Every week, the CriticWire Survey asks a select handful of film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday morning. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?” can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s question: What is the best movie of the last 20 years?
Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker
“In Praise of Love,” without a second’s hesitation. Few movies have come into the world with as much advance documentation as Jean-Luc Godard’s 2001 film did — the second French volume of Godard on Godard (still untranslated), published in 1998, contains four successive treatment-like outlines, which I read soon after the book was published and which raised my anticipation to record levels–all the more so because I had the privilege of interviewing Godard in 2000, almost a year before the film’s release, and he spoke to me about the making of the film and the process by which the four script outlines developed and how they filtered into the film (or didn’t).
What’s more, there was an unusually high amount of advance reporting on the shoot of the film — Godard seemed unusually interested in delivering enticements to prospective viewers, and I suspected that he was doing so because he himself sensed that the film would be, by his own demanding standards, extraordinary. So, before the movie’s release, I felt a little like the man who knew too much — and yet I expected surprises nonetheless, and got them, exhilaratingly, when I went to the first screening at 10 AM on opening day at the movie theatre that’s featured in the film. Instantly its extreme romantic vulnerability, its profound yet playful, pain-seared yet serene, grand and intimate images, moments, presences, gestures poured forth in the sort of artistic self-renewal that few ever achieve and that Godard, at seventy, was accomplishing for the second time. I knew, upon that first viewing, that it was, so to speak, his third first film, a new opening for himself as well as for the cinema overall.
I saw it nine more times that week, untiringly and with new discoveries and delights each time. I loved it from the start, knew that it was a great new thing for Godard and for the world at large, and was all the more pissed off that critics in France treated it fussily and audiences in France were mostly scant. Even compared to the shocks that each new Godard film provides, “In Praise of Love” was shocking, in the most positive sense; I’m enduringly changed by those first viewings and still moved anew by each successive one. I’d add that its influence on the history of cinema is both infinitesimal and profound (see Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Power of Words,” which Godard adapted for a short film in 1988); sometimes I feel as if the film were made just for me.
Christopher Campbell (@thefilmcynic), Nonfics
Favorite should imply something I love to watch over and over, but my pick is something I have trouble re-watching regularly because it leaves me exhausted every time: “Synecdoche, New York.” Sometimes I don’t even believe this movie exists outside of my brain since it feels like a documentary of my mind. It’s hardly reflective of my external life. I’m not very creative as far as anyone knows. And that’s because every creative endeavor I’ve ever attempted turned out to be too ambitious to realize. I’m incapable of creating something without trying to make it about everything. Even this Criticwire response is feeling too minimal for what I want to say. You’d have to experience my entire life, or at least my brain and all of its knowledge and memories and feelings, to get why it’s my favorite film of the last 20 years. I should have just said it’s because it features all my favorite actresses of the last 20 years, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest, Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton and Jennifer Jason Leigh. However, even then, I am certain Charlie Kaufman actually read my mind to know whom to cast.
Kate Erbland (@katerbland), Indiewire
The question specifically asked us to “follow [our] heart” (aww), so that’s just what I did. On-the-spot answers have never been my forte, so I’ve spent some serious time over the years building up a stockpile of answers as to my favorite films (mental top ten, always in place!), and while the exact order of the list changes, most of its inhabitants have held steady. Current top? Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous.” I’ve got a major soft spot for Crowe’s oeuvre (yes, even “Elizabethtown,” and no, not even “Aloha”) in general, but over time, “Almost Famous” has continued to grow in my heart and in its influence. If we’re asking for from the heart answers, it’s the obvious one for me. It’s a big ol chunk of a movie, able to capture both the capriciousness of youth and the hard-won wisdom of, well, still kind of youthful people, but ones who have seen some shit. It’s funny and sad, sexy and smart, and if you can walk away from it not loving at least one of its many characters, you’ve got bigger issues to work out. The music is great and the costumes are cool and it’s the best thing Kate Hudson has ever done and even that director’s cut just ticks right on by. And, yes, I cry a little bit every time that “Tiny Dancer” scene comes on. Maybe rock n roll really can save the world. (Ask me on a different day, and the answer might have been “Jerry Maguire.”)
Angie Han (@ajhan) /Film
My favorite film of the past 20 years is also my favorite movie of all time: Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York.” It’s messy and weird and dizzying in its ambition, and confounds any easy attempt to explain or “solve” it. But what else would you expect from a film trying to tackle the sheer fact of mortality, and all of the beauty and terror that comes along with it? Charlie Kaufman has said this project was originally conceived as a horror film, but about the stuff that really scared him, and indeed the film is full of devastating worst-case-scenario moments. But his real interest isn’t in watching Caden Cotard (played to perfection by Philip Seymour Hoffman) suffer. It’s in finding the humanity in his struggle, and by extension all of ours.
