Leonard was viciously attacked and now suffers from anterograde amnesia. Deprived of the ability to make new memories, every day he has to start over while the world around him changes. He can’t develop new relationships, he can’t get a job; the only thing he can do is obsess and despair over his unfortunate predicament.
Leonard finds purpose in pursuing vengeance. Every day, he leaves clues for himself to discover the next morning so he can continue to hunt his attackers.
After he finds the culprit and extracts revenge, Leonard is unable to cope without the goal of finding his attacker; the burden of a life with no memories is unbearable.
Realizing he won’t remember he found his attackers, he tricks himself into thinking they’re still on the loose. He creates an unsolvable puzzle, continuing to leave clues day after day, knowing when he wakes up, he’ll once again be comforted by his obsession.
After achieving success in Australia, Guy Pearce rose to prominence in the US with LA Confidential (1997). As Leonard, he creates a likable and accessible character, while maintaining a degree of danger and mystery. We like Leonard, but never completely trust him.
Carrie Ann-Moss is best known as Trinity from the massively successful Matrix trilogy. She’s excellent as Natalie, a woman with a murky past who uses Leonard’s condition to manipulate him for her own purposes.
Joe Pantoliano‘s career has mostly consisted of supporting roles (often as a violent criminal like Ralph Cifaretto), but his performance as Teddy is the lynchpin to making this movie work. We have to believe he could be a bad guy and simultaneously believe Leonard could trust him. It’s a difficult tightrope, which Pantoliano pulls off.
Of course, any movie with Stephen Toblowsky, is on its way to being a good movie.
This was Christopher Nolan’s first major success and may be his best movie. He doesn’t tell a story, but instead forces his audience to create a story with him. There’s a plot, but it’s so layered it’s virtually inaccessible. Much like his later film, Inception (2013), the point of the movie is to figure out the puzzle he’s created.
The movie is even structured like a puzzle: events are shown out-of-order, murdered characters show up a few scenes later. The effect is dizzying, and approximates Leonard’s condition, making the audience unsure of the reality of any moment.
This is an excellent fusion of film noir techniques and experiential storytelling. To describe what happens is simple, but watching it is a complex, rewarding experience.
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
A perfect portrait of a dysfunctional family told in a loving, almost worshipful way, this film proves the Frat Pack are capable dramatic performers.
Eli Cash, the adopted Tennebaum and Margot’s secret lover, is the most fully realized character of Owen Wilson’s career.
By most reasonable standards, Luke Wilson has had a successful career, but he’s been overshadowed by his brother Owen’s success. This is his best film, and eccentric former tennis player Richie Tennebaum is his best role.
Her work as Margot Tennenbaum reminds me there was a time when Gwyneth Paltrow was a great actress and not prima donna tabloid fodder.
Danny Glover gives one of his better performances as Henry Sherman.
Alec Baldwin is a perfect choice as the narrator. His rich baritone makes the movie feel like a bad idea for a bed time story.
Everyone assumes Anjelica Huston was given her spot because of her famous father and grandfather. She’s not a typical Hollywood beauty and doesn’t always come to mind when thinking of the great actors of her generation, but her resumé: This is Spinal Tap (1984), Prizzi’s Honor (1985), The Dead (1987), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), The Grifters (1990), and Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) should place her in the discussion. Fortunately, since her performance as Etheline, the Tennebaum matriarch, she’s experienced a late career Renaissance.
Many commentators credit Wes Anderson with reinvigorating Bill Murray’s career, but he did more than revive it, he created it. Murray was a popular middlebrow comedian whose career stalled as he aged like fellow SNL alumni Dan Ackroyd, Chevy Chase, and Steve Martin, but starting with the Anderson directed Rushmore (1998), he transitioned into a laconic, super cool trend setter / Internet legend. His later work has been so good, it’s forced us to view his earlier work through a different prism. We see Peter Venkman and Phil Connors differently because of Herman Blume and Bob Harris.
This was the last great role for Gene Hackman who epitomized the 1970s in films like The French Connection (1971), The Poseidon Adventure (1972) The Conversation (1974), and Young Frankenstein (1974). Sadly, in 2003 he decided to spend his twilight years engaged in other pursuits, ending his fifty year Hollywood career. Luckily, Royal Tennenbaum, the enigmatic, selfish father is a glorious farewell.
Bottle Rocket (1996) has moments of what would become Wes Anderson’s trademark style, Rushmore (1998) brought him mainstream success, but The Royal Tenebaums (2001) cemented his reputation. Despite the success of Moonrise Kingdom (2012) and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), this remains the quintessential Wes Anderson film.
It’s a loose adaptation of Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, a non-fiction account of the arrest of John Laroche for poaching rare plants in Florida.
