crackpot workman.) His documentary is enormously (and unexpectedly) funny – though often there’s a catch in the laughter, like the headstrong penguin that wanders off alone “to certain death” or the science-fiction terms in which a diver describes his work, which turn out to be entirely accurate.
- The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006)
- Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004)
- The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008)
The focus of this war in Iraq movie stays narrow, like that of the bomb experts it centres on. It opens with a robot rattling over a few metres of fraught territory, and it’s a perfect metaphor for what Jeremy Renner and company do – concentrating on small goals so intensely absorbing that the larger problem of their presence in the country never comes up. Like Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break, this is a movie about men who get a kick out of living on the edge. But then the use of humans as weapons complicates things: digging a bomb out of a dead body, Renner not only defuses a weapon, but re-asserts its human dignity.
- Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (Brad Bird, 2011)
This lacks The Incredibles‘ intellectual dimension – its wrenching drama of heroism with no outlet – but it shares its witty approach to action. It’s a pure, glittering toy of a movie, from its delight in – and personification of – gadgetry (my favourite was the perverse little glove that taunts Tom Cruise as he scales the outside of a building) to its casual globe-trotting (the movie takes in Budapest, Moscow, Dubai and Mumbai) and Bird’s virtuoso use of both silence (the sequence in the Kremlin basement) and ironic detail (the Dean Martin that provides the soundtrack for a prison break). Bird piles on the elements in each of his set pieces so that you laugh at his audacity even as you’re perched on the edge of your seat.
- Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino, 2003-4)
- The Secret in Their Eyes (Juan. J. Campanella, 2009)
In some ways – the thwarted romance, the dogged lone detective – Juan J. Campanella’s film is very old fashioned, but his images are so powerful, the rhythm of his long takes so assured, that the familiar tropes never feel like clichés. It’s gorgeous, and the beauty has content: the red lamp that communicates how little has changed over decades; the single shot of a murder victim that instantly establishes why the hero is unable to let this particular case go; the social comedy of a tussle between prosecutors in the halls of justice; the bravura sequence at the stadium. It’s so rich visually that it’s easy to overlook the easy way Campanella moves between present and past, fact and fiction; he’s aided in this by his leads (Ricardo Darín and Soledad Villamil), who suggest the burden of years with a minimum of makeup. Perhaps the ending isn’t up to everything that’s preceded it, but this is a great movie.
- Win Win (Tom McCarthy, 2011)
Thomas McCarthy gives us another of his unconventional families – though this time it’s a suburban family that makes room for new members rather than a clutch of disparate individuals that come together. One of its strengths – especially given its sports genre – is the way it resists the standard American narrative of success: it’s about accommodating yourself to reality, with all the surprises and disappointments that implies. Wrestling coach Paul Giamatti does something unforgivable early on, then spends the rest of the movie demonstrating his fundamental decency; as his wife, Amy Ryan makes her capability seem fierce and a little insane. Each of the characters turns corners, and the rumpled believability of Giamatti and Ryan’s life together is a marvel.
- Nobody Knows (Hirokazu Koreeda, 2004)
- Swimming Pool (François Ozon, 2003)
- Talk to Her (Pedro Almodóvar, 2002)
- Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009)
- Enough Said (Nicole Holofcener, 2013)
Julia Louis-Dreyfus demonstrates more warmth and range than she ever has before, and her interactions with James Gandolfini yield a pleasure that has been in short supply in recent movies: the fluky crackle of star chemistry. Nicole Holofcener has made the first good romantic comedy in quite some time. Her preoccupations with the snarls of family relationships and the small dilemmas of upper-middle class life are on display, to mixed effect: Louis-Dreyfus’ relationship with her daughter is pitched perfectly somewhere between intimacy and exasperation, but there’s a subplot revolving around Toni Collette’s dissatisfaction with her maid that feels trite and superfluous. Mostly, though, the movie is sharp and funny and well-observed, with pleasure in the details, from Catherine Keener’s Nancy Meyers-perfect house to the mimosas Gandolfini serves in jam jars.
- There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
Like Patrick White in The Tree of Man, Paul Thomas Anderson sets out to tell a very basic story: one man’s opposition to – and triumph over – the land. He succeeds in lending the search for oil both mythic and emotional significance. Daniel Day-Lewis’ terse strength – his beginnings as a lone prospector – makes his shrewdness as a businessman and his eloquence as a public speaker more impressive. Daniel Plainview has stature – stature that is not diminished by his human failings or the acuity with which Anderson gets him to open up in the second hour. If this great movie has a fault – apart from its awful, flippant ending – it’s the failure to extend Paul Dano’s preacher the same degree of imaginative sympathy.
- Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009)
- Room (Lenny Abrahamson, 2015)
The movie uses its extreme situation to explore basic questions of identity – how our sense of reality is shaped by the stories we’re told, the way we invest our environment with emotion. Five year old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) misses his place of captivity when he escapes it, and it’s no wonder: in that tiny space he can endow each object with cosmic significance (director Lenny Abrahamson makes the shabby furniture seem totemic), meanings that are lost in the wider world’s jumble of places and things. You could argue that the movie oversimplifies the impact of trauma: Jack’s recovery is depicted as fairly straightforward, a matter of being surrounded by kindly adults. It doesn’t sentimentalise the central mother-son relationship, though: it is to some degree (even if unavoidably) unhealthy, and Brie Larson puts plenty of sour notes into her performance – her impatience with their unbroken intimacy, her readiness to use her son as a prop, her mania for control.
- Erin Brockovich (Steven Soderbergh, 2000)
- Looper (Rian Johnson, 2012)
Rian Johnson and Joseph Gordon-Levitt retain some of the hard-boiled affectations of their earlier collaboration, Brick: Gordon-Levitt’s assassin is a hard man in a hard town, with a stripper who won’t agree to be his girlfriend and anachronistic taste in clothes. Fortunately, this time there’s much more going on. It’s an unexpectedly intense bit of time-travel fiction, a sort of Terminator in reverse: it turns on the slaying of a child who will grow up to be an evil dictator. There are bravura sequences like a time traveller from the future registering the wounds inflicted on his younger self (the healed scars of amputations replace limbs until there is almost nothing left of him). Much of the movie is set out in the Kansas cornfields: like Firefly, it connects past and future worlds in a way that feels satisfyingly original.
- The Darjeeling Limited (Wes Anderson, 2007)
Much Wes Anderson’s best film. It starts with Bill Murray – Anderson’s emblem – running for and missing the eponymous train, and it’s as though the director is waving goodbye to his movie past. There’s a more complicated tone along with the new mobility: the detailed compositions are played for laughs as well as pathos, and Anderson has a more satirical perspective on his rich kid fuck-ups. (There’s a wonderful set of matching luggage that follows the brothers everywhere – an emblem of their privilege as well as their emotional problems.) Meanwhile, it’s a toss-up which is funnier: Jason Schwartzman’s doleful, low-affect clown or Adrien Brody’s pained sensitivity.
- The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009)
- Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo Del Toro, 2006)
- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Alfonso Cuarón, 2004)
- Gloria (Sebastián Lelio, 2012)
- Minority Report (Steven Spielberg, 2002)
- The Host (Bong Joon-ho, 2006)
This remains, along with District 9 and The Babadook, the best monster movie made this century. One reason why is the way director Bong Joon-ho never loses sight of the individual in the midst of action – the monster’s initial rampage on the banks of the Han River (a classic sequence) is a built from brief incidents of panic, death, miraculous escape. Even when they’re only glimpsed for a moment, the people register as people. Another is his weird, complicated sense of humour: his characters – the movie centres on a family who run a food stand by the river – can seem exaggerated, gross, but in this movie buffoonery and heroism are not mutually exclusive, just as the family’s public outpouring of grief when the monster claims one of their own is both ridiculous and felt. This unstable tone, where clowning shades abruptly into suffering and vice-versa, is typical of Bong, and it leaves you off-balance, constantly re-thinking your relationship to the story. The constant is the family’s feeling for each other: none of them gifted in the slaying of monsters, all of them to some degree losers, they never flag in seeking reunion.
