THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007, Paul Thomas Anderson, U.S.) — A masterpiece on many levels: Visceral cinematography that makes you feel like you’re out standing there in the landscape by those oil wells. That amazing performance by Daniel Day-Lewis as a despicable, yet somehow charismatic man with just a few glints of humanity shining through. Brilliant use of archaic styles of speaking. An opening 20 minutes without any dialogue, a superb example of my favorite sort of filmmaking. Johnny Greenwood’s striking, dramatic musical score. And the feeling that this movie plunges us straight into another time and place. There’s surprisingly little exposition or explanation about what’s happening, but Anderson tells his story through the drama of individual moments. This is one of cinema’s definitive stories about American capitalism, religion, family and violence.
THE WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES (2000, Bela Tarr, Hungary) — When Tarr took audience questions after a screening of this film at the Chicago International Film Festival, someone asked what all of the symbols in the film stood for. “There is no symbolism,” Tarr responded, sounding characteristically cranky. “There is only what you see on the screen.” It’s hard to know whether Tarr really believes that, since this film is filled with surreal, seemingly symbolic sequences. Like other films by Tarr, Werckmeister moves very slowly at times, but the way his camera moves makes it all mesmerizing. One weird thing happens after another in a Hungarian town, when a circus shows up, hauling a big whale and a mysterious “Prince” with it. The exact meaning of those “symbols” doesn’t matter so much as the events they spark — mob mentality springing out of paranoia and fear.
MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001, David Lynch, U.S.) — One of Lynch’s best films. Originally made as a TV pilot, then rejected, then expanded, Mulholland Drive feels stitched together at times, with lots of loose ends, but somehow, that all works for the better, making this movie feel genuinely strange and disturbing. There’s a dazzling sense of dislocation and disorientation when that big plot twist comes in the middle of the film, and people are still debating what exactly it’s all about.
BLOODY SUNDAY (2002, Paul Greengrass, U.K.) — This is one of two films by director Paul Greengrass that make my top 10. (See No. 7 for the other.) Greengrass is a master of making feature films that look and sound like documentaries of the actual events he’s portraying. In this case, Greengrass took us to the tragic and appalling violence of the notorious “Bloody Sunday” incident in Northern Ireland. He dispenses with almost all back story behind the characters we’re watching, simply showing them in the moments of that day as it happened. It feels shocking when the Northern Irish protestors realize the British soldiers are firing bullets, and the emotion of the final scenes is almost overwhelming. Bloody Sunday is also an important look at how confrontations between police or soldiers and protestors can go awry – and how violence confrontations have lasting consequences.
CACHE (HIDDEN) (2005, Michael Haneke, France) — Austrian director Michael Haneke makes movies about the dark side of humanity, presenting his stories in a matter-of-fact style that’s very chilling. A haunting sense of guilt runs through Cache, and Daniel Auteuil is terrific as a man who keeps on denying his responsibility for something that happened long ago, during his childhood. It’s a metaphor for the guilt that entire countries and societies carry for their past actions, but it also works as a story about this one man and his family. Cache is also a film about film, with surveillance videotapes taking a major role. It contains one of the decade’s most shocking scenes, and the ending is an enigma. Make sure you pay close attention to the crowd scene that’s on the screen as the credits roll — not that it will explain everything.
ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (2004, Michel Gondry, U.S.) — Filmmakers who mess around with our perceptions of chronology and memory often end up with a big mess. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman somehow succeeds at making movies that are challenging but coherent when he does it. (Also see No. 8 on my list.) Eternal Sunshine presents the heartbreaking spectacle of a man’s memories of a romance being erased from his brain. It’s a beautiful depiction of the sort of mental and emotional gymnastics most of us human beings go through when we’re wracked with love and its aftermath.
UNITED 93 (2006, Paul Greengrass, U.S.) — As in Bloody Sunday, Greengrass uses a straightforward, documentary approach to an event from the news. In this case, it’s the most catastrophic event of recent decades, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Seeing this film in a theater was such an overwhelming and emotional experience that I wasn’t sure I could see it again. I did watch it one more time recently, just to make sure the film’s quality stood up. And it certainly did. The world-shifting uncertainty of that day came rushing back. The scenes involving air-traffic controllers and military officials struggling to respond to the terrorism (starring some of the actual people as themselves) show just how unprepared the United States was, how bureaucracy and miscommunication got in the way of an effective response. The scenes on United Airlines flight 93 effectively dramatize the situation those passengers faced when they realized their plane was being used as a missile. It makes you think about what you would feel or do in such a dire situation.
SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK (2008, Charlie Kaufman, U.S.) — Screenwriter Kaufman made his directing debut with this film, a phantasmagoria whose story keeps on slipping out of our grasp. It all feels like a fever dream, or the hallucinations of a dying man. I’ve seen it twice so far, and the film seemed to grow richer and more complex on second viewing. It’s a great film about the creative process, carrying on the tradition of Fellini’s 8 1/2. It also ranks up there with movies about the slipperiness of human perception and memory, including the aforementioned Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the original British miniseries of The Singing Detective and Alain Resnais’ Providence. (I haven’t seen Providence in a long time, so I wonder now if it’s as great as I remember. It’s not easy to find on home video.)
TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE (2003, Sylvain Chomet, France) — In a decade when computer-assisted animation made all sorts of breakthroughs, the best animated film was a somewhat old-fashioned cartoon. There’s barely any dialogue at all in this delightful French film about bicycling, dogs and mysterious bad guys, but you don’t need words to connect with these characters. Their repetitive quirks become charming personality traits as you immerse yourself in the peculiar world of Belleville.
MEMENTO (2001, Christopher Nolan, U.S.) — Another excellent film about memory. On one level, it’s a clever mystery, but it’s also an eloquent piece of existentialism. How much do you really remember about what’s happened to you?
11. Russian Ark (2002, Aleksandr Sokurov, Russia)
12. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006, Guillermo Del Toro, Spain)
13. A Serious Man (2009, Joel and Ethan Coen, U.S.)
14. Man on Wire (2008, Philippe Petit, France)
15. Le Fils (The Son) (2002, Luc and Jean-Paul Dardenne, Belgium)
16. All or Nothing (2002, Mike Leigh, U.K.)
17. Yi Yi (A One and a Two) (2000, Edward Yang, Taiwan)
18. Silent Light (2007, Carlos Reydagas, Mexico)
19. Almost Famous (2000, Cameron Crowe, U.S.)
20. Brand Upon the Brain! (2006, Guy Maddin, Canada)
21. Lights in the Dusk (2007, Aki Kaurismaki, Finland)
22. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (2000, Jim Jarmusch, U.S.)
23. Songs From the Second Floor (2000, Roy Andersson, Sweden)
24. Spirited Away (2001, Hayao Miyazaki, Japan)
25. High Fidelity (2000, Stephen Frears, U.S.)