30. Memento (2000)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Guy Pearce, Carrie-Ann Moss, Joe Pantoliano

“I have this condition…”

Every now and then you see a film that does something really, truly original. Memento is such a film. I suppose it’s technically a thriller, since it follows one man’s quest to find and kill the man who murdered his wife. He is hindered by his medical condition, inflicted by the same man in the same attack: a brain injury that has left him with short-term memory loss. He remembers the last twenty minutes or so, and his whole life leading up to the attack, but everything between that is blank. To keep himself focused, he has tattoos on his body constantly reminding him what happened and what his mission is, and he regularly takes notes and Polaroids as new information comes his way.

In order to keep the viewers as adrift as the protagonist, Memento takes place in reverse chronological order, beginning at the end and ending at the beginning. We are pushed into scenes as abruptly and confusingly as he is, and not only does this work, but it works in a movie that has a complex plot and still manages to be understood after only a single viewing. It’s easy to come up with a gimmick, harder to pull it off, and almost impossible to pull it off really well. Nolan succeeds at all of these tasks, and proves himself a gifted director.

29. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)
Directed by Sam McKay
Starring Will Ferrell, Christina Applegate, Paul Rudd

“So damn hot… milk was a bad choice!”

I was going to say that the noughties were a dry decade for comedy, before realising that film in general has never been that funny to me, barring a few exceptions. I guess for a generation raised on the comic majesty of the Simpsons, nothing is ever going to compare.

The standout comedy of the decade is, for me and many others my age, Anchorman, which walks a fine line between high-brow and low-brow. For every physical stunt or toilet joke there’s an improvised one-liner or a joke that relies on the excessive verbiage of the characters. It’s goofy, stupid fun in the spirit of Austin Powers, relying heavily on the ability of its lead actor, who is thankfully up to the task.

28. Gone Baby, Gone (2007)
Directed by Ben Affleck
Starring Casey Affleck, Michelle Monaghan, Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris

“A four-year old child is on the street. It’s seventy-six hours and counting. And the prospects for where she might be are beginning to look grim, you understand? Half of all the children in these cases are killed, flat out. If we don’t catch the abductor by day one, only about ten per cent are ever solved. This is day three.”

As an actor Ben Affleck has always been something of a joke, so it was astonishing to see him craft such a perfect film on his very first attempt at directing. Based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, Gone Baby Gone follows private investigators Patrick Kenzie (Affleck’s younger brother Casey) and Angela Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) as they are hired to solve the abduction of a young girl in Boston.

Besides being a superbly written and cast police procedural, Gone Baby Gone is a study into the best and worst parts of human nature – the shocking, horrific things people are capabale of when they are trying to do the right thing. At the climax of the film Kenzie is faced with an almost impossible decision, an excruciating pick between two evils. He makes the same choice I would have. Is it the right one? Who knows?

27. Shrek (2001)
Directed by Andrew Adamson
Starring Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Drew Barrymore, John Lithgow

“All right, you’re going the right way for a smacked bottom.”

The important thing to remember about Shrek is that it is not Shrek Two, Shrek the Third, Shrek Forever After, Shrek The Halls, Puss In Boots: The Story of An Ogre Killer or any of the other twenty thousand sequels and spin-offs that Dreamworks has vomited forth in their scramble to suck as much money out of the franchise as possible. Shrek is the best example since The Land Before Time of a wonderful, successful film that gave birth to a long dynasty of progressively awful sequels.

The first film is a great family movie, perhaps the best family movie of the decade – suitable for both kids and adults, plenty of in-jokes, sly and satirical, but still possessing loveable characters and genuine sentiment. There’s not a lot more to say about it. It’s Shrek.

26. Cast Away (2000)
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Starring Tom Hanks, Helen Hunt

“I would rather take my chances out there on the ocean than stay here and die on this shithole island spending the rest of my life talking to a goddamn VOLLEYBALL!”

It takes a powerful actor to go through nearly an entire film with only a volleyall for company, and Tom Hanks is that actor. Playing Chuck Noland, a time-obsessed FedEx employee who rushes packages all over the world, he suddenly survives a plane crash and finds himself stranded on a South Pacific island where time doesn’t matter at all.

