10. “Dogtooth” (2009)
A portrait of family life so fundamentally fucked up it would be terrifying were it not also pitch-black funny and inventive, Yorgos Lanthimos‘ “Dogtooth,” like most of our top 15 or 20 titles here, could on another day occupy the top spot. Utterly singular, when it came along it really felt like there was suddenly something new under the sun, and indeed in aesthetic (courtesy of DP Thimios Bakatatakis) as well as approach, it more or less defined the so-called Greek Weird Wave, in which the social chaos of post-collapse Greece yielded a crop of films and filmmakers unafraid of using surreality and lacerating irony to reflect societal disarray. But “Dogtooth” remains, well, top dog in the category, with its almost Shyamalan-ic premise of a family of children kept utterly ignorant of the world outside their house and garden by their parents, even to the point of developing their own social codes and odd argot.
9. “City Of God” (2002)
If we entered the 21st century thinking that there was little new to say about the crime movie, post-Tarantino, we were swiftly proven wrong by Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund’s “City Of God,” a vibrant, rich epic of visceral, assured beauty. Adapting a book by Paulo Lins (and it feels highly novelistic), the film essentially tells the stories of the favelas of Rio De Janeiro, through the eyes of Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), a sweet, honest boy who’s always done his best to stay away from the gangs that virtually rule the place. Influenced by, but not beholden to, Scorsese (it finds its own frantic, sun-kissed style), it breaks out of genre conventions to paint a socio-political portrait of a place, while still telling an utterly compelling story (or really, a whole miniseries worth of them). It’s funny, exciting, terrifying, sad and thought-provoking: basically everything a movie should be.
8. “White Material” (2009)
As with all the best of French filmmaker Claire Denis‘ work, a terrible, blighted, mighty beauty pumps through the veins of “White Material,” the most excoriating and direct exploration of her recurrent theme of the legacy of colonialism. Featuring a typically fearless performance from Isabelle Huppert as the French coffee planter whose wilful decision to stay on her plantation despite the civil war erupting on her doorstep proves devastatingly fateful, Denis’ rigorously unsentimental approach takes no prisoners in how sweepingly it condemns whole attitudes, ideologies and whole swathes of society, without ever seeming preachy. In fact it becomes less the study of a particular political situation or set of historical injustices (the African country is left deliberately unnamed) than it does a kind of cri de coeur against the folly of any individual trying to hold back an advancing tide: simple physics teaches us that chaos, not order –especially that which is unnaturally imposed — is the more fundamental state.
7. “Holy Motors” (2012)
The weirdest film on this list by some distance, really Leos Carax‘s 2012 mindfuck is actually about twelve films each one more beguiling/disgusting/hilarious/depressing/uncanny than the last. Starring Denis Lavant as Mr Oscar, who may or may not be the same man who plays all other parts — a mo-cap actor; a beggar; a red-headed kidnapper; an accordionist; a killer; a dying man; and so on — the film is a breathtakingly audacious odyssey through the wildest frontiers of Carax’s imagination, and a breathlessly entertaining series of a madcap escapades. And that’s before it even gets to the bizarrely amazing scenes featuring “Eyes Without A Face” star Edith Scob and the fleet of limousines that talk to one another. And most cathartically, after the bonkers rollercoaster ride preceding, Oscar’s final assignation as an apparently ordinary family man leads to what has to be simply one of the greatest arthouse sight gags of all time, to leave you scrambled but smiling.
6. “The Headless Woman” (2008)
If it was a major disappointment that Lucretia Martel’s long-awaited “Zama” was apparently not ready for Cannes, it was mainly for those of us who had seen her astonishing, unforgettable last film, “The Headless Woman.” A shimmeringly ambiguous, deeply unsettling evocation of mental dissolution, set against the a brilliantly drawn, socially divided bourgeois Argentinian backdrop, it follows Vero (Maria Onetto) who is involved early on in a seemingly minor car accident. Physically unharmed, but psychologically fraying in the aftermath, Vero goes about her normal life but becomes increasingly detached from it, from her family, husband, lover, friends. Teasing out gender, class and economic divisions simply through her icily precise camera placement and framing, perhaps the most disquieting aspect of Martel’s uncompromisingly intelligent approach is the sense that while Vero is undoubtedly going at least a little insane, there something oddly satisfying in watching her also becoming more herself, without reference to the people and forces around her.