How fitting that my 100th post on this blog brings me back to my first love: film. It's been nearly three years since I started it, and--save a couple semesters--I've done my best to maintain it. I hope you enjoy this list, which is hardly complete. I'll follow this up with a post of 50 honorable mentions.
(2002, Spike Lee)
The definitive guy movie of the decade. On the eve of his prison sentence, Monty Brogan (Ed Norton) reflects on his friendships and poor decisions over the years and in the process reveals the devastation his drug dealing has brought on his family. Featuring great supporting performances from an insecure Philip Seymour Hoffman, an overly confident Barry Pepper and a stoic but strong Brian Cox. Oh, and it manages to say more about our "post-9/11" world in a few minutes than most movies did in their entire run time.
Further Viewing: Bamboozled (2000), Inside Man (2006), Miracle at St. Anna (2008)
500 Days of Summer
(2009, Marc Webb)
A romantic comedy that's not terrible is a miracle in and of itself, but one that includes realistic dialogue and scenarios? That's unheard of. Music video director Marc Webb makes a remarkable debut, one that's totally honest with its audience, even when it has a few tricks up its sleeve.
(2000, Cameron Crowe)
Perfectly captures teenage innocence, the '70s, rock 'n' roll, the pressures of your first big job, falling in love, and anything else ya got. This is Crowe's masterpiece.
(2001, Jean-Pierre Jeunet)
Has there ever been a more likable protagonist than Amélie? She's a person so unwaveringly nice and generous person, she has to be a work of fiction. But none of this would work if Audrey Tautou weren't so genuine.
(2007, Ridley Scott)
Another appropriate title would have been the title of the article it's based upon: "The Return of Superfly." After the commercial failures of his last three projects, Scott teamed up with his ol' buddy Russell Crowe, attached a perfectly cast Denzel (clearly relishing his bad guy role) and much, like The Departed, emphasized the psyche--not the firepower--of the two leads.
Further Viewing: Black Hawk Down (2001), Matchstick Men (2003), Kingdom of Heaven (2005)
(2001, Takashi Miike)
The first half flawlessly blends mystery and romance, the second is a terrifying trip into obsession. A movie with a palpable sense of dread. Seek it out immediately.
(2004, Richard Linklater)
Nine years after their brief encounter, Jesse and Celine reconnect in Paris and their real-time conversation about all their how their lives didn't turn out the way they planned carries significant heft. But it's more than just the dialogue that resonates: each gesture carefully adds another detail of the regret they both feel. One of the most affecting and rewarding movies you'll ever see.
Further Viewing: Waking Life (2001)
(2003, Tim Burton)
After the dark dreck of the despicable Planet of the Apes remake, many wondered what one of the most gifted directors would do next. He turned his sights on Daniel Wallace's magical novel, a father-son tale that never once feels trite. Albert Finney is terrific as the larger-than-life patriarch, whose tall tales don't sit well with his son (Billy Crudup). The ensuing conversations and stories paint a picture of a man whose big dreams and full life had to be filled with big stories. The more fantastic sequences--with Ewan McGregor--are a delight to behold, but the intimate scenes with Crudup and Finney are touching.
Further Viewing: Sweeney Todd (2007)
(2006, Rian Johnson)
A gripping detective thriller set in the shifty world of high school. The seedy clubs are backstage of theater productions, the dark alleys are rows of lockers, but the hard-boiled dialogue remains consistent. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is marvelous as a Phillip Marlowe in sneakers, with Matt O'Leary as his trusty sidekick. Tremendously well-written, especially for a film with a budget of under $500,000.
Further Viewing: The Brothers Bloom (2009)
Children of Men
(2006, Alfonso Cuarón)
From the opening scene--a bomb goes off in a crowded café, sending a disoriented man scrambling to find his arm--sets up the alarming sense of certainty viewers feel throughout this rough-edged masterpiece. It's pretty hopeless until the ending, which leaves the viewer to decide whether hope is fulfilled or destroyed. A terrifying vision of the future, filled with realism, masterful camera tricks and honest performances.
Further Viewing: Y Tu Mamá También (2002), Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
City of God
(2003, Fernando Meirelles)
Think of it as the Brazilian GoodFellas: a comprehensive, engrossing mob tale from its violent origins to its devastating end. This is the work of a startling visionary who knows exactly what he's talking about.
(2003, Anthony Minghella)
A movie that grows richer as time goes on. This isn't your father's Civil War movie: there are no winners in the final months of the conflict, only losers. This Deep South Odyssey works only because you believe the love between Jude Law and Nicole Kidman is that strong. It also helps that the gritty realism of deserters and devastated victims of war fill in the rest of the film, eliminating any Hollywood shine.
(2005, Paul Haggis)
Is it well-acted and well-written? Yeah. Is it brutally honest? Yeah. Is it preachy? Yeah, that too. But Haggis' directorial debut is the kind of movie that comes around so rarely: a movie that holds up a mirror to America (and humanity) and shows it its own hideous reflection.
