– by JD Westfall –
Continuing on with our countdown of the 100 greatest modern films, which I’ve decided means made post-1990! Please be sure to check out Part 1 and Part 2.
Today in Part 3 of our countdown we bring you a large variety of films: a call back to Italian horror films of old, Academy Award winners, an experimental documentary, a French steampunk cartoon, and chilling portrayals of real-life events.
Begin then, shall we?
- Berberian Sound Studio (2012)
Directed by: Peter Strickland
Starring: Toby Jones, Antonio Mancino
There are two ways you can try to make your film dark. One is by having your characters being unrealistically moody all the time, and essentially just look into the camera and proclaim “Whoa, this movie is so dark.” This is the lazy way to do it (I’m looking at you, Batman v. Superman)
The better way to do it is well evidenced by Berberian Sound Studio. The film is a glorious homage to the Italian giallo films of time gone by. If you’re not familiar with them, the giallo was kind of a precursor to American slasher movies, only way, way better. They featured tight plots, unorthodox visuals, jarring music, and somehow managed to be campy and fun while also being incredibly tense and frightening (for a classic giallo, see Mario Bava’s seminal Blood and Black Lace)
While that genre has long since passed, director Peter Strickland managed to bring a modern film roaring to life in the perfect giallo style, nailing nearly every trope that made it beloved and also paying beautiful homage.
The story follows Toby Jones as a sound mixer going to work in a movie studio and being assigned to do foley work on an increasingly abhorrent slasher movie. The more he works on it, and the more disturbing the film gets, the heavier toll it takes on him mentally. From there the plots leads off into a myriad of directions, and you’ll enjoy every terrifying minute of it.
- Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
Directed by: Danny Boyle, Loveleen Tandan
Starring: Dev Patel, Freida Pinto
On occasion a film will find itself becoming more of a catchphrase than a well-known movie. Such is the case with Slumdog Millionaire, which was released to huge acclaim in 2008, won basically every film award there is, and then was almost totally forgotten outside of a bunch of racist idiots using “Slumdog” to refer to anyone of even slightly darker skin. This is a fate the film absolutely does not deserve.
It opens by showing its lead character getting interrogated by police for doing suspiciously well on India’s “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.” Despite having introduced himself as someone of little education, he manages to nail every single question on the show correctly. During his questioning by police, the film begins showing us a series of flashbacks through his life to show exactly how he came to know the answers, and also piecing together for us the tragic series of events that led him there in the first place.
Plus it has that amazing song during the closing credits. I dare you to see this movie and not be singing Jai Ho for weeks afterward.
- Baraka (1992)
Directed by: Ron Fricke
Definitely the most experimental film in Part 3 of our list, Baraka is a documentary unlike any you’ve ever seen. (Well, unless you’ve seen Koyaanisqatsi. Look, just … never mind.)
This documentary has no narration or reenactments of any sort. Rather, it merely presents a series of images connected by themes. Gorgeous visuals cover things such as religious ceremonies around the world, historical atrocities, technological marvels and more, all pieced together by nothing more than a gorgeous musical score.
The endeavor of this film is to show how, despite many cultural differences, all parts of the world are really connected in several ways. Even when we express thoughts, emotions or expectations somewhat differently, we’re all the same regardless where we come from.
In fact, this film presents such a perfect representation of humanity that it’s been commented before that, should we encounter any other life form, we need but show them Baraka and they will understand us.
- Ida (2013)
Directed by: Pawel Pawlikowski
Starring: Agata Kulesza, Agata Trzebuchowska
No, I did not just randomly pound on my keyboard. Those are the actress’ names.
Ida is likely one of those films that slipped under your radar, and you could be forgiven for that. Despite being released to huge acclaim, the setup isn’t exactly the kind of thing known to put millions of butts in theater seats. But Ida is still absolutely worth your time.
