Here it is, folks… my favorite films of the 2000’s. Thank you again to everyone who regularly read this site, and as always, I’ll see ya at the movies! — Nick
30. Martha Marcy May Marlene. Films about cults and unorthodox belief structures have seen a sort of resurgence in the past few years, with works as diverse as Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” (which almost made this list) and this year’s Hulu-produced drama “The Handmaid’s Tale” gaining acceptance in critical and arthouse circles alike. So it’s odd that the best of the bunch, Sean Durkin’s disquieting debut “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” isn’t really a cult film at all. Sure, the movie’s logline involves a privileged young woman, the Martha Marcy of the title (Elizabeth Olsen, in the role that made her a star) fleeing her cloistered life in upstate New York to join a sinister pact of true believers, led by a charismatic Charles Manson type played with chilling authority by John Hawkes. And yet, what makes Durkin’s film so raw and upsetting is that its true intentions are far more difficult to parse. “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is about the nebulous nature of identity itself and how, given a few cruel twists of fate, a person can willfully transform into an entirely different being. Durkin’s narrative is gorgeously, purposefully disjointed, intercutting jagged flashbacks of our heroine’s time spent under the thumb of Hawkes’ snarling charlatan with present-day scenes of her trying (and failing) to adjust to civilian life. The movie’s insistence on silence and negative space is almost Haneke-esque, and there’s a scene about two-thirds of the way through — in which Hawkes and his cronies break into an innocent man’s home, only to have him wake up halfway through their creepy-crawly task — that is one of the most unsettling film scenes I’ve ever seen. Durkin has yet to make a follow-up to his enervating debut (though he’s helped produce such substantial modern-day indies as “Simon Killer” and “James White”) but if his breakout film is any indication of his talent and ambition behind the camera, a sophomore effort cannot come soon enough.
29. Zero Dark Thirty. “Zero Dark Thirty” drew a considerable degree of ire in 2012 for its unflinching depiction of the torture methods enacted by United States military forces in pursuit of Osama Bin Laden. No doubt, the violence on display in the film is ugly stuff, and it’s hard not to believe that Kathryn Bigelow’s magnum opus would have suffered an even less gracious fate in today’s pervasive climate of microaggressions and trigger warnings. And while some of the complaints regarding “Zero Dark Thirty’s” rendering of American-sanctioned atrocities do undeniably have merit, Bigelow’s paranoid mosaic of post-9/11 American life is one of the new millennium’s most important films precisely because it implores its audience to tussle with these inconvenient truths. Bigelow had been a crackerjack action filmmaker for decades before this film, culminating with the apex of 2008’s nerve-frying military thriller “The Hurt Locker”. What’s most impressive about “Zero Dark Thirty” is the extent of its scope. This is a film with probably a couple dozen speaking roles, shooting locations around the world, and a narrative ambition that is nothing short of geopolitical in its immensity. And yet, at its core, “Zero Dark Thirty” is also the very human story of one woman’s unrelenting pursuit of justice, and the toll it takes on her mind and soul. This was the first true standout role for the luminous Jessica Chastain, who previously had only made appearances in Terrence Malick’s mercurial tone poem “The Tree of Life” and John Hillcoat’s silly hillbilly gangster film “Lawless”. Here, Chastain lets go of any notion that she should be a blandly affable screen presence and gives us an agonizing portrait of a woman fueled by obsession and an unwavering sense of duty. She’s aided by one of the best supporting casts in recent memory, including a never-better Jason Clarke as her hardened subordinate, James Gandolfini as former CIA head honcho Leon Panetta, Mark Strong as a no-bullshit intelligence analyst, Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt as ground-level army grunts, and hey, is that Mark Duplass in the NSA control room? “Zero Dark Thirty” isn’t easy viewing by any means, but it’s a panicky, agitated film for our panicky, agitated era, and it is more prophetic today than it was even upon its release.
28. The Wolf of Wall Street. Perhaps when the dust has settled and the smoke has cleared and if there’s an earth left to inhabit in 2020, Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” will help us to understand the rise of Trump, and how exactly this toxic, narcissistic confidence man and his gang of unscrupulous cronies managed to collectively demean the very idea of American civility. Indeed, “The Wolf of Wall Street’s” central character — Jordan Belfort (Leonardo Dicaprio in the most liberated turn of his career thus far), a former Wall Street hustler who bilked innocent investors out of millions through a “penny-stock” scheme which he and his partners used to line their pockets — is a Trumpian figure in that he is a flagrant, unapologetic liar, utterly unafraid of larger scrutiny. Consequence? That stuff’s for losers, punk. Nevemind the fact that Belfort’s underlings clearly worshipped him with the fervor of third-world proletarians bowing down to a bullying autocrat. Any film that features both midget-tossing contests and airplane orgies is going to cause a row, and the outcry that emerged over Mr. Scorsese’s deranged black comedy was not dissimilar to the uproar over his 1990 masterpiece “Goodfellas” (still the greatest crime film of all time), where the director was accused of stylizing his lowlife heroes to the point of idolatry. In truth, Mr. Scorsese’s true aim is far more nuanced (we must never confuse depiction with endorsement, folks). “The Wolf of Wall Street” obviously knows its principal characters are utter scum, but it is less taken with judging them via broad-strokes semi-characterizations, and far more interested in implicating its audience for their hypocritical attraction to the allure of the lifestyle that these psychotic bozos are afforded. In his efforts to resist audience hand-holding at every turn, Mr. Scorsese managed to turn “The Wolf of Wall Street” into the cinematic equivalent of a raised middle finger in the era of Trump… albeit, one that’s outfitted with Quaalude-fueled slapstick interludes that resemble a physics-defying, X-rated Laurel & Hardy routine.
27. Pan’s Labyrinth. These days, it’s easy to see why hardened cineastes don’t always warm up to the films of Guillermo del Toro. Movies like “Pacific Rim,” the Mexican director’s preposterously dumb Monsters-Vs.-Mechs epic, and even his opulent Gothic ghost story “Crimson Peak” are practically drunk on their own sense of macabre invention. There’s no shortage of breathtaking visual detail in Del Toro’s fetishistic recreation of his darkest obsessions, but lately, it feels as though the director has neglected to include the audience in what is supposed to be a shared experience. That’s certainly not a complaint you can level at “Pan’s Labyrinth,” Del Toro’s ravishing period fairy tale set against the backdrop of a fascist-dominated Spain of centuries past. Said fascism is personified in the visage of Captain Vidal, a Francoist brute who tortures and terrorizes anyone unfortunate enough to cross his path. And yet, because this is a Guillermo del Toro film, there is also innocence where there is evil. Ivana Baquero gives a remarkable performance as Ofelia: a curious child given to daydreaming and wandering who begins to receive visits from an otherworldly, horned creature (Doug Jones, who also did exemplary work in both of Del Toro’s “Hellboy” flicks) that tells her that she is the reincarnation of a princess from a faraway kingdom. The narrative has all the ingredients of a children’s tale, but as is his custom, Del Toro decks out his film with gory, garish touches. The sight of the film’s infamous “Pale Man” is one I will never unsee: it’s the kind of unthinkable image that only appears to you in nightmares. Del Toro understands how to tap into these private reservoirs of fear that we maintain from adolescence to adulthood, and “Pan’s Labyrinth” takes the ghoulish imagination of early films like “Cronos” and “The Devil’s Backbone” and imbues the proceedings with the soul of a classic literary tragedy. His new film, a Cocteau-esque romantic fantasy called “The Shape of Water,” looks to be a return to the dizzying heights he scaled in “Pan’s Labyrinth,” and I, for one, could not be happier about the prospect.
