The 25Best Filmsof the21st Century
We are now approximately one-sixth of the way through the 21st century, and thousands of movies have already been released. Which means that it’s high time for the sorting – and the fighting – to start. As the chief film critics of The Times, we decided to rank, with some help from cinema savants on Facebook, the top 25 movies that are destined to be the classics of the future. While we’re sure almost everyone will agree with our choices, we’re equally sure that those of you who don’t will let us know.
There Will Be Blood
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007
“There Will Be Blood” tells the story of an American oilman, Daniel Plainview, who persuades the locals in a California ranching town to let him drill on their land. He also establishes an uneasy rivalry with a preacher, Eli Sunday, and the two men, each selling his own brand of faith, enact the timeless battle between God and Mammon – though who is on what side is not always clear.
Manohla DargisPaul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood” is a 21st-century masterpiece about love, death, faith, greed and all the oil and blood gushing through the American 20th century. It distills a harrowing story through a prospector – played with demonic intensity by Daniel Day-Lewis – who pursues a savage, hollow dream. He embodies the best of the United States only to become the very worst of it.
The film offers a profound and deeply unsettling vision of the country, but it’s also a testament to one of this nation’s sublime achievements: the movies. The story creeps alive in 1898 with Plainview digging in a hole like a primordial creature, a sequence that invokes the dawn-of-man opener in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” A brilliant two and a half hours later, “There Will Be Blood” closes around 1927 by making good on its ominous title (it’s a gusher!) and nodding at “Citizen Kane,” a masterwork that ushered in a new American cinematic age.
A.O. ScottWhile I am endlessly fascinated by what this movie isabout – the dynamic, infernal spirit of American capitalism; the dialectic of faith and greed; the invention of California; the melodrama of modern masculinity – I am perpetually astonished by what it is. It is stranger than any of its themes, mightier than its influence and bigger than any of the genres it explores.
That opening sequence lasts almost 15 minutes before the first line of dialogue is uttered, and it sets the table (or stirs the milkshake) for the many bravura set pieces that follow, like the explosion of the drilling rig midway through. The grandeur of Mr. Anderson’s vision is matched by the precision of his technique. At no moment do you doubt that anything happened exactly how he is showing it, even as he takes abundant liberty with the historical record and his literary source (Upton Sinclair’s novel “Oil!”). But you are also aware of his artistic self-confidence, and the way he has marshaled the talents of his cast and collaborators (notably the cinematographer Robert Elswit and the composer Jonny Greenwood) in the service of his ideas.
I never tire of thinking about “There Will Be Blood.” But every time I watch it, I find it outruns all my thoughts. Not many films do that.
Dargis It’s still fascinating to see how Mr. Anderson drew from two traditions to make the film: classical Hollywood cinema and European art film. “There Will Be Blood” is as pleasurable – and rewatchable – as an old-studio masterwork like “The Big Sleep” and his impeccable craft is of course one reason. Yet much as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola did in their greatest movies, Mr. Anderson took all that he’d learned from Hollywood to create work of radical, intensely personal vision.
It’s a creation story about love and labor – Plainview’s and Mr. Anderson’s – one tragic, the other glorious. Among everything else that “There Will Be Blood” takes on is a question that rests, I think, at the heart of the United States: how could something as astonishing as the movies (or democracy) emerge amid so much horror?
ScottAnd therefore, like so many films about ambition and enterprise, it’s to some extent an allegory of its own making. Not that Plainview is in any literal way Mr. Anderson’s alter ego: he’s a creature of his own time, a self-made man from the American heartland. He’s both demon and demigod, able to tap into the essence of the earth itself and driven to dominate and corrupt his fellow men – Mephistopheles and Faust rolled into one. A movie big enough to contain him could only be the greatest of its time.
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, 2002
“Spirited Away,” by the Japanese anime master Hayao Miyazaki, follows the enthralling and terrifying adventures of a young girl named Chihiro. The film’s artistry and magic defy description, but we asked Guillermo del Toro, a Miyazaki fan and a formidable movie magician in his own right, to share his thoughts. He spoke by phone with A.O. Scott. Here are edited excerpts from his comments:
Guillermo del Toro I discovered Miyazaki when I was a kid in Mexico. I remember seeing a sequence Miyazaki and [his colleague the animator Isao Takahata] did on a movie called “Puss in Boots” of an ogre running through a series of rocks, a typical Miyazaki chase in a crumbling tower, and I remember loving that movie.
Many years later as a young adult I saw “My Neighbor Totoro” and it moved me to tears. I mean, I basically couldn’t stop crying at the beauty and the enormous feat of capturing the innocence of being a child. I immediately chased down everything he had done. The way they describe him as the Disney of the East I think is a tremendous misnomer: Miyazaki’s all his own.
In “Spirited Away” you have a girl right at the threshold of becoming a young woman and leaving her childhood behind, figuratively and literally. Chihiro starts the narrative as a child, the way she sits, the way we first meet her sitting on the seat of the car, legs up, it’s completely childish. She evolves from her poise, dress, attitude, emotion and spirituality from being a child to being a young woman and coming into her own, and in that position she has to go through the loss of everything. She loses her parents, she loses her name, she’s called nothing, she’s called Sen, she’s called zero. There’s a beautiful, very melancholic meditation – the same melancholy that permeates all Miyazaki’s films.
Miyazaki has an approach to making monsters that is unique. They are completely new in design, but they feel rooted in ancient lore. They seem to represent primal forces and, in many cases, spirits that are rooted to the earth, to the wind, to the water. They are very elemental.
He always looks for grace or power, and he can use power for good guys and bad guys equally, and he can use grace for destructive monsters or beneficial monsters. That’s the beauty of him. He understands that one of the essential things is to not seek anything good because by definition something will then become bad. Do not seek anything beautiful because by definition something then becomes ugly.
Of course I have a huge kinship with Miyazaki. The same sense of loss and melancholy and tragedy is what I tried to do in “Devil’s Backbone” or “Pan’s Labyrinth.” There is a moment in which beauty moves you in a way that is impossible to describe. It’s not that it’s a fabrication, it’s that it’s an artistic act and you know nothing you will encounter in the natural world will be that pure. Miyazaki has that power.
“Spirited Away” is available on DVD and Blu-ray.
