Contains non-specific spoilers.
Whoa, first post since June! It seems fitting that I would finally decide to get back into blogging with a film that is in many ways a sister to the one I left off with back in the summer, The Piano Teacher. Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is a film that every critic I have read cannot resist comparing to other films: the oeuvres of David Lynch and David Cronenberg, Carrie, Suspiria, The Red Shoes, Repulsion, All About Eve, and Aronofsky’s own prior film The Wrestler, a comparison which the director himself wants to be drawn. Name-dropping similar films might be a lazy rhetorical tactic for a critic – a method of sidestepping actual writing – but in this case, Black Swan is making its influences so clear that they seem intrinsic to understanding what it’s going for. There is a long-standing tradition, starting in literature and extending to film, that imagines madness or death as the only respite of women caught in a struggle to define themselves (frequently as artists) in an oppressively patriarchal world that doesn’t value their voices. As far as literature goes, think Anna Karenina, The Yellow Wallpaper, The Awakening, Madame Bovary, and The House of Mirth. These early classics of feminist fiction challenged the patriarchal order of upper-class European and American society, but in the times they were written, there was nowhere for their heroines to go but deep into the mind or into the ocean – there was no way out that wasn’t too far.
This is a highly compelling theme and one can see why it’s persisted into the modern era, even as society moves closer to equality for men and women (although patriarchy certainly still exists in spades, there are many more choices for women today). Films like The Red Shoes and The Piano Teacher told this story, of the struggle of an artist to make her own decisions in a male-dominated world, with an equally bleak outlook. However, in Jane Campion’s The Piano, the trope is turned on its head with the heroine deciding to take ownership of her sexuality and the inner turmoil that boils up from within and becomes her art. She decides, fully and passionately, to live. Campion’s film can’t be marked as an optimistic ball of sunshine that ignores the realities for women who find themselves unable or unwilling to conform to society’s expectations of them, but rather it takes the typical ending and spins it progressively, seeing that something else exists besides madness and death. Black Swan takes several steps backwards.
The protagonist of Black Swan, Nina Sayres, is a long-standing member of a prestigious ballet company who has not been featured as much as she feels she deserves. She lives with her mother, a domineering former ballerina who controls Nina’s choices with the intent of keeping her away from anything that might distract her from her career. In this household, intimacy and connection only exist to serve the ballet. There is no love, just pursuit of the art. These characters are immediately familiar and Aronofsky assumes that by showing us the brutal body horrors of the ballet world, we will understand how much internal sacrifice is also taking place in order to achieve greatness in the field – no character development needed. The most immediate problem is that Nina is automatically presented as so fragile that it’s a complete wonder she even made it this far in such a competitive field. Everyone in her life dominates her and she spends the duration of most of the film with the sheen of half-repressed tears in her eyes and a constant tremble in her lip. She refuses to speak to anyone truthfully or openly, and cares for nothing and no one but the pursuit of “perfection” in her dancing.
When the imperious and highly sexual director of the company casts her in the dual role of the White Swan and the Black Swan, it almost seems like a joke, because she is so obviously too fragile to handle the pressure of the leading role. The justification for her casting is given with a glimpse into her obsession with small violence and fierce protection of her own body (she is the only one allowed to inflict pain or pleasure to herself). The director believes that if Nina gets in touch with her sexuality, she will be able to embody the passion, lust, and abandon needed to portray the Black Swan onstage. He would prefer it if she takes that sexual journey with him, but it becomes clear that the only person she can get off to is herself. Swan Lake is, at heart, a love story, but Nina has no time for love. The only thing of importance in her perspective is ballet, but she seems equally afraid of it, and we never get to feel why her devotion to it would light her on fire enough to start to descend into madness when the pressure of the role and the conniving members of her company become too much for her to handle.
