Third film critic lists best movies thus far
Now that my cohorts Piers Marchant and Philip Martin have declared what they think are the best films of the new century, it’s my turn to pick up 20 movies that have stood a somewhat brief test of time.
I hate making lists because I fear that, under deadline pressure, I’ll either aggrandize or shortchange certain movies. And since I’m the final Arkansas Democrat-Gazette critic to turn in my selections, I also feel an obligation not to repeat the lists my peers have made. They’ve already done a terrific job of explaining why Ratatouille, The Hunt, The Lives of Others, A Separation, Pan’s Labyrinth and other films they chose are worth catching.
I’ve picked 20 movies they haven’t mentioned that all debuted in 2001 or later. Because I’m constantly discovering worthy movies that I missed earlier, I won’t say that these are the best of the 21st century. Instead, they’re the movies that I’ve either watched repeatedly or that gripped me so much on a single viewing that my memory repeats them for me. I’ve used bullets instead of numbers because how I’d rank them would vary from day to day.
The best film of this age may be sitting in some bargain bin waiting for me and others to find it.
■ The Fog of War: Eleven
Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003) — It’s easy to and right to condemn former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara’s deadly mistakes during the Vietnam War, but he and documentary master Errol Morris (who protested against the war) raise a series of difficult truths that aren’t going away anytime soon. McNamara, even late in his life, seemed in denial about his role in the war, but he warns that the combination of human frailty and nuclear weapons can lead to tragedies we can’t imagine.
■ Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) — Australian director Peter Weir lost a well-deserved Oscar to a story involving hobbits, but as a fan of both movies I shouldn’t complain. Weir makes viewers feel as if they are on the British warship getting ready for battle against a better armed French opponent. It immerses the viewer into the world of early 19th-century naval life and never lets up.
■ The Hurt Locker (2008) — Speaking of immersion, writer Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow’s story of an obsessive bomb technician (Jeremy Renner) reveals there are casualties in war who don’t have the physical wounds to show for it. The last few minutes of this movie, where Sgt. James returns to the States from Iraq in body but not spirit, still haunt me.
■ The Deep End (2001) — Tilda Swinton is magnificent in this thriller about a navy officer’s wife trying to protect her son from scandal involving illicit sex and murder. After 9/11, the film became even more engrossing because more military families were spending long stretches apart.
■ Iron Man (2008) — If you’re getting tired of Marvel movies or superhero movies in general, you can blame Robert Downey Jr. and Jon Favreau for figuring out how to make the genre as clever and heartfelt as it is eye popping. Watching the movie again is intriguing because Tony Stark’s weaponized suit comes into the movie rather late, and the film actually raises a series of troubling questions about the nature of arms dealing. Whereas many recent entries have been more dour than thrilling, the first Iron Man consistently remembers it was made to entertain.
■ Hugo (2011) — It’s no secret that Martin Scorsese is a fanatic about classic films, and he makes that fanaticism contagious with Hugo. In addition to giving screen pioneer Georges Melies (A Trip to the Moon) his due, Scorsese demonstrates that 3-D cinema can be more than a ruse to raise admission prices.
■ Eastern Promises (2007) — In his long career, David Cronenberg has developed a knack for sensitizing viewers to the consequences of violence. When his characters get into fights, the results are appropriately harrowing to watch. Thanks to breathtaking performances from Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts and Armin Mueller-Stahl, it’s fascinating to discover the deadly side of seemingly genteel people.
■ Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) — Charlie Kaufman won an Oscar for his script about a low-rent service that purges unwanted memories from your head. Under Michel Gondry’s delightfully quirky but poignant direction, Jim Carrey plays a fellow who pays to forget his ex (Kate Winslet), only to discover that he still loves her.
■ Persepolis (2007) — Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical cartoon about her youth in Iran and Europe reveals a lot about both cultures and consistently entertains in the process. Her simple designs convey far more information than a 10-minute monologue.
■ Ghost World (2001) — As bittersweet as it is side-splittingly hilarious, Ghost World
explores how making a home in the real world isn’t as rewarding as advertised. The acid-tongued Enid (Thora Birch) is remarkably sympathetic even if she can’t figure out how to make her way through life without causing trouble for others.
■ Spotlight (2015) — This look at how the Boston Globe
revealed the extent of child abuse within the local Roman Catholic diocese is worth catching simply for showing how good investigations should be conducted and for making people sitting and talking as thrilling as car chases.
■ Mother (2009) — South Korean director Bong Joon Ho has specialized in making viewers believe that a giant slug was terrorizing Seoul
(The Host), a train was moving over a world of ice (Snowpiercer) and that a little girl could be friends with a giant pig (Okja). With Mother, however, he has no special effect but Kim Hye-ja’s engrossing performance as the title character. Throughout the film, there’s some mystery if her attempts to save her disabled son from a murder charge are heroic or delusional. Either way, it’s fascinating to watch.
■ The Incredibles (2004) — Picking out a favorite Pixar movie is like naming a favorite child, but Brad Bird’s two movies for the studio (the other is Ratatouille) are standouts with their vivid imagination, sharply defined and endearing characters and a sense of wonder. It’s also delightful to watch a toddler who can burst into flames at will. Samuel L. Jackson’s golden throat has never been used so well elsewhere.
■ The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007) — Painter Julian Schnabel creates an intriguing take on the life of writer Jean-Dominique Bauby (expertly played by Mathieu Amalric) who had to rebuild his life after a stroke left him with locked-in syndrome and he could only move his left eye. The title refers to how Bauby described his condition as both confining and liberating. Schnabel makes both sides of Bauby’s existence vivid and engaging.
■ Cave of Forgotten Dreams
(2010) — Werner Herzog’s 3-D documentary takes viewers into the Chauvet Cave in France, location of the oldest known cave paintings in the world. Because it’s Herzog behind the camera, he can’t help but offer existential musings throughout, but the most powerful moments of this film occur when he simply shuts off his microphone and lets us look at the paintings with him.
■ Incendies (2010) — French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve has been on a roll with movies like Enemy, Sicario and Arrival,
but his adaptation of Wajdi Mouawad’s play about a pair of Montreal twins getting in touch with their Middle Eastern roots is my favorite. Villeneuve consistently assumes that his audience doesn’t have to be spoon-fed, and in the process creates a more spiritually nourishing story.
■ Letters From Iwo Jima
(2006) — Clint Eastwood’s low key directorial restraint has never been more appropriate than in this look at Japan’s desperate and ferocious attempt to hold on to the outlying island against superior American forces during World War II. Ken Watanabe is great as the commander who knows that his mission is futile and proceeds with it anyway. The film also raises the thorny question of whether surrender might be more heroic than suicide.
■ The Squid and the Whale
(2005) — I saw this film after a relative’s divorce, and its unflinchingly honest depiction of how a couple’s breakup affects their kids has stayed with me. It’s also a delight to see Jeff Daniels play an academic whose erudition is shy of his ego.
■ No (2012) — Who says that stories of revolution have to be somber and dull? Pablo Larrain’s recounting of how advertising helped bring democratic rule to his native Chile never downplays the tragedies of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, but it’s impossible to keep a straight face at the thought of commercials bringing him down.
■ Like Someone in Love (2012) — The late Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami brought his subtle approach to storytelling to Japan in this look at a retired college professor (Tadashi Okuno) who befriends a struggling student (Rin Takanashi), who has turned to prostitution. It’s a story that normally leads to eye rolls, but Kiarostami’s last movie is consistently convincing and heartfelt.
Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) is the ruthless and mysterious driver for one of London’s most dangerous crime families in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, one of the best films of the 21st century so far.