Million Dollar Baby
Directed by Clint Eastwood, 2004
A.O. ScottClint Eastwood sometimes releases his movies the way he shoots them: quickly and efficiently, without a lot of fuss and hype. “Million Dollar Baby” bypassed the festivals and the early awards-season buzz and was screened for critics about a week before it opened in December 2004. On a whim, I invited my editor at the time to the screening. Though he and I always got along well, we sometimes differed on matters of taste. Not this time. After the final credits rolled, we walked back to the office in a contemplative silence that he finally broke. “Now that was a movie,” he said.
It was, and it is. You sometimes hear that that they don’t make them the way they used to, but Mr. Eastwood – almost uniquely in 21st-century Hollywood – most assuredly does. In the years since “Million Dollar Baby” (which won him his second best picture Oscar), he has occasionally wandered into the public eye for reasons unrelated to movies. He appeared in a memorable Chrysler commercial, argued with an empty chair at the Republican National Convention in 2012 and expressed admiration for Donald J. Trump during the 2016 campaign. But that’s just his way of passing the time and letting off steam. Since turning 70 in 2000, he has continued to practice and refine his craft, producing some of the strongest work of his career and also some of the strangest. A ghost story? A musical? A rugby movie about Nelson Mandela? Why not?
But Mr. Eastwood has always been most at home in the classic American film genres: the western, the crime flick, the combat picture. And, in this case, the boxing movie, perhaps the most susceptible to sentimentality and cliché. The glory of “Million Dollar Baby” is that rather than strain for novelty, it settles into the conventions of the genre with masterly confidence and ease, and discovers deep currents and grace notes of feeling that nobody had noticed before.
Morgan Freeman and Hilary Swank each won Oscars for their performances. Mr. Freeman plays a former fighter nicknamed Scrap who acts as the confidant and conscience of Mr. Eastwood’s Frankie Dunn. Frankie is a trainer haunted by ghosts and regrets who takes a chance on an ambitious young fighter named Maggie Fitzgerald (Ms. Swank).
If for some unfathomable reason you haven’t yet seen “Million Dollar Baby,” I won’t spoil the plot by saying any more. But if you have seen it, you know that there’s much more to this movie than its plot. The warm, sharp banter among the principal characters never gets old. The images, shot by Mr. Eastwood’s longtime cinematographer, Tom Stern, glow with unexpressed, somber feeling. Fifty years from now, as the end credits scroll on whatever screen viewers are watching on, they will reach the same conclusion my editor did back in 2004. This is what a movie looks like.
A Touch of Sin
Directed by Jia Zhangke, 2013
Manohla DargisSteeped in violence and sorrow, “A Touch of Sin” is an astonishing movie from the Chinese director Jia Zhangke. Divided into four chapters, it was inspired by a series of widely reported violent conflicts in China that haunted him. Together the vignettes allow Mr. Jia – as he put it to me in an interview – to “paint the face” of contemporary China.
Zhao Tao, Mr. Jia’s wife and frequent star, plays Xiao Yu, a young receptionist at a sauna. It’s immediately clear that she’s having a rough go of it. She’s in an affair with a married man and his wife not only knows it, but one evening assaults Xiao Yu with the help of two thugs. Like all the sections, this one is largely a slice of brute naturalism spiked with beguilingly surrealistic moments, many involving animals. The overall mood is one of escalating, palpable unease.
Xiao Yu’s chapter culminates not long after she’s been beaten and has knocked off work for the day. She carries some water to a small, dimly lit room lined with palm-frond wallpaper. The palm fronds evoke the natural world that keeps creeping and slithering throughout the movie, and also suggests a realm its characters are nearly cut off from. There, all alone, Xiao Yu begins washing blood from her shirt when a man abruptly opens the door, demanding that she give him a massage. She explains that she’s not a masseuse and shuts the door. He returns – she shoos him off – and then he returns with a second man.
We’ve seen the second guy before; he’s a local thug. He too demands a massage – “we can afford you,” he says – and once again Xiao Yu declines. “I’m not a prostitute,” she says. “Go home to your wives.” She shuts the door, but the second guy bursts in. “I’m having you!” he exclaims, pushing her down hard. She stands; he pushes her down. She stands again; he pushes her down again. She’s strong, stubborn and as unreadable as Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name. Then the thug hits her head with a stack of bills and keeps hitting her, once, twice, three times, four, 20, 30 – he keeps hitting her as her cheeks redden. She looks at him silently, and then turns away.
A sudden cut to a raised arm with knife clutched in the hand changes the violence, the mood and the realism. Mr. Jia may have taken his inspiration from contemporary China, but here he also borrows from King Hu’s “A Touch of Zen,” a 1971 martial arts classic. All at once, a scene of ugly, recognizably and disturbingly real violence turns into an interlude of stylized violence with sharp editing, exaggerated gestures and images – a close-up of the knife in a fist – bordering on the hieroglyphic. One minute, the only red is that coloring Xiao Yu’s flushed cheeks; the next, a man has been sliced open and an ordinary woman has become the hero of her own story.
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
Directed by Cristi Puiu, 2006
A.O. ScottThe title is a spoiler. When we first meet Dante Lazarescu, a retired Bucharest resident in his early 60s (though he looks older), he is complaining of stomach pains. A little more than two and a half hours later – more or less in real time – he has left this world, unmourned and all but unnoticed.
Why should we care? That is the question – not at all rhetorical – posed by Cristi Puiu’s bleak, gripping, weirdly funny second feature. At the Cannes Film Festival, “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” was a word-of-mouth sensation. “Did you see that three-hour Romanian movie? Oh, man. You’ve gotta see it.”
And that’s still true. Mr. Puiu’s film was an early sign of the flowering of Romanian cinema that would bring international acclaim to young auteurs like Cristian Mungiu (“4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”) and Corneliu Porumboiu (“Police, Adjective”). Like his colleagues (and sometime rivals), Mr. Puiu uses long takes and minimal camera movement to create a sense of lived reality that is absorbing almost to the point of claustrophobia. He zeroes in remorselessly on the petty absurdities and large iniquities that define life in Romania more than a decade after the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu’s Communist dictatorship.
But though this is an intensely local experience, it opens up and reverberates far beyond the streets, tenements and emergency rooms of Bucharest. The title might remind you of Willy Loman, which is no accident. Poor Mr. Lazarescu is his own kind of Everyman, caught not in the shiny wheels of midcentury American capitalism but in the rusty gears of Eastern European bureaucracy and the detritus of his own bad decisions. He is imperiled by the arrogance and indifference of the powerful – the doctors and hospital bureaucrats so entranced by their own authority that they are blind to his suffering.