Bookended by largely irrelevant scenes in the United States, the focus of the film is obviously Chuck’s time on the island, where he learns to survive, copes with bitter loneliness and eventually makes a reckless gamble to escape. We see Chuck – in largely dialogue-free scenes – building fire, splitting coconuts, catching fish, signalling to a rescue boat and climbing a mountain. This is a situation everybody (or at least every boy) imagines themselves to be in as a child, after reading adventure books and comics and daydreaming of survival scenarios. What we don’t think about is the hardship, the misery, the solitude and the danger. The attempted suicide, the realisation that you have absolutely no control over anything, and the eventual return to a world that has moved on without you.

And as if this film wasn’t already brilliant enough, it made people cry over a volleyball. Goddamn.

25. Lost In Translation (2003)
Directed by Sofia Coppola
Starring Bill Murray, Scarlet Johansson

“For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.”

I once said that Japan was as foreign and alien a society as one could find while still remaining on Earth. After actually visiting it I rescinded my statement, but perhaps I was too hasty. I was only on a three-week vacation, after all – I never really had to interact with the Japanese beyond pointing at something in a shop. I spent three months working in Korea and nearly hurled myself off the balcony of my apartment, so, yes, East Asian society can be quite frustrating and confusing.

Lost In Translation is a film about middle age, and loneliness, and ennui and unhappiness. All of these factors are enhanced by setting the film in Tokyo, that colossal and intimidating sprawl of faceless crowds and neon landscapes. Bill Murray plays Bob Harris, a middle-aged American actor doing a whiskey commercial when he could be making a movie; Scarlet Johansson plays Charlotte, a young woman who is accompanying her photographer husband on an assignment. The two of them meet in the same hotel and feel… something. Not love, because that would be too easy and unrealistic, but there is a connection and they both know it and they both know they cannot act upon it, because it exists in Japan only. They help each through their problems, failing to solve them but at least discussing them. They share a kinship for a while, and then go home.

Coppola has crafted an extraordinary film, one that avoids following the obvious course and instead explores more interesting avenues. It’s also a funny film, a comedy of manners, playing off the bizarre quirks of the Japanese and the wearily bemused reactions of Bill Murray. Murray really is one of the most interesting actors alive, loveably versatile, and it’s no coincidence that his recent films (this one, and another further down the list) are clearly, to some extent, reflections of his own dissastisfaction with the turns his life and career have taken. His performance in Lost In Translation is profoundly moving, not just because of a strong script and strong partner, but because it’s so genuine.

24. Kill Bill (2003/2004)
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring Uma Thurman, David Carridine, Lucy Liu, Michael Madsen

“You’re not a bad person. You’re a terrific person. You’re my favourite person. But every once in a while, you can be a real cunt.”

When the first Kill Bill movie came out, I was fifteen. It was the first Tarantino film I’d ever seen and I spent most of it staring at the screen in frustration saying “Why doesn’t somebody just pull out a gun and SHOOT her? Bang, problem solved! There’s a REASON we don’t use swords anymore!” Twenty-one year old me wants to travel back in time and slap fifteen-year old me upside the head for being a stupid fucking idiot. If I’d watched Reservoir Dogs at that age I probably would have said, “Why the fuck did he confess to being a cop?! He was going to die anyway!” YOU ARE A STUPID FUCKING IDIOT YOU STUPID FUCKING IDIOT

Despite having grown older and wiser, I still find it immensely satisfying when the Bride cops a shotgun blast to the chest in the second volume. Largely for that – and because the second volume is more dialogue driven, more Western, somehow more Tarantino than the first – I considered listing the second here alone. Instead I’ve opted to count them as a single film. They are, after all.

I don’t think this is one of Tarantino’s best films, not by a long shot, but I do feel that of his entire canon, this is the one he wanted to make the most. You can tell he’s enjoying himself, cramming together all this bloody pulp mayhem into four hours of stylised revenge. It’s his calling. While, as I said, this isn’t his best film (although that’s akin to saying that Ghostwritten isn’t David Mitchell’s best book – it’s still fantastic), I wouldn’t hesitate to call it his magnum opus. It’s just so… Tarantino.

23. 28 Days Later (2002)
Directed by Danny Boyle
Starring Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Brendan Gleeson, Christopher Eccleston

“Then it wasn’t on TV anymore. It was on the street outside. It was coming through your windows.”

