10. City of God (2002)
A true example of bravura filmmaking, City of God packs a punch of frenetic energy that you won’t soon forget. Taking place in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, the story centers on a group of impoverished kids as they grow up facing a seemingly endless cycle of drugs, violence, and destruction. They have little choice in whether they should engage in these activities; it simply comes down to a matter of survival. Within this backdrop, the film plays out as not only a great crime drama, but a story about overcoming the odds as one boy, Rocket, attempts to break out of the slum life. We follow him, along with many others, as they navigate their way through this rough-and-tumble world, knowing that danger comes in all shapes and sizes. The distinctive visual style of the film assaults its viewers with rapid cuts and intricate camera moves. What’s most impressive about the style is that it doesn’t come off as flashy, but expertly applied to illustrate the story of an out-of-control world.
9. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
After establishing himself with Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, Wes Anderson was allowed to broaden his unique world once again; this time focusing on a dysfunctional family of geniuses who live in a storybook version of New York. At the core, it’s a film about a group of outsiders attempting to cope with each other and themselves as they search for a place to belong. With an all-star cast headed by Gene Hackman, Anderson weaved a story filled with equal amounts of melancholy, heartache, romance, whimsy, and triumph together into a true work of art. Every aspect of the film is meticulously crafted to create a fully realized world, from the Dalmatian mice to the hand-drawn wallpaper. No one makes films quite like Anderson does, although many imitators have cropped up in recent years. There’s something about his sensibilities that resonate with me more than most any filmmaker working today. One last note: I can’t think about this film without thinking of the music. The score by Mark Mothersbaugh ranks as one of my favorites, and, as usual, Anderson’s impeccable song choices become an integral part of the experience.
8. Inglourious Basterds (2009)
I was a bit wary of including a film released only last year since it hasn’t had the time to settle in my mind the way earlier films have. But in the case of Inglourious Basterds, a film I’ve seen several times now, any trepidation on my part has been put at ease. Quentin Tarantino represents one of the finest directors of our time, so a list like this certainly deserves his work represented. I considered the Kill Bill films instead, but something kept drawing me back to Basterds. It’s a more mature, nuanced work than I had expected. With each viewing, new, subtle details emerge. The film concentrates on themes of reputation, mythmaking, and the power of cinema. In addition to its thematic weight, the film boasts some powerhouse performances, especially from Christoph Waltz as Col. Hans Landa, one of the most memorable characters I’ve seen in quite some time. The tone of the film is expertly handled, transitioning from moments of humor to horror effortlessly. Any other film would be rushing to get to the next plot point or action sequence, but here scenes are allowed to play out naturally, building up the tension bit by bit until the audience almost bursts from anticipation. Above all, Tarantino’s love of cinema constantly shines through. There’s such care taken for every aspect of the film (and such reverence placed on film itself) that I simply can’t help but admire it.
7. Memento (2000)
Christopher Nolan has proven himself over and over again as one of the most talented directors at blending complex ideas into mainstream entertainment, so I thought it appropriate to include the film that launched his name and left a distinctive mark on the cinema landscape. Like most of Nolan’s films, Memento centers on the workings of the mind. The backwards narrative of a man with short-term memory attempting to avenge the murder of his wife revolutionized the way people looked at story structure and conventions. What may have been a gimmick in a lesser film, Memento uses as an integral component in telling its story as well as fitting in thematically. The film functions like a puzzle we aren’t supposed to solve so much as experience. While that may sound frustrating to some, I welcome any film that explores its topics as deeply and as compellingly as Memento.
6. The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003)
This spot represents my only choice for some full-blown blockbuster films. It’s difficult to ignore the monumental task that Peter Jackson and crew undertook when bringing these films to the screen. The locales created by these films are so well realized and given an authenticity that it becomes easy to accept the fantasy world as its own reality. I mean, who wouldn’t want to live in the coziness of the Shire after watching these films? There’s really something for everyone to enjoy in this epic tale. On one hand, the battle scenes are edge-of-your-seat sequences. However, if that’s not your style, the love story between Aragorn and Arwen may compel you. Either way, the main characters are so memorable and immensely likable that you gladly follow them on their long journey. On a technical level, I appreciated the combination of older special effects and camera tricks, such as the use of miniatures or forced perspective, mixed with the latest CGI technology. Too many films rely completely on CGI as a crutch and it comes off as lazy. Luckily, Jackson proved to be the right creative force to take care of such decisions. His endless passion for the material translates onto the screen and I couldn’t help but become caught up in it. These films are crowd-pleasers in the best possible sense.
5. 25th Hour (2002)
Few films capture the spirit or mood of a specific time the way that Spike Lee’s 25th Hour encapsulates life in the months of post-9/11 haze. What’s even more impressive about the film is that the story isn’t even overtly about that. The time and location only act as a backdrop for the story of convicted drug-dealer Monty (Edward Norton) as he spends his last day of freedom with friends and family before departing to prison for seven years. During this time Monty examines his life and what went wrong. Along with Norton, the film also stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper, Rosario Dawson, Anna Paquin, and Brian Cox, who all give outstanding performances. There’s one monologue in particular that ranks among the best in film. Lee filters some of his usual themes into the proceedings, but in a fresh way. Primarily, the film functions as an examination of the decisions we make and how they affect our lives. It’s one that more people should watch or reexamine.
