20. Wall-E (d. Andrew Stanton; 2008)
Easily Pixar’s best and brightest film, the opening act of Wall-E is a virtuoso feat, creating a stunningly photorealistic environment and drawing on shades of Chaplin and Keaton to orchestrate its robot love story with no words at all – just beautiful sounds and images that seem to pour one after the other in an endless flow. Of course, it then launches into satire, chase, meditation, and finally heartwarming emotion as it blossoms into a beautiful tour de force of animation.
19. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (d. Joel Coen; 2000)
The Coens claim they’ve never read Homer’s “The Odyssey,” but that seems largely impossible given the deftness of their adaptation, which superbly and effortlessly translates the story to Depression-era South. Much like ancient Greece, the “South” has a series of myths and standards of representation, and they’re all on cheeky display here: grainy tapestries, wheat fields, lower class ignorants, seedy politics, the KKK, and river baptisms. Its loose structure is carefully woven with a bluegrass palette as the Coens use screwball comedy as a way to expose how the South gets treated on film. Not to mention its fabulous cast is jaw-droppingly funny, throwing the Coens’ flair for colloquialisms at a lightning-fast rate.
18. The White Ribbon (d. Michael Haneke; 2009)
One of the genius theorist/filmmakers of the decade, Haneke’s latest film (for which he finally won the Palme d’Or) feels born not only of his styles and ideas but also those of Bergman and Antonioni. It’s a displaced, patient film that ambiguously creates a mystery with no resolution and no meaning. Indeed, the plot seems to matter not at all, a series of unsolved instances instigated by an unseen force (Haneke himself?) that sparks an indictment of German society on the brink of World War I. In detailing the fragmenting culture several years before the rise of National Socialism, Haneke’s thoughtful film borders on formal perfection, with brooding cinematography that lingers and examines.
17. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (d. Andrew Dominik; 2007)
The most fitting and encapsulating eulogy on the western’s provocative, mythological power since “Unforgiven,” Dominik’s film is an unending beauty that deconstructs the virtues and nature of one of the west’s most captivating and mediated outlaws through the eyes of the boy who kills him. Predator and prey stalk each other through passages that feel more like dime novel prose (in the best sense of the phrase), with the two leads torn between the mortal confines of their world and the desire to mediate their own legend. Indeed, it’s a film about mediation, about how the west gets remembered, about how historical figures ascend a ladder of memory through spectacle and regurgitation – what the film western has done for a hundred years and will hopefully do a hundred more.
16. Brokeback Mountain (d. Ang Lee; 2005)
Perhaps tragically labeled “that gay cowboy movie” as it became a pop culture phenomenon, one of the few films whose title meant something the movie arguably isn’t even about, “Brokeback Mountain” has the guts to explicitly depict one of the nagging tendencies of film western criticism, even as it complicates ideas about homosexuality, masculinity, nature and civilization, and how society dictates manner. With some of the most striking nature cinematography of the decade, and a bravura performance from the late Heath Ledger, “Brokeback” asks why the cowboy matters as a symbol of masculine superiority under the guise of a melodrama.
15. The Dark Knight (d. Christopher Nolan; 2008)
The superhero film was the fixture of the Hollywood studio – as a cycle, they made the most money, built franchises, gave actors like Robert Downey Jr and Heath Ledger space to create amazing characters, and took stabs at an increasingly new level of visual adaptation. They’re so influential and had such a profound effect on films these past ten years, their social politics will be the basis of my undergraduate thesis. Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” is the apex of the movement, a thrilling spectacle that bravely allegorizes United States terror politics at the moment of the 2008 presidential campaign, earnestly cautioning the extremism that has engulfed the country on both ends of the spectrum. Nolan is one of the most intelligent high-budget directors on the rise; he can stage scenes miraculously and make them fit into a larger, messier picture that doesn’t simply entertain through craft, but through logic. How does one confront terrorism, and how does one fight crime? Diplomacy and violence are considered behind the guise of a mask and a cape.
14. Inglourious Basterds (d. Quentin Tarantino; 2009)
War films may be one of the last vestiges from post-modern subversion – a place of reverence guided by an overarching structure of factual events. No longer. Tarantino’s gigantic ode to cinema’s potential as a device of distortion and control is at times playful, at times audacious, yet always fluently in control of how the medium functions in relation to a whole tapestry of global film history. In blowing the lid off how history can be tampered with for artistic gain and audience manipulation, Tarantino delivers on the promise of “Pulp Fiction” – he is both ironic and serious, throwing the medium in profound new directions.
13. Zodiac (d. David Fincher; 2007)
The haunted visionary of American cinema, that dark genius who mines and tugs at our hidden violent impulses, Fincher’s films are fatty and hard to digest despite their elegance and rhythmic groove. In “Zodiac,” he uses HD and digital film effects to render spectacular images and sequences, pushing new technologies to a terrifying corner. In reconstructing the Zodiac murders in San Francisco and the few individuals brave enough to try for decades to uncover the truth, there’s a startling meld of information and theories in “Zodiac” – perhaps not since “JFK” has one event been covered from such a variety of angles based equally in fact and conspiracy. But there’s also something haunting such a stream of information, the specter of the Zodiac that ultimately threatens to engulf the characters. Like Fincher, they’re obsessed. And as a study of obsession, it doesn’t get better.
12. Children of Men (d. Alfonso Cuaron; 2006)
With so many conflicts in the world, so many weapons, so much insanity and violence, is it really a surprise that filmmakers have started imagining the apocalypse and how humanity will ultimately be extinguished? None offered a more precise and encapsulated world than Cuaron, one of the most technically proficient of Mexico’s new arsenal of filmmakers. Already famous are the film’s high wire sequence shots that somehow manage to capture intense escalations of action through perfectly coordinated motion. But more than that is the design, the architecture, the politics, even its central redemption story feels alive. This is not humanity on the brink of destruction, but salvation – religious overtones abound and the ugliness of its violence serves in direct counter to the beauty of its hope.
11. Moulin Rouge! (d. Baz Luhrmann; 2001)
It jumpstarted a revival of Hollywood’s lost musical genre, where producers and directors flung every major Broadway hit of the last thirty years onto the screen. None of them reached the artistic triumph of Luhrmann’s intense vision for the film musical, a postmodern masterpiece that pushes the music video aesthetic against a medley of pre-existing love songs, and melodramatic structures that feel most akin to Cukor’s famous weepie, “Camille.” But more than an intertextual masterpiece of dozens of sources and references, “Moulin Rouge!” is a staggering feat of cinematography and editing, where colors seem to fly off the screen and edits last only a second, as if Luhrmann is trying to recreate the dizzying feel of a drug high. This says nothing of the choreography or the sound, the rapid tonal shifts between wacky Looney Tunes comedy and teary tragedy that make the film feel like a series of abstract concepts and pieces strung together through sheer kinetic movement.