The mid-section of this alphabetical list highlighting some of the exemplary work produced since the year 2000. If you’re stuck for something to watch and you’re scrolling through [insert name of streaming service here] and see any one of these titles, it’s a safe bet you’ll have found something worth a look. That’s probably about enough for the obligatory opening paragraph, so back to the films…
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013, Joel Coen, Ethan Coen)
The Gist: In late 60’s New York, an embittered folk singer (Oscar Isaac) finds his life adrift as he struggles to come to terms with the loss of his former partner.
Watch It For: A grower. Inside Llewyn Davis‘ initial frosty veneer thaws considerably with repeat viewings; Oscar Isaac in the midst of a run of notable lead performances; the Coen Brothers at their most melancholy; a nice cat.
Inside Out (2015, Pete Docter, Ronnie Del Carmen)
The Gist: A look inside the mind of a young girl where we find her emotions embodied and wrestling to keep equilibrium.
Watch It For: The creativity; the wisdom; the finest example of the Pixar format thus far; the varied colour palettes that delineate interior and exterior worlds.
Irréversible (2002, Gaspar Noé)
The Gist: Told in reverse order, the film reveals a horrific crime committed against a woman named Alex (Monica Bellucci) and the spiral of revenge and violence that occurs as a result.
Watch It For: Noé’s intense technique as opposed to any notion of being entertained; inarguably one of the most vital and extreme films of the 21st century so far; also inarguably one of the toughest to endure; provocation.
It Follows (2014, David Robert Mitchell)
The Gist: Jay (Maika Monroe) is tricked into contracting a form of curse when she sleeps with a local boy; a shape-shifting presence will follow her incessantly, and will kill her if it catches her.
Watch It For: A beautiful, eerie, heartfelt experience; the friendship between the lead characters; the Gregory Crewdson-esque lighting; a tone that recalls both The Virgin Suicides and Halloween.
Jauja (2014, Lisandro Alonso)
The Gist: When his daughter runs off with a soldier, a Dutch officer (Viggo Mortensen) traverses increasingly hazardous terrain in an effort to find her again.
Watch It For: Film as poetry; immaculate, perfect framing; Mortensen; a beautiful, patient example of how we’ve barely scratched the surface of what film as a medium can convey.
Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003, Quentin Tarantino)
The Gist: After a massacre at her wedding left her in a coma, a former assassin (Uma Thurman) wakes and begins a rampage of revenge.
Watch It For: Evidence of a director mastering his own technique and, quite simply, having fun; Vol. 1 is a riot of styles; it’s adventurous; the above scene.
Let The Right One In (2008, Tomas Alfredson)
The Gist: A Swedish boy named Oskar who is bullied at school finds close friendship in a mysterious girl who moves in next door; but she is not all she appears to be.
Watch It For: Easily the best vampire film in years; Alfredson’s chilly, beautiful gaze on his subjects; unusually impressive and rounded child performances; horror with heart and sensitivity.
Letters From Iwo Jima (2006, Clint Eastwood)
The Gist: The story of the battle of Iwo Jima between the United States and Imperial Japan in World War II, told from the perspective of the Japanese who fought in it.
Watch It For: Eastwood’s best post-70’s directorial effort; Ken Watanabe and Kazunari Ninomaya in two disparate but dignified performances; the washed out nightmare of the battle scenes; a refreshing sense of empathy from an American-made war film.
Like Someone In Love (2012, Abbas Kiarostami)
The Gist: A shy young prostitute (Rin Takanashi) is sent to spend time with a doddering elderly professor (Tadashi Okuno). During her stay they develop a more familial bond, and get caught in a case of mistaken identity.
Watch It For: The subtlety of humour; Kiarostami’s ability to defy expectation and conjure changes from within a scene; the considered framing; the last great work of a master.
Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring (2001, Peter Jackson)
The Gist: Seriously? You don’t know?
Watch It For: It’s the most rounded, self-contained movie of the three, almost working as an adventure in its own right; escapist comfort viewing of the highest order; “You shall not pass!”
Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers (2002, Peter Jackson)
The Gist: More Tolkien shenanigans, this time with a lot more horses and rain.
Watch It For: An immersive, reverent fantasy experience which will remain a blockbuster benchmark for years to come; the Helm’s Deep battle sequence; along with its fellows, a way to annihilate an entire day.
Lost In Translation (2003, Sofia Coppola)
The Gist: Two strangers suffering insomnia in a Japanese hotel find solace and friendship in each other as their lives intersect.
Watch It For: Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson going toe-to-toe; Coppola’s beautifully personal fly-on-the-wall style; the lightness of touch; one of the most romantic films of the century thus far; the music; Tokyo.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015, George Miller)
The Gist: In an apocalyptic future, a half-crazed drifter (Tom Hardy) is swept up in a furious escape attempt from a tyrannical local dictator which sprawls out across a desert wasteland.
Watch It For: Miller’s relentless creativity; the greatest action movie of the 21st century; Charlize Theron, who steals the movie as badass Furiosa; the saturated colours; a high-octane blast of adrenaline.
The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001, Joel Coen)
The Gist: It’s the 1940’s; a barber (Billy Bob Thornton) with dreams of becoming a dry cleaner becomes a murderer by accident, but instead of getting caught he watches his world tumble like dominoes around him as he stands passively watching.
Watch It For: A film that reveals itself slowly; something that truly rewards repeat viewings; Roger Deakins’ stunning black and white photography; honestly, the best Coen Brothers film and the one you probably haven’t seen.
Marie Antoinette (2006, Sofia Coppola)
The Gist: An alternate look at the life of Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst), the renowned Queen of France who, along with Louis XVI, brought about the fall of Versailles through selfish indulgence and the neglect of their people.
Watch It For: Reappraisal. Though it was largely maligned on release, Coppola’s Marie Antoinette has started to age remarkably well.
Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011, Sean Durkin)
The Gist: A young woman named Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) flees a cult-like commune and recuperates with her sister (Sarah Paulson), yet memories of her experience preoccupy her, along with the suspicion that the life she has left hasn’t quite left her.
Watch It For: Olsen, who very much arrived with this indie gem; see also Durkin; that final shot.
Martyrs (2008, Pascal Laugier)
The Gist: Two women break into a middle class home seeking revenge for past traumas, only to discover a horrendous secret which will lead one of them to the limits of human endurance.
Watch It For: Cinema at its darkest and bleakest; this is hard-hitting and relentless, but also clinically controlled, searing filmmaking; as tough as they come.
The Master (2012, Paul Thomas Anderson)
The Gist: Returning from the Pacific at the end of World War II, a troubled drifter named Freddy (Joacquin Phoenix) falls in with a learned man and quasi-cult leader, Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and his followers, and the two men become inexorably fascinated by one another.
Watch It For: Anderson’s arch, Kubrickian observations on people; the strange, sustained tone of the piece; the top-tier performances from the two leads; Jonny Greenwood’s score; the ‘processing’ scene; renewed faith in the mastery of cinema.
Me And You And Everyone We Know (2005, Miranda July)
The Gist: A shoe salesman (John Hawkes) and an eccentric performance artist (Miranda July) begin a tentative romance. Elsewhere, two young children discover the world of online dating.
Watch It For: And finer example than most of the influx of twee indie dramadies in the mid 00’s; finally discovering what that Cards Against Humanity card is referring to.
Mean Girls (2004, Mark Waters)
The Gist: Arriving at a new school, Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan) falls in with ‘the Plastics’; a group of alpha girls who rule the school by setting everyone else beneath them.
Watch It For: Tina Fey’s sparkling adapted screenplay; one of the last great high school movies.
To be continued…