There’s never been a better time to be a movie lover. The sheer volume of titles available, and the speed and ease with which consumers can access those titles no matter where they live, is unprecedented.
But all of those options can paradoxically make finding the very best films even more of a challenge. That’s one reason why Times critics Kenneth Turan and Justin Chang resolved to collaborate on a list of 25 “buried treasures” from the last 20 years in cinema. (And took the additional step of adding five more personal favorites each on individual lists.)
Consider it a cheat sheet to help navigate an ocean of content. Many of their selections are available to stream or purchase online. This way you can spend less time searching, and more time watching.
KENNETH TURAN: All movies are not created equal, not only in terms of good and bad but also whether they are celebrated or obscure, embraced by a wider public or studiously ignored. If one of the pleasures of being a critic is having the mandate to explore and discover the hidden pleasures most people don’t have the time to seek out, one of the frustrations is that these films are often in and out of theaters before audiences can discover them.
To remedy that, we came up with the notion of spotlighting 25 hidden gems from the last 20 years that deserve a second chance to prove how good they are.
JUSTIN CHANG: It should be noted that, if left to our own devices, we could have easily come up with 25, 50, even 100 more films (each!). Which is another way of saying that this is not a “best films” list; nor is it meant to be in any way definitive. Its purpose is simply to shed light on a group of films that have meant something to us over the past two decades or so, and which — despite critical championing or, in some cases, because of critical indifference — never quite drew the audience attention and awards recognition they should have.
It’s worth noting too that this is a joint list of favorites. Think of it as the center of that Venn diagram where our widely divergent tastes mysteriously converge.
TURAN: We both shared, for instance, a passion for French cinema. I think France contributed more films to the list than any non-English-speaking country. I’m especially happy we included Pascale Ferran’s “Lady Chatterley” (2007), taken from the D.H. Lawrence novel and one of the most frankly sensual films in memory. At the other end of the spectrum is Laurent Cantet’s magnificent “Time Out” (2002), which details the increasingly unnerving deceptions a white-collar worker resorts to when he’s thrown out of a job and doesn’t want to tell his family.
CHANG: Some art-house regulars will likely recognize Cantet as the director of 2008’s equally exceptional “The Class,” which, being a Palme d’Or winner and a foreign-language Oscar nominee, didn’t make our list. Not an entirely fair arrangement, perhaps, but our priority is to direct attention where it’s needed the most. In the case of “The Beat That My Heart Skipped” (2005), a thrilling French remake of James Toback’s “Fingers,” I am in the minority position of actively preferring it to Jacques Audiard’s fine, better-known later work, such as “A Prophet” and “Rust and Bone.”
Our passion for French movies may seem a bit disproportionate, but maybe not: Can you truly claim to love cinema without loving French cinema? Neither of us could bear to leave out Arnaud Desplechin’s sublime “A Christmas Tale” (2008), which turns a dysfunctional-family drama into a staggeringly rich holiday feast of techniques, emotions and ideas, or Agnes Jaoui’s poignant, perceptive comedy “Look at Me” (2005), which dramatizes a similar degree of family animus in a comparatively minor key. I’ve heard both these movies dismissed in the past as hopelessly bourgeois trifles, which is precisely why they deserve to be discovered anew.
TURAN: Examples from other national European cinemas also made an impact on us, certainly none more so than Italy’s six-hour “The Best of Youth” (2005), epic in every sense of the word. Intertwining one family’s personal narrative with nearly 40 years of tumultuous political events, this is serious adult storytelling on a grand scale, unrolling its compelling story like a richly patterned carpet. It might be the best film about the 1960s that’s yet been made.
Just as remarkable is the British “Bloody Sunday” (2002), a wrenching based-on-fact early feature from Paul Greengrass, who went on to do several of the Jason Bourne films. It’s a gut-clutching piece of advocacy cinema that explores the awful complications of a terrifying day in 1972 when British troops in Northern Ireland opened fire on unarmed civil rights marchers. It’s a film that never wavers, never loses its focus or its conviction.