No stakes are raised as the pressure mounts for Nina, because the audience knows where this is going. Punishingly literal symbolism is layered on in each image, and there is plenty of foreshadowing that lets us know that Nina’s arc is inseparable from the arc of the characters she’s playing. With Nina’s only interest being herself, why should the audience be invested in her downfall? Natalie Portman makes a very strong case for getting the audience to care about her character with her absolutely dedicated performance. She has clearly punished her own body in order to fit into the mold of an ideal ballerina, which creates a rather interesting metafictional dynamic. Aronofsky wants to create a sympathetic portrait of ballerinas with body image issues and self-destructive tendencies that stem from patriarchal pressure, but in order to do so, he had to give his actresses the same patriarchal pressure and body image issues. As an auteur he’s clearly obsessed with the physical aspects of performance and extracting every last ounce of stamina and willpower from his performers in order to achieve the perfect look for the character. There’s something extremely interesting, and more than a little disturbing, about making a film meant to expose the brutal body horrors of one art form, that requires those brutal body horrors to actually take place within the other art form.
While this may seem like a digression, I think it’s important to define Black Swan‘s place in Aronofsky’s oeuvre and how he feels about his protagonist in order to illuminate its thematic aspirations. In The Wrestler he was doing much of the same thing with Mickey Rourke, asking the actor to go through grueling physical ordeals to reflect the challenges of a character who lives in a world that enjoys watching people suffer. In that case, though, Randy “The Ram” was a man trying to do the right thing, trying to make connections with others, and trying to make his place in the world, not just as a performer, but a father, a lover, and friend – he just kept hitting walls, interior and exterior. Nina isn’t trying to be anything but a performer. Her narcissism is all-consuming, so much that it destroys her, but the approach to watching her fall isn’t dramatic in its inevitability, it’s overblown and painful. The visions she begins to experience start out as prosaic, intriguing projections of her inner identity struggle, but they eventually morph into cinematic conventions and effects that don’t seem to reflect her inner madness, but rather the director wanting to throw in every idea he had for making the film a “mind-fuck.” In the last act, the absurdity has been ratcheted up so high the audience has completely lost track of Nina and what she’s feeling. It’s turned into a horror film, but I’m not sure that approach served the character or left the audience with anything more than a visceral thrill, when poignancy and thematic weight could have been possible. Instead we get a story that’s completely old-fashioned and offers nothing new in its attempt to criticize repression and domination, with provocative sexual scenes, twisted violence, and grotesque FX meant to make it feel fresh. The film does feature many great technical achievements, but they seem piled on to cover up contempt for the characters and the stench of shallow melodrama disguised as high art.
May contain spoilers, I guess.
I actually watched this film very shortly after receiving my rec, but I wanted to let it stew for a bit, and ended up watching it a second time. I feel like a lot of the descriptions I’d read of The Piano Teacher beforehand were misleading – such as it being a film about BDSM, or that Erika, the titular character played by Isabelle Huppert, realizes that her dark sexual fantasies don’t translate to reality through her relationship with her cocky, snakelike young student. To say that the film portrays BDSM rather grossly misrepresents that form of sexual expression, in my opinion, for this film isn’t about expression at all, but about abuse, repression, control, perfectionism, and self-loathing, and the way all these lethal ingredients combine in one woman’s mind, making her totally vulnerable to a man looking for a conquest. Isabelle Huppert’s face alone makes this film utterly compelling in the way she maintains complete control over it in her professional life, only to crumble and break once she lets her guard down to someone she truly thinks will understand her twisted perception of love and sex.
During her interactions with pupils, she is downright cruel at times, always blunt, keeping them afraid of her so that she can achieve an image of complete control over her emotions and abilities. This obviously stems from her submissive relationship with her interfering mother, who pulls the strings for everything Erika does, from her recitals to her social outings. In turn, when a headstrong new student swaggers into her life, insisting that she teach him, and eventually insisting that he loves her, she sees this as an opportunity to both surrender and domineer. It’s complex, and Haneke’s style is so muted and objective that at times the motivations of the characters seem obscured. Walter, the student, particularly appears to make massive shifts in opinion, from desperately wanting Erika to telling her that she stinks and repulses him. To me this erratic behavior eventually revealed itself to be an elaborate game, designed to ultimately conquer and destroy Erika. Perhaps he was maddened by the way she refused to indulge his desires and insisted that they do things her way, or perhaps he felt threatened by the assertion of her dark sexuality and came to hate her for not conforming to his rules of heteronormative relationships. Walter’s repeated statements that there are things a woman simply can’t do to a man suggests to me that he has been conditioned to expect certain things out of sex, and when she doesn’t comply, his desire to have her morphs into something much more dangerous. Maybe he’s just a bastard. Pure speculation. But it is fascinating to watch the way he manipulates her, and the way her seeming strength of character is masking a desire to feel out of control in a situation that she actually orchestrated.
Haneke tackles all these subversive, sometimes repulsive, scenes with a refusal to indulge the “gross out” factor that sets him far apart from many of his contemporaries. This film isn’t about the visceral reaction you get from seeing violence, sex, or explosive emotions, but exploring the intellectual side of why our desires manifest the way they do. His approach worked extremely well for me, keeping me fully engrossed during the film, and contemplating many of the issues it raised long after. I did have a strong emotional reaction, because these ideas have all, in less extreme ways, caused me hurt in my own life. Who can you trust with your secrets? How do you escape the boundaries of restrictive parents, disciplined fields of study, and social norms about sexuality? When you boil it down to these questions, The Piano Teacher hardly seems sensational; it is a beautifully acted look at the way our need for control and desire to give it up can warp into something dark and dangerous if it isn’t accompanied by trust and acceptance, two of the hardest things to find in a world that values self-sufficiency and perfection over fulfillment.
Writer-actor-director John Krasinski’s debut can certainly be admired for its ambition, as it tackles a structurally complex and multi-layered collection of stories by David Foster Wallace, attempting to tie them together with a frame narrative concerning the interviewer, a young woman looking to understand the inner lives of men and connect them to her own troubled search for meaning. It’s a ripe concept, full of humor and pathos, and Krasinski’s inherent likability shines through, especially in the emotional monologue he delivers as an actor, but also in its quick pace and snappy dialogue. That pace is both a boon to the film and likely its biggest weakness. At only 75 minutes, the film tackles too many massive issues – rape, racism, father-son relationships, gender stereotypes, sexual inadequacy, infidelity – to delve deeply into any of them, instead skimming the surface of all of them, and refusing to take any stance on the interactions of men and women.
Individually, many of the scenes work well, revealing something thought-provoking about the way men think, either by portraying them as utterly shallow stereotypes, or sensitive exceptions to the “alpha male” classification.The best of these is probably the interview given by Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, with a possible stunt casting revealing one of the few understated, emotionally attuned actors in the ensemble. His reflections suggest a desire to really know a woman, in her most profound moment. This is something that the interviewer never expects, so jaded is she by the revelations of her previous interviews. While the structure itself reveals much about the character of this interviewer – a disenchanted, disconnected female grad student who is blinded by her arrogant view of social interaction – it also ends just as it gains momentum, leaving too many questionable threads dangling.
A major theme of the film is evaluating what women really want, often considered the “ultimate question” when it comes to male-female relationships in the modern age. Here it is applied to sex, in the case of an older man bragging that he has the key to being the perfect lover, and also in a broader sense, with two younger men trying to sort out the needs of the modern woman. The only modern woman we see here, though, is so disengaged with life that she utterly fails to connect with everyone around her, lacking empathy and the ability to see outside her own narrow life experience.
So what exactly, is the angle here? There is a disturbing amount of material here suggesting that, essentially, women want to be “overwhelmed with passion,” and that rape is an experience women cannot claim as uniquely violating for them. True connection between the genders is not possible in this filmic world. Even an orgasm is something that pushes couples apart, instead of bringing them together. This might be a theme merely stated by these characters, who are after all, supposed to be “hideous” in some way. We must be careful of reading the characters’ words and actions as the writer/director’s intentions. But I’m left wondering, if that’s not the message, what is? The film is too jammed full of ideas to be empty, pointless, or entirely ambiguous. Still, either Wallace or Krasinski is stubbornly refusing to throw out anything more substantial than some (admittedly witty) soundbites and monologues. This makes for a frustrating experience, because we need more honest and insightful dialogue about the social forces that control our perceptions of gender, sex, and self.
