The collation of this list was inspired by the 4th anniversary of thelosthighwayhotel. What started out as just a place to dump some writing I’d been posting on social media quickly became a serious, beloved vocation for me. Because at it’s best film is a window into the minds of those around us. That can manifest in such diverse ways, as this list hopes to evidence. Here then are the next 20 in my celebration of modern film.
Dead Man’s Shoes (2004, Shane Meadows)
The Gist: An embittered soldier (Paddy Considine) returns to the town of his youth with a plan of ruthless vengeance for a group of men who wronged his brother.
Watch It For: Considine – he’s wounded and ferocious; Meadows – remember when he made films?; a cold, hard revenge thriller relocated absurdly to the Midlands.
Death Proof (2007, Quentin Tarantino)
The Gist: An ode to certain exploitation films of the late 60s and early 70s, two groups of women are terrorised by a sadistic stuntman who uses a stunt car as a lethal weapon.
Watch It For: Quentin Tarantino’s best film. I’m not even joking. Rich dialogue; great characters; his best soundtrack; something that reveals itself as smarter than it first appears – just check out how the film travels through time as it goes on, modernising until even its characters defy its premise.
Dogtooth (2009, Yorgos Lanthimos)
The Gist: Two fearful parents who have raised their three children to adulthood in total isolation from the outside world find controlling their micro-society harder and harder to accomplish.
Watch It For: A window into the strange, perverse world of Lanthamos; that dancing scene.
Dogville (2003, Lars Von Trier)
The Gist: A fleeing woman (Nicole Kidman) finds refuge in a small, impoverished mountain town whose residents slowly start taking advantage of her gratitude.
Watch It For: Von Trier’s stark, Brechtian approach; so many great character actors assembled in one place; a blunt lesson in American arrogance.
Donnie Darko (2001, Richard Kelly)
The Gist: After a jet engine crashed through the roof of his house, a bright but troubled teenage boy (Jake Gyllenhaal) starts seeing visions of a man in a rabbit suit who advises him of the impending end of the world.
Watch It For: Gyllenhaal’s breakout performance; Kelly’s imaginative story; the fine blending of genres.
The Duke Of Burgundy (2014, Peter Strickland)
The Gist: In a European village inhabited only by women, a biologist (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and a woman who appears to be her maid (Chiara D’Anna) engage in a BDSM relationship defined by routine, though the specifics of their interactions threaten to tear them apart.
Watch It For: Strickland’s total control of his subject matter; a far more truthful, respectful look at its subject matter than certain popular alternatives; Cats Eyes’ gorgeous score.
Elephant (2003, Gus Van Sant)
The Gist: What appears like a normal day at an American high school is turned into a nightmare when two of the students arrive on campus with guns and explosives.
Watch It For: A chilling, detached reaction to a disturbingly recurrent problem in the US.
Everybody Wants Some!! (2016, Richard Linklater)
The Gist: The weekend before his first sommester begins, we follow a freshman baseball player (Blake Jenner) as he meets his future team and a prospective love interest (Zoey Deutch).
Watch It For: A spiritual rekindling of Linklater’s masterpiece Dazed And Confused; college jocks given extra dimension and personality; blue skied nostalgia at its warmest and most entertaining.
Excision (2012, Richard Bates, Jr.)
The Gist: An antisocial teenager named Pauline (AnnaLynne McCord) with a fascination for blood dreams of becoming a surgeon and yearns for approval from her icily controlling mother (Traci Lords).
Watch It For: A fucked up modern horror flick with the disarmingly bright colour palette of American suburbia; McCord’s totally committed performance; the perverse spirit of John Waters alive and well.
Fish Tank (2009, Andrea Arnold)
The Gist: A talented young woman (Katie Jarvis) living on a council estate with dreams of becoming a dancer struggles to grow accustomed to her mother’s new boyfriend (Michael Fassbender).
Watch It For: Jarvis – she’s lightning in a bottle. Arnold – bringing such electricity to British kitchen sink drama.
