11. The Flight of the Red Balloon (2008).
This take on one of the most beloved children’s films of the last fifty years has none of said film’s preciousness. In her second great performance of the last two years (see my #2 film), Juliette Binoche generates enough force to make us wonder just who the film’s about: her or the boy? And balloon makes three.
12. Before Sunset (2004).
Of course Ethan Hawke’s character is unimaginative enough to have written a novel about his experiences ten years earlier with Julie Delpy, so what she sees in him is anybody’s guess. Linklater’s camera follows them coolly, watching them parry, thrust, dodge, and feint without judging these two fools. I look forward to Before Midnight in 2014, in which a married Jesse and Celine make like Brigitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli in Contempt.
13. The Piano Teacher (2002).
As the decade unfolded we would note and dismiss Michael Haneke’s sadism. In the wrong mood I’d dismiss this nasty little thing as camp. It probably still is. I can’t separate Haneke’s achievement from Isabelle Huppert’s, whose performance as a repressed-every-which-way woman toys with Carol Burnett territory but in its dogged indifference to being liked rivals some of Bette Davis’ best.
14. No End in Sight (2007).
If the Democratic Party had any balls it would have commissioned this in 2004, showed it at their convention, and run it as a series of attack ads. Rewatching this, I bid adieu to this low, sad, dishonest decade, and welcomed another dishonest one.
15. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004).
Nick Davis: “Because packed into every minute is some dazzling effect or narrative loop or blazon of the makers’ quirks, but for all of those amazing and endearing convolutions, the emotions are played impressively straight. In good times and bad, in duck sauce and in health, it’s the truest-feeling deconstruction of love in an American movie since Annie Hall.”
16. Before Night Falls (2001).
A subtropical chronicle of a death foretold, set during the Havana equivalent of the Prague Spring. No matter how strenuously artists insist on aloofness from politics, politics will insist on a place, especially when sex is involved. That former painter Julian Schnabel — a scenester if there ever was one — directed only compounds the ironies. Docked a few notches for assuming we’d find Sean Penn and Johnny Depp’s cameos just as raucous.
17. The Witnesses (2007)
A close group of friends of fluid sexuality argue, pair, and recombine, the latter at the same pace as the AIDS virus that might consume one of them. Like Summer Hours, André Téchiné’s tone is so evanescent that its skirting of sentimentality might make you long for a little vulgarity (thankfully Téchiné provides eye candy in the form of Johan Libéreau). If you’ve seen 1995’s Wild Reeds, you know the poignancy Téchiné can extract from roundelays. When the music stops in this one, you may not remember whether you’d been attending a dinner party or a wake.
18. Children of Men (2006).
A barefoot Clive Owen smuggles a young black mother through a battle-scarred dystopia. Michael Caine mugs as a hippie throwback. Julianne Moore does the best Janet Leigh impersonation in recent film. Thanks to the film’s relentless pace, war hasn’t looked this grim in ages.
19. Grizzly Man (2005).
What an absurd collision of sensibilities: Werner Herzog’s posh German nihilism and Timothy Treadwell’s unctuous New Age softheadedness. In the horror that Herzog (wisely) leaves offscreen, we are left no less dumbfounded than Treadwell’s colleagues and girlfriends, unable to answer the most basic question: do our friends and relatives know how fucked up we really are? Ask the bear.
20. The Bourne Supremacy (2004).
Let’s mangle Pauline Kael: No one else can lend each quick glancing scene its proper weight before cutting away like Paul Greengrass can, but if anyone else should learn to, kill him.