1. Dogville (Lars Von Trier, 2003)
One hundred years on from the birth of cinema and a decade into his own career Danish enfant terrible Lars Von Trier created a remarkable work, which both returned to the minimalism of early 20th century cinema and chimed with neo-con brutalities born in the rubble of the Twin Towers. Channeling the black box theatre of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill to unforgettable effect in a tale of trans class evil in depression era America, Von Trier’s 2003 philosophical mystery thriller was undoubtedly a creative benchmark of the decade which many admired but few cared to simulate, surely the sign of great art?
This nine chapter (plus a prologue) parable lays out the seemingly simple tale of Grace Mulligan (Nicole Kidman), a woman on the run from gangsters who arrives in the small mountain town of Dogville and is provided refuge in return for hard physical labour. Over the course of the film Grace touches the lives of those who come in to contact with her (the remarkable cast includes Paul Bettany, Chloe Sevigny, Stellan Skarsgaard and James Caan) but all may not be as it seems.
With the truffle rich narration by John Hurt and the minimal stage-like sets, Dogville is an exercise in Amish style revisionism of modern filmmaking where storytelling, acting and plot are everything. And yet even Von Trier’s approach to his cast is sadistic at best, especially when you consider that the film takes its name from a series of MGM comedy shorts made between 1929-1931 starring trained dogs dressed up to parody the performers of the day.
Dogville was the first of Von Trier’s USA -- Land of Opportunities trilogy, followed by the underrated Manderlay in 2005 and the still to be completed Wasington. When cultural historians come to look back, Dogville will stand alone as the oddest and possibly truest act of filmic defiance of the last decade. We should expect nothing less of this filmmaker and master fisherman.
2. Che Part One and Two (Steven Soderbergh, 2009)
This biopic is a collection of incidents rather than a coherent whole with a beginning, middle and end. Highlighting Che’s philosophy and his penchant for armed revolution is his initial meeting with Castro; fighting in the Sierra Maesta, the victory march to Havana; and his controversial speech to the United Nations. A journalist’s interview is used to hang the events together and provide some biographical information.
No one wheezes quite like Benito Del Toro, which is especially beneficial when Che is crippled by asthma. The only drawback is that Soderbergh refuses to pass judgement on Che, good or bad, and shies away from any brutal excesses or heroism.
Che Part 2
Che Guevara’s final fatal campaign in Bolivia gets bold and bleak treatment in the second part of Soderbergh’s extraordinary bio-historical epic. In 1967, Guevara enters Bolivia disguised and makes contact with the native communists in the remote Ñancahuazú training camp. The US military intervention, divided support and faulty equipment forces the revolution and guerrilla army to fall apart.
The optimism of the first film turns to something more forensic and fatalistic, Soderbergh drains the warm colour palette and shoots in a more basic medium. Che: Part Two is more of a rigorous day-to-day account of a guerilla campaign.
In both parts; Soderbergh has created a cinematic diptych that is mesmerising and immersive. You emerge saddened but with a hunger to learn more about the Argentine Marxist revolutionary.
3. Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009)
Andrea Arnold’s second feature is about Mia (Jarvis), an aggressive 15-year-old lives with her single mum (Wareing) and her younger sister in a sprawling Essex council estate flat, who dreams of being a dancer. A friendship with young Kyle (Treadaway) is outshined by her mother’s boyfriend, the seemingly kind Connor (Fassbender). She finds herself inexplicably drawn, with disastrous results.
Fish Tank is an all-too-rare piece. Arnold’s gift for ugliness and beauty in juxtaposition places her in a league of her own. It is a brilliantly displaced portrait of our underclass that asks us not to moralise but to find beauty in the consumptive. It’s the best British film in a long time. Let’s dance.
4. The Son (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes, 2002)
The Columbine High School Massacre and the Rhys Jones murder were just two of many instances of what happens when children kill children in the last decade or so. What ever the reason or effect of these tragedies no one has dealt better with the idea of parental revenge and redemption better than French speaking Belgium filmmakers Jean Pierre and Luc Dardennes. Like all the brothers films The Son is a deceptively simple story shot in a quasi-documentary fashion about a carpenter Olivier (Olivier Gourmet) who takes on an apprentice only to learn that the youth was involved in his son’s death. The decision Olivier then has to make is whether to exact revenge or not and it is a choice he has to make over a road trip with the boy.