- Knocked Up (Judd Apatow, 2007)
- Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010)
- Rescue Dawn (Werner Herzog, 2006)
Werner Herzog’s movie opens with (presumably Dirk Dengler’s) dream of omnipotence – a plane passes slowly over a series of rice paddies, and as it releases bombs the smoke trails up in long streamers. That the rest of the film is so harshly subjective – Dengler denied the pilot’s lordly separation from the facts of war – only increases its power. Unlike the other men Herzog has pitted against the jungle, Dengler is neither a madman nor a dreamer – his only madness is the fixity of his will to escape and survive. For once, Christian Bale’s stolidity – the literalness of his transformations as an actor – is just right.
- Project Nim (James Marsh, 2011)
- The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)
Christopher Nolan keeps the many threads of his story well in hand: the repeated cross-cutting is very effective, establishing a Gotham City where there are more fires than the authorities can put out, a city spiralling out of control. He clears a space around Heath Ledger’s Joker every time he appears: Ledger subordinates the movie to his rhythms, slows it down, licking his lips and bringing his bleary eyes to bear on anyone foolish enough to address him. Nolan tries to solve the basic problem with the Batman franchise (the villains are always so much more compelling than the hero) by getting Christian Bale to wrestle with his right to be a superhero. All the ethics-of-vigilantism stuff struck me as a bit wrong-headed in a movie that operates on this Bond-gadgetry level: it’s certainly a drag. But then there’s always Ledger or a shot of Batman perched high on a building just around the corner.
- Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001)
- Junebug (Phil Morrison, 2005)
- Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015)
Forty years ago, All the President’s Men set the tone for most subsequent conspiracy stories: phone taps and telephoto lenses, inscrutable office buildings, late-night meetings in parking garages. Tom McCarthy’s film breaks with those paranoid atmospherics and in some ways is scarier for it: this conspiracy lays in plain sight, a sort of social compact in Catholic Boston, and the people responsible are not shady functionaries but pillars of the community. The tone is so straightforward that Mark Ruffalo’s big moment of outrage (he reprises his choked Larry Kramer from The Normal Heart) feels like grandstanding. McCarthy achieves something like the clarity of good journalism; he and the (uniformly excellent) players subordinate themselves, as reporters do, to the story.
- Man on Wire (James Marsh, 2008)
- Young Adult (Jason Reitman, 2011)
Diablo Cody (who also wrote Juno) keeps the Gen-Y mannerisms to a minimum this time. We (and Mavis, the YA writer played by Charlize Theron) overhear teenage conversation in snatches; Mavis plunders their argot for her latest novel. Returning home, Mavis nurses a hopeless crush on her high-school boyfriend – an emblem of a lost past – even as she savages their small-town surroundings. Theron delivers a startling, funny portrait of disappointment: her contempt and boredom have real, sour force. The movie is smart about the gravitational pull of home and the way our adolescent selves – the roles assigned us at school – can continue to define us. Director Jason Reitman gives it a clean, sharp visual sense.
- Lucy (Luc Besson, 2014)
Luc Besson packs more metaphysics into 90 minutes than Interstellar did in three hours, and more entertainingly to boot. At first the regular intrusion of wildlife footage seems like weird padding, but it anticipates the extension of the heroine’s consciousness: as she accesses more of her brain capacity, the traditional boundaries between human and environment collapse. Not to overstate the movie’s seriousness: it starts out like a backpacker’s nightmare (an amusingly trashy Scarlett Johansson runs afoul of a drug cartel in Taiwan) and Besson delivers regular gunfights and chases. But its brainpower conceit lifts it out of predictability: soon it’s less a revenge fantasy than a little Tree of Life. Johansson is terrific as the superior being – whether waving away baddies or rattling off profundities.
