14. In the Mood for Love – Wong Kar-wai
While Wong Kar-wai was no stranger to Hong Kong, his output outside of his home territory was not as widely seen, barring his experimental indie film Chungking Express (1994) and romantic drama Happy Together (1997), the cinema of Wong Kar-wai was a treasure yet to be unearthed worldwide.
His seventh film, In the Mood for Love, a major breakthrough for Hong Kong cinema being distributed internationally[ Upon its initial release in 2000.], is actually a spiritual “part two” in an ambitious trilogy released nine years after the original (1991’s Days of Being Wild) and four years before the final instalment (2004’s 2046). Although the characters may or may not be the actual same characters in each film, the actors mostly returned for each film.
In the Mood for Love takes place in early 1960s Hong Kong, where mainland Chinese values are still echoing throughout the city’s culture. Certain rules regarding male-female relationships outside of marriage consider said unions to be shameful and are obviously frowned upon. Two married couples move into adjacent apartments. Both couples’ respective spouses work late or go on business trips lengthy business trips, leaving the other partner at home to fend for themselves, usually leading to loneliness and boredom.
The man, Chow, and the woman, Su, begin bumping into each other at random times and start to form a friendship over little things like noodle shop outings and comic books. However, over time the two come to the conclusion that their spouses are having an affair with each other and decide to develop a scenario to make the cheated on couple understand how it all happened. As the romantic tension ensues, the two friends fight the urge to fall for each other and become like their cheating spouses.
Told like a 1940s melodrama, In the Mood for Love is a slow-moving, yet beautifully told film depicting a bygone era. Unlike certain Hollywood romances, Wong Kar-wai’s film refreshingly shows a whole different perspective on a universal pitfall a marriage can take, and Wong expertly flips so many notions on their head, allowing the audience to keep wondering what will happen next for this tragic couple.
The film shot Wong Kar-wai to even bigger international fame and gave him the chance to direct films outside of Hong Kong (like My Blueberry Nights in 2007). Winning various award in Hong Kong as well as Cannes (for acting and cinematography), In the Mood for Love has been deemed one of the greatest Chinese films ever made and is one of the only recent entries in the BFI’s Sight & Sound Top 50 poll for this decade (2012-2022).
15. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – Ang Lee
If In the Mood for Love wasn’t the Chinese-language film people were talking about in 2000, they were definitely talking about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Ang Lee’s beautiful tribute to the wuxia pian genre films from the 1960s (such as King Hu’s A Touch of Zen and Come Drink with Me) is an action-packed poetic masterpiece that has been come to define the 21st century wuxia movement.
Based on an older Chinese novel, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon tells the story of Li Mu Bai, a swordsman who gives up his life as a warrior to live in peace. He entrusts his powerful sword Green Destiny to a friend in another city and requests that Shu Lien, a female warrior, to transport it. The sword goes missing after it has been delivered and it is discovered that a pack of thieves is responsible.
Even more so, one of the thieves, Jen Yu, has become an expert in the Wudang style, making her a deadly enemy while holding Green Destiny. Jen’s sense of rebellion and amoral mindset make her an even more dangerous problem, causing Shu Lien and Mu Bai to team up and pursue the rebellious thief and prevent her from turning into an evil villain.
After the action-film success of The Matrix in 1999 spawned a renewed interest in martial arts style cinema, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was made at just the right time. Being a joint effort on the part of China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the U.S., the film’s modest budget produced excellent results, mesmerizing audiences worldwide with stunning swordfights choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping (of Matrix and Hong Kong cinema fame), a cast of renowned Asian actors like Chow Yun-fat, Michelle Yeoh and Cheng Pei-pei (a frequent heroine of King Hu’s wuxia films), and an epic storyline gave this film its status as a modern classic.
Scenes of zen-like tranquility suddenly explode with supernatural violence in the form of swordfights, hand-to-hand combat and conflicts that defy physics and reality. Along with the simplistic yet well-told story, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon did not disappoint the box offices worldwide and gave the film a legacy of its own.
Winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film (as well as three more Oscars) and various other awards, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was a high-grossing film in North America. Along with Quentin Tarantino’s desire to distribute more Asian action classics, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was a forerunner in the demand, and eventual release of other Chinese-language epics that have also been well-received like Hero (2002) and The Curse of the Golden Flower (2006).
