Early 21st-cen­tury fa­vorites

The best 10 of the best films since the turn of the mil­len­nium, wrap­ping up top 20 lineup be­gun last week

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - PIERS MARCHANT

Re­cently, Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott, film crit­ics for the ven­er­a­ble New York Times, put out a list of what they con­sider the best 25 films of the 21st cen­tury to this point. Last week, I re­leased the lat­ter half of my top 20, this week, the 10 (or so) best films of the mil­len­nium. This was not easy, which is a tes­ta­ment to how many ex­cel­lent films we’ve been treated to since the turn of the mil­len­nium.

10. A Sep­a­ra­tion (2011) Con­tin­u­ing in our se­ries of au­teurs at the height of their cre­ative pow­ers, we have yet an­other ex­am­ple with the im­pec­ca­ble Ira­nian di­rec­tor As­ghar Farhadi. This Os­car-win­ning film dis­plays Farhadi’s en­gross­ing method­ol­ogy — his films of­ten uti­lize a cen­tral mys­tery that spi­rals out, even­tu­ally en­trap­ping all of the char­ac­ters in his care­fully plot­ted co­nun­drums. Here, a hus­band and wife are split on the idea of tak­ing their young daugh­ter and em­i­grat­ing abroad: She wants to leave in or­der to give her child the best chance of suc­cess; he feels he needs to stay in or­der to take care of his aging, un­well fa­ther. The two clash, even as an­other el­e­ment, in the form of a kindly fe­male care­giver, comes into play, pro­duc­ing a fas­ci­nat­ing and com­plex drama that some­how feels sin­gu­lar in its cul­ture, and uni­ver­sal in its scope. It’s dif­fi­cult to choose the Farhadi en­try — The Past would have been equally wor­thy — but let’s stick with the one that first brought his work to such in­ter­na­tional ac­claim.

9. A Ghost Story (2017)

This is cheat­ing a bit since the film won’t ac­tu­ally open un­til to­day, but David Low­ery’s lyric ru­mi­na­tion is so be­witch­ing and deeply af­fect­ing, I feel con­fi­dent in plac­ing it here. It’s a dif­fi­cult film to ex­plain, ex­actly, but the story in­volves a young, hap­pily mar­ried cou­ple (Casey Af­fleck and Rooney Mara) on the cusp of mov­ing into a new home. When Af­fleck’s char­ac­ter dies in a car crash just out­side their drive­way, he word­lessly chooses to stay near his wife in their old place and stays there as a silent ghost in a sheet with dark eye­holes; after she tear­fully moves out, how­ever, he is stuck there, forced to bear wit­ness to ev­ery­thing that comes after — and be­fore — they oc­cu­pied that space to­gether. Its non-lin­ear­ity might be a chal­lenge for some, and it’s a film that de­mands to be taken on its own terms, but I doubt I will see a more mov­ing film this decade.

8. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

The year this film came out, I was busy work­ing a non­film-writ­ing job, start­ing a fam­ily, and do­ing a mil­lion other things that con­spired to keep me out of movie the­aters. When I fi­nally got a chance to see it on a snowy Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton’s Birth­day week­end in New York (along with, among

other se­lec­tions, The Lives of Others, and Chil­dren of Men, in an epic binge-watch­ing bar­rage), I was ab­so­lutely floored. Guillermo del Toro has made other strong films (in­clud­ing The Devil’s Back­bone), but he has never hit the ex­act sweet spot of strong emo­tional pathos, ter­ri­fy­ing sur­re­al­ism, and po­lit­i­cal po­tency, quite the way he did here. The story of a lit­tle girl forced to con­front the Evil That Men Do — in the form of an evil step­fa­ther em­ploy­ing 1944-era fas­cism — against a back­drop of a mys­te­ri­ous, of­ten unset­tling fantasia, re­mains a stark marker of who suf­fers the most in the face of po­lit­i­cal op­pres­sion and cru­elty.

7. The Be­fore Se­ries (1995, 2004, 2013)

This breaks all sorts of rules, as it’s ac­tu­ally a tril­ogy (and count­ing), and the first film in the se­ries (Be­fore Sun­rise) ac­tu­ally was re­leased be­fore the turn of mil­len­nium, in 1995. Still, Richard Lin­klater’s now-epic ex­am­i­na­tion of a re­la­tion­ship over the course of 20 years — we first meet Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Ce­line (Julie Delpy) as a pair of flir­ta­tious Gen-X pups; then, in Be­fore Sun­set, as still search­ing young adults; and, most re­cently, in Be­fore Mid­night, as a more than slightly jaded mar­ried cou­ple, deal­ing with the fail­ures and dis­ap­point­ments of a fully ex­am­ined life nev­er­the­less spent half hid­den in emo­tional shad­ows. As an­other one of Lin­klater’s grand ex­am­i­na­tions of time and aging, the tril­ogy speaks to an en­tire gen­er­a­tion (my own, if no one else’s) and per­fectly cap­tures the dreams and sag­ging real­i­ties of our lives, and en­dur­ing re­la­tion­ships.

