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Alva City (Cowboy Bebop)
Bolt City (Copper)
City 17 (Half-life 2)
Dark City (Dark City)
Emerald City (The Wizard of Oz)
Fisherman’s Horizon (Final Fantasy VIII)
Gotham City (Batman)
Hortown (Tales from Earthsea)
Imperial City (The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion)
Junon (Final Fantasy VII)
Koriko (Kiki’s Delivery Service)
Lindblum (Final Fantasy IX)
Mos Eisley (Star Wars)
New Crobuzon (Perdido Street Station)
Osgiliath (The Lord of the Rings)
Port Blacksand (Fighting Fantasy)
Qo’nos (Star Trek)
The Sprawl (Neuromancer)
Tar Valon (The Wheel of Time)
Undertown (The Edge Chronicles)
Vivec (The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind)
Waterfall City (Dinotopia)
Xanadu (Kubla Khan)
Yarimura (Fabled Lands)
Zanarkand (Final Fantasy X)
10. In The Flowers by Animal Collective
9. Sleepyhead by Passion Pit
8. Surf Solar by Fuck Buttons
7. Blood by the Middle East
6. With This Ship by the Basics
5. Carol Brown by Flight of the Conchords
4. Love Like A Sunset by Phoenix
3. Counterpoint by Delphic
2. Summertime Clothes by Animal Collective
1. Hearing Damage by Thom Yorke
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.
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.
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
40. Casino Royale (2006)
Directed by Martin Campbell
Starring Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Judi Dench
“I give him 00 status and he celebrates by shooting up an embassy. Is he deranged? And where the hell is he? In the old days if an agent did something that embarrassing he’d have the good sense to defect. Christ, I miss the Cold War.”
Daniel Craig is a fantastic Bond, the best since Connery. The franchise had been flagging for a very long time under the stewardship of Wrinkleface Brosnan, the point of no return being the awful CGI sequence in which Bond outsurfs an ice cliff being melted by a laser satellite and parachutes to safety with the drag chute of his car. Or something. God damn it, I got angry just trying to remember that.
Casino Royale hauled the series to safety out of this era of gadget-driven camp with an audacious reboot and a rugged, blue-eyed new Bond. I’m straight – I’ve slept with women and everything! – but, damn. Daniel Craig. Daniel Craig.
Casino Royale has a lot of spectacular action sequences (including that memorable parkour chase in Madagascar), some classic Bond tuxedo card games, and the most absolutely gorgeous Bond girl in the form of Eva Green. (Ha! See, I’m not gay). It’s a shame it was followed up by the atrociously named, written and directed Quantum of Solace, but hopefully the third installment will see this promising reboot back in shape.
39. Cloverfield (2008)
Directed by Matt Reeves
Starring Michael Stahl-David, T.J. Miller, Lizzy Caplan
“Maybe you should have left town a bit earlier, man.”
Cloverfield is (like Avatar) one of those movies you simply have to see in the cinema to enjoy. It is not a film you watch but a film you experience, a film that loses most of its grandeur and majesty when it loses the big screen and surround sound.
An unconvential monster movie, Cloverfield relates the tale of a monster attack on Manhattan through the eyes of a group of twenty-somethings who begin the night at a going-away party and end it, bleeding and decimated, in Central Park shortly before a nuclear strike. A mockumentary in Blair Witch style, shown entirely through a camcorder, the film follows this group of friends and absolutely nobody and nothing else. We see no military leaders, no tense scenes in the White House, no scientists explaining the monster and no vignettes featuring ancillary characters. We never learn about the origins of the monster at all. We know as much as we would if we were right there alongside the characters. I like movies that tell stories in this way, encouraging the viewer to use their imagination and intelligence rather than spoonfeeding them exposition, and would respect Cloverfield for breaking formula even if it were not a good movie.
But it is, fortunately, a fantastic movie, boasting some of the most tense and stunning scenes in the history of the genre. If I owned an indie cinema that played old movies all the time, Cloverfield would be showing at least once a month.
38. Avatar (2009)
Directed by James Cameron
Starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver
“You are not in Kansas anymore!”
The story of Avatar is a maddeningly frustrating political allegory of the lowest common denominator, a one-size-fits-all anti-war, anti-coporate piece of environmental propaganda. The basic gist is that a human mining corporation backed by U.S. Marines has landed on an alien planet and is raping and pillaging to its heart’s content with not a thought for the indigenous inhabitants. I’m anti-war, anti-coporation, anti-genocide and pro-environment, but this movie pissed me off the same way Michael Moore does. If you want to attack ideological positions in an allegorical film, you represent them (and your own) fairly. You don’t create a legion of fucking straw men, the worst offenders being the sneering, arrogant corporate suit played by Giovanni Ribisi, the HOO-RAH FUCK ‘EM UP Marine colonel played by Stephen Lang, or the noble savages who live ~Perfectly In Balance With Nature~ played by the CGI division of Lightstorm Entertainment.
So I would have been rolling my eyes the entire movie if they weren’t too busy GETTING THEIR SOCKS ROCKED BY THE MOST MIND-BLOWING CINEMATIC EXPERIENCE CURRENTLY AVAILABLE TO MAN. This was the first movie that existed outside a previously established franchise that actually got me excited, because there were strong (and correct) implications it would be an unforgettable film purely on a visual level. It’s the first movie I ever saw in 3D, and I’m glad. The screenshot above makes it look like concept art for Halo, but when you’re actually in the cinema watching it in 3D, it looks real. Avatar is an exhilarating dragon-ride across an alien planet brimming with beautiful, bizarre plants and animals, with stunning action sequences and near-perfect computer imagery. It is the biggest technological step forward in cinema in my lifetime. It’s because of this unbelievably gorgeous visual feast that I was able to overlook the one-dimensional characters, the ham-fisted moralising and the crummy screenplay. Avatar’s staggeringly colourful visual world allows us to overlook its black and white ideological world, and for that it earns a place on the list.
