I concluded my last article, in which I dissected a list of great 21st century films, by questioning the necessity for lists and "greatness". I think it only appropriate to contradict myself (in part) by presenting something positive to yesterday's negative.
So here are my favourite films of this century. I have "only" 20, not 100, and make no effort to rank them. Instead, it's a simple chronology of greatness and stuff I simply like.
Dancer in the Dark (2000, Lars Von Trier)
Trier makes a lot of depressing films but this one takes the cake... and is a musical to boot. Bjork sells every bathetic scene, but was apparently emotionally abused on set. As you will be by watching this perverse exercise in deconstruction.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000, The Coen Brothers)
The Coen's obviously love film and history, and the critics love that about them. So they get underserved praise for a lot of mediocre films. But every now and then they hit one out of the park. This film is hilarious and so engaging that we can forget they are essentially white-washing the depression. Must be the incredible music and performances.
Spirited Away (2001, Hayao Miyazaki)
On the one hand there's the animé norm: hyper-sexualised, reductive, and essentially infantile. On the other hand there's Miyazaki. Even considering his stellar oeuvre (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Kiki's Delivery Service), this is a high-point, a film so packed with complete and utter strangeness that it is hardly diminished by the necessity for closure.
Le Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain (2001, Jean-Pierre Jeunet)
Everyone loves Amélie, one of the most winsome characters in one of the most charming romances you will ever have the great fortune to watch. Jeunet is usually too busy being dark to get this close to perfection.
16 Years of Alcohol (2003, Richard Jobson)
"Trainspotting meets A Clockwork Orange" says the DVD cover blurb and that's not a bad tag for this autobiographical tale of growing up in a dead-end life in Edinburgh, with punk music on one side and gang life on the other. This was Jobson's debut film, and perhaps the only one he needed to make, taking on a subject close to his heart with style and panache.
Fear X (2003, Nicolas Winding Refn)
This film in two-and-a-half parts follows a character, played by genius John Turturro, who is likewise fragmented. Harry is an alien, watching videotapes of a shopping mall in order to discover how to play his part as a human. As we enter his skull, the plot becomes ever-more sinister and then... disintegrates. For Lynch fans.
Omagh (2004, Pete Travis)
An unrelenting realistic portrayal of a terrorist attack, this film had me gasping for air between shots, the tension greater than any film I have ever watched. But that's only the first part. Then comes the political aftermath and personal stories of surviving, recompense, and forgiveness. Gerard McSorley is the brightest star in this constellation of exemplary acting.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004, Michel Gondry)
This singular fable from the mind of a child (Gondry) makes profound statements about truth, memory, and the fleeting nature of relationships. It's poignant, hilarious, ridiculous, surreal, sad, and beautiful.
A History of Violence (2005, David Cronenberg)
Turning viewer expectations on their head, this film shows the human cost of the sort of sociopathic behaviour generally exemplified in Mafia / tough-guy flicks. Managing to have its cake and eat it too, the film is most brilliant in the final scene, which is pitch-perfect.
Children of Men (2006, Alfonso Cuarón)
Is there any director with a stranger portfolio? Here Cuarón paints a lived-in dystopia with a peculiar style that will not be to every taste, jettisoning characters abruptly on the one hand and indulging hammy performances on the other. This is that rare thing: a realistic science-fiction film designed as social critique. More of this, please, and less Gravity.
The Host (2006, Bong Joon-ho)
It's not often that we get a new twist on the monster movie, not for lack of attempts. The Host delivers thrills, laughs, and spectacle in appropriate measure, while also presenting an often touching examination of a dysfunctional family. That ghost scene.
Inland Empire (2006, David Lynch)
This is Lynch at his most experimental and provocative. It's deeply disturbing, confused, ugly, fragmented, and completely compelling. The extraordinary length is entirely necessary; in fact it could have gone on forever, like some sort of closed-circuit feedback loop. Inland Empire reflects our new millennium back at us in pixelated images straight out of a nightmare. No, not those fake fantasy nightmares Hollywood prefers, but the real ones.
Let the Right One In (2008, Tomas Alfredson)
One of my two favourite vampire films, this gem captures the tone of chilly Swedish housing estates from the perspective of children unable to do anything but survive on their own terms. The remake wasn't bad either.
Pina (2011, Wim Wenders)
This is the best film on contemporary dance to date, and it took iconoclastic Wenders to do it. He is smart enough to leave you wanting more of Pina Bausch and her wonderful company, while dazzling with bravura camera work. A fitting tribute.
Moonrise Kingdom (2012, Wes Anderson)
Everyone has their favourite Anderson film and their favourite characters among his many fairytale creations. For me, it's Social Services. As usual the sets are layer cakes and the mise-en-scène channelled straight from Oz.
Cosmopolis (2012, David Cronenberg)
A rare film that attempts something controversial and unsettling without stating out loud what this is. As viewer, you have to figure it out for yourself. When you do, it's a bombshell. (But apparently critics didn't.)
Under the Skin (2013, Jonathan Glazer)
This is a misogynist film, symptomatic of much that is wrong in the very hegemony that Glazer is trying to critique. Nonetheless, it is worth watching for the way verité, kitchen-sink drama, and art-house stylisations are combined under the same cover. A talking point.
Upstream Color (2013, Shane Carruth)
This film documents a mysterious and perverse ecology, in order to create in us an empathy similar to that created in the characters. This alchemy demonstrates the unbalanced nature of the times in which we live. A singular and much misunderstood achievement.
A Field in England (2013, Ben Wheatley)
Four men meet at hazard during the English civil war, are roped into a scheme that plays on their various ignorances, and become tools in some psychedelic ritual. A very strange combination of arch period dialogue and mind-bending fantasy. Not for the photosensitive.
Inherent Vice (2014, Paul Thomas Anderson)
This pretends to be another Big Lebowski, all stoner chic and hippy nostalgia, but instead is the opposite. It deconstructs the hippy vs. establishment dialectic, remakes the buddy cop flick, acts as a Neil Young music video, and so much more. Hilariously funny with a dark underbelly.
So, how many of these films were chosen by the BBC critics? Surprisingly, only nine out of twenty. I have a hard time understanding this. It's not like I deliberately seek out obscure films, or choose titles just to be different. This result can maybe by explained by the echo chamber effect, whereby critics take advice from each other and don't look beyond their rather limited horizons.
Perhaps Dancer in the Dark and O Brother, Where Art Thou? were ignored because they were released in 2000. Maybe 16 Years of Alcohol is too obscure and Pina was eliminated for being a documentary. Omagh might have been ignored for the same reason, though the producer is famous. Maybe no-one is watching Korean monster films like The Host... but it did have a wide release. Everyone has been talking about Ben Wheatley, plus he's British, so why did A Field in England get shafted by the BBC?
I grant that many viewers might not have the patience for Fear X, Upstream Color, and Cosmopolis. These films didn't seem to get much notice; the reviewers I encountered missing the points entirely.
The leaves the most astounding omission. On a roll-call of "great" films I'd expect to see Inland Empire at the top. It's not even on the list.
Maybe we need more perceptive critics, less bound by popular opinion? The twentieth century had cinema-savvy reviewers willing to take on challenging films on their own terms... and then challenge them right back. Great films need great viewers.
Maybe that time has passed, in our multitasking world of ubiquitous fragmented screens. Maybe indeed the days of great films are gone.