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
Songs From the Second Floor - There's never been an apocalypse film quite like this one, a collection of scenes of ordinary, mundane people caught in darkly funny situations on the brink of the void. The camera barely moves, and only cuts when we are ready to move from one perfectly composed tableaux of horrors to the next. The characters are pale, despondent, and might as well be dead already. Humanity never appeared more deserving of such a bleak fate.
Dancer in the Dark - Lars von Trier's subverts Hollywood musicals by staging his own around the tragic life of a factory worker. With the singular singer Bjork in the lead, and DOGME 95 inspired visuals, what unfolds is a tremendously stirring, upsetting, and absorbing tale of injustice and self-delusion. Whatever von Trier's aims, the film works wonderfully as both a musical film, with several memorable numbers, and as one of his better tales of feminine martyrdom.
Almost Famous - Every last member of the sprawling ensemble is allowed to shine in Cameron Crowe's nostalgic paean to life as a rock 'n' roll groupie in the 1970s. This is the film that best encapsulates Crowe's particular brand of cinematic joy, full of bright music, youthful hopes, and beautiful people in crisis. The story isn't a happy one, ultimately, but being able to hang out with this crowd of scruffy dreamers in the moment is an experience I'm glad that I got to have.
Requiem for a Dream - Darren Aronofsky established himself as a major talent with his sophomore film, which follows four people caught in the downward spirals of addiction. Moving from the opening shots of lyrical beauty to a nightmarish finale of quick-cut brutality, the movie is a tour de force of filmmaking. It may also be one of the darkest, most harrowing films American films ever made, transcending the genre of drug addiciton memoirs that it tends to be pigeonholed into.
Werckmeister Harmonies - Though I've never really been able to penetrate the story, the filmmaking is so powerful and so involving, it doesn't matter in the slightest. Bela Tarr's mesmerizing visuals provoke deep emotional responses and the score is absolutely exquisite. The long shot of the attack on the hospital is one of my favorites in all of cinema, a short film in and of itself. I've had difficulties connecting to Tarr's other films, but this one is impossible to forget.
American Psycho - Patrick Bateman is a monster created by his environment, the soulless corporate world of the 1980s. And thanks to Christian Bale and Mary Harron, his turn on the big screen is everything we could hope for: exhilaratingly violent, gleefully funny, frightening, tragic, and completely mad. "American Psycho" is extravagantly over the top, but the social satire at its core has some real bite. As sick as Bateman is, his universe proves even sicker in the end.
In the Mood for Love - Wong Kar-Wai's most achingly lovely romance is all about the longing, the colors, and the beautiful patterning of repeated images. Anchored by its two stars, Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, the film sells the straitlaced characters' passion even though we see little of it explicitly onscreen. Instead, as the title suggests, it's all about the mood, the little interactions and the brief meetings between them creating a delicate, precious bond.
Memento - Described by some as a cinematic parlor trick that doesn't work twice, but that's overlooking the excellent character study at the film's heart. "Memento" demands multiple viewings to really appreciate Guy Pearce's complex performance and the careful construction of the plot by the Nolan brothers. Nothing else made with this kind of non-linear storytelling has every come close to achieving the same dramatic impact - even the Nolans' subsequent projects.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? - One of the Coens brothers' most crowd pleasing comedies follows a trio of chain gang escapees on a Depression era Southern Gothic odyssey. I love the use of bluegrass music here, particularly the rousing "Man of Constant Sorrow." I love the ridiculous wordplay, the classical references, the pomade, the cinematography, and especially George Clooney appearing in his first of several magnicently silly collaborations with the Coens.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon - Wuxia reached the mainstream at last with Ang Lee's period adventure film. Zhang Ziyi's performance still thrills me, especially the multiple fantastic action scenes that she features in. However, it's China that's the star of the picture. The variety of gorgeous landscapes captured by Peter Pau really enhance the sweeping epic scope of the film, while the production design rivals any other costume drama ever made.
Shadow of the Vampire
In Vanda's Room
The Gleaners and I