Choosing the best dramatic movies of the past 20 years is a daunting task — a kind of Sophie’s Choice predicament. There are so many possibilities among the insightful, superbly produced movies made in this century that leaving certain ones out seems like an act of abandonment, of insensitive disregard. The films I have chosen, like any such list that purports to be the “best,” should be seen as seven of many possibilities and are, at any rate, my own personal preferences. These are movies that moved me emotionally and intellectually, and stayed with me long after the lights came on in the darkened theatre.
Director: Bill Condon
Starring: Liam Neeson, Laura Linney
Kinsey is a revelation on the life and work of the courageous sexologist. It features vulnerable, graceful performances from both Liam Neeson and Laura Linney, and creative direction and editing from Bill Condon, as it explores the insights of professor Alfred Kinsey. His groundbreaking message of, and research into, the importance of accepting and understanding sexual diversity is as relevant today as it was almost 70 years ago. This is a taut film that ultimately reveals the need to see truths in order to liberate ourselves from the lies and ignorance that suppress all of us. Yes, truth and love shall set us free.
The Departed (2006)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg
The Departed won the Oscar for both best film and best director. This film about ruthless Boston mobsters and undercover cops involved in malevolent deception and betrayal, and their tragic, debilitating consequences both intrigued and horrified me. Yes, it is graphically violent, but the violence is never gratuitous and never played for cheap thrills. This is the kind of film Shakespeare would have made if he were alive today: Think of the big themes, multiple killings and maimings in plays such as Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear and Titus Andronicus. This is serious filmmaking at its thrilling, jolting best.
Director: Joe Wright
Starring: James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, Vanessa Redgrave
Some critics found it difficult to appreciate a brilliantly crafted character-driven movie that tells a story about childhood and misunderstandings, class maliciousness, love, betrayal and redemption with such heart-wrenching and haunting pull. The entire film kept me engrossed in the lives of these star-crossed people set amid the beautifully photographed English countryside and the horrors of Dunkirk and the Second World War. The ironic final pitch is a devastating blow to the stomach that questions the cathartic and redemptive power of art and literature themselves. It’s a powerful movie for the ages.
The King’s Speech (2010)
Director: Tom Hooper
Starring: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter
This engrossing and entertaining film won both best picture and best actor Oscar honours in 2010. It features superb performances by Colin Firth as the stuttering Prince Albert, who is forced to take the throne as King George VI after the sudden abdication of Edward VIII, and Geoffrey Rush as his cheeky self-made vocal therapist. Together, the two are a miracle of acting, timing and pacing — a miracle, too, of the power of inspired teaching on the most bullheaded of students. As George VI eventually gains his voice to inspire his nation while the war drums beat on and the power of radio takes over, we are swept along with both the laughter and the tears. And we come to understand the power of real relationships and friendships, and the impact of real and profound communication.
Director: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons
Whiplash is a film that forces you to grapple with huge and disturbing ideas about teaching and ambition. How far should a teacher go to have a student reach their version of perfection? Is “perfection” worth it if it means psychological brutality? This movie, with a soaring Oscar performance by J.K. Simmons as a maniacal and obsessive music teacher, is very troubling — and very intense — and will leave you both strangely satisfied and shattered at its end. How far would you go as a teacher to meet your own ambitions? By the way, Damien Chazelle went on to direct La La Land in 2016 — another great film!
Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney
Dunkirk is an immersive film. While some people seem to think it has no storyline, the experience of seeing and hearing the chaos and explosive, terrifying noise of war is the storyline. Dealing with the massive evacuation of thousands of troops from the shores of France to England in 1940, the movie places you in the middle of the war by land, by sea and by air to experience first-hand what these brave men and women went through, trying simply to survive. I have never experienced a war film like this, and I came away with even more respect for those who fought for us and our fragile democracies with such bravery and valour. To get its full impact, this film must be seen on the biggest screen possible with the best possible sound system (I saw it in UltraMax). I might add that two other great films, Their Finest and Darkest Hour (featuring Gary Oldman in an Oscar-winning role as Winston Churchill), also deal in part with the evacuation of Dunkirk and should be seen as companion pieces.
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Starring: Song Kang-ho, Cho Yeo-jeong
Parasite, a South Korean film, won Oscars for both best picture and best director, and deservedly so — there are scenes I still can’t get out of my head. Director Bong Joon-ho has masterfully crafted a movie that is part Juvenalian social satire, part horror comedy and part thriller. Its cinematography and soundtrack are reminiscent of the techniques and atmosphere of that master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. It’s a nail-biter right till the end. With outstanding performances from the entire cast, the movie demonstrates the inequity between two economic classes in Seoul, a kind of rich man–poor man theme that makes your heart ache while you laugh through your teeth and gasp at the horrific twists and sudden violence. It’s a real indictment of the cruel indifference and conspicuous consumption of the very rich.
I could have mentioned at least 20 other superb films from this century, including this past year’s Sound of Metal, The Father and Minari, but I think these seven may well be the best.
See you at the movies!