CHANG: I still remember seeing “The Best of Youth” at the Royal 12 years ago, along with a few hundred other moviegoers similarly drawn to the theater by your rave review. As our happy tears could attest by the end of that six-hour experience, you did not lead us astray.
Nothing like that reception awaited the fiercely controlled Romanian drama “Child’s Pose” (2014), starring the great Luminita Gheorghiu as the monstrous mother to end all monstrous mothers. But amid the deserved acclaim for such classics of new Romanian cinema as “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” and “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” Cãlin Peter Netzer’s withering indictment of upper-class corruption deserves to be rediscovered and cherished.
A very different but equally laser-focused treatment of a particular society in crisis, “Barbara” (2012) is one of several collaborations between the German director Christian Petzold and his brilliant leading lady, Nina Hoss, that might have made our list. The subtlety of this particular work, an incisive story of love and subterfuge set in the former German Democratic Republic, simply takes the breath away.
TURAN: While European cinema has retained its perennial hold on audiences, films from Asia do not always break through, which is a shame given their superlative quality. And none more so than a feature that had an almost transformative effect on me when I first saw it, Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “After Life” (1999). Though Kore-eda went on to splendid family dramas such as “Our Little Sister” and “Like Father, Like Son,” this story of life after death, a subtle and perceptive meditation on the randomness of pleasure, of memory, of life itself, remains my favorite of his films.
Also completely unforgettable, though it couldn’t be more different, was Chinese director Lu Chuan’s “City of Life and Death” (2011), a film that took as its subject the infamous World War II atrocity known as the rape of Nanking. Both epic and intimate, this portrait of the unspeakable things that happened when Japanese soldiers were let loose among Chinese civilians stuns you with its sense of the mind-warping chaos and bedlam that emerge when panic and terror rule the day.
CHANG: The Japanese occupation of China also serves as the backdrop for Ang Lee’s broodingly erotic wartime thriller “Lust, Caution” (2007), the inclusion of which may surprise some of our readers. After all, the two-time Oscar-winning Lee is hardly an unknown quantity, and the film grossed $67 million worldwide, which is fairly robust by this list’s standards. But at the time it was largely dismissed as a pretentious, overlong snooze; me, I was held rapt for all two hours and 40 minutes by the masterful deliberation of Lee’s filmmaking and the superb performance of then-newcomer Tang Wei, who was punished with a Chinese media ban for her involvement in the film’s unusually explicit sex scenes.
Industry sexism being what it is, no such ban was inflicted on her on-screen lover Tony Leung, a well-established Hong Kong superstar. Leung is the smoldering centerpiece of another film on our list, “Infernal Affairs” (2004), a suave and sensationally entertaining double-mole cop thriller that American audiences may know as the picture that inspired Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed.” Fine as that movie is, it isn’t a patch on the original. (The directors, Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, also made the terrific “Infernal Affairs II” and the so-so “Infernal Affairs III”; think of it as “The Godfather” trilogy of Hong Kong action.)
TURAN: We put this list together film by film without considering any larger themes, but it is interesting to note that roughly a third of our choices were directed by women. That’s a statistic that speaks for itself in terms of the indefensible difficulty women have had getting work in the studio system.
Cherien Dabis, for instance, has worked largely in television, but the strengths of her “Amreeka” (2009), which balances a keen eye for the problems of immigrants coming to this county with a gift for warm and affectionate human comedy, make me wish she’d made more features than she has.
Jane Campion, by contrast, has done a great many features and won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for “The Piano,” but I wish more people had seen her “Bright Star” (2009). A transporting film, both passionate and restrained, it re-creates the chaste love story between John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) in a way that burns like fire.
Not romantic, not one little bit, is “Ratcatcher” (2000), Lynne Ramsay’s story of an all-but-friendless 12-year-old boy. Set in one of Glasgow, Scotland’s poorest neighborhoods, its unblinking depiction of a pitiless environment is balanced by a remarkable visual imagination that turns grimness into something close to sublime.
