This list represents the culmination of a decade’s worth of avid movie watching – and at least a full year of watching and re-watching hundreds of movies specifically for the purpose of making this list. (Hey, I can only do it once every ten years!) In compiling the list, I purposely sought out films from countries whose cinematic output I was unfamiliar with (Hello Romania and Turkey!) and I tried to make the final list as diverse as possible in terms of the directors and genres represented. However, in the end, personal taste prevailed over any sense of including anything merely because I felt obligated to put it there; I know a lot of intelligent people who think highly of recent films by the Coen Brothers, Lars Von Trier, Wes Anderson, Michael Haneke, etc. but ultimately I had to be honest about only including movies I personally love.
The next time you’re stumped at the video store, perhaps this folly will come in handy.
Countdown of the Top 25 (Preferential Order):
25. Syndromes and a Century (Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2006)
A fascinating experimental/narrative hybrid in which the story of two doctors meeting and falling in love is told twice, each time in a different location. My favorite digression (among many) in this sweet, gentle, humane film is a conversation between an ex-DJ turned Buddhist monk and a dentist who moonlights as a pop singer.
24. There Will Be Blood (Anderson, USA, 2007)
Sly, enigmatic fable about religion vs. big business in an America still young and wild. Brilliant, innovative orchestral score by Jonny Greenwood, and Daniel Day-Lewis, as megalomaniacal, misanthropic oilman Daniel Plainview, gives one of the great screen performances of modern times.
23. No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (Scorsese, USA, 2005)
My favorite Martin Scorsese picture of the decade wasn’t a theatrical release but this engrossing made-for-T.V. documentary about Bob Dylan’s early career. As one might expect, this is bolstered by terrific concert footage but also contextualized by the myriad social and historical changes undergone by America from the end of WWII to the beginning of the Vietnam war. An epic achievement.
22. Mary (Ferrara, Italy/USA, 2005)
A brilliant and complex interaction of narrative fragments, all of which revolve around the place of religion in the modern world. Juliette Binoche is great as an actress who stars as Mary Magdelene in a movie-within-the-movie. Her experience playing the part causes her to go on a spiritual quest to Israel. Meanwhile the film’s megalomaniacal director (Matthew Modine) faces a Passion of the Christ-like controversy back in the States. This provocation is director Abel Ferrara’s finest latter-day work.
21. Failan (Song, S. Korea, 2001)
Judge Smith pronounces this Korean melodrama guilty! Guilty of making a grown man cry all three times he saw it, that is. Career best performances by actors Choi Min-sik and Cecilia Cheung in a unique love story about lovers who never actually meet0
20. Moments choisis des histoire(s) du cinema (Godard, Switzerland/France, 2004)
Jean-Luc Godard’s hour and a half distillation of his marathon video opus Histoire(s) du cinema, where the history of cinema and 20th century world history collide. Whatever Godard goes on to accomplish, this will likely remain his final testament.
19. Avalon (Oshii, Poland/Japan, 2001)
Mind-blowing, philosophical sci-fi about a futuristic Poland where everyone is addicted to a virtual reality video game. My rating here refers only to the original version of this film (available as a region-free DVD or Blu-Ray import), and not the official North American Miramax release, which is ruined by Neil Gaiman’s wildly inaccurate “dub-titles.”
18. Letters from Iwo Jima (Eastwood, USA/Japan, 2006)
The peak of Clint Eastwood’s best decade as a film director is the second part of his Battle of Iwo Jima diptych. Like all true anti-war movies, this spare, haunting, elegiac film is told from the “losing” side.
17. La Captive (Chantal Akerman, France, 2000)
The masterpiece of Chantal Akerman’s late period is also the best adaptation of Proust by anybody. This feminist remix of the fifth volume of Time Regained speaks volumes about the disturbing nature of gender relations in the real world as well as the “male gaze” in the history of cinema in general and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo in particular.
16. Moolaade (Sembene, Senegal, 2004)
An improbably warm, colorful and very humane comedy about a horrific subject: female genital mutilation in West Africa. I was lucky enough to see this at the Chicago International Film Festival with the director, the late, great Ousmane Sembene, present.
15. A History of Violence (Cronenberg, USA/Canada, 2005)
David Cronenberg posits violence as a kind of latent virus in this art film masquerading as a thriller. Or is it a thriller masquerading as an art film? In any case, that’s how I like ‘em.
14. Black Book (Verhoeven , Holland/Germany, 2006)
Paul Verhoeven’s masterful return to filmmaking in his native Holland mimics the form of an old-fashioned Hollywood melodrama in order to pose complex, troubling moral questions about WWII and the Dutch resistance to the Nazi occupation. In other words, the antithesis of Schindler’s List.
