50-41 here. No links this time, on account of bandwidth constraints. Anyhow:
40. Infernal Affairs
Maybe it’s because I don’t much like Leonardo DiCaprio, or maybe it’s because I’m a film snob, but I much preferred the original Chinese Infernal Affairs to the American remake The Departed. Most likely, though it’s due to the “first met is best” effect that I’ve noticed elsewhere. Given two works of art, one a remake or adaptation of the other, I tend to prefer the first one I meet, regardless of whether it’s the original or the remake/adaptation. So I prefer the adaptation of Oldboy to the original manga, or the manga adaptation of Welcome to the NHK to the original novel, or in the case at hand, Infernal Affairs to the Departed, because those were the first ones I met. In any event, Infernal Affairs was an improbably stylish thriller that rose above its somewhat dopey plot through force of sheer pulpish conviction.
39. The Wind That Shakes the Barley
I’ve talked here before about spinach art: works that are good for you but no fun. For years I avoided the films of director Ken Loach, figuring that they must be spinach of the highest order. Socially committed films on “issues” (mixed-race romance: Ae Fond Kiss; workplace conditions in the construction industry: Riff-Raff; etc.)? Films where characters engage in passionate debate about the merits of various forms of socialism (Land and Freedom)? Yeccch — this despite our sharing much the same political outlook, I might add. So it was with great surprise that I learned, once I finally bothered to test my knee-jerk reaction, that Loach’s films were funny, good-natured and compassionate and were indeed films first, civics lessons second. The Wind That Shakes the Barley was no exception despite its heavy subject matter (the start of the troubles in Ireland) and, I’ll admit it, I totally have a man-crush on lead Cillian Murphy.
Pedro Almodovar is another writer/director I came to late. He’s the sort of film-maker who often gets called “flamboyant” and “colourful”. With good reason; he is flamboyant and colourful. He’s also one of the few major figures in world cinema who is deeply concerned with women — what they’re like, what they like, how they live life. Volver is typical of his oeuvre in this respect and reminded me more than a little of Gilbert Hernandez, for its mixture of the mundane with the supernatural, telenovela flourish with novelistic emotion and above all the women: strong, wise, foolish, human.
37. Lost in Translation
It became fashionable for a while to bash Sofia Coppola and this film in particular. Okay, its deployment of Japanese culture veers into “Aren’t these wacky Easterners funny?” territory. But if you can put that aside — a big if for some — this is still a fine film about alienation and dislocation. Indeed, I’d say it captured better than any other film I’ve ever seen the sense of dislocation and placelessness of being an innocent (or not-so innocent) abroad, and the aching need for an emotional connection with the familiar. No doubt it helped that I saw it at a pretty receptive time in my own life: as a twenty-six year-old graduate student in the States, alone and friendless and far, far from loved ones. But there’s more than enough about the film to put it on this list regardless: two strong lead performances — honestly, has Scarlett Johansson been remotely as good in anything else? — dreamy cinematography; and brilliant sound design by Richard Beggs.
36. Fear and Trembling
Speaking of East-West encounters and those wacky Japanese, there’s always this French curio, also from 2003 and also chronicling the meeting between a Western ingenue and Japanese culture. This time the ingenue is French and the culture she meets is specifically corporate culture. The title is from Kierkegaard, but it might as well have been from Sade; due to a series of cross-cultural misunderstandings, the protagonist finds her position in the Japanese office growing more and more degraded until, in a delirious scene, she wallows around and sleeps in the upturned garbage of her capitalist oppressors. That sounds like heavy, depressing stuff but the accomplishment of this remarkable little film — and it is decidedly minor in its focus, almost all of it occuring within the one office floor, concerned with the power relations between two people at its heart — is that it isn’t depressing. But nor is it played for laughs either. Instead the film walks a nimble line between outright satire and heavy-handed moralizing that makes it one of the most tonally interesting films of the decade. It’s also, despite its (cross-)cultural specificity, the best office film since The Apartment, which makes it a pretty damn good movie full stop.
35. Lilya 4-Ever
A grim bit of miserabilism from Lukas Moodysson, Lilya 4-Ever largely takes place in a generic bleak Eastern European hellhole, part of the detritus left behind by the former Soviet Union. Things only get worse once Lilya escapes to the West, as if to rebuke the one glimmer of hope offered in the first half of the film. There’s one thing audiences want from miserabilist cinema: the complete and crushing absence of hope. This movie delivers that in spades, and then some.
34. Little Otik
Jan Svenkmajer has for decades been one of the world’s greatest living animators, which is all the more remarkable given the budget constraints he must have been working under. In Svenkmajer’s world, everyday objects come miraculously alive, but the resulting vision couldn’t be further from the dancing candle and teapots of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. No, the living objects in Svenkmajer’s world don’t dance so much as writhe, and rather than being shining new friends, there’s apt to be a touch of death about them even as they writhe. Little Otik isn’t even his best film — for mine, that would be his marvellous Alice, an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland that manages to remember and recreate the creepiness of the original. But it’s a Svenkmajer film all right, and we’re lucky to have his creepy, insidious surrealism and stop-motion animation in any form we can get. If Dave McKean, Marcel Duchamp and Tom Waits were combined into one person, and that person were an animator, the result would be something like Svenkmajer.
There’s a scene towards the start of this brutal organised crime exposé where two dimwitted wanna-be gangsters act out scenes from Scarface. That one scene sums up the intent of the film: to contrast the grim reality of organised crime with the Hollywood glamourised version. And at that it succeeds admirably; the crime we see in Naples is vicious and surprisingly petty. Who knew, for instance, that the mob had their fingers in sweatshops or that a sweatshop foreman selling his skills to rival sweatshops would be such a risky proposition? Gomorrah is a powerful film with a simple message, which it sells with great skill.
The Dardenne brothers specialise in a nouveau cinéma vérité, detailing the lives of the lower classes in Belgium. Not unlike a Belgian Ken Loach, come to think of it. L’Enfant was their second film to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and it stays true to their themes and style. A young couple fall pregnant and have a baby and things just get worse from there, with one bad decision after another. Cheery!
31. The Bourne trilogy
All right, I’m cheating by counting these three films as one. But the three films in the Bourne series were all written by the same screenwriter, Tony Gilroy (who would go on to direct Michael Clayton, itself a fine film about keeping your principles in the workplace). And they all share a naturalistic visual aesthetic, plus a sober sense of seriousness. It was that sense of seriousness that made the first film stand out, and showed you could make an action movie as adult and stripped-down as the best thriller. Would that more film-makers were paying attention.