Blood and Guts: Films 11-15

15. There Will Be Blood and 14. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford In 2007, Paul Thomas Anderson and Andrew Dominik reinvented the western, crafting not anti-westerns in the Peckinpah sense per se, but rather films that actively investigated the mythology surrounding the settlement of the American West, drawing clear, straight lines to the U.S.A. of today. There Will Be Blood offers scorching illustrations of cut-throat capitalism (namely, the oil business) and born-again Christianity; it also features the decade's most dynamic performance in Daniel Day-Lewis' deviously charismatic, largely inscrutable Daniel Plainview. Dominik's Assassination traces the cult of celebrity back to Jesse James and his sycophant assassin, employing a slow-as-molasses, mood-driven approach. The result is the best Terrence Malick movie ever made by someone not named Terrence Malick.

13. A Talking Picture and 12. The Fog of War The wisdom of elders has rarely felt more perceptive than it does in, respectively, Manoel de Oliveira's survey of the modern world and Errol Morris' extended sit-down with the fascinating Robert S. McNamara. A Talking Picture follows a mother and daughter sailing from de Oliveira's native Portugal to Mumbai, discussing high points in culture and civilization while exploring various ports of call. Late in the film, the narrative shifts to an on-ship current affairs debate led by John Malkovich (representing America) and including an international assortment of female passengers (representing France, Italy, and Greece). The film's leisurely pace and its gently critical tone, however, are no preparation for its shocker of a climax. In The Fog of War, McNamara speaks at length about his roles in World War II, the auto industry, the Kennedy White House, and, most (in)famously, as the "architect" of the Vietnam War; his admissions and hindsight reflections are, at once, illuminating and deeply moving.

11. Platform Rightly lauded as the most significant work to emerge from China's Sixth Generation, Jia Zhangke's underground epic may forever remain his signature achievement. Rarely has the political been made personal as seamlessly as Jia pulls it off here, charting China's awkward transition from strict Maoism to semi-free market via a decade in the lives of a dance performance group.


In Praise of Serious Men: Films 16-20

20. The House of Mirth Terence Davies' adaptation of Edith Wharton's novel about a socialite's fall from moneyed grace in turn-of-the-century New York is one of the great literary costume dramas ever put to celluloid--in a league with, say, Kubrick's Barry Lyndon and Ruiz's Time Regained. The entire endeavor is exquisitely accomplished, from the art design (the red, green and purple-dominated color scheme is indelible) to the ensemble cast (Dan Aykroyd, Laura Linney, Eric Stoltz, Anthony LaPaglia--each in peak form) to the lapsed-Catholic gravitas Davies lends the material, but what absolutely seals the deal is Gillian Anderson, who is unexpectedly devastating as the proto-feminist Lily Bart; it's probably the best female performance of the '00's.

19. In Praise of Love While I disagree strongly with Godard's views on Spielberg, it's hard to argue with this late-career masterwork. Not counting the singular achievement that is Histoire(s) du Cinema, this is my favorite Godard film since this blog's half-namesake, and it's compelling proof that the master remains as vital and radical a voice as any in cinema.

18. What Time Is It There? and 17. Paranoid Park The finest offerings to date from two of the most distinctive and adventurous film stylists working today. Tsai Ming-liang's (deservedly) signature film might be both his funniest and saddest work, as a Taipei watch salesman becomes infatuated with a customer departing for Paris, and in response, turns local clocks to Paris time. Few films speak more profoundly to the disconnectedness of modern life. The real joke underlying the seemingly absurd lengths Tsai's characters go to to find love or companionship or sex is that it's finally not a joke at all--in fact, few things could be more serious than the human need to connect with someone else. Paranoid Park is the grand triumph of the Bresson and Tarr-influenced style Van Sant's been tinkering with since re-inventing his aesthetic for the new millennium. But unlike the problematic Elephant and the fairly detestable (if gorgeous-looking) Last Days, Paranoid Park marries this approach with interesting characters that talk and feel like real human beings, as opposed to American Apparel models. While there's elements of crime and budding romance and family problems in the mix here, the film is, above all, a bittersweet paean to youth in all its fleeting, conflicted glory; as the skateboarders glided and grinded over the lovely DV denouement, I couldn't help but wonder where my own youth went.

16. A Serious Man Assuming The Tree of Life doesn't magically materialize before the year's end, this will very likely remain my top film for '09. It would be worth the price of admission for the creepy-hilarious opening scene alone, and it only gets better from there.
"Women's Films": Films 21-25

25. The Intruder Claire Denis' best film this decade (Beau Travail, while released commercially in North America in 2000, played the fests in '99) sounds convoluted on paper--an older, reclusive French man in need of a heart transplant heads to Tahiti in search of a son he's never met, while more or less ignoring his other son and his family in France...then add to that mix a possible murder and a mysterious Queen-of-the-North figure played by Beatrice Dalle--but it's anything but in execution. Denis and longtime DP Agnes Goddard are so infectiously fascinated by textures and moods, ephemeral pleasures and lingering sorrows, that the elliptically structured narrative feels as natural and as logical as your strangest, most vivid dream.