26. The Immigrant. Perhaps it was the film’s misleading and wrong-headed marketing campaign. Perhaps it was producer Harvey Weinstein threatening to re-edit the film and tacking on an allegedly atrocious alternate ending. Maybe it was the movie’s unruly blend of postmodern emotions with cinematic classicism: the kind that can cause discord and rupture in an otherwise elegantly made picture. Whatever the case may be, there’s no denying that audiences weren’t exactly kind to James Gray’s painterly period tragedy “The Immigrant” when it arrived in American theaters in the spring of 2014. That year in film was dominated by works of sober, serious drama — think Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher,” or J.C. Chandor’s “A Most Violent Year” — that acted as damning rebukes of the American dream gone rotten. Of this unofficial trifecta, I suspect it is Gray’s film that will truly stand the test of time. Gray remains perhaps our most patient American director, and in an era where attention spans are gradually diminishing and directors seem afraid to linger on a shot for more than a few seconds (lest their audience start looking at their phones), there’s something about Gray’s defiantly old-school commitment to analog filmmaking that I find tremendously admirable. In pictures like “The Yards” and “Two Lovers,” Gray takes familiar templates — crime stories, romance, melodrama etc. — and imbues them with a thrilling, messy emotional life. Never has this lack of predictability been personified with more dramatic focus than in the arresting dual performances of Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix in “The Immigrant”. Ms. Cotillard and Mr. Phoenix play, respectively, an ambitious Polish émigré and a downtrodden outer-borough pimp: two binary sides of the same American coin. Gray has seen significantly more acceptance for this year’s handsome adventure epic “The Lost City of Z,” and while that film only blossomed in my mind the more I thought about it, I would be lying if I were to say that I don’t want another sprawling, exquisite, uncomfortably personal film like “The Immigrant” from the director– at least before he decides to hang up his mantle for good.
25. Before Sunset. Have you ever had a conversation that was so fulfilling — so rewarding, so effortless — that it lasted an entire day? This deceptively simple premise is the foundational building block for Richard Linklater’s deservedly beloved “Before” Trilogy, which examines three separate days and spans several years in the lives of two star-crossed lovers named Jesse and Celine. The first film, “Before Sunrise,” has a disarmingly sincere hangout vibe and a lot of heart, even if it’s perhaps more dated than its fans would like to admit. However, Linklater’s first entry in the series has nothing on the sequel, “Before Sunset,” which is literally just 88 minutes of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy wandering through the picaresque avenues of Paris, talking about dreams, sex, love, children, food, and what the future may hold in store for them. It’s a more streamlined, pared-down film than the original, and there’s something quietly breathtaking about seeing these actors — who were young and rangy when they made the first film, and had grown gracefully into their middle age in the early aughts — reconvene as these perfectly-realized characters, as though no time at all has past. Linklater has always enjoyed revisiting the characters in his movies and spending long periods of time with them, whether it’s the decades-spanning experimental chutzpah of “Boyhood” or journeying back in time to the bawdy collegiate milieu of his greatest film, “Dazed and Confused,” in last year’s “Everybody Wants Some!!”. He’s also an uncommonly generous director, and the love he feels for the people in his movies is immense. “Before Sunrise” can look like an amicable doodle on the surface, but it possesses a genuine undercurrent of heartache and yearning that is leagues deeper than something like the director’s lighthearted trifle “The School of Rock”. Like Eric Rohmer, whose conversation-heavy style is clearly an influence on Linklater, the Texas-born director doesn’t believe in happy endings merely for the sake of audience placation. In other words, he’d rather spend a day with his characters simply shooting the shit then invent implausible reasons for them to fall in love and live happily ever after for the rest of their lives. Call me crazy, but I think there’s a lot of integrity in that.
24. Brick. With only three features under his belt, writer and director Rian Johnson has quickly established himself as one of the most idiosyncratic talents working in genre cinema today. His three feature films have, at first glance, little in common with each other, apart from a kind of breathless, film-nerd cleverness and a knack for nifty genre reconstruction. Otherwise, could you connect the dots from the Wes Anderson-inspired screwball chicanery of “The Brothers Bloom” to the gritty, grounded science fiction of “Looper”? Both these films are highly enjoyable — particularly the more fluent you are in fanciful Euro capers, Paul Verhoeven flicks and Philip K. Dick’s bibliography — but the director’s debut, “Brick,” remains his most assured and engaging work to date. Showcasing the sensitive gifts of young leading man Joseph Gordon-Levitt (playing a peewee variation on the Philip Marlowe archetype), “Brick” is a hypnotic, hard-boiled neo-noir translated to the bland, rolling hills of an anonymous California suburb. Our hero prowls the halls of his clique-dominated high school like Sam Spade combing the mean streets for a bone to pick, and gets his intel from a weaselly, bespectacled snitch known as “The Brain”. The basic ingredients will be familiar to anyone who’s read “The Big Sleep”: a missing girl, a vicious thug, an eccentric kingpin, etc. And yet feature film debuts are rarely as confident or inventive as “Brick,” which sees the young first-time director adapting Raymond Chandler’s gumshoe patois to the realm of acne-scarred adolescents while highlighting the heightened sense of melodrama that connects classic noir literature with high school cinema. “Brick” would still be one of the new millennium’s most enjoyable films if it were a mere exercise in style, but what’s shocking about Johnson’s debut is how emotionally potent it gets. You come to care about the fate of Gordon-Levitt’s sad-eyed loner, and you may even see a bit of yourself in his solitary plight. Even if you don’t, though, “Brick” is still a clear-eyed work of movie-movie reinvention and a smashing hand-me-down mystery in Cool Kid clothes. If Johnson can bring this same undisguised weirdness to his upcoming “Star Wars” film, “The Last Jedi,” I’m all aboard.
23. In the Mood for Love. American romances often miss an essential component of what makes love such a powerful driving force in all our lives: the suggestion of things left unsaid. Many modern romantic dramas and comedies have become so obsessed with declarations of affection as the apex of adoration that they’ve seemingly forgotten what an effective tool withholding can be when employed in the same situations. Wong Kar-wai’s near-perfect “In the Mood for Love” is a film filled with implications, insinuations, and loaded pauses. The film’s psychedelic color palate (which Nicolas Winding Refn recently attempted to imitate in his revenge thriller “Only God Forgives”) shades its characters in the deadly crimsons and sultry yellows of classic noir. And yet, there is no (physical) violence in this film, and no overarching mystery to speak of. Instead, there is the flawless evocation of a particular milieu, and the dilemma of two people who are both unloved, and both all too used to being alone. Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung give mesmerizing turns as a smartly dressed journalist and a melancholy secretary both living in the same apartment complex. The place is Hong Kong. The year is 1960. Since both characters are left at home by their spouses for much of the working week, they end up embarking upon a wary friendship (more out of boredom than anything else) that quickly reveals itself as something far knottier and more complex. In films like this one and his masterful “Chungking Express,” Wong remains fascinated by the clash of naked need and our inherent human defense mechanisms. It’s one of those films that has had an incalculable influence on today’s cinema while also being undoubtedly indebted to its influences: Tony Leung’s haunted protagonist sometimes recalls James Stewart’s antihero in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” and the film’s teasing sense of sexual ennui is a clear influence on Sofia Coppola’s less successful “Lost in Translation”. And yet, as he’s proven time and time again, no one has a style quite like Wong Kar-wai. He is capable of weaving our shared desires into hallucinatory cinematic parables that speak in images and silence rather than teary third-act monologues.