6. Two Days, One Night (2014) The films of the Bel­gian Dar­denne broth­ers of­ten speak to a point of per­sonal moral­ity, but in par­tic­u­larly ob­tuse ways. Never have they been as pro­saic and emo­tional than in this, their ninth film. By tak­ing as their pro­tag­o­nist a frag­ile woman (mem­o­rably played by Mar­ion Cotil­lard), whose shaky sense of self, upon try­ing to re­turn to work after a break­down, is only fur­ther strained when she finds out her co-work­ers have voted her out of a job in her ab­sence; they give the au­di­ence a sym­pa­thetic foil. Given a week­end to meet with her for­mer col­leagues to try and change their minds, she is forced, very much against her will, to fight for her­self at a time when she feels ut­terly in­signif­i­cant, and in so do­ing, po­ten­tially finds the very key to peace for which she has been strug­gling so un­hap­pily. You cer­tainly wouldn’t say it of much of the Dar­dennes’ work, but this film made me op­ti­mistic for our col­lec­tive hu­man­ity.

5. The Hunt (2012) Dan­ish film­mak­ers Thomas Vin­ter­berg and oft-col­lab­o­ra­tor To­bias Lind­holm have cre­ated a sort of artis­tic cot­tage in­dus­try be­tween them, mak­ing Dogme-like films that in­volve and morally chal­lenge the viewer. Here, in a seem­ingly sim­ple story of a charis­matic kinder­garten teacher (Mads Mikkelsen) falsely ac­cused by a venge­ful child of preda­tory wrong­do­ing, ab­so­lutely no one gets out un­scathed — from the par­ents, whipped up in a ter­ri­fied frenzy, to the ac­cused, and to the young, would-be vic­tim, who have to live with the con­se­quences of what they’ve done. It’s a tes­ta­ment to the con­vic­tion and cred­i­bil­ity of the char­ac­ters that no easy con­clu­sions are able to be drawn, other than to il­lus­trate the cor­ro­sive power of fear and dis­trust. The end of the film, am­bigu­ous to the point where you can ar­gue with your friends and loved ones for hours af­ter­ward, only adds to its lus­ter.

4. Manch­ester By the Sea (2016)

When it splashed out at last year’s Sun­dance, many film crit­ics — this one in­cluded — felt they had al­ready seen the best film of the year. Ken­neth Lon­er­gan’s film is es­sen­tially a coun­ter­ar­gu­ment to the stan­dard Hol­ly­wood idea that grief is like any other chal­lenge that one can work through in or­der to achieve per­sonal growth. The pro­tag­o­nist (Casey Af­fleck), is dev­as­tated by a tremen­dous per­sonal tragedy and sim­ply can’t pull him­self out of it, no mat­ter what en­tice­ments may lie on the other side. Filled with stun­ning sce­nework — a hall­mark of Lon­er­gan, who was a play­wright be­fore he be­came a film­maker — and stag­ger­ing per­for­mances, in­clud­ing from the Os­car-win­ning Af­fleck, the film is any­thing but feel-good, but that only makes it all the more pow­er­fully mov­ing.

3. The Act of Killing/The Look of Si­lence (2012/2014)

At a re­cent ca­reer day at my daugh­ter’s school, I was stand­ing be­fore a group of fourth-graders, han­dling a bar­rage of ques­tions — most of which in­volved ei­ther ro­bots, com­put­ers, or Spi­der-Man — be­fore one pre­co­cious child asked me what I would choose as the most im­por­tant film I had ever seen. After a pause, I an­swered with this pair of es­sen­tial docs from Joshua Op­pen­heimer, who con­fronts the mass mur­der of cit­i­zens after the 1965 mil­i­tary coup in In­done­sia from sev­eral sig­nif­i­cant an­gles. In Killing, he asks some of the for­mer death squad lead­ers to re-en­act their ex­pe­ri­ences us­ing dif­fer­ent cine­matic gen­res of their own choos­ing; in Si­lence, he again goes to visit some of these for­mer mur­der­ous com­man­dos, but in­stead of con­duct­ing the in­ter­view him­self, he brings along Adi Rukun, the younger brother of a man ex­e­cuted dur­ing the “com­mu­nist” purge. Nei­ther Op­pen­heimer nor Rukun seek jus­tice, or ret­ri­bu­tion; in­stead, they only want to be able to bet­ter un­der­stand how these bru­tal killers were ca­pa­ble of sud­denly turn­ing on their own neigh­bors and vi­ciously ex­ter­mi­nat­ing them with such ut­ter moral dis­re­gard. The an­swers, such as they are, don’t just in­dict these men, but the hu­man race at large. We are all ca­pa­ble of such evil, and to be­lieve oth­er­wise is pre­cisely why it keeps hap­pen­ing to us, in an end­less cy­cle of sav­agery.

