After watching Inglourious Basterds on the opening weekend back in 2009, I came back with my head buzzing, sat down, and wrote an interpretation of the film on a few sheets of yellow legal pad. It was probably my first real piece of film criticism. In that essay, I proposed that the film could be seen as a combination/extrapolation of The Dirty Dozen and Once Upon a Time in the West: Just as Leone set his film within a mythologized filmic version of the Wild West created by an entire genre of films, Tarantino’s insight was to recognize that World War II Europe has become a similarly abstract cinematic playground, with possibilities far beyond the historical realties and boundaries or the era. Hence the title of the first chapter in the film: Once Upon a Time. . .in Nazi-Occupied France. Tarantino is playing around with history and genre just as Leone was doing in the sixties.
I still think this view is correct, as far as it goes, but I’ve come to realize that the film is doing far more than that. While all of Tarantino’s films are postmodern meta-movies that mix and match genres, Inglourious Basterds goes further, interrogating the effects that cinema has on audiences and on the real world. Investigating propaganda and the thin line between corrupting influence and legitimate entertainment, it is a self-reflexive commentary on the war film genre on both sides of the conflict, offering an incrimination of both while admitting the appeal of simple, bloodthirsty fun. It is an indictment of the Nazi sin of defiling cinema, using a literal death-by-blazing-film to punish such a crime. And finally, it is an act of celebration and reclamation of old, pre-war cinema for today, rescuing directors (Riefenstal, Pabst) and actors (Max Linder, Lillian Harvey) from the obscuring cloud of fascism, while condemning others (Emil Jannings) for their complicity. An enormously complex commentary on the nature of film and its relation to politics and history, centering a battle within genre for the soul of cinema, it is Tarantino’s masterpiece.
9. Spirited Away (2001, Miyazaki)
Hayao Miyazaki is the greeatest animator of all time, and this is his masterpiece. This is saying something, as he already had two world-class masterpieces in My Neighbor Totoro and Princess Mononoke, and several other films very nearly as great. Here, however, Miyazaki moves beyond his usual gentle, well-structured storytelling style into a realm of surrealism, ambiguity, and mystery that actually caused controversy within Studio Ghibli during production. Chihiro's journey parallels that of Alice, a journey through a metaphorical rabbit hole into an abandoned Japanese theme park, and from there into a boathouse of the gods, a world of spirits and magic where reality is slippery and nothing is as it seems. The boathouse is a world unlike anything else in cinema, a dominion ruled by a capricious witch who dotes on her monstrous baby, populated by living soot-sprites, talking frogs, many-limbed boiler-men, polluted river-spirits, and dragons who look like teenage boys. Chihiro must learn to work and grow to survive in this world, proving herself by determination and courage. In the film's extraordinary final act, however, this dramatic arc seems to fall away in service of poetry. As if in a dream, all obstacles fall away in the face of Chihiro's newly awakened love and empathy. Where Alice was stymied by Wonderland's paralyzing lack of rationality, Chihiro succeeds by maintaining her purity and innocence and by offering true emotional understanding to those trapped in this strange land between sleep and death. With this ending, Miyazaki succeeds not only in his greatest imaginative achievement, but in one of the most profound statements of his humanist philosophy.
8. The Dark Knight (2008, Nolan)
A seismic leap forward in the superhero genre and one of the most exhilaratingly huge action films ever constructed, The Dark Knight is not merely a crime drama with costumed vigilantes, but a film of enormous thematic complexity as well. It is a film consumed by dualities: good and evil, darkness and light, order and chaos, sanity and psychosis, grief and rage, truth and lies. The very structure of the film reflects this in the difference of its two halves, before and after the Joker's capture. The focus is on the knife edge separating the extremes and the spin of a coin it takes to flip from one to the other. The implications are both moral and political: What are we prepared to do to preserve civilization in the face of barbarism? The answers mark the film as perhaps the most profound cinematic statement yet on the age of terrorism.
7. In the Mood for Love (2000, Wong)
Wong Kar-Wai, the lovesick beat poet of the '90s, leaves behind single 20-something protagonists for married 30-somethings, in the process slowing down his usual blurry-clear photography and pop sensibility, exchanging them for a neo-classical style and lounge jazz rhythm that seems like his apotheosis. It isn't quite as fun as his earlier films (and it isn't my favorite), but it feels more mature and profound. Sometimes falsely identified as a societal critique, the film is instead an emotional and atmospheric portrait of a moment in time, a long, drawn-out moment of romantic possibility. When it finally ends, as all moments must, it is whisked away in a haze of cigarette smoke, eternal only in memory (and celluloid), where it can be replayed again and again, as time goes by.
6. Pan's Labyrinth (2006, del Toro)
Like Bridge to Terabithia crossed with Schindler's List, Pan's Labyrinth is a fantasy of childlike imagination in the midst of absolute evil and horrific violence. Guillermo del Toro gives free reign to his imagination in his creature designs on a level only surpassed by Hayao Miyazaki among contemporary filmmakers, and his creations here have the indelible, unforgettable power of your own nightmares. What is innocence and what is evil? Can anything pure and fragile survive in the face of such cruelty and brutality? Or should evil be the one frightened? Is beauty the one that really conquers? On a temporal level that may be too much to ask, but in an ultimate sense the film suggests that may very well be the way of it.