Calling it an adaptation is a sleight of hand by Jonze and frequent collaborator, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. It’s more like an interpretation; freely adding fictional elements to Orlean’s non-fiction work.
Kaufmann is a consistently inventive screenwriter. From Being John Malkovich (1999), to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), to Synecdoche, New York (2008), his films are hyper post-modern examinations of the fractured reality of 21st century existence.
Kaufmann was hired to adapt The Orchid Thief and could not do it. Suffering from writer’s block, he wrote a screenplay about his struggle, creating a fictional identical twin brother in the process. As a joke, he gave his make-believe brother a co-screenwriting credit; Donald Kaufmann is the first (and only) fictional character to earn an Academy Award nomination.
In an insightful parody of the Hollywood process, Charlie attends a screenwriting seminar led by controversial Hollywood guru, Robert McKee.
Donald suspects Orlean (Meryl Streep) is hiding something, so the brothers follow her to Florida and discover she’s having an affair with Laroche (Chris Cooper). The reason he stole the orchid was because the plant can be used to create a drug which causes fascination. Laroche gave this drug to Orlean and she subsequently developed an obsession with him.
The end is a pastiche of action movie clichés as Orlean and Laroche try to kill the Kaufmanns to protect their secret.
Chris Cooper was a late bloomer with Lone Star (1996), but afterwards he exploded with roles in American Beauty (1998), The Patriot (2000), the Bourne movies, Capote (2005), The Town (2010), The Muppets (2011) and Norman Obsorn in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014). He deservedly won an Oscar for his work as John Laroche.
Nicolas Cage’s career has inspired a lot of debate. He’ s very talented, but often chooses movies not worthy of his talent and claimed in 2011 to have developed his own style of acting, “Noveau Shamanic.” Most people already have strong opinions about his work; his dual role as Charlie and Donald Kaufmann, while not likely to change those opinions, is one of his best performances.
Streep turns in another solid performance, helping ground the bizarre story as the obsessed author.
Despite only directing four feature films, Spike Jonze has developed a reputation for experiential narrative: a secret door provides access to John Malkovich’s head, a man falls in love with his phone’s operating system.
The more you pursue the seeming loose ends in this twisted, funny movie, the more you realize Kaufmann and Jonze anticipated your questions and answered them. It’s a perfect film to begin a new millennium, deconstructing the practice of adapting works of art to different mediums.
Mystic River (2003)
Three boys are playing in the streets of Boston in 1975. One of them is kidnapped and sexually assaulted, escaping after four days in captivity.
Thirty years later, the three of them still live in the Boston area, but are no longer friends. Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn) is an ex-con who runs a store. Sean Devine (Kevin Bacon) is a detective with the state police. Dave Boyle (Tim Robbins) is leading a normal blue-collar life.
When Jimmy’s daughter Katie is murdered, Sean is assigned the case. Circumstantial evidence and suspicious behavior suggests Dave was the murderer.
The movie slowly builds suspense until the heartbreaking twist ending, which, in retrospect, was inevitable; the only path the three boys could have taken. Their lives were spent playing the roles they were given when those kidnappers picked Dave.
Sean Penn has never been better than as Jimmy Markum, who turns to a life of crime because it’s the only life he knows.
Tim Robbins is masterful as the pitiful Dave Boyle. Destroyed as a young child, Dave will never be anything but a scared, broken boy.
Kevin Bacon is not in the same league as Penn and Robbins, but he’s good as Sean Devine, torn between his job as a policeman and his old loyalties to Jimmy and Dave. Thirty years later, he still feels guilty about not protecting his friend.
Marcia Gay Harden and Laura Linney do yeoman’s work as the wives of Jimmy and Dave. Linney has become one of my favorite actresses; when she’s in a movie, I’ll have strong feelings about it. I loved Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993), The Truman Show (1998), You Can Count on Me (2000), Love Actually (2003), and The Savages (2007). I hated Primal Fear (1996) and Kinsey (2004).
Laurence Fishburne has had a fascinating career. His debut was Apocalypse Now (1979). He played Cowboy Curtis in Pee Wee’s Playhouse. He’s been in The Matrix (1999), starred in CSI, played Perry White, and fought Hannibal Lecter. He’s decent as Sean’s partner, Whitey Powers, but the role is just background.
Despite his iconic status, succeeding John Wayne as a symbol of masculinity, Clint Eastwood is a better director than actor. As an actor, his range is limited. As a director, he’s unbelievably versatile; he can handle westerns, war pictures, foreign language films, and musicals. He won his second Best Director Oscar the next year for Million Dollar Baby, but this is his best movie.
I love Dennis Lehane’s novel. It’s a hypnotic story about coincidence, fate, jumping to conclusions, and inadvertent consequences, asking how much of our lives are under our own control. This is a near perfect adaptation of a near perfect novel.
