20. Lord of The Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
Directed by Peter Jackson
Starring Elijah Wood, Sam Astin, Ian McKellan, Viggo Mortensen
“Do they, Gandalf?”
I read the Lord of the Rings when I was eleven because my uncle lent it to me, saying I’d love it, and I didn’t want to let him down. Maybe I was too young for it, but I still think it’s a bad book. It’s incredibly tedious and awfully paced. The only volume that’s decent is the first one, which is just about a bunch of guys on a quest through a fantastic world. In the second two books Tolkien starts masturbating with all his elf languages and regal dynasties and topographical maps and my mind just switched off.
While the second and third movies are far more watchable than their corresponding books were readable, the first is by far the best. It’s surprisingly easy to separate them for a trilogy that’s so closely bound; Fellowship of the Ring has a group of nine people travelling across snowbound mountains and through orc-infested dungeons, and the other two have people running every which way and kings sticking their noses into shit and Frodo and Sam doing basically nothing for two movies except trudge through a wasteland. Yeah, Fellowship is definitely the best.
19. United 93 (2006)
Directed by Paul Greengrass
Starring Christian Clemenson, David Alan Basche, Cheyenne Jackson
“What the fuck good is it gonna do if we get up there and we can’t fly the plane?”
Forget the Iraq War, forget Bin Laden, forget George Bush, forget Dick Cheney, forget extraordinary renditions, forget the conveniently worded PATRIOT Act, forget weapons of mass destruction, forget Guantanamo Bay, forget the United States’ use of torture, forget the War on Terror. Forget the development of the phrase “nineleven” as a cheap political get-out-of-jail-free card. Forget the entire geopolitical clusterfuck that followed September 11, the invasions of two countries, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.
Take yourself back to the day when it happened. When innocent people on planes were suddenly swept up into shocking violence, into world-shattering events, into tests of courage. A sudden intrusion of animal instincts into the ordinary, civilised world. Push versus shove. Time to make a stand.
This is not a poltical movie. This is a painstakingly recreated version of what happened on United Airlines Flight 93, the plane with passengers who fought against their hijackers and in doing so probably saved hundreds of lives. It takes place in realtime, intercutting scenes on the plane with scenes in varous air traffic control and military centres. It is a fly-on-the-wall documentary; we know nothing about the characters, not even their names. This is why it is so powerfully effective – because it feels like we’re right there with them, sitting in the seat across the aisle. Their dialogue and mannerisms are so convincingly real that it feels like a documentary, something that I mistook for a low budget when I first saw this on TV.
I often watch television out the corner of my eye when I’m on the computer. The moment in United 93 when I swivelled my chair around was when the terrorists make their move, stabbing a passenger and a flight attendent, taking control of the plane. It is a chaotic and terrifying moment, disrupting the casual normalcy that has been built up in the way that a horror film would build suspense. As the film progressed I moved over to the couch, and as it concluded I was sweating and my heart was pounding. The scenes are filmed with shocking clarity and realism. We know how this turns out, and yet we scream inside our heads anyway for the passengers to prevail – because it feels as if we too are on that plane, our own lives dependent on their success. No other movie has ever wrenched my emotions as much as this one did.
This could have been a very different film. It could have been a typical Hollywood film, with chiselled-jaw heroes and speeches about the glory of America and personal romantic subplots. It is not, and for that I am eternally grateful. To watch this film is to be taken back to that shocking, gut-wrenching day in 2001, when thousands of people were murdered and the brave actions of a few ordinary men earned them a place in history. United 93 is a masterful piece of cinema, and a fitting tribute to their heroism.
18. Signs (2002)
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Starring Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin
“I can’t hear my children.”
Everybody knows this movie is about aliens, but when it first arrived on screens the trailers and advertising were ambiguous. There’s a good reason for that. Even without aliens, this is a suspenseful and disquieting film. Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) is a former priest living on a corn farm with his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix). His wife died in a recent car accident, causing him to lose his faith, and it is implied that Merrill moved in to help Graham take care of the children, Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin).
