With all year round blockbusters dazzling the eyes it is easy to forget those movies that fired the brain cells and stimulated the imagination in the way the best cinema does.
So, in salute to those special movies that deserve the all five stars yet may have been clouded by a decade of sound and fury or simply slipped under the radar, here are 15 five star movies made since 2000 you may want to reacquaint yourself with.
In the Mood for Love (2000)
The plot: In Hong Kong, 1962 a man and woman living in the same apartment building discover their respective spouses are having an affair and begin a tentative relationship themselves.
Why 5 stars: Cinema’s finest love story could only ever receive the highest mark. Wong Kar-wai, director of other 5 star movies Chungking Express and Ashes of Time, opened the new millennium with a tale as old as storytelling – boy meets girl. But, when they are Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, two of Hong Kong’s finest actors, quality is guaranteed.
Largely improvising from a treatment written by Wong, Leung and Cheung offer a masterclass in understated passion, the heat coming from a “hot” colour scheme, South American ballads and Shigeru Umebayashi’s heart-wrenching string score.
Deleted scenes reveal subplots that would have made the film much lighter in tone. Happily, Wong stripped this away to create an achingly romantic tearjerker that stands as his best film.
The plot: In January 1942 high ranking members of the Nazi Party convene at a lakeside residence in Wannsee to discuss implementation of The Final Solution.
Why 5 stars: A highly charged movie set almost solely in a single room where the topic of discussion is genocide, Conspiracy is the diabolical inversion of 12 Angry Men.
Kenneth Branagh delivers an astounding portrayal of manipulative evil as Reinhard Heydrich, Himmler’s second-in-command who targets those reluctant to fall in line with the industrialised slaughter about to begin.
Not that there are any good guys here (save perhaps for terrified-looking kitchen staff and servants catering the luxurious meeting), all are fully indoctrinated into Nazi-level anti-Semitism.
The heated, racist debate revolves around bureaucratic headaches, departmental toe-treading and assurances of slave labour, barely acknowledging the monstrousness of the plan, euphemisms such as “evacuation” and “processing” capturing the language of secrecy adopted by the SS.
Terrifyingly, none of this was criminal under German law of the Third Reich. As Branagh’s Heydrich states, “I am invoking Fuhrer’s Prinzip; his word is above all written law.” With first class support from a pitch perfect cast, including Colin Firth, Stanley Tucci and David Threlfall, this fiercely intelligent, troubling movie is not easily forgotten.
Ichi the Killer (2001)
The plot: When a crafty old man attempts to bring down the yakuza, he hires the preternaturally strong, emotionally damaged Ichi. Twisted gangster Kakihara, looking for the ultimate pain high, longs to meet him.
Why 5 stars: When released in 2002, Ichi The Killer was the most censored film given an 18 certificate in 8 years. The BBFC demanded 3 minutes and 15 seconds of footage be removed, claiming the violence “seemed to have no function other than the pleasure of the onlooker”.
While Ichi the Killer is not a film for the faint-hearted, it is a masterpiece of off-the-wall characters and unfettered imagination. That the opening credit morphs out of semen sets the movie’s tone early on, the film being a bizarre love story between sadist/masochist yakuza Kakihara (Tadanobu Asano) and the titular Ichi. A dense plot has the two lay waste to most of Tokyo’s criminal network in their relentless search for each other and it’s this carnage (including genital trauma) that raised the BBFC’s ire.
But, Ichi’s influence lives on, most recently in Gareth Edwards The Raid 2 (click here for more) and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, with Heath Ledger’s Joker directly inspired by the unforgettable Kakihara.
24 Hour Party People (2002)
The plot: Factory Records owner Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan) takes the audience on a tour of Manchester music from the post-punk explosion of the late 70s to rave culture in the early 90s, before the inevitable implosion.
Why 5 stars: Michael Winterbottom and Steve Coogan’s most famous collaborations may have been The Trip series (boiled down into films for international release), but the relationship began here. And in typical iconoclastic fashion they broke the first rule of showbusiness, “Never open with a showstopper”.