22. Fish Tank. I suppose there’s no denying it anymore: Andrea Arnold has become one of the most vital filmmakers working in independent cinema today. Between her stark, photorealistic take on “Wuthering Heights” to last year’s wild road movie “American Honey” and her revelatory work on both “Transparent” and “I Love Dick,” Arnold’s output captures a kind of visceral, you-are-there immediacy that I don’t think I’ve seen translated with such purity since the golden age of John Cassavetes. My personal favorite of Arnold’s is “Fish Tank,” which is the rarest example of a coming-of-age story that’s totally unburdened by cornball horseshit and incongruous sentimental theatrics. As was the case with “American Honey,” “Fish Tank” is not technically a musical; yet nearly every scene is propelled by the furious notes of gangsta rap, grime, and house music. “Fish Tank” is also another one of Arnold’s humanistic examinations of those who inhabit society’s bottom rung: something tells me that the film’s volatile protagonist, the 15-year old Mia (Katie Jarvis) would get along just fine with the impoverished tattooed wanderers of “American Honey,” though maybe not so much with the sycophantic Texas intellectuals of “I Love Dick”. There is a teasing sense of flirtation and emotional discovery in Mia’s interactions with her mother’s handsome, cavalier new boyfriend (Michael Fassbender, in what could be considered his breakout role), but “Fish Tank” is far too complex to be described as a mere tale of attraction. The film could be viewed as a tapestry of transfixing hyperrealist moments, but this director has never been interested in “plot” as we’ve traditionally defined it. Instead, Arnold’s film is a brutally honest and often wickedly funny look at the walls we put up to block other people out — and the beautiful, shambolic mess that transpires when two such self-protective souls collide with each other. It is a work of arresting originality and a true gem of outsider cinema from a director who we’ll be hearing a great deal about for some time to come.
21. City of God. Tracing the through-line of the gangster picture from the middle of this last century to today would be a fascinating assignment. The simmering old-country tragedy of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Godfather” trilogy is lightyears away from the rude, coked-up bravado of Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” which doesn’t even account for minor classics like the Aussie family ripper “Animal Kingdom,” the deeply unsentimental “Gomorrah,” and the one-two punch of Abel Ferrara’s “Bad Lieutenant” and “King of New York”. Fernando Meirelles’ startling “City of God,” which depicts slums terrorized and lorded over by gangs of armed teenagers in Rio de Janeiro, helped more than almost any other film of the 2000’s to fashion a new kind of cinematic language out of the ingredients of the standard climbing-the-ladder crime flick. Not surprisingly, American gangster movies have been copying it ever since. From its kinetic, fowl’s-eye-view opening sequence — in which a chicken being prepped for the grill manages to escape his captors, the camera breathlessly racing through the bustling Cidade de Deus (literally translating to “City of God”) boroughs that serve as the movie’s nominal backdrop — to its explosive finale, the movie never loses its vise-like grip on the viewer. The principal “hero” of “City of God” is a kind-eyed young thief named Rocket, who finds an escape from his brutal life in photography, drugs and the political revolutions of the 1960’s. He uses his camera as a weapon, whereas his friends tend to be more traditional in the artillery they carry. “City of God’s” most terrifying creation is a smiling, dope-slanging killer named Lil’ Ze who, in the movie’s most singularly upsetting scene, shoots one of his youngest recruits in the foot and cruelly laughs as the boy slowly bleeds to death. It’s a sick, evil world that these characters inhabit, but the movie’s style is so pronounced that it seems almost seductive at times — which may be precisely the point. Like “Goodfellas,” “City of God” is both intimate and expansive: a film that spans decades with its characters, and yet gets to know them on an almost bone-deep level. It’s not always easy viewing, especially for the squeamish or easily appalled, but in terms of sheer influence, there aren’t many films that can match Meirelles’ incendiary depiction of impoverished young men on the brink of collapse.
20. The Pianist. Roman Polanski’s films are often characterized by a kind of creeping dread, and an inherent distrust of people’s essential goodness. Early masterworks like “Knife in the Water” and “Cul-de-Sac” were blackly comic depictions of pent-up rage and simmering evil, and his more lauded, mainstream work in the 1960’s and 70’s (“Chinatown,” “Rosemary’s Baby” “Tess”) was only a more polished variation on the director’s trademark pessimism. Several decades later, and Polanski has become one of the most hated men in the world of cinema, and not without good reason. The director had yet to make a bonafide classic for many years prior to “The Pianist” — his last great one before that was probably the underappreciated psychosexual freakout “Bitter Moon” — but Polanski’s searing depiction of life during WWII Poland is his most personal and emotionally rapturous work. Of course, large swaths of “The Pianist” feel autobiographical. Polanski himself was a child of the concentration camps who lost his mother at Auschwitz. The depiction of cruelty against Jews as perpetrated by the SS in “The Pianist” is genuinely wrenching, and not in the committee-approved, “Schindler’s List” way that we’ve become accustomed to when it comes to WWII drama. There is also, of course, Adrien Brody’s star-making performance as Wladyslaw Szpilman: a Polish-Jewish pianist who is first seen playing a gorgeous piano concerto at a Warsaw radio station when bomb fire rips through the walls. “The Pianist” punctuates its more Oscar-friendly moments with the director’s trademark gruesome extremity, which is evident in moments as the stomach-churning one where a wheelchair-bound Jew is thrown off a balcony roof by Nazi foot soldiers, or a later, spellbinding sequence in which a fugitive Wlad quietly mesmerizes a Wehrmacht officer with a flawless rendition of Chopin’s “Ballade in G Minor”. It seems inconceivable that a man who committed such an inhuman act as Polanski could make a movie as achingly human as “The Pianist”. And while we may never forgive him for his actions, his art will endure — such is the paradox of great cinema. “The Pianist,” like its characters, endures.
