Third Tier – the best of the genres
28 Days Later (2003) The only time I've ever been genuinely scared by a trailer. It seems like such a simple concept in hindsight; turn zombies from slow, drooling idiots into "caffeinated jackals" (as one reviewer put it). That, combined with the surreal shots of an empty London at the beginning, make it one of the most memorable horror films I've ever seen.
Best in Show (2000) "Now tell me, which one of these dogs would you want to have as your wide receiver on your football team?"
Bourne Identity (2002) A lot of people prefer Paul Greengrass' take on Bourne, but I like the original. Partly because I love Franka Potente in it, partly because the plot feels more accessible, and partly because the shaky-cam action sequences in the later films become really hard to follow. This one, I think, has the best action and is the best thriller of the three.
Brothers (2009) I’m not sure why critics are divided on this one. I think it’s an incredibly well acted character piece that examines the affects of war at home. Tobey Maguire may be getting a few accolades due to the showier role (and Leo’s campaigning), but Jake Gyllenhaal has a more impressive character arc as the black sheep in a military family.
Brothers Bloom (2009) This one got lost in the shuffle, which was such a shame. A globe-trotting, one-last-con flick, featuring a pair of con men brothers (Adrian Brody and Mark Ruffalo), a longing-for-adventure heiress (Rachel Weisz), and an explosives expert (Rinko Kikuchi). Rachel Weisz and Rinko Kikuchi would both be up for Oscars, were there any justice in the world.
Casino Royale (2006) I still wish that Daniel Craig would have just DYED HIS HAIR, but otherwise, he works very well as Bond, and the film works well for rebooting the series. Vesper Lynd is easily the best Bond girl there has ever been and the starting parkour sequence in Madagascar is awesome.
District 9 (2009) A cheeky political commentary on marginalized peoples (or aliens) that turns into an amazing action piece. Wildly ambitious, a sci-fi epic shot on an (unnoticeable) shoestring budget, a drama crossed with a stylized thriller, it is impressively original.
Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) Wes Anderson stylization comes to animation, which recalls Wallace and Gromit crossed with Gumby. The story, based on a Roald Dahl tale, follows a fox family and their woodland neighbors as they fight off the local farmers. A whimsical action caper that is completely endearing.
Finding Nemo (2003) My favorite Pixar hands down. There's a good mix of emotional depth and fun, and the animation of the underwater scenes is stunning.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) Post-punk, neo-glam gender bending rock stars unite! Seriously: this movie has touching characters, fantastic music, the flashiest costumes since Priscilla, and a bouncing-ball-audience-sing-along section; how can you not love it?
Lars and the Real Girl (2007) An introvert, brilliantly played by Ryan Gosling, slowly engages the real world through his (very chaste and very respectful) relationship with a sex doll. A fantastic supporting cast all around creates a wonderful, human community dealing with and supporting one of its more eccentric members.
Let the Right One In (2008) I remember reading once that Bjork tries to express Iceland through her music. In the same way, I feel that Let the Right One In expresses Sweden with it's expressive, snowy cinematography and suburban isolation. It's a tiny bit slow to start, but it sets up the loneliness of the protagonist, an outcast boy just on the verge of becoming a teenager, who then gets a new neighbor, Eli. Eli is a 12-year old vampire, and from there the movie takes off, creating a blossoming young friendship and twisting vampire lore into something wholly new and riveting.
Little Miss Sunshine (2006) A portrait of a flawed family, where each individual can't quite get it together, but as a whole unit they muddle through. Cynical enough that it never quite veers into preciousness, it remains one of the better ensemble comedies around.
Magdalene Sisters (2003) Based on the horrifying true story of the Magdalene laundries, where girls were sent to do hard labor for getting pregnant, being raped, or being deemed 'too flirtatious'. The film is harrowing and eloquent, and the acting is terrific all around.
Motorcycle Diaries (2004) A travelogue that observes the budding formation of Che Guevara and his best friend. Idealistic, beautiful and adventurous, just like the journey itself.
Pride and Prejudice (2005) I am not a huge Jane Austen fan, but this version is fresh enough that I found it really enjoyable and engaging. Confident and witty, Kiera Knightly makes Elizabeth much more accessible as a modern heroine.
The Royal Tennenbaums (2001) I know - two Wes Anderson films in a group. What can I say? His quirk appeals to me. Stylistically perfect, amusingly depressing and sadly funny, the oddball family has never been more entertainingly depicted.
Secretary (2002) Maggie Gyllenhaal gives the performance of her career as a self-harmer who finds love and self-acceptance through an S&M relationship. Very original and endearing and well worth checking out.
Waltz with Bashir (2008) The only animated documentary I know of, the film examines the 1982 Israeli-Lebanese war through one veteran trying to remember what happened.It examines memory, culpability, and the emotional wounds soldiers carry long after fighting has finished.
Watchmen (2009) Step off, haters. I think in time this will be recognized for how brilliant it is. No – it isn’t perfect, but it encompasses the sprawling complexity of the original novel while capturing the gritty feel perfectly. “Superheroes” debating morality doesn’t have the black and white simplicity of your Spider-Man 2, but it leaves far more to contemplate and discuss long after the movie has finished. Also has one of the year’s best performances in Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach.