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.