Further Viewing: In the Valley of Elah (2007)
The Dark Knight
(2008, Christopher Nolan)
I could write pages and pages about this game-changing movie, which pretty much redefined everything that came before it. It inspires. ethical debates. It has an impeccable cast, from the shortest supporting performance of David Dastmalchian to the piece-de-resistance of the late Heath Ledger. Its story has more and more layers upon each viewing. In short, this is about as good as it gets.
Further Viewing: Memento (2000), The Prestige (2006)
Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father
(2008, Kurt Kuenne)
More compelling and tear-jerking than just about any movie you'll ever see. One half is a gripping true-crime story, the other is filled with righteous indignation over a corrupt Canadian justice system. This is a documentary made to shake you with nothing but the truth.
(2006, Martin Scorsese)
A crime epic like nothing you've ever seen. Leave it to Scorsese to add context to a mob saga. There's plenty of shootouts, but also lots of deeper themes about true identity and cultural heritage. Plus, the cast (including Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, and Jack Nicholson--all at the top of their games) is one of the best ever assembled.
Further Viewing: The Aviator (2004)
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
(2007, Julian Schnabel)
Most biopics are as flat and uninteresting as West Texas. But every once in a while, a true storyteller comes along to inject some life into someone's life story. Jean-Dominique Bauby, the editor of French Vogue had a stroke in his 30s, paralyzing all but his left eye. But his spirit could not be contained. He blinked his memoirs with the help of his longsuffering nurse. If this sounds a bit boring, trust me it's not. This is about as riveting as they come.
(2001, Richard Kelly)
I'm not going to pretend like I know everything that's going on in this movie. But that's part of what's so rewarding about repeat viewings of this spiritual-supernatural-completely unreal coming-of-age story.
(2008, John Patrick Shanley)
Here's a movie you can dissect and discuss for days on end, thanks to a script filled with clues and misinterpretations. No two people will have the exact same theory on what happened. But that's not the point. It's more of how misconceptions and assumptions tear apart people's lives. It's a shame more people haven't seen it.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
(2004, Michel Gondry)
A romantic comedy that defies convention or boundaries. A stunning piece of technical genius, but also filled with powerful but realistic performances. In short, this is a movie that gets everything right.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall
(2008, Nicholas Stoller)
Smarter and more resonant than a dozen romantic comedies, Jason Segel's screenwriting debut is more honest and funny than anything with Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey.
(2007, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino)
A filmgoing experience like no other: a Z-grade double feature done with grade-A talent. Rodriguez's Planet Terror is the more entertaining zombie-infestation gross-out and Tarantino's Death Proof is a talky revenge thriller. But the best part is the fake trailers that connect the two films: each a surprisingly well done parody of a subgenre of horror.
(2000, Stephen Frears)
Here's a guy movie that actually doesn't insult men--or women. The characters are complex, but not overly so. Yes, we like to make top 5 lists and obsess over records, but that doesn't mean we don't regret some things or feel cheated or wish our lives could be better.
Further Viewing: The Queen (2006)
(2003, Jim Sheridan)
An immigrant tale that doesn't feel like it's been told 1,000 times. Based on director Jim Sheridan's own life experience, the movie feels authentic because it is. It's also unpredictable. Nothing in the film feels methodical. It unfolds realistically.
(2008, Martin McDonagh)
Most movies find their protagonists trapped in an idyllic small town. But the twist here is that they're trapped in a hellhole in Belgium. There's a little bit of underlying sadness in the conversation of two men who have devoted their lives to the business of killing, but the movie is still ferociously funny and delightfully off-kilter.
(2004, Brad Bird)
Just a superhero movie? Think again. This is less about the family's superpowers and more about how society has made those superpowers something to be ashamed of because it distinguishes them from the rest of the average population. Like Dash says, "Everyone's special, which means no one is." Biting satire in a kids' movie? You bet your Hai Karate.
Further Viewing: Ratatouille (2007)
(2009, Quentin Tarantino)
After you see a movie six times, you start to notice things. Like how every performance is richly detailed, how intense each scene is, and how detailed each setpiece is. You also notice how aggressively, well, awesome this movie is. A well-crafted piece of historical pulp fiction, this multi-layered revenge fantasy is as elaborate and entertaining as they come.
Further Viewing: Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003), Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004)
Let the Right One In
(2008, Tomas Alfredson)
Twilight, schmilight. This is the ultimate teen vampire romance. Relationships don't get more complicated than the one between Oskar and Eli, the bullied boy and his vampire pal. Plus, it's not exactly clear if Eli wants to give up the blood-sucking life. A complex love story that feels real, even with its fantastic elements.
Little Miss Sunshine
(2006, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris)
A dysfunctional family tale that's authentic because none of the revelations feel out-of-the-ordinary. For the most part, anything that the Hoovers experience, your family could just as easily go through. Oh, but it's still hilarious.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy
(2001-03, Peter Jackson)
No one knows the definition of painstaking better than Peter Jackson (except maybe James Cameron). A years-in-the-making epic that made sure every minute detail (from how many soldiers in a battle scene to the proportions of a treehouse to height of each character) is perfected. In a way, it's almost too perfect, and definitely too long, but incredibly entertaining nonetheless.