Fourth Tier – the 'definitely adding to my DVD collection' selection
Across the Universe (2007) I love Julie Taymor's style. Here, she tells a story of the 60s through Beatles music, which works well given their extensive catalog. Overall, a very good cast, including the stellar Dana Fuchs, who is surely the reincarnation of Janis Joplin. If a couple of the numbers don't quite hit true, there are many more imaginative, touching and wonderful ones.
Batman Begins (2005) The Dark Knight certainly got more attention for its indigo-toned nihilism and tapping into the national mood. And while that is a beautifully shot movie, and certainly riveting to watch, it doesn’t actually make much sense. I prefer this Batman. I’ll take Katy Holmes as Rachel Dawes in exchange for Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow.
Brick (2006) A neo-noir set in high school. It's a beautiful, audacious film and the central conceit holds well (even if I didn't catch all the Dashiell Hammett dialogue the first time around). The high school setting works perfectly for the archetypal characters and paints the classic 'teen' film in a whole new light.
Damned United (2009) Less a sports movie than a biopic, the film follows Brian Clough, the football coach who led Derby to a League championship and later took the job as head coach of Leeds, which lasted only 44 days. Michael Sheen may be the most chameleon actor around, and his scenes with Timothy Spall (as his assistant coach) are a joy to watch.
Gone Baby Gone (2007) My favorite Denis Lehane adaptation. Directed by Boston native Ben Affleck, and starring his supremely talented brother Casey, I think Gone Baby Gone does the best job of the recent wave of Boston-set dramas in portraying both the feel of Boston and the hold it has over native residents. Amy Ryan turns in a stunning performance and the story's moral quandaries resonate long after the film ends.
I heart Huckabees (2004) My friend Emily has a theory that to determine whether or not you are compatible with someone, rather than looking at mac vs pc, or cat vs. dog, you should use this film. I have never laughed harder in a theater in my life.
King Kong (2005) Peter Jackson does a marvelous job of updating the classic, recreating its epic feel with stunning visuals. The unusual casting (Adrien Brody, Jack Black and Colin Hanks) generally works, Naomi Watts is terrific and Andy Serkis and WETA made Kong a believable, relatable character.
Lost in Translation (2003) A moody, dreamy look at people who find companionship far from home. Less a travelogue than a character study, the film is instantly relatable to any who've struggled for definition in the company of strangers.
Mirrormask (2005) Dave McKean's art, Neil Gaiman's story telling, and the Jim Henson Company's production come together for this wonderful, sumptuous tale. The story itself is simple enough; a young girl dealing with family troubles at home finds herself in a fantasy land where she must prove herself (shades of Alice in Wonderland or Pan's Labyrinth). The visuals, however, are completely stunning and enchanting.
Prestige (2006) A twisty-turny mystery thriller. It is an atmospheric, haunting period piece of dueling Edwardian magicians who challenge each other to greater and more dangerous heights professionally and personally. Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman are fantastic, and even if you guess some of the plot twists before the reveal, I doubt you'll get them all.
Rescue Dawn (2007) Werner Herzog's take on the great escape genre. The true story of Dieter Dengler, a German-American pilot who was shot down and captured in Laos during the Vietnam war. Christian Bale is fantastic and completely immerses himself in this POW tale of a man's struggle to stay alive, and sane, in the depths of the war. He should've won the Oscar.
Shattered Glass (2003) Based upon a fascinating true story, this film is about Stephen Glass, who quickly rose to preeminence as one of Washington's hottest young journalists before his career came crashing down. In addition to being a fascinating character study (both of Glass and of his manager, played by Peter Sarsgaard), it's also an interesting look at journalistic ethics and it came out during a particularly turbulent time for journalism in America.
Snow Angels (2008) A searing juxtaposition of two relationships; one that is just starting out and another that continues to fall apart. A remarkably strong ensemble cast gives the story its emotional depth. The director, David Gordon Green, manages to sustain the tension of the dramatic arc while shooting the frozen Pennsylvania landscape in a style reminiscent of Terrence Malick. Incredibly moving.
Sunshine (2007) A small band of astronauts are on a long mission to send a bomb into the heart of the sun, which is dying. The first mission failed, and now they are the last hope to save the solar system. The cast is incredible and the direction is fantastic. The film does a good job of exploring the tensions that would arise in such small quarters over a long period of time and the stresses of trying to carry on the mission as things begin to go wrong. The last third of the film becomes a slightly rote thriller, but the rest of the film is stunning enough to make up for those flaws. Finally, it should be noted that this film is visually stunning - the light of the sun is practically another character.
Sweeney Todd (2007) Tim Burton takes his cast of players and thrusts them into the pitch black Sondheim musical of murder and cannibalism. Easily one of his best films, here Burton finds both the dark humor and tragedy of the tale, while adding his own touches. More than any other production I've seen (and with a starting point this good, they've all been excellent) this one captures the act of humans being turned into meat. It's absolutely gruesome, but also the most affecting and faithful to the story.
Thirteen (2003) This will hardly sound like an endorsement, but this film is absolutely incredible and I never want to watch it, ever again. It is a completely wrenching, scarily accurate portrayal of what girls are like at that age (even if they don't get up to exactly the same things the protagonists do). I seem to remember reading at the time that Nikki Reed, who portrays Evie, was consulted on the screenplay, which probably contributes to the film's realism and effectiveness.
Whale Rider (2003) The story of a young Maori girl who strives for acceptance and her place among her tribe. Anchored by a fantastic performance by Keisha Castle-Hughes, the film shows off New Zealand's natural beauty and examines the struggle of a tribal community's halting struggles to advance their traditions.
Winged Migration (2003) A beautifully filmed look at birds and their journeys across the globe. The direction does an incredible job of instilling a sense of flight in the viewer. It isn't strictly linear, or even heavily narrated. Instead, it immerses you in the world of birds and instills a sense of awe for their lives and struggles.
Y Tu Mama Tambien (2002) While this is partly on here for being a great road trip/ friendship movie, it's also worth noting that it's success helped pave the way for many more Latin films to find distribution here in the US. The story of two best friends on the verge of adulthood and a tempting older woman traveling to find an elusive beach, it starts off as a simple travelogue and becomes a thought-provoking journey of self discovery. I really can't find a way to make that sound less cliche, but the movie is much deeper and well worth watching.