- Another Year (Mike Leigh, 2011)
- I Killed My Mother (Xavier Dolan, 2009)
- Hedwig and the Angry Inch (John Cameron Mitchell, 2001)
- American Hustle (David O. Russell, 2013)
It starts like Goodfellas, with its depiction of a child discovering a taste for petty crime and the his-and-hers narration, but the mood here is completely different – altogether more seductive and cajoling. This is not a jaded mobster and his wife speaking from bitter experience but a pair of cons who depend on their ability to charm people: they make us, the audience, their marks. The movie is, among other things, a celebration of the mutability of identity. The principals are constantly adjusting their personas according to the circumstances, and their transformations give the movie wonderful fizziness and brio. The actors respond by reinventing themselves: Christian Bale disappears into his character’s tubby physicality and exchanges his usual glum intensity for genial warmth, while Amy Adams gives a ferocious, dexterous performance (one moment she’s a luscious fake aristocrat, the next she’s howling in triumph in a toilet stall). The movie wins you over entirely to these disreputable people: it’s a terrific con.
- The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 2014)
Jennifer Kent’s movie uses subjectivity brilliantly. It begins with Essie Davis floating in a blank, dream space, broken glass drifting past her like diamonds, and it never settles into a stable relationship with reality. At first our sympathies are all with Davis’ embattled mum, alone with a disturbed child (Noah Wiseman) who acts out violently one moment and clamours for her attention the next. He seems almost demonic, and as he screams and screams there’s nothing she can do to pacify him. The people around them – teachers, Davis’ sister, a supervisor at work – seem like unhelpful caricatures, but as Davis becomes increasingly disturbed, we realise that her perceptions may well be distortions. Suddenly, we fear for the boy more than the mother, while staying inside her point of view, inhabiting her madness. The movie may banalise the monster by relating it so explicitly to Davis’ bereavement – it’s too pat an explanation – but Kent denies us the out of believing it’s all in her mind, or even that it can be destroyed.
- Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky, 2000)
- Amour (Michael Haneke, 2012)
The elderly couple at the centre of this film (Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant) are civilised, private people, and though Michael Haneke does not spare us the unpleasant details of Riva’s decline, he respects that privacy – he doesn’t touch us for sympathy. The people stay remote: Haneke de-emphasises them at the outset by making us locate them in a crowded theatre. After Riva suffers a series of strokes, it’s left to Trintignant to demonstrate his devotion to her by performing the duties of a nurse. We experience, with him, the crushing routine of wheelchairs and spoon-feeding and wet beds – all without any chance of reprieve, while his wife steadily becomes less herself. Haneke sends you out of the theatre in silence, with a numbing sense of loss: it’s an unsparing depiction of becoming old and infirm.
- Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols, 2016)
This has its own beautiful nighttime look, the lights of motels and highways and cars barely asserting themselves against the enclosing darkness. It’s a model, too, of integrating special effects into a realistic world: as in Close Encounters, the supernatural events occur to regular people in a small-town context, and have a special freshness and wonder for that reason. (It’s a world away from the routine DC/Marvel CGI destruction derbys.) Perhaps Michael Shannon’s particular brand of intensity is a little too familiar in Jeff Nichols’ distinctive South: Nichols could do with a change of personnel, with a lead actor less closemouthed and dour. But this has a warm spirituality that’s new in his work, and it’s enough to sustain the characters through the bittersweet ending.
- Pacific Rim (Guillermo del Toro, 2013)
Guillermo del Toro’s movie borrows heavily from its tent-pole peers (Avatar and Transformers especially) but it captures a twelve-year-old boy’s sense of the world better than any of them. The giant robots are literally operated by the boy hero’s emotional projections; sex is either awkward glances in the dorm or sublimated in martial-arts combat. Except for the token female (to keep things hetero), the world is essentially male. The limitations of this point of view are obvious, but del Toro adopts it so sincerely that it comes across as sweet naïveté. He is assisted in this by the unpretentious, detailed kitsch of the production. Del Toro goes to the trouble of building sets, costumes, and monsters, and if the results sometimes look glaringly fake in high-definition video, their materiality paradoxically confers a vivid sense of reality (the monsters are slimy to the touch; we feel the weight and the snap of the soldiers’ armour).