An ambulance driver, played by the great Romanian stage actress Luminita Gheorghiu, becomes Lazarescu’s advocate and ally, the one person able to insist, heroically and in vain, that attention must be paid to this man. This movie is a harrowing and darkly humorous metaphysical fable disguised as a slice-of-life tragedy.
Directed by Edward Yang, 2000
A.O. Scott Yang-Yang, the younger of the two Jian children, is a budding photographer who specializes in taking pictures of the backs of people’s heads, revealing to his subjects a part of themselves that they might never otherwise see. It hardly seems coincidental that this 8-year-old boy’s first name doubles the surname of Edward Yang, the director of “Yi Yi.” He serves as the filmmaker’s impish, earnest alter ego, a visual artist intent on exploring life from all angles.
A packed, enthralling three-hour chronicle of modern Taiwanese family life, “Yi Yi” has the heft and density of a great novel. Its point of view is shared among Yang-Yang, his older sister, Ting-Ting, and their father, N.J., a video-game designer in the grip of a quiet but intense midlife crisis. Roger Ebert described “Yi Yi” as “a movie in which nobody knows more than half the truth, or is happy more than half the time,” something that could also be said (optimistically) of life itself. And “Yi Yi” is one of those movies that you remember less as something you saw than as something you experienced, as if you were one of the Jians’ Taipei neighbors.
Mr. Yang, who worked in the tech industry in Seattle before returning home to take up filmmaking, was one of the principal figures – along with Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang – in the New Taiwan cinema of the 1990s. “Yi Yi” was his first film to be released in the United States and also, tragically, the last film he completed before his death in 2007. It’s an excellent introduction to a remarkable body of work and also a movie that repays close attention and repeated viewing.
The action circulates through the high-rises and busy streets of Taipei, interrupted by a trip to Tokyo. To invoke the cliché that the cities themselves are characters in the films would be to understate their significance. The character of modern cities – spaces of loneliness and intimacy, where the shiny global future rests on a buried bedrock of local tradition – is among Mr. Yang’s main themes. And few artists in any medium have matched his ability to examine contemporary urban life from all sides. The title of this movie is translated as “a one and a two.” It keeps on going to infinity.
“Yi Yi” is available from the Criterion Collection and on DVD and Blu-ray.
Directed by Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen, 2015
Dargis and ScottMore than any other studio or individual filmmaker in the 21st century, Pixar Animation Studios has upheld the venerable ideal of making movies for everyone. And everyone, it seems, has a different favorite Pixar movie. On Facebook, we asked our readers to choose theirs, and it felt a little like asking them to declare which of their friends, siblings, children or toys they loved most. We were dealing with strong emotions and agonizing decisions.
Some people responded with top fives or Solomonic hairsplitting (“Wall-E” is the best, but “Cars” is the most fun.”) Others equivocated and changed their minds. Nearly all of the 14 features released under the Pixar label since 2000 garnered passionate defenses. We found ourselves agreeing with many of them, and zeroing in on exquisite moments from at least a half-dozen films: the wordless story of Carl and Ellie’s marriage in “Up”; the first meeting of Wall-E and Eve; Andy’s farewell at the end of “Toy Story 3”; Anton Ego’s review of the titular vermin-prepared dish in in “Ratatouille.” And what about “Finding Nemo”? “The Incredibles”? “Monsters, Inc.”? How could we pick just one?
In fairness to all the other movies in the world, we had to limit ourselves, and in the end the choice wasn’t too hard. (Our crowdsourcing, here as in other entries, was neither scientific nor democratic. We wanted to convene a social media council of advisers rather than dig for dubious data). The Pixar movie that belongs in the top tier of this list of classics is “Inside Out,” by far the most inventive, moving, captivating and philosophically astute cartoon about developmental psychology of the 21st century. The personification of abstract concepts and the visual rendering of human consciousness from the inside are astonishing feats, executed with unparalleled inventiveness. And the message – that Sadness is as essential in our lives as Joy – is perfectly matched by a story that elicits laughter and tears in almost equal measure.
Directed by Richard Linklater, 2014
The ordinary turns extraordinary in “Boyhood,” Richard Linklater’s story of one child that inextricably becomes a story about cinematic realism and its power. Shot over 12 successive years, it centers on Mason, who’s a blissfully average 6-year-old daydreamer when the film opens and 18 and starting college when it reaches its transporting end. As one year slips into the next, Mason grows up before your eyes, a progression that at times seems scarcely noticeable but at other times can knock you flat, recalling those moments when you look in the mirror and wonder, Where did the time go?
Manohla Dargis asked Mr. Linklater about making the film. Here are edited excerpts from his comments:
Richard Linklater It was deeply personal to people and I didn’t really anticipate that, I was just telling this little intimate story. But then when those responses came in, I was like, well, of course – it was powerful. We look for connection. This movie pulls you into caring about people and feeling what it’s like for time to pass, for life to change, for relationships change. Who hasn’t grown up or had siblings or left home? I thought it would be older people who maybe responded, but I realized that I was telling the life and times of a generation.
People would just tout the connection they had to it. “Oh, my daughter just went off to college or my son went off to college” or “I just went off to college. I saw your movie and I called my mom and told her that I now realize what she was going through.” We all go through the world trapped in our story, our own point of view. But a film can really enforce those other points of view – that’s storytelling power.
Directed by Olivier Assayas, 2009
Manohla DargisOlivier Assayas is the kind of director who sends critics into reveries, but he’s also a smart, shrewd storyteller. “Summer Hours” opens on a birthday party for a 70-year-old woman (Édith Scob), who’s surrounded by her family, including her three adult children. You’re immediately plunged into their complex, thorny relations partly because mothers are great triggers – whether it’s Bambi’s mom or this one, you can’t help (happily or not) but think of your own. The film also draws you in because everything is so effortlessly lovely – and French – the people, homes, furnishings, gardens. “Summer Hours” is about life, death, impermanence (and cinema), but it’s also about being French.
A.O. ScottMr. Assayas regards being French with fondness and skepticism, as many French people do. For his characters, the aesthetic and sensual parts of life are tangled up in ideas, and ideas reside in emotions and objects. In “Summer Hours,” a practical problem of a kind that many families have faced – what to do with a dead parent’s property, in this case including paintings and knickknacks that may have more than just sentimental value – becomes a surprisingly gripping drama about mortality, family and the effects of globalization on European life.
One of the sons (Jérémie Renier) is a businessman living in China with his family. His sister (a wonderfully abrasive Juliette Binoche) is an artist in New York. They and their nostalgic brother (Charles Berling) are saying goodbye not only to the old country house, but also to the idea of France they have cherished and taken for granted. Mr. Assayas, acutely aware of his status as part of the post-1968 generation, brings a sense of history to all of his movies. This one, though, may be his most prescient. Also: mom had excellent taste in stuff.
