This is not a “best of” list, because that indicates one film is better than another. Each film listed has had an effect on the film industry, the world or me. They represent a singular way to communicate to the mind, the soul and the imagination.

Groundbreaking Films

These films broke some of the rules, pushed the envelope and succeeded.

“Memento” (2000). Writer/director Christopher Nolan brilliantly deconstructs traditional cinematic storytelling, toggling between chronological black-and-white vignettes and full-color, five-minute segments that unfold in reverse order, while the amnesiac-stricken protagonist frantically searches for his wife’s killer.

“The Lord of the Rings Trilogy” (2001, 2002, 2003). Writer/director Peter Jackson broke all the rules by filming all three movies at once, staying clear of Hollywood and capturing the magic of iconic books with amazing CGI special effects.

“Avatar” (2009). An experience like no other, director James Cameron pioneered new special effects techniques that transport the audience into another world.

Animated Films

We’ve come a long way since “Toy Story.”

Spirited Away (2003) *. A beautifully animated, dreamlike adventure by writer/ director Hayao Myazaki, about a young girl who discovers an alternate reality filled with fantastical inhabitants.

“WALL-E” (2008). A rare sci-fi animated film without fluffy animals. The first third of the film is without dialogue and set in the bleak garbage heap of human waste. Yet we fall in love with the little robot and find hope in our own future.

Foreign Films

Once a mainstay of American cinema fare, these films from other countries are difficult to find in theaters.

“Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006). Perhaps the most imaginative film of the decade (foreign or otherwise), director Guillermo del Toro spins an imaginative and horrifying tale of a young girl who stumbles upon a netherworld.

“Paradise Now” (2005) *. “Paradise Now,” directed by Hany Abu-Assad, traces the journey of two Palestinian childhood best friends who in adulthood become suicide bombers. The film never judges; instead, it understands the characters as people.

“4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days” (2007). This Romanian film by director Cristian Mungiu is an uncompromising, devastating look at the ramifications of an illegal abortion.

“Caché” (2007) *. “Cache” showcases director Michael Haneke’s unparalleled ability to inspire fear and paranoia in his actors and his audience. Taut, tense and electrifying.

American Independents

A few American filmmakers have emerged as auteurs, appreciated for their unique styles, yet many more have created fascinating films with an American voice.

“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004). Written by the iconoclastic Charlie Kaufman, this cult classic by Michel Gondry seamlessly blends science fiction, romantic love, surrealism and nonlinear narration.

“Almost Famous” (2000). Writer/ director’s Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical film perfectly captured the essence of the world music in the 1970s.

“No Country For Old Men” (2007). A triumph from the masterful Coen brothers, this thriller is a perfect mixture of suspense, humor and compelling performances.

“Little Miss Sunshine” (2007). Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris deliver a perfect “little” film filled with humor, pathos and a yellow Volkswagen van.


The once much-maligned documentary genre reemerged, most notably with Michael Moore’s mass appeal docs like “Fahrenheit 9/11,” and “Bowling for Columbine.”

“Man on Wire” (2008)*. An engaging film about a man’s bravura and unconventional life, as he attempts to walk a tightrope between the World Trade Center towers. Directed by Phillipe Petit.

“An Inconvenient Truth” (2006). This film sparked a national debate on climate change.

“The Fog of War”* (2003). The master of documentaries, Errol Morris, profiles Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, who was called the architect of the Vietnam War.

Susan’s Favorites These films touched my heart and mind and still resonate years later: “Spellbound,”* “Amelie,”* “Juno,” “Mystic River,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Revanche,”* “After Life,”* “Y Tu Mamá Tambien,”* Jellyfish,”* “The Fast Runner,”* “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,”* “Together,”* “United 93,” “Zodiac,” and “City of God.”*

(* Was shown as part of the East Lansing Film Festival or East Lansing Film Society series.)