15. “Pulse” (2001)
The beginning of the new millennium saw technological anxiety creep into all kinds of films, mostly terrible horror movies about haunted cell-phones or Diane Lane trying to find a webcam killer. Easily the most twitchy and disturbing of this sub-genre, or indeed arguably the most twitchy and disturbing film of the past 16 years, was Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Pulse.” Long buried by the Weinsteins in favor of their terrible Kristen Bell-starring remake, the original tells two loosely connected stories that see souls of dead people begin to invade the physical world through the internet. Which sounds silly, but in fact Kurosawa turns out something deeply, soul-shakingly sad, carefully curating an eerie mood to unsettle you completely, while also exploring the disconnected nature of internet life in a way that doesn’t come across as shaking the fist at kids. By the apocalyptic finale, you’ll be ready to throw your router in the dumpster.
14. “Poetry” (2010)
Such a quiet, perfect film it’s possible to believe afterwards that you only dreamed it, Lee Chang-dong‘s “Poetry” feels like the apex of the modern humanist tradition in Asian cinema, blending melodramatic, lyrical and realist elements into one seamless, devastating whole. The tapestry is held together however, by an impeccable central performance from the beautiful Yun Junghee, playing a grandmother whose encroaching Alzheimer’s sees her begin to forget the words she needs to complete a poem for her poetry class. With her doted-upon grandson implicated in a horrible crime, and financial pressures bearing down, somehow emotions that are impossible to verbalize shine through in the pinning on of a hat or in world cinema’s most heartbreaking badminton scene. Yet despite being replete with the sadness of experiencing the lights slowly dimming at the end of life, there is still room and time in Lee’s film for so much beauty.
13. “Bamako” (2006)
There’s shamefully little African cinema here on this list — while countries as different as Iran, Korea and Romania have had major explosions on the world cinema scene in the last few years, African nations are yet to get the kind of crossover exposure on the whole that they should. But one of the major breakouts is the great Mauritian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako, whose recent “Timbuktu” is one of the best films of the last few years, but whose “Bamako” might be even better. Set in Mali, it’s a fascinating sort of docu-drama hybrid that imagines a trial of the World Bank and globalization, and its effect on the African continent. Lest it feel like being barked at by a Bernie Bro for a couple of hours, though, Sissako helms with a sense of playfulness, poetry, humor, and humanity, up to and including a film-within-a-film, a Spaghetti Western called “Death In Timbuktu” starring Danny Glover, steering the film far away from ever becoming self-righteous.
12. “Y Tu Mamá También” (2001)
At the turn of the millennium, Alfonso Cuarón was coming off “Great Expectations,” perhaps the lone real disappointment of the filmmaker’s career. But just three years later, he had a hell of a career reboot with “Y Tu Mamá También,” a deft little Spanish language picture that led to the acclaimed blockbusters that would follow. Something of a throwback to his debut “Sólo Con Tu Pareja,” it’s concerned with two sex-crazed young Mexican teenagers (Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna) who end up on a spontaneous road trip with an older woman (Maribel Verdú). It could feel like a sort of juvenile wish-fulfillment comedy, but the film’s youthful, New Wave-ish energy combines with an incisive feel for male friendship and competitiveness and a laid-back assuredness that elevates it far above the familiar setup. It’s a reminder that it’s all in the execution: In the hands of a master filmmaker like Cuarón, something as seemingly modest as this can become a classic.
11. “Yi Yi: A One And A Two” (2000)
The loss of Taiwanese director Edward Yang, who passed away from cancer in 2007 aged just 59, is one of the most devastating that cinema suffered this century: If the seven films he made were anything to go by, and particularly his last, “Yi Yi,” there would have been remarkable work to come from him, too. Winning him Best Director at Cannes, the three-hour “Yi Yi” is the sweeping tale of the Jian in the aftermath of the departure of their mother to a Buddhist retreat. Like a sprawling family saga of a novel brought to the screen, it showcases a quality that Yang shares with Yasujiro Ozu and few others: His work never feels constructed or artificial, but as if lives just unfolded that happened to be in front of a camera. It’s a deeply human masterpiece, a film that’s impossible to overpraise, and thinking about it makes Yang’s absence hurt even now.