24. The Circle, 23. Wendy and Lucy and 22. Changeling Though only two of these three female-centered films are set in the present, they all deal thoughtfully with issues that couldn't be more relevant right now. Jafar Panahi uses interwoven vignettes to tackle the everyday discrimination facing women under Iran's patriarchal fundamentalism; it rivals Bruno as the movie I'd most like to force Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to sit through. Kelly Reichardt's film was one step ahead of the zeitgeist--made just before the current economic meltdown--in charting the struggles of Wendy (a surprisingly marvelous Michelle Williams), a cash-strapped drifter searching desperately for her missing dog, Lucy, after her car breaks down on the way to Alaska and her financial woes escalate from there. Clint Eastwood, meanwhile, considers corruption in law enforcement and misogynistic double-standards still pervasive today in telling the late '20's/early '30's-set based-on-a-true-story of a woman searching desperately for her missing son; to my tastes, it's Eastwood's strongest work since Unforgiven.

21. Werckmeister Harmonies For viewers not up for Sátántangó's hypnotic seven and a half hours, Werckmeister Harmonies (a mere two and a half hours) is probably the next-best place to try and "get" the genius of Bela Tarr. The plot includes a circus--consisting mostly of a giant whale carcass and someone known as "The Prince"--arriving in a small village in the dead of a particularly miserable Hungarian winter; suspicion, manipulation, and wild-eyed theories of the universe follow, leading to one of the decade's most shattering final acts.


High Points: Films 26-30

30. 25th Hour and 29. Solaris Two hit-or-miss, occasionally thrilling American auteurs working near the height of their respective powers. Spike Lee's film is full of anger and anxiety, but, in many ways, it's the most mature of his non-documentary efforts, leaning less on stylization and provocation (though there's healthy doses of both in the mix) and instead focusing on well-constructed characters in difficult situations. This approach is fitting since this is a film that's all about accepting the consequences of our actions--or not, as the extended fantasy sequence near the end suggests--and dealing with life as adults. Edward Norton's never been better than as a convicted drug dealer enjoying his last night of freedom before beginning a lengthy a prison sentence, and the supporting cast--Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper, Rosario Dawson, Brian Cox--is no less superb. Soderbergh's remake of Tarkovsky's Solaris is a stranger creature--not least because it's actually superior to the original. Moody and cerebral, poetic and ambitious--these aren't adjectives typically used to describe expensive Hollywood sci-fi flicks starring a big-name movie star (especially remakes, for which the word "ambitious" would usually seem antithetical). But Soderbergh's film is all these things and others besides--romantic, thought-provoking, gorgeous to look at...; it might just be his masterpiece.

28. demonlover and 27. Esther Kahn To my tastes, these are the most accomplished films to date from two of France's finest contemporary filmmakers, both of whom have earned multiple entries on this list. demonlover is Olivier Assayas at his globe-hopping, coolly stylized, sexy-sleazy best, following a double-agent (a kick-ass Connie Nielsen) through the spheres of high-powered business and Web-centered exploitation and into the space where the two dubiously blur into one; the final scene is a pointed gut-punch. Esther Kahn is also about a woman (a perplexing, possibly brilliant Summer Phoenix) with more going on than we would initially assume. Phoenix plays the title character as an impenetrable blank slate, who only registers flashes of some inner life while acting on the stage. As an exploration of acting as a vocation, Desplechin's film has plenty to say, even if its heroine doesn't. Eating glass kind of speaks for itself, no?

26. Star Spangled to Death If you're looking for a reverent, easily digestible look at modern American history, try Ken Burns or Tom Brokaw. Ken Jacobs' nearly seven-hour opus is uncommonly passionate, unapologetically radical, frequently funny, sometimes intimidating, and rarely dull; reverent or easily digestible--not so much.


Fat Girls and Inglorious Basterds: Films 31-35

35. Fat Girl Catherine Breillat's molotov cocktail of a movie confounds expectations, ingeniously subverts the teen-romance-on-a-holiday-at-the-beach subgenre, and (admittedly, coming from a male) feels as brutally honest as any representation of sisterly rivalry ever filmed.

34. Unknown Pleasures and 33. Perfect Life Jia Zhangke's expert study of young-adult ennui and fleeting romance, and Jia protege Emily Tang's amazing snapshot of a woman for whom life's once-seemingly limitless possibilities are progressively shrinking. Both speak volumes about the changing face of Chinese society, though they should prove no less resonant for viewers in Vancouver, Vermont, or Venezuela.

32. The White Ribbon and 31. Inglorious Basterds A couple might-be-masterpieces from filmmakers I've always found it easier to like than love. Michael Haneke's '09 Palm d'Or winner is an expansive memory piece wherein a Northern German village plagued by disturbing goings-on stands in for Europe on the eve of the First World War. Tarantino's shrewdest and finest film to date follows the lead of Verhoeven's Black Book in toying with pivotal 20th Century history, while secretly stashing more brains up its sleeve than the more "important" films it's actively criticizing.