19. Hot Fuzz. When Edgar Wright walked away from the Marvel comic book adventure “Ant-Man,” it turned out to be the best thing that his fans could have hoped for. Not only did Wright’s brazen refusal of Marvel’s now-tired formula enable him to make this year’s stunning jukebox heist film “Baby Driver,” but it served as proof — if any was needed — that Wright is a stubbornly original filmmaker who is capable of fashioning funny and moving human stories out of pop cultural flotsam and genre movie geekery. Because what is “Shaun of the Dead” if not a touching story of arrested development disguised as a zombie rom-com? And ditto for “The World’s End,” which stands as a cutting satire of male fragility when it’s not about blue-eyed alien invaders and blistering Kung Fu fights staged in London pubs. “Hot Fuzz,” though, is Wright’s most seamless and confident creation: a screamingly funny takedown of British passive-aggression, disguised as a love letter to the bullet ballets of John Woo and Tony Scott. Simon Pegg plays Sgt. Nicholas Angel, a humorless constable who’s so good at his job that his superiors eventually relocate him to a sleepy village in the British countryside. When Nicholas packs his things and makes for the unremarkable borough of Sandford Gloucester, Wright’s film pivots into Dario Argento territory, complete with occult spookiness, brutish bellhops, shoot-outs in London convenience stores, and a cameo from that erstwhile James Bond, Timothy Dalton. “Hot Fuzz” is as kinetic and thrilling a movie as Wright has eve made — proof that he is one of this generation’s most dynamic action directors, and perhaps the most talented cinematic pastiche artist since Quentin Tarantino (sorry, Lord & Miller). And yet, like the rest of Wright’s work, “Hot Fuzz” is also genuinely affecting. The gentle, almost brotherly bond that develops between Pegg’s square lawman and a hard-drinking, “Bad Boys II”-loving goof played by Nick Frost (that other patron saint of the Wright oeuvre) is as sweet a platonic relationship as the director has ever depicted. Alas, if that stuff all sounds boring to you, “Hot Fuzz” still delivers as a pure sound-and-light show: at the very least, stick around for the glock-toting grannies.
18. Broken Flowers. The 2000’s were a kind of reinvention period for Bill Murray, which peaked with the release of the unofficial Murray Depression trilogy. Said trilogy includes Sofia Coppola’s lush Tokyo reverie “Lost in Translation,” Wes Anderson’s wacky nautical picaresque “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” and Jim Jarmusch’s “Broken Flowers”. “Broken Flowers” is my favorite of the bunch: it’s the least stylized of the three films I’ve just mentioned, but it has the most going on underneath its surface. At first glance, it may look like another deadpan Jarmuschian oddity: the story of a middle-aged Don Juan who, upon hearing news of an estranged son of whom he was previously unaware, embarks on an Ethiopian-jazz-fueled road odyssey in a rented Taurus to reunite with a few of his former lovers. And while Jarmusch’s poker-faced human comedy and unassuming curiosity about the way people live and communicate aren’t exactly in short supply here, “Broken Flowers” also feels like a strangely personal film for the famously hip director. Before last year’s lovely and understated “Paterson,” Jarmusch’s films were dominated by indelible attitude and philosophical noodling: I think of the beatnik jailbird brooding of “Down by Law,” the hip-hop/Samurai fusion of “Ghost Dog,” or the vampiric nocturnal bonhomie of “Only Lovers Left Alive”. These films are all wonderful in their way, and they all have their place in the director’s canon. What is so magical about “Broken Flowers” is how sincere and accessible it feels, while never once compromising the director’s unmistakable vision. In composing the mural of one broken man’s life through his many romantic encounters, Jarmusch is imploring us to look at the bigger picture of our own lives — it’s one of the many things that makes him an invaluable artist. And Murray really is extraordinary here, accessing a kind of Zen-like sadness and suggesting that maybe if there’s hope for this over-the-hill Don Juan, there’s hope for us too.
17. 12 Years A Slave. I, like many folks, could never have predicted that Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” would take home the statue for Best Picture at the 2013 Academy Awards. The film’s formal rigor and technical bonafides were undeniable. And yet, I couldn’t help but wonder if the Academy –a famously stodgy and outdated bunch who are more likely to award accolades to skilled hacks like “The Imitation Game” director Morten Tyldum than a genuinely uncompromising visual artist like McQueen — was really ready for this film’s unflinching depiction of American slavery. “12 Years a Slave” is a film that lingers, without concession or apology, on the atrocities it depicts. Its aim is not to titillate, but to implicate. It is a film blessedly bereft of a white savior character (save for producer Brad Pitt’s bizarre third-act cameo). It is also a genuinely transgressive period film that resists historical revisionism at nearly every turn. So why is McQueen’s powerful and upsetting indictment of American ignorance as vital today as it was four years ago? In telling the story of Solomon Northrup — a literate and respected African-American who was nevertheless sold into servitude and forced to endure a litany of unspeakable cruelties at the hands of the white gentry — McQueen is not opting to tell “the whole story” of American slavery, as if such a thing were possible. Rather, in an extraordinary display of patience, “12 Years” is the story of one man that nevertheless speaks for centuries of cinema where characters of color have been diminished, brutalized, sidelined, or ignored entirely. It is a ferocious call-to-arms made with the skill of a consummate visual innovator (McQueen’s background in avant-garde art circles should come as no surprise to anyone who has seen the unsparing likes of “Hunger” or “Shame”) and featuring career-best performances from Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita N’yongo, and a never-more-terrifying Michael Fassbender as Northrup’s most sadistic master. Hypocritical liberal audiences who argue that they would rather not expose themselves to the horrors that the film depicts (lest their bubbles be burst) are only kidding themselves. “12 Years a Slave” is an angry and essential piece of American art, and one whose potency has only grown with the passing years.
16. The Departed. On a superficial level, one can distinguish Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” from his coked-up docudrama mob classics (“Goodfellas,” “Casino”) on the basis of the fact that this 2006 remake of Hong Kong actioner “Internal Affairs” at least has good guys. But how good are these good guys, really? Scorsese’s wound-up, pugilistic cops and robbers drama — inexplicably, the one that won him his long-overdue Best Director Oscar, after he made pleas to the academy with both “Gangs of New York” and “The Aviator” — is a film where the cops behave like depraved criminals, the crooks carry themselves like conflicted lawmen, and there are rats hiding in every rotten nook and cranny of post-9/11 American life. Before Beantown gangster movies began to lean into their more boneheaded tendencies (looking at you, “Black Mass”), “The Departed” captured Boston’s long-festering sense of blunt-force tribalism with mesmerizing force, before neatly inverting it to tell a story of what Scorsese himself has called “moral ground zero”. While the 2000’s saw the director dabbling in a variety of eclectic projects — a fantastical children’s movie, a doc about the Rolling Stones, a spooky Dennis Lehane adaptation — there’s no denying that the director is most comfortable and in his element telling stories of tough guys and Catholic hoods, and “The Departed” checks all the boxes for the director’s die-hard fans. And yet, the film is also a disturbing allegory about an American culture racked by xenophobia, guilt and fear. You see it in small scenes like the one in which two Providence tough guys intimidate a Muslim liquor store clerk (promptly before Leo Dicaprio’s Billy Costigan hands them a uniquely gruesome and wholly Scorsesean ass-beating for their trouble), or eye-popping warehouse shootout that ends with Jack Nicholson’s Whitey Bulger surrogate Frank Costello laid to rest in a manner that suggests Christ on the cross. “The Departed” may not be the most sophisticated film that Mr. Scorsese has ever made, but this bruising modern milestone has lost almost none of its pungent bite nearly a decade after its release.
