10. Waltz With Bashir (2008)
Directed by Ari Folman
Starring Ari Folman, Ron Ben-Yishai
“Thank you for bringing it to my attention. Happy New Year.”
When Ari Folman set out to make a documentary about his experiences in Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and the massacre of civilians that haunted his memory, he used animation simply as a matter of convenience. He didn’t have the budget to recreate large-scale battle scenes. In making this decision, he has created one of the most beautifully animated films of all time – the wash of streetlights over his avatar’s speeding car, the light of signal flares slowly descending over Beirut, the slavering of vicious dogs running through a cafe – and fully enhanced the possibilities of his film. Only through animation can he explore the dreams, the nightmares, the memories, the fantasies, the possibilities.
This film is not just a reconstruction of Folman’s experiences, but an exploration of the insufferable guilt he felt over his part in the Sabra and Shatila massacre. Hundreds or even thousands of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians were slaughtered by a Lebanese Christian militia, which was under the command of the IDF. Israeli commanders were indirectly complicit in genocide. I won’t detail Folman’s personal role in the massacre; suffice to say that some might think his feelings of personal guilt to be strange, given how far removed he was from the actual killings. That would be to miss the point entirely. Waltz With Bashir focuses on the massacre only in the final twenty-five minutes, yet the theme of the film is clear: knowledge of wrongdoing grants an obligation to stop it. Failure to act equals consent. Or, as Roger Ebert put it, “Truman was dreaming. The buck never stops.”
9. Oldboy (2003)
Directed by Park Chan-wook
Starring Choi Min-sik, Yu Ji-tae, Kang Hye-jeong
“You stayed in this place for fifteen years?”
“Yeah, but after eleven it felt like home.”
This film is beloved by my 18-25 year old demographic mostly for its admittedly awesome single-take corridor fight scene, in which the protagonist faces off against a horde of thugs with nothing more than a claw hammer. But Oldboy is far more than that. Beautifully shot, acted and directed, it is a powerful story about a Korean man named Oh Dae-su who is imprisoned, for reasons unknown to him, for fifteen years. Following his release, he sets out to track down his jailor and exact revenge.
But this is not some Asian action flick, some blood-drenched B-movie with only the flimsiest of plots to support it. It is a fascinating, almost Tarantino-esque world of quirky dialogue and stylised violence, yet with great thematic weight behind those appealing aesthetics. Dae-su’s tormentor had very precise reasons for his imprisonment, as part of his own scheme for revenge, which culminates in one of the most shocking and gut-wrenching plot twists I’ve ever seen. Oldboy is a brilliant film – perhaps not brilliant enough for me to remove South Korea from my Enemy List, but brilliant nonetheless.
8. Donnie Darko (2001)
Directed by Richard Kelly
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Patrick Swayze
“Every creature on this Earth dies alone.”
As with Pan’s Labyrinth, so with Donnie Darko: the thing that attracts me to this film is Frank. Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a teenager who has recently gone off his meds, and begins to have visions of a demonic rabbit named Frank warning him that the world is going to end within the month. Mixed with a disturbing soundtrack, Frank is (like the Pale Man) one of cinema’s greatest monsters: a nondescript rabbit suit, with a mask that is freakishly twisted, with sharp jutting teeth and cold empty eyes.
The movie has merit beyond that, of course, or it wouldn’t have earned such a high place on the list. It’s a protrait of the loneliness, awkward love and blossoms of rebellion that mark everyone’s teenage years, and yet it achieves this without ever once feeling angsty or self-obssessed. Maybe it’s because Donnie isn’t really angsty or self-obssessed; he has more important things to worry about. Kelly achieves an apprehensive tone similar to Shyamalan’s better films, as Donnie is confronted by his inner demons and deals with them as best he can.
Without Frank, of course, this film would drop several slots down the list.
7. Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring Brad Pitt, Cristoph Waltz, Melanie Laurent
“You see, we’re in the business of killin’ Nazis, and boy, business is boomin’.”