Alternate Routes: Films 36-40

40. Millennium Mambo Hou Hsiao-hsien's most underappreciated effort is the "night" to Cafe Lumiere's "day" (a one-two punch reminiscent of Wong Kar-wai's Chungking Express and Fallen Angels in the '90's). Where the later film brilliantly uses sunlight--the way it reflects off and dances around surfaces and people--in telling the story of a single expecting mother and her smitten male friend, Millennium Mambo uses nightclubs and under-lit apartments as it traces the tentative steps forward by Vicky, a mostly aimless young woman (an appropriately disaffected Shu Qi) deciding between two possible suitors. Vicky's trip to Yubari, Japan is one of my favorite Hou sequences, as blinding-white banks of snow provide a lovely contrast to the film's dark/neon-lit aesthetic.

39. Miami Vice and 38. Mystic River A pair of cops-and-criminals films with little else in common. In Michael Mann's movie, style is everything. The plot is negligible, and even the casting of Colin Farrell, Jamie Foxx, and Gong Li has less to do with their acting abilities and more to do with how they look photographed against the Miami skyline or dancing close together in a Havana nightspot. If it's not Mann's masterwork, it's at the very least the apotheosis of his impossibly slick aesthetic. Clint Eastwood's film is a powerful character drama with (I'm by no means the first to observe) Shakespearean overtones. Of course, the whole cast is superb--Eastwood may be the world's greatest actors' director--but Sean Penn channels depths of raw pain rarely tapped into on screen and Laura Linney's controversial Lady MacBeth speech is a flawlessly executed 11th-hour game-changer.

37. Ten and 36. Tarnation Abbas Kiarostami and Jonathan Caouette's respective films are also highly dissimilar, except that they both expertly straddle the line between narrative and non while thinking outside the box about how films are, or should be, made. Kiarostami plants a video camera in a Tehran taxi cab, capturing fascinating conversations between the female cabbie and her passengers, including her own bratty son. Guided rather than scripted or conventionally directed, Ten follows Kiarostami masterpieces Close-up, Taste of Cherry, and the "Earthquake Trilogy" as an exploration of cinema's boundaries and possibilities. Tarnation tells the deeply troubled story of Caouette and his mother, combining old home movies with present-tense video diaries and obscure pop-culture footage, merged via Apple's iMovie program. The result is unforgettable and largely unlike anything else I've ever seen; any attempt to mimic Caouette's breakthrough would inevitably feel derivative.


Histories of Violence: Films 41-50

50. Spider and 49. Koma David Cronenberg's best film since either Crash or Dead Ringers (depending on my mood) and the most outrageous Asian horror/dark comedy you've (probably) never seen. Spider is a study of childhood demons deeply suppressed, featuring one of Ralph Fiennes' finest performances and one of the decade's best by Miranda Richardson as a matriarchal hellspawn--perhaps an inspiration for Mo'Nique's much-lauded Precious performance? Koma, by Hong Kong's Law Chi-leung, involves cheating partners, involuntary kidney removal, female rivalry, female bonding, and female identities merging and shifting and switching places. For the psychological territory it's charting, Koma's weirder than Persona and more unexpectedly poignant than Mulholland Drive. And, no--for the record--if it weren't for Teresa, there's no way I would've tracked this one down. Bless her.

48. Cafe Lumiere Further proof that Hou Hsiao-hsien might well be the world's greatest living filmmaker not named Godard or Malick.

47. The Pianist and 46. Black Book Unique, personal journeys through subjects all too familiar to moviegoers--namely, the Holocaust and World War II. Working from material that clearly hits very close to home, Roman Polanski tells the story of Polish Jewish pianist Wladyslaw Szpillman, who barely survives the Holocaust through intelligence, resourcefulness, and--if it can be called such--a whole lot of good luck. Adrien Brody's Oscar win for the title role was richly deserved; the shot near the end of him playing piano--echoing the opening scene--where a grin suddenly crosses his face is about as moving as movies get. Paul Verhoeven's WWII saga takes an altogether less conventional route through war-torn Europe, as a Jewish spy seduces a Nazi officer--dying both the carpet and drapes blonde to disguise her ethnicity and later ending up covered in literal shit by an anti-Nazi assembly. Far more than the usual, sacrosanct Veteran's Day fare, Black Book is a vital commentary on never-ending cycles of violence.

45. The Man from London Bela Tarr goes genre? Not really. Though The Man from London is an adaptation of noirish French novel concerning a sinister brief case full of money, it's also very much a Bela Tarr film. Tarr uses the basic framework of this narrative to once again consider his usual themes of conspiracy, greed, human back-biting, and suffocating insularity within small, remote villages.

44. Notre Musique Godard at his esoteric, densely allusive late-career best, in this case borrowing structurally from Dante for an extended meditation on past and present world conflicts. The final sequence is as beautiful as anything in his filmography.

