This is part of my continuing series looking back on films from before I began this blog. The ten films below are unranked and listed in no particular order. Enjoy.
Syndromes and a Century - I've never seen the passage of time captured on film quite like this, as Weerasethakul looks in on a hospital and its inhabitants at two different periods. The environments speak volumes, charting the changes in how the characters interact with the natural world, how the role of spirituality has transformed, and how behaviors have shifted. The action is often so incidental, but because of the film's unusual structure and staging, it conveys so much. Like most Weerasetahkul films, "Syndromes" is often impenetrable, but always fascinating and engaging.
The Prestige - One of Christopher Nolan's most well-realized puzzle boxes is this mystery thriller about two rival magicians and their life-threatening obsession over a magic trick. Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale are wonderfully matched as the lead actors, the twisty narrative is never an impediment to the thundering dramatics, and the images are fantastic. I always appreciated that the film not only delivered completely on what it promised, but it found ways to keep exploring its central themes from different angles. It's everything I love about Nolan's work in its purest form.
Little Miss Sunshine - For years, a friend of mine used "Little Miss Sunshine" as an example of the typical quirky indie film of the times, with its dysfunctional family, tragicomic tone, and wry outlook on life. I consider it one of the best ensemble comedies of its kind because it handles all these elements so well. Moreover, it's a great showcase for a bevy of great performers, old and new. This was many viewers' first introduction to Paul Dano and to Steve Carrell as a serious actor. And then you had Alan Arkin, stealing every scene he appeared in. Who could resist so much heartwarming misery?
Children of Men - Astonishingly overlooked at the time of its release, "Children of Men" remains one of the best films of the 2000s. It's a harrowing human drama that just happens to take place in a dystopian future, and rarely feels like a typical sci-fi film. It's not often you find genre heroes as humanely rendered as Theo and Kee. And they're subjected to so much wrenching emotional turbulence, all handled so deftly. The absorbing, ambitious cinematography and complex production also make this an impressive technical feat, though you'll hardly notice while you're watching the story unfold.
Pan's Labyrinth - Guillermo Del Toro's darkest fairy tale observes the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War through the eyes of an imaginative, precocious little girl named Ofelia. He seamlessly blends her fantasy world with the violent reality of life with her new stepfather, an officer of the totalitarian Franco regime. The fantasy elements, including elaborate creatures and environments, are astoundingly well executed. However, it's their pairing with a highly suspenseful, often very adult war story that gives it so much resonance. Captain Vidal is one of the great cinema monsters of the era.
United 93 - Perhaps it was made too soon to really be absorbed by the collective cultural consciousness, but no one could argue with the intentions or the appropriateness of "United 93." Directed by Paul Greengrass, this gripping recreation of the events of 9/11 was made to feel as true to life as possible. While much of the final act was invented, the bare bones documentary style, use of no major stars, and a carefully constructed script keep the film from ever feeling exploitative or dishonest. It still remains so raw, the film feels more like a piece of the tragedy than a reaction to it.
The Lives of Others - An ode to a human being's capacity for empathy, embodied by an unassuming Stasi operative in East Berlin who has been charged with spying on a suspected dissident. This is a deceptively quiet, low key film, built around the winning performance of Ulrich Mühe. Though there are sequences of suspense and mystery, the film is at its best when it's at its most contemplative, simply watching events unfold in this insular little world along with the main character. Calm, intelligent, and patient, it leaves a far greater impression than most spy films I've seen.
Volver - My introduction to the invaluable work of Pedro Almodovar tells the story of multiple generations of women coming through for each in the wake of multiple tragedies and calamities. It's an absolute joy to watch so many great female characters navigating a variety of relationships with each other, complicated past histories, and the puzzling arrival of a ghost into their midst. In spite of all the portents of death circling these ladies, there's so much life and humor in the film. It's very easy to fall in love with the whole family, particularly Penelope Cruz's feisty Raimunda.
Marie Antoinette - The key to the film is that it's an examination of Marie Antoinette as the product of a nascent celebrity culture, and how that culture ultimately had a hand in destroying her. So Sophia Coppola chronicles Marie's life of frivolity and excess at Versailles in the language of modern celebrity. Through the pop songs on the soundtrack, the decadent costuming, and endless parties, we're reminded that Marie Antoinette began her reign as Queen of France when she was a naïve teenage girl. Should anyone have been surprised that she behaved like one?
Borat - No one pushed the envelope in 2006 the way that Sacha Baron Cohen did, taking a minor funny foreigner character from his "Ali G" comedy sketch show and turning him into an icon of absurdity. Filled with outrageous setups foisted on real-life people who had no idea they were being filmed for a comedy film, the "Borat" crew succeeded in bringing the hypocrisies and bigotries of the American public to light. And of course it didn't hurt that the movie was hysterical in the most fearless way. If the satire and the buffoonery didn't get you, then the pratfalls surely would.
A Scanner Darkly
This is England
A Prairie Home Companion
Perfume: the Story of a Murderer
The Curse of the Golden Flower
Thank You for Smoking