Director: Edward Yang
Yi Yi moves slowly but in the process it burrows deeply into your mind. It concerns three generations of a family dealing with the changes brought about by three big events: a wedding, a birth and a death. Each of these events has a ripple effect, changing the dynamics of relationships and setting the characters on unexpected courses. Watching it all from a distance, director Edward Yang captures the nuances and subtleties of changing relationships, of loss and disappointment, of happiness and understanding, and in the process creates a moving portrait of a family.
Director: Lone Scherfig
Starring: Carey Mulligan
Oh, An Education, you deserved so much better than you got. Based on the memoir of the same name by Lynn Barber, the title refers not only to the romantic education young Jenny receives when she takes up with an older man, but also to the symbolic meaning of higher education for a young woman in the early 1960s. Smart and driven, Jenny's educational aspirations are nevertheless seen as merely another way for her to get a husband and when she realizes this she's forced to ask herself if an education is worth it and whether or not she wants more. With a marvellous performance by Carey Mulligan in the lead and a host of great supporting performances, An Education is a rare gem of a film that would be beloved if only more people would watch it.
Director: Andrew Stanton
Pixar isn't exactly hurting for praise but it must be reiterated that they've had an awesome decade, the high point (arguably) being Wall-E. Centering on a garbage compacting robot left behind to clean up a wasted earth, Wall-E experiences what we humans call love, goes into space to be united with female robot Eve and in the process alters the course of humanity. Playing on themes of environmentalism, technology, and humanity, the film is ambitious and incredibly well-wrought, becoming not only a first rate animated film, but a first rate science fiction story as well.
Director: Robert Altman
Starring: Kelly Macdonald, Helen Mirren, Maggie Smith, Clive Owen, Kristin Scott Thomas, Bob Balaban, Michael Gambon, Derek Jacobi, Jeremy Northam, Emily Watson
Robert Altman was a fearless filmmaker, unafraid to guide a large cast, unafraid to let the audience fill in certain blanks, perfectly willing to start a movie in the middle of the story, a scene in the middle of a conversation. In Gosford Park he takes us to a manor house in the English countryside where the subtleties of class politics and inter-relationship dramas play out before giving way to a closed-room style murder mystery. Atlman’s style can be an acquired taste, but when he’s at the top of his game the result is a film with a richness that few other filmmakers can match.
Director: Duncan Jones
Starring: Sam Rockwell
A throwback to classic science fiction films (2001 in particular), Moon is proof that you don't need a big budget and tons of special effects to make an effective and engaging film. Starring Sam Rockwell in a dual role as clones who accidentally discover their true nature (and that they are just two of hundreds who will enjoy brief life cycles and then be replaced), Moon asks elusive questions like "what makes us human?" and "how real are we/our memories?" Rockwell turns in a great, touching performance that was of course overlooked by most awarding bodies. Some day, Sam. Some day.
Director: Mike Leigh
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan
In my experience Happy-Go-Lucky is a film people tend to love or hate. Or, maybe it's Poppy, the irrepressibly happy and hopeful protagonist played by Sally Hawkins, that people love or hate. I, for one, love the film and its lead. I understand how Poppy's perkiness can be wearing, but I think the character is saved by Hawkins. Light just seems to shine from her as director Mike Leigh takes her through a series of vignettes that will test the sense of positivity at her core. Easily moving between comedy and drama (often in one scene), Happy-Go-Lucky is a masterfully crafted film that I could watch over and over and over again.
Director: Jeremy Podeswa
Starring: Stephen Dillane
Anne Michaels' book Fugitive Pieces is a poetic piece of work. Its story is compelling but the real draw is the prose, which is of course difficult to translate to a film adaptation. Jeremy Podeswa, who adapted the book in addition to taking the helm as director, manages to transfer the lyrical feel of the novel to the screen through a combination of visuals and voice over and creates a film that is equal to its source and beautiful in its own right. The story of a writer contending with the guilt of having survived the Holocaust and the elusiveness of his relationships later in life is moving and memorable.
Director: Pedro Almodovar
Starring: Penelope Cruz
Penelope Cruz was already a star by the time Volver came out, but this is the film that really seemed to make people take her seriously as an actress (at least on this side of the Atlantic). Her stunning performance earned her numerous awards and nominations (including a Best Actress nod) and showed another side of her as an actress. Directed by Pedro Almodovar (who, if you're keeping score, is now 4 for 4 on this list), Volver is a story of mothers and daughters, of family secrets, and death. It is a vibrant, beautifully made film from a master craftsman.
Country: South Korea
Director: Park Chan-Wook
Starring: Choi Min-Sik
Revenge is a dish best served cold. In Oldboy it's also best served in a highly elaborate mystery with a devastating reveal. The premise alone - a man is held captive for 15 years without explanation then suddenly released and left to discover why - is intriguing enough to make the film worth watching but director Park Chan-Wook packs so much style and skill into it that you'll find yourself wanting to return to it again and again. Well-constructed and brilliantly executed, Oldboy is a film you don't want to miss.
Director: Joel & Ethan Coen
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem
You can't stop what's coming. In No Country For Old Men the killer played by Javier Bardem is so determined, so ruthless that he almost seems to take on supernatural dimension as he destroys everything in his path in his quest to reclaim some missing money. The film looks like a thriller but at its core, it's a western and one which is, in certain respects, a response to the westerns of the 60s & 70s that centered on the idea of the "dying west." In those films civilized society (often suggested by the coming of train tracks) tames the wild west, leaving no room for the outlaw hero; here society is torn apart by chaos (represented by the unstoppable killer), leaving no room for the hero who values law and order. Brilliant film, brilliant performances, an instant classic.