Jordan Hoffman (@JHoffman), the Guardian
That’s actually a good question, at least it is for me, inasmuch as I was just out of college at Indiewire’s birth. (I remember the emails! They came every morning!) Having attended film school and, prior to that, film camp (there is such a thing) and been a raging snob since middle school, I’d already had my share of cinematic epiphanies by this point. My Rushmore is chiseled, isn’t it? This isn’t to say I’m not still blown to bits from time to time by something truly extraordinary, but is something I’m going to see NOW going to register as an all time favorite? Probably not. Like attending a psychobilly concert, these are decisions for the young. I mean, Jesus, I think I’m seeing a movie called “Now I See You 2” soon. How in the hell am I supposed to just walk around saying everything is all right knowing that this is my fate? They shouldn’t tell critics what we’re about to see, just give us the time and address and a complimentary Diet Cherry 7-Up and a prayer.
The best movie of the last 20 years is “A Serious Man.”
Eric Kohn (@EricKohn), IndieWire
I’m most responsive to movies that show us the world in fresh ways. So my two-decade tally goes to a five-way tie of movies that do that for me from the past 20 years: “Gummo,” for its dreamlike aesthetic that elevates the Southern Gothic to fresh lyrical heights; “Pi,” for the way it peeks into one man’s obsessive mind and finds some modicum of spiritual catharsis in loneliness; Don Hertzfeldt’s “Rejected,” which similarly shows how we’re all trapped by the stories we tell ourselves; “Holy Motors,” which magnifies the inherent strangeness of the roles we play each day; and “Boyhood,” which finds startling revelations in small moments. I could survive on a cultural diet of these movies on loop for another 20 years.
Tomris Laffly (@TomiLaffly), Film Journal, Film School Rejects
Is there really a correct answer to this question? Is it really possible to sift through the last two decades of cinema and objectively pick the best film from a pool that includes the likes of “You Can Count On me,” “The Father of My Children,” “The White Ribbon,” “Inside Llewyn Davis,” “Mulholland Drive,” “Vera Drake,” “The Social Network” and “American Psycho,” among others? (Right, I am totally cheating right now.) If I was answering this question in a few years, I might very well have picked John Crowley’s “Brooklyn” –my favorite film of 2015. But for some weird reason, it feels too soon to do that. My honest answer at this moment is (because you advised “go with your heart”): it’s a two-way split between Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation” and –wait for it– James Cameron’s “Titanic.”
I re-visited “A Separation” numerous times since its release in 2011 and remain in complete awe of its flawless dramatic structure, economy, swelling tension and cumulative emotional power. As for “Titanic” – I re-watched it more times than I would like to admit (though feel free to ask my husband and he will gladly tell you,) and haven’t lost any of my enthusiasm for its glorious spectacle that impeccably blends drama, romance and action against a historical backdrop. “Titanic” was gorgeous, entertaining and heartrending then. And it still is today. It’s the kind of exciting Hollywood event they don’t seem to create anymore. If only I could watch it in a theater for the first time again.
Matt Patches (@misterpatches) Thrillist
I live for Michael Haneke’s eloquent, brutalist portraits. A romantic reminder of mortality? I’m camping outside the multiplex. A family suicide drama? Dear lord, if he insists. An exploration of man’s inherent evil? At the very least, small talk fodder. “Caché” is the director’s unassuming masterpiece, a mix of found footage horror, family drama, and social commentary that raises questions even after the credits roll. Haneke’s strident stillness and splash-less dive into French culture builds and builds and builds to turns that lauded thriller masters could only dream of pulling off. Caché feels chiseled out of our very existence, and I’ll never forget watching it unfold for the first time way back in 2005. (Getting old!) (Going to die eventually!)
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) Pajiba, CBR.com
“The Babadook.” A horror film so good, so smart, so rich with emotion that snoots insist it is not really “horror.” (Notably, similar assaults have been launched against more Oscar-ready fare like “Black Swan” and “Silence of the Lambs.”) But with her feature directorial debut, writer/helmer Jennifer Kent gave the genre a brilliant jolt, producing a monster story as rich with pathos as it is in suspense. Her inky creature and cryptic sound design became instantly iconic, while the performances of leading lady Essie Davis and child actor Noah Wiseman were so raw and riveting that they slithered into our psyche, following us home like a Babadook of our very own.
Q: What is the best movie currently in theaters?
A: “The Lobster”