This is part of my continuing series looking back on films from the years before I began this blog. The ten films below are unranked and listed in no particular order. Enjoy
There Will be Blood - There are still parts of this film that I find infuriating, though I can't quite wrap my mind around why. Maybe it's frustration that evil, so perfectly captured by Daniel Day-Lewis's oilman Daniel Plainview, is allowed to run rampant in this world. Maybe it's discomfort that Paul Thomas Anderson captures the uneasy relationship between American industriousness and corruption with such nihilistic artfulness. Maybe it's the visceral impact of the apocalyptic imagery and disquieting score. Maybe it's the ending, which I still don't fully understand, and perhaps never will.
Secret Sunshine - From Lee Chang-dong comes one of the must surprising, thoughtful explorations of grief, faith, and justice I've ever seen. A bereft woman's search for home and happiness leads her to further tragedy, and finding her way through the emotional fallout means navigating some unexpected, difficult twists and turns. I've never seen a spiritual journey depicted on film that feels so personal and so honest, probably because our heroine is very imperfect and she wants very specific, perhaps unreasonable things from a belief system. And best of all, the film never judges her for it.
Once - It's easy to see why a jaded viewer might be wary of "Once." It's a shoestring indie romance, for one. It's about down-on-their-luck musicians finding their inspiration together, for another. But no matter the bundle of clichés that are inherent in the premise, "Once" works wonderfully because of how well the lead actors embody them all. To get to the heart of it, Glenn Hansard and Markéta Irglová are wonderfully natural together onscreen, build a believable relationship, and their performance of "Falling Slowly" is one of those moments of genuine movie magic that comes along too rarely to be missed.
Zodiac - Quite possibly David Fincher's masterpiece. All his powers of cinematic paranoia and obsession are on display in this recounting of the search for the Zodiac killer. It's completely unsatisfying as a crime thriller and procedural, yet impossible to stop watching. What "Zodiac" really nails is its examination of the three men whose lives are upended by this case, and the maddening compulsion to solve mysteries in general. Fincher's meticulous attention to detail is vital here, from cataloguing clues and interactions, to watching San Francisco slowly transform over the years in the background.
Atonement - It must have been daunting to bring such complicated, difficult material to the screen, but director Joe Wright deftly juggles all the myriad components: a segmented narrative where the main character appears at three very different ages, an unusually oblique central romance seen form a child's POV, and of course the depiction's of WWII, including the film's jaw-dropping Dunkirk sequence. The cast is excellent, particularly Saoirse Ronan and Lynne Redgrave, who are instrumental in getting across the film's central, challenging questions about guilt, personal responsibility, and forgiveness.
Gone Baby Gone - Ben Affleck's directing debut is a self-assured crime drama that initially looks like a standard pot-boiler about a kidnapped child, but ends up in completely different, and far more compelling territory. The movie made such an impact in part because it seemed to have come out of nowhere, and proved Affleck's talent as a filmmaker. However, he had an excellent cast and crew, particularly Casey Affleck turning in this best lead performance. The film wasn't very high profile at the time of release, but it's one that has grown in stature over time, and proven to be very difficult to forget.
Away From Her - A quiet, patient love story about an elderly couple who slowly come apart after the wife is afflicted with Alzheimer's disease. It's strength is in its honesty and its directness, charting the progression of the physical and mental toll of the disease and its affects on the relationship step by inevitable step. Sarah Polly constructs a tranquil, private little universe that Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent inhabit beautifully. There are no outsized melodramatics or disingenuous complications to get in the way of the unfolding tragedy of the situation, or the tenderness of the final, lovely, resolution.
No Country for Old Men - The Coen brothers' bleakest, most challenging dramatic film features a controversial ending and their most iconic villain, the stone-faced hitman Anton Chigurh. It doesn't merely employ violence to tell its story, but is a story about violence in various forms, and attitudes toward violence. Full of tense sequences, dark humor, open ended philosophical questions, and memorable characters, this is everything I love about the Coens' dramatic work. And of course it all looks gorgeous too, with bleak, evocative cinematography from Roger Deakins.
Juno - No surprise that this teen pregnancy dramedy made a star of Ellen Page, who plays the titular heroine. She's irresistibly fun to watch, hiding her vulnerability under snark and sarcasm, while trying to survive the experience of having a baby and giving it up. "Juno" also gets a lot of support from a supporting cast full of dependable character actors like J.K. Simmons, Jason Bateman, and Allison Janney. I'm tempted to deduct points because the movie shamelessly sidesteps a lot of politics and controversy, but simply humanizing Juno makes a heck of a statement already.
Ratatouille - A typical children's movie premise - a rat wants to become a gourmet chef - has been turned into an exquisite film about artistry, criticism, and family by the artists of PIXAR. This is the studio working at their absolute creative peak. Gusteau's busy kitchen is as amazing to behold as any other fantasy world in animated film, and the story gives the viewer some really meaty ideas to chew on. Perhaps the best surprise is the portrayal of the villainous critic character - who ends up laying out a word perfect defense for the art of criticism along with the film's signature dish.
La Vie en Rose
The Secret of the Grain
Into the Wild
The King of Kong
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Charlie Wilson's War