15. Adaptation. Has there ever been a more accurate movie about the process of creating than Spike Jonze’s “Adaptation,” in which Nicolas Cage literally plays both Charlie Kaufman and his fictional twin brother Donald, Meryl Streep writes a book about flowers, and Chris Cooper gives the best performance of his career as a loopy, snaggle-toothed orchid poacher? Just reading the plot summary for this movie can make your head spin, but nothing equates to the process of sitting down to watch it for the first time. Jonze and meta-jester extraordinaire Charlie Kaufman’s finest hour together is a characteristically offbeat and gorgeous celebration of life’s wayward conundrums, and also a pointed fable about the dangers of looking at your own life as material for a story. The film takes the real Kaufman’s apparently futile quest to adapt Susan Orlean’s non-fiction work “The Orchid Thief” and lets every agonizing moment play out in a kind of heightened, bugged-out madhouse version of modern-day Los Angeles. Stories about the insider elements of show business can be alienating (Kaufman’s script is laced with acrid, tart Hollywood takedowns), but “Adaptation” eventually reveals itself to be a universal and wonderfully funny tale about the meaning we all project onto our own lives when existence itself seems devoid of purpose. Both Streep and Cooper are as excellent as we’ve come to expect them to be, but the film’s strongest performance (or should I say performances) belongs to none other than Nicolas Cage. Cage has become more of a meme than an actor in this second decade of the new millennium, and his ubiquitous presence in bottom-of-the-barrel action flicks isn’t exactly helping his cause. However, Cage is at his most vulnerable and devastatingly human in “Adaptation,” where he conveys the uphill battle of an artist at his wit’s end in heartbreaking detail.
14. Collateral. No one shoots Los Angeles at night like Michael Mann. Not Quentin Tarantino, not David Lynch, not Nicolas Winding Refn — no one. What Mann captures about L.A. is its smoggy, hypnotic nocturnal anomie. He is a maestro of the modern-day urban experience, turning the city’s sights, sounds, smells and extra-sensory flourishes into a disorienting and thoroughly brilliant spectacle. “Collateral” isn’t just one of the great action movies of the last twenty to thirty years, though I’d argue it’s every bit as good, if not better, than Mann’s justly praised heist epic “Heat”. It’s one of the great L.A. movies, period. The film effortlessly captures the guarded nature of the city’s longtime inhabitants, as well as the sense of existential rot that plagues the souls of those who inhabit its underworld. At its core, “Collateral” is a crackling cat-and-mouse thriller that unfolds between Jamie Foxx’s canny cab driver Max and a lethal, unerringly precise hitman, Vincent (Tom Cruise) who has hired this nebbishy wheelman to chauffer him across the greater Southland area as he completes a series of contract jobs. Like James Cann’s safecracker Frank in Mann’s great debut “Thief,” or Robert Deniro’s hard-headed crew guy Neil McCauley in “Heat,” “Collateral’s” Vincent is brutally efficient above all else: committed to the task at hand, but also ready to disappear at a moment’s notice if he feels that his safety has been compromised. It’s telling that about 60% of one of the great modern L.A. crime movies actually takes place within the cramped confines of a yellow taxi cab (well before the age of Uber), but Mann is the kind of director who could shoot paint drying and turn it into a seductive mélange of digitalized abstraction. “Collateral” is Mann’s haunting and ruthlessly entertaining piece de resistance: an expertly arranged orchestra of sound and movement that could have only taken place in the City of Angels.
13. The Tree of Life. It seems like a distant memory, but there was a time when Terrence Malick’s newly discovered style didn’t’ seem like an indulgent imitation of his former greatness. Then again, the reclusive Texas mystic has been working at an unusually quick clip these days (2017 will see the release of two Malick films, the torpid musical weepie “Song to Song” and the upcoming WWII-set drama “Radegund”) and the sometimes decades-spanning periods between his releases made each one feel like a momentous artistic statement. “The Tree of Life” — which bears the distinction of being the famously unknowable director’s most autobiographical film — is that rare mid-career Malick work that earns its sense of lyrical grandeur. The film was also the first chapter in the ongoing period of revisionism that has constituted the director’s recent creative pivot, but “The Tree of Life” is still soul-stirring in its elemental power: filled with images and emotions that most of us mere mortals couldn’t hope to conjure on our best day. The film acted as a sort of launching point for actress Jessica Chastain, who plays a benevolent matriarch in 1950’s Texas, acting mostly alongside Brad Pitt (as his toughest and most open) and a wide-eyed gaggle of adolescent boys (including then-unknown Tye Sheridan). The actors in films like “To The Wonder” and “Knight of Cups” can seem lost or unsure of what to do, but it’s remarkable how much the performers in “The Tree of Life” manage to communicate without resorting to deadening expositional dialogue. The director is aided immeasurably by the technical contributions of brilliant cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, and also the ethereal hum of Alexandre Desplat’s original score, both of which to create a mood of sustained transcendence. Malick’s towering, intimate masterwork is nothing less than a cosmic, God’s-eye look at how we’ve lived from the middle of the American 20th century into today. It’s a soaring, confessional work of uncompromising artistic clarity, and a refreshing reminder of what this now-maligned cinematic rogue is capable of.
12. Almost Famous. What does a Cameron Crowe film even mean in 2017? It used to mean something, damnit. It used to mean an iconic soundtrack, pitch-perfect comic dialogue, and the kind of charming, youthful romance one typically associates with unending summer days. Crowe has unfortunately succumbed to his more self-parodic tendencies in recent years with earnest-to-a-fault misfires like “We Bought a Zoo” and 2015’s disastrously received “Aloha”. And yet, there was a time when Crowe was far more than just an easy punchline for kneejerk sincerity. He was a kind of poet of adolescent desire — never forget, this is the man who wrote the screenplay for “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” still the greatest movie about teenagers ever made that isn’t “The 400 Blows”. It would stand to reason, then, that Crowe’s masterwork is about a teenager. They say there’s no such thing as a perfect movie, but as someone who’s watched a great many movies throughout his life, I will say that “Almost Famous” comes close. The movie is both a celebration and dissection of the mid-century American obsession with rock n’ roll as seen through the eyes of one shaggy-haired dreamer — a definitively uncool kid played in a remarkably sensitive turn by Patrick Fugit — who has the audacity to follow his favorite band, the fictional blues rock group Stillwater, on the road for a nation-spanning tour. Each member of the band is given an indelible personality, from Jason Lee’s shit-talking frontman to Billy Crudup’s soulful, self-deprecating guitarist. Even the drummer who decides to come out of the closet during a life-threatening disaster scene is afforded a fully-realized characterization. As for Penny Lane, the character is emblematic of a somewhat troublesome trope that’s began to emerge in Crowe’s filmography over the past decade, but Kate Hudson’s funny and generous turn lets us see through to the heart of the character’s damaged soul, more than justifying Crowe’s boyish, sometimes narrow sense of writerly wish-fulfillment. This is a movie packed to the gills with instant-classic scenes (Billy Crudup’s suburban acid trip, the tour bus singalong to “Tiny Dancer”), immortal lines (“the only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool”) and peerless supporting turns from the likes of Frances McDormand, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Noah Taylor. Throw your lighters up for “Almost Famous”: a modern American milestone that has earned its right to be gloriously uncool.
