5. “In The Mood For Love” (2000)
Tussling over the top 50 for this list was hard enough, let alone the top 5 or the very top spot, but a list of “the most beautiful films ever made” would have been a lot easier. Because that way, no one could have argued that Wong Kar-Wai‘s astonishingly gorgeous and deeply sexy “In The Mood For Love” shouldn’t be number 1. Simply the most astoundingly gorgeous love story, draped in the slippery silks and satins of Christopher Doyle‘s most romantic photography, there are many films that are a feast for the eyes, but this is a banquet. Its heavily eroticized mood and sensual imagery — all stolen moments in passageways and passionate clinches glimpsed through doors left ajar — overtakes the plot as the primary driver of the narrative; indeed, story-wise, it’s very slight. But the stunning mise-en-scène, from Maggie Cheung‘s high-necked costumes to the smoke that curls above Tony Leung‘s head beneath directional lamps in alleyways, lingers long after, like an intoxicating incense.
4. “A Separation” (2011)
The word melodrama has too often become a derogatory one, but the great Asghar Farhadi has been reclaiming it over the last few years, most notably with his Golden Bear and Oscar-winning masterpiece “A Separation.” It’s focused on Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), a married couple looking to divorce, as she wants to leave the country and he wants to stay with his ailing father. Nader hires a carer (Sareh Bayat) for the latter, which sets into motion a tragic course of events that lead to further legal action. Made at a time when Iran was cracking down on its filmmakers, it’s a fearless and complex piece of work without heroes or villains, where you feel for every one of the characters even at their worst. It’s utterly specific and yet utterly universal, made with a command of craft that finally revealed Farhadi to the world as one of the best we have, and the global profile he’s found in the last five years is one of the best things to happen to film in a long time.
3. “Memories Of Murder” (2003)
From “The Host” to “Snowpiercer” and the upcoming “Okja,” Bong Joon-Ho has proven himself to be one of the most exciting filmmakers alive, mashing up genres and tones with a willful disregard to convention. This entry should serve as a joint one for all his films, really, but at a push we’d pick “Memories Of Murder,” a procedural police drama like few others. It’s based on the true story of the hunt for Korea’s first serial killer, and the three detectives (Kim Sang-kyung, Song Kang-ho and Kim Rwe-ha) in charge of investigating the case. Bong’s ever light touch finds levity even in such dark subject matter, but his genius (aside from that that he has for framing and camera movement, which can compete with anyone in the world’s) is that he can play so much of the film for comedy and yet still find such a rich vein of melancholy and loss to the film.
2. “Caché” (2005)
Of all the directors to whom our “one film per filmmaker” rule does scant justice, perhaps Michael Haneke is the most obviously underrepresented. With ‘The Piano Teacher,” “Time of the Wolf,” “The White Ribbon” and “Amour” (the last two of which won him his two Palmes d’Or) he dominates the 21st century arthouse more than any other single filmmaker. So it’s slightly perverse that with his entire 2000s output bar his puzzling remake of his own “Funny Games” to choose from we’re going for the most opaque title — contrary to popular belief we’re not masochists, yet we’re choosing a viewing experience that was among the most unpleasant in memory. But that’s the point: it’s a film that itches away at you for weeks afterwards exactly because it refuses to answer any of the million questions it poses or to calm any of the deeply uneasy emotions it provokes — slow-acting, long-lasting brilliance.
1. “Volver” (2006)
Excluding a once-every-three-decades misfire like “I’m So Excited,” we can all agree that Pedro Almodovar is the best, right? And “Volver” makes an argument to be his best. So “Volver” is pretty much the best too. Reteaming him with his most recent muse Penelope Cruz, and for the first time in years with his original muse Carmen Maura, the film is a rambunctious drama that sees Raimunda (Cruz) murdering her husband when he tries to rape their daughter, stumbling accidentally into the restaurant business, while the ‘ghost’ of her mother (Maura) emerges on the scene. Seemingly inspired to new heights by the double-bill of his favorite actresses (and Almodovar is cinema’s great lover of actresses), Almodovar makes a film that no one else could make, and that sums up what’s best about his work — the tonal shifts, the humanism and comedy, the gorgeousness of the color, the unpredictability of the plotting. We’d forgive him a thousand “I’m So Excited”s for just one of these.
Obviously, there’s a ton of films we could have included that didn’t quite make the cut of a list of 50, but are pretty extraordinary nonetheless. To ensure a level of variety, we decided on a one-film-per-director rule, and so that meant that films like Claire Denis’ “35 Shots Of Rum” or “The Intruder,” the Dardennes’ “The Son,” “L’Enfant” and “The Kid With The Bike,” Almodovar’s “Talk To Her,” Haneke’s “Amour,” “Code Unknown,” “The Piano Teacher” and “The White Ribbon,” Hou’s “Three Times” and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Tropical Malady” or “Uncle Boonmee.”
Oh, and also no room for Kechiche’s “Secret Of The Grain,” Bong’s “The Host” and “Mother,” Zvagintsev’s “The Return” and “Elena,” Farhadi’s “The Past,” Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution,” Park’s “Sympathy For Mr. Vengance,” Kore-eda’s “Still Walking,” Mia Hansen-Løve’s “Father OF My Children,” Kurosawa’s “Tokyo Sonata” or Lucrecia Martel’s “The Holy Girl,” plus a few dozen other by filmmakers represented above.
And to name a few by filmmakers not mentioned above at all, there’s “The Motorcycle Diaries,” “Caramel,” “The Taste Of Others,” “Amores Perros,” “Together,” “Sin Nombre,” “Werckmeister Harmonies,” “Persepolis,” “Force Majeure,” “Once Upon A Time In Anatolia,” “Silent Light,” “A Christmas Tale,” “The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu,” “Russian Ark,” “Amelie,” “The Orphanage,” “Attenberg,” “Revanche,” “Neighbouring Sounds,” “Twilight Samurai,” “Devdas,” “Exiled,” “Police, Adjective,” “Lebanon,” “Time Out,” “The Edge Of Heaven,” “Gomorrah,” “Waltz With Bashir,” “Embrace Of The Serpent,” “Mustang,” “A Simple Life,” “Son Of Saul” and countless more.
Did we fail to mention your favorite at all? Sing its praises in the comments below.