As you can probably tell, this list feels more arbitrary than others. That’s not by design, but the unfortunate premise of the list leaves some room for interpretation. As we move forward, we will start seeing the films that, if you asked a lay person to give an example, would probably be a response. In other words, more people have heard of them, which, in turn, often makes them more “definitive.” Don’t worry, though – there are still some underseen and underappreciated gems the rest of the way through.
40. Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)
Directed by: Béla Tarr
It’s certainly not the swiftest film on the list, but you can’t expect much quick plot development from Béla Tarr. Wreckmeister Harmonies takes place in a tiny Hungarian town surrounded by nothing. The winter is incredibly cold, but it never snows. Yet the townspeople are excited in the middle of town as a new sideshow has arrived: a giant, stuffed whale carcass. Just as you’d expect, people come from miles around – even foreign lands – to see this oversized rag doll. While all this is going on, we focus on Janos (Lars Rudolph) and his uncle, a composer who studies the makeup of the scales of music as an attempt to make it more harmonious. Tarr’s film is shot entirely in black as white. It’s 145 minutes long. And it’s composed of a mere 39 shots. But somehow, in this thickly allegorical tale of post World War II Europe, there is an incredibly breathtaking approach to filmmaking. The slow, meandering approach to the camera and the lack of action forces the audience to become an active participant, rather than a mindless consumer. Each character – Janos, his uncle, the circus lead performer – represent a variation on the flawed approach humanity takes to remedy its problems, with the whale itself representing the political system that is less about progress and more about stagnation. Or, it could just be a story about a crappy little town in Europe and the crazy reactions when a giant stuff whale comes to town. You know…one or the other.
A more conventional pick (for this list, anyway), Stanley Kubrick’s final film took full advantage of a Hollywood power couple by placing them in a world of eroticism and insecurity. Starring Tom Cruise as Bill, he and his wife Alice (Nicole Kidman) are a young couple in New York. One night, Bill learns that Alice has had sexual fantasies about other men, causing him to go into a rage and leave the apartment. He ends up at a mansion in the Hamptons, where a giant, costumed orgy is taking place. After failing to gain full access, he is humiliated in front of the attendees, leading him to two days of paranoia and fear, as his failure has jeapordized the life of his friend and his marriage. Despite including a strange staged mass orgy, Eyes Wide Shut isn’t really the erotic thriller it was originally billed as. The casting of Cruise is deliberate, as is not shying away from his small stature. This is a story about a man who has everything and knows it: he believes he is the only one his wife (or anybody else for that matter) would ever want. He is the object of fantasies. But as he begins to uncover this underground world, he realizes that his own sexual proclivities are an embarrassment to the vast array of pleasures that live beneath the surface of even the plainest people. But it’s rare that a mainstream film would take such a graphic and honest look at sex as an expressive tool both in relationships and as a way to communicate (or not communicate). Either way, Kubrick’s calculating techniques were still intact, delivering another riddle – this one of the physical senses.
Westerns are usually pretty straightforward (though this is not the last one on the list), but Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 collaboration with a budding star named Johnny Depp was anything but. Dead Man tells the story of William Blake (Depp), a new arrival in the town of Machine to start a job he finds has already been filled. Now homeless and jobless in Machine, Blake stays with a prostitute overnight, almost gets killed, and accidentally kills the son of the boss he was originally going to work for. Now on the run from some bounty hunters, Blake hooks up with an Indian named Nobody (Gary Farmer), who believes he is th reincarnation of the poet William Blake. The journey slowly shapes Blake into the outlaw he never thought he could be, while Nobody tries to prepare him for the spiritual world that awaits him soon. Jarmusch has always been an eclectic filmmaker, but few offerings of his are more surreal than Dead Man, which is a lot blurrier than the explanation above lets on. With Depp at the lead, the journey never feels clear, like the reality of the world is slowly shifting away into another plane of existence. Dead Man is a true fantasy Western that is less about the justice and masculinity normally found in the genre and more about the unexplained meanings behind our own choices and place on this planet.