10. Werckmeister Harmonies (Bela Tarr)
A difficult film, but one with such startling beauty and rich insights about humanity. Tarr’s camera languidly tracks the inhabitants of a small Hungarian town through only 39 shots, revealing their feelings of discord and emptiness that boil to the surface with the arrival of a traveling circus. With the appearance of a disfigured stranger called The Prince, and the continued oppression of the bitter cold, the restless townspeople find they cannot hold in their destructive emotions any longer. The result is mesmerizing and frightening, and the film’s sinister undercurrent is bolstered by Mihaly Vig’s incredible score. The film’s universe is a godless one, full of random chaos and uncertainty, but its very structure, which plays out like a finely tuned symphony, holds hope in its elegance.
9. Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky)
A full-frontal assault on the senses and emotions, Aronofsky’s last film to appear on my list is a uniquely powerful look at the downward spiral of drug addiction. It might be too relentlessly bleak, if it weren’t for the style, which is strikingly innovative, utilizing split-screens, fish-eye lenses, and shaky cam to mimic the internal lives of its characters. While the entirely film is impressively shot and acted, what really makes it stand out is the performance of Ellen Burstyn as a lonely mother consumed by her longing for the past and hope for a better future, which manifests in an addiction to diet pills. She’s a tour-de-force, pathetic, defeated, and deranged, an actress completely abandoning vanity to express a bottomless hurt. It’s painful to witness, but rewarding in its fearless authenticity.
8. The Lord of the Rings trilogy (Peter Jackson)
For most of my teenage years, the trilogy as a whole was my favorite film (and I never bothered to make a distinction between the three – they are one story, separated for practical reasons, and each have their unique strengths and weaknesses). I think my taste has evolved over the years, but I’m still an absolute sucker for fantasy, and this trilogy for me represents the epitome of cinematic imagination. From the art direction to the special effects, the creativity and the execution of that vision is just staggering, resulting in a fully immersive world. However, all that would be mostly moot if it wasn’t engaging on a narrative level, and it absolutely is, weaving threads of dozens of characters into an endlessly compelling tapestry. At its heart is the love between Sam and Frodo, two gentle souls guided by selfless love to the ends of the earth. If you surrender to it, their journey is both awe-inspiring and moving.
7. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry)
I just rewatched this for the first time in years last night. I was a little worried it wouldn’t affect me like it used to, an anxiety which turned out to be baseless. This is such an honest, true-to-life film, and its unconventional approach only reveals further insights about love and memory. I see myself as a mixture of Joel and Clementine, and I understand both of their perspectives, as well as their desire to sustain a relationship that may seem mismatched from the very beginning. The beauty and tragedy of life is that we can’t always reach the goals we dream of, but the journeys are worth it. Joel and Clementine might not be “soulmates” or even right for each other at all, but in their love for each other, there is something profound, a fact most films about love fail to acknowledge. The ambiguous ending, as well as the biting humor and tender honesty, makes this film our generation’s Annie Hall; a film that sees relationships through imaginative yet clear eyes.
6. Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola)
This much-maligned account of the early years of Marie Antoinette’s reign has been misunderstood as a trifle, all style and no substance, like the champagne that flows like water at the Queen’s parties. The film is certainly a treat for the eyes, boasting some of the most stunning costumes in memory, and the dazzling settings of Versailles and Le Petit Trianon. But there’s much more to it. Sofia Coppola is in the perfect position to understand the heartache of a privileged young woman who feels undervalued and stretched beyond her limitations. Despite her seeming position of power, Marie is chained to her lifestyle, unable to see beyond her own perspective. She isn’t heartless, or nearly as self-absorbed as history has attempted to paint her; she tries her best to please her family, and cares about her people, but the decisions of many monarchs before her have put her destiny straight in line with the guillotine. Coppola’s approach to this tragic arc is understated and decidedly modern, making Marie’s journey feel relevant and even timely, because we too live in a world that enables us to get lost in our excesses.