37. The Bourne Identity (2002)
Directed by Doug Liman
Starring Matt Damon, Franka Potente
“I can tell you the license plate numbers of all six cars outside. I can tell you that our waitress is left-handed and the guy sitting up at the counter weighs two hundred and fifteen pounds and knows how to handle himself. I know the best place to look for a gun is the cab of the grey truck outside, and, at this altitude, I can run flat out for half a mile before my hands start shaking. Now why would I know that? How can I know that and not know who I am?”
Before he was turned into a cash cow franchise and an example of the worst possible cinematography known to man, Jason Bourne was the star of a very tight, very cool story. I am a male aged between 13 and 25 years. It is impossible for me not to love a well-crafted film featuring a man waking up in the Mediterranean with no memory, but the keys to a safety deposit box in Switzerland containing fake passports, thousands of dollars in various currencies and a gun. I don’t give a flying fuck about Jason Bourne himself or his German lover, but I am quite happy to watch him chase and kill people all over frosty Europe to uncover a CIA plot. The Bourne Identity is a spy thriller of the highest quality. Just ignore the subsequent sequels in which Paul Greengrass buries every camera lens in somebody’s shoulderblade and ensures that no shot lasts longer than 1.5 seconds.
36. Serenity (2005)
Directed by Joss Whedon
Starring Nathan Fillion, Summer Glau, Chiwetel Ejiofor
“This is the captain. We have a little problem with our entry sequence, so we may experience some slight turbulence and then explode.”
Firefly was a science fiction TV series in 2003 that was cancelled by FOX after only 13 episodes and later achieved cult status on DVD. I heard about it and bought the one and only season based on its good press, and was disappointed by the first few episodes. I hated it. Low budget and stupid concept. An unsuccessful Western version of Cowboy Bebop.
I watched the rest of the series anyway, because I’d already bought it, and by the final episode I fucking loved it. I don’t think I’ve ever had a more rapid change of opinion. Once you accept that Firefly is a low-budget show with an incongruous Western theme, you realise that the characters are hilarious and charming, and you love it. Joss Whedon may be subpar at things like pacing and plotting, but he’s absolutely brilliant at dialogue and characterisation, and it was the strength of the ensemble cast that made Firefly a success.
Serenity is essentially everything fans wanted in a movie: it follows the further adventures of the ship’s crew in a feature-length film, while also advancing (and somewhat resolving) the nature of Simon and River, two of the most intriguing characters upon whom much of the series’ story arc was built. Nathan Fillion is at his wisecracking best and Chiwetel Ejiofor provides a satisfyingly cultured villain – although what is it with Americans always casting British antagonists in films? They’re not still sore about the Revolutionary War, are they? You won, guys.
35. Monsters Inc (2001)
Directed by Peter Docter
Starring Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi
“Pssst, Fungus, you like cars? Because I got a really nice car. You let me go, I’ll give you… a ride… in the car.”
When it comes to popular comedy franchises, I always have a different favourite to prevailing popular opinion (for example, the best Judd Apatow flick is by far Forgetting Sarah Marshall). Monsters Inc stands out as my preferred Pixar films for reasons not entirely clear to me. I think it’s because it’s the only one that’s not overly sentimental, it’s the only one that’s a buddy movie, and its characters are just plain charming. I wish Billy Crystal was my uncle.
34. Gladiator (2000)
Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Djimon Hounsou, Oliver Reed
“Are you not entertained?”
In the pre-Lord of the Rings world, Gladiator was quite an ambitious task: a sprawling epic of a film in the classic swords-and-sandals subgenre. Now we have a whole slew of rubbishy big-budget clones like Alexander and Troy and Kingdom of Heaven and Clash of the Titans and, oh God, the sweaty homoerotic high-five-fest that was 300.
But Gladiator was that rare breed, that mix of big-budget battles and huge set pieces with, good God, complex characters and an actual storyline! It’s no Citizen Kane, but for a blockbuster movie whose highest priority is to give us awesome sword fights and chariot battles, it’s head and shoulders above the rest. Yes, Maximus, we are entertained.
33. The Mist (2007)
Directed by Frank Darabont
Starring Thomas Jane, Marcia Gay Hayden, Toby Jones
“People are basically good, decent. My God, David, we’re a civilised society!”
“Sure, as long as the machines are working and you can dial 911. But you take those things away, you throw people in the dark, you scare the shit out of them, no more rules. You’ll see how primitive they can get.”
The Mist is the best thing Stephen King has ever written – better than the Stand and better than any book in the Dark Tower series (well, so far, I’m halfway through it). Stephen King also has a track record of having his decent books turned into terrible movies. So it didn’t look promising. Fortunately, it was filmed by the same director who made the Shawshank Redemption – not only the best King film ever, but widely regarded as one of the best films ever made.
The Mist is a standard horror film, in which a group of small towners are stranded in a supermarket when a huge storm sends the bizarre Mist their way, cutting out electricity, dampening sound, and forcing them into a state of siege as horrific creatures prowl outside. There’s little original about that, but the way King wrote the story was perfect, creating a palpable boiler-room atmosphere as the survivors gradually lose their shit and turn on each other.