Graham is clearly discontent with his life, frightened and angry with the world in the absence of God. His inner torment is reflected in the outer world, which is full of disturbing portents. His daughter screams out in the cornfields. One of his dogs attacks his children, and Morgan kills it with a barbecue fork. Wind chimes tingle and Graham stands on the porch of his dilapidated farmhouse staring out over those vast fields. Something is wrong. We can feel it, even before the crop circles show up.
This is Shyamalan’s natural talent: not the plot twists for which he is renowned, but rather the ability to create eerie anxiety as powerful as that in any Hitchcock film. He went wrong in The Village by giving an explanation when none was needed; he went (appallingly) wrong in The Happening by amplifying this breathless fear to the point where it became laughable. Signs strikes the perfect balance. When the aliens do show up, it is gradually, and with a low-key dread. It’s often said, but rarely heeded, that what we can’t see is scarier than what we can. Obviously it doesn’t get said enough, since Shyamalan is one of few filmmakers who abides by this rule. We see a leg in a cornfield. A reflection in the blade of a knife. Grainy TV news footage, aided immensely in its impact by Phoenix’s acting and James Newton Howard’s brilliant score. He pushes the envelope a little too far in the climax, with CGI that became quickly dated, but the rest of the film is so perfect that I will easily forgive him that.
People who complain about the plot holes in this film miss the point entirely. Signs is not a science fiction movie, to be niggled and prodded and poked to see if it stands up under light. It is a horror, a suspense and a character drama. It creates an atmosphere humid with apprehension and delivers some of the best jump-out shock moments in cinema history, moments so well crafted they almost feel like a wholly original technique. This was the last good film Shyamalan made this decade, possibly the last one he’ll ever make, but it’s a greater film than many directors can ever dream of.
17. Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
Directed by Danny Boyle
Starring Dev Patel, Anil Kapoor, Freida Pinto, Madhur Mittal
“What can a slumdog possibly know?”
The word that comes to mind about Slumdog Millionaire is “colourful,” but that does not even begin to do it justice. My vocabulary is insufficient to describe this movie because my vocabulary is insufficient to describe India. That’s the word for it – “India,” a gigantic portrait of India in all her beauty and all her squalor, strengths and sores laid open for the world to see. I think I first described this movie as a biopic of India, which is obviously stretching the definition a bit, but you can see what I mean metaphorically.
Slumdog Millionaire is a rags-to-riches story about how Jamal Malik, an orphan from the slums of Mumbai, is close to winning twenty million rupees on the local version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. He is getting the crap kicked out of him by the police, who believe he has been cheating, because a slumdog could never know the answers to such difficult questions. Through a series of flashbacks, we see the story of Jamal’s life, and understand why he knows the answers – because he remembers everything he learns.
Boyle uses a rushing soundtrack, energetic cinematography and the momentum of Malik’s personal tale to make this movie erupt with dazzling colour on the screen. It’s a whirlwind story of all the kinds Bollywood loves to make: romance, crime, drama and mystery. A triumph of craft.
16. The Dark Knight (2008)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Heath Ledger, Gary Oldman
“The bandit. In Burma. Did you catch him?”
“We burned the forest down.”
IMDB’s user-generated ranking list currently rates The Dark Knight as the eighth-greatest film of all time, scoring higher than movies like Star Wars, Casablanca, Goodfellas and Fight Club. This is clearly wrong, but it does serve as an example of the wide appeal this film has. This superhero comic book film.
I never got into the superhero mythos, not even as a kid, because I found it to be fundamentally silly. There’s no other word for it, except perhaps “cheesy.” The idea of people dressing up in tights and capes to “fight crime” never struck me as particularly cool, and as I grew older the ideas of “vigilantism” and “accountability” became relevant. BADGES NOT MASKS, as the protestors in Alan Moore’s Watchmen put it.
So the brilliant thing about Christopher Nolan’s Batman films is how mature they are, how they do away with the campiness and replace it with a view into the dark abyss of evil. “The Dark Knight plays more along the lines of a psychological horror film like Seven or a fast-paced action thriller like Heat,” I wrote last year.”This is a movie for adults, not children, leaving behind the familiar world inspired by childhood fantasies and venturing into the rugged territory of artistic merit.”