Frances Ha (2012, Noah Baumbach)
The Gist: A dancer named Frances (Greta Gerwig) spends a year with no fixed address in New York, enjoying life but worrying that the world around her is maturing at a different rate to her own scatterbrained existence.
Watch It For: Everything. Gerwig is a joy; the script is lively and witty; the black and white photography captures hipster NYC in an utterly forgiving light; it’s a breeze.
Frida (2002, Julie Taymor)
The Gist: A biopic of Mexican painter Frida Khalo
Watch It For: The biopic done right; an awards worthy Hayek is dedicated to the role she so passionately wanted to play; Taymor’s exuberant directing.
Ghost World (2001, Terry Zwigoff)
The Gist: Living in a sleepy town, self-perpetuating outside Enid (Thora Birch) struggles to find her path after finishing high school, but finds an unlikely kindred spirit in introverted jazz enthusiast Seymour (Steve Buscemi).
Watch It For: The wry, acerbic humour; the unhurried pace that complements the vacant suburbia; Birch and Buscemi’s chemistry together.
Girlhood (2014, Céline Sciamma)
The Gist: Marieme (Karidja Touré) is a young black woman growing up in the suburbs of Paris with few prospects. She finds companionship and a sense of identity in a small gang of girls, but their antisocial lifestyle opens doors to more unsavoury prospects.
Watch It For: One of the best European films of the last few years; honest, wise, without being patronising or tipping into cliché; Touré is utterly convincing; the dreamlike synth score from Para One; Sciamma is a name to watch.
Good Night, And Good Luck (2005, George Clooney)
The Gist: 60 Minutes host Edward R Morrow (David Strathairn) takes on Senator Joseph McCarthy during the Communist witchhunts of the 1950’s, but risks the future of his career and those around him in the process.
Watch It For: Strathairn, who takes this opportunity for a leading role and makes it his own; Clooney’s on-point directing; the economical conjuring of the era; the fine supporting cast of character actors.
Grizzly Man (2005, Werner Herzog)
The Gist: Werner Herzog investigates the life – and death – of Timothy Treadwell, an unusual and possibly unbalanced wildlife enthusiast killed by grizzly bears that he was trying to live with, documenting the project on film the entire time.
Watch It For: The strange tragedy of Treadwell – and his companion Amie Huguenard; Herzog on typically droll, existential form; all of that unlikely found footage.
Guardians Of The Galaxy (2014, James Gunn)
The Gist: In another galaxy, an unlikely and colourful band of outlaws and bounty hunters team up to prevent a sinister villain from possessing an orb of great destructive power.
Watch It For: Chris Pratt becoming an A-list leading man in one gravity-defying jump; a slice of good ol’ fashioned space opera fun; lots of laughs; the best of the recent run of Marvel films.
Her (2013, Spike Jonze)
The Gist: In the near future, a sensitive man (Joacquin Phoenix) downloads a new artificially intelligent operating system and the two of them spark up an unexpected relationship.
Watch It For: Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson (who voices ‘Samantha’) riffing long conversations with such ease; Jonze turning in one of the best scripts of the decade; the beautiful production design; the humanity of it all.
The House Of The Devil (2009, Ti West)
The Gist: Conned into answering a babysitting ad when the job is anything but, broke student Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) slowly comes to suspect all is not right in the creepy old house she’s spending her evening in.
Watch It For: TENSION; West’s slow ratcheting of suspense; the pitch-perfect late 70’s/early 80’s vibe; the downright beautiful cinematography; did I mention the tension?
Inherent Vice (2014, Paul Thomas Anderson)
The Gist: 1970: A permanently stoned LA private eye (Joacquin Phoenix) tries to solve the disappearance of an important real estate magnate, and that of his own ex-girlfriend (Katherine Waterston); two events that seem inexorably linked by a mysterious entity known as ‘the Golden Fang’.
Watch It For: A looser, funnier iteration of Anderson’s directing than we’ve seen of late; a sprawling cast of talented faces; the look and feel of the thing; Jonny Greenwood’s music and the eclectic soundtrack; the superbly sinewy noir plot that is at once important and utterly inessential.
To be continued…