A dizzying journey through a decade and a half of tumultuous British history, refracted through the haze of coke and ecstasy, 24 Hour Party People may be the best music movie ever made. It certainly has the finest soundtrack, with Joy Division, The Happy Mondays, The Buzzcocks, The Sex Pistols and Brian and Michael providing the tunes. Coogan himself suggested ending the film with B&G’s “Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs”.
Amidst the chaos, gang shootings and rapid-fire laugh-out-loud improvisation (Coogan and Peter Kay going head-to-head is worth the entire enterprise), there are moments of genuine tenderness. Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis’s suicide and a visit to Wilson’s hospitalised second wife are both perfectly judged scenes reminding all the characters real life is happening outside the recording studio.
The plot: Told in reverse order, Memento style, a man hunts the streets of Paris looking for the gangster who raped his girlfriend.
Why 5 stars: Irreversible packs such a gut-punch, at the screening I attended a (French) woman in front of me put her head in her lap after 10 minutes and barely lifted it for the next 80.
Gaspar Noe’s take on the rape/revenge sub-genre (popularised by such movies as Death Wish and I Spit On Your Grave) has lost none of its power 13 years after release and is still to play on British TV. With bitter humour it also acknowledges the only way a rape/revenge film can have a happy ending is by telling the whole thing backwards, ending before the assault has occurred.
Noe’s direction elevates a well-worn plot to new levels of confrontational cinema, shooting each scene in seemingly single, unflinching takes. Opening with the climax of the story, a search for the rapist through infernal subterranean S&M club “Rectum”, the audience are assaulted with hardcore pornography and violence so graphic it prompted faintings at early showings.
Not helping at all was Noe’s decision to purposely mix the soundtrack’s relentless bass drone at a frequency likely to induce nausea… the scamp.
Grounding this nightmare are real life couple Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci’s performances, naturalistic and recognisable, every tender moment in the final act stained by the imminent horror of which the characters are blissfully ignorant.
The plot: Wandering blind masseur and lethal swordsman Zatoichi takes up residence in a village where locals are being terrorised by two warring gangs.
Why 5 stars: Takeshi Kitano is a renaissance man. Poet, novelist, TV talkshow host, comedian, and columnist amongst many other things, he is still best known in the West for a slew of extraordinary, violent crime films, including other 5 star examples Sonatine and Hana-Bi.
But, he seemed to understand the affection Japanese audiences felt for the long-running Zatoichi film series, which originally spanned 26 movies from 1962 to 1989, and so delivered his most mainstream movie to date.
Not that he was slumming it. Kitano’s Zatoichi includes themes of sexual identity and child prostitution alongside the expected jaw-dropping swordplay, which is decorated with deliriously colourful splashes of CGI carnage. Add in vengeful geisha and Ichi the Killer’s Tadanobu Asano’s bitter killer for hire, plus a Stomp-like musical number and you have a hugely flavourful film.
Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005)
The plot: Released from prison after thirteen years for a shocking child murder, Geum-Ja plots revenge on the man who put her there.
Why 5 stars: Park Chan-wook closed his Vengeance trilogy in blackly comic, disturbing style with Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, also known simply as Lady Vengeance.
Park’s storytelling audacity outdoes previous Vengeance instalments Sympathy for Mr Vengeance and Oldboy: using an intricate flashback structure the first hour recalls Geum-Ja’s prison time and the formation of her plan, which isn’t revealed until near the halfway point, and then only to a minor character.
The playful, kinetic style of the first hour alters midway to a far darker, more upsetting second hour when Geum-Ja carries out her plan to kidnap her nemesis, Mr Baek (devilishly played by Choi Min-sik, Oldboy himself), and discovers the situation is more extreme than she imagined.