13. Mad Detective (To, Hong Kong, 2007)
A mentally unstable ex-cop with the supernatural ability to see people’s “inner personalities” comes out of retirement to solve a missing persons case in this sad, funny, bat-shit crazy neo-noir from Johnnie To, the world’s greatest living genre filmmaker. This deserves to be much more well-known in the West.
12. Memories of Murder (Bong, S. Korea, 2003)
A gripping, superior police procedural about the investigation into S. Korea’s first known serial murders. Director Bong Joon-ho, shining light of the South Korean New Wave, also nicely sketches the 1980s small-town milieu as a portrait of life under military dictatorship.
11. Before Sunset (Linklater, USA/France, 2004)
Richard Linklater’s exquisite talk fest, a gentle real-time comedy reuniting Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy from his earlier Before Sunrise, proves that sometimes the sequel can be better than the original. “Baby, you are going to miss that plane.”
10. In Vanda’s Room (Costa, Portugal, 2000)
A documentary/narrative hybrid about junkies living in the slums of Lisbon that vaulted director Pedro Costa to the front ranks of the world’s greatest contemporary filmmakers. Epic long takes of real-life sisters Vanda and Zita Duarte smoking heroin, coughing and talking about nothing are juxtaposed with shots of their neighborhood being systematically demolished. Costa knows that, in filmmaking terms, adding up a bunch of shots of “nothing” frequently equals “something” – in this case a powerful statement about the disenfranchisement of an entire class of people.
9. Offside (Panahi, Iran, 2006)
Jafar Panahi’s timely comedy follows the misadventures of several young women who disguise themselves as men and attempt to sneak into Tehran’s Azadi stadium to see Iran’s national soccer team play a World Cup qualifying match (women have been prohibited from attending men’s sporting events since the Islamic revolution). Major portions of the film were shot “live,” documentary-style as the match was being played, which audaciously leaves elements of the film’s plot (such as the outcome of the match) up to chance. When the girls are arrested and corralled into a holding area outside of the stadium walls, the central location ultimately becomes a microcosm of both Iran and the entire world. A film overflowing with compassion yet ruthlessly unsentimental, this is political filmmaking at its finest.
8. The Intruder (Denis, France, 2004)
A retiree in need of a heart transplant (Michel Subor) takes emotional stock of his life and attempts to reconnect with his estranged son (Gregoire Colin) in this mysterious, elliptical drama. It is unclear how many of the scenes are occurring in reality and how many take place only in the protagonist’s mind. These narrative shards are served up by director Claire Denis and cinematographer Agnes Godard as tactile, painterly images and accompanied by a terrific, minimalist electric guitar score. The end result is an unforgettably sensual experience.
7. The Headless Woman (Martel, Argentina, 2008)
Shades of Hitchcock and Antonioni abound as a woman becomes increasingly disassociated from reality after participating in what may or may not have been a hit and run accident. I can’t recall the last time I saw a film in which every composition, cut and sound effect seemed so precisely and exquisitely calibrated to impart psychological meaning.
6. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Dominik, USA/Canada, 2007)
A visionary re-imagining of the last year of the famous outlaw’s life, this funny, strange, beautiful and sad film boasts cinematography as masterful as you’ll find anywhere and many incredible performances by a large ensemble cast. Remains enthralling for its near 3 hour running time even after many viewings.
5. Yi Yi (Yang, Taiwan, 2000)
Beginning with a wedding and ending with a funeral, this riveting family comedy/drama set in contemporary Taipei is simultaneously as epic and as intimate as the best 19th century Russian novels. The last film by the great writer/director Edward Yang.
4. Zodiac (Fincher, USA, 2007)
A brooding obsession with the passage of time and the nature of obsession itself are the hallmarks of this bold foray into the realm of digital cinema, a masterful, epic film about a newspaper cartoonist’s personal investigation of a series of unsolved murders. Deserves to be ranked alongside Sunrise, Citizen Kane, Vertigo and The Searchers as one of the all-time great American films.
3. In the Mood for Love (Wong, Hong Kong, 2000)
Next-door neighbors in a tiny apartment building, Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, are drawn ever closer together after suspecting their frequently absent spouses may be having an affair. Wong Kar-Wai’s fondness for patterns of repetition and variation pays dividends in this subtle, restrained, impeccably designed film. A Brief Encounter for our time and a film so beautiful it hurts.
2. Mulholland Drive (Lynch, USA, 2001)
David Lynch’s masterpiece, an endlessly watchable, open-ended narrative puzzle about an aspiring Hollywood actress trying to help an amnesiac unlock the mystery of her identity. This is one of the great “let’s theorize endlessly about what it all means over coffee” movies.