- Collateral (Michael Mann, 2004)
- Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2014)
The design of this film is wonderfully simple: its heroine Sandra (Marion Cotillard) goes door to door, asking to be readmitted to her former life after a prolonged mental illness. It’s grounded by Cotillard’s unshowy, precisely rendered portrayal of a woman trying to pull herself out of depression: the terrible vulnerability to setbacks, the raw nerves, the refuge in sleep. “I don’t exist,” she tells her husband early on; in the course of her odyssey through the ugly Belgian suburbs, seeking out her colleagues one by one, she rediscovers her personhood. The Dardennes honour the working class characters by depicting them as individuals: each colleague, though encountered only briefly, inhabits a space that has the richness of lived experience, and the sense of a story that abuts the heroine’s own. It’s the best kind of naturalism.
- Milk (Gus Van Sant, 2008)
Gus Van Sant performs a community service here by memorialising the gay rights movement of the 1970s and (with Sean Penn) presenting a gay hero who combines idealism with political nous, camp mannerisms with enormous physical courage. Van Sant contextualises with extensive use of archival and news footage: he brings the period very close (conservative rhetoric has changed little in the intervening years) while pointing up the differences (the ferocity and risk of the protests are very different to today’s docile marches). There’s not a banal moment in the performances: the large supporting cast work together as generously as the activists they play. Meanwhile, Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black do not burlesque or attempt to explain away their Dan White: there’s a strange, fascinating opacity to Josh Brolin, a mystery they acknowledge.
- Catch Me If You Can (Steven Spielberg, 2002)
- Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)
- The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Julian Schnabel, 2007)
- Inside Out (Pete Docter, 2015)
In which Pete Docter combines the emotional punch of his celebrated life-spanning montage in Up with the multiple worlds of Wreck-It Ralph. It combines emotional acuity with a headlong sense of invention: once Joy (Amy Poehler, in what is basically a reprise of her Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation) and Sadness set off on their journey around the brain, the movie rarely covers the same ground twice but finds new ways to represent (among other things) dreams, the selectivity of memory and monsters dwelling in the subconscious. It’s a meditation on the processes of thought that’s also a crowd-pleaser; the movie’s ingenuity pays off emotionally as its conceits play across the face of a plainly distressed 11 year-old girl. My only reservation was that it’s more exciting conceptually than it is visually: the brain’s surfaces are plasticky, generic – like some mass-produced toy – and the emotions’ command centre looks like the dashboard of a car. Still, this belongs in the upper reaches of the Pixar canon.
- Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan, 2017)
Christopher Nolan takes the celebrated opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan and extends it to feature length: there are some sops to the audience, like the unlikely survival of most of the people we follow through the action, but Nolan shows a bracing indifference to Hollywood characterisation, the way we’re usually made to care about people in movies. In fact, personality is mostly irrelevant in this situation where life or death depends on the accident of where you happen to be standing when a bomb chews away part of the wharf you’re standing on, and our identification with the young man (Fionn Whitehead) who scrambles from deathtrap to deathtrap is very basic, based more on his scraped knuckles or the way he tears into a piece of jam and bread than any sense of who he is. The different time scales allow Nolan to orchestrate different perspectives on the evacuation, imbuing each with a similar sense of urgency, and he modulates visually too, taking us from the terror of open, exposed spaces to terrible claustrophobia and back again. My only complaint is that Hans Zimmer’s score, which overuses its one musical idea about the clock ticking (with bits of Elgar thrown in for uplift), often intrudes on the excellent sound design, hyping situations that have no need of it.
- Big Hero 6 (Don Hall and Chris Williams, 2014)
Putting aside its princess formula, Disney makes its best film since Tangled – perhaps even Beauty and the Beast. A large part of its success comes from the simple expedient of putting the sidekick – always the most entertaining part of a Disney movie – centre stage. Baymax is a classic movie robot – up there with R2-D2 and WALL-E – and directors Don Hall and Chris Williams mine his counterintuitive design (he’s not metallic but soft and pillowy, like an airbag) and the inexorable logic of his programming (he sees everything in terms of his healing function) for humour and pathos. In its emphasis on physical comedy the movie recalls the classic animated shorts of the 1930s and 40s; its nuanced storytelling is worthy of The Incredibles. A very pleasant surprise.
- Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, 2011)
A wonderful movie about the edge of apocalypse. Michael Shannon’s face, with its heavy brow and deep-set eyes, looks prematurely aged; he’s like a more stolid Christopher Walken. Shannon is very convincing as a man trying to manage his nightmare visions – quietly intense, trying to keep it together. It’s only late in the film, when he explodes at a community dinner, that you realise the contained power of his performance. We share some of his visions, and the imagery – rain that’s thick and brown like oil, the household furniture that hangs mid-air in eerie suspension – is more powerful for being somewhat mysterious. When a storm does arrive, our perspective on Shannon’s character changes; it comes almost as a relief. Disaster has vindicated him; suddenly he’s prepared, capable, not crazy.
- Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh, 2008)
- The Pianist (Roman Polanski, 2002)
- The Science of Sleep (Michel Gondry, 2006)
This is much lighter than Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine, but since it’s about infatuation rather than love this is only appropriate. It’s about Gael Garcia Bernal’s crush on the girl next door (Charlotte Gainsbourg, who has a lovely unforced, angular presence) and it’s very true to the way that fantasy and waking life interpenetrate when one person is all you can think about. Gondry has the lightness and grace to keep juggling his effects: they’re never held too long or pressed too hard for meaning. Bernal is very Chaplinesque, even down to the suit, and he may be played a few too many ways for comic pathos – as foreigner, as artist, as loser in love – but he also supplies the movie with its emotional reality. He grounds Gondry’s wonderful circus.
- Higher Ground (Vera Farmiga, 2011)
Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut, based on a memoir by Carolyn Briggs, is a wonderfully nuanced depiction of Christian life. It has its weaknesses: the milieu is already so stylised (hippies gone over to God in the 1970s, with the profusion of patterned fabrics that implies) that the heroine’s fantasies come across as odd, and her climactic sermon plays like grandstanding. But it captures the warmth, the musicality, the habits of thoughtfulness and gratitude in her community even as it makes clear the way it keeps the women in it subservient, the way it cannot tolerate ambivalence. The movie has a gratifying looseness as it traces the evolution of Corrine’s life and thought – gently, over the course of her life.
- 13 Going On 30 (Gary Winick, 2004)
- Beginners (Mike Mills, 2011)
The film’s way with cute detail reminded me of Amelie – with the crucial difference that Mike Mills’ little slideshows do not attempt to sum people up, but rather reach back to an irrecoverable past. The past – in the form of Ewan McGregor’s father and mother – paradoxically keeps insisting itself, his memories of them butting in to his romance with Mélanie Laurent. The movie wears its quirks (McGregor and Laurent meet at a costume party dressed as Sigmund Freud and a street urchin; there’s a dog that talks with the aid of subtitles) lightly, in part because the characters’ playfulness is only just keeping a larger sense of sadness at bay. As McGregor’s father, Christopher Plummer is wonderful – in his seventies and just out of the closet, he’s full of surprise and delight at his new capacity for pleasure.
- Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)
This has its own stubborn rhythm – we watch the passing scenery on a road trip, hobble with an old woman through a tamarind plantation. The rhythm is expressive two ways: it’s how the country feels to the farmer Boonmee’s relatives, newly arrived from Bangkok, and it’s the pace forced on Boonmee and his sister-in-law by their physical ailments. When the supernatural begins to intrude, it’s unlike other ghost stories because it seems part of this rhythm: the living characters accept the appearance of their dead relatives with matter-of-fact courtesy. Apichatpong Weerasethakul presents a world where people can walk calmly out of life when their time has come, into the jungle. The city characters turn their back on this world, but it leaves their spirits restless (and when their spirits go wandering, they end up sitting in a karaoke bar). It’s a strange, mesmerising film – interrupting the action at one point to give us a fairy tale about a princess – a beautiful meditation on tradition and modernity, life and death.