Below are listed my favorite films of the past twenty years. These are the movies that have most influenced me, or have left the most enduring impression on my mind. They are presented in no rigid order of hierarchy, except for the first title, The Lives of Others, which for me towers over every other film as a cherished work of cinematic art.
The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) (2006)
This is not only the greatest German movie ever made, but also belongs on any list of the greatest films in history. It was a labor of love for director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who tirelessly sought to complete his vision despite numerous obstacles in shooting and marketing his movie. Set in totalitarian East Germany (GDR) in 1984, The Lives of Others tells the story of a rigid, repressed security officer (Gerd Wiesler), a true believer in the GDR system, who undertakes a mission to conduct surveillance on a writer and his girlfriend who are suspected of being subversives. As the task unfolds, however, he begins to be tortured by doubts. These hesitations finally ripen into an act of such transcendent heroism and self-sacrifice that no one watching can fail to be moved to awe.
The Lives of Others succeeds on two levels: first as a tale of selfless sacrifice, and second as a story of redemption. It holds out the possibility that all of us, if presented with the right circumstances, have the capability to perform courageous and beautiful acts of love. One suspects that there must be many Gerd Wieslers around the world today, quietly going about their affairs in obscurity, who may nonetheless have performed feats comparable to those celebrated by the ancient bards.
A Prophet (Un Prophète) (2009)
Viewers in 2009 who were expecting a routine crime drama found themselves catapulted into an engrossing tale of one man’s rise to criminal glory. A young, functionally illiterate Algerian immigrant is sentenced to serve out a prison sentence in France for assault. He quickly finds out that he will not be able to lie low and “do his time” in peace; recruited by Corsican gangsters, he is thrown to the wolves and has to rely on his wits to survive. With cunning, negotiating skills, and a certain raggedy charisma, he slowly begins to lay plans that culminate in an astonishing reversal of circumstances. Director Jacques Audiard carries it all off with such realism and sympathy for his characters that we cannot take our eyes off the screen.
The Beat That My Heart Skipped (De Battre Mon Cœur s’est Arrêté) (2005)
Another product of Jacques Audiard’s fertile mind, this movie is an engaging character study of Tom, a young real estate scammer in Paris who tries to escape the criminal life by pursuing his interest in concert piano. Like many anti-heroes, Tom (played by an intense Romain Duris) is a seething bag of emotions, not all of which we are aware of the origin. Some unconscious force seems to animate him, and drive him forward, despite the doubts and muted contempt of his father and his peers. It is this which ultimately enables his redemption: but the journey along the way will have many obstacles.
Caché (Hidden) (2005)
For every bad act committed in one’s past, there must be some form of atonement. We can try to bury the past, and we can try to deflect it: but in the end, it will always find a way to look at us squarely in the eye. This is the message of Michael Hanecke’s somber and deeply unsettling drama about a comfortable, deluded Parisian journalist named Georges (Daniel Auteuil) who begins to receive anonymous tapes left at his doorstep. Georges tries to downplay the significance of the tapes, and conceals key details from his terrified wife Anne (Juliette Binoche).
There are clues in these tapes that point to a remote incident in Georges’s childhood; and this realization sends him on a mission of discovery that forces him to confront a long-buried secret. The themes here are injustice and guilt, and how these forces can be passed down successive generations. When it comes to old grievances, sometimes closure can be found, and sometimes it cannot. Daniel Auteuil is brilliant as the upper-class professional living in unrelenting denial, and provides us with a character profile of a type that is all too common in our world today.
Remember the days of the “found footage” movie? There was a whole rash of these movies in the early and mid-2000s, probably an inevitable product of the smashing success of The Blair Witch Project. Many of these movies were forgettable, but a very few were truly brilliant. Rec belongs in this select category. Horror is one of the most difficult genres to do successfully on film (and in writing); it can very easily descend into gratuitous violence or absurd excess, and leave viewers bored and restless.
In Rec, a mysterious virus breaks out in an apartment building in Barcelona. The firefighter rescue crew, together with a hysterical news reporter, find themselves facing an evil presence that is beyond their comprehension. Endlessly imitated, Rec remains one of the very best horror films of all time. The whole production is seamless and, like the best Edgar Allan Poe short stories, focused entirely on evoking a particular emotion: fear.
Valhalla Rising (2009)
Director Nicholas Winding Refn has achieved greatness because he is unafraid of taking chances. This surreal, art-house Viking tale belongs in a class of its own: part prophecy, part adventure tale, and part ode to heroic self-sacrifice. In the Scottish highlands of the Dark Ages, a mute slave warrior named “One-Eye” joins a band of Norse explorers who set out for new lands. One-Eye speaks through a young boy, who has the ability to channel his thoughts. Their strange, stylized journey to North America confronts them with forces they neither understand nor can manage, and a cloud of doom seems to hang over their expedition. An evasive, inscrutable film, saturated with atmosphere and theatrical images that provide the viewer with an inexhaustible well of ideas.