It tells the tale of an aspiring nun named Ida living in Poland in the 1960s, but before taking her vows she learns that her family has been hiding a secret from her that dates back to the Nazi occupation. Since her parents are long deceased, she travels out to meet her aunt so she can try to learn what’s actually been going on. Her findings lead her on a path of self-discovery as she begins to question everything she stands for.
The film manages to be realistic and delicate in the handling of its subject matter, and despite the plot being about a woman second-guessing her choice to be a nun it never comes off as being disrespectful towards Catholicism. But while the plot and story structure are excellent, the true masterwork in the film is the cinematography. It’s filmed in black and white, which serves to give the visuals a stark contrast, and all in all it shows the best B&W cinematography I’ve seen since 1955’s Ordet.
- Waiting for Godot (2001)
Directed by: Michael Lindsay-Hogg
Starring: Barry McGovern, Johnny Murphy
“The Theater of the Absurd” was a beautiful live theater movement wherein they attempted to cast out all restraints and clichés of typical plays. Many works were written specifically for this movement, but the one that achieved the greatest notoriety was Samuel Beckett’s extraordinary Waiting for Godot.
The plot is, well, basically non-existent. It shows us two men sitting on a bench and, well, waiting for Godot to arrive. (That’s pronounced “God-oh” if you plan on talking about Samuel Beckett with your friends to sound intelligent.) Through their conversations we learn that – probably – Godot has hired them to do work, or maybe Godot owes them money, or maybe they owe Godot money, or something else entirely. Neither of them seems too terribly sure. But they are sure that they are to wait there until Godot arrives that day. Or maybe it’s the next day? Clearly, unreliable memory is a major theme in the film (as is further evidenced by the famous scene wherein they try to remember whose hat is whose).
I almost refused to watch this initially as the author Samuel Beckett clearly stated he never wanted it to be filmed. But I firmly believe that had Beckett lived to see this version, he would’ve agreed that director Lindsay-Hogg did justice to the source material. Of course, if you can catch a live theatrical performance that would be preferable, but if not this excellent filmed version will give you a proper introduction to the Theater of the Absurd.
- A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014)
Directed by: Roy Andersson
Starring: Harry Andersson, Nils Westblom
Best. Title. Ever.
Do you love art films? Are you able to take the joke when people make fun of things you love? Beautiful! Then you ought to adore A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. How to even describe this movie? The film expertly manages to be an art film while simultaneously poking fun at art films, all while packing itself to the rafters with memorable lines and imagery.
At first glance it can seem little more than an endless string of unrelated vignettes that primarily feature one character staring into the camera and complaining about something, which admittedly does happen an awful lot, but it manages to be hilarious in the process. A barber looks into the camera to explain how he used to be a sailor but was forced to take this job, despite having no experience. As he says this, we see all the customers in line suddenly turning and heading out the door in the background.
With a little patience, this film is incredibly rewarding (and has much more going on than it seems at first). This has become, for me, the third funniest film I’ve ever seen. The second funniest is from 1937 and thus will not be seen on this list, and number one shall be found here at number 21.
- The Rainmaker (1997)
Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Matt Damon, Danny DeVito
Francis Ford Coppola was well on his way to becoming the single greatest director of all time. He had undisputedly the greatest run of films of the 1970s. From his directing, producing and writing, we received Patton, American Graffiti, The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather Part II, and finally his magnum opus Apocalypse Now. From those films he received a staggering 12 Academy Award nominations (winning five), and two of his films won the prestigious Palme d’Or from the Cannes Film Festival.
Since the 1970s though, his filmography had rather dried up. Outside of minor successes such as The Outsiders and Rumble Fish, there wasn’t much to speak of. Until, of course 1997’s The Rainmaker, adapted from the John Grisham novel of the same name. Unfortunately the box office wasn’t impressive, but at least we got one more near-classic from the master.
The plot sticks fairly close to a typical Grisham tale – young upstart lawyer tackles a seeming impossible case of poor family against a multi-million-dollar corporation – but the excellent direction by Coppola and surprisingly great performances from the cast elevate this film far above its contemporaries.
