Monday, February 9, 2015

The Best Films of the 21st Century (So Far)

Though it often seems to me that few decent films are being made anymore, once I actually sat down to look at what has been produced over the past fourteen years, I was pleased to realize that, far from withering away, cinema is still in its full flower. Any best-of list is going to be subject to the idiosyncrasies of its compiler; one will notice, the majority of these films are foreign and not in English, while all but one of those in English are British or co-productions. While the United States may produce most of the blockbusters, few American studios are interested in investing money in films of artistic value, preferring to concentrate on short-term dividends derived from following trends and providing entertaining fodder without politics or deeper subtexts. The following fourteen films are the very best of 21st century cinema, so far:

2000 - Memento
Christopher Nolan's second film remains perhaps his most radical (and successful) exploration of subjectivity, perception, and deception. Guy Pearce stars as Leonard, a man who is unable to form long-term memories and, desperate to revenge the murder of his wife, tattoos any information he receives onto his body. The film weaves together complex sequences, the scenes in color in reverse chronological order and those in black and white moving forward in time, forcing the viewer to constantly reconstruct the meaning of the events and exchanges onscreen. The film's grimy, gritty atmosphere, decidedly in opposition to the slick glossiness of Inception, lends it a queasy realism.

2001 - Amelie (Le fabuleux destin d'Amelie Poulain)
Jean Pierre Jeunet's romantic gem catapulted Audrey Tautou to international cult status and redefined the romantic comedy genre, lending it a quirky, surrealistic charm. Amelie Poulain is a shy and retiring young woman with eccentric hobbies and a yen to make the world a friendlier place. From afar and through his equally eccentric hobbies, she falls in love with Nino (Matthieu Kassovitz), a dreamer who alternately works at a carnival and a porn shop. Though the film is the very definition of twee, there isn't a single misstep into mawkishness or cheesiness; it succeeds as a bubbly, candy-colored fantasy through Montmartre, a romantic comedy that eschews both romance and comedy in favor of a deeper, if phantasmagorical, exploration of attraction and individual purpose.

Runners-up: The Last Kiss (L'ultimo bacio), The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Piano Teacher (La pianiste), The Son's Room (La stanza del figlio), Y Tu Mama Tambien

2002 - Talk to Her (Hable con ella)
Pedro Almodovar is one of the greatest living directors and his finest film is this stunningly gorgeous, disturbingly erotic meditation on what it means to love an unknowable woman. Though Almodovar is famous for making films centered on female experience, particularly sexuality and friendships between women, Talk to Her focuses on two men, both in love with comatose women. Marco (Dario Grandinetti) pines over his matador girlfriend, who has been gored by a bull, and forms an abiding friendship with Benigno (Javier Camara), a nurse who ventures into a dangerously sexualized fantasy about the former dancer he cares for. In one of the most stunning scenes - both for its erotic beauty and its deeply upsetting subtext - in Almodovar's visually sumptuous oeuvre a man shrunken to the size of a thumb explores his lover's body in a black and white, silent pastiche of antique pornography.

Runners-up: Far from Heaven, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Russian Ark (Russkij Kovcheg)

2003 - Good Morning, Night (Buongiorno, notte)
Marco Bellochio's gorgeous, poetic, and perfect film tells the story of the 1978 kidnapping of Aldo Moro (Roberto Herlitzka) from the point of view of the one woman (Maya Sansa) among the radical Brigate Rosse, a militant Marxist terror group. Blending the facts (Bellocchio also directed a documentary about the kidnapping) with a dream-like exploration of the woman's psyche, haunted by the collective memory of suffering in both Russia and in Italy, still reeling from the Bolshevik Revolution and the second World War, the film is a moving and deeply complex portrait of both Italian politics and what they mean, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually, for politicized Italians. Good Morning, Night is a masterpiece.

