Although much of my communication about film is done one-to-one in email I am fully aware of the perception that the DVDBeaver gang are somewhat elitist in our viewpoints on cinema. Hey, I know - and I'm sure we strive for it by bedding down daily with the axiom that 'popularity is a sign of mediocrity'. Our collective condemnation of most Hollywood blockbusters is usually based in a strong ideal that the only true determination of greatness is... longevity. Yasujiro Ozu's cinema is 'great' as his films are being discussed and consistent retrospectives staged worldwide some 50+ years later. Where much of Michael Bay's work (as one example) will largely be forgotten - if it is not already - within hours after screenings at the local GooglePlex. History has helped us identify the great films of the past. They have filtered through our discerning gaze. But does Hollywood only produces frivolous flavors of the week now? No, of course not - although the ratio is certainly 'koyaanisqatsi' at this point in time. With a flood of over-hyped new releases, truly great cinema appears to be 'fewer and farther between' than ever before. It is much harder to find a decent film playing at the theater now - we seem frequently disappointed, but the crowd, popcorn, dinner before or after were at least an evening out - the films, like McDonald's burgers, are rarely worth investing any thought - post consumption. I decided to list some modern English-language efforts that I expect may have the stamina to last this, defining, test of time. The following fourteen rank as the best and most hopeful cinema that I have seen in the past decade - with the caveat of being made under the release umbrella of major Hollywood studio financing - either pre or post production. They are only in the order that I thought of them. Titles and posters are hyper-linked.


P.S. I am very encouraged that almost half the films included are from first-time (for feature length films) directors. It marks a very exciting time to be a film fan if you are patient enough to wade through the field - using your best judgment to separate the wheat from the chaff.

1. Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999).


Those viewing Paul Thomas Anderson's deeply metaphoric dissertation appear to have segregated into two very distinct camps - those who appreciated the director's infinitely layered themes and motifs and those who marched out of their seat, halfway through, shaking their fist for a refund from the theater manager -> 'Dammitt!', It's hard to deny Magnolia's unapologetic intensity which is only accentuated by a perfect balance resonating the dizzyingly hypnotic narrative and the intoxicatingly rich actor-driven performances casually wedged in-between. As modern poetry it easily towers over anything Hollywood produced in entire 90's. Anderson, along with Shyamalan, and as an outside chance Gallo, mark themselves as the potential future of any healthy-production autuerist-leaning cinema that might evolve from a studio system (ie be granted a major release). Audacious Magnolia with its brilliant writing, hermetically tight editing and imbedded personal embraces may be the poster boy for this hopeful ideal. Regardless, I suspect Magnolia may continue to diverge audience taste for the next few decades. Further to its credit.


2. In The Bedroom (Todd Field, 2001).

Considered an independent release, the cinematography of In The Bedroom  contains very few panning shots (mostly a static camera) ingratiating the film with a very personal and simplistic aura. In a quiet Maine enclave the scenario evolves with such middle-class normalcy it creeps up on you with the overly-relaxed atmosphere gaining momentum towards an intense brooding fury - and it is ours. The pain overcomes us with sparse dialogue and we can feel the devastation of loss blossom to uncomfortable proportions. Like The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and A History of Violence director Todd Field's masterful feature debut tugs at our sense of justice and vengeance - but the emotions are nobly controlled. Imbedded deep in Field's impressive narrative are overtones of both a political and psycho-sexual nature. One can only imagine what some ham-fisted hack would have done to the delicate balance of gentility and darkness had it been forced to transverse the usual Hollywood production cycle to completion. Films are this powerful because the audience is treated as an adult - not simply a drone seeking bright lights and fast escapism.


3. Buffalo 66 (Vincent Gallo, 1998).


A cult gem of 90's indie cinema Buffalo 66 starred, and was written and directed by, Vincent Gallo. The only way to bear the high level of anguish in Gallo's deeply expressionist film is have the script cascade into dark comedy - which it does with flawless timing. One uncomfortable visit home is enough to underscore protagonist Billy Brown's demoralized upbringing and explain his misdirected bravado-anger. Gallo's impressive superimposed flashbacks and brilliant short-take ellipses show us a confident filmmaker who knows his stuff... and is bold enough to utilize its subtle power. It is hard to put into words how well the dialogue meshes with the evolving love story of two pitifully lonely people, but it's part of the crusty evolutionary magic of this film experience. Examples of hilarious caricatures underscore the important drive of the film - that often the choice between 'giving up' or 'striving forward', after a horrible string of luck, is simply having one person who believes in you. Backed by Japanese financiers, Gallo's The Brown Bunny certainly deserves a strong mention - it is another film further defining him as a unique cinematic force demanding to be heard.


4. 25th Hour (Spike Lee, 2002).


