Second Tier – the “Oh my god that was good” group
Atonement (2007) What starts out as a beautiful period romance - and, really, that would have been enough to get it on this list; it's incredibly fabulous just as a period romance - becomes a meditation on narrative, jealousy and, obviously, atonement. And yes, the camera work in the scene at Dunkirk is some of the best that has ever been done.
The Constant Gardener (2005) A political and ideological thriller, which sets a British government worker on the path to understand his wife’s murder at any cost.
The Departed (2006) Scorsese takes the undercover cop thriller to epic, Shakespearean levels. Packed with brilliant performances.
Escapist (2008) It has never been released in the
Frost/Nixon (2008) Chronicling a pivotal moment in American politics, Frank Langella and Michael Sheen deliver powerhouse performances as the titular figures. Backed up by a fantastic supporting cast, the film becomes a fantastic mental thriller, despite already knowing the outcome.
Good Night and Good Luck (2005) The complement to Frost/Nixon for crusading journalists taking on politicians. Good Night and Good Luck has a jazzier, more retro feel and an equally strong cast. The cool vibe manages to soften the civics lesson and the realization of the harsh disconnect between journalism then and news today.
Hard Candy (2006)What starts out as a middle-aged man picking up a teen at a coffee shop quickly becomes something else entirely. A twisty and provocative thriller that could easily have turned into pulpy exploitation were it not for the fantastic turns by Ellen Page and Patrick Wilson, who anchor the film with their struggle.
The Hours (2002) My go-to example of when the movie is better than the book, and the book won the Pulitzer. Where Mrs. Dalloway chronicles it’s heroine’s life through the course of one day, the Hours examines three. Powerhouse acting all around, topped by Nicole Kidman who deservedly won the Oscar – her scenes with Stephen Dillane, who plays Leonard Woolfe are riveting.
In Bruges (2008) My favorite playwright’s first film. Martin McDonough writes pitch-black humor, and In Bruges is no exception. And in between the whip-smart dialogue and madcap shoot-outs are some fantastic character portraits.
Inglourious Basterds (2009) Each of the chapters could be an award-winning short film. So many films today take quick edits to the extreme of also having quick scenes. While Tarantino doesn’t employ particularly long takes, he does allow long scenes to play out, slowly building the tension of each interrogation. Yes, it is also a satisfying revenge fantasy and an ode to the power of cinema, but it is the drama of these small contests of will that remain freshest months later.
Last King of
Memento (2001) Ingeniously plays with narrative structure, and still manages to be an engrossing mystery.
Milk (2008) I could not believe that Sean Penn pulled this off. Mr. Dour morphs completely into the sunny, outgoing personality of Harvey Milk. Great supporting work as well. A stirring overview of the gay rights struggle.
Moon (2009) I love, love, love this film. It’s best to go into this film knowing little of the plot. Basically, it concerns astronaut Sam Bell, who has 2 weeks to go on his 3-year solitary mining shift on the moon. It has the year’s most incredible performance by Sam Rockwell, who is pretty much the only one on screen (Kevin Spacey voices the computer on the moon station).
No Country for Old Men (2007) A tale of fate in west
Painted Veil (2006) A desperately unhappy couple undertake a suicidal trip to the middle of a cholera epidemic in a remote region of
Slumdog Millionaire (2008) Yes, audiences swelled to this feel-good story of underdog triumph in part because it was released during a depression. But it is still a fantastic love story, a wonderful portrait of