There’s never been a better time to be a movie lover. The sheer volume of titles, and the speed and ease with which consumers can access them, is unprecedented. To help you navigate all that content, Los Angeles Times critics Kenneth Turan and Justin Chang collaborated on a list of 25 “buried treasures” from the past 20 years. Many are available to stream or purchase online.
Turan: I think France contributed more films to the list than any non-English-speaking country. I’m especially happy we included Pascale Ferran’s “Lady Chatterley” (2007), taken from the D.H. Lawrence novel and one of the most frankly sensual films in memory. At the other end of the spectrum is Laurent Cantet’s magnificent “Time Out” (2002), which details the increasingly unnerving deceptions a white-collar worker resorts to when he’s thrown out of a job and doesn’t want to tell his family.
Chang: In the case of “The Beat That My Heart Skipped” (2005), a thrilling French remake of James Toback’s “Fingers,” I am in the minority position of preferring it to Jacques Audiard’s fine, better-known later work, such as “A Prophet” and “Rust and Bone.”
Neither of us could bear to leave out Arnaud Desplechin’s sublime “A Christmas Tale” (2008), which turns a dysfunctional-family drama into a staggeringly rich holiday feast of techniques, emotions and ideas, or Agnes Jaoui’s poignant, perceptive comedy “Look at Me” (2005), which dramatizes a similar degree of family animus in a comparatively minor key. .
Turan: Examples from other national European cinemas also made an impact on us, certainly none more so than Italy’s six-hour “The Best of Youth” (2005), epic in every sense of the word. Intertwining one family’s personal narrative with nearly 40 years of tumultuous political events, this is serious adult storytelling on a grand scale. It might be the best film about the 1960s.
Just as remarkable is the British “Bloody Sunday” (2002), a wrenching based-on-fact early feature from Paul Greengrass, who went on to do several of the Jason Bourne films. It’s a gut-clutching piece of advocacy cinema that explores the awful complications of a terrifying day in 1972 when British troops in Northern Ireland opened fire on unarmed civil rights marchers.
Chang: The fiercely controlled Romanian drama “Child’s Pose” (2014) stars the great Luminita Gheorghiu as the monstrous mother to end all monstrous mothers. Cãlin Peter Netzer’s withering indictment of upper-class corruption deserves to be rediscovered and cherished.
A very different but equally laser-focused treatment of a particular society in crisis, “Barbara” (2012) is one of several collaborations between the German director Christian Petzold and his brilliant leading lady, Nina Hoss. The subtlety of this particular work, an incisive story of love and subterfuge set in the former German Democratic Republic, simply takes the breath away.
Turan: Films from Asia do not always break through, which is a shame given their superlative quality. And none more so than a feature that had an almost transformative effect on me when I first saw it, Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “After Life” (1999). Though Kore-eda went on to splendid family dramas such as “Our Little Sister” and “Like Father, Like Son,” this story of life after death, a subtle and perceptive meditation on the randomness of pleasure, of memory, of life itself, remains my favorite of his films.
Also completely unforgettable was Chinese director Lu Chuan’s “City of Life and Death” (2011), a film that took as its subject the infamous World War II atrocity known as the rape of Nanking. Both epic and intimate, this portrait of the unspeakable things that happened when Japanese soldiers were let loose among Chinese civilians stuns you with its sense of chaos.
Chang: The Japanese occupation of China also serves as the backdrop for Ang Lee’s broodingly erotic wartime thriller “Lust, Caution” (2007). The two-time Oscar-winning Lee is hardly an unknown quantity, and the film grossed $67 million worldwide. But it was largely dismissed as a pretentious, overlong snooze; I was held rapt for all two hours and 40 minutes by the masterful deliberation of Lee’s filmmaking and the superb performance of then-newcomer Tang Wei, who was punished with a Chinese media ban for her involvement in the film’s unusually explicit sex scenes.
Industry sexism being what it is, no such ban was inflicted on her on-screen lover Tony Leung, a well-established Hong Kong superstar. Leung is the smoldering centerpiece of another film on our list, “Infernal Affairs” (2004), a suave and sensationally entertaining double-mole cop thriller that American audiences may know as the picture that inspired Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed.”
Turan: We put this list together without considering any larger themes, but it is interesting to note that roughly a third of our choices were directed by women. That’s a statistic that speaks for itself in terms of the indefensible difficulty women have had getting work in the studio system.