5. Memento (2000, Nolan)
Do you know how you got where you are? How you got into this room? Are you sure that's what really happened? Are you sure your mind isn't playing tricks on you? Leonard Shelby doesn't remember any of that. Ask him a few minutes from now and he won't remember this conversation. He's trained himself to live without, though. He's tattooed rules onto his body, attempted to drill routine into his muscle memory. He's on a mission, and nothing is going to stop him. But how will he know when he has succeeded? And how can he know he's on the right track, on the right mission in the first place? Maybe it's not just his mind playing tricks on him, maybe he is doing it to himself. People do it all the time. Maybe he's concealing something from himself, telling himself lies to prevent collapse. Maybe you are, too. After all, when it comes right down to it, what's really separating him from you?
4. No Country for Old Men (2007, Coen)
When they want to be, the Coens are the most deliberate and perfectionist filmmakers since Kubrick, and that's what they are here. In partnering with novelist Cormac McCarthy, the brothers have offered their most indelible vision of a Hobbesian universe, a world where everyone must devise their own code, their own system for living, in order to survive in the face of violence and evil. The three central characters are pitted against each other in an existential chess match that can only end in death, their personal codes in conflict just as much as their bodies and intellects. Llewelyn Moss: an opportunist, self-confident and self-sufficient, who believes he has control of his own life. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell: the old man of the title, principled, weathered, gradually losing faith as he sees his ideas of the way the world should be mocked at every turn. Anton Chirgurh: a sociopathic killing machine, believes himself an embodiment of fate, but fallible and blind to his own vulnerability. They could be a revisionist take on the three central characters from a Leone spaghetti Western, tightened and focused instead of widened and iconic.
The film is a revisitation of themes, styles, and plots from the Coens' Blood Simple, Miller's Crossing, and Fargo, but this time the philosophy is given even greater resonance by McCarthy's scorched-earth dialogue. I suspect it may be their magnum opus.
3. The New World (2005, Malick)
A film that deserves so much more than the woefully small space I can here devote to it. When it premiered in the last days of 2005 it was met with mostly bemused and exasperated dismissals from the critical establishment, which was then countered with a massive push-back from the still-young online cinephile community. It is a film that almost always inspires boredom or ecstasy--there is no middle ground.
Malick does not merely look back on the historical events of Jamestown in 1607, he transports the audience there, re-imagining every moment with a sensory immediacy I've never felt with any other filmmaker. Far from a simple indictment of English colonialism or celebration of a lost Native American culture, the film continually sets up dichotomies and then finds ways to collapse them in a constantly evolving vision of history. Every detail, every moment, is presented as a New World in itself. Malick examines the idea of America without worrying about politics or legal structures, instead identifying her as the ultimate land of possibility, untamed and impossible to put in a box. While set in the 17th century, his strongest influences seem to be from the American Romantics and Transcendentalists of the early 19th. Like Thoreau, he sees the individual in conflict with society; like Whitman, he sings a song of connection between all living things; and like Emerson, he sees history as a river reminiscent of "the flux of all things," and "every man an inlet to the same and all of the same." Malick's melding of image and sound are unequaled, and the last five minutes are among the most perfectly transcendent passages of film I've ever seen. It is no exaggeration to say that this film changed my life, and I'm not really sure how it's only at #3.
2. Yi Yi (2000, Yang)
There is more of life in five minutes of this film than most works of art can manage in their entirety. Every stage of life, from childhood to youth to marriage to middle age to old age and death, is encompassed in this film's three hours, and it does it with such boundless grace and subtlety that it consistently astounds. If it is better than The New World, it is only in its sense of permanence and almost architectural structure. Both films are astonishingly beautiful, but where Malick's images flow like water in a never-ending stream, Yang's come one after the other in a gentle but nevertheless firm and deliberate rhythm, leaving each shot on screen exactly as long as it needs to be. Many reviews attempt to schematize the plot, which is tempting, for the film follows multiple characters over a very long runtime, accumulating incident until it is comparable in scope and detail to a 19th-century novel. But this would be a mistake, for Yi Yi is not interested in being a soap opera or melodrama, and detailing all the events of the plot would only serve to lessen and trivialize it. Rest assured, it is not a strange or difficult film, but a story of a middle class Taiwanese family as they struggle with various personal issues over a period of several weeks or months. In many ways, this story and these characters could be found in any industrialized country, and by the end of the film this family will seem no more foreign to you than your next door neighbors.
The tone of the film is melancholy, occasionally heartbreaking, but I leave it refreshed and joyful. All those poor, lonely people, running around and hurting themselves, oblivious to how alike they are in their pain. The film is a profound act of love and sympathy by Yang, to his characters and to his audience: he helps us empathize along with him, shows us our own petty, sorrowful selves, and lets us know we're not alone.