Fear X (2003)
Again, Nicholas Winding Refn. Here he provides us with one of the most potent studies of grief and repressed rage ever filmed. A mild-mannered suburban security guard named Harry Cain (played wonderfully by John Turturro) embarks on a quest to find the person or persons who randomly killed his wife. Fear X is such an intimate psychological study that we are never certain how much of Cain’s “journey” is real, and how much is fantasy; and the ending is so brilliant because Refn refuses to lift this veil of ambiguity. Cain wants closure, as does the audience, but Refn declines to take the easy way out: and anyone who has dealt with grief knows that this captures the truth better than any conventional ending ever could.
Ad Astra (2019)
Some will say that not enough time has passed for us to render judgment on this movie. I disagree. Ad Astra grows in stature with every viewing, and constitutes a modern classic. An astronaut named Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is chosen for a special mission: he must attempt to contact his father’s lost expedition that apparently went awry on the far reaches of the solar system. As in Apocalypse Now, we are presented with a series of incidents along the journey heighten the sense of dread: moon pirates, attacks by experimental animals, fights with the crew, etc.
At the end of the voyage he finds his apparently insane father, who is unwilling to leave his doomed post on a disabled spacecraft near the planet Neptune. Where Ad Astra truly succeeds is on the human level, in how it deals with the conflicted relationship between father and son. Director James Gray handles a very complex theme with maturity and finesse, and provides an ending that remains deeply satisfying.
This Christopher Nolan production single-handedly raised the bar for science fiction films. Great attention was paid to getting all the details about interstellar travel, black holes, and quantum physics right; and the results on-screen prove that this effort was time eminently well-spent. The basic plot here is this: in the near future, humanity is faced with an ecosystem degraded to the point that food will longer grow. A new planet must be found, and to this end a wave of daring astronauts is sent through a mysterious wormhole in the outer solar system. To say more would deprive viewers of the joys of this intelligent and sensitive movie. Besides the technical achievements, Nolan’s great accomplishment here is his incredible ability to combine grand cosmic themes with the most intimate, personal dynamics of human relationships.
The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza) (2013)
This is the kind of movie that could only be made in Italy, and probably only in Rome. Director Paolo Sorrentino channels his inner Fellini with this sweeping, emotional, sensual spectacle that is very rare in modern cinema. An aging, world-weary journalist and author named Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) is confronted with the creeping suspicion that his entire life has been worthless. He published a book many years earlier, but has failed to do anything since; the reasons were partly due to laziness, and partly due to a lack of ideas. He wanders through various social events and parties in Rome, reconnecting with images and personalities of his past; these meetings do little for him, and he begins to abandon himself to despair. Redemption may be at hand, but he must first earn it. A deeply satisfying film in every way, and a paean to life’s mystery and grandeur.
Runners-Up (Honorable Mentions)
Crafting a “top ten” list is never easy, of course. Close calls have to be made in every category. Below are additional favorites that, for one reason or another, could just as easily made it to the top ten list on any given day:
Sleepless Night (2011). A pulse-pounding French action film that starts out like a shot out of a cannon, and never loses its velocity.
Timecrimes (2007). Hands down, this Spanish film is the greatest time travel film ever created.
Michael Clayton (2007). How I do love this film. Directed by Tony Gilroy and produced by the late, great Sydney Pollack, this is George Clooney’s best performance and a expertly-filmed drama that feels like a throwback to the great thrillers of the 1970s. Every scene is memorable, and could be used as set-pieces for the training of actors.
Kill List (2011). A British horror film of true brilliance. Two hit-men are hired to carry out a series of executions. Unfortunately for them, this assignment takes them down a supernatural path from which there is no escape.
Collateral (2004). Michael Mann at his best: and when he is at his best, no one else does it better. Tom Cruise is also at the top of his mental and physical form in his unforgettable portrayal of a jaded assassin sent to Los Angeles for special task. Los Angeles doesn’t just glow under Mann’s camera: it shimmers like an unadulterated night sky festooned with stars.
Dead Man’s Shoes (2004). A British revenge film of stark, raw, and unapologetic power. The evil lurking behind the façade of rural, small-town life is laid bare, and the consequences of this evil must inevitably be faced.
Blade Runner 2049 (2017). The story is not exactly profound, but the set design, sense of atmosphere, and grand conception count for a great deal. Denis Villeneuve was the perfect choice to direct this masterful sequel to the original cult classic.
Prisoners (2013). Denis Villeneuve directed this disturbing drama about the abduction of two girls in Pennsylvania and the consequent search to recover them. Prisoners is a meditation on obsession, cruelty, and the unfathomable evil that can lurk behind the mask of seemingly normal individuals. This vastly underappreciated film deserves close study and repeated viewings: there is true evil in this movie, of the type that is rarely presented to audiences accustomed to stereotypes and smug Hollywood endings.
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