28 Days Later is an engrossing post-apocalyptic science fiction movie and all that, but the part of it that is burned into my memory is the series of scenes near the very beginning of the film. Our protagonist Jim wakes up in an empty and quiet hospital (shades of John Wyndham’s “Day of the Triffids”) and, in a state of shock and confusion, emerges onto the utterly deserted streets of London. He calls and shouts (imprudently, as it turns out) but sees absolutely nobody. He crosses Westminster Bridge and Piccadlly Circus, finding nothing but dire newspaper headlines, talk of mass evacuations, missing person flyers pasted to a statue. He gathers food, accidentally sets off a car alarm, grows increasingly distraught below the shiny, vibrant smiles of supermodels on a billboard.

These scenes (synchronised perfectly with an unsettling, nerve-jangling song by Godspeed You! Black Emperor) would have worked in very few cities other than London. Here we can appreciate the statues and plaques of ancient heroes, the buildings and structures with all that weighty age in them. Here we can truly feel the thousands of years humanity has existed, and feel the same numbing, bleak horror Jim feels to find that it’s been swept away in an instant.

The rest of the movie does manages up to these early scenes, except perhaps in the third act, but this is itself capped off by a wonderfully uplifting ending. (The second film was pretty forgettable in comparison, but had an ending that was absolutely devastating only if you’d watched the first film, which I thought was pretty cool.)

22. Minority Report (2002)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Tom Cruise, Colin Farrell, Max von Sydow

“Do you know what I hear? Nothing. No footsteps up the stairs, no hovercraft out the window, no clickety-click of little spiders. Do you know why I can’t hear any of those things, Danny? Because right now, the precogs can’t see a thing.”

While the effect is less pronounced in film than it is in literature, I often find myself dividing movies into three categories: those that are enjoyable but lack any artistic merit (The Count of Monte Cristo, The Mummy, or essentially any action movie), those that have artistic merit but aren’t very enjoyable (There Will Be Blood, The Godfather), and those that fit so beautifully into both of the first two categories: that thin sliver of the Venn diagram where Minority Report resides. It’s appropriate, then, that this film is also straddles various genres: science fiction, noir, detective story, thriller and action. With both Spielberg and Cruise operating at the very peak of their respective careers, Minority Report is a beautiful piece of craftsmanship.

Tom Cruise plays John Anderton, a police captain in charge of the “pre-cog” program, a police operation relying upon the psychic precognitive abilities of three humans to identify murders and apprehend the would-be killers before they take place. The pre-cogs float in tanks hooked up to a computer, the computer spits out images and names, and Anderton’s assault team rushes out in futuristic helicopters to… well, not to enforce the law, exactly, since no laws have been broken. So what are they doing? Is it legal? This is the question posed by Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell), an agent from the Justice Department who is assessing the program as part of a proposed national roll-out, and is highly critical of the system. Anderton, citing Washington’s murder rate of zero, is a staunch defender of the program – at least until the computer spits out the name JOHN ANDERTON, sending him on the run with only two days until he will murder, desperate to stay one step ahead of his own men and figure out some way to stop himself from killing.

There is much more to the story than that, too much to go into detail here. Suffice to say that it is a unique and brilliant film by one of history’s greatest directors. While Spielberg may utilise special effects and CGI as much as any other director, he uses them to service the film, not the other way around (as both James Cameron and Michael Bay have done in recent years). Spielberg makes films with all of his mind and heart, and it shows.

21. Ponyo (2009)
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Starring Noah Cyrus, Frankie Jonas, Tina Fey, Liam Neeson (English translation)

“Ponyo loves Sosuke!”

Miyazaki has spent the last two decades crafting animated films that weren’t just aimed at children, sometimes swinging away from that only a little bit (Porco Rosso) and at other times featuring graphic violence clearly not intended for youngsters (Princess Mononoke). Ponyo is his first film since 1988’s My Neighbour Totoro that firmly returns to the G-rated category, weaving a spellbinding tale of magic and delight.

Miyazaki is renowned for his integrity as an animator; while most people think of Japanese animation as a handful of different Pokemon frames rushing forward with a colourful blur in the background, Miyazaki makes movies even greater than the very best craftsmen at Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks. (And I am not being an elitist snob, because I genuinely do love and appreciate many films from Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks.) In an industry that often cuts corners, he is a man who creates as much detail as he can, often in throwaway events at the edge of the scene. Ponyo was painstakingly drawn in water-colours, resulting in a wonderfully atmospheric and magical film. Watch the first five minutes and tell me you disagree. “There are so few movies that can delight both a small child and the adult in the next seat,” Roger Ebert wrote. “Here is one of them.”

Also, PONYO PONYO PONYO

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