43. Dogville and 42. Hamlet Two films that employ archaic modes to explore contemporary issues in interesting ways. Lars von Trier stages a bare bones Our Town, by way of Bertolt Brecht and the Old Testament, wherein a Woman In Trouble experiences small-town American hospitality at its worst, before telling Daddy (a brilliantly cast James Caan) to kill 'em all. Michael Almereyda looks at the worlds of high-powered multi-national business and Internet-age disaffection through the lens of Shakespeare's most famous play. The result is Ethan Hawke, Julia Stiles, Kyle McLachlan, and Bill Murray reciting Shakespeare as fluently as anyone in any rigidly faithful Olivier or Branagh adaptation, plus one of the all-time great movie monologues as Hawke's Hamlet delivers the "to be or not to be" speech while strolling through the Action section at Blockbuster.

41. United 93 Released less than five years after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Paul Greengrass's film pulled off the seemingly impossible: it's a genuinely cathartic experience--neither exploitative, sentimental, or jingoistic--about that tragic, traumatic day. I hope there'll never have to be another film like it.


Lost It at the Movies: Films 51-59

59. Goodbye, Dragon Inn and 58. The Wayward Cloud Tsai Ming-liang at his deadpan, minimalist best: slow-build "jokes," awkward sexual encounters, and eternal static shots. The former is Tsai's version of a Death of Cinema elegy, as a Taipei movie house on the eve of its closing down plays host to a few loyal film fans, guys cruising urinal stalls for quick thrills, and perhaps a ghost or two. The latter is arguably Tsai's most audacious work to date (though Tsai's leading-man/protege Lee Kang Sheng tried to up the ante to muddled effect with Help Me, Eros). It's a sort-of sequel to What Time Is It There? and the most legitimately thoughtful study of romantic fidelity since Eyes Wide Shut. And as in Kubrick's masterpiece, the final scene is (no pun intended) a real headfuck.

57. The World This was initially my least-favorite Jia Zhangke movie--loved the concept, admired the execution in general, less so the curious anime tidbits and seemingly un-Jia-like romantic fatalism of the surprise ending. I watched it again recently, however, and found more to appreciate while being bugged less by what I'd previously perceived as flaws. In fact, if this weren't by a filmmaker from whom I literally expect the world every time out, I'd probably ignore my qualms and flirt heavily with the M-word. But since Jia's work will make three appearances higher up my list, #57 and 'a really fine film' will just have to do.

56. Hunger and 55. Ballast Hands-down the two best films I caught at last year's Victoria Film Festival (though Lyne Charlebois' Borderline, way down at #243 on this list, deserves more fans outside Quebec). Both are by first-time feature directors and both focus on desperate living conditions with only occasional glimmers of hope. Art-world star Steve McQueen recalls the 1981 IRA hunger strikes, though he concentrates more on sustaining his film's hypnotic rhythms--in which haunting stillness is disrupted by sudden bursts of violence--than on either revolutionary politics or triumph-of-the-human-spirit yarns. Lance Hammer's film considers the possibility of redemption within a broken family in one of America's poorest pockets, the Mississippi Delta.

54. I'm Going Home and 53. Yi Yi The story of a near-octogenarian actor (the incredible Michel Piccoli) simultaneously coping with grief and wondering whether to carry on his profession felt, the better part of a decade ago, like a poignant and fitting swansong for Manoel de Oliveira. Now, with de Oliveira turning 101 next month and still actively at work, it's simply another excellent entry in his late-career catalog. Yi Yi, a vibrant and heartfelt portrait of Taiwanese family life, was unexpectedly Edward Yang's final completed film; it will likely remain the work for which he's best remembered.

52. Junebug Another film about familial dynamics, with North Carolina as the locale rather than Taipei. And that's an important detail: few recent films have offered a more honest portrait of today's small-town South; the characters here have their eccentricities, to be sure, but they're warmly painted creations--not judgmental, one-note caricatures. I don't have to add that Amy Adams is the cast's standout in one of the decade's most irresistible turns; her subsequently A-list resume speaks for itself.

51. Mulholland Drive What's left to say about this one, really? Sure, it's probably the best thing Lynch will ever put to celluloid--especially if Inland Empire, for better or worse, is any indication--though I'm kind of partial to The Straight Story...


Human Nature: Films 60-64

64. The Edge of Heaven and 63. Head-On With these two films, Fatih Akin firmly established himself as a unique talent within contemporary European cinema. Both consider the shifting sands of post-EU Europe--and specifically where Turkey and Germany's sizable Turkish diaspora fit in--while concentrating on precisely observed human relationships. The Edge of Heaven is expansive in scope and perhaps a touch schematic in its structure, but the ensemble cast is so uniformly excellent and the sociopolitical ideas in the mix so undeniably relevant that Akin successfully steers his film far from soapy Inarritu territory. Head-On gets the slight edge, though, for its spirit of organic spontaneity and anarchic possibility (the "Punk is not dead!" scene is one of my favorites from the new millennium), despite Edge's loftier ambitions.

