Many, if not most, films are forgettable, even the good ones. I'll be reminded of a movie that I saw seven or eight years ago, and find that I'm often only able to remember the premise, the actors and whether I enjoyed it. And that's as it should be—most movies have done their job well if they've given us two hours of satisfying diversion. Far fewer are the movies that succeed in altering our perception of the world or changing us in an unforgettable way.
1. Mulholland Dr. (2001)—David Lynch's masterpiece is, among other things, something of a synthesis of cinema's first century. The lead characters, played by Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring, are inspired by Hitchcock, while the story, a tragedy of failure in Hollywood, has elements of film noir, Orson Welles, Nathanael West and Ingmar Bergman. It's hard to think of another film where magic unfolds on screen through bravura acting and deft editing: Watts' knockout audition scene, for example, and the mid-film showstopper, an a cappella rendition of Roy Orbison's "Crying" in Spanish, is a piece of sorcery that plays with the basic building blocks of film: sound + image = cinema. See you at Club Silencio.
2, 3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and Before Sunset (2004)—Two of the best spins on movie romance came in the same year and shared the No. 1 spot on my year-end list. Richard Linklater's adventurous, if uneven, career hit a high-water mark with this tale of long-lost lovers desperately reconnecting in the 90 minutes available to them on a Paris afternoon. Michel Gondry's film from Charlie Kaufman's script was, among other things, an imagining of a world in which human hard drives could be wiped clean and rebooted. Linking memory with cinematic imagery, the film reached its epiphany as we watch Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet at a circus parade as Kirsten Dunst recites the Alexander Pope poem that gave the film its title: "Each pray'r accepted, and each wish resign'd."
4. United 93 (2006)—The defining event of the decade got the best fiction film it could have received, courtesy of Paul Greengrass. The cast includes unknown actors and actual participants in the Sept. 11 drama who reenacted their roles for film, most memorably Ben Sliney, an air traffic control official. Sickening, gut-wrenching and oddly ennobling, the film is a portrait of professionals forced to deal with the unimaginable.
5, 6, 7. Grizzly Man (2005), Battle Royale (2000) and Cast Away (2000)—There was great television this decade, and there were the reality shows. (Somewhere in between, of course, was Lost.) These three films, from Werner Herzog, Kinji Fukasaku and Robert Zemeckis, respectively, were spectacular cinematic wrinkles on the survivalist fantasy, each thrilling in its own right.
8. Code Unknown (2000)—At the beginning of the decade, I hadn't heard of the middle-aged Austrian director named Michael Haneke. Now, he's my favorite working filmmaker. Code Unknown, made in 2000, encapsulated the themes of civilization and its discontents, and the alienating effects of modern communications, which would preoccupy Haneke through such subsequent films as The Piano Teacher, The Time of the Wolf, Caché and his remake of Funny Games. His latest film, The White Ribbon, has been getting sensational reviews and should open in the Triangle soon.
9. The Five Obstructions (2003)—There were a number of great documentaries about filmmaking this decade, but none so moving and personal as Lars von Trier's, in which he cheers a clinically depressed filmmaker friend by challenging him to make a series of short films, each with extraordinarily difficult built-in obstacles. This should be canonical at film schools, and it's one of the decade's gems.
10. A Time for Drunken Horses (2000)—There were many compelling so-called World Cinema films, particularly from Iran. This effort from the Kurdish filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi, was a particular stunner, shot under incredibly grueling conditions and revealing a harsh terrain and its imdomitable people to the world. Ghobadi's subsequent efforts included Turtles Can Fly, and his latest, No One Knows About Persian Cats, has just been banned by the Iranian regime for its subversive stance.