CHANG: Few people are doing more to advance opportunities for women in the industry than Ava DuVernay, who has made a point of hiring only female directors for her TV series “Queen Sugar,” and who will soon have a big-budget studio picture under her belt with “A Wrinkle in Time.” With or without all that deserved clout, she would rate a place on our list for “Middle of Nowhere” (2012), a luminous and moving drama that won her a directing prize at Sundance. Emayatzy Corinealdi is terrific as a long-suffering woman slowly learning to live for herself again, and David Oyelowo (the star of DuVernay’s “Selma”) and especially Lorraine Toussaint do splendid supporting work.
Even if it weren’t such an engrossing character study, “Middle of Nowhere” would command a certain fascination for the way it illuminates lives and communities that are too rarely depicted on-screen. Another film that accomplishes this beautifully, albeit in a very different setting, is “Fill the Void” (2013), a captivating debut feature from the gifted Orthodox Jewish filmmaker Rama Burshtein. It’s a sly comedy of manners predicated on a piercing family tragedy, as well as an unusually nuanced portrait of a cloistered religious community observed entirely from within.
The final female-directed film on our list is “Lovely & Amazing” (2002), and there isn’t a whiff of hyperbole to the title. Nicole Holofcener has written and directed a number of fine comedies over the years (it’s worth noting that “Please Give” was a close runner-up for this slot), but “Lovely & Amazing” remains her sharpest, most lacerating and truthful work, in which four terrific actresses — Catherine Keener, Brenda Blethyn, Emily Mortimer and Raven Goodwin — peel back layer after layer of animus and anxiety with a raw honesty that has rarely been matched since.
TURAN: Even though the remaining films on our list don’t fit into the broader categories above, we don’t love them any less, quite the contrary. I still chuckle at the exquisite performance John Hurt gave in Richard Kwietniowski’s sharp, sophisticated and completely delicious “Love and Death on Long Island” (1998), playing a cult novelist totally obsessed with Jason Priestley’s teen idol. In fact just writing about it makes me want to see it again.
The same is true for Jeff Nichols’ terribly underrated “Midnight Special” (2016). A science-fiction thriller starring Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton that is both a riveting genre exercise and emotional drama, it couldn’t scare up an audience even with a major studio like Warner Bros. in its corner.
CHANG: I suppose these next two titles could be filed together as the “Deep” duo. The first is “The Deep End” (2001), a shrewd update of Max Ophüls’ great 1949 noir melodrama “The Reckless Moment.” That’s a high bar to meet, but the plaintive moods, bewitching images and emotional satisfactions of that remake remain as etched in my memory as Tilda Swinton’s mysteriously Oscar-unnominated breakthrough performance. Between this and their similarly heartrending 2012 drama, “What Maisie Knew,” it’s criminal — or at the very least, a genuine mystery — that the directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel haven’t been more prolific.
The British director Terence Davies, meanwhile, has been a whirlwind of activity in recent years with films ranging from his stirring documentary “Of Time and the City” to this year’s masterful “A Quiet Passion.” Perhaps his most mysteriously overlooked work from this period is “The Deep Blue Sea” (2012), a postwar romantic melodrama adapted from Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play. Rachel Weisz’s wrenching performance as the suicidal heroine stands at the center of a frame that, as usual, Davies has decorated with a stunning wealth of sensual, visual and musical detail.
TURAN: If we have a regret about our list, it’s that we didn’t find room for more of the excellent documentaries that characterized the period, leaving off thrilling items like “Senna” and “Stranded.” But the two we have included are out-and-out spectacular, starting with “The Five Obstructions” (2004), co-directed by Danish filmmakers Jorgen Leth and Lars von Trier.
So truly original that a brief encapsulation isn’t in the cards, “Obstructions” encourages you to re-examine the very nature of cinema, the sources of creativity and the unexpected joys of the unanticipated moment. And it does all that with the back-and-forth excitement of a tense and thrilling competition between world-class filmmakers searching for an edge. It’s as unusual as it sounds.