62. The Cat's Meow Peter Bogdanovich's best film since--what? Last Picture Show? The subject of this one allows Bogdanovich to indirectly stretch his inner Wellesian, yet The Cat's Meow finally succeeds more as an exercise in downbeat tone than as a murder mystery or slice of speculative history. It's also a delicious actors' showcase, with a never-better Kirsten Dunst and the underutilized Edward Herrmann (Richard Gilmore on Gilmore Girls) taking top honors as Marion Davies and William Randolph Hearst.

61. You Can Count on Me and 60. Good Night, and Good Luck Wow: Two movies about decent people making principled choices! With the exception of the real-life villainous Sen. Joseph McCarthy, there isn't a character in either of these two that fails to register as an interesting, multi-dimensional human being. Kenneth Lonergan's gem looks at a resonant, and complex, brother-sister relationship and features deeply felt performances from Mark Ruffalo and Laura Linney. In George Clooney's film, newscaster Edward R. Murrow (a pitch-perfect David Strathairn) and his CBS colleagues fight the good fight against McCarthyism. The film's as exceedingly classy and articulate as its uber-celeb director, yet, as a mainstream Hollywood product, it's also rather radical in its unflinching conviction.


Doomed Love: Films 65-69

69. 2046 and 68. The Duchess of Langeais A pair of doomed love stories that skip back and forth in time--one radically, the other more delicately. Wong Kar-wai's much-anticipated follow-up to the essentially perfect In the Mood for Love is more all-over-the-place than its exquisitely streamlined precursor, but it's a fascinating endeavor nevertheless, mixing self-reflexive sci-fi with flashes of the earlier film's swoon-inducing romance. Zhang Ziyi is devastating in a career-best turn. And speaking of stellar acting, Jeanne Balibar and Guillaume Depardieu's magnificent work elevates Jacques Rivette's film from the ranks of impeccably crafted costume dramas and into the canon of great film tragedies.

67. The Fast Runner Zacharias Kunuk's Inuit epic is a singular film experience; few films set in the ancient past feel this authentically transporting. As Kunuk recounts an orally-communicated First Nations legend, his film registers as simultaneously alien from modern society and curiously familiar in its depiction of romantic jealousy and group power dynamics.

66. Morvern Callar and 65. Collateral A couple master classes in film style where narrative and characterization matter less than the more fluid virtues of sound, vision, and mood. One's a UK indie adapted from a cult novel, the other a Hollywood star vehicle--both are compulsively watchable, yet tougher to properly praise in print. Perhaps the best description of Lynne Ramsay's film is that it's a remarkably faithful version of Alan Warner's seemingly unfilmable source text; which is to say, it's a total immersion in the mind of its title character, who only slowly emerges as a sympathetic heroine. Micheal Mann's film uses a thriller starring Jamie Foxx and a grey-haired Tom Cruise as an excuse for a riveting nocturnal tour of Los Angeles, stunningly captured on high-def DV by the great Dion Beebe.


New Nightmares: Films 70-74

74.Vital and 73. Bug Horror films of the mind--or mad romances. Shinya Tsukamoto's stunner flirts with necrophilia and auto-erotic asphyxiation while expertly sustaining its tone of wistful melancholy throughout (imagine an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind where Jim Carrey loses his memory first and only remembers Kate Winslet after beginning to dissect her cadaver...). William Friedkin's film is a moody chamber drama turned bad acip trip, in which Ashley Judd puts forever to rest any doubts about her range or courage as a performer.

72. Letters from Iwo Jima and 71. Cache "Revisionist history" is usually a tag that gets slapped on dubious flicks like Braveheart or Titanic, but, in decidedly different ways, these two films actively revisit the past in search of new perspectives. As a companion piece to his less remarkable Flags of Our Fathers, Clint Eastwood considers the Second World War from the viewpoint of Japanese soldiers, in particular an officer (played movingly by Ken Watanabe) who'd spent time in the United States. Michael Haneke's film is set in the present, but is all about atoning for past sins (namely France's mistreatment of its Algerian population), as a well-to-do Paris couple receive worrisome anonymous video recordings. It's kind of like Lost Highway with a point.

70. In America It's appropriate that "Do You Believe in Magic?" plays early on the soundtrack of Jim Sheridan's semi-autobiographical account of Irish immigrants in New York City: this is a legitimately magical movie, overflowing with hope and wonder and the tenderest affection. Not a note rings untrue.

(Huge thanks to Teresa for JLT/JLT's awesome new design!)
Family Matters: Film 75-80

80. Gran Torino, 79. A Christmas Tale and 78. Monsoon Wedding The idea of family is key to these three. In Gran Torino, the peerless Clint Eastwood plays a grumpy, racist widower and Korean War vet, who progressively comes to realize that he has more in common with the working-class, community-oriented Hmong immigrants in his Detroit neighborhood than his son's suburban, foreign-made SUV-driving family. Arnaud Desplechin and Mira Nair's respective films are rich tapestries of family life, centering on group gatherings--holiday dinner with an estranged bourgeois clan in the former, an elaborate New Dehli wedding in the latter--where tough amends are made and disturbing secrets surface.