While the thing people will remember most about The Dark Knight is Heath Ledger’s swansong perfomance as the Joker, a twisted and haunted soul wreaking havoc across Gotham City in his disgusting fungal makeup, the rest of the film should not be forgotten. It’s a superbly cast and acted movie with an excellent script and a gifted director, and easily the greatest superhero movie ever made.
15. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Starring Ivana Baquero, Sergi Lopez i Ayats, Doug Jones
“Please, Ofelia, call him father. It’s just a word.”
One of my favourite books is Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which tells of two magicians living in England at a time when a fairy realm exists alongside it – not fairies with pink wings who twinkle in buttercups, but traditional fairies, fairies who live in hill-forts and castles in gloomy forests at the edge of stormy seas, who kidnap human children and use them as slaves, fairies of immense beauty but capable of horrific cruelty. “If cats looked like toads,” Terry Pratchett wrote in a similar book, Lords and Ladies, “we’d see them for the cruel bastards they are.”
Pan’s Labyrinth is a fantasy story in the same vein, relating the tale of Ofelia, a girl living in 1940’s Spain with her mother and horrible military stepfather. She escapes from a world of partisan battles and facsism by exploring the ancient fantasy world within the crumbling stone labyrinth near their mansion. The world she discovers may be fantastic, but it is no less frightening and dangerous than the real one.
del Toro has made a beautiful film, where special effects and costumes meld seamlessly with brilliant cinematography to create a fantasy world of spellbinding horrors and delights. It’s also a powerfully thematic work of art, dealing with issues such as freedom and choice in the face of fascism. But I am a fantasy/sci-fi geek at heart, and I would be lying if I didn’t say that what I dig most about this movie is the Pale Man: one of the greatest monsters ever created in cinema, a disgusting creature with detached eyes, hanging folds of skin and disturbingly bent legs, sitting at his banquet table and waiting, waiting, waiting for a child to break the rules.
14. Moon (2009)
Directed by Duncan Jones
Starring Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey
“Gerty… is there someone else in the room?”
Moon is a very sparse film. There is, strictly speaking, a single character. It takes place in a single location (spoiler: on the moon) and features a minimum of special effects. Yet it is not sparse in the way “2001: A Space Odyssey” is, marvelling the audience with the incomprehensible grandeur of space. It is a human story, intensely personal and moving.
Sam Rockwell plays Sam Bell, an American astronaut and sole crew member of a lunar mining station owned by a Korean corporation. He’s approaching the end of a three-year contract, and with only pre-recorded videos from Earth (with a hint of something not quite right with his wife) and his robotic companion Gerty (Kevin Spacey) for company, he’s starting to go a little stir-crazy. Having also worked an unreasonably long contract for a heartless Korean corporation, I can sympathise. Sam’s cabin fever is starting to have serious effects: he sees someone sitting in his chair while pouring coffee and badly burns himself, and while driving a rover out to inspect some mining machinery, he has another ghostly hallucination and crashes. Waking up safe and sound with Gerty tending to him in the medical bay, he finds one spacesuit and one rover missing. Taking the spares out, he drives back to the crash site and finds… himself, comatose inside a wrecked rover.
I’m going to stop there, because Jones intends the viewer to be as confused as Sam is. It works quite well, and the movie shifts gears from a psychological suspense film into a profound experience. It’s very lonely and very sad, brimming with sterile environments and existential misery. It contains one of the most human moments in cinema – coming from a robot. By the end of the film you’re pouring sympathy out onto the screen for this poor, wretched, miserable man who just wants to go home. It’s a triumph of science fiction.
You’ll also notice that unlike every film critic on the planet, I got through this without mentioning that the director is David Bowie’s son, because it is fucking irrelevant.
13. Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
Directed by Gore Verbinski
Starring Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Geoffrey Rush
“Now… bring me that horizon.”
WHAT THE FLYING FUCK HAPPENED TO MY PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN IMAGE?