So those of you who know my taste have probably noticed a rather glaring omission in my list so far. I love Pixar, and the original draft of my list included 4 of their films (Monsters Inc, Wall-E, Ratatouille, and Finding Nemo). I could have easily included The Incredibles and Up, as well. But I decided that was a bit much, especially because I love them for most the same reasons: their innovative storylines, beautifully written dialogue that is both hilarious and touching, memorable characters, great voice work, and stunning animation, from expressive character designs to realistic and lovely backgrounds. Of course, they each have their own individual merits. I love the creative way Ratatouille exposes the world of haute cuisine. I’m always amazed by Wall-E‘s purely visual storytelling throughout most of its runtime, conveying so many emotions without words. Monsters Inc. and Up have two of the sweetest surrogate-parent relationships I’ve seen in film, not to mention the endless creativity of their adventures. Dory from Finding Nemo is an absolutely brilliant creation, and the traditional quest narrative is given a whole new life set in the Australian ocean. The superhero mythology is reimagined in The Incredibles with a sharp insight that rivals Watchmen. Here’s to all these incredible films and a studio that has just kept giving us gems this decade.
15. Bright Star (Jane Campion)
I had to save a spot on my list for this. I just saw it for the first time recently, and it’s one of the few films on the list I’ve only seen once. It distills the essence of Keats’ poetry – rapturously beautiful, idyllic, yet moody and prone to purple prose – and expresses it visually, marrying the literature to cinema in a closer union than its two lovers can hope to experience. Their intense, yet chaste, romance, is built upon an ideal of truth and beauty, deepened by the impossibility of its consummation. Like the protagonists in In the Mood for Love, Fanny and John refuses to betray their moral code for their passion, in contrast to John’s jealous friend Mr. Brown, whose loneliness drives him to make a mistake that will cost him his greatest love. But in this case, it doesn’t feel wrong that they held out for something pure and transcendent – only wrong that time, circumstance, and tragedy cut short their brief moment of inspiration.
14. A Very Long Engagement (Jean-Pierre Jeunet)
Jeunet’s manic energy and distinctive visual style were a perfect match for Sebastien Japrisot’s busy, beautiful novel. The story revolves around the lives of women affected by WWI; specifically, the lovers of a group of men court-martialed for self mutilation and all presumed dead. The purest of these women, Mathilde, searches for the truth about her missing fiance, believing that if he had died, she would know. Her quest drives her to discover the full depth of pain experienced by those left behind, creating a sisterly bond that is uncommon in tales of war. The film is tonally strange, featuring both graphic violence and unexpected humor, but its breadth of emotion feels honest and true to the experiences of the people it depicts, torn between joyous hope and utter despair.
13. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki)
Miyazaki’s unusual brand of storytelling perhaps reaches its peak in Spirited Away, a fascinating mix of the gorgeous and the grotesque. Veering between a young girl’s dreams of friendship and independence and her nightmares of losing her parents in a strange, supernatural world, this fantasy is wildly imaginative in the most unexpected ways. Miyazaki has a gift with strong female heroines, and Chihiro, as well as her mentor and friend Lin, rise to the occasion admirably. But the real revelations in his canon are his nonverbal characters, perhaps perfected here with No-Face, the desperately lonely creature that Chihiro eventually brings peace to. From its setting of a deserted theme park that morphs into a bath house for the spirits, to the troubled, otherworldly characters that inhabit it, Spirited Away creates an exhilarating fantasy world to get lost in.
