I saw a stream of 'best films of the 21st-century' lists on my Twitter feed because as we know Film Twitter is addicted to two things: films and lists about films. So naturally, I couldn't help but take part. I have to admit that this was a lot more difficult than I thought, so I selected films I felt were timely or timeless - or both. This reflects not just those films that blew me away but those that reflected our culture as it is today. So without further ado, this is my personal top ten of the century so far.
(2001, Catherine Breillat)
Anais is twelve years old. She's fat and is constantly eating. Her sister Elena is fifteen. She's beautiful and flirtatious. While on vacation Elena meets Fernando, an Italian student who seduces her and is determined to take her virginity. In a long, uncomfortable scene set during the dead of night, whispers between Elena and Fernando are overheard by Anais who is in the same room and pretending to be asleep. Fernando seduces Elena with pseudo-romantic babble and she falls for it, or perhaps she pretends to?
What transpires is a psycho-emotional threesome that interrogates the precarious interaction between a naive and beautiful girl, a lecherous man with one thing on his mind and the 'other' sister who is maybe jealous, maybe repulsed or a bit of both.
Breillat turns a coming-of-age film into provocative feminist filmmaking and charges it with political statements about women and their relationships.
(2011, Lars von Trier)
When the threat of Melancholia (an approaching planet that once hid behind the sun and may or may not collide with Earth) heightens, Justine reacts to the situation with interminable indifference while Claire responds with suffocating anxiety.
Von Trier uses an impending apocalypse as a way to explain what depression and an anxiety disorder really feels like. Personally, I've had bouts of anxiety attacks and moments of depression and still continue to experience these. I haven't come across a film that accurately portrays what anxiety and depression does to a person's internal and emotional state.
That intense suffocating feeling that Claire experiences during Melancholia's approach towards Earth, as if gravity itself is trying to wring the air out of your lungs, is a mental and emotional trauma that is painfully familiar for me.
(2005, Michael Haneke)
I discovered Haneke in high school and he shattered everything I knew about cinema. Specifically, the way a camera is used and the power it wields in uncovering truth or, more effectively, showing something that looks like the truth but really isn't.
The first scene consists of a simple, almost meaningless static shot of a house taken from the outside on the street. The credits roll and then we hear voices and we come to understand that what we were looking at is a videotape. It was left on the doorstep of the house it's surveilling. The voices belong to the people living inside and someone is watching them from outside. It's a terrifying and intelligent look at modern paranoia and the tools we use to cause it. And it's so much more.
(2001, David Lynch)
Oh Hollywood. The factory of dreams. You can't have dreams without creating nightmares and Lynch's extraordinary film is the best expression of the darker side of storytelling, world-making and acting.
We all love fiction. We love hearing and experiencing stories but the process of creating these leaves behind a dark residue that comes from the inherent aspect of fiction-making: we have to pretend, we have to make-believe, we have to disguise.
Fantasy and dreams are dangerous because you might lose yourself along the way. "Hey pretty girl, time to wake up."
(2011, Celine Sciamma)
The film is simply about a girl coming to terms with her gender identity and testing the waters to see what she can get away with. There isn't much plot as Sciamma prefers to observe her characters instead of making them do things for the sake of a narrative. The film alternates with scenes at home with the family and scenes outside with her friends. It's a repetitive structure but never feels tedious.
This is one of those quieter movies but its impact grows heavier when you think about it later on. Sciamma is one of the most exciting filmmakers living today. A storyteller with an immeasurable sensitivity and insight into the characters she brings to the screen.
I AM LOVE
(2009, Luca Guadagnino)
It holds up well. What I noticed in my third viewing was how incredible the camera moved. It changed from the perspective of voyeur, observer and lover. Guadagnino really knows how to utilise the language of cinema to perfectly communicate a mood or a character's emotional state.
From colour, to composition, costume, hair, lighting, set design, music, and movement - all of these elements flowed together with such elegance and precision, paired with a stunning performance by Tilda Swinton.
This is melodrama at its best.
(2012, Harmony Korine)
Korine is more of an image-maker than a filmmaker. What he sacrifices in narrative he more than makes up for in his extremely assaultive images that are as deplorable as they are exquisite. While some would be dismissive of his work, and I can understand those criticisms, I think he is one of the most important filmmakers working today simply because there is no one else like him. The images he produces are the stuff of beautiful neon nightmares, usually reserved only for our subconscious.
(2011, Asghar Farhadi)
The perfect film. It's rare but not impossible. This is a perfect film.
When every aspect of filmmaking from the writing, directing, acting, cinematography, editing just nails it every single time. It is a complex film about dealing with consequences of one's actions. It stays well within grey, ambiguous areas of morality and ethics. You keep asking yourself what would I do if I was placed in this person's situation.
There aren't good people or bad people. These are just people making mistakes and how those impacts people around them. It is an exquisitely crafted film and essential viewing for anyone.
IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE
(2000, Wong Kar-Wai)
The cinematography is so lush, the costumes divine, and the two leads, Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, were so mesmerising. The characters are so well-dressed and put together. There's not a hair out of place - they look like they belong in an episode of Mad Men. But their perfect outward appearance magnify their inward emptiness and make their tragic circumstance seem more melancholic.
Food represents so much in the film. The pair pass by each other on the way to the noodle stand - they go there when their adulterous spouses are away - when they want a lonely meal for themselves. Sesame syrup becomes a representation of romantic generosity. A touch of mustard evokes husbandly tenderness and care. When the two are eating together, it is when they are the most intimate since they never physically or sexually act on their obvious attraction for one another.
This is by far the most romantic film I've ever seen. And they weren't even lovers. That's the most romantic part of it all. Usually in films exploring adultery, the focus is on the adulterers but not in this film. The camera refuses to even capture their faces and when they do enter the frame, it is very brief. Wong Kar-Wai makes it clear that this is not their story.
THE TREE OF LIFE
(2011, Terrence Malick)
2011 was really something wasn't it. In one year, Malick delivered the beginning of the universe, Von Trier brought the end and Farhadi brought the human schism in between.
But it's Tree Of Life that made the deepest impression. I can't even begin to describe the experience. I saw it twice at the theatre: first inside the appropriately majestic but still inadequate State Theatre at the Sydney Film Festival. I walked out of there in a daze. The second was with my mother who, when it ended, turned to me and said 'I really need to cry but I don't really know why.'
Me too mum. Me too.