20. “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006)
Part historical drama, part fantasy, part adventure story and part heartbreaking evocation of the terrors and trials of lonely, misunderstood childhood, Guillermo del Toro‘s “Pan’s Labyrinth” is undoubtedly the beloved, impish Mexican director’s masterpiece — the high watermark for his lovely, sad and strange sensibilities. In the immediate aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, Ofelia (an outstanding Ivana Baquero) moves to her new forested home with her pregnant mother to live with her stepfather, a sadistic Captain tasked with tracking down anti-Franco rebels. In parallel, or perhaps only in isolated Ofelia’s imagination, a fairy story unfurls in the magical realm beneath the forest, before the two strands intertwine toward tragedy and transcendence. It would be a winning, intoxicating story even if it didn’t build to its high-wire balancing-act finale. But poised with a dancer’s grace between opposing forces of good and evil, between soaring joy and plunging despair, we get the perfectly miraculous ending to a miraculous film.
19. “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days” (2007)
The Romanian New Wave is one of the most exciting things to happen to cinema in the 21st century, and its greatest triumph is the raw, unsparing Palme d’Or winner “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” from director Cristian Mungiu. Set in the dying years of Communist Romania, it sees college student Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) fall pregnant, and enlisting her friend Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) in obtaining an abortion. Virtually a procedural in the level of patient detail in which it tells the story, it’s less a pro-choice polemic than a portrait of life under Ceausescu, a bleak and bruising movie showing the indignities suffered by young women in a society that doesn’t value them (a recurring theme for the director, as he’d show with follow-up “Beyond The Hills”). Anchored by two phenomenal central performances (plus a chilling one by Vlad Ivanov as the abortionist), it’s a film, like all of Mungiu’s so far, that’s very hard to shake.
18. “Reprise” (2006)
Within seconds of his debut “Reprise,” it was clear that Norwegian director Joachim Trier was going to be a shot in the arm for cinema. And while his follow-ups “Oslo August 31st” and “Louder Than Bombs” were both stunning, he’s yet to top his incredibly rich, highly distinctive debut. The film tracks the friendship between twentysomethings Erik (Espen Klouman Høiner) and Phillip (Anders Danielsen Lie), both aspiring authors who submit their novels simultaneously, only to see Philip’s be accepted, and he himself going on to great success, but also a nervous breakdown. Appropriately for the subject matter, it’s a thrillingly novelistic, literary kind of movie, one that comes across as if a Dave Eggers or a Jonathan Safran Foer had gone into filmmaking rather than literature, feeling dizzy with the possibility of the form and the swagger of youth. But for all the restless bells and whistles, it’s a highly soulful and substantial film at its heart, too.
17. “Eden” (2014)
Mia Hansen-Løve‘s brilliantly bittersweet and insightful story of nearly-but-not-quite making it is set against the backdrop of the Paris-based EDM scene that spawned Daft Punk, but if it’s similar to any film, it’s to the Coen Brothers‘ similarly lovely anthem for the also-rans “Inside Llewyn Davis,” which may be set far away in place and time, but also deals in the consolations and disappointments of stopping just one tier below the top. Told with truth and thrumming sense of the vibrancy of youth, but also with a clear-eyed idea of just how transient, short-sighted and self-centered youth can be, it unsurprisingly uses music to pulsating effect, but it’s about much more than that: The Parisian electronica scene becomes emblematic of any tribe that gives you a sense of belonging, a way to define yourself, and to which you give your whole loyalty unthinkingly, without realizing that it most likely won’t ever be able to quite return it.
16. “Certified Copy” (2010)
Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami is so consistently interesting we really could have chosen any of his post-2000 titles, but while his minimalist “Ten” is a remarkably powerful and contained mini-masterwork and “Like Someone In Love” a fascinating culture clash of Iran-meets-Japan, it’s “Certified Copy” that we simply love the most. Partly it’s for its sparkly Juliette Binoche turn — as so often the actress seems even more surefooted and magnetic in a role that is inherently mysterious, and she won Best Actress in Cannes for her trouble — but mostly the film displays a mischievous intellectual playfulness: a two hour-long twinkle in the eye. An elegant puzzle wherein we’re never quite sure of the relationship between the protagonists (Binoche and opera singer turned occasional actor William Shimell) somehow from this shifting-sands footing, Kiarostami delivers profound insights into the ephemeral nature of interaction and how the observer influences what is observed.