DargisShe has superb taste, but she’s turned not just her house but also her life into a museum, which people do. It’s a beautiful museum, true, filled with art nouveau furnishings and important art work that she’s attentively, maybe narcissistically safeguarded, rather more carefully, you sense, than her relations with her children. She’s such a protective custodian that it’s not a surprise that two of the children are somewhat disconnected from her and the house, and tend to drop by irregularly (during the visiting hours of the title). More than most directors, Mr. Assayas is deeply sensitive to the urgency of the next generation, which is why I think this is also a film about cinema.
ScottHe is a former film critic – which isn’t why we put him on this list. (Or not the only reason, anyway.) He’s also the son of a screenwriter, and someone whose fascination with history is tangled up in his fascination with movies. “Summer Hours” is a love letter to French cinema, but also a hard look into its future. It ends with the granddaughter saying goodbye to one birthright and claiming another – the right to be young and sexy and philosophical and impetuous, everything French movies have taught generations of admirers how to be.
The Hurt Locker
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, 2009
Manohla DargisKathryn Bigelow made history when she became the first woman to win the Oscar for best director, for “The Hurt Locker.” At long last, a brilliant female director was recognized for her art by a male-dominated industry that remains pathologically resistant to equality. It was a cinematic and political milestone then; it still is. And while it may seem paradoxical that Ms. Bigelow was honored for a war movie in which women are largely physically absent, masculinity – with its discontents, rituals, enigmas and staggering, annihilating capacity for violence – has long been her great subject.
That this violence is also self-annihilating is an anguished truth in “The Hurt Locker,” which is set in and around Baghdad during the war in Iraq the year after the American invasion. The story tracks three members of an army explosive ordnance disposal squad that disarms roadside bombs. The story’s axis point is the squad’s volatile team leader, Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), whose expertise has morphed into a ghastly mania. He doesn’t just take avoidable risks – sweat cascading off him, an exasperated James removes his protective bomb suit while trying to disarm an explosive – he rushes right at them.
War has given James a job to do, and he’s very, very good at it. War gives him rank, status, camaraderie (at times begrudging) and, ostensibly, a purpose. War has also destroyed James, though not literally and certainly not in the way most movies teach us when they show the catastrophe of war, with their perfected heroic gestures and narratives of noble sacrifice. James’s death isn’t remotely spectacular or inspiring; it doesn’t arrive with a bullet. It is instead the slowest of living deaths, one that eats away at him with everyday horror that is as unvarying and familiar as the ticking of all those bombs.
The French director François Truffaut once said, “Every film about war ends up being pro-war.” I wish he had lived long enough to see “The Hurt Locker,” a movie that is antiwar not because it offers an easy critique of war but because it reminds us of how human beings need war, how they live for war as intensely as die for it. Ms. Bigelow, who directed from a script by Mark Boal, told me by email that they faced the challenges of making it with as much honesty as they could. “The Iraq war,” she added, “was painfully underreported at the time – I looked at the film as a form of journalism, felt that more information was needed for this highly contested military engagement.”
Inside Llewyn Davis
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013
Dargis and Scott Ranking the oeuvre of Joel and Ethan Coen is a minor industry on the internet, so it wasn’t surprising that our request for hive-mind assistance in picking the best Coen feature of the 21st century met with a swift and clamorous response. Coen fans are knowledgeable, dogmatic and prone to contrarianism. A surprising number of them stood up for “Intolerable Cruelty” and “Burn After Reading”; “O Brother, Where Art Thou” and “True Grit” had their partisans. Very quickly, though, a three-way race emerged among “No Country for Old Men,” “A Serious Man” and “Inside Llewyn Davis.”
The academy favored “No Country,” of course – the only one of the Coens’ films to nab a best picture statuette – but much as we admire the dexterity they brought to adapting Cormac McCarthy’s novel, we were more moved and intrigued by the metaphysics of “A Serious Man” and the melancholy of “Inside Llewyn Davis.” We vacillated between the two. We asked the Coens themselves to pick a favorite (to no avail). We looked for messages carved into our teeth and encoded in the lyrics of old folk songs.
We went with the drama “Inside Llewyn Davis” because … because of the cat. Because of the sly circularity of the story. Because of the soundtrack. Because of Oscar Isaac’s sad eyes and capable finger-picking. If we misjudged or screwed up, fine. That’s just what people in Coen brothers movies tend to do.
Directed by Abderrahmane Sissako, 2015
Manohla DargisThe quietly devastating “Timbuktu” creeps up on you crystalline scene by crystalline scene. Set in the present, it takes place in the Malian city of its title, soon after the arrival of an Islamist group that quickly imposes Shariah law on the resistant population. At first, the story doesn’t seem to have a center or a protagonist. Instead, the director Abderrahmane Sissako introduces moments of outrage, an approach that allows him to create a mosaic portrait of a people under siege.
One memorable woman walks through the streets, head uncovered, a long piece of fabric trailing her like a queenly train. She seems regally impervious to the jihadists, who, even as they casually break Shariah law, try to police the locals. Music is forbidden, as are cigarettes and soccer. One young man who defies the ban on the game is sentenced to 20 lashes. But the human imagination isn’t as easy to imprison and in a lyrical scene, boys joyfully play soccer with a make-believe ball as two jihadists on a motorcycle circle the dusty field, momentarily defeated.
In time, the story settles on Kidane, a Muslim who lives near Timbuktu with his wife, Satima, and their daughter in a small, peaceful kingdom on the dunes. Many of the family’s neighbors have fled after the jihadist invasion, but the violence seems to have passed over Kidane until one day it comes down on him with a vengeance. During a dispute with a fisherman Kidane fires a gun. He’s brought to trial before a jihadist jury, which mercilessly sets about enacting Shariah law.
The genesis of “Timbuktu” is a horrific 2012 incident in which an unmarried Malian couple was stoned to death by members of the Islamist group Ansar Dine. The jihadists accused the couple, who had children, of having sex outside of marriage. Mr. Sissako, a Muslim who was born in Mauritania and raised in Mali, began working on “Timbuktu” the next year, seeking to draw attention to this atrocity. The movie is a great work of art but it is also a tribute to Muslim victims of terror that, as Mr. Sissako once put it, “makes Islam into something imaginary.”