77. Blissfully Yours Apichatpong Weerasethakul's breakthrough is a thing of elusive, ephemeral beauty. Two separate couples--among them, factory workers, an illegal Burmese immigrant, and a horny older woman--head to the Thai forest to picnic and make love. While the film's original cut is fairly explicit, it feels neither prurient nor aggressively provocative; sex, as depicted by Apichatpong, is a simple and very sensual act of nature, as well as a much-needed escape route from the obligations of assembly lines and immigration worries.

76. Fast Food Nation Richard Linklater's most unexpected Great Film turns an expose of the meat-packing and fast food industries (think: Upton Sinclar for the age of the Big Mac) into a vibrant sociocultural mosaic that's as moving as it is politically compelling. The whole cast is stellar (including Bruce Willis in a creepy bit role), but Greg Kinnear has never been better than as a restaurant chain higher-up whose narrative strain is purposefully dropped when he chooses conscience over profit.

75. Bring It On The best film about race in America since Do the Right Thing, period.


Very Different Worlds: Films 81-89

89. Kings and Queen Arnaud Desplechin's greatest trick as a storyteller is that just when you've made up your mind about what sort of movie it is you're watching, he turns down another direction entirely--and then again, and again. This approach is put to its most effective use in Kings & Queen, a film about a divorced mother entering a second marriage with a wealthy suitor, or--wait--is it a dark, sordid family history, or...a sweet-natured, farcial comedy (albeit with prescription drug abuse and threats of suicide)? Unlike the cheap "gotcha!" twists persistently in vogue over the past decade-plus, the surprise pay-off with Desplechin is that the film is finally all those things and others besides, balanced flawlessly by his top-shelf cast.

88. Into Great Silence, 87. Grizzly Man and 86. Useless Three very different documentaries. Philip Gröning and Werner Herzog's films largely retreat from the sound and fury of mainstream society; the former charts the day-to-day existence of Carthusian monks living in seclusion in the French Alps, while the latter chronicles the life and tragic fate of Timothy Treadwell, who lived for 13 summers among Alaskan grizzly bears. Jia Zhangke's doc, meanwhile, plunges headfirst into the here and now, using clothing and fashion as subjects to ponder the rapidly changing culture of his native China.

85. The Terminal This timely (if politically timid), Tati-indebted study of a man trapped in JFK International Airport after a revolution in his fictional home country invalidates his passport is perhaps Spielberg's most underrated effort. Along with his Southern con artist in the Coen Brothers' Ladykillers remake (also released in 2004), this is, for me, Tom Hanks' (whom I'd argue remains a better comic actor than "serious" actor) finest work.

84. The Descent and 83. Wolf Creek While the Saw and Hostel franchises reigned supreme at the decade's box-office, these are the '00's' best English-language horror movies. The Descent is a jagged feminist critique that finds a group of female spelunkers lost (but not alone) inside a massive cave. Wolf Creek, shot on painterly, eye-popping Australian locations, includes one of the most terrifying horror villains of all-time in Mick Taylor (played to perfection by John Jarratt), an ostensible Crocodile Dundee type who--let's just say--isn't as folksy-charming as he initially seems.

82. The Holy Girl and 81. Silent Light In Lucretia Martel and Carlos Reygadas' respective films, religion and sex converge, or overlap, with startling results. Martel's film explores Catholicism through a teenage girl's sexual awakening, shifting perspectives and progressing in strange, dreamlike rhythms. Reygadas focuses on a Mennonite community in Mexico, where an adulterous affair leads to devastating consequences and, ultimately, a conclusion worthy of Dreyer and Bresson in its stark spiritual ambiguity.


Politics, Past and Present: Films 90-94

94.The Lady and the Duke and 93.Shanghai Dreams Where the likes of Sofia Coppola and Baz Luhrmann traffic in unbridled anachronism for their period pieces, Erich Rohmer plays it meticulously faithful, save for one significant detail: his recounting of a Scottish aristocrat stuck in Paris during the French Revolution is shot on stunningly tactile digital video. It's an unconventional choice, to be sure, but it lends this story of individuals tossed around by the currents of unfolding history a real intimacy that too many stiff, talky costume dramas lack. Wang Xiaoshuai's film is also about the larger political forces that inadvertently shape the details of everyday life, focusing on a family, relocated from Shanghai to rural China, with hopes of returning to the big city.

92. Crimson Gold Jafar Panahi has always been a more earnestly political filmmaker than Abbas Kiarostami, so it's slightly surprising that Panahi's lionized mentor scripted this one. The story is simple: a Tehran pizza deliveryman experiences first-hand the vast divide between his country's working-class and the upper-crust, culminating in an act of supreme frustration. The result of this collaboration between two of Iran's brightest lights is one of the most painfully honest films ever made about class conflict.

91. Vera Drake Imelda Staunton rightfully earned heaps of praise and awards for her title role as an amateur abortionist, but Phil Davis, as her steadfast husband, is just as good. Toss a coin between this and 1999's Topsy-Turvy to determine Mike Leigh's finest film; that the two sides of that coin would be so radically disparate is a tribute to Leigh's versatility as a filmmaker.