11. Requiem for a Dream. The final stretch of Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream” is one of the most lacerating passages of pure cinema I’ve ever seen. It’s an overwhelming visual symphony of loveless sex and brutal debasement that feels like the epic comedown after a particularly dizzying high. During these moments where we are watching characters swan dive into oblivion, it’s not hard to see why the movie’s critics have accused Aronofsky of wallowing in misery for misery’s sake. While “Trainspotting” (the great junkie film of the 1990’s) often traffics in the buzzy euphoria that has become synonymous with the style of director Danny Boyle and “Heaven Knows What” (the great junkie movie of the post-2010 aughts) finds filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie mining compassionate black comedy out of a needle fiend’s existence, “Requiem” is a deliberately punishing affair. It is also, among other things, a brilliant, uncompromising art film. With unsparing accuracy, the film depicts four lives consumed and ultimately destroyed by junk. Aronofsky’s hyper-kinetic, hip-hop influenced visual language was beyond innovative when “Requiem” first stormed onto the American cinematic landscape, and it has only grown in stature since then. What the director seems to fundamentally understand about the source material (the movie is adapted from a hard-hitting novel by former user and “Last Exit to Brooklyn” author Hubert Selby Jr.) is the cyclical futility of the junkie lifestyle: how each day exists as a kind of vacuum in which drugs are procured, ingested, and then procured again until ordinary life is but a bygone memory. “Requiem for a Dream” also understands how addiction goes beyond the superficial appeal of something like, say, heroin. We see it in Ellen Burstyn’s painful and masterful turn as a Brighton Beach mother dependent on diet pills and living in the perpetual glow of banal daytime T.V., as well as Jared Leto and Marlon Wayans as two boyhood friends propelled by memories of summers past and living with a desperate need to escape the mundane routine of their lives in the present day. It is Jennifer Connolly, however, who gives the film’s most fearless turn as a woman whose sense of self ultimately corrodes and dissolves — like burning skag in a dirty spoon.
10. The Squid and the Whale. There have been many films made about divorce, but with the exception of Ingmar Bergman’s peerless “Scenes from a Marriage,” almost none of them are as painful and funny as Noah Baumbach’s breakthrough feature “The Squid and the Whale”. Mr. Baumbach has since graduated to making snappy, witty big-city farces like “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America,” but “The Squid and the Whale” offers evidence of a restless, fearsomely talented young writer/director with something to prove. Every frame of his breakthrough film is confrontational, serrated, and engineered to draw blood. Loosely based on Baumbach’s own childhood — he grew up the eldest child of two esteemed writers, Jonathan Baumbach and Georgia Brown, in Park Slope, New York — “The Squid and the Whale” imagines the 20th-century separation ritual as a kind of ruthless emotional warzone, one where no man, woman or child is safe. Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline star as Walt and Frank Berkman, who find themselves pitted against one another when Walt — a wannabe intellectual who unironically describes “The Metamorphosis” as “Kafkaesque” — sides with his failing writer father, Bernard (Jeff Daniels), while young Frank gravitates towards the embraces of his good-hearted but ultimately self-centered mother Joan (Laura Linney). All four performers give soul-exposing turns– particularly Daniels, effortlessly embodying a man who, like so many of Baumbach’s characters, was great in his youth and has spent his entire adult life trying to play catch-up to that one, fleeting moment. The film’s 1980’s Park Slope production design is also remarkably lived-in, lending the proceedings a true air of autobiography (Baumbach apparently even lent Daniels some of his father’s old clothes to play the role). The movie’s soundtrack is also eclectic and indelible — ranging from Lou Reed and The Feelies to Blossom Dearie and the beguiling orchestral work of onetime Galaxie 500 frontman Dean Wareham, who has popped up as an actor in a few recent Baumbach films — signifying the writer/director’s impeccable taste, as well as his adroit ear for how pop songs can trigger hurtful memories. Baumbach has since enhanced his funny-sad human comedies with a newfound sense of polish and economy, but “The Squid and the Whale,” from its opening moments, which evoke the messy slice-of-life melodrama of Louis Malle, to its heart-crushing final shot, remains the director’s most heartbreaking effort to date.
9. Cache. The terror in the films of director Michael Haneke often lies in what is unseen: the invisible, omnipotent evil at the heart of his WWI-era masterwork “The White Ribbon,” for instance, or the specter of terrible permanence that hangs over the proceedings of his otherwise fairly languid (dare I say, even kindhearted) Oscar-winner “Amour”. In “Cache,” the German master’s unsettling examination of privacy and its limits, the film’s true horror exists literally right behind the camera. Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche anchor the film with grave, reserved turns, playing a bourgeois French couple whose sense of normalcy slowly begins to erode when anonymous videotapes begin to arrive on their doorstep. Haneke spikes the narrative with his typically detached depictions of barbarism — some disturbing crayon doodles, an on-screen suicide that has to be seen to be believed — and yet the contents of the tapes themselves are often mundane and routine. They mostly depict Auteuil and Binoche’s characters lounging about their spacious abode (every inch of which is stacked with academic texts and, yes, videotapes), going about their day-to-day, and interacting with their well-meaning neighbors. In these scenes, Haneke is suggesting the presence of evil rather than opting to show it outright, taking commonplace daily tasks and rendering them rotten and wrong by flipping the audience’s perspective on its head. David Lynch borrowed the same essential gimmick (sexy strangers being videotaped by an unseen voyeur, that is) in “Lost Highway,” but Haneke has no interest in dream logic. Instead, “Cache” is a characteristically severe and formally dazzling allegory about suppressed trauma, collective guilt, and the lies we tell ourselves in order to survive. Try not to watch this one right before you go to bed.
8. Une Prophete. “What are you, man,” the lead character of Jacques Audiard’s scorching “Une Prophete” is asked about halfway through the picture. “A prophet, or something?” The character is Malik (French-Algerian actor Tahar Rahim) and at this point in the story, we’ve seen him transform from a meek, bearded nobody who was arrested at a protest gone violently awry into a cold-blooded crime lord who orders up death the way some of us order croissants. What makes “Une Prophete” one of the most rattling crime films of the last twenty years is the unsparing accuracy with which director Audiard depicts this aforementioned metamorphosis. “Une Prophete” largely unfolds in the animalistic world of a maximum-security French prison: the kind of Darwinian environment that only nourishes the bad habits of bad men. The worst of the bunch is Cesar (Audiard regular Niels Arestrup), a Corsican killer who has an iron stronghold on the narcotics traffic of his particular slice of hell. Cesar eventually entrusts soft-eyed Malik to be his errand boy — not before putting him through several humiliating trials, of course. Jacques Audiard has dabbled in a variety of genres over the course of his long and impressive career: musical melodrama in “The Beat That My Heart Skipped,” erotically-charged romance in “Rust and Bone,” violent, socially-minded pulp in last year’s “Dheephan”. That said, the French director never made a movie so hard-hitting, so possessed by unmitigated ferocity, as “Une Prophete”. What unites Audiard’s masterpiece with the rest of his filmography is his unerring sociological fixation on what happens when ordinary people are forced to commit irreversible acts. Whereas some gangster movies ultimately linger over their thuggish antihero’s mystique with a little too much undisguised glee, “Une Prophete” is the kind of frightening morality play that makes you stand up in your seat just a little bit. The film also contains the most singularly disgusting murder scene I’ve ever witnessed in a movie before — and a head’s up for the uninitiated, it involves a razor blade strategically hidden inside a prisoner’s mouth.