“Timbuktu” is a tragic movie but not a nihilistic one. Mr. Sissako doesn’t shy away from showing violence, but he never sensationalizes any of the horrors. Instead, he answers those atrocities with visual beauty and moments of everyday joy and pleasure that, as the story unfolds, register as acts of artistic resistance. He also insists on humanizing the jihadists, as when an older man vainly directs a younger one on how to deliver a speech for a propaganda video. (“Your speech is not convincing.”) It’s an extraordinary scene, at once absurd and believable, and a reminder of the truth that it is people, not faceless monsters, who commit these horrors.
In Jackson Heights
Directed by Frederick Wiseman, 2015
Frederick Wiseman, the director of “In Jackson Heights,” is not just one of the greatest documentary filmmakers working today; he’s one of the greatest directors. His subject is institutions, specifically men, women and children who assert their humanity in schools, bureaucracies and organizations that seem to have been created for maximum dehumanization. Among his admirers is Ava DuVernay, who rewatched some of Mr. Wiseman’s movies before shooting “13th,” her documentary on institutional racism and the American penal system. Manohla Dargis asked her about his influence. Here are edited excerpts from our conversation:
Ava DuVernay “I saw ‘High School’ at UCLA, I was just riveted. First of all, just the form – ‘What is this? What am I watching?’ – just the intimacy of it. It’s people in institutions, people bumping up against the systems. It’s fascinating how he finds this intimacy within the epic and that there’s life there in systems that are very lifeless. The way the camera moves and what it’s interested in I’m interested in even though I didn’t know I was interested in it until he looked at it, until he showed it to me. Seeing it for the first time, it just felt raw. I cannot think of a documentary that I saw before ‘High School.’ That was a documentary to me.”
DVD and Blu-ray editions of “In Jackson Heights” can be purchased from zipporah.com.
Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2006
A.O. ScottSome filmmakers are globetrotters and genre-hoppers, moving from place to place and style to style in pursuit of their visions. The Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne prefer to stay close to home, in and around the industrial French-speaking city of Seraing. The stories they find there – tough, realistic tales that feel like parables, unless it’s the other way around – have earned them admirers and imitators. They have won a half-dozen prizes in Cannes, and their influence is visible around the world and up and down this list, from “Timbuktu” to “Wendy and Lucy.”
“L’Enfant” – a sinewy and suspenseful crime story that is also a spiritual fable – concerns Bruno, a young petty criminal (Jérémie Renier), whose girlfriend, Sonia (Déborah François), becomes pregnant. To say Bruno is unequipped for fatherhood is an understatement, and his solution to the problem of a new baby is all the more appalling because it makes perfect sense to him. I just watched it again and, even though I’ve written thousands of words on the Dardennes, I feel like I could launch into a whole new thesis about Christianity, the collapse of socialism in Europe, Robert Bresson, shaky camera work and everything else. But I was also completely caught up in the story, holding my breath even though I knew exactly what was coming.
Manohla DargisPart of what’s thrilling about their films is that while the stories seem relatively simple, the narrative stakes are always profound and, as in “L’Enfant,” a matter of literal and death. The stories inevitably involve stark moral choices and the kinds of falls from grace (or just common decency) and transporting redemption that we tend to associate with Christianity. Except that grace in the Dardennes’ world tends to come down to personal choice, which I think ties very much into one of your thesis points: the collapse of socialism in Europe. In a fallen social world, we have only one another and our choices.
ScottWhich is bleak, but not hopeless. Economic distress is part of Bruno and Sonia’s circumstance but they also have access to the benefits of social democracy and the relative benevolence of the state. The problem, though, is that non-material sources of value have deteriorated. Religion, family, class solidarity, hometown pride – none of these have the power they used to. The reckoning of this loss, and the emphasis on personal responsibility (paternal responsibility in particular) makes “L’Enfant” in some ways a conservative movie.
DargisIs it conservative or is it logical, obvious, just and right to assert – as the film does – that a father of a child must be responsible to that child, as well as to other human beings? Our obligations to other people are part of what makes us human and you don’t have to be on the right or the left (where the Dardennes clearly are) to see there are obvious perils when those obligations are delegated to the bureaucratic state. That we’re even discussing these questions, I think, speaks to the richness of their work. The Dardennes make enthralling movies that – as in the case here – are as gripping as a great thriller, but they also turn viewers into moral and political philosophers. To put it in Netflix terms, if you like “The Wire” and foreign-language movies – voila!
Directed by Claire Denis, 2010
The setting is an unnamed African country where Maria – played by a transcendent Isabelle Huppert – struggles to hold onto her family’s coffee plantation amid an escalating civil war. A fractured story about love, strength, the costs of white patrimony and the continuing ravages of postcolonialism, “White Material” finds the brilliant French director Claire Denis again in Africa, where she spent much of her childhood in Francophone countries. Here, the actor Robert Pattinson, an admirer of “White Material” and of Ms. Denis, answered a few questions by email about both put to him by Manohla Dargis.
How did you discover Claire Denis’s films?
Robert PattinsonI saw “White Material” about seven years ago and she became an immediate favorite.
What specifically draws you to her work?
Watching the performances in her movies, you can just feel the freedom she gives her actors. She creates an entire world for them to behave in. And I think having such wide parameters to capture things from means her movies can be built from an enormous amount of incremental details rather than a narrow narrative thrust. Her movies feel like waves building and breaking.
What does Isabelle Huppert bring to the character of Maria Vial?
She plays a character that seems to live steadfastly in her faith and imagination and yet still feels so human, accessible and raw.
Is Huppert our greatest living actress?
It’s difficult to think of someone who’s better.
Directed by Steven Spielberg, 2005
Dargis and Scott Strange as it may sound, there’s a strong case to be made that Steven Spielberg is among the most underrated American filmmakers of the 21st century. In the 1990s, he made the transition from popular artist to prestige auteur, bookending the decade with the imposing historical dramas “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan.” His post-“Ryan” career has been distinguished by extraordinary productivity and equally remarkable range, but it hasn’t enjoyed the same level of acclaim. And yet, with characteristic verve and discipline, he has plunged into science fiction, history, politics, animation and espionage. Surveying his prodigious and protean output, we became convinced that at least one of his dozen most recent features belonged on this list.
But which one? One of us regards “A.I.” as an immortal masterpiece. The other one said: “Over my dead body.” We share the conviction that “War Horse” didn’t get its due (though the best action sequence in “Wonder Woman” pays homage to its dark and thrilling vision of trench warfare). We have called “Bridge of Spies” “perfect” and “Lincoln” “splendid,” even as some of our colleagues ignored the first and nitpicked the second. But we needed some help making up our minds, so we went to Facebook.
