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
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu - Romania had one of the great film renaissances of the decade, and "Lazarescu" is one of its highlights. It's the darkly comedic odyssey of a man being transported by ambulance to seek medical care, but thanks to bureaucracy and incompetence, he keeps being turned away from hospital after hospital. Told in a starkly realistic style, it's tense, disturbing, and terribly funny. Never have a health care system's pitfalls been so infuriating or enlightening of the human condition.
The Secret Life of Words - A simple, understated melodrama from Spain's Isabel Coixet, about two badly wounded people who connect in unusual circumstances. Starring Sarah Polley and Tim Robbins, it's such a minimalist, low-key work, built around small interactions and brief moments of intimacy. Its secrets are revealed slowly, with great care and thoughtfulness. Polley's Hanna is a heartbreaking figure, who delivers one of my favorite film monologues in the final act. The subject matter may be ugly, but the film never is.
The New World - Terrence Malick's take on the relationship between Pocahontas and John Smith is that of a clash between different peoples, worlds, and inherent ways of being. Dreamlike at times, but with a great commitment to historical authenticity, the filmmakers succeed in making the Virginia wilderness feel like an entirely different world. The early scenes where Colin Farrell's John Smith is learning to live with the native tribe have some of the most beautiful images that Malick has ever put onscreen.
Caché - Michael Haneke's disturbing masterpiece plays with the audience's perceptions, blurring the line between realities, recordings, and dreams. It's a mystery that offers plenty of answers, but suggests that they cannot be trusted. It requires the viewer to be as paranoid as the main characters in order to even begin to sort out what's going on. Add the social commentary simmering just beneath the surface, and the shocking use of violence, and it's a film that packs quite the emotional and visceral punches.
Grizzly Man - It's strange, but fitting that New German Cinema master Werner Herzog should have come back into the mainstream public's consciousness through one of his documentaries. Tracing the final days of bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell, whose life ended tragically, Herzog never hesitates to interject his own thoughts and theories. This might have been obnoxious from another director, but Herzog is always thoughtful, careful to leave the big conclusions up to the viewer, and handles many dilemmas with uncommon insight.
Brokeback Mountain - Still the only real mainstream gay romance to date, "Brokeback Mountain" remains an exceptional film. I still consider this to be Heath Ledger's best performance, displaying an amazing emotional range as he plays Ennis Del Mar through several decades and stages of life. It's also a great achievement for director Ang Lee, whose best films have always been these smaller, heartfelt human stories. The cultural impact of "Brokeback Mountain" is undeniable, but I think it needs more credit as a great film.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang - Beloved screenwriter Shane Black takes his first spin in the director's chair, and the result is one of the best comedic detective stories in recent memory. Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer are paired up together for a Los Angeles murder mystery, full of furious quips, silly violence, and endless self-aware lobs against the movie industry and Los Angeles in general. The writing is so clever, and the chemistry is so good, this is just pure, unadulterated movie fun from the opening credits to the ending ones.
Broken Flowers - This is my favorite Jim Jarmusch film at the time of writing, a wonderfully wry, well-observed dramedy about a serial Lothario, played by Bill Murray, who is feeling his age. Learning that he may be a father, our hero embarks upon a journey of self-discovery, revisiting many of his past girlfriends and having a series of illuminating conversations with each. The ensemble is a lot of fun, lead by Bill Murray at the top of his game. The oppressively banal suburban visuals are also a constant source of amusement.
Sympathy for Lady Vengeance - The final film in Park Chan-Wook's "Vengeance Trilogy" imagines a wrongly convicted mother who orchestrates an elaborate plot to seek vengeance against the real villain. It's by turns vicious, thrilling, darkly funny, and genuinely moving. The movie goes to such wonderful extremes, narratively and visually, embodying so much of the Korean cinema movement that spawned it. I especially love the use of color, and Park's ability to give his larger-than-life heroine so much humanity.
Hustle and Flow - One of the best films about the transformative power of music that I've ever seen. It's also an unusually complex, sympathetic look at the life of sex workers and hustlers of various stripes, including the main character, a pimp named DJay. Though Brewer never shies from the grime and the sweat, the film is never exploitative of its characters or their circumstances. Rather, it's complex, fascinating, and allows a great collection of character actors to get some well-deserved time in the spotlight.
A History of Violence
Everything is Illuminated
Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles
The 40 Year Old Virgin
The Squid and the Whale
The Weather Man