6. Once Were Warriors (Lee Tamahori, 1994)
Based on Alan Duff’s best-selling novel, this New Zealand film is an honest, unflinching portrait of the Maori community and their struggles against racism, poverty, alcoholism, and sexual violence. This story weaves in such heavy themes without short-changing them or erring into sentimentality.
It’s hard to categorize and dismiss them as ‘other’. With acclaimed performances by Rena Owen and Temuera Derek Morrison, nothing rivals this film for its scene-for-scene intensity. A perfect moment of serenity is when the boys do the Maori ‘Haka War’ dance.
7. A Single Girl (Benoit Jacquot, 1995)
Novella-like, a gem of a film told in real time (i.e. we follow the character for 90 minutes of their day). Virginie Ledoyen and Benoit Magimel are the imperfect, good looking young couple, dealing with pregnancy and fleeting love and paying the rent.
Very literary (eerily similar to Hemingway’s short story masterpiece “The Hills Like White Elephants”) and meditative in terms of the details and the gorgeous sounds, the clangs and hisses; my favorite being the coffee and croissant preparation in the hotel kitchen and the pinball game in the bar. A breakthrough role for Ledoyen who was mature beyond her years.
8. George Washington (David Gordon Green, 2000)
This film brilliantly rethinks the coming-of-age story. Shot like a post-tourist, post-parental vision by North Carolina School of the Arts-alum and frequent Green collaborator, Tim Orr.
Like Green’s other cult-favorite “All the Pretty Girls”, “George Washington” is sumptuous and hypnotic and marks the writer-director’s startling vision of everyday decision-making, and one’s searing childhood. This is the America that we forget is out there in the South (and the Midwest), full of loyalty and a sense of mystery.
9. Open Hearts (Susanna Bier, 2002)
Everyone’s favorite Danish director. Before her fame with stunning “The Night Manager” mini-series, Bier pulls off Dogme 95’s best film (Dogme #28). A young couple falls in love, then the boyfriend becomes a tetraplegic, and their doctor becomes increasingly involved in their lives.
Unforgettable performances by Mads Mikkelsen, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, and Sonja Richter. Apple-sharing, crying, and lying to your spouse and daughter, living in waiting rooms, and throwing your career away. These are the lives that none of us have to live.
10. Lilya 4-Ever (Lukas Moodysson, 2003)
Lukas Moodysson, a man of humanity and incredible varied talent, with his joyful funny summer film “Together,” directed this sometimes impossible to watch, depressing but engrossing film that depicts the consequences of human trafficking and sexual slavery, mediated through the life experiences of a teenage runaway. It puts Hollywood-lite films like “Eastern Promises” to shame.
Loosely based on the true story of Lithuanian girl Danguole Rasalaite, who was tricked by a boyfriend and sold into forced prostitution in Sweden. You watch the final scene and you understand why film can be more powerful than literature, poetry, your family and friends, propaganda, and history.