And that only multiplied the ambiguity. While nobody was eager to go to bat for “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” or “The BFG,” there were fans who embraced the buoyancy of “Catch Me if You Can,” the kineticism of “The Adventures of Tintin,” the dystopian terror of “Minority Report” and the evil-E.T. action of “War of the Worlds.”
That film is part of a loose trilogy of films that evoke and respond to the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath. We settled on another in the trilogy, “Munich,” a controversial, frequently misunderstood drama about violence, righteousness and revenge. Set in the 1970s, as a group of undercover Israeli operatives ferret out the terrorists responsible for a horrific attack at the Munich Olympics, the film is a twisty and suspenseful thriller with unsettling and ambiguous ethical questions at its core. What is the line between justice and vengeance? How can human decency survive the fight against fanaticism? These questions have not hardly lost their relevance, and neither has “Munich.”
Directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2006
Revered among filmmakers and critics around the world, the Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien is far from a household name for American moviegoers. Visually gorgeous and emotionally subtle, his films range across genres and periods, exploring Chinese history and contemporary life with wit, curiosity and formal rigor. “Three Times” is divided into three sections: “A Time for Love,” set in 1966; “A Time for Freedom,” set in 1911; and “A Time for Youth,” set in the present. Each chapter concerns a man and a woman – always played by the same actors, Chang Chen and Shu Qi – whose romantic yearnings illuminate and in some ways transcend their historical circumstances.
Mr. Hou’s influence extends far and wide. Among his admirers is Barry Jenkins, whose “Moonlight” won the Academy Award for best picture this year and was partly inspired by “Three Times.” He shared his thoughts with A.O. Scott via email. Here are excerpts:
On seeing the film:
Barry JenkinsI first saw “Three Times” at the 2005 Telluride Film Festival. It was wonderful, Roger Ebert introduced the film. He loved it and thankfully gushed over it in a way that didn't hype such a delicate film.
On Hou Hsiao-hsien’s place in cinema:
I’m here at Cannes at the moment, and a phrase I keep hearing is “beyond cinema.” Hou Hsiao-hsien is beyond cinema. I mean that not in the sense that his formalism is antiquated or de rigueur, but more to accentuate the synesthetic quality of his work. His craft is as evocative as any of the more brawny stylists we revere as auteurs, but the effect it arrives at is much more delicate, elusive by nature.
How “Three Times” influenced “Moonlight”:
The structure of “Three Times” is the sole impetus for the structure of “Moonlight.” The source material the film originated from was not in triptych form. Beyond that, this idea of a delicate treatment of roiling emotions, of interiority translated through external imagery (and SOUND) rather than interior monologue, these things I kept in heart and head as “Moonlight” evolved into the film that it is.
The Gleaners and I
Directed by Agnès Varda, 2000
A.O. ScottInspired by a famous 1857 painting by Jean-François Millet, “The Gleaners and I” is a cinematic essay on the importance of valuing what we might be tempted to overlook or throw away. The gleaners on Millet’s canvas are French peasant women gathering kernels of wheat after the harvest. Their combination of need, thrift and dignity inspires a wide-ranging search for present-day counterparts. Freegans, hoarders, artists and hermits – people who, for various reasons, step out of the relentless cycle of consumption and waste that defines so much of modern life.
The director Agnès Varda – the “I” of the film’s English title – counts herself as part of this informal tribe. A genial, inquisitive on-screen presence, she collects images and anecdotes that would otherwise be too easily neglected. The result is a documentary that is difficult to characterize and impossible to forget. Though it can feel charmingly miscellaneous – a free-associative tour of its maker’s mind and sensibility – it has an unmistakable coherence and rigor, like a museum exhibit or an art installation.
Ms. Varda, the only woman permitted entry into the boys’ club of the French new wave, has migrated to the center of a trans-disciplinary, international artistic tendency – a counter-tradition of critical and creative thinkers that includes her friend and sometime collaborator Chris Marker, the novelist and art critic John Berger, Patti Smith and other artists who defy the usual categories. “They call me Granny Punk,” Ms. Varda once told me, and she embodies the defiant, anarchic, do-it-yourself ethos of punk rock, past and present.
In true punk spirit, “The Gleaners and I” doubles as a programmatic aesthetic statement and a protest against the way things are. Collecting, interpreting and juxtaposing heterogeneous objects – paintings, potatoes, seashells, books – is the approach to art-making closest to the pulse of life. There is no higher purpose than to appreciate the peculiarity and uniqueness of people, places and moments, and the things we gather around us are symbols of that appreciation. But the tide of commerce renders our experience as disposable as the junk we toss away, leaving us at once glutted with stuff and starved for meaning.
That’s certainly true of movies. There are so many of them, and they come and go so quickly that it’s easy to lose sight of how and why they matter. “The Gleaners and I” is precious because it’s a perfect example of its own argument – a small thing of nearly incalculable value.
Mad Max: Fury Road
Directed by George Miller, 2015
Dargis and ScottWe took to Facebook to find the best action movie of the 21st century and what resulted was, in part, a philosophical debate. What, exactly, counts as an action movie in this era of hyperactive digital special effects? Are superhero franchises automatically action movies? What about kid-oriented fantasy adventures? The Jason Bourne movies? The rebooted “Star Trek” or “Planet of the Apes” series?
Tough questions! And while film scholars may differ, our standards are fairly inclusive. There needs to be a lot of chasing, and a lot of stuff has to blow up. That can happen in outer space, in Gotham, at Hogwarts, on the freeways of Los Angeles or in whatever global capital poor Jason Bourne happens to be running through when his enemies catch sight of him.
But anyway, this was not a close call. The best action movie of the 21st century – the action movie that sails into contention as one of the best movies, period – is “Mad Max: Fury Road.” By a dusty outback mile.
Do you need to ask why? O.K. fine. Because George Miller is an old-school choreographer of chaos, favoring practical effects over their digital counterparts. Also because the movie drags the snarling, anti-authoritarian, punk-rock wit of the first “Mad Max” movies into a new era, updating and conserving in a single gesture. And finally because in Imperator Furiosa, Charlize Theron’s one-handed, buzz-cut, kohl-eyed avenger, the movies that famously didn’t need another hero found the one we all needed.