Before Sunset (2004)
Richard Linklater’s series of films chronicling the romance of Jesse and Celine is one of the most honest and complete looks at a relationship captured on film.
In the first film, Before Sunrise (1995), Jesse, an idealistic American fresh out of college meets Celine, an opinionated French girl, while traveling through Europe. They spend the night talking about their worldviews and personal philosophies and eventually make love. When the movie ends, they promise to meet again in six months.
This sequel takes place nine years later. Jesse returned to Vienna as agreed; Celine did not. Jesse, now married with a son, has written a novel based on their encounter and is at the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris to promote it. Celine comes to explain why she didn’t meet him as planned: her grandmother died and she had to attend the funeral.
As they catch up on their lives and how they’ve changed since their first encounter, their feelings for each other are rekindled. The movie ends ambiguously as Celine sings to Jesse and reminds him he has to catch a plane.
Despite his Texas roots, Linklater’s films are closer to European cinema: dialogue and idea driven; what happens is not as important as the ideas explored.
Ethan Hawke is an underrated actor who rarely makes a bad movie, with the recent exceptions of The Purge (2013) and The Getaway (2013). His work with fellow Texan Linklater is the best stuff he’s done.
Julie Delpy is great as Celine and plays a Celine-like character in 2 Days in Paris (2007), and its sequel 2 Days in New York (2012), however the character becomes annoying without Ethan Hawke to support her. Adam Goldberg and Chris Rock are funny, but they’re not as capable of elevating her performance. Her best work outside of the Before … series is Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy.
This is a great film about the petty squabbles, quiet moments of intimacy, and meandering conversations which are the hallmark of a good relationship.
This hard detective story in the mold of Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe set in a contemporary California high school, is a sort of spiritual cousin to the pseudo noir TV show, Veronica Mars. But while Mars is a tongue in cheek homage, this film is a serious update to the genre.
Outcast Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) receives a mysterious note which leads to a payphone where he hears a cryptic, frantic message from Emily (Emilie de Ravin), his ex-girlfriend. When he tracks her down through her stoner friends, she denies there’s anything to worry about, but within days, he discovers her dead body.
Feeling responsible for her fate, Brendan is determined to discover what happened. His investigation untangles a wicked plot of deception and places him in the middle of a power struggle between The Pin (a local drug dealer) and Tug (his enforcer).
Lukas Haas gives a fine supporting performance as The Pin and Emilie de Ravin does her best work outside of Lost, but the reason to watch is Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Already famous for his work in 3rd Rock from the Sun, his performance as Brendan Frye catapulted him into the upper echelon of young actors.
Rian Johnson’s impressive directorial debut originated in his obsession with Dashiell Hammet. After seven years trying to get Hollywood backing, he financed the film himself. Since, he’s directed the time travel thriller Looper (2012) which also starred Gordon-Levitt, and the series defining “Ozymandias” episode of Breaking Bad’s stellar fifth season.
In the tradition of the best noirs, the plot borders on ridiculous; many will find it difficult to keep up with who’s betraying whom, but like those noirs of yesteryear, the point of the film is to entrance us with the characters and dialogue. In the best noirs, the question, “What’s it about?” is as ridiculous as asking what a Jackson Pollock painting is about. The story is secondary to the dangerous, paranoid atmosphere.
The Lives of Others (2006)
Gerd Wiesler is tasked to spy on playwright Georg Dreyman, who the Minister of Culture is convinced is a security threat despite his communist sympathies. But the Minister has a hidden agenda: he fancies Dreyman’s girlfriend, actress Christa-Marie Sieland, and uses the information supplied by Wiesler to blackmail her into a sexual relationship.
During his surveillance, Wiesler grows sympathetic to Dreyman and Sieland and eventually, must make a decision between the country he loves and the friends who are unaware he exists.
The final scenes of the movie are a beautiful illustration of how powerful the actions of an individual can be, even against the full apparatus of the state.
There’s a sublime scene when the Stasi workers assigned to intercept mail learn the Berlin Wall has fallen. Without a word, they stop their work and leave their cramped office; they know without being told their world has ended. We think of history as a slow march towards progress, but it often leaps forward: one day you’re spying for the East German communists, the next you’re living in a democratic, unified Germany.
The first film directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck has been hailed as a conservative masterpiece, but the movie transcends politics. People and ideologies only become evil when corrupted by an insatiable desire for more power.
A German language film about the oppressive tactics of East German intelligence during the Cold War doesn’t sound like a celebratory movie, but this is a hopeful film. It explores mankind’s capacity for evil and how immoral regimes rely on ordinary people following orders to commit their crimes, but it shows a way forward through such evil.
Gerd Wiesler was a part of the apparatus of evil, but in the film’s final act, he transcends and atones for his mistakes. If the last ten minutes don’t stir something inside you, there’s little chance any film will.