Cherien Dabis, for instance, has worked largely in television, but the strengths of her “Amreeka” (2009), which balances a keen eye for the problems of immigrants coming to this county with a gift for warm and affectionate human comedy, make me wish she’d made more features than she has.
Jane Campion, by contrast, has done a great many features and won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for “The Piano,” but I wish more people had seen her “Bright Star” (2009). A transporting film, passionate and restrained, it re-creates the chaste love story between John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) in a way that burns like fire.
Not romantic, not one little bit, is “Ratcatcher” (2000), Lynne Ramsay’s story of an all-but-friendless 12-year-old boy. Set in one of Glasgow’s poorest neighborhoods, its unblinking depiction of a pitiless environment is balanced by a remarkable visual imagination that turns grimness into something close to sublime.
Chang: Few people are doing more to advance opportunities for women in the industry than Ava DuVernay, who has made a point of hiring only female directors for her TV series “Queen Sugar,” and who will soon have a big-budget studio picture under her belt with “A Wrinkle in Time.” With or without all that deserved clout, she would rate a place on our list for “Middle of Nowhere” (2012), a luminous and moving drama that won her a directing prize at Sundance. Emayatzy Corinealdi is terrific as a long-suffering woman slowly learning to live for herself again, and David Oyelowo (the star of DuVernay’s “Selma”) and especially Lorraine Toussaint do splendid supporting work.
Even if it weren’t such an engrossing character study, “Middle of Nowhere” would command a certain fascination for the way it illuminates lives and communities that are too rarely depicted on-screen. Another film that accomplishes this beautifully is “Fill the Void” (2013), a captivating debut feature from the gifted Orthodox Jewish filmmaker Rama Burshtein. It’s a sly comedy of manners predicated on a piercing family tragedy, as well as an unusually nuanced portrait of a cloistered religious community observed entirely from within.
The final female-directed film on our list is “Lovely & Amazing” (2002), and there isn’t a whiff of hyperbole to the title. Nicole Holofcener has written and directed a number of fine comedies over the years, but “Lovely & Amazing” remains her sharpest, most lacerating and truthful work, in which four terrific actresses — Catherine Keener, Brenda Blethyn, Emily Mortimer and Raven Goodwin — peel back layer after layer of animus and anxiety with a raw honesty.
Turan: I still chuckle at the exquisite performance John Hurt gave in Richard Kwietniowski’s sharp, sophisticated and completely delicious “Love and Death on Long Island” (1998), playing a cult novelist obsessed with Jason Priestley’s teen idol. Just writing about it makes me want to see it again.
The same is true for Jeff Nichols’ “Midnight Special” (2016). A science-fiction thriller starring Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton that is a riveting genre exercise and emotional drama, it couldn’t scare up an audience even with a major studio like Warner Bros. in its corner.
Chang: “The Deep End” (2001) is a shrewd update of Max Ophüls’ great 1949 noir melodrama “The Reckless Moment.” The plaintive moods, bewitching images and emotional satisfactions of that remake remain as etched in my memory as Tilda Swinton’s mysteriously Oscar-unnominated breakthrough performance. Between this and their similarly heart-rending 2012 drama, “What Maisie Knew,” it’s criminal — or at the very least, a genuine mystery — that the directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel haven’t been more prolific.
Perhaps British director Terence Davies’ most mysteriously overlooked work is “The Deep Blue Sea” (2012), a postwar romantic melodrama adapted from Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play. Rachel Weisz’s wrenching performance as the suicidal heroine stands at the center of a frame that, as usual, Davies has decorated with a stunning wealth of sensual, visual and musical detail.
Turan: If we have a regret about our list, it’s that we didn’t find room for more of the excellent documentaries of the period, leaving off thrilling items such as “Senna” and “Stranded.” But the two we have included are out-and-out spectacular, starting with “The Five Obstructions” (2004), codirected by Danish filmmakers Jorgen Leth and Lars von Trier. It encourages you to re-examine the very nature of cinema, the sources of creativity and the unexpected joys of the unanticipated moment.
Chang: Directed by the German filmmaker Philip Gröning, “Into Great Silence” (2007) is a rapturously beautiful immersion in the gentle everyday rhythms of a remote French monastery. It reminds us that some of the best films out there are also the quietest.