10. Synecdoche, New York (d. Charlie Kaufman; 2008)
When I first saw “Synecdoche,” I took a thirty minute shower and sat in a chair for two hours, puzzling over its meaning. It’s a fierce tapestry of maddening artistry that pushes to the extreme all of Kaufman’s best tendencies as a writer. When he just acts as screenwriter, Kaufman can have a director anchor his vision more directly, but behind the camera he pushes the bounds of surrealism. Its play-within-a-play-within-a-play structure, where the protagonist tries and fails to fix his anxieties through his art, is one of the most outright depressing portraits of human existence any filmmaker offered this decade. But at the same time, it’s an absolutely bold and daring piece that shoves its vision to heightened extremes without pause. It has the feel and effect of watching one’s subconscious go off the rails.
9. Adaptation. (d. Spike Jonze; 2002)
One of the ultimate meta-movies, deliriously self-reflexive while also finding lots of room to make profound statements about art, individuality, life, and consciousness, Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze’s second pairing is less “out there” than “Being John Malkovich,” but it’s the more complex and intellectually stimulating film. With Nicolas Cage playing two people (or two sides of one person) and Meryl Streep playing a real writer (or the writer as Kaufman imagines her), rarely has a film been so self-depricating and so revelatory about writers’ block. Its last act, which firmly divides viewers, is captivating: a complete reversal of its originality stance, transforming the film into a trippy and bizarre indictment of Hollywoodization. It bounces back and forth between reality and invention in a stirring encapsulation of a crafted reality.
8. The Departed (d. Martin Scorsese; 2006)
Scorsese rocketed back to the fore of American cinema (and finally won an Oscar) with his dynamic, kinetic, propulsive crime drama. A sticky web of double-crosses, deception, and gratuitous violence, the cops and robbers fairy tale adapted Hong Kong’s “Infernal Affairs” with an ear for profanity and a slant on Boston’s geographical and cultural layout. Scorsese is one of the last standing remnants of the 70s vanguard, and despite a series of flawed personal projects (“Gangs of New York” chief among them), his “Departed” is so fluidly conceived, with jagged and fragmented editing, hyperbolic camera movements, and a pace so breakneck it seems the story may erupt from all the aesthetic gamesmanship. This is a wild cat-and-mouse chase of false identity, the best and sharpest crime drama in many years.
7. A History of Violence (d. David Cronenberg; 2005)
Cronenberg’s films have always been about externalizing masculine anxieties, mostly violent or sexual. In that way, “Violence” is a radical departure, grounded in seemingly simple terms, but it’s a complex film, so brilliant in the ways it deploys violence to comment on character, so stunning in the way it rams up small-town society’s gut. It’s not a thriller so much as a commentary on our drive for violence, and by casting its protagonist as a two-sided thug trying to hide from his past acts of violence, it discusses our own reliance on violence – in sex, in family, in society. The problems and virtues of violence are weighed and considered individually under the umbrella of a character dissection. But that’s what Cronenberg does best – take one man and throw him through a bizarre loop. “Violence” is arguably his best film, for it synthesizes his themes into a more streamlined package.
6. Lost in Translation (d. Sofia Coppola; 2003)
In many ways, Coppola’s drama of two disconnected souls forging a fleeting but profound moment amidst personal crises is an absolutely perfect film. From Lance Acord’s beautiful shots of Tokyo and Scarlett Johansson awash in its landscape, from the soft soundtrack that piques the mood of every moment, and from the comic sadness Johansson and Bill Murray exude in every of their interchanges, it’s kind of a magical film. Like her father before her, Sofia has taken romance and made it feel new and incredibly personal. Not to mention it’s Murray’s most remarkable performance – he seems to be deconstructing himself effortlessly. We are all lost, and it’s only through each other we can find ourselves.
5. There Will Be Blood (d. Paul Thomas Anderson; 2007)
A towering, colossal achievement that seems to erupt from the projection booth instead of merely being screened, Anderson’s films have all been odes to various styles of filmmaking – Scorsese in “Boogie Nights,” Altman in “Magnolia” – where he performs homage and critique simultaneously. Indeed, he’s an auteur with concerns about how American filmmakers have imagined America – and how he can further their arguments with his own ideas about mankind. “There Will Be Blood” is his Kubrick film, and in its searing exploration of a man undone by his greed, Anderson has made his “2001” – a film so daring, so visionary, so caustic and so difficult, so aesthetically engaging and so poetically filmed it can only be placed on a pedestal of high art. As Daniel Plainview, Daniel Day-Lewis crafts one of most vicious and captivating characters the American cinema has ever known – I’d dare say his complexity and strength is on par with Charles Foster Kane. In this myth of westward expansion, all the foundations of society are on trial, and they all get covered in proverbial blood.
4. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (d. Michel Gondry; 2004)
Charlie Kaufman gets characterized by a lot of people as an impenetrable intellectual – someone we can effortlessly admire, but whose work lacks emotional investment or heart. Maybe it would take the childlike playfulness of director Michel Gondry to expose the breaking heart beneath Kaufman’s retreats into our minds, but “Eternal Sunshine” is brilliant as science-fiction, as romance, as psychological study, and as filmmaking exercise. It dives headlong into the problems of memory – its distortions, its repetitions, its anachronisms – with strange special effects and virtuoso tracking shots that meander and whirl through Jim Carrey’s mental space. Perhaps the strength of Gondry’s assured direction of Kaufman’s beautiful script isn’t in how he finds a suitable visual design for all the surrealism, but how he makes such a complex story feel so completely real, and something so singularly individual feel so remarkably universal. Those are the best love stories.
3. The Lord of the Rings (d. Peter Jackson; 2001-03)
I wanted to choose one of the three films as a representation of the trilogy, but to separate them into their volumes would ultimately defeat Jackson and Tolkien’s wonderful, epic vision – Tolkien wrote it as one volume and Jackson filmed it as one movie; that it was divided into three parts each time hardly seems the issue. What stands is one of the most staggering feats of adaptation in the history of cinema, a near perfect transformation of one of the world’s most loved novels. That Jackson constructed Middle-Earth in his homeland of New Zealand gives it that feeling of a lived-in space, while he balances the spectacle of the sets and effects against the real stakes of people and place. Yes, all the culture and history and myth is retained, so watching the films truly feels like stepping into a lost world. It was one of the largest financial gambles any single studio made on a filmmaker, and Jackson delivered a magnum opus – truly one of the best fantasy visions ever crafted.
2. Mulholland Dr. (d. David Lynch; 2001)
David Lynch is a dreamer. His films – from “Blue Velvet” to “Lost Highway” – and his “Twin Peaks” television series, are all somehow about the power of dreams and visions. He questions the power and potential of the unconscious and the subconscious with visionary films that, often enough, are nearly impossible to follow, defying traditional narrative logic for a more complex emotional experience. It makes sense that Hollywood – the “dream factory” – would figure into a project sooner or later, and this failed-TV pilot-resurrected-as-film is his most explicit ode to the power of dreams as homes of alternate realities – where our desires and fears are thrown at us in a dizzying vortex. That “Mulholland Dr” has puzzled so many people seems clear enough after wading through its labyrinthine story about amnesia, murder, movie-making, and lover’s jealousy, but that it has equally fascinated those same people seems to me a testament of its virtuosity. It is Lynch’s masterpiece – maybe second only to “Blue Velvet” – for it’s here that he finds a platform for all his best ideas, and somehow boils them into a refutation of the medium that simultaneously embraces its capacity to hold our dreams captive.
1. No Country for Old Men (d. Joel and Ethan Coen; 2007)
What I love so much about the Coens’ masterpiece – their best film out of a career of masterpieces – is from how many angles it can viewed and examined. It would be a great film just on its level of filmmaking alone. It is orchestrated with masterful precision and suspense, with some of Roger Deakins’s best and most complicated lighting accompanying consistently interesting compositions, perfect editing that helps propel the film’s already quick page, and an amazing sound design that virtually wipes out everything but the most necessary elements. No, it’s not just the filmmaking that makes “No Country for Old Men” the best film of the last ten years – it’s the amazing accumulation of ideas about good and evil, law and justice, principle and code, man and landscape, fortune and fate, the myths and realities of violence that all collide tangentially or crucially throughout. And in its final act, it breaks down our preconceived notions of the genres – thriller, western, chase – that it seems to inhabit, making it more an argument about how we watch movies, and how that spectatorship matters to understanding a film. “No Country” feels perched on the edge of an apocalypse for the duration of its two hours, and no second feels spared from the crushing weight of its blood-soaked themes. Joel and Ethan Coen have successfully translated one of American literature’s most demanding and unique writers into a film that is equally demanding and unique – both inhabiting Cormac McCarthy’s vision of America and the Coens’ simultaneously, that rarest of feats in adaptation.