The anticipatory seed of Spike Lee's directorial maturity sprouts to greet us with his best film in the last 15 years. Monty (Edward Norton) is an upscale New York drug dealer who has been nabbed by authorities and must pay the price - an impending 7-year prison term. His echoing lament of "if it only hadn't happened" is easily reflected as the tragedy of 9/11. Whether it be the blue searchlight beams from ground zero or the ode to firefighters in Monty's father's bar, the references are continuously evident. Is Monty the microcosm of a shell-shocked America? - confused about who has betrayed him? - critical of his own complacency? - weary of the undetermined prospects that the near future has in store? The open-ended speculative nature of these critical focal points seems too coincidental. In addition there are a multitude of non-judgmental interpersonal issues that face direct comparisons touching upon the myriad of subtleties of the consistent coda of directors like Zhang Yimou or Abbas Kiarostami . These can be digested in different portions by different viewers - but the contemplative nature is evident.


5. House of Sand and Fog (Vadim Perelman, 2003).

Yes, this Greek-tragedy wannabe could be described as melodramatic, but character-driven stories often are and not always as appealing to many who crave continuous stimulation through action or suspense. This was an intense study on how fate conspired against 5 individuals. My only real complaint is that the circumstances in the plot, at times, could seem a tad incongruous. I won't spoil it with specific details, but in post-analysis of the film you may find yourself giving up less of your suspension of disbelief. This is especially true when the film attempts to keep to the timeline of occurring over less than a 2-week span. Personally, I was too totally wrapped-up in the performances - possibly Ben Kinsley's best... ever, and Jennifer Connelly was not far behind. This effort by first-timer director Vadim Perelman was, for many, not perfect - but I am whole-heartedly recommending it as one of the better films of 2003. Roger Deakin's cinematography is another huge plus!



6. The Big Lebowski (Ethan Coen & Joel Coen , 1998).

Released in 1998 the Coen brothers recognized masterpiece The Big Lebowski centers around the confluence of divergent U.S. cultural anomalies that are defined by the essential qualities of two decades. We meet characters that are stuck in the 70's and who are unable or unwilling to adapt to the absurdist foibles of the 90's. The cultural referencing continues with a focal backdrop of the unique community that has fashioned itself around the American pastime of bowling. The Coens also found time in the films 118 minutes to honor past genre's including westerns, hard-boiled detective pulp and Busby Berkley musicals. Almost surrealist with its stylistic directions The Big Lebowski playfully stimulates and forces us to succumb to its vaudevillian charms. A gregarious film that continues to improve with age and gets better with repeat viewings. Perhaps its greatest asset is that it fashions itself promoting the quintessential joy of film... and why it gives us so much pleasure and satisfaction.


7. The Incredibles (Brad Bird, 2004).


The archetypal family has never been so succinctly represented right down to the 2.5 kids. But the twist is that these characters are a family of secret-identity superheroes forced to legally live a quiet suburban life... but of course, circumstances steer another course. This film has so many strengths including three of the best female characters in any film of the past 10 years, but the soundtrack, with riffs from Matt Helm to James Bond, is one of the key elements to its perfect atmospheric enjoyment. Kudos to Pixar for not including (again) the droning nasal crooning of Randy Newman (nephew to the great film score icon Alfred Newman). The animation and voices (Holly Hunter especially) are spot-on and at its core the film deals with universal family issues including mid-life crisis, jealousies, selfless motherhood, precocious pre-teen acceptance, power, friendship and the importance of that precious nuclear unit. Set for an obvious and much desired sequel - THIS is the most equalized adult-appealing-children's-film ever created. And thank goodness it is so re-watchable as my son has forced me to see it over 40 times (I'm not exaggerating!).


8. The Village (M. Night Shyamalan, 2002).

There are a couple of things that I really like about The Village . Firstly, I love it when great films are immediately snuffed out by critics - it is often an indication that there is something subversive that they don't tolerate, appreciate or understand. Secondly, I rated M. Night Shyamalan very highly before this film came out - and it allowed me to gleefully bump him up to a whole new category of directorial grasp and expression. "The Village", also written by Shyamalan, has incredible depth of construction. Its political connotations can be read with great obviousness - an isolated community exists where truisms of the world are suppressed by their leaders, hidden to the oblivious inhabitants. The citizens are manipulated by fear, constantly worried that their boundary could be breached by an unknown evil. Topical? - I would think so. But then again, it doesn't have to. It remains to be appreciated for many other reasons.  So many were quite disappointed that they are not seeing a "Blair Witch" horror imitation as it was unsuccessfully marketed. Instead we have a revealing story incubating truths, love, morality, suspense and keen political nuances. Quite unforgettable. Yes, I'll say it: a masterpiece.


9. Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005).