Directed by Barry Jenkins, 2016
A.O. ScottI have loved and championed a number of films over the past 17 years, but this one is somehow special. From the first time I saw it, I felt an unusually intense and intimate affection for it, an almost protective investment in its flourishing. And I think part of the reason is that “Moonlight” solicits that kind of affection for its main character, Chiron, as a boy, an adolescent and a man. People talk about identifying with or relating to a character, but what happens here is different. You feel close to him. Responsible for him. I have studied this film closely, and I’m still not sure exactly how Barry Jenkins made that happen.
Manohla DargisThat’s one of criticism’s essential questions, isn’t it: how do directors make characters – with their interior lives, their specificity and universality – come alive on screen? It can feel alchemical, magical, even if we intellectually understand how fiction creators invite our empathy. In this case, Mr. Jenkins brings us into Chiron’s life quickly by opening the story when he’s just a child. He’s physically tiny (never more so than when next to Mahershala Ali, who plays his protector) and his size combined with his reserve and large, haunting eyes, suggests such acute vulnerability that you want to sweep him into your arms.
Scott“Moonlight” also demonstrates that honest, alert storytelling and formal inventiveness can have political implications. Like Chiron, the movie never raises its voice or makes an overt argument.
DargisPart of the movie’s genius is how it folds its argument into its actual narrative structure. Mr. Jenkins sustains and tests our empathy as Chiron grows up. In the second chapter, he has become a bullied teenager, whose lovemaking with a male friend becomes his secret and ours. By Chapter 3, he has become a swaggering, hard-body adult who wears masculinity like armor. Mr. Jenkins plays with this stereotype brilliantly: he invokes the cliché of the black male “thug” – a stereotype it’s worth pointing out that was partly invented by American cinema – yet it also forcefully rejects Hollywood conventions. “Moonlight” is an art film, but it is also an act of resistance against a system that traffics in degrading, offensive images of black masculinity.
ScottBy asserting the complicated, entangled humanity of all its characters (including Chiron’s crack-addicted mother, the drug dealer who befriends him and the friend who betrays him), it shows how black lives matter.
Wendy and Lucy
Directed by Kelly Reichardt, 2008
In Kelly Reichardt’s “Wendy and Lucy,” a young woman named Wendy passes through a Pacific Northwest town on her way to Alaska, where she hopes to find work. She has a little bit of money, an unreliable car and her dog, Lucy. This stripped-down tale of desperation and hope in hard times – a Raymond Carver story for the Great Recession – stars Michelle Williams, who talked with A.O. Scott about the experience of making it.
How did you first come to work with Kelly Reichardt?
Michelle Williams Mutual friends. Laura Rosenthal, the casting director – we used to live in the same neighborhood and she stalked me at the local coffee shop. And then I watched “Old Joy” [also by Ms. Reichardt] and I knew that Kelly was making the movies that I wanted to be a part of.
Was there a challenge for you in getting into that character?
Kelly is very clear about what she wants. She is a really easy collaborator because she is so precise, so things happen very quickly. You understand the place and the person very quickly because she’s very specific about what she wants. She’s still open. I would shoot her ideas and she would say, “Come back in a week when you’ve honed that thing down from your garish, stupid, big idea to something that I might actually like, Michelle.”
Her characters aren’t very expressive or easy to read. That has to be a challenge for an actor.
I find Kelly’s characters get to maintain a lot of dignity and self-respect because they aren’t always giving themselves away. And I find that kind of tricky. It’s an incredibly fine line to walk. Is anybody going to know me? Is anybody going to understand who I am as this person? Are they going to care? Is there going to be a there, there?
And for Kelly’s language, for her sensibility, there is. These characters don’t feel compelled to explain themselves. You have to sort of train your ear and your eye and get to know them slowly. It’s like not sleeping with someone on the first date when you watch her movies. You’re like, let me take a little time to get to know you and absorb you.
“Wendy and Lucy” came out at the end of 2008, right in the middle of the election campaign and the economic collapse. There’s a powerful sense that while the movie is very much about this one young woman and her situation, it’s also about a lot more than that.
All of Kelly’s movies are political, but you would have to maybe have been told that to be aware of it. She’s able to slip it into everything she does, but it’s never didactic or heavy-handed. It’s an essential part of who Kelly is. She’s interested in a lot of genres, but the backbone of it is, how do people get along? How do people get by?
I’m Not There
Directed by Todd Haynes, 2007
A.O. Scott“I’m Not There,” Todd Haynes’s film about Bob Dylan, is not a biopic. It’s an extended essay in Dylanology, with six actors (among them Richard Gere, Heath Ledger and Cate Blanchett) incarnating aspects of the future Nobel laureate’s protean personality. In that spirit, we have compiled the following brief Q&A, which should clear up any mysteries about this film and its subject.
Where have you been, my blue-eyed son? Where have you been, my darling young one?
I was riding on the Mayflower, when I thought I spied some land. I yelled to Captain A-Rab, I’ll have you understand. Who came running to the deck and said, “Boys, forget the whale. We’re going over yonder! Cut the engine! Raise the sail!”
Once upon a time, you dressed so fine, you threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?
Someone’s got it in for me. They’re spreading stories in the press. Whoever it is I wish they’d cut it out quick. But when they will, I can only guess.
With your sheets like metal and your belt like lace, and your deck of cards missing the jack and the ace, and your basement clothes and your hollow face – Who among them can think he could outguess you?
I wish that for just one time, you could stand inside my shoes. And for that one moment I could be you. Yeah – I wish that for just one time, you could stand inside my shoes. You’d know what a drag it is to see you.
How many roads must a man walk down, before you call him a man?
I’m out here a thousand miles from my home. Walking a road other men have gone down. I’m seeing a world of people and things. Of paupers and peasants and princes and kings.
Now your dancing child with his Chinese suit, he spoke to me, I took his flute. No, I wasn’t very cute to him, was I?
You might like to eat caviar. You might like to eat bread. You might be sleeping on a floor. You might be sleeping in a feather bed. But you’re going to have to serve somebody.
You know something is happening here but you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mr. Jones?
There’s too much confusion. I can’t get no relief.
Oh, I’m sailing away my own true love. I’m sailing away in the morning. Is there something I can send you from across the sea, from the place that I’ll be landing?
I’ve got to get back into my hotel room. I’ve got me a date with Botticelli’s niece. She promised she’d be there with me, when I paint my masterpiece.
Directed by Carlos Reygadas, 2008
Manohla DargisIn “Silent Light,” the Mexican director Carlos Reygadas does more than tell a religious story – he invites you into a world of grace and wonder so beautiful that it turns his film into a kind of prayer. The narrative is minimal; the filmmaking lush. Set in an isolated Mennonite community in Mexico, it traces the agonies of a farming couple, Johan and Esther, who are being torn apart by his love for another woman. Little seems to happen but this is a movie about everything: what it means to love, to have faith, to live in the world.