2. The As­sas­si­na­tion of Jesse James by the Cow­ard Robert Ford (2007)

An­drew Do­minik’s film ab­so­lutely came out of the blue when it pre­miered, to the point where I didn’t see it dur­ing its ini­tial theatri­cal run. This, I have grown to deeply re­gret. The film, based on the novel by Ron Hansen, is ab­so­lutely sub­lime. Beau­ti­fully shot by the leg­endary Roger Deakins (just one of his 13 Os­car nom­i­na­tions — crim­i­nally, with­out a sin­gle win — through­out his ca­reer), and star­ring a suit­ably moody Brad Pitt as the leg­endary out­law, and Casey Af­fleck (and for those keep­ing count, yes three of my top ten films of the mil­len­nium star the younger Af­fleck — be­lieve me, I was as sur­prised as you), as the picked-upon Ford, who grew to see killing James as es­sen­tial to es­tab­lish­ing his own legacy. It moves lan­guidly, but with as­ton­ish­ing grace. Af­fleck is noth­ing short of a rev­e­la­tion — to that point, his big­gest role had been as a re­cur­ring bit char­ac­ter in Steven Soder­bergh’s Ocean’s ca­per se­ries — and Pitt uses the power of his un­mis­tak­able movie star charisma to breathe life into his iconic char­ac­ter, mak­ing him as larger-than-life on­screen as pi­ti­ful Ford sees him in his day-to-day re­al­ity. It’s not a gun-totin’ West­ern, filled with bul­lets, spurs, and fron­tier jus­tice; it’s a sub­tle, al­most philo­sophic film that car­ries far more weight than you might ex­pect.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007)

When I fi­nally got to in­ter­view Cris­tian Mungiu at last year’s Toronto In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val, I found my­self al­most speech­less at first, be­fore stam­mer­ing out em­bar­rass­ing gushes of praise upon his work, which the thought­fully soft-spo­ken di­rec­tor took with po­lite res­ig­na­tion. This film, along with Cor­neliu Po­rum­boiu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest, helped pro­pel Ro­ma­nian cin­ema onto the in­ter­na­tional stage, and with good rea­son. Set in a 1987 Ro­ma­nia be­set with the power-mad Com­mu­nist regime of Ni­co­lae Ceaus­escu, who made birth con­trol il­le­gal and abor­tion a cap­i­tal crime, the film tracks the har­row­ing at­tempt of one young woman (Ana­maria Mar­inca), as she tries to help her preg­nant friend (Laura Vasiliu) seek a black-mar­ket abor­tion. Along the way, they en­counter much dreary hor­ror, in­clud­ing a par­tic­u­larly dis­turb­ing en­counter with a heinous male abor­tion­ist who agrees to per­form the surgery only if both women agree to have sex with him. What saves the film from ter­mi­nal bleak­ness, how­ever, is both Mungiu’s ex­tra­or­di­nary sen­si­tiv­ity and gen­eros­ity with his ac­tors, and the fas­ci­nat­ing man­ner in which he tells the story (in­clud­ing sev­eral sig­na­ture cam­era tech­niques). What emerges isn’t a dirge, it’s a strangely life-af­firm­ing doc­u­ment: If we as hu­man be­ings can en­dure through this kind of cruel re­pres­sion, the film seems to sug­gest, there may be hope for our con­tin­ued sur­vival after all.

Hon­or­able Men­tion: Amour, A Se­ri­ous Man, Biu­ti­ful, Blue Valen­tine, Boy­hood, Brick, Foot­note, In­side Out, Mar­garet, The Master, Meek’s Cut­off, Michael Clay­ton, Mul­hol­land Drive, No Coun­try for Old Men, The Past, Selma, The Squid and the Whale, Un­der the Skin, Wad­jda

The child-de­vour­ing Pale Man (Doug Jones) is one of the night­mar­ish hor­rors con­jured up by Guillermo del Toro in his 2006 fan­tasy Pan’s Labyrinth, one of the best films of the 21st cen­tury so far.

of an In­done­sian death squad poses with a prop used to re-cre­ate the 1965 killings he par­tic­i­pated in in Joshua Op­pen­heimer’s re­mark­able 2013 doc­u­men­tary

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.