4. Adaptation (2002)
Although some imitators might try, no one writes a screenplay quite like Charlie Kaufman. For this film he and director Spike Jonze essentially break down the screenwriting process until it’s turned on its head. Nicolas Cage delivers his greatest performance(s) as twin brothers Charlie and Donald, both writers with varying degrees of success. As the high-minded Charlie struggles to adapt a book into the screenplay of his dreams, Donald, a complete novice, breezes through an absurd script of his own. This film closely examines the creative process in a way I haven’t seen from any other film. Even though the basic storyline might seem too “inside Hollywood” for some, Adaptation contains very relatable topics. The film essentially boils down to how we handle our ambitions vs. our reality, something I think everyone struggles with at some point. And, interestingly enough, it’s also about failure and how we manage it. The themes are treated with such depth and in such an entertaining way that I had to include it on this list. Oh, and did I mention it’s funny? It’s very funny.
3. Lost in Translation (2003)
With Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola wrote and directed a personal, delicate story of two people who cross paths during similar times in their lives. This insightful film contains some of the purest scenes of emotion between two characters that I have ever seen. The story focuses on middle-aged actor Bob Harris who has arrived in Japan to make some quick cash by shooting a whiskey commercial. Meanwhile Charlotte spends time in the country while her photographer husband busies himself with work. Bob and Charlotte meet at a hotel bar and strike up a friendship. Though separated by many years, both Bob and Charlotte share the same existential questions about their lives. Roger Ebert observes that their conversations represent the kind that only strangers can have with each other: “We all need to talk about metaphysics, but those who know us well want details and specifics; strangers allow us to operate more vaguely on a cosmic scale.” Through their time together, Bob and Charlotte help each other in some profound way. Even though their problems may not be solved, they know now that there’s someone out there who understands them. The performances by the two leads captured something special on screen. Bill Murray deserved every bit of praise for his performance and Scarlet Johansson established herself as a prominent screen presence. It’s such a specific film and so well realized.
2. There Will Be Blood (2007)
Arguably the best film of 2007, a year that, in my opinion, was crowded with greats. P. T. Anderson showed his growth as a filmmaker by tossing aside many of his usual stylistic choices in favor of a more subdued aesthetic. Every element of this film is worth praising. Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance has been deservedly discussed and praised to death. He has created one of the most memorable characters in recent years and one that will be remembered for many years to come. And if Paul Dano can continue work of this caliber, he could easily become one of his generation’s leading actors. I’ve heard some people complain that the film features no redemption or consequences for its lead character; that it’s simply too dark. While I would agree the film maintains a high level of cynicism, I object to the idea that its morally bankrupt. To me, There Will Be Blood represents a cautionary tale. Yes, Daniel Plainview gets exactly what he wants by the film’s end, but at what cost? We see what he’s become and, in a way, pity him for the life he’s chosen. The message seems pretty clear: this is the result of greed when taken to its extreme. Between the weight of its themes and the precision with which it was made, There Will Be Blood deserves to be labeled a classic.
1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
On a pure emotional level, this film affected me more than just about anything I’ve seen. The snapshots into the character’s lives are so rich and full of detail that you feel as if you are interrupting a private conversation by watching them. The story follows the beleaguered Joel Barish, who, after realizing his ex-girlfriend Clementine has undergone a procedure to remove all her memories of him, decides to undergo the same procedure. However, half way through, Joel decides his memories are worth saving and attempts to keep them. Through this premise, the film illustrates a simple, yet profound truth: we are the sum total of our experiences. To ignore portions of our lives would be to deny who we are and possibly doom ourselves into repeating past mistakes. I would be hard-pressed to find a film that exemplifies this lesson more effectively. With a background in music videos, director Michel Gondry brings a visual flare to the film that heightens its themes to the next level. The scenes within Joel’s mind represent the best techniques I’ve seen at illustrating the subjective nature of memories. From blurring elements out, to removing them, to blending memories together, Gondry uses his extensive creativity to portray this surreal experience. These in-camera effects are both impressive and charming. In addition, the score by Jon Brion creates just the right mood to accompany each scene. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has so much to say about relationships, memory, identity, and simply being human that I couldn’t ignore it.
The Departed, No Country for Old Men, United 93, The Squid and the Whale, Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, Synecdoche, New York, Punch-Drunk Love, Zodiac, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Dark Knight, Capturing the Friedmans, Little Children, American Splendor, and many others…
Lastly, I should mention some films that I've yet to see. Even though I probably watch more than most people, a few films will always fall through the cracks.
Not Seen: Milk, Che, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, The Class, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, The Visitor, Lust, Caution, Away from Her, The Sea Inside, No Man's Land, In the Mood for Love, and many from last year
So, what do you think? Offer your thoughts and opinions in the comments.