Darabont does a good job of translating these elements into the film, assisted by an able cast. But what really makes this film one of the best of the decade is the ending. Darabont has taken King’s typically weak cop-out ending and transformed it into the most shocking and horrifying moment not just in this film, but in any film – in a way that, ironically, has nothing to do with either the monsters or the hostile survivors in the supermarket.
32. Michael Clayton (2007)
Directed by Tony Gilroy
Starring George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton
“I’m not the guy you kill! I’m the guy you buy! Are you so fucking blind that you don’t see what I am? I sold out Arthur for eighty grand. I’m your easiest problem and you’re gonna kill me!?”
This is a brilliantly written and acted film about a powerful law firm’s fixer, the titular Michael Clayton, a man in a suit who makes problems go away. He cleans up messes; he’s a “janitor”; he’s somebody that the firm needs but prefers not to think about. Clayton realises this, and hates it. When the firm comes close to a merger, he confesses his fear of “standing in a room full of people trying to explain what it is I do around here.”
Michael Clayton is a perfectly cast thriller in the legal/business subgenre. I don’t think it has much of a legacy – it does nothing new, but is rather the culmination of a genre – but it is, quite simply, an excellent film. And I will always love it for the epic burn delivered to Tilda Swinton in the final scenes, the aftermath of which is pictured above.
31. The Departed (2006)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson
“Two pills? Great. Why don’t you just give me a bottle of scotch and a handgun to blow my fucking head off?”
The Departed is a typical Scorsese crime film, and one of the prerequisites for a typical Scorsese crime film is excellence. (I think I’m using the words “brilliant” and “excellent” way too much in this post, but I’m tired and behind schedule.) A remake of the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs, The Departed is about a cop going undercover in the mafia, and a mafioso going undercover in the police force, and the tangled web this weaves. It’s a fascinating idea, but honestly, the most memorable thing about this film is simply that it’s excellent. (Arrrgh!) Read Roger Ebert’s full review if you want to see him explore it more deeply (drawing fascinating allusions to Catholicism) and namedrop about how long he’s personally known Scorsese.
Anybody who reads this blog will be aware of my propensity for compiling lists during the final week of December, lists that identify the best movies, music and books of the year. These lists are entirely objective, widely read and will serve as reference material for cultural critics for many centuries to come, quite possibly outliving Western civilisation itself.
Since we are now living in the final week of the decade, however, not just the final week of a mere year, I thought something grander was in order. Over the next few days I’ll be presenting a meticulously ranked list of my favourite the best films produced in the unpronouncable decade of my teenage years, the 00’s. Ah, and such a decade it was!
Each movie is accompanied by my rambling thoughts and opinions and I will probably be quoting Roger Ebert quite often, since he’s the only film critic I read. We will begin at number 50; proceed to number 49; follow with number 48, and so on, in that fashion. Here we go, kids!
50. Snatch (2000)
Directed by Guy Ritchie
Starring Jason Statham, Brad Pitt, Benicio del Toro
“There’s a gun in your trousers. What’s a gun doing in your trousers?”
“It’s for protection.”
“From who? Ze Germans?
As a director, Guy Ritchie is a one-trick pony. Snatch is that pony. Yes, it follows precisely the same formula as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, but simply because it was made second does not mean it is inferior – besides which, Lock Stock is from the 90’s.
There is little to be said about this movie beyond that it’s a profanity-laden, violent, darkly witty crime film with an impenetrable plot, a haycart of one-liners and a thoroughly entertaining world. Certainly not something to hold dear to your heart and raise up as one of the greatest achievements of cinema, but my word, it’s a fun two hours.
49. Black Hawk Down (2001)
Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Josh Hartnett, Eric Bana, Ewan McGregor
“They won’t understand why we do it. They won’t understand that it’s about the men next to you, and that’s it. That’s all it is.”
Black Hawk Down is a war film that (like another movie further down this list) does not grandstand or sensationalise the true events it depicts. It succeeds in reconstructing the story of what happened in Somalia in October 1993, when a U.S. humanitarian force attempted to capture several warlords and instead wound up with two Black Hawk helicopters shot down and hundreds of soldiers trapped in the city under heavy fire. Not only is Black Hawk Down an engaging, well-crafted film by an excellent director, it shows – as closely as a film can – what it’s like to be a soldier in modern warfare. It shows their failings, fears, strengths, opinions and experiences, portraying them as neither villains nor heroes but as the human beings they really are. This is an important thing to do, especially in Western nations outside the US, where popular perception of American troops is not nearly as glowing (or even sympathetic) as Americans might expect.
48. Pitch Black (2000)
Directed by David Twohy
Starring Vin Diesel, Radha Mitchell
“Got it all wrong, holy man. I absolutely believe in God. And I absolutely hate the fucker.”
This is by all reasonable standards a bad film, or a mediocre film at the very best. I’m not entirely sure why I like it, except that it appeals to the juvenile in me who digs this kind of thing – predictable creature features with a science fiction bent.
Enroute to a colony somewhere in deep space, Pitch Black follows the survivors of a spaceship crash on a remote desert planet. We have a wide cast of characters, ranging from an Islamic imam to Australian miners, and with Vin Diesel playing a violent convict being transported to a prison planet. The group is soon forced to fight its way across the desert to safety while being attacked by subterranean creatures that only emerge during the planet’s rare nights.
