This is pretty easily my favorite animated movie. It’s daring and inventive. The hero of the movie is not a cute mouse, but a rat, and one that touches your food no less. This fact is always present, but never heavy-handed. The critic Anton Ego’s speech at the end is as wonderful an exposition on the relationship between art and its critics as you will see in film and in short form. Moreover, it has a happy outcome that genuinely is in doubt. After all, all the workers at the restaurant walk out except for one, Anton Ego comes around to like the food but gets fired for it, and the restaurant is shut down for a rat infestation. On its surface, that is not a happy ending. But, of course, there actually is a happy ending, and because it works out after all, that makes the ending fully earned, which is true of so few movies.
Children of Men
I once read somewhere that the end of the world would not be a big cataclysm, but slow and predictable. In that light, I hate most disaster films like 2012, but here is a dystopic film that resonates with our times. The cause of social breakdown – losing the ability to procreate – might be one that we find less likely (than, say, global warming), but the nightmare world in which they live is one – sadly – that I can imagine too easily. As a cherry on top, the film boasts not one but two single-shot sequences (in the car, and at the end) that cinematographers will study for decades to come.
You’ll see this as a pattern, but I tend to reward movies for being daring and inventive. And what can be more inventive than making the first 45 minutes of a movie take place in a world with no people, with a hero that is a robot who (mostly) doesn’t speak? The second half isn’t as good as the first, which is why Ratatouille gets the nod from me (for finishing stronger), but the environmental message is not overwrought, and the film ends with perhaps the most optimistic rolling credits I have seen.
The Royal Tenenbaums
Wes Anderson, when taken to excess, is not great cinema (and is easily parodied). But Royal Tenenbaums is pitch perfect dramedy about a family that is both too fanciful ever to exist, but remains very real in its pain and flaws. Anderson creates a world that is New York, but still never identifiable as the city. The music choices are excellent, and Luke Wilson was at his best. The key scenes (the tennis meltdown, the attempted suicide) belong mostly to him.
Das Liben der Anderen (the lives of others)
Speaking of earned endings, it doesn’t get any more earned than this. Try not to smile when he says “It’s for me” at the end. This movie unfolds with a script and direction that prevent it from getting tired, predictable, or sappy. The late Ulrich Muhe is the centerpiece, and watching him change from cold-hearted Stasi to what he becomes at the end is to witness the emotional rebirth of a human.
Being John Malkovich (technically released in late 1999, but with worldwide releases stretching into 2000)
After I saw this movie for the first time, I was so astonished by what I had seen I watched it again the next day. Here is a movie so wildly inventive and clever that it is almost embarrassing. To wit, no movie in the 10 years that followed has attempted to recreate or even imitate it. Except perhaps other films written by Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine is an honorable mention, while Adaptation was too clever by half.)
No, it didn’t usher in a new period of musicals like some predicted, but the film stands on its own. Baz Lurhmann, like Wes Anderson, does not make great cinema when allowed to run wild and indulge his excesses. But like Anderson, he also made one movie in which his strengths were played up and his weaknesses were not. As such, Moulin Rouge contains wildly inventive songs, staging, costumes, and camera work, with a good Bohemian story to hold it all together.
Gangs of New York
Not that many movies unabashedly attempt to be IMPORTANT!, but Martin Scorsese is both unapologetic about the grand attempt of this movie, and actually pulls it off. This is a movie about how America was built, the blood that was spilled to do it, and its forgotten legacy. Daniel Day-Lewis was in top form, and this was the movie that cemented Leonardo DiCaprio as not some pretty boy from Titanic, but a titan of acting from his generation.
Ang Lee directs the movie with such attention and delicacy, so that in addition to its four terrific characters, the scenery and music emerge as 5th and 6th characters central to the movie’s success. The ending is also a perfect example of how I like to see films strive for emotional impact. There’s no excessive mawkishness, no Heath Ledger breaking down in tears and crying out how much he misses Jake Gyllenhaal. Instead, the music swells as Ledger closes a closet door, revealing Gyllenhaal’s old shirt, as the camera focuses in on it. More movies should learn from its example.
The Lord of the Rings (trilogy)
I think it’s fair to rate these as one movie, but if I had to my nod would go to the first, Fellowship of the Ring, as the best constructed movie. It’s the heart of the trilogy, because as the movies progress, the battles get bigger and longer. And if it weren’t for the initial work that went into making us invested in these characters, we wouldn’t care about what they were doing and why it matters by the end. And that’s the chief failing of most action films. Peter Jackson did a better job bringing a fantasy world to life than anyone predicted, and Howard Shore’s score rivals anything John Williams has done.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Little Miss Sunshine
The Dark Knight