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.