16. Yi Yi: A One and a Two – Edward Yang
Chronicling a beautiful story of marriage, youth, love, life, loss, and death, Edward Yang’s Yi Yi is a lengthy tome that deserves its spot in cinema history. Not one scene is wasted in this near-three hour story of a Taiwanese family and their everyday lives and struggles sprinkled in with the comedy that is life itself. Many areas are explored, whether it be a married couple, a comatose matriarch, big business deals, lost love, newfound love, school bullying, the film tells it all so well with masterful cinematography and acting.
Winning the Best Director prize at Cannes, this film has since gone on to become one of the masterpieces of Asian cinema. Comparable to Yasujiro Ozu’s 1950s masterpiece Tokyo Story, Yi Yi captures everyday life in ways most films imagine they could, but cannot master it the same way Yang does. The wide shots are beautiful, the colors stand out, and the story chronicling three generations of one family living life together is an oft-used but difficult-to- master-approach.
Featuring poetic moments like a child who wishes to photograph things that cannot be seen, a mirror image of a relationship between man and woman at the same time 30 years apart, life and death in a family setting, the film sets up beautiful tableaux of emotion and character. It is a light-hearted but impactful effort that has not been topped.
With comparisons made to some of East Asia’s top filmmakers like Tsai Ming-liang and Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang’s masterful drama is an innovative and beautiful tale.
17. The Circle – Jafar Panahi
Iranian cinema has had its fair share of essential and experimental directors, Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf are two perfect examples, yet a third upstart director usually accompanies these names: Jafar Panahi. Daring to go where most Iranian filmmakers dare not tread, Panahi has made a career out of going against the grain, exposing tyranny at his own risk. The year 2000 saw him release The Circle, exploring one of the director’s favorite motifs, the hardships of women in an Islamist government.
Taking place in Iran, the film follows different women over the course of one day. Each segment differentiates in cinematic style while varying on the treatment of women in Iranian culture. The first segment contains a brilliantly long handheld shot where a young woman gives birth to a little girl when she expected a son. The second segment focuses on three young female prison escapees who are trying to get to a smaller town and evade the authorities before being thrown in jail again.
Captured in dolly shots, the camera still moves, but this time in a flowing manner. The third segment, taking place at night consists of static shots and close-ups but still contain pans and tilts while the fourth story is filmed with a completely static camera. The basic motif of circles is seen a few times, mainly in the circular opening shot but also in the film’s conclusion where these women’s stories arrive full circle by the end of the film.
Criticized in his own country but lauded internationally, this film is a technical wonder, featuring great performances from young non-actors (with a couple of exceptions), amazing camera work, and a highly critical story that Panahi pushed to release. A political prisoner in his home country, Panahi still makes films, but cannot travel outside of Iran to present them and even went so far as hiding one of his films inside of a cake (2011’s This Is Not a Film) to have it screened in Europe.
A great introduction to the cinema of Jafar Panahi, The Circle is an important piece of world cinema and an excellent insight into the director’s controversial career.
18. Before Night Falls – Julian Schnabel
A look into the life of an artist, Julian Schnabel’s second film gave him a larger recognition as a filmmaker in this lengthy biographical film about Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas. After gaining some recognition for the modestly-received (and extremely well-cast) Basquiat in 1996, the artist/filmmaker began work on his second film, which would take years to finally produce. The result is a masterful work containing an in-depth look into the life of a revolutionary and his love for his country despite its persecution of him.
Reinaldo Arenas was a Cuban poet who sided with Fidel Castro during the Revolution in 1959. A child prodigy in poetry writing, Arenas was also a homosexual, and his persecution as such also led to a disillusionment with the Revolutionary Cuban government.
The film chronicles Arenas’ life from childhood to middle age as he grows into sexual maturity, narrating facts about the sexual revolution that Cuba underwent at the same time as Castro liberated Cuba from capitalist reign. Condemned for his sexuality and his eventual anti-rebel writings, Arenas is thrown in and out of jails, escaping only to find more trouble awaiting him the more he tries.