Again, I’m not sure why, but I dig this movie. I can’t defend the monsters or the story or the directing or the writing, but I can say that I enjoyed the hell out of it. The characters live in an interesting world and face an interesting situation, and that is all I ask from my science fiction adventures. That’s also why I get a guilty pleasure out of watching the sequel, Chronicles of Riddick, even though that falls even more deeply within the category of “Films That Are Objectively Bad.”
47. A History of Violence (2005)
Directed by David Cronenberg
Starring Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, William Hurt, Ed Harris
“You were always a problem for me, Joey. When Mom brought you home from the hospital, I tried to strangle you in your crib. I guess all kids try to do that. She caught me… whacked the daylights out of me.”
A History of Violence begins in a sleepy Indiana town where family man Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) owns and runs a classic all-American diner. He is happily married and well-respected, with a nuclear family, small business and comfortable home – the American dream. Cronenberg works very carefully to construct these small-town scenes convincingly so that it feels appropriately shocking when, one day, Tom kills quickly and efficiently kills two robbers in self-defence, in a very graphic scene. Making the news as a hero, he soon attracts unwanted attention from figures from his past, and the film escalates accordingly.
This seems like a fairly straightforward movie, but there are depths of analytical wealth. “This is not a movie about plot, but about character,” Roger Ebert wrote. “It is about how people turn out the way they do… Cronenberg is most interested in survival of the fittest. Not the good, the moral, the nice, but the fittest.” The mark of a good film, of course, is that you think about these things later – because you’re too engrossed during the viewing to think about them at all.
46. Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004)
Directed by Michael Gondry
Starring Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo
“Why do I fall in love with every woman I see that shows me the least bit of attention?”
I’ve been reading a lot of other top 50 lists before writing my own, and this one comes in very close to the top in a surprisingly large amount of them – sometimes even first. I don’t recall it to be that great; good, yes, but not amazing. In fact I don’t remember much about it at all. Here’s the kicker: I watched it with my girlfriend, who is now my ex-girlfriend, and whom I have done my best to edit out of my life. Coincidence? I THINK NOT!
45. Frost/Nixon (2008)
Directed by Ron Howard
Starring Martin Sheen, Frank Langella, Sam Rockwell, Rebecca Hall
“You have no idea how fortunate that makes you – liking people. Being liked. Having that facility… that lightness, that charm. I don’t have it. I never did.”
The most enduring thing about this film is Frank Langella’s protrayal of Richard Nixon. It’s a very well-written film, certainly, and Sheen is no slouch, but simply nothing can compare to the powerhouse performance Langella delivers. He bears little resemblance to the former President, but has his voice and tone and mannerisms down perfectly. He is the absolute focus of the film, its driving force. Against all the odds, he (and Howard) manage to make us feel sorry for Nixon, that poor old man who just wanted to be loved.
The fact that this film was made during the Bush administration is certainly no coincidence – you may despise these men, vilify them, whole-heartedly condemn them for being disgraces to their office and traitors to their country. But they know, deep down, that’s precisely what people think of them. And doesn’t that make you feel pity rather than hate?
44. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
Directed by Shane Black
Starring Robert Downey Jr, Val Kilmer, Michelle Monaghan
“I’m retired. I invented dice when I was a kid.”
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was a pretty overlooked film (in fact I think it won an award purely for that) which is a shame, because it’s also pretty great. It’s essentially a buddy film/noir thriller/detective story/black comedy, which somehow works, with a great onscreen relationship between Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr, whose snarkiness factor peaked in the mid-00’s. It also contains my favourite Russian roulette scene of all time.
43. The Count of Monte Cristo (2002)
Directed by Kevin Reynolds
Starring Guy Pearce, James Caviezel, Richard Harris
“Drink up – we’re drinking Napoleon Bonaparte’s wine!”
The Count of Monte Cristo is a swashbuckling adventure film containing Napoleon in exile, pirates, betrayal, false imprisonment, escape tunnels, swordfights, Venician festivals, buried treasure and an elaborate plot for revenge. If you don’t like the sound of it yet then it is not the movie for you. It is competently acted, directed and written, and precisely the kind of enjoyable popcorn movie (exemplified in the 90’s by “The Mummy”) that you want to see when you go to the cinema and don’t want to think too hard, the kind of film that has been mostly replaced these days by CGI explosions and poorly choreographed gunfights. I wish there were more movies like this.
42. Vanilla Sky (2001)
Directed by Cameron Crowe
Starring Tom Cruise, Penelope Cruz, Drew Barrymore, Kurt Russell
“Forgive me. I’m blowing your mind.”
An immensely puzzling film, similar in a way to Memento (which was released the same year, but which is better and therefore further down the list). Memento features a protagonist who has no memory; Vanilla Sky one who has an unreliable memory, a dreamlike memory, a man who inhabits a world he is not sure is real. The film begins conventionally enough, but as it progresses it becomes more and more complex and confusing, layering dreams and fantasies upon an already shaky reality. This is not a bad thing; just be prepared to use your brain. I still don’t wholly understand how this film works, even with the reasonable explanation given at the end, but it’s not the kind of film you need a neat resolution for. It’s more style than substance – beautifully written, acted and shot, with one particularly amazing scene where Tom Cruise (in a dream, or not?) goes running through a deserted Times Square.
41. Borat (2006)
Directed by Jim Emerson
Starring Sacha Baron Cohen
“My country send me to United States to make movie-film. Please, come and see my film. If it not success, I will be execute.”