7. Inside Llewyn Davis. “You a funny boy, huh?” It’s the first questions that’s asked of Llewyn Davis, the fictional folk singer (embodied in a performance of heartbreaking vulnerability by Oscar Isaac) who gives Joel and Ethan Coen’s sixteenth film its name. Of course, there’s nothing funny about Llewyn’s life. He’s a self-sabotaging, perpetually penniless folk singer just barely scraping through another frostbitten winter in the film’s loving recreation of 1960’s Greenwich Village. Similarly, even the Coen’s most ardent defenders didn’t find much in “Inside Llewyn Davis” to laugh at. The complaints from critics were legion: the story was practically nonexistent, the ending was opaque and unsatisfying, the main character was (in layman’s terms) an asshole. And yet, to quibble over these pedantic gripes is to miss that “Inside Llewyn Davis” is perhaps the brother’s most compassionate and emotionally rich film to date, not that the brothers could ever be described as warm-and-fuzzy humanists. It’s the only picture of theirs I can think of that favors earnest, character-driven lyricism over the cold-blooded gallows comedy that defines films as varied and wonderful as “Fargo,” “Barton Fink” and “The Ladykillers”. While “Llewyn Davis” is a typically outstanding actor’s showcase for the famously exacting filmmaking duo — apart from Isaac’s soul-stirring leading man turn, the brothers get great performances from the likes of Justin Timberlake (as a clean-scrubbed folkie), Adam Driver (as a spaced-out cowboy named Al Cody), Coen patron saint John Goodman (as a bellicose, heroin-addicted jazzman), and, in one singularly wrenching scene in the film’s third act, F. Murray Abraham, who cruelly listens to Llewyn’s music and tells him “I don’t see a lot of money here”. “Inside Llewyn Davis” is ultimately a wistful lament for dreams left unfulfilled, and also an unusually fond (for the Coens, that is) remembrance for songs left unsung. Even though Llewyn is the kind of jerkoff who knocks up other people’s girlfriends and loses his neighbor’s cat while he’s supposed to be looking after it, when it comes to his art, he is truly pure of heart… and it is this reason, the brothers seem to be arguing, that he’ll never be a star.
6. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Of all the films on this list, Andrew Dominik’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” bears the distinction of being perhaps the most misunderstood upon its initial release. While Warner Brothers probably thought they were getting an old school, meat-and-potatoes adult Western in the vein of “Unforgiven,” Dominik’s foreboding visual poem is closer in spirit to outlaw epics like Robert Altman’s dreamy and fragmented “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” and even Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon,” which takes a similarly detached approach to its title subject, even going so far as to deliberately foreshadow the antihero’s downfall through sardonic, decidedly postmodern narration. More than anything, “Jesse James” is a goddamn strange movie: a slow-moving, intoxicatingly beautiful three-hour head trip in period clothes that is understandably in love with its own style. Though the film has the gorgeous veneer of a classic studio Western, it’s actually more of a moody period crime epic about a pack of savage thieves who slowly get picked off one by one at the whim of the mad, mythic gunslinger Jesse James, whose mind has been poisoned by obsessive suspicions (this would put “Jesse James” in reasonable enough standing with Dominik’s other pictures, the brutal prison film “Chopper” and the explicitly political gangster comedy “Killing Them Softly”). More than anything, though, “The Assassination of Jesse James” plays like a rueful, half-remembered dream: one that meditates on America’s longstanding fascination with outlaws and murderers, while cleverly observing how the country’s most dangerous man tended to inflate his own mythology. Though the film is anchored by sturdy, haunted turns from the likes of Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, Paul Schneider, and the late, great Sam Shepherd — all of whom communicate fully inhabited, authentic characters in just a handful of scenes — it is Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck who ultimately carry the film. Pitt plays James like he’s Jim Morrison possessed by a voodoo spirit, and it’s hands-down the most thrillingly unpredictable work he’s ever done. Affleck, meanwhile, communicates the black-hearted selfishness of the coward Robert Ford — the simpering weakling who turned his gun on James and ultimately ended his life — with startling clarity and a childlike menace that lends this film the unmistakable note of tragedy.
5. Children of Men. There was no way that anyone could have predicted that the inhuman dystopia depicted in “Children of Men” would come as close as it has to resembling our current funhouse-mirror political reality. There was also no way to predict that Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron — who, prior to this seminal work of modern science fiction, was best known for movies like the sweaty, sexed-up road trip flick “Y Tu Mama Tambien” and also the third “Harry Potter” movie — would be capable of executing a concept of such unfathomable scope. Like many great works of art birthed into the world through uncompromising means, a perfect confluence of circumstances is what created “Children of Men” — which is ironic when you consider that Cuaron’s fierce formalist epic is one of the most disturbingly prescient sociopolitical allegories ever realized on the big screen. The film blends grainy, docudramatic realism with elaborate fantasy (check out the heady allusions to Pink Floyd’s “Animals” album cover), whilst embodying the textbook definition of a 21st-century cautionary tale before re-writing the blueprint from the ground up. In “Men,” the world is on the brink of extinction when a global contagion of infertility renders the human race unable to successfully procreate. Clive Owen plays Theo Faron, a onetime activist who’s become a shell of a man after his only child succumbed from a life-threatening flu virus. Cuaron follows Theo as he finds himself mixed up with a rogue’s gallery of characters, including a band of militant insurgents, a pot-puffing, shaggy-haired radical played by none other than Michael Caine, and a woman who may possess the power to produce human life in the wake of an epidemic. Scored to an assortment of eclectic tracks that range from Radiohead to King Crimson, and acted by a strong-minded, focused cast that extends to Julianne Moore, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Charlie Hunnam, “Children of Men” might have just been another bleak, pretentious political thriller in the hands of any other director. And yet, Cuaron turns it into an experimental triumph that’s also an unblinking critique of our current world. Don’t let the movie’s procession of mind-blowing single takes and its cinematic virtuosity distract you: cinematic tricks aside, “Children of Men” is about the dangers of what could happen if we, as a people, never wake up from our self-induced slumber.