Based on the William S. Burroughs book of th same name, the first of a few David Cronenberg films centers on William Lee (Peter Weller), an exterminator who learns his wife Joan (Judy Davis) has been using his insecticide as a drug. He is also affected and thinks he is a secret agent reporting to a controller – who happens to be a giant bug – that asks him to murder his wife. He revolts, killing the bug, only to find her in bed with another man. When he mistakenly kills his wife, he escapes to the Interzone his controller believed she was working for, only to find more drugs, more bugs, a talking typewriter, and his wife’s doppelgänger. This leads to another world, an undercover narcotics ring that circulates centipede guts, and more murder. So, yeah…it’s an easy follow. Cronenberg’s pension for body horror is evident, but not nearly as effective here, despite it’s widely recognizable source material. The best description comes from an episode of The Simpsons, when Bart skips school and sees Naked Lunch with Nelson and Milhouse. Upon leaving the theater, Nelson looks up at the marquee and says “I can think of at least two things wrong with that title.” He’s right.
The title translates to “Something from Alice,” but English speaking audiences just know it as Alice. Lewis Carroll’s mid 19th Century classic is ripe with surreal imagery, but most often it’s played up as whimsical and fancy free. Leave it to Švankmajer to take the children’s classic and really twist it into a seedy knot. Starring Kristýna Kohoutová as the title girl (the lone human character), Alice sits alone in her room when a stuffed rabbit in a glass case comes to life and runs into her drawer. She follows it into “Wonderland,” though this interpretation is far from magnificent. It’s dirty, cold, and far from the exciting destination we’ve seen in other versions of this story. All the other characters in the film – the rabbit, the Queen – are stop motion animation, all taking the appearance of old fashioned sewn dolls. Though Alice goes on an adventure, it never feels like she leaves the room. The bedroom transforms around her, but it’s always dark and hollow. This is Švankmajer’s first full length film, after years of making shorts, and his eye for surrealism is unprecedented. There’s never closure as to whether Alice actually went anywhere or why we never meet any other people in the film, which just makes it all the more unsettling.
Shane Carruth’s debut film blew people’s minds thanks to its mile-a-minute dialogue and high level concepts. Last year, he toned down the words, but amped up the atmosphere with a gorgeous offering starring Amy Seimetz and himself. Upstream Color begins with a woman named Kris who is kidnapped and hypnotized to the point that she liquidates her home equity and allows her kidnapper to steal her valuables. When she eventually snaps out of it, she finds roundworms under her skin. She then ends up at a remote farm where the roundworms are transferred to a pig and she wakes up in an abandoned SUV. And that’s not the crazy part. One day she meets Jeff (Carruth) and they begin to uncover a mystery they both seem to share. Connections emerge – the pig gives birth to piglets and disposes of them, causing Kris to have an uncontrollable feeling that she’s lost something. Kris and Jeff begin having each other’s memories. Kris begins swimming regularly and mumbling lines from Walden. Eventually, these pieces come together in a fascinating, but utterly unreal way. But, while this strange, mystical film is difficult to follow, its design is mesmerizing. The sound editing in Upstream Color is incredible. So, while the audience spends most of the film lost, Carruth’s adept use of audio effects is so breathtaking that it forms a through line that never allows it to break your attention. Upstream Color makes less sense than Primer, but Carruth has matured into a filmmaker with a very distinct style.
Sit back and take a journey with Miss Canada (Carole Laure) as she wins a virgin contest and is unleashed on a horrific world of sexual exploitation. Her prize for the contest is the marriage to a local tycoon (John Vernon), who humiliates her during her intro to sex. She is taken away by a bodyguard, who degrades her even further, but ends up in Paris, having sex with a Latin singer while some nuns watch and frighten then, causing a ridiculous case of penis captivus (they get stuck together). She joins a commune where folks practice rebirthing, including acting like an infant and defecating all over the place. Then, almost magically, we’re on a boat. And it’s filled with candy! The second story follows Anna (Anna Prucnall) as she captains the ship down a river with Karl Marx’s head at the front. She picks up a sailor and eventually they have sex and she kills him. Meanwhile, she’s luring children onto the boat for, well, other reasons. Sweet Movie is kind of a comedy. It’s avant-garde, to say the least, and is still banned in many countries. It’s about the danger of a lot of things: sexual repression, communism, western culture, and, well, candy. While Anna is meant to represent a force of liberation (specifically in a sexual sense), somewhere in between the psychological regression to childhood and all the murdering, it gets lost a bit. Prucnall was actually prevented from returning to her home country of Poland due to her appearance in the film, having her passport revoked. Criterion released Sweet Movie on DVD in 2007, so everyone can finally enjoy the brilliance. Or whatever it is.