The ABC likes to broadcast a lot of British shows, to balance the wave of American TV the Australian commercial networks are wholly reliant upon, so I’ve followed Sacha Baron Cohen since the days when Da Ali G Show was confined to the UK. I noticed when he moved to the USA that he was reproducing material from the British version wholesale – and yet it was funnier, because somehow Americans react funnier. The Brits are too polite, and will meet grossly offensive questions with awkward silence or weak protests; Americans are much more brash, and will either whole-heartedly agree with what Cohen says, or vainly try to re-educate him. Borat is not a bad man at all, but he is grossly ignorant and hates Jews and homosexuals, despite having little understanding of what they actually are, and his statements either expose the bigotry of his interview subjects or leave them visibly uncomfortable. For the viewer, both are entertaining.
Borat (with its full subtitle: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan) portrays Borat as a real character, a “journalist” from the remote, backwards nation of Kazakhstan, who comes to the United States to learn about American culture for a documentary back home. The Kazakhstan Borat hails from is nothing like the real Kazakhstan, and is not supposed to be – it represents what Americans think of countries like Kazakhstan, and is delibrerately constructed as a reflection of America itself. “Borat’s view of Jews are like his view of Uzebeks,” Roger Ebert wrote. “They are the bad guys because, well, that is what people in his nation believe, and his country has institutions and customs designed to reinforce such useful, identity-defining prejudices against the Other.” The film is a scathing indictment of American customs and ideologies, and yet it is not hostile towards Americans themselves at all – even those who are racist, homophobic fuckheads or drunken, irritating louts are still genuinely nice people, trying to help Borat learn, trying to be kind to him. It’s not the best comedy of the decade, but it’s certainly the cleverest.
Incidentally, what makes Cohen such a brilliant comedian is that, no matter how outrageously his stunts escalate, he always keeps a straight face.
TOMORROW: Numbers 37, 32, 35 and several others!
Again, this is films I saw in the cinema throughout 2008. It includes films that were released in 2007, and omits films which I haven’t seen even though everyone else did and gushed over them (basically Wall-E. I would still hate Australia on basic principle, even if I had gone to see it and it had turned out to be great).
10. Up The Yangtze
“By three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third, by experience, which is bitterest.”
A fascinating documentary following the lives of two Chinese teenagers as they begin work on a tourist vessel on the Yangtze River, placing themselves into the servitude of fat tourists from America and Europe. The boy is a well-educated, spoiled, snobby asshole; one of China’s Little Princes, an unforeseen side effect of the one-child policy. The girl hails from a poor family living in a single-room shack on the banks of the river, soon to be swallowed up by the rising waters as a result of the Three Gorges Dam. Millions of people will be displaced when the dam is complete, and the sight of one old man watching in silence as his house is gradually lost to the waters puts a human face on this tragedy. The flipside, of course, is that the hydroelectric dam will generate massive amounts of clean, green energy; a reminder that nothing is ever black and white.
9. Forgetting Sarah Marshall
“It’s like going on vacation with, y’know, not Hitler, but certainly Goebbels.”
Apatow Comedy Flick #4392, and in my opinion the best of the bunch. Following a nasty breakup, protagonist Peter heads to a resort in Hawaii to relax for a few weeks, only to find that his ex and her new boyfriend are in the room next to his. Hijinks ensue.
Most Apatow films aren’t nearly as good as people claim – Superbad was especially overrated – but this one was a bright, clever little comedy with plenty of laughs. What I particularly like about it is how it subverts expectations; by traditional convention, in a film like this, Sarah Marshall’s new boyfriend should be an insufferable prick. He’s actually a very nice, friendly guy, and he and Peter become friends by the end of the movie. Likewise, Sarah Marshall herself remains on decent terms with Peter, and had a good justification for breaking up with him. Nobody in this movie is irredeemably bad – just like real life. Fancy that.
“We are gonna make the motherfuckers choke!”
From the writer of The Queen, and also starring Tony Blair, Frost/Nixon is based on a play which recreates (with some poetic license) the famous interviews between British talk show host David Frost and disgraced ex-president Richard Nixon.
Watergate happened fifteen years before I was born, and it was in fact only earlier this year that I realised I had absolutely no idea what it involved and set about trying to understand it. I’d still never heard of the interviews, which is interesting, because they makes a great story: Nixon wanted the money and thought that Frost, an entertainer rather than a proper journalist, would be easy to handle. Frost instead proved quite cunning and cornered Nixon into admitting guilt in the Watergate scandal – the only time he ever did so publicly.
Michael Sheen gives a performance that’s nothing particularly special, but Frank Langella as Nixon is absolutely brilliant – a man who so desperately wanted to be loved by the American people, but never was. By the end of the film, against all odds, you feel incredibly sorry for the poor bastard.
Plus Rebecca Hall is gorgeous. I never seem to find movie stars good-looking the way other people do, but holy shit.
7. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
“If I told you that I came from the future, would you laugh?”
Luna Leederville had a little anime-fest earlier this year, and amidst all the Japanese robot rubbish with their fancy CGI and retarded plotlines was this little gem. It’s strikingly similar to a Ghibli film, but it’s not. Essentially, high school girl Makoto is unexpectedly granted the ability of time travel, and discovers its advantages and drawbacks in the traditional manner, following in the footsteps of Bill and Ted and Marty McFly.
What I remember more about this movie was its rich atmosphere. It all takes place on lazy summer afternoons, in those precious few hours of leisure time you get after school, with the chirping of the crickets and the sun over the baseball field and whatnot, and this is beautifully rendered in colourful animation. It made me incredibly nostalgic for high school, even though it’s set in Japan and I hated high school anyway. Well worth seeing.