Gone Baby Gone (2007)
Private investigators Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) see a local news report about Helene McCready (Amy Ryan) whose daughter has been kidnapped. Smelling a profit, they reach out to Helene and her family to help find the missing girl.
It appears Amanda was abducted because Helene and her boyfriend “Skinny Ray” stole money from a drug lord, but uncovering the truth of her abduction reveals a complicated web of deception.
Casey Affleck is mesmerizing as Patrick. He begins the film as a cynical private detective, but ends with a resolute idea of right and wrong. Sadly, Casey’s career has been overshadowed by his brother Ben’s, and while the abysmal failure of I’m Still Here (2010) did not help, his work here and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) prove he’s a more than capable actor.
Amy Ryan’s an incredibly versatile performer: believable as Holly Flax, Michael Scott’s nerdy love interest in The Office, and as the competent, but shy Beadie Russell in The Wire, but her performance as Helene McCready is a career highlight. Ryan’s Helene is a feral animal: trapped by her limited education, her family, her child, and her drug addiction, who sees the attention from her daughter’s kidnapping as a way out of her miserable life. We recognize Helene has no business being a mother, but because of Ryan’s amazing work we still empathize with her. Affleck is the moral center of film, but Ryan is its emotional core.
Morgan Freeman uses his public image and credibility as misdirection in his performance as Captain Jack Doyle. We believe Doyle more than we should because we believe Freeman.
Ben Affleck’s directorial debut is a triumphant achievement. He would direct the Best Picture winning Argo five years later, but this is, so far, his best film. His directorial style is similar to another actor turned director: Clint Eastwood. Both are technically proficient directors who don’t rely on trickery or special effects and strive to stay out of the way of the story as much as possible. They understand what an actor needs and use this knowledge to get the most from their cast.
Author Dennis Lehane’s worldview is dark, but he maintains a glimmer of hope in humanity’s capacity to improve its lot. To illustrate this, he tells intimate stories of ordinary people forced to confront the evil in the world.
This is a great movie, which asks uncomfortable questions: if a wrong thing can save a girl’s future, is it wrong? Is it okay to cheat the system to get the desired result?
When Daigo Kobayahsi loses his job as cellist, he moves back into his childhood home with his wife. Looking for work, he sees an advertisement for someone to “assist with departures.” He assumes the job is with a travel agency, but soon learns it’s a mortuary.
In Japan, dealing with the deceased is “unclean” and being a mortician is humiliating.
Kobayashi is repulsed and ashamed of his accidental career. His wife leaves him; his friend, Yamashita, disowns him.
When Yamashita’s mother dies, Kobayashi is asked to handle the encoffinment. He finds fulfillment in his duty, while his wife and friend realize the importance of his work.
Despite the numerous masterpieces from Kuroswa and Ozi, this was the first Japanese winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
There are several breathtakingly beautiful scenes as Kobayashi washes and cares for the recently deceased. It’s hard to watch these scenes and not imagine your own deceased loved ones.
It’s a tad too sentimental in places, but this is inevitable in a film about the rituals of death. The movie demonstrates the common humanity we discover when we realize all paths lead to the same end.
Mr. Nobody (2009)
In 2092, science has evolved to render death obsolete; 118 year old Nemo Nobody is the last mortal on earth. A reporter tries to document Nemo’s life before he dies, but his life story is a series of seemingly impossible contradictions.
Nemo, like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five exists outside of time. However, while Pilgrim could only move backwards and forwards in his own timeline, Nemo is able to travel through multiple timelines; he’s lived several lives and has memories of each. In one timeline, he married Elsie (who’s in love with someone else). In another, he fell in love with Anna (his step-sister from his mother’s second marriage). In a third, he married Jeanne and had a family.
This film asks us to ponder the importance of the decisions in our lives and argues “there are no good or bad choices. It’s simply that each choice will create another life for you.”
Via a series of educational vignettes, it explains scientific concepts such as the Big Bang, the Big Crunch, chaos theory, the butterfly effect, and pigeon superstition, then explores the real world ramifications.
Jared Leto is one of my favorite actors. From Requiem for a Dream (2000) to Dallas Buyers Club (2013), he’s always riveting, but it’s difficult to believe he’ll ever be better than in this movie.
Sarah Polley is great as Nemo’s emotionally disturbed wife, Elsie. A fine actress, she’s an even better director: Away from Her (2006) is a devastating portrait of Alzheimer’s; Take this Waltz (2011) is a bittersweet movie about a dying relationship; Stories We Tell (2012) is a searing look at the lies families tell to function and survive.
Part Slaughterhouse Five, part Run, Lola Run (1998), part Amelie (2001), part The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), part Cloud Atlas (2012), part advanced science lesson, part love story, part philosophical discussion: this a great movie I hope to watch many more times.