I’m in two minds about the Pirates films, with this one having spawned two corpulent sequels universally condemnded for their needlessly complex double-crossing plots, and with a fourth in the works. Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End are huge, loud, messy films that take everything about the original and crank it up to full volume, blowing the speakers out and ruining what we loved in the first place. But they also contain some of the most fantastic (in the classical sense) elements of the world: Davy Jones the squid-mouthed captain, the dry salt plains of the Locker, the deadly Kraken, a Caribbean calypso goddess and the barnacle-encrusted sea monsters of the Flying Dutchman. Compared to these colourful outings, the first film almost seems pedestrian, merely boasting undead skeletal pirates.
But it also has a logical plot, which I think we can agree is vital to a good film. Popcorn movies are funny things. All the special effects and big set pieces won’t save you if you don’t have loveable characters and a script that is, at the very least, tolerable. (This is why The Mummy is an objectively great film and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is not). In any case, I’m now on two paragraphs and all I’ve done is talk about the sequels to this movie. I guess they grind my gears.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl is an awesome movie. It’s swashbuckling in the extreme. It has Johnny Depp being a hilarious semi-drunken pirate, Geoffrey Rush being typically brilliant, and lots of awesome battles and fights and adventures. You don’t need me to tell you any of this. We’ve all seen it. Good old Pirates of the Caribbean. You warm my heart, you do.
12. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Starring Jean Simmons, Christian Bale, Billy Crystal (English translation)
“The best part of that spell is that you can’t tell anyone about it. My regards to Howl.”
This is not the greatest of Miyazaki’s films by objective standards, but it is far and away my personal favourite. It reaches deep inside me and tugs at my childhood spirit of adventure. Based on a book by Diana Wynne Jones, the sequel of which I greatly enjoyed as a youngster, Howl’s Moving Castle tells the tale of Sophie, a young woman who works in a hat shop in a fantasy world reminiscent of 19th century Europe. A chance encounter with the flirtatious Wizard Howl leads to another encounter with one of Howl’s jealous, unrequited loves – a witch, who transforms Sophie into a rickety old woman. Fleeing her hometown, Sophie finds Howl’s Moving Castle in the wilderness, and is taken onboard as a cleaning lady, becoming part of Howl’s close circle of friends and associates.
It doesn’t have the tight narrative of Spirited Away, or the classic timelessness of My Neighbour Totoro, or even the wonderful visuals of Ponyo, but Howl’s Moving Castle provides me with a Ghibli film that slots neatly into the category of “assembling an oddball crew on a strange vehicle” (see also: Cowboy Beboy, Firefly, #2 on this list). And for that I cherish it. It’s a movie about a gigantic, wheezing, creaking steampunk castle that roams the countryside on its claw-like legs, powered by a magical fire voiced by Billy Crystal and ruled by a charismatic and dashing young wizard voiced by Christian Bale. How can you not love it?
11. Atonement (2007)
Directed by Joe Wright
Starring James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, Saoirse Ronan
“Atonement begins on joyous gossamer wings,” Roger Ebert writes, “and descends into an abyss of tragedy and loss.” There is certainly something enchanting about the film’s first act, set on a hot summer day in an English country manor. Something palpable about the heat, the refreshing coolness of the fountain, the verdant shadows by the forested brook. By the day’s end, something horrific has happened and an innocent man (Robbie, played by James McAvoy) is on his way to prison based on the testimony of a child – a girl named Briony (Saoirse Ronan) who is wrong, clearly wrong, but who knows she is right with the absolute surety only a child can command.
The film is no less powerful as it goes on, following Robbie as he drifts through the wreckage of World War II, British forces in rout after their defeat on the French border. There is one absolutely stunning shot, a single take of nearly five minutes length, that details the messy chaos at Dunkirk as troops await evacuation – the shooting of horses, the burning of documents, the sabotage of equipment, half the soldiers doing their jobs and the other half singing and brawling and drinking. The cinematography throughout this movie is unparalleled: every shot is perfectly composed, every character in the right place and every scene beautifully or originally filmed.
It also has a shocking plot twist at the end, one that forces us to question everything that went before and leaves us with a deep question on the nature of atonement. At first I thought the ending was supposed to reveal the atonement that Briony has finally achieved. The more I consider it the less I’m sure. It may be that, even in the final scenes as she makes her confession to an interviewer, she is still digging herself deeper into that pit of betrayal and selfishness.