“Beth lives in midtown. Midtown is that way. You know what else is that way? Some horrific shit!”
This was a really cool one. It started out with just those trailers of a party interrupted by some cataclysmic event, with not even a name for the film, just a date. We all know the story by now, of course – New York is devastated by a horrific monster and several friends do their best to survive, but with the added gimmick of all the action being seen from a hand-held video camera.
What I loved best about this movie was that the director never once spoonfed people the story. There’s no explanation for what’s going on, no scientist explaining things to the White House, no neat solution where the monster is lured into the bay and killed by the might of the U.S. military. Nor do we see much of the monster; only glimpses as it strides between buildings in the dark, or background feeds on news channels. We know only what the characters do, which is to say, not much. Speaking of the characters, they were a cut above the average horror movie protagonists. Not once did they make a decision I disagreed with, and they were quite intelligent and resourceful throughout. An excellent popcorn movie, but one that needs to be seen in the cinema to truly appreciate.
5. The Mist
“What are you going to do?”
“I’ll think of something.”
Let me say straight-up that Stephen King’s novella “The Mist” is the best thing he’s ever written (at least, that I’ve read). Yes, it’s better than The Stand. It easily ranks on my top 10 list of the greatest pieces of science fiction ever written. If you want to know how influential it was, well, it was the primary inspiration for Half-Life. I read it in 2005 and absolutely fucking loved it.
When I found out that it was finally being turned into a movie, I had mixed hopes. I doubted anything could ever be as good as the book, but it was being directed by Frank Darabont, who made the brilliant films The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption (both also based on King books).
So I went to see it, and it did okay. It was a decent film; about as good as you could expect from a book adaptation. That was until the last two minutes, when it went from “pretty good” to “absolutely fucking incredible.”
It’s one of the best movie endings I’ve seen in a very long time. I have difficulty believing it was actually given wide-release to American audiences, considering how shocking and brutal it is. King himself said that if he’d thought of it when writing the novel, he would have used it.
Do yourself a favour and rent out this movie, without looking up anything about it first.
4. Gone Baby Gone
“Well, it all depends on how you look at it. I mean, you might think you’re more ‘from here’ than me, for example. But I’ve been living here longer than you’ve been alive. So who’s right?”
Directed by Ben Affleck and starring his younger brother Casey, Gone Baby Gone follows two private investigators as they try to find a woman’s abducted child in the seedy streets of Boston. While on the surface it appears to be a standard crime movie, the story goes a lot deeper than that, creating some complex moral quandraries and leaving the characters facing an unbearable, impossible decision at the film’s climax.
Beyond that, it’s a generally well made film – well-written, well-directed, and especially well-acted. Casey Affleck, Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman are all brilliant; even the extras are cast surprisingly well.
3. Slumdog Millionaire
“Perhaps it is written, no?”
A very different movie. Rags to riches, coming of age, romance, crime story… you could even call it a biopic of India itself. Never before – at least not to my memory – have Western audiences seen a film set in the sweeping glory of modern India, from the squalid slums to the mansions of the rich, from the crowded, sweaty trains to the futuristic set of a game show.
The movie follows Jamal Malik, an Indian Muslim, as he is interrogated by police who believe he has been cheating on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? Each question sparks a flashback to an earlier point in Jamal’s life, from the murder of his mother in a religious riot, to the days he spent travelling on the roofs of India’s trains with his brother, to his time in a bustling modern call centre. What the film does so perfectly is juxtaposition. Modern India is juxtaposition, with filthy slums sitting between highways and office buildings, with insanely rich businessmen living alongside people who can barely afford food. No scene in the movie illustrates this disparity better than when Jamal returns to his home city and sees new high-rise buildings growing up where the slums used to be (pictured above).
A colourful, vibrant, wonderful film.
2. There Will Be Blood
“Is H.W. okay?”
An amazingly well-crafted film. Deeply disturbing, very dark and ultimately depressing, the film itself is largely carried along by Daniel Day Lewis’ powerful performance as the greedy, hateful oilman Daniel Plainview. The thing about this movie is that it is, in fact, quite tedious – drab, monochrome, and focusing on a very dull subject. But that’s the beauty of it. It’s so perfectly crafted, so unbelievably intense and real, that you’re carried along nonetheless. You cannot turn away. It is cold, terrifying, and relentless – one of the best movies of the last ten years.
1. The Dark Knight
“The bandit, in Burma. Did you catch him?”
“We burned the forest down.”
Could it be anything else? Cristopher Nolan has single-handedly reshaped the genre of the comic-book movie. Building on what he started with Batman Begins, he continues to strip away the cheesiness, the immaturity, the general silliness of the superhero mythos, and replaces it with something very dark indeed. The Dark Knight plays more along the lines of a psychological horror film like Seven, or a fast-paced action-thriller like Heat, than any of the superhero movies that preceded it. This is a movie for adults, not children, leaving behind the familiar worlds inspired by childhood fantasies and venturing into the rugged territory of artistic merit.
Heath Ledger’s performance, somehow, lived up to all the hype: he is haunting as the Joker, a twisted and crippled soul with disturbing, fungus-like makeup, wreaking havoc across Gotham City of the sheer joy of it. Michael Caine is perfect as the impeccable butler Alfred, faithful servant and companion. Gary Oldman is reliably believable as the nerdy police commissioner with a terrible moustache. Aaron Eckhart is great as district-attorney Harvey Dent, for whom a horrible destiny awaits. And while Christian Bale makes a merely adequate Batman, he is an excellent Bruce Wayne – a swaggering, spoilt playboy millionaire whom nobody would ever suspect of being Gotham’s defender. Gotham City, thanks to superb cinematography, is a character in itself: a dark urban wilderness of skyscrapers and shipping containers, warehouses and highways, harbouring dark citizens and dark secrets.