Spike Jonze spent his early career directing some of the best music videos of all time. He jumped to feature films in 1999, working from a brilliant script from the great Charlie Kaufman about a low level clerk named Craig (John Cusack) who discovers a door in his office on the 7 1/2 floor of his building, which inexplicably leads into the mind of the actor John Malkovich. After 15 minutes, he is dropped in a ditch on the New Jersey Turnpike. Craig tells a coworker named Maxine (Catherine Keener), and they begin to charge admission. Eventually, Craig’s wife (Cameron Diaz, who has never been better) gets involved, as well as John Malkovich himself, making for a twisted plot that shifts from identity crises to bisexual desires to discussions on immortality. Jonze grabbed a Best Director nomination for his debut film and Kaufman earned a screenplay nod, but neither won. Kaufman would go on to pen some of the best screenplays of the last 20 years (including Adaptation, also directed by Jonze), eventually winning the Oscar for Original Screenplay for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and writing and directing his first movie in 2008 (later on the list). Jonze would go on to bigger things also, finally winning his own Oscar last year, also for Original Screenplay, for the wonderful Her. But the debut collaboration between the two went a long way to changing the way innovative filmmaking could be welcomed by the public. Topics like this weren’t made into films that made it out of the art house. Being John Malkovich was a big step in the other direction.
Let’s get back to the movies that next to no one has seen. In Marco Ferreri’s La Grande Bouffe, four friends get together and just decide they’re going to eat themselves to death. They include Ugo (Ugo Tognazzi), a restaurant owner, Philippe (Phillippe Noiret), who still lives with his childhood nanny, Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni), an impotent pilot, and Michel (Michel Piccoli), a television producer. Eventually, during the process, they invite some prostitutes, a school of children show up, and the plumbing gets clogged, filling the entire house with toilet water and waste. But, this doesn’t stop the men, who are really dedicated to the end game. Eventually, the teacher of the children joins them and assists in their goal, somehow up phased by the hookers, overeating, and plumbing problems. The movie was rated NC-17 upon its release, thanks to its literal and figurative depiction of life’s pleasures, metaphorically represented by the food and graphic sexual content. It’s not quite as clear as some of the other subversive films of the era in the way it tries to get its message across, but the visuals Ferreri delivers are not easy to forget. These men – all of which are relatively successful – have such a lust for life and the wonders that come with it that they are willing to lock themselves away and force feed as much of it as possible, even if it results in their collective demise.
Winner of the 2010 Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival (the first Thai film to do so), Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) is spending his last days of life with the people he loves. This includes the spirit of his dead wife and a son who has returned in non-human form as a sort of yeti-type animal. The film jumps around and flows into random places, all of which represent Uncle Boonmee’s exploration of the lives he had before this one, as he is one of many reincarnations. His journey through his past lives isn’t so much approached like a ghost story or even an actual trek – these are all conscious memories of lives that still exist on one plane or another. Forever we remain in this jungle, moving up the mountain with Boonmee and his loved ones. We get a partial cave filled with lights and a blind fish. We get an incredibly strange scene where it appears a catfish makes love to a woman in a pond. But, while many films on this list beg to be dissected and torn apart to discover the real meaning behind them, Uncle Boonmee always feels like a rumination of a film that sits quietly in its own room, just hoping that others feel its presence. This isn’t a movie to be explained. This is a film that begs to be experienced. It’s about death and mortality, but the beauty of the filming (it’s one of the last movies actually made on film) is strong enough to take you away from the typical, everyday filmmaking…if you let it.