Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2001 French fancy is one of the very very few films which seems to reach everyone on one level or another. Following the do-goodery of the titular Amélie (an almost impossibly endearing Audrey Tautou), this picture is effortlessly charming, with cinematography and a soundtrack designed to sweep the viewer into a stylised modern Paris with no difficulty at all. The central performance of Tautou has made her arguably the most sought-after French actress in the world, and it’s not hard to see why – she embodies the character as very few actors have ever done, and it’s hard to dissociate between the two at times, in real life or on celluloid. The whole film rests on her slender shoulders, but she handles with whimsy and charm, her performance all small idiosyncrasies and light on melodrama, and when she meets Mattheu Kassovitz’s Nico, you can’t help but wish for a happy ending for this serial good samaritan. The emotional reconnection of an old man with his childhood toys is heartrending, but Amélie doesn’t ram a sentimental message down your pipe, instead beautifully portraying a fantastical life of small but no less heroic deeds.
You would be hard-pressed to find a film more different from Amélie than Irréversible. But then again, you’d struggle to find a movie even vaguely comparable. Putting Gaspar Noé’s picture on this list was hard, because it’s the only movie here that I wouldn’t say I enjoyed watching. However, that’s the entire point. This unbelievably graphic, incredibly challenging movie is as different from any other as it can be. Focusing on the central pair of Vincent Cassel’s Marcus and Monica Bellucci’s Alex, the film is about consequences, reactions and blind fury. Told in a backwards narrative, the camera is incessantly moving, spinning high into the air to denote time moving backwards, but when it comes to the now-infamously explicit scenes, it refuses to remove its gaze. After a nauseatingly orchestrated move down through an underground gay sex club, we observe a man being killed with a fire extinguisher, and we wonder what the fuck, exactly, is going on. When we discover why Marcus is thus enraged, though, there’s only more tragedy in this heartbreaking film, which refuses to compromise when showing the shocking act that’s torn apart these people’s lives. It’s not a film anyone could say they ‘like’, but it’s a pioneering, difficult and necessary film for cinema’s progression.
Yet again this list twists and turns, finding itself in front of the superb Pixar production line. The studio has reeled off a run of astounding flicks, but with 2001’s Monsters, Inc. they reached their highest point to date. Perennial ne’er-do-well monster Mike and star scarer Sulley must terrify children to power their city behind closet doors worldwide, but when a child reaches their world, everything turns upside down. The voice acting is unbelievable, with Billy Crystal’s Mike and John Goodman’s Sulley a tremendous comic pair of superb timing, intimation and relish, and their voices perfectly match their characters’ look and personality. Pete Docter’s movie also has some of the finest animation yet seen from Pixar, with Sulley’s fur moving organically in every shot and a myriad of finely crafted beasts. It’s also Pixar’s funniest script to date in my mind, full of jokes which will amuse people of any age. A film which can truly claim to be cross-generational in its appeal, Monsters, Inc. is simply delightful.
Cameron Crowe’s unapologetically rose-tinted love letter to the 1970s, Almost Famous is by turns a music film, a faux-documentary, an autobiography, a road film and a romance. Featuring a host of then-non-stars, most of whom have gone onto big things – Jason Lee (My Name is Earl, The Incredibles and loads more), Billy Crudup (Watchmen), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote, Synecdoche, New York) – the picture works because of its communal feel. The fictional Stillwater are the best made-up band since Spinal Tap, as their combative musicians go from mid-level rockers to nationwide stars, and Crowe follows them with an almost childlike joy. Protagonist William Miller (a fantastic Patrick Fugit) is based on Crowe himself, who wrote for music magazines in his teens, and this is a semi-autobiographical look at just what that life was like. Featuring a host of good performances, notably Fugit and Crudup, and one of the best soundtracks outside of a Wes Anderson movie, Almost Famous is a salute to a bygone era. And makes us want to go back to it.
Christopher Nolan is an aggravating bastard. Just when you think he’s all big Batman blockbusters, you go back and watch his scintillating 2000 picture, an insanely clever small-budget movie edited into reverse chronological order as one man battles against crippling short-term memory loss. Like Irréversible, we are supposed to see the consequences before the actions that caused them, but here it’s caveated by the knowledge that central character Leonard (a searing Guy Pearce, never better) will forget this all in 10 minutes. Ostensibly a crime drama, Memento is actually more of a biography, showing how Leonard gets through the days, knowing that he can be taken advantage of by anyone who so chooses. And between his policeman friend Teddy (a brilliant Joe Pantoliano) and quasi-romantic interest Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss, also superb), you get the sense he’d be royally screwed-up either way. But it’s Nolan and Pearce who show their considerable skills here. Not unlike Tautou’s Amélie, Pearce’s Leonard is wonderfully created with tiny touches, and Pearce actually looks lost at points, a perfectly executed example of how to act without acting. And Nolan’s direction cuts between flashback, present day and future to show how confused Leonard must be. And just when we feel for the guy, Nolan delivers a jagged-edge finale to leave you rocked. An instant classic.