Slow, vivid and open to biblical reading (carpenter, Abraham sacrificing Issac, that kind of thing) The Son is by turns surprising and thought provoking. (Paul Dale)
5. Hidden (Michael Haneke, 2005)
Paranoid, intelligent and wracked with liberal guilt, Hidden is the quintessential film for the noughties. Watch in horror as Daniel Auteuil and Juliet Binoche’s disgustingly comfortable life as a pair of smarty-literati-pants living in a Paris suburb is torn apart by malevolent forces and dramatic events. With one of the most shocking moments in contemporary cinema halfway through (though we won’t give the game away), this is a thriller that strikes dangerously close to the bone for the passive, pretentious filmgoer.
6. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007)
Cristian Mungiu’s explores a long, dark night in 1980s Romania. We first meet students Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) and Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) in drab dormitory accommodation. It emerges that Otilia is helping the terrified Gabita to get ready for an illegal termination, which will be carried out by the abortionist Bebe (Vlad Ivanov) in a hotel room. But when Bebe discovers that the women do not have enough money and Gabita has lied about her pregnancy; he demands he is paid in both cash and sexual favours.
Shot in muted tones, on real locations and the combined long, fixed takes with handhelds shots are techniques force us to witness the ordeals endured by the characters.
7. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2006)
1879 in Glendale, Missouri, we find the James’ gang has been depleted by arrests, deaths and defections. Jesse (Brad Pitt) and to a lesser extent his brother Frank (Sam Shepard) are about to begin their final crime spree of train and canal robberies. But loyalty is not what it used to be and soon Jesse grows paranoid of his own men, all apart from eager young recruits Bob (Casey Affleck) and Charley (Sam Rockwell) Ford.
This brutal but beautifully presented endgame drama is a joy with its soft edges and odd compositions, rich dialogues, detail and performance. If country rubes, robbery and outlaw martyrdom are your thing this is not to be missed.
8. The Death of Mr Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu, 2005)
Death and the iniquities of the Romanian health service may seem like a very unpromising proposition for comedy but Cristi Puiu’s 2005 deadpan tale is a bureaucratic farce of rare equal. Written and directed by reformed hypochondriac Puiu after years of medical self-diagnosis and worry, the film is a cinema verite Kafkaesque nightmare of one aging engineer’s (beautifully played by the late Ioan Fiscuteanu) painful last hours at the hands of a burdened, hierarchical and fairly hapless health service. Set in the post Ceausescu years, the film differs from the films it arguably paved the way for (most notably Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 days) in that it was swerves both polemics and period recollection to the worst days of communist dictatorship. What The Death of Mr Lazarescu is, however, is a blacker than black comic portrait of neglect (of the unwell, elderly and medical) in the face of progress. As the decade closes we await Puiu’s follow up film (the second of his muted Six Stories from the Outskirts of Bucharest series) with baited breath. (Paul Dale)
9. The Man Who Wasn’t There (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2001)
The Coen brothers finest film of the noughties was an exercise in ellipsis, haircuts and noir homage. Detailing the slow motion travails of an introverted barber played with self-effacement by Billy Bob Thornton. His journey from the smoke-filled, hair-littered interior of his shop to a world of blackmail, misunderstanding and murder in small town post war America fuses the works of James M Cain (Double Indemnity, The Postman always Rings Twice and Mildred Pierce) with something more displaced and existential. It’s a film of rare thought and beauty (Roger Deakins black and white photography is astonishing) whose many charms remain with the viewer long after the protagonist erases himself from the narrative.
10. Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002)
The pinnacle of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s endeavour to destroy the process of filmmaking from the inside, this painfully post-modern attempt to build out a film of Kaufman’s failed attempt to write a film script just about avoids imploding into a speck of nothingness. Director Spike Jonze keeps things on the rails until the final act when Nick Cage, playing both a desperate Charlie Kaufman and his cool-dude twin brother Donald (who doesn’t exist in real life), gives up on his attempt to make a good film, leaving the pathos of a (deliberately) over-sentimental ending as the final comment on the impossibility of creating a truly ‘modern’ artwork.