So, with the caveat that I might order these differently on a different day, here’s the list I submitted to the BBC and there reason each film made the list:
1. “Zodiac” (David Fincher, 2007): I have a particular tendency to be impressed by movies that manage to pull off a lot of different things at once, and “Zodiac” is a doozy for this. Fincher’s chronicle of the search for the Zodiac Killer does an equally outstanding job of making sunshine and shadow menacing. He captures the differing frustrations of cops and journalists as they try to crack the case, and handles a sprawling cast that is excellent from top to bottom (this is a minor thing, but it’s fun to see Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo spar as characters other than Tony Stark and Bruce Banner). Fincher shows us how the legends of the case accumulated over time, and what it means for Dave Toschi (Ruffalo), the actor who inspired both “Bullitt” and “Dirty Harry,” to carry the weight of that legend. The scenes of the killings give us a sense of the murderer’s self-absorption, while never losing their moral focus on the victims. The music in the movie is perfect to the period and the scenes without being obvious. And goodness does “Zodiac,” a movie about crabbed handwriting, increasingly grubby men and the lingering sadness of unsolved murder, look utterly fantastic. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that any single movie made me a critic, but “Zodiac” would be high on the list of things that made me feel like I just had to talk about them with someone.
2. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (Ang Lee, 2000): I frequently mention that I grew up without much exposure to popular culture beyond books. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was one of the first movies I saw in a theater where I instantly understood that it was different from the action movies I was starting to mainline with one of my buddies from high school. The precision-calibrated emotion in every scene, the character-oriented fight sequences and the idea that the problems of a few little people are stakes enough to keep a movie going are all deeply embedded in my DNA as a critic.
3. “Zero Dark Thirty” (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012): Bigelow’s chronicle of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, told primarily through the experience of an abrasive, abraded CIA agent named Maya (Jessica Chastain), marks a significant moment in my evolution as a critic. Watching “Zero Dark Thirty” get caught in a buzz saw about whether or not the film condoned torture made me feel like the attempts to pin the movie down to a preexisting partisan position were just profoundly missing the point. “Zero Dark Thirty” is a queasy, gorgeous movie aimed squarely at deflating any sense of accomplishment or closure anyone might have felt at the news of bin Laden’s death. It does the work that partisan politics mostly can’t. And it’s impeccably shot and acted. “Zero Dark Thirty” helped move me away from the idea that art should be politically compliant and toward the idea that art does its best political work when it expands the boundaries of the conversation.
4. “Spirited Away” (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001): Like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Spirited Away” is a movie that reaches into my chest and grabs my heart, hard. It doesn’t require explosions or the world ending for the stakes to feel absolutely monumental. As always, the strangeness of Miyazaki’s world feels comprehensive and carefully considered; the train ride sequence is a gorgeous example of how his fantastical creations serve emotional truths that may be more mundane than the scenarios in which they play out, but are no less powerful for that. “Spirited Away” is also just a fantastic film about the tipping point between childish irresponsibility and the moments when you become an independent person, accountable to yourself and others. That’s a recurring theme you’ll see elsewhere on this list.
5. “2046” (Wong Kar-wai, 2004): I’ll admit that this is a mildly contrarian pick; most of my peers chose “In the Mood for Love” instead, and I completely understand that decision. But if there is a movie that taught me the power of a perfectly composed image, it is “2046,” which zips back and forth between timelines and worlds but returns over and over again to arresting shots of women. By nature, I tend to be drawn first to dialogue that’s great on the page, or dialogue that becomes great thanks to memorable delivery. But “2046” is one of the few movies that’s ever been able to fully free me from my orientation toward words and get me to drown in images.
6. “Moonrise Kingdom” (Wes Anderson, 2012): Movies that pull off a lot of disparate tasks simultaneously? Check. Movies that feature grown-up melancholy and the inflection point between childhood and adulthood? Check. Movies that have carefully chosen color palettes and fantastically apt music choices? Come on, it’s a Wes Anderson movie. What did you think was happening? “Moonrise Kingdom” also features perhaps my favorite Bruce Willis performance of all time. A lot of Anderson’s movies could have occupied this slot in my list, but picking “Moonrise Kingdom” probably tells you the most about me.
7. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (Benh Zeitlin, 2012): This is one of three real outlier picks on this list (the other two being “Short Term 12” and “Monster,” which I’ll discuss in a moment. But I just fell completely in love with Zeitlin’s magical realist treatment of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when I saw it at the Sundance Film Festival. As you might have guessed by now, I feel a particular affection for stories that use the fantastical to get us to take everyday emotions seriously, be it the wuxia sequences in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” the mannered nature of “Moonrise Kingdom,” or the monstrous bathhouse of “Spirited Away.” Watching Quvenzhané Wallis, a first-time actress, grab the role of Hushpuppy and fill the character up with joy and utter lack of self-consciousness was a delight. I desperately want to see what both Zeitlin and Wallis do next.
8. “Boyhood” (Richard Linklater, 2014): I wish I had a little more space from “Boyhood” to decide how much I admire Linklater’s experiment — shooting the movie in secret for a few days a year as its star, Ellar Coltrane, grew up — versus how much I admire the actual result. And to be honest, maybe I need a little more space from my own much younger brother’s growing up. But I suspect that even if I’d ultimately end up moving this film down the list a bit, Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke’s performances as parents who are growing up along with their son, becoming the kind of people who might have stayed together had they met 18 years later, would still stay very high up in my estimation. This is probably the only movie on this list that earned its slot there by virtue of pure acting. But those two are just plain doing the work.
9. “Short Term 12” (Destin Daniel Cretton, 2013): There are a few actors whose potential I feel like I spotted before Hollywood glommed all the way onto their ranges, among them Dwayne Johnson, Channing Tatum and Brie Larson. And while Larson has since racked up an Academy Award for her work in “Room,” and may contend again for “The Glass Castle,” all while adding a turn as a superheroine to her résumé, I kind of think she should have won for “Short Term 12.” This film, in which she stars as a counselor at a residential facility for troubled minors, has the kind of precisely calibrated dialogue that could have gone all wrong and overly mannered with the wrong actors. But Cretton didn’t pick a wrong actor in his whole remarkable cast, and he got gorgeous work out of all of them. For all the flashier stories about living with trauma that abound right now, “Short Term 12” is one of the best movies about all the ways it’s possible to be a survivor that I’ve ever seen.
10. “Monster” (Patty Jenkins, 2003): This is probably the weirdest pick on my list. But Jenkins does something as great and morally acrobatic in “Monster” as Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg are doing with “The Americans.” She takes Aileen Wuornos (Charlize Theron), a woman who was poor, not terribly attractive, had survived terrible abuse and was working in the sex industry, and made her the romantic heroine of the movie, before stripping away her self-delusions and self-justifications and revealing her as the serial killer she was. Christina Ricci is fantastic as Aileen’s girlfriend, Selby, who acts as the audience’s surrogate, communicating both Aileen’s worth and ethical horror at what Aileen does and who she becomes. As a bonus, “Monster” is the only movie that can make Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” feel genuinely revelatory, all those “Glee”-influenced years later.