Watching a director renowned for his quirky pop culture references, stylised violence and odd sense of humour direct a film set in World War II was quite weird. Try comparing something like Reservoir Dogs or Kill Bill to Inglourious Basterds, a film where the dialogue is in equal parts English, French and German. You can’t do it. The mind rejects it.
I’m really torn over whether Pulp Fiction or Inglorious Basterds is better. I give Pulp Fiction the benefit of the doubt, because it’s enshrined in retrospective nostalgia whereas I saw Basterds a couple of months ago. But something about this movie just feels so right. It’s a perfect Tarantino film, which makes it a perfect film. You simply don’t get characters like Colonel Landa (Christoph Waltz) in any other film. You don’t get such memorable, heart-grindingly tense scenes as the cellar tavern sequence in other films. And you most certianly don’t get those moments where characters gleefully lean all the way over the boundary into parody before drawing back at the last second, as exemplified in Basterds by the scene where Winston Churchill and a general played by Mike Myers brief a British spy on his mission, with delightful English stereotypes up the wazoo to the point where you’re grinning as broadly as you can, but not actually laughing.
Tarantino crafts larger than life characters and sets them loose on the world with a relish. You don’t watch a film like Inglourious Basterds so much as you let it take hold of you by the throat and shove itself in your face, and I love the goddamn thing.
6. There Will Be Blood (2007)
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Kevin J. O’Connor
“I told you I’d finish you! I told you I’d eat you up!”
This is a movie that is quite easily called a classic, but it’s a classic in a grand and impersonal sense, like Citizen Kane. Vast and cold and dark – oh yes, very dark. It’s also a tedious film, yet a fascinating one, something you cannot turn away from.
Daniel Day-Lewis gives us one of the greatest performances of the decade as money-hungry oil baron Daniel Plainview, a man who is obsessed with making himself a fortune for no reason other than the money itself. Along the way he accumulates power and influence, sitting on the porch of his house and drinking whiskey. He is a strong-willed man, a dangerous man, and an utterly joyless man. He has no friends or family, save for an adopted son that he uses as a prop to secure contracts. When a charlatan claiming to be his half-brother comes into his life, Plainview confides in him: “I have a competition in me. I want no-one else to succeed. I hate most people… there are times when I look at people and see nothing worth liking.” This, Anderson argues, is what truly lies at the heart of capitalism: not money, not even greed, but dominion.
There are many films that, while already great, are propelled into magnificence by the strength of their fascinating protagonist. Taxi Driver was such a film; so is There Will Be Blood. This is a brilliant film, and it rests upon the shoulders of a titan.
5. The Proposition (2005)
Directed by John Hillcoat
Starring Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, Danny Huston, John Hurt
“I will civilise this land.”
Australian cinema tends to struggle a lot, so if this film is perhaps a few rungs higher than it should be, I hope you’ll forgive me. It’s a matter of pride. This is, in my opinion, the greatest Australian film ever made. It is a film of horrific violence, of terrible places, of atrocious people. It is a film that feels real.
The Proposition is set in the 1880s of Outback Australia. The environment is captured perfectly, the cinematography and the set design thrusting into the viewer’s face a sense of the blinding sun, the burning air, the oppressive heat and dirt and sweat that any Australian who has ventured outside our air-conditioned cities can attest to. It is a bushranger story, in a sense, focusing on the Burns gang, a group of Irish criminals who have recently raped and massacred a family of innocent settlers. The film opens with the capture of two gang members, Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) and Mikey Burns, by the local British garrison officer Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone). Both are destined for the gallows, but Stanley offers Charlie a proposition: if he can find and kill his brother Arthur (Danny Huston), the gang leader, by Christmas Day, then Mikey shall be spared.
