1) The Lives of Others
More often than not the most effective or tensest moments in a film are delivered through subtle details. A single nod, a close-up, or even silence can prove more crucial in building-up a story than a million gimmicks.
The Lives of Others (original title: Das Leben der Anderen) is possibly the best film I've ever watched in terms of how subtlety is at the core of a powerful story.
Written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, The Lives of Others is a drama set at the peak of East German communism. It's 1984 and no-one suspects that one of the most stifling and controlling political regimes of the twentieth century is actually a few years away from dissolving.
East Germany was home to one of the most powerful secret police forces known to man. Making sure that nothing could ever change, loyal and devoted Stasi informers were there to obediently enforce submission. Threats, arrests, carrots and sticks were dished out with varying degrees of brutality by an army of zealots competing for who could gain the prize for the most righteous servant of "the state" and make a career out of it.
Except that, when your entire concept of power is based on grassing people up, it's only a matter of time before the entire edifice crumbles.
A state like the former DDR was bound to be consumed from within. Everyone was a potential suspect. You were monitored if you dissented and you were monitored if you didn't - the idea being that you've got to have something to hide if you're toeing the party line so religiously.
These are the premises behind The Lives of Others.
Playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) is one of the few artists the regime hasn't managed to alienate or force into exile.
His loyal and inoffensive work, with the added bonus of being one of the very few DDR writers still read in the West, grants him a fairly privileged life and access to powerful friends.
His life, however, is about to be turned upside down as powerful Stasi officers start suspecting that not even he is above suspicion.
Determined to dig up dirt, they decide to put him under strict surveillance, bugging his flat and monitoring everything 24/7. The task is assigned to officer Wiesler, ruthless, dedicated and robotic as well as a firm believer in the East German state and therefore a rising star within the secret police.
Trouble is, Wiesler will soon realise that behind Dreyman's surveillance there is a gruesome abuse of power. A mighty Minister has cast his eyes on the playwright's actress girlfriend, Christa-Maria - blackmailing her into an affair.
What makes the story particularly fascinating is the way it unravels. Each of the characters maintains an aura of mystery about them until the end, almost in line with the general state of mistrust that reigned supreme in the former DDR.
And so the viewer is not quite sure whether Dreyman has indeed something to hide, nor is it obviously clear that Christa-Maria is not involved in something shady. Wiesler himself - is he truly warming up to the people he is monitoring or will he put his loyalty to "the state" before basic issues of humanity?
Also masterful is the meticulous reconstruction and depiction of East German landscapes. Minimalistic designs, modernist offices and barren interiors add up to perma-grey skies and a rarefied atmosphere to portray a sense of general sallowness and fear.
Intense, claustrophobic and suspenseful, The Lives of Others is a gripping tale of humanity before it's a drama or a thriller.
Awarded the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2006, it is definitely one of the best productions to have hailed from continental Europe over the last few decades.