1. Talk to Her (2002) - I can never decide if All About My Mother or this film is my favorite Almodóvar. One thing is certain by a small margin: Talk to Her is his masterpiece, Spain’s enfant terrible at his most subtle, graceful and mysterious. He can take a rape, make its intentions come from love and deliver it to an audience so earnestly that we never question whether or not the criminal is a good person. We are convinced he is nothing short of an angel. That’s bold. That’s dangerous. That’s masterful storytelling. Almodóvar has an effortless control over this film that remains unmatched in his work, an auteur who listens to the organic heart of a story and then follows with his direction. His confidence and consistency make him the greatest European filmmaker of today.
2. Punch-Drunk Love (2002) - Paul Thomas Anderson exalted Philip Baker Hall in Hard Eight, made us pay attention to Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights and in Magnolia gave Tom Cruise the rare chance to personify the misogyny his franchise perpetuates. Now the comedic mogul Adam Sandler plays the loner, misfit angry man he always has, yet this time it’s heartbreaking. The harmonic forces of a blonde woman persistent to get a date, a peculiar small piano, a trail of pudding leading to Hawaii and brilliantly functional cinematography collide to save Barry Egan from himself. Equal parts Adam Sandler romantic comedy, New Wave and Warner Bros cartoon, Punch-Drunk Love is a breath of fresh air in our cynic-ruled climate. Simply put, it makes me believe in true love again.
3. In the Mood for Love (2000) - The language of this film defies time. I’m convinced if one were to watch every shot in reverse order (or any, for that matter), it would remain the same film and may perhaps even improve. It’s all about its tenor, that aching, bittersweet yearning for someone you have enough love and respect for to leave alone... or perhaps not. Do Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan consummate their affair? Wong Kar-Wai keeps this mystery preserved, creating an ageless, amorous, microcosmic enigma that easily earns its place among the greatest love stories ever told. So far and for good reason, In the Mood for Love is the only 21st century film to make the coveted “gold list” in Paul Schrader’s monumental effort to establish a true film canon.
4. Brokeback Mountain (2005) - Finally, the gays have their Gone With the Wind, their Titanic, and their place in the Hollywood conscience. Ang Lee’s approach to a closeted gay cowboy love story is stubbornly classical and abides by all the rules. This is precisely what makes Brokeback Mountain unique. For better or for worse, all the conventions and platitudes of heterosexual romance movies can now belong to Queer Cinema. This is exactly what we needed: an established, popular director to make a movie that grabs the attention of the masses and proves to them any form of love is valid and more in common with their own than they are lead to believe. It’s a miracle how good this film really is and how well it was received.
5. Dogville (2003) – Lars von Trier takes down the U.S. in a single blow with the first installment of his America trilogy. Dogville is long overdue karma, a scathing indictment of our small town mentality and exploitative disregard for the immigrant. Stripping away all the aesthetic fluff of narrative film shows what really matters is performance, which become all the more revelatory in their isolation from one another. This film is a sickening and engrossing Brechtian science experiment, similar to observing scared lab rats negotiate their way through a maze. Von Trier solely and justifiably bases this nightmarish vision on the imperialist media we are so hell bent on spreading worldwide. A foreign POV on the hypocritical myths we champion proves both refreshing and humiliating.
6. Children of Men (2006) – Kubrick’s 2001 and this film are the only science fiction movies that truly terrify me. Alfonso Cuarón gets the future right in Children of Men better than most filmmakers. Devoid of the genre clichés of flying cars, elaborate cityscapes and electronic gadgets galore, the future is accurately portrayed as our crumbling present day world suffocated by LCD and plasma screens advertising a government endorsed suicide. The ceasing of human reproduction often feels like the only fictional element of the film. All the violence, panic and desperation running rampant throughout possess a Direct Cinema quality most documentary filmmakers can only dream of. Cuarón’s vision of a rapidly disintegrating world in chaos is a plausible prophecy I can buy.
7. Far From Heaven (2002) - Todd Haynes’s tribute to Douglas Sirk is so faithful it hurts. Every detail is just right, from the blood-orange, Connecticut autumn leaves down to the aqua trim tablecloths. Watching Far From Heaven is a visual feast, a lesson in how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go. And in true Hollywood melodrama fashion, the film is borderline psychotic. I’m madly in love with the Sirk aesthetic for all its garishly masked melancholy, its emotional alliance with Earth’s seasons and its heroines caught between a rock and a hard place. Melodrama is a tricky business, understandably shunned as misleading and banal. But when done right as in this film, I can only afterwards sigh and wonder when and where my Rock Hudson or Dennis Haysbert will find me.
8. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) – A stickler for details, Anderson is something of a nerdy alchemist obsessed with concocting the perfect grandiose vision only equal to the sum of its boundlessly diverse parts. The Royal Tenenbaums is a children’s storybook come to life, full of pretentious and wondrous archetypes who persist in staying locked in their failed dreams, crippled by their own shortcomings. At the end of the opening prologue, a young Richie Tenenbaum sets his hawk Mordecai free to the crescendo of “Hey Jude,” sending out an SOS for help from his family’s sinking battleship of squandered potential. How curious, classic and medieval a bird in flight over a New York skyline can become. For me, this is the most touching moment in Wes Anderson’s oeuvre.
9. The Incredibles (2004) - When Brad Bird and Pixar get together, I surrender to the so-called CGI revolution. I care about the Parr family. I understand their battle for and against familial conformity. I too want to be the greatest superhero dad in the world. All this from synthetic layers of shading, morphing and rendering? You bet. Most CGI cartoons stay afloat with gag after gag of endless pop-cultural references while Brad Bird’s visions strive for a real connection with our humanity. The likes of Shrek and Beowulf miss the mark entirely. The Incredibles is a prime example of how the instrument can only serve the artist, in this case the sharpest animation studio reaching its full potential in the hands of a master cartoon storyteller. CGI never felt so good.
10. Half Nelson (2006) – The setup is pure Disney: white, middle class basketball coach serves as guiding light to inner-city junior high students. The end result, however, is anything but. More naturally than most films, Half Nelson captures what it means to be stuck. All characters are imbued with an equivalent sense of anguish, the role of guru in constant flux between a coach with a drug habit, the drug dealer who indirectly feeds his problem and the at-risk adolescent girl they both want to save. This film balances the playing field within narrative territory typically forged for easy didacticism, forcing us to empathize with equally beaten citizens. Pious authority has no place here, only an unpretentious, surprising look at people reckoning how to break the hold their circumstances have them in.