– by JD Westfall, VW’s movie connoisseur –
Welcome once again. We now begin our journey into the top 50 greatest films made since 1990. The routine for the top 50 will be the same as before: a balanced mix of English and foreign, mainstream and art house, blockbuster and low budget.
- The City of Lost Children (1995)
Directed by: Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Marc Caro
Starring: Ron Perlman, Judith Vittet
Surreal post-apocalyptic is a genre not often explored, which is a real pity because when done well, the films turn out incredibly. Case in point, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s The City of Lost Children. We’re given several seeming intersecting storylines which are all closely related, mostly revolving around a mad scientist who cannot dream and therefore has begun kidnapping children in order to steal their dreams. Along the way we are introduced to a bizarre mix of supporting characters including cloned dwarfs, Siamese twin gang lords, and a cult that requires its members to cut out their own eyes.
As amusing and original as the plotline is, it would be a crime to overlook the set design, which gives this film a truly memorable look. Many post-apocalyptic films have one of two styles – desert wasteland (Mad Max, The Book of Eli) or dark and decaying city (Metropolis, Brazil), but this film manages to strike up a purely original and unique style.
You know how a lot of times it can be hard to describe and/or remember a film? “Yeah, the one with that guy who was a trained killer but was retired but gets pulled out for one last job?” Well, you’ll never have that problem with The City of Lost Children. Watch it once and I guarantee it’ll stick with you.
- Primer (2004)
Directed by: Shane Carruth
Starring: Shane Carruth, David Sullivan
It has lately become a trend to do highly realistic science fiction films (Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian), but give credit to Shane Carruth for beating Hollywood to the punch by about a decade. Primer presents us with the most staggeringly realistic time travel film ever made, and I say staggering because golly is it hard to keep up with the story, the time travel, and the ramifications.
You really have to admire the thought and effort that went into the making of the film. Writer/director/actor/composer/editor Shane Carruth reasoned that the majority of truly great scientific breakthroughs were accidental, so why not time travel? Working with a miniscule budget and a host of untrained actors, he managed one of the most purely entertaining, interesting, and revolutionary films of the last decade.
As for the plot, I’m not even going to try to describe it. Dammit Jim, I’m a writer, not a doctor.
- Russian Ark (2002)
Directed by: Aleksandr Sokurov
Starring: Sergey Dreyden, Mariya Kuznetsova
Speaking of Gravity, it got lots and lots of acclaim for a specific feature, namely long takes. If you’re not familiar with the term, it means an extensive sequence where the camera never cuts, instead moving along with the action for a prolonged period of time. This is increasingly a lost art, as the average shot length now is near five seconds.
Our attention spans are completely useless, is what I’m saying.
However, no film has tackled the long take with the same ambition as 2002’s Russian Ark. The entire 96-minute run time is just one take. It takes you through Winter Palace of the Russian State Hermitage Museum (one of the oldest and largest museums in the world) as all the exhibits come to life and recreate Russian history. Which was an incredible feat, because that means every single person involved in the film had to all be ready at the same time, and if even a single mistake was made, everything had to be scrapped and started over again. Happily for us, they pulled it off (after three failed takes) and left us with one of the most enrapturing films ever made.
- Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tom Hanks, Matt Damon
When assembling this list, I decided to maximize the variety of films through use of a simple rule. No director could have more than two films included (which is why some very notable films have been excluded. Choosing only two Coen brothers films was difficult). However, I had to make an exception for Steven Spielberg. I’m not even the biggest Spielberg fan, but it’s impossible to deny his impact, even with post-90s output.
Which brings us to this legendary film. After decades of war being glorified in cinema, Spielberg decided it was time to make a film that showed it in every inch of its excruciating detail. No fun, no glamor, just realism and fear.
It opens with a punishing scene, that of the Invasion of Normandy, and it spares nothing. After the power of the opener, we get to the plot. A US Army Private has been ordered back home to provide for his family since all his siblings have now been killed in the war, but he’s now gone missing, leading to a small contingent of soldiers being sent on a mission to find and retrieve him.
Falling into the Spielberg-esque traditions on a few occasions does little to rob the film of its power, as evidenced by the fact that after its release, counselors reported a huge increase in visits by veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Meanwhile most films cause PTSD only if they’re exceptionally terrible (I’m looking at you, Batman v. Superman)
- The Assassin (2015)
Directed by: Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Starring: Shu Qi, Chang Chen
Full disclosure: this is not an action epic, despite the name. It is an immensely slow-paced film. Don’t let that dissuade you from watching it though; it’s absolutely worth every moment.
Hou Hsiao-Hsien is arguably Taiwan’s greatest director, having been making classic after classic since 1989’s A City of Sadness. His best film to date, though, would have to be The Assassin. The plot is loosely based on an ancient Chinese tale named Nie Yinniang, and follows a woman who’s been trained as an expert assassin since a young age. Eventually she is sent off on a mission to kill a man she had once been engaged to marry through a family arrangement.
Admittedly the plot can be difficult to follow, but many have commented that’s probably the point. The main appeal is really the visual aspect. Director Hsiao-Hsien wanted the viewer to feel as though they’d been pulled into a classical Chinese painting. And by golly, does it work. My personal experience upon viewing this was that I had to keep rewinding the film repeatedly, since I would get distracted by the gorgeous images and forget to keep following along with the subtitles.
- Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog (2008)
Directed by: Joss Whedon
Starring: Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Fillion
This one is tricky. Is it a movie? Web series? Short? Miniseries? Who cares? It’s amazing and deserves inclusion.
You may recall back in 2007-2008 there was a writer’s strike in Hollywood, bringing to a standstill numerous projects that were still in development. Because of this, new movie releases slowed down and several TV series had abbreviated seasons.
Not content to simply sit around doing nothing, Joss Whedon and friends gathered together to do their own, self-funded project. Being Whedon, it turned out very unique. Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog could best be described as a fantasy-romantic-dark comedy-musical. It follows the titular Dr. Horrible as he attempts to woo his crush while simultaneously doing battle with his nemesis Captain Hammer. Along the way he also tries to qualify to join the Evil League of Evil.
Not only are we treated to Whedon’s trademark wit and wordplay, we also get the best glimpse of his musical skills since that one episode of Buffy. Now if only he would inject more of his projects with this. You know, a musical episode of Agents of SHIELD, or maybe The Avengers 3: Seven Brides for Seven Avengers.
- Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991)
Directed by: Eleanor Coppola, George Hickenlooper, Fax Bahr
Starring: Eleanor Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola
“We were in the jungle, there were too many of us, we had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane.”
If you’ve ever paid attention to film history, surely you’ve come across the woeful tale of the making of 1979’s Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece. A film shoot so stressful it nearly detroyed the careers (and lives) of those involved. Of course, none of us were there to see it in person, but thankfully for us, some ambitious cameramen got it all on tape. After all the footage had been assembled, interviews were conducted with those involved and spliced together to give us a chilling recreation of events. Watch up close and personal as chaos, terrible weather, warlike conditions, disease and insanity turn a film shoot into a nightmare, and be amazed at how this actually kind of turned out better for the original film.
If you enjoy this documentary, then I also highly recommend the 1982 documentary Burden of Dreams,about the almost equally chaotic making of Werner Herzog’s legendary Fitzcarraldo.
- Being John Malkovich (1999)
Directed by: Spike Jonze
Starring: John Cusack, John Malkovich
Artists of any kind will eventually reach a point where they feel they’re in a rut and desperately want to do something new and different. This happened to actor John Cusack in 1998, and thus he asked his agent to find him the “craziest, most unproduceable script” he could find. That agent then brought him a script that had been kicking around called Being John Malkovich.
On paper it looks like a terrible idea. The surrealistic script was written by a man with no produced credits to his name. The director was Francis Ford Coppola’s son-in-law, who also had no credits to his name. The film would star John Malkovich in a viciously rude parody of himself.
Um, Oscar bait?
Surprisingly, yes! The film was a resounding success, earning over double its budget back and garnering Academy Award nominations for both the (amateur) screenwriter and (amateur) director.
Still no awards love for John Cusack though. Sorry buddy.
- City of God (2002)
Directed by: Katia Lund, Fernando Meirelles
Starring: Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Firmino da Hora
The majority of moviegoers I speak to tend to be an unadventurous sort. They’ll watch whatever new blockbusters Hollywood is churning out, plus a few general classic films. However, every now and again a film will come along that nearly everyone I meet knows, despite it being well outside their comfort zone. City of God is one of those films.
Filmed in Brazil, this film depicts criminal activity plaguing a suburb of Rio de Janeiro, and how this activity affects the lives of two small boys nicknamed “Rocket” and “Lil Dice,” one of them trying to turn away completely from the horrible lifestyle, another jumping into it headfirst with glee.
The overall mood of the film is certainly bleak. Even the tagline gives evidence of this: “If you run, the beast catches you. If you stay, the beast eats you.”
Yet, even though it’s a foreign language film with unknown actors and a somber tone, the film managed to be an extraordinary success, taking in over $30 million in box office worldwide, and even garnering four Oscar nominations (without a Best Foreign Language film nomination), including Best Director and Best Screenplay. Not too shabby.
- Mulholland Dr. (2001)
Directed by: David Lynch
Starring: Naomi Watts, Ann Miller
As soon as you saw the name of the director was David Lynch, I’m sure you knew you were in for some seriously messed-up filmmaking. Trying to succinctly describe any Lynch film is bound for failure, so rather than a conventional coverage of it, I’m going to write my review in the same manner the story tells its plot.
Its that’s they about why watch this she with woman moves rabbits who there and moves but the to why rabbits a else speak big would in city a the so person same she move way can to I’m be LA writing an I and actress mean oh. Well, really my I plus goodness don’t there’s guys really this its know weird so if show weird!
The film opened to huge acclaim (and enormous hatred from its detractors) and was just recently named as the single greatest film of the 21st century by BBC Culture.
That brings us to the end of this segment of our wrap-up. Tune back in soon for the films ranked 40-31, which will include such gems as a few of your childhood favorite cartoons, the most artistic film ever made by Hollywood, and the most tragically underseen film of this decade so far.
Oh, and if you really want to know my plot summary of Mulholland Dr, just read every third word. Simple enough.
J.D. 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.