20. “Tree of Life” (Birth of the Universe)
It was probably inevitable that the most ambitious, visually stunning sequence this side of “2001” — in which we literally witness the birth of the cosmos as envisioned by Terrence Malick, the rare filmmaker for whom the word “visionary” is an understatement — would include dinosaurs. In the moment, though, it was a thrilling surprise. What precedes those prehistoric creatures is equally stunning: shots of nebulae, stars, and other space matter so vivid you’ll have a hard time believing it wasn’t filmed by NASA. “Lord, did you know?” asks Jessica Chastain as the extended sequence begins. “Who are we to you?”
All of this is set to Zbigniew Preisner’s hauntingly beautiful “Lacrimosa,” which fades out as we return to earth. Our planet’s fiery beginnings eventually give way to oceans, deserts, and, yes, dinosaurs. Everything is linked in “The Tree of Life,” which amounts to a cinematic universe unto itself; unlike nearly every other movie attempting to show the interconnectedness of all things, Malick’s opus makes you believe. —MN
19. “Personal Shopper” (Ghost Texting)
From the cinematic meta-comedy of “Irma Vep” to the revolutionary autobiography of “Something in the Air,” Olivier Assayas has long been obsessed with the ways in which technology can be used to assert and embolden the past. Cool and deceptively casual, Assayas’ body of work is unified by the grace with which it reconciles a shrinking world. His films blur the borders between countries, between centuries, and now even between dimensions as they examine the role that memory plays in determining who we are, both individually and together.
Bracing in its directness at one moment and elliptical the next, “Personal Shopper” isn’t just a story about a young medium trying to connect with her late twin brother from across the beyond, it’s also a story about how technology shapes the way people remember the dead and process their absence. In the film’s notorious centerpiece, Kristen Stewart’s character is peppered with aggressive, sexually charged SMS messages from an unknown number as she rides the Eurostar train from Paris to London and back again. Stretching between 20 minutes, two countries, and possibly into the afterlife, the scene assumes a sudden new shiver when Maureen begins to wonder if she’s texting with her brother’s ghost, or perhaps a more malevolent spirit.
That the gripping sequence caused such a stir following the film’s Cannes premiere is ridiculous for at least two reasons: For one thing, it may be the 21st Century’s signature episode of Hitchcockian suspense. For another, it’s also the stuff of vintage Assayas, crystallizing what the cinema’s reigning modernist has done so well for the last 30 years. It’s the best part of one of his best films. —DE
18. “25th Hour” (Monty Brogan’s Other Life)
What would you dream about on your way to prison? For Monty (Edward Norton), it’s the life that could have been had things gone slightly differently: a wife, children, and every other hallmark of domestic American bliss. This brief glimpse is narrated by his father (Brian Cox), who happens to be the one driving Monty to prison at the conclusion of Spike Lee’s post-9/11 masterwork. “You make a new life and you never come back,” he commands his son, but everyone — the two of them, and certainly those of us watching — know it’s too late for that. None of this is happening: Monty is going away for seven years, and who knows whether the woman he loves (Rosario Dawson) can wait that long. That makes it all the more devastating when the vision ends: “It all came so close to never happening,” his father says. “This life came so close to never happening.” —MN
17. “Mulholland Drive” (Betty’s Audition)
Betty (Naomi Watts) arrives in Hollywood still wet behind the ears and dreaming of stardom. The darker side of Tinseltown eventually consumes her, but with the help of the mysterious amnesiac, “Rita,” Betty finds the confidence to go on a reading for a TV pilot. Although the two women run lines together at home, Betty’s transformation at the audition is astounding. No longer polite, bashful and apologetic, Betty exudes confidence and sex appeal, turning mundane lines into a masterclass. Great acting can make even bad writing pop, and Betty proves it. Of course, it’s also a sly nod at Betty’s own dual personality, which has hoodwinked the audience, and will soon be exposed after a trip to Club Silencio. While the scene is likely figment of Betty’s unstable mind, it’s also a testament to Watts’ electric performance, one that was criminally snubbed by the Academy. —JR
16. “Lost in Translation” (Bill and Charlotte’s Late-Night Chat)
Sure, we all treasure the ambiguous exchange that closes out Sofia Coppola’s wondrous romance, but to truly understand why Sofia Coppola won an Oscar for this insightful screenplay, consider this poignant moment — a simple two-shot that finds its main characters lying in bed. The movie’s power rests with its ability to combine casual circumstances with an encroaching profundity embedded in the generational divide between Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) and Bob (Bill Murray). The scene sets aside the uncertainty of their romantic chemistry for a sincere advice session, as Charlotte reaches out to Bob in a quest to understand how her somber uneasiness might evolve into his calmer former malaise. “The more you know who you are and what you want, the less you let things upset you,” he says, in the wisest seconds of Murray’s career, and for a moment the whole movie levitates on his wisdom. The best part of the exchange is its deceptive simplicity: Three simple camera setups, two brilliant actors, and a screenplay that reaches for big ideas that emerge from unexpected places. —EK