'Brokeback Mountain' runs to almost isolated perfection for its first 3/4's running time - it falls back slightly - and eventually rises in a delicate conclusion to give us Ang Lee's best offering to date. This is not a good film - this is a great film. This is not simply a 'gay love story' but rather a sublime, courageous, touching and heartfelt story of desire... and yes, the star-crossed lovers happen to be male, and happen to be cowboys too. It is their rugged essence that Lee captures so succinctly - morally conscious, quiet natured men whose actions speak for them in place of verbal communication. These attributes seem very easily translated to our homosexual protagonists - but it's this unique circumstance that helps promote such keen interest. The performances are solid, the soundtrack dignifies the mood and the entire premise exposes a common bigotry - one that some people live with on a daily basis. Regardless of that underlying current - it is the best unrequited love story since Wong Kar Wai's In The Mood For Love.



10. A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2005).


The questions we are asking in David Cronenberg A History of Violence are personal moral probes - do we have the nobility to opt for a simple pastoral lifestyle - desirous that the story steers in that direction? or do we overly-crave the heroic and vengeful manner of cinema violence? Innocence vs. corruption. Is it possible that Mr. Cronenberg can sate us in both arenas? Do we require the thriller aspects of film to escalate in rudimentary fashion - with it, infusing the usual run-in-the-mill seedy and evil gangster caricatures that we know so well - and love to hate? Can't we simply brush them aside... yet still somehow feed our inglorious hunger for the darker side of humanity. Can we disguise our ever-increasing passion for the human conflict and retire to a world where an amber light does not mean 'speed up'? Do we have the strength to be so guileless? I don't think Mr. C really thinks so - it's a desensitizing drug that we hunger for... and he's the pusher. But is he really telling us that by examining our desires it may be the first step to becoming cognoscente of where we focus our preferences. I'd like to think so anyway.


11. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (Tommy Lee Jones, 2005).

In the directorial debut of veteran actor Tommy Lee Jones, we are presented a tale of deep male friendship - based, it appears, on the cowboy precept (drawn upon in Brokeback Mountain) that actions speak louder than words. Most commonly male bonded stories are examined in film with seething conflicts rather than based on loyal selflessness. Three Burials... inherently reminds us that the most noble deeds are the ones in which there is no expectation of recognized honor. A level of patience is required to follow the non-sequential timelines, but it doesn't take long to figure things out. A Texas ranch foreman, Pete Perkins (played by Jones) is trying to bury his Mexican friend, Melquiades Estrada (played in flashback scenes by Julio Cedillo), back in his homeland. Simultaneously he intends to make the murderer, a newly-arrived U.S. border patrolman, Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), personally accountable. The two men and a corpse start a journey that quickly transcends to a spiritual one... ultimately steering towards the allegorical. Jones is a native Texan and part of the shooting location was the cattle ranch he owns near San Antonio. His appreciation of the terrain is clearly evident. With a backdrop of the wide open American West, Jones plays on a socio-political context of racism, loneliness, desire, redemption and love. One of the most poetic and human films of the past decade.


12. Me and You and Everyone We Know (Miranda July, 2005).

Well, I enjoyed this film way out of proportion to what I was anticipating. Winner of the Camera d'or Award for best first film at the Cannes Film Festival, Miranda July's directorial debut focuses on a separated, but calmly centered, shoe salesman (John Hawkes) and an eccentric square-peg performance artist (played by director/writer July). They connect with parallel stories of both children and the elderly, coping to mature in a modern word, in this unique and at times devastatingly humorous, expression of contemporary existence. Touching on facets of love, longing, self-support, aging, raising children... the film powers through poignant scene after scene - graced with a baser human touch. The trouble is where do you go from here Miranda?


13/14.  X-Men 2 / Spiderman 2 (2003, 2004 respectively).

Struck last on the list - almost as an after thought - the two best comic-book incarnations ever put to film came out in the past three years. They are an obvious pairing. Both are infinitely more polished sequel adventures than their initial 'origin' releases. Defining the modern hero in Stan Lee's Universe would not seem an easy task... especially with his loyal minions of overly devout readers peering over his shoulder with magnifying-glass in tow. But, if either film has a flaw it may be that they are simply more obvious than the slim bound narrative wonders that are graphically evolving from the amazingly imaginative think-tank at Marvel. As with their colored newsprint counterparts - the focus of each story is... humanity. Our ability to co-exist and celebrate our differences. To pull together and unite. I'm a sucker for that level of Roddenberry-esque optimism. There is also the wonderfully vast array of eclectic characters that inhabit these films - and yet they all share the same desire - they strive for 'normalcy'. But the acceptance of uniqueness gives them their most human appeal. Sure, it's teenagers that are the biggest recipients of this particular growing pain maturity... but for the ensuing generations the plots boil over like modern Shakespeare. Perhaps I'm an easy sell - or still a pre-teen at heart, but my advice is don't deprive yourself. These films are rare gems with enough flashing light and CGI action to mass market as well.



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