60. Brick (d. Rian Johnson; 2005)
Maybe one of the best neo-noir films of the decade, and a great exercise in film genre theory, Johnson’s feature transplants “The Big Sleep” to a high school, where a brainy genius investigates his love’s murder. Accompanying him is a more than convoluted plot, a wide array of ridiculous slang, and enough stylized camera compositions to cram into two indie noirs. Yet it works spectacularly, rocketing up and down on the consistency of its mood and atmosphere.
59. The Pianist (d. Roman Polanski; 2002)
Based off the protagonist’s autobiographical account of survival in the Holocaust, but also deeply embedded with Polanski’s own demons of his survival, “The Pianist” is a personal look at an event that continues to be discussed and thought about in media nearly every year. Keeping his camera at a distance and with the transformative Adrien Brody allows Polanski to make his film more about the spectatorship of the Holocaust, making us witnesses to the atrocity as we watch one man try to survive.
58. Antichrist (d. Lars von Trier; 2009)
A shocking, extremist art film that pushes von Trier’s deepest anxieties to their fullest brutal representations, this retreat into demented psychotherapy has added biblical proportions in its dissection of the nature of man and woman. Though von Trier has routinely been slapped with misogynism, “Antichrist” is actually an examination into why women are demonized, and how psychological trauma, when mistreated, can lead to devastating violence. It’s nevertheless harrowing, offering up twisted tortures, mutilated genitalia, and rough sex. It’d be trash if it weren’t so beautiful and compelling.
57. Kill Bill (d. Quentin Tarantino; 2003-04)
Spanning two halves and four hours, Tarantino’s wild ode to kung fu films and spaghetti westerns are the epitome of superficial cool. Tarantino’s play on generic structure and aesthetic forms make this rock like a real successor of the New Wave, while he still takes time to think of radically dynamic ways to present mass carnage and write one of the most balanced female characters of the decade. As a whole, the film(s) is decadent, self-indulgent, and a bit of genius from a director very concerned with taking old genres to new places.
56. The Prestige (d. Christopher Nolan; 2006)
Structuring a film on a magic trick is a strange and novel idea, but one Nolan pulls off admirably. Buried in his tale of artistic obsession, ambition, devotion, and revenge is a multitude of misdirection. Careful visual clues provide the answer, while dialogue cues send us looking down back alleys and past the obvious. It’s a clever game only more rewarding on repeat viewings, where the complexity is all the more apparent.
55. Good Night, and Good Luck. (d. George Clooney; 2005)
With a bit of old school bluntness to his images and a logical progression to his directorial choices, Clooney stages ideological warfare through the visual media, recounting how Edward R. Murrow tried to use the television new to expose Senator McCarthy. While David Strathairn is mesmerizing in the lead and the film’s gorgeous black and white images splendidly capture the behind-the-scenes look at 50s television, Clooney is also indicting modern television. Where is our Murrow? Why are we still waging wars of ideology where hyperbole triumphs over truth? In a time where mass media helps dictate political discourse in more outlets and arguably more subliminal ways than ever before, “Good Night, and Good Luck” hits on one of the fundamental issues of the decade.
54. Punch-Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson; 2002)
The romantic character study subgenre needed Paul Thomas Anderson, whether it wanted to admit it or not. It’s a simple, self-contained, and often manic film, but Anderson gets right to the center of Adam Sandler, helping him give the most carefully modulated performance of his career. It’s a film, not unlike many of Anderson’s films, about strange people trying to overcome their situations and their circumstances – the measure of the characters is in whether or not they can. Though he started his career with sprawling ensemble epics (“Magnolia”), his recent focus on more singular dramas (this and “There Will Be Blood”) cement him as one of our most necessary filmmakers.
53. Inland Empire (d. David Lynch; 2006)
Filmed over multiple years, multiple countries, and largely on digital video, this is the most labyrinthine, most confusing, and most daring film David Lynch has ever made – even if it’s not the best. Starting as a supernatural thriller about a cursed movie set, it quickly spirals out of control into various levels of Laura Dern’s subconscious with strange sexual and violent set-pieces, radical shifts in aesthetic construction, plot strands that disappear only to reappear later, and plenty of psychological symbolism strewn almost haphazardly about. Clocking in at nearly three hours, it’s an overwhelming achievement.
52. About Schmidt (d. Alexander Payne; 2002)
Solemn and melancholy, Payne gives remarkable insight into the twilight of life in this aching character study of a man who feels powerless to change his circumstances. Jack Nicholson gives a tremendous performance, muted in both voice and body movement, but conveying tremendous sorrow and anxiety. The photography, which captures the washed out atmosphere of the mid-west as well as the sullen emptiness of Schmidt’s home, add to the gravitas – until a final scene that redeems all of Schmidt’s misgivings in some of the simplest, yet most effective imagery of the decade.
51. Gomorrah (d. Matteo Garrone; 2008)
Unlike any gangster film since “GoodFellas” and based on a “nonfiction novel,” “Gomorrah” takes the documented accounts of the Cammora crime syndicate’s far-reaching mob practices and displaces it into five non-connecting storylines. These stories are largely impersonal and abstractly staged, with photography that alternates between detachment and grit, inserting shocking violence almost at random and perfectly capturing the chaotic corruption of modern Italian society – it’s less a genre film than a social and cultural indictment, a melding of documentary and fiction.