10. Sur mes lèvres (Read My Lips) (Jacques Audiard, 2001)
From one of the most consistently fascinating directors around came this riveting, subtle yarn of two individuals who could never have expected to fit together. Carla (Emmanuelle Devos) is a put-upon secretary whose near-deafness is viewed as a crutch, both by her associates and by herself; Paul (Vincent Cassel) is a greasy ex-con trying to get a start in the legal economy. If the tagline – “She teaches him good manners; he teaches her bad ones” – isn’t tantalising enough, there is a charged passion and emotion that builds through the film to a heart-in-mouth, near-silent climax and a perfect postscript. This is one of those films that it’s just so hard to find any fault with; it’s also a damned fine thriller in its own right.
Classic moment: An extraordinary, protracted scene of lip-reading that is almost too tense to bear.
9. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)
Charlie Kaufman was the celebrity screenwriter of the 00s. Films like Adaptation. and Synecdoche, New York showed that there are still new things to be done (and done very well) in mainstream cinema, but Eternal Sunshine represented the most balanced harmony yet realised from a Kaufman script. It was the perfect marriage between his crushing cynicism and Michel Gondry’s playful, childlike aesthetic, and with great acting across the board, including the best turn of Jim Carrey’s career, this love story of memories, disappointments and ultimately hope had a unique shine. It reminds me of how unusual it is to see recognisable characters up on the screen – people you can identify strongly with, and feel like you’ve met before. If the characters have a somewhat defeatist attitude, it’s because that’s what Kaufman sees all around him in an age of short attention spans and hurried divorces.
Classic moment: Joel wakes up – again – to the tune of Jon Brion’s wonderful score, and the narrative threads start to connect.
8. City of God (Fernando Meirelles, 2002)
When City of God burst onto the screen in front of a packed house at the Christchurch Film Festival in 2003, that now-iconic blade sharpening and running chicken made everyone shut up and pay attention. When we emerged a little over two hours later, the dynamic storytelling of Meirelles’ film had rendered the real world toothless and banal, as if everything was in slow motion – our own lives so much less interesting after witnessing those played out in the favekas of Rio de Janeiro. The kids, the gangs, the violence… it was so different, so brutal and alive. It was, as Empire magazine put it, ‘at once a laboratory for cinema technique and a victory for raw heart… a snot-nosed, blood-stained masterpiece’.
Classic moment: The motel murderer is revealed in truly chilling fashion.
7. Dogville (Lars von Trier, 2003)
von Trier was probably the decade’s most controversial director, serving up Dancer in the Dark, Manderlay, Antichrist and Dogville – all fascinating works that completely polarised critical opinion. Those that liked him couldn’t get enough of him; those that didn’t truly detested him, leading to press conferences of an almost threatening tone (3:50 in this clip). I’m firmly in the former camp: his films are the work of an artistic genius, bursting with ideas that go against the grain of popular thought, and Dogville is his most triumphant statement – both artistically and philosophically – yet. Shot on a barren soundstage, it tells the story of a woman on the run from gangsters who is sheltered in a tiny village; this being a von Trier film, things do not go well. Far from being the anti-American statement so many made it out to be, this is a story that speaks to the whole of humanity and to the close-minded nature we all have in some way or another. The final scenes are some of the most truthful, and gripping, of the decade.
Classic moment: The gangsters catch up with Grace, and the boss tells her she has a tough lesson to learn.
6. Irréversible (Gaspar Noé, 2002)
While I’m on the subject of controversial films, this… is about as controversial as the 00s got. Told in reverse, this is the story of a rape and a murder, and both scenes are protracted, graphically detailed and almost impossible to watch. Still, Noé’s aim isn’t merely to shock. The film works on a number of levels: the nature of the beast within, the dynamics of human relationships, our voyeurism as filmgoers, the capability of CGI and special effects to enhance a cinema experience, and of course the film’s central conceit: that ‘time destroys everything’. Were it structured solely around those two scenes, it would be more of an interesting if off-putting experiment; however, with a third act in which the previously dizzying camera slows down and shows real-life husband and wife Vincent Cassel (that man again) and Monica Bellucci canoodling during a lazy morning in bed – the opposite of those earlier scenes – Irréversible is elevated to an uncommonly high level. At the same time it’s a film I hesitate to recommend to anyone, as it’s the most realistically violent film I’ve seen save The Passion of the Christ, but those who come to it with an open mind and a good deal of mental preparedness will likely be rewarded. It made me feel physically sick, and haunted me for weeks, but I left the cinema in stunned admiration.
Classic moment: The two friends go on a horrible, disorienting odyssey through the gay nightclub ‘Rectum’, searching for Alex’s rapist.
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