10. The Departed (2006)
In a perfect world where Kevin Costner’s white savior Pocahontas doesn’t beat “Goodfellas” for Best Picture in 1991, “The Departed” would be remembered as a highly engrossing crime epic in its own right instead of that one odd film that finally got Scorsese over the Oscar hump.
Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio star as two moles on either side of the law in an intricate cat-and-mouse affair between the police and South Boston’s Irish Mafia. An English-language update on the badass Hong Kong thriller “Infernal Affairs”, this is pretty much a Scorsese’s ‘best hits’ album with no shortage of high-wire drama, double-crossing galore, and iconic needle drops. But it’s Jack Nicholson spewing profanities in a thick Bostonian accent as mob boss Frank Costello (“I’m an ahtist. You give me a fuckin’ tuber, I’ll get you somethin’ aht of it.”) that makes this the kind of movie you have to watch until the end whenever you run into it skipping channels.
9. American Psycho (2000)
If Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman is not the most memorable movie villain of the 21st century, he isn’t far off. The fact that almost 25 years later, we’re still talking about Paul Allen’s business card, the clear, crisp sound of Huey Lewis and the News, or just how tough it is to make reservations at Dorsia speaks to his staying power in the zeitgeist.
As a pop-cultural signifier of male vanity, the finance bro-by-day, deranged serial killer-by-night slashes his way through the financial district and essentially does to Wall Street yuppies what “Jaws” did to sharks back in ’75. If you think this movie is little more than a straight-faced slasher, though, then you need to give it another spin.
8. Dogville (2003)
Let’s get it out of the way: Lars von Trier is not for everyone. He’s the kind of love-him-or-hate-him director who makes films that are, ahem, something of an acquired taste. Plenty of moviegoers abide by his church, while others would rather gouge their eyes out with a rusty fork before sitting through another of his movies.
“Dogville” is not only von Trier’s best, but a solid onramp for newcomers that remains, by Dogme 95 standards, a relatively accessible movie. Not a single minute in this three-hour epic about a desperate runaway (Nicole Kidman) who is sheltered, and later abused, by the townspeople of a Depression-era Colorado settlement is put to waste. Half revolting indictment of herd mentality, half twisted reminder of the banality of evil, “Dogville” provides no quick answers, but plenty to think about.
7. Memento (2000)
Throughout the years, Christopher Nolan movies have gotten considerably bigger, longer, and louder. And though the British director could have just as easily been tapped for “The Prestige” or “The Dark Knight”, we’re gonna say it: no film in his sparkling resume has aged as gracefully as the early-aughts breakthrough that launched his career.
In “Memento”, a career-best Guy Pearce plays Leonard Shelby, a helpless amnesiac who must overcome his crippling short-term memory loss in order to solve the murder of his wife. What in lesser hands could end up being little more than an anecdotal narrative gimmick morphs into a cleverly-constructed brainteaser that keeps you on your toes all throughout and remains re-watchable well into the double digits.
6. Caché (2005)
The interplay between memory and guilt is observed at a deep, granular level in Michael Haneke’s piercing examination of bourgeoisie complacency, in which a middle-aged French couple (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche) is forced to confront their past after stumbling upon a series of suspicious surveillance VHS tapes on their front porch.
This disquieting set-up recalls David Lynch’s “Lost Highway” and serves as a jumping-off point for the Austrian provocateur par excellence to cast a defiant eye over France’s colonial past and examine how past trauma can shape and haunt individuals’ lives. Though certainly a slow burner that takes a while implanting itself on the viewer’s mind, each revelation and dark turn in “Caché” stings for long after the credits roll.
5. Zodiac (2007)
Possibly David Fincher’s greatest contribution to the genre—and this is the same guy who brought us “Se7en”, “Gone Girl” and “Mindhunter”—is this detailed account of the real-life crime investigation of San Francisco’s Zodiac killer, which seamlessly alternates between psychological thriller, journalism film, and crime procedural.
Stretching from 1969 to 1991, the story unfolds at a frenzied pace but is held together with a trifecta of tour-de-force performances in Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo, who scour for clues and plummet down the rabbit hole into a spiritual cul-de-sac of paranoia and obsession they’ll never truly be able to get out from. A masterclass in editing and screenwriting, this pitch-black study of obsession continues to live rent-free in our minds.
4. Memories of Murder (2003)
Given the way Bong Joon-ho’s career has worked out, it’s tempting to view his sophomore effort—a raw, gritty and darkly comic procedural about the nation-wide hunt for the serial killer that terrorized South Korea in the eighties—as a warm-up for the Hitchcockian class satires that awaited his future.
Though it would take 16 more years for the Oscar-winning director to be enshrined forever in cinema lore, “Memories of Murder” deserves to be seen as more than a mere footnote in his peerless career. A good title to have in your back pocket after you finish your umpteenth viewing of “Zodiac”, this gripping thriller about two ill-equipped detectives obsessed with their criminal case caps off with a gut-twisting endnote for the ages. The sense of dread that closing frame evokes is impossible to shake.
3. Oldboy (2003)
If you’re looking for a feel-good thriller, the middle installment in Park Chan-wook’s macabre and hyper-stylized vengeance trilogy is very much not it. It’s best to go in to “Oldboy” as blindly as possible, but even if you’ve somehow managed to avoid that spoiler, there’s still a good chance you’ve at least heard about the memorable one-take hallway fight scene that’s been showing at every film school nationwide for the past 20 years.
But frankly, all you need to know about the 2003 phenom that put South Korean cinema on the map is that ordinary businessman Oh Dae-su is kidnapped on his daughter’s birthday, framed for his wife’s murder, and kept captive for 15 years. His sudden release sets him off on a brutal path of retribution to find his elusive captor that is culminated by one of the most shocking rug-pulls of all time.
2. No Country for Old Men (2007)
Something of an outlier within the Coen brothers’ zany oeuvre, this gnarly Neo-Western proved all you need is a drug deal gone wrong, $2 million in cash, and a serial killer on the loose to create thrills (and an instant classic with 8 Academy Award nominations to boot).
An Oscar-winning, career-best Javier Bardem chews up the scenery as Anton Chigurh, a sociopath force of nature hired to retrieve stolen drug money who raises hell in his path of carnage through 1980s West Texas. It helps that “No Country for Old Men” features the greatest movie performance on either side of the Mississippi, but now is as good a time as any to add Cormac McCarthy’s novel to your queue.
1. Mulholland Drive (2001)
David Lynch blew through the new millennium on a creative high with one of the cornerstones of modern cinema, miraculously stewed from bits and pieces of a ditched 94-minute pilot for an ABC series that never aired.
Whether you call it a thriller, a neo-noir, an anti-Hollywood parable, a dazzling mood piece, or “a love story in the city of dreams”, as the official tagline reads, “Mulholland Drive” remains as essential today as it was in 2001. Rarely does a cinematic experience just swallow you whole, but David Lynch’s cracked-mirror vision of Los Angeles’ dream factory, which journeys into the splintering mindscape of blonde starlet Betty Elms (Naomi Watts), does precisely that. Mesmerizing, indescribable, and potentially life-altering, “Mulholland Drive” maps in a world of make-believe fantasy a reality deeper than truth.