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.
Amelie - An effervescent love story from Jean-Pierre Jeunet that made Audrey Tatou into an international star. It manages just the right balance of whimsy and nostalgia to conjure endless delight, telling numerous little stories with great humor and inventiveness. Tatou's performance helps to keep all of Jeunet's manic magical-realist visuals from overwhelming the picture. And while "Amelie" is a feel-good movie to top all feel-good movies, it never feels cloying, precious, or undeserving of its lovely moments of joy.
The Devil's Backbone - Guillermo Del Toro's first film set during the Spanish Civil War is about ghosts, both literal and figurative. It's also his bleakest film, giving us a glimpse of a fragile world deeply damaged by war, full of psychic scars from past atrocities that still affect the living. The cast is wonderful, particularly Federico Luppi as an elderly doctor with too much on his conscience. There's a mood of deep, lingering sadness that permeates the film, and while there are a few good scares, it's more likely to break your heart.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch - A transgender singer turns her pain and tragedy into soulful rock 'n' roll. To date, there has been no screen musical more stirring and more boundary-pushing on the topics of gender identity, sexuality, and recovering from trauma. Hedwig is an imperfect avatar for everything she hopes to stand for, but there's such a personal component to her journey, she still comes across as a genuine, relatable soul. And then there's the music, lovingly showcased with mixed-media presentations and lively performances.
Millennium Actress - Satoshi Kon takes a trip into Japan's cinematic past as only he could, with an era-hopping, time-skipping adventure into the life and times of a celebrated actress. It layers animated realities and fantasies on top of each other, often just for fun. The love story at its heart is pedestrian stuff, but the telling of it is pure magic. Madhouse Inc's animation never looked better. And this is exactly the kind of grown-up story of old regrets that could have been made nowhere else - and by no once else - in the medium it was meant for.
Mulholland Dr. - My introduction to David Lynch, and perhaps the purest distillation of his particular brand of filmmaking. By turns surreal, melodramatic, and horrific, "Mulholland Dr." is a journey into the heart of darkness of Hollywood and disillusionment of a would-be starlet. What continues to fascinate me about the film is how potent it still is, how skillfully is can conjure up strong moods and emotions. Whatever your interpretations of its sinister symbols and veiled intentions, it's a film that demands that the viewer engage with its disturbing universe.
The Royal Tenenbaums - This is where Wes Anderson's style really felt like it solidified, particularly with his use of color, absurdist tone, and the comically specific portraits of the characters. However, what was vital was that underneath all the eccentricities and funny outfits, the Tenenbaums were living, breathing, people in desperate need of saving. It's the emotional honesty of the film that resonated with me, moreso than its amusing affectations. Once you realized Royal Tenenbaum's actual intentions, everything else falls into place.
Spirited Away - A little girl journeys into a world of god and spirits, an animated wonderland from the mind and heart of Studio Ghibli's Hayao Miyazaki. There are precious few cinematic worlds as rich and stunning as the one found here, full of engaging mysteries and magical creatures. Perhaps none, however, are so magical as 10-year-old Chihiro, who is about the best depiction of a child heroine I've ever seen in animation. "Spirited Away" remains the high point of Miyazaki's exceptional career as Japan's premiere film fantasist.
AI Artificial Intelligence - An imperfect, but absorbing collaboration between Steven Spielberg and the departed Stanley Kubrick. It grapples mightily with the ethical and philosophical questions raised by the creation of artificial life, finding few answers. However, it does provide some beautiful glimpses of a future society fundamentally changed by robots, and highlights some troubling implications for the audience to ponder. No matter where you think the story should have ended, it's a daring, challenging film made without compromise.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring - Massive ambitions were fulfilled by the efforts of Peter Jackson and company in bringing J.R.R. Tolkein's Middle Earth to the silver screen. "Fellowship" remains my favorite of the trilogy for its tremendous worldbuilding and strong cast of characters. There's a sense of complete commitment by everyone involved in the movie, which goes a long way towards the immersiveness and appeal of Jackson's Middle Earth. The effects may look dated today, but I'm still in love with Hobbiton.
Ghost World - All the awkward, uncomfortable parts of teenage girlhood are lovingly embodied by Thora Birch's sarcastic Enid, who goes through extreme growing pains at the end of high school. I can't recall a more biting, infuriating portrait of a teenage girl. For many years I hated Enid for the destruction she wrought, and the conventions she broke, but at the same time I knew exactly what it was to be her. And I still remember every moment of this film so clearly, along with all the confusing emotions that it dredged up from my own past.
Y Tu Mama Tambien
In the Bedroom
No Man's Land