If only they’d kept the original theme music.
50. The King Is Dead – The Herd
49. Bullet – End of Fashion
48. Desire Be Desire Go – Tame Impala
47. Silouettic – Birds of Tokyo
46. Social Currency – Children Collide
45. I’m Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How To Dance With You – The Black Kids
44. Machine Gun – Portishead
43. Talons – Bloc Party
42. You Don’t Know Me – Ben Folds/Regina Spektor
41. Jealousy – Sparkadia
40. Spaz – N.E.R.D.
39. Ready For The Floor – Hot Chip
38. Fools – The Dodos
37. Mercury – Bloc Party
36. Strange Times – The Black Keys
35. Brainwascht – Ben Folds
34. Yes – Coldplay
33. Halfway Home – TV On The Radio
32. White Winter Hymnal – Fleet Foxes
31. Death and All of His Friends – Coldplay
30. Bitch Went Nuts – Ben Folds
29. Trojan Horse – Bloc Party
28. So Haunted – Cut Copy
27. Sex On Fire – Kings of Leon
26. Get It – Dukes of Windsor
25. The Other Side – Pendulum
24. Paris – Friendly Fires
23. Family Tree – TV On The Radio
22. Les Artistes – Santogold
21. Ares – Bloc Party
20. Far Away – Cut Copy
19. The Lighthouse Song – Josh Pyke
18. Gamma Ray – Beck
17. Happiness – Goldfrapp
16. Something Is Not Right With Me – Cold War Kids
15. Pork And Beans – Weezer
14. Better Than Heaven – Bloc Party
13. Pull Me Out Alive – Kaki King
12. Ion Square – Bloc Party
11. Shake A Fist – Hot Chip
10. The Eraser (remix) – XXXchange
9. Golden Age – TV On The Radio
8. Midnight Madness – Chemical Brothers
7. Viva la Vida – Coldplay
6. Dancing Queen (cover) – Whitley
5. Signs – Bloc Party
4. The Rip – Portishead
3. Jump In The Pool – Friendly Fires
2. Walking on a Dream – Empire of the Sun
1. No Sex For Ben – The Rapture
Which is to say, those I read in 2008, not those published in 2008.
10. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union
“Good night, Dr. Buchbinder. Put in a good word for me with Messiah.”
“Oh,” he says, “there’s no need of that.”
“No need or no point?”
Abruptly, the merry eyes turn as steely as the disc of a dentist’s mirror. They assay Landsman’s condition with the insight of twenty-five years spent searching tirelessly for points of weakness and rot. Just for a moment Landsman doubts the man’s insanity.
“That’s up to you,” Buchbinder says. “Isn’t it?”
Heavy, convoluted and difficult to penetrate – even for Chabon – this book is worth the effort. It’s a dark and depressing investigation into an alternate universe where the Jewish homeland is on a barren Alaskan island, told from the perspective of a weary Yiddish homicide detective as he tries to solve a murder in the two months before the island reverts to U.S. territory. A major theme (aside from the ever-present Judaism) is the feeling of helplessness, of being manipulated by higher powers into an unshakeable destiny. Typical Jewish Chabon, that wacky fellow.
9. Slaughterhouse Five
Five German soldiers and a police dog on a leash were looking down into the bed of the creek. The soldiers’ blue eyes were filled with a bleary civilian curiosity as to why one American would try to murder another one so far from home, and as to why the victim should laugh.
Told with a simplistic, unemotional weariness, this book is a voyage through time and space, from the snowy battlefields of World War II to the distant alien planet of Tralfamadore. I’ve never been able to connect with Vonnegut’s writing the way other people seem to; it feels like everyone notices some deeper meaning to this book that I simply don’t. Nonetheless, it’s very readable, very compelling and very good.
8. Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas
They roared off, and so did we. Bouncing across the rocks and scrub oak cactus like iron tumbleweeds. The beer in my hand flew up and hit the top, then fell in my lap and soaked my crotch with warm foam.
“You’re fired,” I told the driver. “Take me back to the pits.”
Raoul Duke and his Samoan attorney spend an insane, drug-fuelled week in Vegas, living dangerously and recklessly with that complete disregard for consequences that only fictional characters can achieve. This book is a lot more interesting than that makes it sound; it manages to stay fresh and funny throughout. Paranoid, depraved, surreal, colourful, and deliciously different, Fear And Loathing rightfully earned its place as a classic American novel.
7. Snow Crash
Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world. If I moved to a martial-arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live, and devoted it to wiping out street crime. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad.
Walking a fine line between being utterly serious and nonsensically cartoonish, Snow Crash is best read as a simple adventure novel. Set in a balkanised future America where the corporations have carved the land up into self-sufficient, hyper-capitalist enclaves, the novel follows Hiro Protagonist (pizza delivery driver, world’s greatest sword fighter and hacker extraordinaire) and Y.T. (teenage skateboard courier) as they attempt to unravel a conspiracy involving a complex concept of universal language, rooted in the mythology of the Tower of Babel. I lost interest in that little subplot before long, but the major storyline ranks among the very best adventure tales, as Hiro travels from dystopic Los Angeles to an offshore raft city to the entirely virtual world of the online Metaverse in his quest to save the world.