Runners-up: Goodbye, Lenin!, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Lost in Translation, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

2004 - A Very Long Engagement (Une long dimanche de fiancailles)
A second collaboration between Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Audrey Tautou, A Very Long Engagement is a dazzlingly complex film about Mathilde (Tautou), a young woman who firmly believes that her lover Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), reported missing and presumed dead in the trenches of World War I, is alive. The film has a number of decidedly French humorous moments, but it is at its core a profound meditation on what World War I wrought upon the French and an unsentimental paean to romantic love. A dizzying array of colorful characters, a serpentine plot that involves them in a military cover-up of shocking corruption and brutally arrogant insouciance, and beautiful sepia-infused cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel contribute to one of the best war dramas of the century.

Runner-up: Anatomy of Hell (L'anatomie de l'enfer)

2005 - C.R.A.Z.Y.
Jean-Marc Vallee's coming-of-age drama set in Quebec in the 1960s and 70s is about Zac (Marc-Andre Grondin), who, growing up with an authoritarian father (Michel Cote) and a pack of rowdy brothers, struggles to accept and to convince his family to accept that he's gay. The film captures the zeitgeist of the era in a way that's reminiscent of the show The Wonder Years, in its use of clothing, music (David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Giorgio Moroder, and Charles Aznavour, to name just a few of the featured artists), and technology; it's also one of the few gay or lesbian coming-of-age films to interpret that coming-of-age in a wider scope, moving far beyond sexuality, depicting Zac in all his dimensions.

Runners-up: Brokeback Mountain, The Constant Gardener, Conversations with Other Women, Paradise Now

2006 - The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen)
One of the most devastating films of all time, The Lives of Others follows an emotionally repressed Stasi agent (an incredibly brilliant and subtle Ulrich Muhe, in his last film role) in East Germany five years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, who is assigned to oversee the surveillance of the last non-subversive writer (Sebastian Koch) left on the socialist side of the wall. The agent soon becomes obsessed with the writer and his glamorous lover (Martina Gedeck) and for the first time questions whether his absolute loyalty really is owed to the socialist state. Upon the film's release, those who had lived in East Germany expressed amazement at the accuracy of the film's depiction of reality under the totalitarian regime.

Runners-up: The Fall, Jesus Camp, The Prestige, This is England

2007 - Stardust
Stardust is one of the best fantasy films of recent years, though it failed to garner critical acclaim. Adapted from Neil Gaiman's novel, the film is about Tristan (Charlie Cox), a boy who discovers that his heritage is a bit unusual: his mother is a princess turned witch's slave. Tristan travels from provincial England to the magical kingdom of Stormhold where a star (Claire Danes) has fallen and is pursued by a group of malevolent witches and where princes roam in search of a ruby that will grant he that finds it inheritance of the throne. The cast includes Michelle Pfeiffer in a fiendishly ghoulish performance as a witch bent on restoring her youth, Robert De Niro as a closeted pirate captain, and Peter O'Toole as the ailing king with a truly wicked sense of humor.

2008 - The Reader
Though it's easy to frame this film as a World War II movie, that classification misses the point. Michael Berg (David Kross as a teenager and Ralph Fiennes as an adult) is only 15 when he meets Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), a tram conductor two decades his senior. After she helps him home when he's sick in the street, a gift of flowers meant as a token of gratitude sparks off a passionate, but morally dubious, affair in which Michael reads aloud to Hanna in a sort of erotic exchange. As an adult, he discovers that the woman who introduced him to both sex and literature is in fact an illiterate Nazi, accused of horrifying atrocities. The Reader is an unexpectedly subtle and morally complex film, more about love, sex, and art than about the chilling legacy of the Holocaust.

Runners-up: Everlasting Moments (Maria Larssons eviga ogonblick) , The Good, the Bad, the Weird (Jo-eun nom nappeun nom isanghan nom)

2009 - The White Ribbon (Das weisse Band)
The White Ribbon is an incredibly disturbing film, even for director Michael Haneke (The Piano Teacher, Amour), and it is really, really not for the squeamish. Set in a small German village just before the advent of World War I, it examines a cancerous penchant for violence, callousness, and cruelty festering in the repressed Lutheran community. Christian Berger's stunning black and white cinematography renders the atrocities onscreen all the more horrifying, precisely because we aren't accustomed to seeing such things in a period piece. A profoundly moral film, utterly unafraid to delve into the darkest recesses of the human spirit, The White Ribbon seeks to uncover what spiritual malignancy could have produced the generation that supported Hitler.