It opens with an astonishing sequence that inaugurates a new day, a dawning that – as blackness filled with whirring and cawing gives way to light – suggests opening theater curtains. The constant presence of the natural world gives the movie a vaguely documentary feel as does the unforced sincerity of the nonprofessional performers, who primarily speak in Plautdietsch, a German dialect the Mennonites brought with them. At the same time, the dialect, the family’s modest clothes, austerity and piety give them a near-otherworldly quality.
Over the course of the movie, Johan and Esther’s marriage badly frays, yet even as it does Mr. Reygadas underscores their intimacy with each other and their children, a sense of togetherness that gradually includes us. Much of what Mr. Reygadas does – both narratively and visually – seems intended to draw you close to his characters, to look intently into the faces framed inside his lingering close-ups. Their relative isolation means that we’re often alone with Johan, Esther and their children, which further deepens our connection to them.
Looking is critical here. Mr. Reygadas doesn’t provide the usual cinematic signposts: no score to cue tears or speeches. Characters instead act and speak much as people do in life. This palpable realism is deepened by scenes of the family’s ordinary habits. In one ravishing sequence, the family bathes semi-clothed in an outdoor pool surrounded by green foliage, a paradisal interlude that’s disturbed when Esther begins crying. After Johan suggests they swim, Mr. Reygadas narrows in on a blurred image that steadily comes into focus, revealing a wild orchid.
Mr. Reygadas wants us to see this orchid and see it deeply, so that we grasp its fragile beauty and, importantly, its impermanence. This reminder of life’s transience connects to two moments that bookend the story: the first, at the start, when someone stops a ticking clock, and the second, near the end, when someone else winds it up again. With the stopped clock, Mr. Reygadas reminds us that there are other rhythms to live by, including the rising and setting sun. He is also suggesting, I think, that there’s something timeless – eternal – about the love that fills this movie and leads to its startling, last-minute resurrection.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Directed by Michel Gondry, 2004
Dargis and ScottMaybe it’s the mood of the times or just the mood of Times readers, but according to a highly unscientific, (and endlessly fascinating) survey we conducted on Facebook around Valentine’s Day, the best movie romances of the 21st century (so far) serve the bitter with the sweet, the melancholy with the moonstruck.
With a few notable exceptions – the first “Bridget Jones” movie; “Crazy, Stupid, Love” and (heaven help us) “Love Actually” – readers gravitated more to melodrama than rom-com, and favored stories of loss and longing rather than happily ever after. It’s striking how many of the great love stories of our era are really breakup stories, meditations on love’s mutability rather than its permanence. Even the most recent romantic conversation piece, “La La Land,” is about a relationship that can’t survive the pull of professional ambition and the play of chance (though in that case, the problem may also be the state of heterosexual romance). “(500) Days of Summer,” which several readers mentioned, is also about a romance that doesn’t quite work out. The same is true of “Her” and the French lesbian coming-of-age story, “Blue Is the Warmest Color.”
Disappointment is more satisfying than fulfillment. We like movies about great love affairs that never quite happen as well as those that flare up and flame out. “Once” and “Lost in Translation” made strong showings. And it might be that lustrous images of unrequited longing are better than sex.
And the winner of our survey – by critical fiat as well as popular acclaim – is a movie that combines laughter and melancholy, nostalgia and hope. It’s a movie about how you never forget your first love, unless you have a mad scientist with a fluky homemade gadget to help you out. It’s also about how desire and loss are inseparable, and about how the yearning to clean the slate and start over is just another case of eternal recurrence.
“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is a wintry pop song of a film, one you want to play on repeat with a cast in top form. In addition to the startlingly credible Jim Carrey and the irresistibly orange-haired Kate Winslet as lovers, it has Kirsten Dunst and Elijah Wood, Tom Wilkinson and Mark Ruffalo. Charlie Kaufman’s writing has the perfect equipoise of cynicism and sensitivity, and finds a perfect correlative in the director Michel Gondry’s whimsical ingenuity. The only thing better than seeing it again would be wiping it from your memory and rediscovering it for the first time.
The 40-Year-Old Virgin
Directed by Judd Apatow, 2005
Manohla DargisWhen “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” was released, I had no idea I was watching a defining movie about stunted masculinity or that its director, Judd Apatow, would soon emerge as a force in American comedy. I had expected jokes, though not scenes of violent chest-waxing and lonely tuba playing and certainly not such depth of feeling. The image of Steve Carell’s title character, Andy, painting his little collectible soldiers remains a perfect encapsulation of its themes and a desperately poignant vision of an American tragedy.
A.O. ScottAccording to a bunch of French critics (who often appreciate our movies more than we do) we are living in “a new golden age of American comedy.” Its great theme – pioneered by Mr. Apatow’s erstwhile housemate Adam Sandler and pursued by a swarm of man- and (more recently) woman-children – is the fight against maturity. Sometimes the battle is nasty and sometimes sweetly naïve, but this movie is the one that manages most successfully to have it both ways.
Dargis It does have it both ways – an Apatow signature – though it feels more like a cautionary tale against boys’ clubs than one itself. Andy’s dilemma is partly situational, and it’s poignant rather than alarming. Part of the comedy is that he fits a pathological stereotype – he could be a pervert or a serial killer. He lives next to an elderly couple and works with guys (who are juvenile, not virginal) at an electronics store, a clubby, nearly all-male space that could work as a metaphor for the movie industry. The one woman he works with is a ravenously, terrifyingly sexual older woman – a figure that says a lot about male anxiety toward women, maybe more than the film realizes.
Scott Fear of women, of female sexuality in particular, is a staple of manchild comedy, sometimes acknowledged and sometimes left as a sour subtext. The wonderful thing about “Virgin” is that it shows how the horn-dog acting out of the guys at Andy’s job (a dream team including Romany Malco, Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd) is less the mastery of that terror than an expression of it. If Andy is afraid of women, it’s partly because he’s disgusted by the ways other men talk about them.
Catherine Keener’s Trish, who ultimately turns Andy into a 40-year-old non-virgin, is the film’s designated grown-up. It would take another decade, but eventually women comedians and writers would stake their own claim to immaturity. Mr. Apatow may not be the father of modern feminist comedy, but his early movies did in some way lay the tracks for “Trainwreck,” Amy Schumer’s breakout celebration of a woman’s right to misbehave.