Thus begins an odyssey of violence, of poetry, of the depth of the human soul laid bare. Several critics have said that it is a cinematic counterpart to Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian, an epic of unrelenting brutality, of harsh landscapes, of deeper ruminations on the nature of man. Winstone, Huston and John Hurt (playing a gnarled and ancient bounty hunter) all turn in excellent performances. The cinematography, as mentioned before, is simultaneously beautiful and bleak. The soundtrack and screenplay were both written by Nick Cave, one of Australia’s premier poets and songwriters, and – as a man whom, I have commented several times, looks as I imagine the Devil to look when he goes to Georgia to harvest souls in fiddle competitions – is uniquely qualified to craft a film like this.
Gallipoli is most often cited as Australia’s greatest film, but although it is well-crafted it is hypocritical; despite portraying young lives tragically cut short for stupid and wasteful reasons, it still radiates a vibe of noble sacrifice, of nationalism and baptism by fire, and was instrumental in creating the blood cult that surrounds the event in modern Australia. The Proposition, on the other hand, is well aware of the brutality and injustice of violence. It is deeper, more meaningful, and infinitely more deserving of a place as Australia’s greatest film.
4. Spirited Away (2001)
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Starring Daveigh Chase, Jason Marsden, Suzanne Pleshette (English)
“Once you meet someone, you never really forget them.”
When discussing Howl’s Moving Castle further up, I said that it was my favourite Miyazaki film but not his objective best. This movie is his objective best.
It’s a difficult film to describe. A fairytale, I suppose, in a Japanese animation kind of way. A young girl named Chihiro is travelling to a new town with her parents when they come across an abandoned amusement park. Amongst the deserted stalls they find one brimming with food, which her parents tuck into greedily. Chihiro explores further, and as spirits emerge at nightfall she returns in fright to find her parents transformed into pigs. And then, you know how it is, these things escalate and before you know it you’re in servitude to an evil old crone working in a bathhouse surrounded by frogs and radish spirits.
I’ve already talked about Miyazaki’s beautiful animation, his attention to detail in a traditionally detail-free medium, but there are so many beautiful little things that make Spirited Away such a cogent whole. The quiet spirits on a 19th-century railcar; the happy mouth of No-Face as he shoves pie into it as the edge of a scene; the way heavy rain floods the entire world, as it would in a dream. “Apart from the stories and dialogue,” Roger Ebert writes, “Spirited Away is a pleasure to regard just for itself.” I can think of no better way of putting it.
3. No Country For Old Men (2007)
Directed by the Coen Brothers
Starring Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones
“It’s your lucky quarter. Don’t put it in your pocket. It’ll get mixed with the others and become… just a coin. Which it is.”
This film is in many ways a brother to There Will Be Blood. Both were filmed in the same area of Texas, both were released on Boxing Day 2007, and both are extremely dark Western masterpieces. But while I often describe There Will Be Blood as “fascinating, but tedious,” No Country For Old Men is an edge-of-your-seat suspense thriller.
Llewellyn Moss, a stonefaced Texan hunter played by Josh Brolin, stumbles across a failed drug deal in the middle of the desert. Like an Old West caravan, the trucks are drawn up in a circle and corpses are strewn all about. Moss silently examines the carnage and tracks the only survivor to the shade of a lone tree on a hill, where he has died after trying to escape with a briefcase containing two million dollars.
Moss takes the money and runs, and finds himself pursued by a monster named Anton Chigurh, a killing machine dispatched by the drug lords to retrieve the money. Chigurh is one of the greatest characters film has ever seen: an utterly remorseless killing machine. His motives are unclear; he is certainly not in it for the money, and he seems completely indifferent to killing. He is not a sociopath, but instead is more akin to a natural disaster, completely detached, a personification of the universe’s indifference towards us. He displays no emotion, other than slight annoyance when his victims inevitably say “You don’t have to do this.”
What this story is ultimately about, however, is Sheriff Bell, played perfectly by Tommy Lee Jones. Bell is an old man, perplexed and astonished that such a creature as Chigurh can even exist, acutely aware by the movie’s end that he no longer has a place in this land.