CHANG: I love that we’ve chosen these two nonfiction films in particular, because they couldn’t be more different — not just from each other, but from the general audience preconceptions of what a documentary can or should be. “The Five Obstructions” is an endlessly stimulating entertainment whose sheer delight in the cinema’s storytelling possibilities leaves one faintly buzzed. “Into Great Silence” (2007) does almost exactly the opposite. Directed by the German filmmaker Philip Gröning, the film is a rapturously beautiful immersion in the gentle everyday rhythms of a remote French monastery.
“Boring!” I can already hear the Grö — er, groaning. But give me a minute. Better still, give this movie 162 minutes; it deserves every one of them. I can’t put it better than you did when you reviewed it 10 years ago: “‘Into Great Silence’ is finally a film where nothing seems to happen but everything comes to pass.” Nor can I think of a more fitting title to end this list than this one, because it reminds us that some of the best films out there are also the quietest.
JUSTIN CHANG’S PICKS
‘35 Shots of Rum’ (2009)
The French master Claire Denis has given us bolder demonstrations of her talent (“Beau Travail”) over the past two decades, but this wistfully beautiful father-daughter love story strikes me as her most sublime achievement. It’s a stealth remake of Yasujiro Ozu’s “Late Spring” and thus a rare example of one masterpiece begetting another.
‘Higher Ground’ (2011)
This first (and hopefully not only) film directed by Vera Farmiga wrecked me when I saw it at Sundance in 2011. Like “Secret Sunshine” (and yet absolutely nothing like it), the film is an outsider’s portrait of religious belief that seems to achieve greater depths of intimacy and insight than most insiders manage.
‘Mysteries of Lisbon’ (2011)
Four-and-a-half hours pass with engrossing ease in this 19th century Portuguese epic from the late Chilean director Raul Ruiz. It’s a dazzling conjuring trick, a labyrinth of stories within stories and an altogether unforgettable experience.
Before Jafar Panahi was sentenced to a 20-year filmmaking ban by the Iranian government (one that has scarcely slowed his productivity or his ingenuity), he directed “Offside,” a thrilling comedy that uses the backdrop of a soccer match to expose the absurd fault lines of gender oppression in his home country. It’s a bracing example of how to answer intolerance with an act of love.
‘Secret Sunshine’ (2010)
This staggering achievement from the South Korean writer-director Lee Chang-dong (“Poetry”) first played at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, but it didn’t reach American screens until a cursory theatrical run in 2010. It’s a conflicted yet startlingly clear-eyed portrait of love, grief and the infinite mysteries of faith, a movie I carry in my soul and one that you might just wind up carrying in yours.
KENNETH TURAN’S PICKS
‘Divided We Fall’ (2000)
Set during World War II, this Czech film tells of the moral complications and farcical chaos that result when a couple shelters a Jewish concentration camp escapee. Brilliant in its ability to maintain a razor’s edge balance among humor, pathos and potential tragedy.
‘Good Bye Lenin!’ (2003)
Funny but not a comedy, serious but never overbearing, emotional in an engagingly bittersweet way, this German film offers an unusual take on the fall of the Communist system, the humbling of a god that failed.
Before he created a sensation with “I Am Not Your Negro,” Raoul Peck directed this complex, powerful and still urgent drama about the life and death of charismatic African leader Patrice Lumumba, aided by a splendid performance by Eriq Ebouaney.
‘My Son the Fanatic’ (1997)
Called “a romantic film with ideological edges” by screenwriter Hanif Kureishi and starring the great Om Puri in one of his signature roles, this nuanced, prescient film details the fallout of a son’s decision to embrace the Muslim fundamentalism his father rejected.
‘Tell No One’ (2006)
A top-notch thriller so twisty you may forget to breathe, this is a French version of a novel by bestselling American writer Harlan Coben that Hollywood was unable to crack. Directed by Guillaume Canet and starring François Cluzet, Nathalie Baye and Kristin Scott Thomas, it shows why Coben believes in “stories that grab hold of your heart and do not let go.”
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