12. The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky)
One of the most devastating portraits of loneliness I can think of, this intimate, brutal film follows a down-and-out wrestler, Randy “The Ram” Robinson, as he tries and repeatedly fails to patch the holes in his life. With the encouragement of a kindly stripper, Cassidy, who has similarly found that exploiting her body leaves her empty, he searches out his estranged daughter while attempting to redeem himself in the ring. The demystification of professional wrestling is startling in its graphic violence, but the mostly self-inflicted emotional pain Randy goes through is even harder to watch. Repeatedly he seems close to truly connecting with a loved one and finding meaning outside of his audience’s adoration, but he breaks his own promises. Despite the bleakness, this is quite an easy film to love, not least because of Mickey Rourke’s performance of a lifetime, expressing decades of broken dreams and disappointments in every slouch and tear on his weather-beaten face.
11. Pride and Prejudice (Joe Wright)
Ever since I started reading Austen as a young teen, I dreamed of living inside the world she creates, which is one where perfect love exists at peace in the English countryside. Unlike Fanny Brawne and John Keats, Austen’s characters are held back from real happiness only by their own shortsightedness, which they always manage to overcome in time for an advantageous marriage. It’s pure wish fulfillment, but director Joe Wright frees the story from its potentially suffocating comedy of manners, bringing her characters down to earth and sending his camera off to glide through their idyllic world. His long tracking shots set the romantic mood alight, weaving in and out of parties, capturing the pain and elation of the stages of love and the faces of every character. Keira Knightley and Rosamund Pike absolutely glow as his big-hearted heroines in search of a life and love of their own. Every shot is beautiful and cinematic, jumping off the page and straight into the viewer’s heart.
Josh Ritter, The Animal Years
Once I knew a girl in the hard hard times
She made me a shirt out of fives and dimes
Now she’s gone but when I wear it she crosses my mind
And if the best is for the best then the best is unkind
I realized that Illinois was more than I could stand
They say working’s best cause poverty is hell on a man
Now I ride a lazy river through the Mississippi fan
And if the best is for the best then the best can be damned
I spent a few years on the Queen of Spain
She was a leaky little boat that went up in flames
When the boiler blew some people started naming names
But if the best is for the best
I guess the best is to blame
I spent a few more as the Cairo Crown
A heavyweight wrestler in the Midwest towns
But I was lonesome for a girl who could pin me down
They say the best is for the best but that’s not what I’ve found
Now I listen to my sweetheart and I listen to my thirst
I don’t spend time listening to other people’s words
Sometimes they’re right most times the reverse
They say the best is for the best when the best’s for the worse
Once I knew a girl in the hard hard times
She made me a shirt out of fives and dimes
Now she’s gone but when I wear it she crosses my mind
And if the best is for the best then the best is unkind
Stolen from Justine over at House of Mirth and Movies (who stole it from someone else, heh).
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Anti-Western, gorgeous imagery, lengthy, literate, deeply troubled but empathetic characters, moody score
La Belle et La Bete
Fantasy, French, amazing production design, highly imaginative, moody, strong female character
The Double Life of Veronique
Atmospheric, mysterious, emotional, incredible music, striking imagery, puppetry, deals with the “sublime”
20. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai)
This film has incredible rhythm, led by Shigeru Umebayashi’s elegant, repetitive score. It plays out much like a perfectly choreographed dance – the two lovers, constrained by their own delusions of nobility and morality, as well as society’s expectations of each other, circle each other endlessly, moving in, drawing back, never fully coming together. It’s a bit frustrating, but so is life; sometimes it’s not what happens that defines us, but what doesn’t, what is left unsaid, what longings are unexpressed, what love is unconsummated.
19. All the Real Girls (David Gordon Green)
In the same vein, All the Real Girls deals with a love that is broken, subverting expectations of how these narratives should play out. David Gordon Green treats his characters with tender empathy even as they self-sabotage, and the result is a film that feels warm and familiar, despite its confrontation of the hard truths that come with first love and experience. His vision of small town American life captures both its simple beauty and the frustration that comes with it, that feeling of being trapped.
18. The Best of Youth (Marco Tullio Giordana)
Often films containing so many characters and events can be distancing, never letting the viewer become intimately acquainted with any one moment or scene. The Best of Youth, however, uses its six hour runtime to great advantage, letting characters breathe and move throughout the loose narrative as they please. Certain scenes last interminably, like a New Year’s party, slowly, imperceptibly moving towards a game-changing climax. That isn’t to say, for its leisurely pace mostly resembling the ebb and flow of a great, sprawling novel, that the film is ever less than compelling. Its characters are so fully and warmly drawn, but left with enough ambiguity to draw you in, up until its stunning conclusion.
17. Hot Fuzz (Edgar Wright)
I find it difficult to write about comedy; it’s hard to pin down the essence of something as creative, outrageous, and fast-paced as this. What I love about Edgar Wright’s particular brand of humor is that it combines so many different elements of comedy, from incredibly sharp dialogue, to gory slapstick, to subtle visual gags, but the whole affair is grounded by a deep affection for his characters and the genre being parodied. Hot Fuzz actually contains some of the best action of the decade, as well as a fairly compelling mystery underneath all the elaborately staged death scenes and hilarious performances. It never gets old for me, consistently revealing new layers in the dialogue and inventive editing. It’s endlessly rewarding.
16. No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen)
I find it incredibly difficult to write about this film, as well. Even after multiple views, I don’t feel like I have a complete grasp on its themes, perhaps because I’m resistant to seeing it as being as nihilistic as most readings are. Regardless, I find it fascinating, and it’s a thrilling cinematic experience, full of brilliantly constructed suspense. Much has been said about its immediately iconic villain, Anton Chigurh, but just as instrumental in the creation of a sublimely tense mood is Roger Deakins’ striking cinematography, and the sound design, which understands better than perhaps any other film the agony of silence.
24. Antichrist (Lars Von Trier)
Full review here. Von Trier’s latest is a gorgeous, daring look at loss and mental illness, loaded with symbolic imagery and fierce performances.
23. Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro)
This rich fantasy boasts a stunning child performance from Ivana Baquero as Ofelia, composed and graceful even as the horrors stack up against her. Sergi Lopez makes one of the most terrifying villains of the decade, adding real danger and weight to the lush, dreamy atmosphere. It’s an expertly constructed fairytale, full of demons and monsters that sprout straight from Ofelia’s tortured imagination, and mirror her real-life struggle to survive and protect her family. Whether or not you believe in the fantasy, the finale is devastating.
22. Amelie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet)
Jeunet takes the feel-good movie and throws so many unique visual tricks and playful narrative digressions that it becomes something much richer and stranger than the tale of a shy girl hoping to find her own bliss by creating joy for others. Audrey Tautou is luminous, and Paris has never looked so warm and charming.
21. Quills (Philip Kaufman)
A bleak but darkly funny look at the last days of the Marquis de Sade, as he rails against censorship and sexual repression under Napoleon’s reign from the confines of his asylum cell. His perversions and delirious writings inspire lust and violence in all that come in contact with them, including the priest trying to convert him, a lecherous doctor, his fellow inmates, and the ripe, innocent laundry maid at the asylum. The results are tragic and thought-provoking. Geoffrey Rush is endlessly watchable even in his most deranged moments as the Marquis.
20. Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog)
Werner Herzog has made an entire career out of the clash between man’s ambition and the indifferent brutality of nature. In Grizzly Man, he turns his lens to Timothy Treadwell, a lost soul who found himself while living for years among bears in the Alaskan wilderness, before he and his girlfriend were devoured by them. Treadwell taped extensive footage of his experiences, and Herzog is wise enough to let them mostly speak for themselves. The closeness he experienced with animals is amazing to watch and much of his nature footage stunningly beautiful. Yet he is clearly deeply troubled, and this probing film goes deep into his psyche and those affected by his death. The question of what drove him to his violent end is largely unanswered, so the film lingers long after it ends.