4. There Will Be Blood. Like nearly all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films, “There Will Be Blood” is set in Southern California. However, with the exception of his delirious pothead whodunit/Thomas Pynchon adaptation “Inherent Vice,” I’d be hard-pressed to think of another P.T.A. picture that’s as much about the idea of Southern California itself as his grand, furious magnum opus, “There Will Be Blood”. Whereas “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia” are rambling odes to family and faith set within the drab suburbs of the San Fernando Valley, and “Punch-Drunk Love” mainly unfolds inside the fevered headspace of its sad-sack protagonist, “There Will Be Blood” is explicitly about the dueling forces of avarice and salvation that are threaded into the ethos of the California state of mind. “There Will Be Blood” is also a classic film about the American West — cinematographer Robert Elswit lingers on awe-inspiring shots of desert vistas and relishes in the movie’s sumptuous period details in a manner that suggests John Ford, where the director’s earlier films may have doffed their caps Robert Altman. Of course, because this is Paul Thomas Anderson, “There Will Be Blood” is anything but a traditional Western. In shorthand terms, the director’s boldest, most defining film is another one of his typically bruising character studies: this time, about a man fighting a losing battle against the forces of greed and self-preservation. The man in question is Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis, who will be reuniting with Anderson for his last and final film, to be released this holiday season), painted here as an unrepentant capitalist who feels no emotions save for contempt and lust, and who views fellow human beings as mere obstacles to be overcome. Plainview’s climactic bowling alley confrontation with the two-faced Christian con man Eli Sunday (a mesmerizing Paul Dano) remains one of the most genuinely shocking and blisteringly funny endings to any film made in this century — so much so that when Plainview, covered in his enemy’s literal blood, bellows “I’m finished,” you can feel Anderson issuing a taunting statement to his contemporaries.
3. Mulholland Drive. Was it all just a dream? Should the director have heeded the cowboy’s warning? Who is the man in the wheelchair? Or the girl in the red dress? What’s up with the ending? Movie nerds and pop cultural scholars have been asking these questions and more in regards to David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” since the film’s release in 2001, and we’re arguably no closer to comprehending the film’s byzantine layers of mystery and surrealism today than we were sixteen years ago. Then again, does a work as definitive as “Mulholland Drive” really need cut-and-dry analysis? In an era where we’ve become obsessed with fan theorizing and often-fruitless speculation as to the plotlines of our favorite films and T.V. programs, the third eye-tickling vision quest of post-“Mulholland Drive” David Lynch is something to be cherished. Lynch’s biggest and most unfathomably ambitious film is an ethereal simulacrum of L.A. twisted inside out — a soul-dead nightmare landscape filled with needy actresses, egomaniacal directors, horny poolboys and hitmen-for-hire — that’s also a sly and disturbing commentary on the rest of the director’s filmography. It’s also the first chapter in a new ongoing phase that extends to the scorching “Inland Empire” and also this year’s “Twin Peaks: The Return”. With these works, Lynch has all but thrown away his interest in traditional narrative plotting, and is instead giving his audience unfiltered, often unshapely passages of quixotic dream logic the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the conceptual output of Robert Smithson was a force in the cultural landscape (the late-period existential satire of Luis Bunuel also comes to mind). In this current cultural moment, where so much of what we consume is a familiar recycling of something we’ve already seen and experienced dozens of other times, “Mulholland Drive” still feels like a spike of arsenic in a field of cinematic cotton candy. It is gorgeous, haunting, absurd, irrational, hilarious, illogical, genuinely sexy and, above all else, brazenly fucking weird. We may never get another feature-length David Lynch film again, but if “Mulholland Drive” were his penultimate big-screen effort, it would be one of the most resounding swan songs in the history of experimental cinema. Silencio.
2. The Royal Tenenbaums. And if I seem to be afraid/to live the life that I have made in song/it’s just that I’ve been losing/so long.” This lyric is taken from “These Days,” the Gothic, melancholy art-pop tune that plays during the most famous sequence from Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums”. Apart from being one of the most memorable musical moments in a film that is teeming with deep cuts ranging from Elliott Smith to Van Morrison, this above-mentioned lyric also gets at the heart of what Anderson’s modern American masterpiece is truly about. “The Royal Tenenbaums” is a magnificent and graceful comedy about family and disappointment, and its genteel power has a way of sneaking up on you, like one of the many deft visual gags that Anderson peppers throughout his sprawling storybook narrative. Like the narrator of “These Days” and other Anderson characters, such as “Rushmore’s” striving prep school student Max Fischer or the rakish Monsieur Gustave from “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” the Tenenbaum children were brilliant once. More to the point, they were frighteningly precocious, fawned-over child prodigies whose only curse was the near-constant presence of their disruptive con-man father, Royal (Gene Hackman, in his last great screen performance). When Anderson’s movie catches up with the movie’s namesake family, their reputation has been tarnished by what the film’s narrator calls “two decades of failure, betrayal and disaster”. The Texas auteur’s third film exists as the zenith of his obsession with creating enchanting and magical micro-environments, and the Tenenbaum’s make-believe version of New York City is as indebted to J.D. Salinger’s “Franny and Zooey” as much as “Coney Island Baby”-era Lou Reed. And yet, what lingers with the viewer is the unforced warmth of Anderson’s big-hearted farce, and the deep well of humanity that roils beneath the movie’s immaculately stylized surface. Anderson has always been a humanist who decorates his films with his various fetishes and obsessions (father-son dynamics, luxurious, self-contained ecosystems, the British Invasion, Bill Murray, etc.) and “The Royal Tenenbaums” is the most culturally vital and fully realized of the director’s grown-up fairy tales.
- Zodiac. Why is “Zodiac” the most important film of the 2000’s? Surely it should be “Mulholland Drive” or “Under the Skin” or “Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” right? “Zodiac” was released in 2007 amidst of flurry of other masterpieces including “There Will Be Blood,” “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” and “No Country for Old Men,” as well as similarly compelling and challenging works like Noah Baumbach’s “Margot at the Wedding” and Wes Anderson’s “The Darjeeling Limited”. And while all those films are pretty great — a few of them are even on this list — not one can match David Fincher’s intoxicating three-hour procedural for the power of its ideas, or the flawless splendor of its execution. Like all of Fincher’s films, “Zodiac” is a film about alienated, driven outsiders attempting to break into a system that speaks to them on some primal level, but one whose dense web of complexities they still can’t comprehend. In Fincher’s slow-burning triumph, it’s a trio of men whose work circulates around the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper — an idealistic political cartoonist (Jake Gylenhaal), a party-hearty crime reporter (a whirligig Robert Downey Jr.), and a hard-nosed city cop (Mark Ruffalo, earnest and commanding) — who all find themselves in the crosshairs of the notorious Zodiac killer who terrorized the Bay Area throughout the 1970’s. Fincher’s typically immaculate attention to framing and his awe-inspiring knack for generating suspense are apparent in every frame. And yet the film also carries unsettling notes of autobiography: Fincher was just a kid when the Zodiac was merrily picking off his victims, and he’s recalled in interviews that his parents would drive him to school after hearing that the killer threatened to shoot up a school bus full of children. Like the great 70’s thrillers of Alan J. Pekula — most prominently, “All the President’s Men,” though there are notes of “Klute” here as well, as well as “The Parallax View” — “Zodiac” is a portrait of ordinary lives defined by an all-consuming obsession. It is an unapologetically adult work about accruing the tiniest of details and laboring over seemingly inconsequential particulars in pursuit of an unknowable, perhaps unattainable truth. That last note is what makes “Zodiac” so gloomily prophetic when viewed today. At its core, Fincher’s film is warning us about the malleable nature of truth itself — and how easily it can be perverted and distorted to the ends of evil men. In the age of Alternative Facts and Fake News, Fincher’s masterpiece stands as a sobering rebuke to the bullshit of our current national headlines. — NL.