OK, here’s my list of century’s top 20
For the past two weeks we’ve been running our critic Piers Marchant’s thoughts on the best films of the 21st century. And people have been asking me for my list ever since The New York Times came out with its list.
So while regular readers know I’m averse to hierarchical systems — any Top 10 I spit out is subject to constant revision and grading — I’m going to play, too. I limited myself to one film per director, and started my millennium on the correct date — Jan. 1, 2001.
1. I’m Not There (2007) — Todd Haynes’ multilayered meditation on Bob Dylan might baffle some very bright people who haven’t completed the requisite Dylan workshops, but it is the best film for and about rock ’n’ roll ever. Haynes’ Carol (2015) and Far From Heaven (2002) could have made this list were it not for my arbitrary rules.
2. Certified Copy (2011) — Abbas Kiarostami’s film is so different from most movies one is likely to encounter in this country that it’s likely to throw those who are unfamiliar to the Iranian master’s style. He employs long conversations in moving vehicles, philosophical investigation, visits to dreamily rendered small towns, a preoccupation with children, and unresolved (and possibly unresolvable) riddles presented in rigorously clean doc-
umentary style. Certified Copy is a beautiful, elliptical fairy tale of adult life.
3. Spirited Away (2001) — Filled with haunting imagery, subtly rendered characters and an emotional core absent from most anime, Spirited Away is a rich cinematic experience, a story that reads like a direct translation of director Hayao Miyazaki’s dreams. We’re in Miyazaki’s head, immersed in a world with a consistent if alien logic, where weightless and timeless things coexist with buckets and mops.
4. The Visitor (2008) — Tom McCarthy’s second film as director and writer (after 2005’s The Station Agent) is precisely the sort of movie Hollywood has abandoned, a literate and low-key character study of an ordinary man in depressingly average straits. It honors measured gestures and suggests that small acts of kindness can be heroic and life-changing. It acknowledges minor truths without defaulting to conventional devices of uplift. It allows us to believe in an unhappy ending if we wish. And it features a monumental lead performance by Richard Jenkins, a venerable character actor finally given a chance to star.
5. Take Shelter (2011) — Jeff Nichols’ plausible horror story features award-worthy performances from Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain. This is the real deal, a tough and vital film that latches onto something deep in the American psyche — our national vice, corrosive and enfeebling fear. Nichols’ Shotgun Stories (2007) and Loving (2016) could have made this list as well.
6. A History of Violence (2005) — For the past 30 years David Cronenberg has been the most consistently interesting director working in English. While he is widely perceived as the king of venereal horror, his body of work argues for a re-evaluation of him as a genuine master, a filmmaker of extraordinary vision and no small range.
A History of Violence is an art movie disguised as a blood-soaked action thriller; the latest and greatest of Cronenberg’s self-described sellouts to the mainstream. With its roots in a popular graphic novel, this mock genre piece tells the story of Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), an ostensibly average guy with a secret bloody past. On another day, I might have taken Cronenberg’s Spider (2002).
7. 3-Iron (2004) — Kim KiDuk is one of the leading lights of world cinema, an original and trenchant visionary who has written and directed a clutch of exquisite films that, despite differences in tone and texture, seem of a piece.
Perhaps the best way to understand the movie at hand is to think of it as Wings of Desire in reverse. In that film by Wim Wenders, an angel longs to become part of the world. In this film, a mysterious, genial young man teaches himself to tread so lightly on the earth that he effectively becomes a spirit. And yet, like Wings of Desire, 3-Iron is also a sweet if unsettling story of transcendent romance.
8. A Serious Man (2009) — So grounded in a specific reality that it has the feel of a memoir, A Serious Man is a memory piece populated by filtered versions of actual people and places. These are the Coen brothers’ people — and if they treat them roughly, we might also assume they love them, if grudgingly.
The Coens’ Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) and No Country for Old Men (2007) are also richly deserving of enshrinement.