90. The Son Speaking of variety (or lack thereof): I appreciated Kent Jones' remark a little while back that some critics' perennial Cannes-time gripe about the Dardennes Brothers' rigid dedication to a particular style and set of themes makes them "boring" when that's essentially the bottom line of auteurism. He definitely has a point (and maybe I'm part of the problem for ranking this arguable masterpiece at #90...).
Wonderful Weirdos: Films 95-100

100. Happy Here and Now and 99. Cloverfield Shot in pre-Katrina New Orleans, Michael Almereyda's widely slept-on film is many things: an oddball sci-fi one-off, a would-be whodunit, an incidental snapshot of a city on the eve of destruction, a muddled yet fascinating speculation of the near-future, a collection of eccentrics seemingly acting in different movies. It's also indelible, an utterly singular piece of filmmaking. Cloverfield runs on the reverse track, evoking a certain NYC nightmare from the recent past through the lens of a monster movie with a seemingly straightforward faux-doc narrative.

98. Adrift and 97. Love Conquers All Two of the best surprises I've encountered from attending the Vancouver International Film Festival over the past few years. The former, by Vietnamese newcomer Thac Chuyen Bai, interlaces a variety of flawed relationships--an overbearing mother and her newly married son, a muted lesbian crush, a young girl and her cranky, cockfighting-obsessed father, etc.--and achieves poignancy through specificity without ever veering toward dubious quirk. The latter, by Malaysia's Tan Chui Mui, seriously presses the truth behind its title statement as our heroine's boyfriend sells her into prostitution--and then asks for a second chance.

96. Brand Upon the Brain! Upon reflection, this is probably my favorite Guy Maddin movie. Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary is a mixed media tour-de-force, My Winnipeg is a uniquely moving personal history, and Heart of the World is a perfect mini-encapsulation of Maddin's bizarro aesthetic, but Brand wins out on genuine narrative urgency--an admittedly conventional virtue that Maddin impressively achieves without sacrificing a shred of his intoxicatingly strange signature approach.

95. Rembrandt's J'Accuse Peter Greenaway thinks The Nightwatch is a clear accusation of murder. By the end of his furiously entertaining cine-essay, in which he passionately argues for visual literacy, you won't think he's nuts. Or...perhaps you still will, but your leisurely strolls through the art gallery will certainly never be the same again.


The Also-Rans

Between now and the end of the year, in fits and starts of activity, I hope to post my list of the past decade's top 250 films. For the top 100, I plan on writing blurbs. To get things started off, for now, here are films 101-250:

101. Far from Heaven (Haynes)
102. Clean (Assayas)
103. No Country for Old Men (Coen/Coen)
104. About Schmidt (Payne)
105. Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (Maddin)
106. Million Dollar Baby (Eastwood)
107. Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (Brooks)
108. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (Mungiu)
109. War of the Worlds (Spielberg)
110. Primer (Carruth)
111. I HEART Huckabees (Russell)
112. Summer Hours (Assayas)
113. Stuck on You (Farrelly/Farrelly)
114. Catch Me If You Can (Spielberg)
115. Offside (Panahi)
116. Under the Sand (Ozon)
117. The Piano Teacher (Haneke)
118. The Royal Tenenbaums (Anderson)
119. Adventureland (Mottola)
120. Knocked Up (Apatow)
121. Fahrenheit 9/11 (Moore)
122. In the Cut (Campion)
123. Audition (Miike)
124. Down with Love (Reed)
125. My Winnipeg (Maddin)
126. Dumplings (Chan)
127. Kill Bill, Vol. 2 (Tarantino)
128. Paprika (Kon)
129. The Day I Became a Woman (Meshkini)
130. Loft (Kurosawa)
131. Control Room (Noujaim)
132. Lust, Caution (Ang)
133. Hulk (Ang)
134. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang)
135. Trouble Every Day (Denis)
136. Borat: Cultural Learnings for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Charles)
137. ABC Africa (Kiarostami)
138. 28 Days Later (Boyle)
139. Waking Life (Linklater)
140. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Gondry)
141. Femme Fatale (De Palma)
142. Downfall (Hirschbiegel)
143. Milk (Van Sant)
144. The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (Rohmer)
145. Waltz with Bashir (Folman)
146. Warm Water under a Red Bridge (Imamura)
147. Up the Yangtze (Chang)
148. Burn After Reading (Coen/Coen)
149. W. (Stone)
150. Jarhead (Mendes)
151. End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones (Fields/Gramaglia)
152. A History of Violence (Cronenberg)
153. The Dark Knight (Nolan)
154. I am Trying to Break Your Heart (Jones)
155. Of Time and the City (Davies)
156. Lovely and Amazing (Holofcener)
157. 10 + 4 (Akbari)
158. Keeping the Faith (Norton)
159. The Elephant and the Sea (Woo)
160. Distant (Ceylan)
161. Va Savoir (Rivette)
162. The Namesake (Nair)
163. The Host (Bong)
164. Munich (Spielberg)
165. Intolerable Cruelty (Coen/Coen)
166. The Others (Amenabar)
167. Volver (Almodovar)
168. Dancer in the Dark (von Trier)
169. Duck Season (Eimbcke)
170. The Virgin Suicides (Coppola)
171. Marie Antoinette (Coppola)
172. The Shape of Things (LaBute)
173. Cold Mountain (Minghella)
174. The Departed (Scorsese)
175. The Brown Bunny (Gallo)
176. Spirited Away (Miyazaki)
177. Last Life in the Universe (Ratanaruang)
178. The Magdalene Sisters (Mullan)
179. Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl (de Oliveira)
180. Spider-Man 3 (Raimi)
181. Drag Me to Hell (Raimi)
182. Pulse (Kurosawa)
183. Sex Is Comedy (Breillat)
184. L’Enfant (Dardenne/Dardenne)
185. Enchanted (Lima)
186. Lady Chatterley (Ferran)
187. Springtime in a Small Town (Tian)
188. The Dreamers (Bertolucci)
189. Minority Report (Spielberg)
190. Pan’s Labyrinth (del Toro)
191. The Wind That Shakes the Barley (Loach)
192. Broken Flowers (Jarmusch)
193. Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou)
194. Infection (Ochiai)
195. Hotel Rwanda (George)
196. Shattered Glass (Ray)
197. In Between Days (Kim)
198. Zodiac (Fincher)
199. The Anniversary Party (Leigh/Cumming)
200. O’ Brother, Where Art Thou? (Coen/Coen)
201. An Inconvenient Truth (Guggenheim)
202. crazy/beautiful (Stockwell)
203. La Cienaga (Martel)
204. The Journals of Knud Rasmusssen (Kunuk/Cohn)
205. Time Out (Cantent)
206. Forbidden (Anwar)
207. Mother (Bong)
208. The Vertical Ray of the Sun (Tran)
209. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (Lumet)
210. The Man Without a Past (Kaurismaki)
211. Maria Full of Grace (Marston)
212. All the Real Girls (Green)
213. House of Flying Daggers (Zhang)
214. Tokyo Godfathers (Kon)
215. Capturing the Friedmans (Jarecki)
216. Kandahar (M. Makhmalbaf)
217. The Flower of Evil (Chabrol)
218. Head of State (Rock)
219. In Good Company (Weitz)
220. Mean Girls (Waters)
221. The Man Who Wasn’t There (Coen/Coen)
222. The Missing (Lee)
223. Zoolander (Stiller)
224. Murderous Maids (Denis)
225. Wonder Boys (Hanson)
226. 8 Mile (Hanson)
227. Eastern Promises (Cronenberg)
228. Inside Man (Lee)
229. Ploy (Ratanaruang)
230. Superbad (Mottola)
231. Juno (Reitman)
232. ATL (Robinson)
233. Death Proof (Tarantino)
234. Cabin Fever (Roth)
235. Whale Rider (Caro)
236. Boarding Gate (Assayas)
237. Friday Night Lights (Berg)
238. The Princess and the Warrior (Tykwer)
239. Ratcatcher (Ramsay)
240. Suzhou River (Ye)
241. Traffic (Soderbergh)
242. Ocean’s Twelve (Soderbergh)
243. Borderline (Charlebrois)
244. The Squid and the Whale (Baumbach)
245. Blackboards (S. Makhmalbaf)
246. Bamboozled (Lee)
247. Ichi the Killer (Miike)
248. Elephant (Van Sant)
249. Lost in Translation (Coppola)
250. Inland Empire (Lynch)


Desperate Measures

To my tastes, A Serious Man is the Coen Brothers' strongest all-around effort since Barton Fink. (It's also, as of 2009's 11th hour, my pick for Movie of the Year, narrowly edging out Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds and Haneke's The White Ribbon.) Like the Coens' 1991 masterpiece, their latest centers on a semi-intellectual Jewish guy on the brink of an admittedly warranted nervous breakdown. Both films forge ominously miscrosmic mini-universes through the richness of their supporting characters and via a heightened sense of time and place (Golden Age Hollywood in the case of the earlier film, suburban Minneapolis circa 1968 in the new one). They're also both seriously funny, though a good number of the laughs are nervous, awkward even, averted from misanthropy largely by the abilities of their casts to shape empathetic human beings from satirical ciphers.

Speculation says that A Serious Man is the Coens' most "personal" film--and perhaps it is, judging from the guarded affection and rigorous detail with which Joel and Ethan recreate the Upper Midwest of their chidlhood. But, just as significantly, it's their most stunning balancing act between their signature droll- dark comedy and deeply felt drama; they're playing to their strengths while simultaneously cultivating new, "mature" territory. This is a comedy of despair, to be sure, where the supposed wisdom and redemptive power of religion are called squarely into question (the film opens with a Yiddish ghost story that may or may not tie directly into the main narrative), much the same way Barton Fink ponders the value of political ideologies. Both films end on a note of unsettled ambiguity, and while Barton Fink's final act remains the Coens' most radical piece of filmmaking, A Serious Man registers as their most genuinely poignant work to date.