Park risks losing his audience with this abrupt shift, but those willing to stay the course can expect a thrilling, rocky journey. Although containing less onscreen violence than Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance or Oldboy, here the mayhem is far ghastlier.
The plot: In the far future a gang of six outlaws must protect a mysterious girl and her brother from a totalitarian Alliance.
Why 5 stars: Many reasons why Joss Whedon’s Serenity is a 5 star movie. It paved the way for The Avengers. It was the Star Wars movie we had all wanted when Revenge of the Sith put the final nail in the prequel coffin. And it achieved the impossible by being a thrilling standalone space adventure and a satisfying ending to the criminally curtailed Firefly TV series.
In his first feature film directorial outing Joss Whedon proved himself as adept with action and multi-character stories on the big screen as the small, and employed the larger budget (still a modest $40m) to expand his universe with a plot that planet hops as it uncovers a deadly mystery (originally intended as the season 2 climax).
There will however always be a sadness about Serenity. As wonderful as it, we would have preferred watching the story unfold over a number of years on the small screen. And while Nathan Fillion finally got his hit show with the enjoyable Castle, in a parallel universe people are enjoying seven seasons of Firefly.
Children of Men (2006)
The plot: In a Britain of the near future, after every woman has mysteriously become infertile, a one-time radical must protect a miraculously pregnant woman.
Why 5 stars: One of the best British movies ever made is directed by a native of Mexico City. But, sometimes it requires an outsider’s point of view to really capture a country’s cinematic potential and director Alfonso Cuaron made Britain bristle with vitality on the big screen.
Loosely working from PD James’ novel he and his four co-writers also delivered one of cinema’s finest apocalyptic movies, believably portraying a world slowly but violently imploding as humankind realises it is three generations away from extinction. Possibly because they drew on the anger, violence and abuses of power that marked the Iraq quagmire during the Bush & Blair era.
At heart a chase film, like the best message movies Children of Men places signs of the global collapse in the crumbling location dressing, brief shots of burning cattle hinting at a never-mentioned plague, and news clips of mushroom clouds over New York and state approved adverts for “Quietus” suicide pills.
Clive Owen carries the film on his sagged shoulders, convincingly moving from dead-eyed drone to resourceful activist as different forces compete for the pregnant woman.
Alfonso Cuaron directs with the intensity of a man aware he’s making a classic, pulling out all the stops for a breathtaking climax in Bexhill, here transformed into a massive internment ghetto, as Owen and the girl dodge the bullets as they make for the coast.
Cuaron would take 7 years to follow-up Children of Men. The equally 5 stars Gravity was worth the wait.
The Host (2006)
The plot: A giant mutated tadpole splashes out of Seoul’s Han River and makes off with a buffoonish dad’s young daughter, who must then unite his estranged family, evade government officials and take to the sewers to rescue the girl.
Why 5 stars: An irresistible fright flick, this mixes broad comedy, nicely played family sentiment and sweaty-palmed horror to become a crowd pleasing belter that was a direct influence on the equally 5 stars Cloverfield, plus Gareth Edwards’ successful Godzilla.
Director Bong Joon-ho stages the monster attacks with the same gleeful bravura of Steven Spielberg in Jurassic Park, showing off his leviathan in broad daylight and notching up an impressively high body count of victims.
Bong is not above ripping off Jaws, Piranha, Alligator and Alien, but like Tarantino firing on all cylinders brings something to the party himself – a strong thread of family loyalty played to the hilt by a pitch perfect cast.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
The plot: In the late 19th century, Jesse James and his gang cut a violent swathe through Midwest America. The government, tired of James’ crimes and the public affection for him, persuades Robert Ford, a member of the gang obsessed with Jesse, to gun him down.
Why 5 stars: More than a simple friendship and betrayal yarn, this is myth debunking to match the mastery of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance or The Outlaw Josey Wales.