Runners-up: Bright Star, Fantastic Mr. Fox, A Single Man

2010 - Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux)
Based upon a real incident in which seven Trappist monks were kidnapped in Algeria during the brutal civil war that began in 1991, this French film stars the great Lambert Wilson, Michael Lonsdale, Olivier Rabourdin, and Phillip Laudenbach as a few of the monks who choose to remain in the monastery despite the risks posed by fundamentalist militias. Director Xavier Beauvois favors a spare palette of colors, sounds, and movements, preferring a meditative pacing that accurately reflects the monks' routine, based around prayer, the celebration of mass, and works of charity for the Muslim community with whom they live. Of Gods and Men is a heart-breaking, deeply religious film that draws a stirring portrait of the costs of believing in peace and charity in a violent, sectarian world.

Runners-up: Fish Tank, Four Lions, The Princess of Montpensier

2011 - A Separation (Jodai-e Nader az Simin)
Asghar Farhadi's intimate drama is about Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moaadi), a married couple on the verge of divorce in Iran. While Simin is eager to emigrate, Nader refuses to leave his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), who is completely incapacitated due to Alzheimer's disease. Their fraught marriage is tested even further when an incompetent caretaker (Sareh Bayat) accuses Nader of pushing her and causing a miscarriage. This profoundly adult film explores the legal and emotional minefields of modern-day Iran, where payments of blood money nullify court cases and religious hotlines operate twenty four hours a day to help determine whether any given action may be sinful. A truly essential film.

Runners-up: 50/50, Jane Eyre

2012 - A Royal Affair (Ein kongelig affaere)
This sumptuous Danish film directed by Nikolaj Arcel is about King Christian VII of Denmark (Mikkel Folsgaard), his queen Caroline Matilda (Alicia Vikander), and the idealistic German physician Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), who brings the radical ideas of the Enlightenment to the Danish court and becomes caught in the tempestuous marriage of the constantly feuding monarchs. The cast is uniformly excellent, but the real standout is Folsgaard, who, at only twenty eight, is electrifying, illuminating the complexities of a character alternately tortured and entranced by the vagaries of his madness. The costume design by Manon Rasmussen and the set and production design by Niels Sejer are, in and of themselves, worth the price of admission.

2013 - Her
Spike Jonze's meditation on relationships and compatibility in flux with technology is one of the few films to examine the personal and emotional impact of technological change on ordinary human beings. Joaquin Phoenix, in perhaps his finest performance, plays Theodore Twombly, an isolated man who makes a living writing personalized letters for other people. He purchases an intelligent operating system (Scarlett Johansson, whose bouncy voice performance is the weak link in the film), hoping it will assuage his overwhelming loneliness and soon finding that it (or she?) has become his romantic partner. The production design by K. K. Barrett reveals a decidedly futuristic and yet viscerally real glimpse into what could lie ahead, with slight alterations to shape, color, and texture in the designs, while the cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema is rich and translucent.

Runners-up: Europa Report, Gravity

2014 - The Grand Budapest Hotel 
Wes Anderson's aesthetic world view attains its fullest expression in this wildly funny, sweetly candied, and at moments heart-breakingly moving film about a grand European hotel in its heyday. Ralph Fiennes is brilliant as M. Gustave, the perfumed, sexually ambiguous, fastidious, and above all profoundly charismatic concierge of the hotel, who takes young Zero (Tony Revolori) under his wing and makes him a lobby boy. The film has a dizzying number of great actors waltzing on and off, from Bill Murry and Willem Defoe to Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, and Jeff Goldblum, while Wes Anderson has never written a better screenplay: witty, elegant, a confectionery masterpiece with more substance than most serious dramas.

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