The film is a tedious experience in the sense that it is a depiction of the cruelty one could suffer in a supposed time of revolution despite having revolutionary leanings. These themes of suffering followed Schnabel’s body of work seven years later with his immensely popular The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
Javier Bardem’s performance as Arenas gave him a celebrity star in America, further building up his reputation as one of the finest actors of the 21st century, earning him roles in The Sea Inside (2004), No Country for Old Men (2007), and Biutiful (2010). Peppered throughout the story are some familiar faces such as Sean Penn and Johnny Depp as bit characters, their appearances in the film are however non-exploitative and go heavily against type, creating an interesting perspective.
A breakthrough film for many involved, covering a subject matter not really seen in popular cinema at the time, Before Night Falls is a catalyst of sorts.
19. Chopper – Andrew Dominik
Another biographical film, this time based on a hardened criminal, and highly fictionalized. Chopper is the story of Mark “Chopper” Read, an Australian criminal and repeat offender who laid claim to killing over 20 people over his life. The film is an in-depth look at Chopper’s prison life and a brief stint between sentences in the late 80s. The film sees Chopper undergo disloyalty with his friends inside as well as sever any ties he has made on the outside just by his being a complete psychopath.
Eric Bana does a great job in his portrayal of Read. Supposedly hand-picked by Read himself to play the title role, Bana gained weight and captured the real life Chopper’s mannerisms perfectly. Much like Tom Hardy’s portrayal of Michael Gordon Peterson in Bronson (2008), Bana’s dedication to the character stands out. He is a violent maniac, but every time he shoots or hits someone, he is automatically remorseful like a child who doesn’t want to get in trouble.
A man who knows he is evil, but counterbalanced with an ego that demands validation and respect, Chopper is an interesting character study from a hardened criminal that deviates from the Scorsese-type gangsters of Goodfellas and Casino. Coming amidst a series of overseas crime stories in the year 2000 (with Sexy Beast, Snatch, and Gangster No. 1 from Britain to name a few), Chopper goes for the jugular with this frenetic film.
Being director Andrew Dominik’s cinematic debut, Chopper is full of stylish quotes from 90s crime film giants like Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie. Mixed with theatrical moments, the action is brutal and schizophrenic, not pulling any punches and framing his shots in grainy saturation.
Although Andrew Dominik has not done much more since Chopper, his output has been generally impressive, choosing projects mainly focused on outlaws and rebels, his films are excellent works of an auteur with a unique voice and Chopper was his introduction into the fray.
20. Maelström – Denis Villeneuve
The final film on the list is among the more weird titles of the year. Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s second effort, it is also his breakthrough film. Although relatively well-known in his native Québec, Villeneuve’s gritty approach and stylistic methods set him aside as a unique filmmaker.
Despite not making another feature film for another nine years after this one (Polytechnique), Villeneuve has gone on to produce Oscar-nominated films like Incendies (2010) and Prisoners (2013). It all would have been for nought if it weren’t for Maelström.
Narrated by a dying fish being slowly slaughtered, this dark film follows Bibiane Champagne, a prestigious boutique store head, suffering from intense depression after undergoing an abortion at the beginning of the film. Along the way, her celebrity father’s legacy haunts her as well, causing Bibiane to resort to drugs and alcohol to numb her pain.
While driving home one night, Bibiane accidentally hits a middle-aged man with her car. Not knowing if he is dead or alive sends her into a downward spiral of self-destruction as she begins piecing together the outcome of the accident. She tries covering herself while keeping her guilty conscience at the forefront of her life, looking for a way out.
This film is a fine representation of the direction Quebecois cinema would eventually go in the 21st century. Being a primarily French-speaking industry, the films are distinct from typical Canadian cinema, and illustrate the province’s own history and politics to a revolutionary degree. Dark stories with tremendous actors not really known outside of Canada, Maelström also borrows from some of cinema’s greats.
The psychological examinations and filming style is reminiscent of Bergman’s existential output while the dead fish motif that is ever-present in the film is inherently Lynchian, depicting the decay underneath the normal. Eloquent and stylish, Maelström is a prestigious film that represents a relatively underseen film industry throughout the world, and places Denis Villeneuve alongside other Quebecois heavy-hitters like Claude Jutra, Denys Arcand, and Jean-Marc Vallée.
Author Bio: Josh Schasny is a film studies graduate and screenwriter based out of Montreal, Quebec. A born film buff he loves to get together with people to talk film. He also writes lists, articles, scripts, helps people shoot films, and one day will eventually die.