2. The Life Aquatic (2004)
Directed by Wes Anderson
Starring Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jeff Goldblum, Cate Blanchett
“Klaus? You’re A-Squad.”
I thought long and hard about giving this – a movie that can be accurately described as both “quirky” and “zany” – the second place on the list, before deciding that yes, fuck it, The Life Aquatic really is that good. Wes Anderson has never been a director to truly fill me with delight. He crafted good films, perhaps even great films, but nothing I ever enjoyed so greatly as this. I suspect that it is more Bill Murray than Wes Anderson that makes this film so resoundingly fantastic.
Mirroring himself, Bill Murray plays Steve Zissou, an oceanographer/documentarian/adventurer who has lived a long and illustrious career, but feels struck down with a considerable sadness and ennui. This is partly due to the death of his longtime partner Esteban, who was eaten by a previously undiscovered “jaguar shark” right in front of his eyes. Zissou takes his boat and his crew and sets out on one final expedition, to track and kill the shark, purely for revenge.
Anderson has crafted a beautiful world, an eccentric world, a world of whimsy and wonder. Zissou’s ship sails from Mediterranean film festivals to tropical pirate hideouts, crewed by an odball collection of unlikely heroes. One of the sailors plays David Bowie songs in Portuguese, Jeff Goldblum captains a spartan rival vessel crewed by vaguely Aryan sailors, and Zissou leads his crew, armed with Glocks and dynamite, in a “lightning strike rescue op” where they attempt to rescue their bond company stooge from his Filipino abductors. And yet it never seems quite zany; against all the odds, it maintains its knife-blade balance between comedy and sincerity. Towards the end of the film, tragedy enters, and it feels entirely appropriate.
Murray plays a weary, flippant man in only the way that Bill Murray can. The movie is intricately detailed, with new pieces of dialogue or costume or plot quirks noticed upon every subsequent viewing. The set design is meticulous down to the last pot plant and paperweight. The soundtrack is fantastic. The characters, even minor ones, are all unique and loveable in their own odd ways. Every piece of this film unites into a greater whole.
This is, perhaps, not the movie for you. I understand that it’s a niche film, that people will either love it or hate it. But if you die without ever finding time to watch it at least once, do not expect me to buy you a beer in heaven. Because you will be in hell. Hell, sir.
1. Children of Men (2006)
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron
Starring Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Caine
“It’s a miracle, innit?”
The reason I love this film above any other of the decade is that it is the most atmospheric movie I have ever seen.
Children of Men delivers us into the grimy, bleak and oppressive world of 2027, where no human beings have been born for 18 years. Clive Owen is everyman Theo Faron, who trudges through a life devoid of hope with millions of other Britons, wondering what the point of living is in a world that has no future, until he is approached by his ex-wife to help transport something precious (guess what) across the country.
Cuaron’s dystopian United Kingdom is reminiscent of the early scenes of Half-Life 2 (one of the greatest video games of this decade) in which Valve painstakingly created a grimy, dystopian police state that exudes an air of depression and misery. It is the tiny details in this film that work so well: the graffiti slogans, the advertisements for government euthenasia, the throwaway lines and the background objects. William Gibson once said that the most important element of science fiction is the minute details, which he used to great effect in Neuromancer, and which has been used perfectly in Children of Men.
The moment I realised I was watching a masterpiece was in a scene that takes place as five characters are driving down a rural road and are suddenly attacked by bandits. In a single-take action scene, they reverse back down the road, sustain a casualty, manage to kill two pursuers on a motorcycle and then escape onto a main road. It’s not fast-paced, there’s no music and it’s shot in a single take. It is, as Roger Ebert said, superior to any whirlybird shaky camera action in the Bourne series, and one of the most intense moments I have ever seen in a film.
A lot of people are put off by this movie because it is “bleak” or “depressing.” This is an odd argument, which essentially translates into saying that real life is bleak and depressing, but it’s also a false argument. Children of Men depicts a world where the sound of a baby crying brings an entire battlefield to a sudden, grinding halt. That’s anything but bleak.