9. Brokeback Mountain (2005) — Ang Lee’s movie isn’t so much a “gay Western” as a universal love story to which all but the most prone-to-tittering might relate. In a profound way, the movie isn’t about homosexual cowboys. It is about the sometimes tragic connections that might be made between two people who, because of circumstances or convention, have no right or opportunity to pursue intimacy with each other. It is a love story that ends badly, and its triumph is that it makes us care deeply about those made-up people on the screen.
10. Melancholia (2011) — Lars von Trier’s Melancholia is a devastatingly powerful film about how we are all going to die meaningless deaths and there’s nothing we can do about it.
It is a work of art and, like a poem, the best, most concise description of the movie may be the movie itself. Melancholia is to a large degree about its own articulation: the visual and linguistic grammar that it employs to convey itself.
Von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) is an unpleasant film that hammers you into that place beyond language and intellect, the animal id of the screaming self.
11. The Lives of Others (2006) —Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s remarkable evocation of the state-examined existence East Germans were compelled to live in the bad old days before re-unification. It is resolved through a couple of endings, one brutal and tragic enough for the old Greeks, the other graceful and uplifting. It recalls mid-period Hitchcock in its suspensefulness and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation in its depiction of the paranoia and isolation of the secret agent.
12. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) — Brutal and brave, Piers Marchant’s choice for the best film of the 21st century so far is a horrific snapshot of market forces in communist Romania.
13. No Man’s Land (2001) — Bosnian director Danis Tanovic’s film that won the award for best screenplay at Cannes; it’s a gritty absurdist war story set in 1993.
14. Wall-E (2008) — To be fair, my favorite Pixar film loses something when it gets to the third act and the space colony of endomorphs. Before that, it’s thrilling.
15. Cache (2005) — Michael Haneke’s shocker is an essay on the corrosive effects of terrorism as well as an allegorical indictment of French racial bias, with wonderfully calibrated performances from Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche. It pains me to leave off Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2009) and Amour (2012).
16. L’Enfant (2005) — Belgian filmmakers Luc and JeanPierre Dardenne employ nonprofessionals as actors, keep their films spare, and recognize moments of everyday grace. A minor classic. Other Dardenne films that could have been included: Two Days, One Night (2014), The Kid With a Bike (2011).
17. Mulholland Drive (2001) — After all this time, I still don’t know that I can tell you what David Lynch’s film is about — after the critics’ screening at the Toronto International Film Festival you could overhear what might have been (were movie reviewers not naturally physically timorous people) overtures to fistfights. Some folks thought it all a fraud, others a work of genius. Comparisons were made to Bunuel and D.B. Cooper. Snide remarks were passed. Genuflections were made. Lines were drawn — Mulholland Drive is a movie that demands we take a stand for it or against it. Count me as a believer.
Like dreams, movies needn’t be coherent to be affecting, and the best art provokes emotions not easily rendered in language. Lynch’s movie is a singular piece of filmmaking, a compelling and confounding work of dark imagination. Like the winding road it’s named for — the spiny drive through the hills separating Los Angeles from the San Fernando Valley — Mulholland Drive twists and veers, careering through some dim and woolly territories.
18. Waking Life (2001) — Richard Linklater’s odd and thrilling animated masterpiece plays like a cross between Linklater’s Slackers and Ralph Bakshi’s American Pop (and other rotoscoped experiments) with a bit of Louis Malle’s My Dinner With Andre thrown in for good measure, but the truth is, it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen (or heard).
19. There Will Be Blood (2007) — I could have chosen P.T. Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (2002) or The Master (2012).
20. Margaret (2011) — As much as I liked Manchester By the Sea (some of you didn’t), this long and talky film that stars Anna Paquin as a young woman who witnesses — and maybe causes — a horrific traffic accident is Kenneth Lonergan’s finest film to date.
Honorable mentions: Biutiful, Wendy and Lucy, Summer Hours, Zodiac, In Transit, Moonlight, White Material, Lost in Translation, Yi Yi, Goodbye Solo.
is Jude, one of several Dylan-esque protagonists in Todd Haynes’ inventive quasi-biography that critic Philip Martin thinks may be the best film of the 21st century so far.