Brad Pitt’s magnetic performance as the contradictory James and Casey Affleck’s as the disillusioned and delusional Ford crackle with affection, resentment, and fear. While Pitt packs the movie star muscle required to wear Jesse’s gunbelt, Affleck was a revelation as the creepy, tortured wannabe gunman obsessed with James since childhood.
Violent and moving, director Andrew Dominik’s screenplay has that Deadwood-style, guttural yet eloquent dialogue, and events play on the Missouri plains’ epic stage, beautifully captured by Roger Deakins’ haunting and magisterial cinematography.
The plot: A woman’s life from childhood to adult years plays out as a ghost story, sexual adventure and psycho chiller.
Why 5 stars: First time feature filmmaking duo Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani score a bullseye with this gorgeous, grisly and unforgettable bloody valentine to 1970s Italian thrillers. Fans of Dario Argento, Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci will have a field day spotting the references, but the directors are not interested in the empty pastiche of a by-the-numbers remake.
Rather, they ambitiously distil the elements that made these movies so beguiling – imaginative camerawork and music, beautiful imperiled women, dark eroticism, fetish leather wear, set-piece murders – and blend them for a film that is experienced as a sensation as much as watched.
Dialogue is largely replaced by killer tracks from 70s Italian movies and a fantastic sound design, while the visual style of the Italian masters is paid superb homage. Cattet and Forzani did the same again with their sophomore movie, The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears. While stylish, that film missed the punch and surprise of their debut, suggesting they should change the record(s) for outing number three.
Evangelion 2.22 – You Can (Not) Advance (2009)
The plot: In a post-apocalyptic Japan, after a mysterious “Second Impact” has melted the South Pole’s icecaps and flooded the globe, children are recruited by a shadowy agency to pilot giant cyborgs called EVAs to battle mysterious beings bent on human destruction, the Angels.
Why 5 stars: Books could be written on the Evangelion phenomenon. Originally a 26 part TV anime, the closing episode created so much controversy director Hideaki Anno was forced to make two feature films to provide an alternate ending.
10 years after these movies, Anno returned again to his most famous franchise for a four film reboot. Evangelion 1.11 (titled 1.01 for theatrical release the same way this movie was 2.02) was a slightly underwhelming distillation of the series’ first 6 episodes. But, 2.22 took a wild, new road, introducing instant cosplay favourite Mari to the series’ original characters plus a totally bonkers plot that incorporates Japan’s over-population, adolescent angst and end of the world prophecies.
Plus fantastic mecha vs. alien smackdowns vividly brought to animated life by Anno and his inflated budget.
Unfortunately, 3.33 – You Can (Not) Redo was a lacklustre, sluggish step back that does not bode well for the still to be delivered final instalment.
Never Let Me Go (2010)
The plot: Teenagers in a mysterious private school slowly come to realise the dreadful purpose of their lives.
Why 5 stars: As a meditation on life, death and the frailty of the human body, Never Let Me Go is a shattering experience. Adapting Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, screenwriter Alex Garland and director Mark Romanek capture the heartbreak of the source novel and remain true to the melancholic tone.
The secret of the story won’t be revealed here, but it’s both a cautionary tale and also an allegory for what suffering is required by some for others in the first world to enjoy a life of ease and comfort.
Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield, both on the cusp of fame when this was released in 2010, are superb, but it is Keira Knightley who impresses the most in what remains her most standout performance.
Margin Call (2011)
The plot: An analyst at a prestigious Wall Street investment firm discovers their business model is fatally flawed and is about to trigger a financial collapse.
Why 5 stars: A sensational debut from director J.C. Chandor, Margin Call peers beneath the dodgy practices and greed that triggered 2008 global financial crisis.
Directing the film as a nail-biting conspiracy thriller, Chandor escalates events brilliantly as the enormity of the situation dawns and the bunch of bankers scramble to clear house before the toxicity of their worthless stock becomes common knowledge.
Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Stanley Tucci, Zachary Quinto and Jeremy Irons head up a to-die-for cast, with Demi Moore reminding us how good she used to be.
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