6. The Road
On the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders. It swung its head low over the water as if to take the scent of what it could not see. Crouching there pale and naked and translucent, its alabaster bones cast up in shadows on the rocks behind it. Its bowels, its beating heart. The brain that pulsed in a dull glass bell. It swung its head from side to side and then gave out a low moan and turned and lurched away and loped soundlessly into the dark.
Though they may be nameless, the man and the boy at the centre of this novel are some of the most profoundly human characters I have ever read about. Trekking through a post-apocalyptic, ash-choked America, hiding from violent gangs of rapists and murderers, expecting to die any day, the relationship between the two is the single flame of hope that exists in their bleak, grey world. A simple story of love and protection, set in a world that is frighteningly believable.
5. The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time
I like dogs. You always know what a dog is thinking. It has four moods. Happy, sad, cross and concentrating. Also, dogs are faithful and they do not tell lies because they cannot talk.
Written from the point of view of Cristopher Boone, an autistic teenager, who lays his world out to the reader in the matter-of-fact language that is the only method he knows. Yet the novel is regularly peppered by emotional dialogue that juxtaposes the main narrative, revealing the emotional problems Cristopher’s very existence causes for those around him. A tale of human suffering and compassion, which is ultimately quite touching.
The phone nearest him rang. Automatically, he picked it up.
Faint harmonics, tiny inaudible voices rattling across some orbital link, and then a sound like the wind.
A fifty-lirasi coin fell from his hand, bounced, and rolled out of sight across Hilton carpeting.
“Wintermute, Case. It’s time we talk.”
It was a chip voice.
“Don’t you want to talk, Case?”
He hung up.
On his way back to the lobby, his cigarettes forgotten, he had to walk the length of the ranked phones. Each rang in turn, but only once, as he passed.
(incidentally, here’s my other choice for a Neuromancer extract)
“That’s real good, motherfucker,” Case said, and shot him in the mouth with the .357.
A watershed moment in science fiction, Neuromancer created an entirely new vision of the future: dark, grim, and pessimistic, overturning the traditional view that the rise of technology would somehow make the human race better. Instead, Gibson casts the reader into lurid neon cityscapes of crime, body modification and drug addiction, where humans of the 22nd century are facing essentially the same problems as today. It’s one of the few novels that can truly be called revolutionary.
Even below this postmodern literary value, the commentary on society and all that academic jazz, Neuromancer is simply an excellent story. It has a very cool anithero, the grungy, unshaven, methamphetamine-addicted hacker Case, who is recruited by an upscale genetleman named Armitage, who is assembling a team to work on the ultimate heist: the theft of the world’s most powerful AI from its orbital mainframe. Case is plucked from the Japanese underworld and travels to Istanbul, Paris, New York and eventually to the orbital cities of the rich and powerful, all the while trying to figure out who Armitage’s mysterious employer is and why they want to free the AI. Thriller, adventure, noirish crime caper… Neuromancer exists in many capacities, and is fully-realised in every one of them. An all-round brilliant book, which is only a hair’s breadth below Life of Pi because there were certain parts of it I didn’t quite understand, which will hopefully be solved with a few re-reads.
3. Life of Pi
“Tigers exist, lifeboats exist, oceans exist. Because the three have never come together in your narrow, limited experience, you refuse to believe that they might. Yet the plain fact is that the Tsimtsum brought them together and then sank.”
Martel takes an apparently impossible situation and weaves it together with such deft writing ability that it becomes entirely plausible. A sixteen-year old Indian boy, travelling by ship to Canada with his zookeeper family and a number of animals they intend to sell in the New World following the closure of their zoo, finds himself sharing a lifeboat with a number of exotic creatures following the ship’s demise. The animals make quick work of each other and soon only he and a Bengal tiger remain, left to drift on the blue Pacific for 227 days.
Martel is one of those writers with a gift for creating beautifully evocative visual descriptions, and Pi’s life on the waves – the smell of salt, the fishing line burning his hands, the shape and contours of the tiger’s body – are all beautifully, realistically rendered in words. A wonderful book.
2. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
WE ARE COMING TO GET YOU
The fog-shrouded streets of Prague. A golem dressed in man’s clothing. A steamer under the Golden Gate Bridge. The New Jersey ferry docks on a sunny morning. Salvador Dali in a diving bell. Bones on the Atlantic seabed. Brooklyn steam-grates. An airship terminal on the highest floor of the Empire State Building. The abandoned grounds of the World’s Fair. A pyramid of skulls in a deserted military base. A Senate hearing. The loser at Lupe Velez. The stout cord of the ampersand. The crowning literary masterpiece of this decade.
“It’s September, 1961. John Kennedy is shaking my hand, asking what it’s like to be a superhero. I tell him he should know and he nods, laughing. Two years later, in Dallas, his head snaps forward and then back…”
It’s impossible to articulate how brilliant this book is. It is the Moby Dick of the graphic novel medium. It can be read as a comic book, a character drama, a moral fable, a cautionary tale, a mystery novel… and it succeeds as all of them. It has so much weight to it, so much heaviness. Moore and Gibbons waste not a single panel or sentence; everything has a purpose. It is a perfect book.
It’s also being adapted into a film by Zack Snyder (of 300 infamy) so make sure you READ IT before it gets retroactively ruined by another superhero movie that has a bunch of sexy actors in sexy clothing running at bad guys and having the scene cut to slow motion as they begin to strike them, then having it cut back to regular motion as the blow lands fuck you snyder you are going to fucking ruin this.