1. Three Times (Hou, Taiwan, 2005)
Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s profound meditation on love, cinema and twentieth century Taiwanese history with Shu Qi and Chang Chen playing lovers in three different stories set in three different eras. Lyrical, beautiful and all-around perfect.
First Runners-Up (Alphabetical by Director’s Family Name):
A Fine Day (Thomas Arslan, Germany, 2001)
Vincere (Marco Bellochio, Italy, 2009)
The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, USA/Jordan, 2008)
Time Out (Cantet, France, 2001)
Distant (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey, 2002)
Secret Sunshine (Lee Chang-dong, S. Korea, 2007)
Colossal Youth (Pedro Costa, Portugal, 2006)
I’m Going Home (Manoel de Oliveira, France/Portugal, 2001)
Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, Spain, 2006)
A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin, France, 2008)
Lady Chatterley (Extended European Edition) (Pascale Ferran, France, 2006)
Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (Ashutosh Gowariker, India, 2001)
That Old Dream That Moves (Alain Guiraudie, France, 2001)
Woman on the Beach (Hong Sang-soo, S. Korea, 2006)
The Flight of the Red Balloon (Hsiao-Hsien Hou, France/Taiwan, 2007)
Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 2002)
Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan, 2008)
A Scanner Darkly (Richard Linklater, USA, 2006)
INLAND EMPIRE (David Lynch, USA, 2006)
Ichi the Killer (Takashi Miike, Japan, 2001)
Oldboy (Chan-wook Park, S. Korea, 2003)
Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania, 2009)
Wild Grass (Alain Resnais, France, 2009)
Everlasting Moments (Jan Troell, Sweden, 2008)
Goodbye Dragon Inn (Ming-Liang Tsai, Taiwan, 2003)
2nd Runners-Up (Alphabetical by Director’s Family Name):
Everyone Else (Maren Ade, Germany/Italy, 2009)
Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, Sweden, 2008)
Talk to Her (Pedro Almodovar, Spain, 2002)
Punch Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA, 2002)
Bright Star (Jane Campion, UK/Australia, 2009)
Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg, UK/Canada, 2007)
The Tracker (Rolf de Heer, Australia, 2002)
Kings and Queen (Arnaud Desplechin, France, 2004)
Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, USA, 2008)
The Best of Youth (Marco Tullio Giordana, Italy, 2003)
Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, USA, 2005)
Save the Green Planet (Joon-hwan Jang, S. Korea, 2003)
The World (Zhangke Jia, China, 2004)
Be With Me (Eric Khoo, Singapore, 2005)
Shirin (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 2008)
School of Rock (Richard Linklater, USA, 2003)
The Holy Girl (Lucrecia Martel, Argentina, 2004)
This is England (Shane Meadows, England, 2006)
Afternoon (Angela Schanelec, Germany, 2007)
The Day I Became a Woman (Marzieh Meshkini, Iran, 2001)
The Circle (Jafar Panahi, Iran, 2000)
JSA: Joint Security Area (Chan-wook Park, S. Korea, 2000)
The Pianist (Roman Polanski, Poland/France, 2002)
Quitting (Yang Zhang, China, 2001)
The Return (Andrei Zvyagintsev, Russia, 2003)
3rd Runners-Up Group (Alphabetical by Director’s Family Name):
20 Fingers (Mania Akbari, Iran, 2004)
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Woody Allen, USA/Spain, 2008)
Los Angeles Plays Itself (Thom Andersen, USA, 2003)
Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas, France, 2008)
Once (John Carney, Ireland, 2007)
Durian Durian (Fruit Chan, Hong Kong, 2000)
Two Lovers (James Gray, USA, 2008)
Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, USA, 2002)
The Proposition (John Hillcoat, Australia, 2005)
Downfall (Oliver Hirschbiegel, Germany, 2004)
Chunhyang (Kwon-taek Im, S. Korea, 2000)
Warm Water Under a Red Bridge (Shohei Imamura, Japan, 2001)
Three-Iron (Ki-Duk Kim, S. Korea, 2004)
Happy Go Lucky (Mike Leigh, England, 2008)
The Saddest Music in the World (Guy Maddin, Canada, 2003)
Kandahar (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Iran/Afghanistan, 2001)
Bamako (Abderrahmane Sissako, Mali, 2006)
Russian Ark (Alexander Sokurov, Russia, 2002)
WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, USA, 2008)
Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, USA/Germany, 2009)
Werckmeister Hamonies (Bela Tarr, Hungary, 2000)
The Gleaners and I (Agnes Varda, France, 2000)
2046 (Kar-Wai Wong, Hong Kong, 2004)
Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, England, 2004)