- Lincoln (2012)
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field
“Spielberg + important historical event + great cast = great movie” seems like a formula that should work every single time, no matter what. In practice, it seems to have about a 50% success rate. However, this 2012 film showed the best possible result of this formula.
It tells a story nearly any American student likely knows. Abraham Lincoln attempts to abolish slavery while also uniting the North and South halves of the country. While this seems like it should be nothing more than prolonged scenes of old men arguing, the film transcends all expectations and delivers a truly entertaining two hours. It delves deep into the psychology of Lincoln and how his actions affect his family. It shows the most fun courtroom scenes ever filmed (particularly when Tommy Lee Jones goes on his epic rant about men being equal), and tops this off with a depiction of Gettysburg that is second only to the opening moments of Saving Private Ryan.
Despite our very own Cecily Knobler listing Day-Lewis as an undeserving Oscar winner for this film, I’d like to come to its defense. While Liam Neeson surely would’ve done an admirable job of the title role, I really don’t think it would be possible to have cast a better performer in the role of Lincoln. When you watch this film, you’re not watching Daniel Day-Lewis play a role. You’re watching Abraham Lincoln, in the flesh. This is the one of the all-time greatest performances ever filmed, and Day-Lewis put everything he had into the role.
- April and the Extraordinary World (2015)
Directed by: Christian Desmares, Franck Ekinci
Starring: Marion Cotillard, Jean Rochefort
All right. So in Part 2, when speaking of The Triplets of Belleville, I may or may not have mentioned that France hadn’t created many top-notch animated films. If that film was an exception, then this one is more so. It presents to us a gorgeous alternate reality wherein Napoleon’s line still reigns as King in France. Throughout history notable and revolutionary scientists have been kidnapped and/or disappeared, causing technological progress to stop and eventually even recede. By 1931, we’ve returned to charcoal and burning wood to power our machines, causing France and the “League of the Americans” to go to war, seeking control over the forests in Canada.
After that intriguing prologue, the film’s story begins very simply, in a basement. Here we see a family of scientists hiding from the force out to capture them. While attempting to escape most of the family is killed, all except for the young daughter April. After evading capture she sets out on her own.
Among the many things I love about this film is that the whole look and feel perfectly emulates a graphic novel. You know how Watchmen tried to do that and failed? This one succeeds on every level. The imagery, the fantastical story, even the perfect mixture of humor with tragedy. Top all that off with two hours of hearing Marion Cotillard’s voice, and you have a classic for the ages.
- Hotel Rwanda (2004)
Directed by: Terry George
Starring: Don Cheadle, Sophie Okonedo
Many times when film adaptations are made of tragic, real life events, they fall into the trap of sensationalizing the suffering people actually endured, for the sake of entertainment. Other times they devolve into excessive preachiness. (Anyone seen Sean Penn’s The Last Face?) Hotel Rwanda manages to do neither of these things, rather giving us a solid, realistic look at the genocide in Rwanda without ever being manipulative or insensitive.
It tells the true story of Paul Rusesabagina (played by a perfectly cast Don Cheadle), a Hutu man living in Rwanda in 1994. He runs a hotel with his wife Tatiana (played equally well by Sophie Okonedo) who is Tutsi. Of course, this is the time the mass slaughter begins. In a move of genuinely amazing empathy, Tatiana and Paul opened up their doors to allow any and all refugees into their hotel to seek protection.
While the film never strays outside of PG-13 territory, this is definitely not for the weak of heart, as it also never shies away from showing what was actually happening. If you can stomach it, this is an absolute must-see.
And again, that’s all for today. As usual, feel free to air your thoughts, agreements and disagreements in the comments below. And be sure to check back for Part 4, wherein we’ll look through such films as a beloved IMDb classic, Pixar awesomeness, that one movie where Harrison Ford tried acting for a change, and … another French cartoon? Man, there are more of those than I’d thought.
JD became a film buff at age four after viewing his first Buster Keaton movie. Since then he’s found a passion for everything from Shakespeare to Sharknado