Monday, April 12, 2010

Best of the Decade: Volume Four

Here we are, back again, a little later than anticipated; my fault, sorry, I really do suck at this whole prompt delivery of content thing. So as to quickly alleviate the terrific suspense you all must surely be feeling, we'll jump straight into it. Here we are, the ten best films of the new millennium:

10. City of God (2003)
-directed by Fernando Meirelles
City of God is all about energy. From the opening shots of children chasing a chicken through crowded city streets, to the final shot, the same children walking down an alley, City of God traps the viewer in a whirlwind of color and motion. This is easily one of the most vibrant films of the decade, whose visual style and look would go on to be mimicked by other movies (see Slumdog Millionaire, for one). No other director, however, can quite find the lightning rod on which Fernando Meirelles has so memorably placed his hand. The film never stays still: the camera paces, circles, zooms, and dances through city streets, effortlessly highlighting the beautiful cinematography of Cesar Charlone. The camera-work works to serve one hell of a story: a tale with the sweep of The Godfather, the gritty crime realities of GoodFellas, and the desperate search for redemption of Pulp Fiction. The story, taken from the autobiography of Paulo Lins, is chock-full of shocking moments of brutal violence, made all the more horrifying for their basis in fact. An enormous ensemble of characters work their way through the film, all rising and falling to whatever heights their destiny requires, yet the film never feels overstuffed, thick, or confusing. Indeed, if anything, City of God is light on its feet. It moves fast, and it doesn't linger, but City of God will knock you off your feet.

9. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
-directed by Peter Jackson
I suppose that, by putting just one of the Lord of the Rings movies on here, I'm allowing it to stand for the whole trilogy. As a trilogy, The Lord of the Rings is unarguably one of the most staggering cinematic achievements of all time. The logistics of the gargantuan 15-month shoot are mind-boggling. The sets designed, the costumes created, the technology invented, all in service of the singular vision of Peter Jackson, who is one of the last living directors whose films can earn the 'epic' moniker and deserve it. I choose the first film because, simply, it's the best. Contrary to the opinion of most, I think the trilogy starts at its best and gets progressively worst. The Two Towers is very, very solid, with only a few minor quibbles, but The Return of the King contains some baffling directorial decisions, some groan-inducing moments, but also, admittedly, the most stirring, huge, and powerful moments of the whole trilogy. So why do I pick the first film? For starters, it has yet to reach the towering heights that the story will reach: where Return of the King is all loud music, giant close-ups, and huge action sequences, Fellowship of the Ring has time for poetry. Easily the best-looking of the three films, the first is a lyrical poem of a road movie, allowing time for interludes of beauty and majesty. The other films have no time for dalliance, but Fellowship takes the time to admire the world in which it takes place. It's also the most well-made: Jackson's sense of pacing would never quite be as controlled, nor the story so focused, nor the actors so appealing. The Lord of the Rings is, arguably, The most impressive cinematic achievement of our time, and The Fellowship of the Ring is the best movie within the trilogy. That alone earns it a place on this list.

8. Billy Elliot (2000)
-directed by Steven Daldry
Aaaaand now for a complete change of pace. Where Lord of the Rings is unbelievably large, Billy Elliot is small, quiet, and inobstrusive. Billy Elliot, the story of a twelve year old boy from a conservative North-English coal-mining family who discovers his talent for dance, is Steven Daldry's directorial debut; Daldry would go on to make The Hours and The Reader. Fun trivia fact: Daldry is almost certainly the only director, or movie artisan of any field, to be Oscar-nominated for every film he's ever done. That's right, shoppers: Daldry is three-for-three in the nominations field. Billy Elliot is easily his best film: Daldry negotiates difficult material (striking workers, repressed feelings, forgotten dreams, perceptions of homosexuality, etc.) to make a beautifully stirring, immensely powerful film. I really can't choose which scene moves me the most: Billy dancing in defiance of his father, the letter from his mother, Billy's father breaking the strike to raise money, selling his mother's jewelry, or perhaps, the scene in which Billy says goodbye to his brother from the bus: neither can hear what the other is saying, and it's just heartbreaking. Suffice to say I'm an emotional wreck for most of this movie. All of this could have felt like a made-for-TV Movie of the Week, but Steven Daldry imbues it with a sense of quiet verisimilitude. He also succeeds in shepherding some of the best performances of the decade: Julie Walters, as Billy's burnt-out coach, Gary Lewis, as his skeptical but loving father, and, of course, Jamie Bell as Billy, who, at fourteen, showed more talent than most of us can even dream of. Man, I'm such a wuss. This movie makes me all weepy. I gotta stop writing about it before I lose more man-points.

7. Kill Bill (2004)
-directed by Quentin Tarantino
Let me start out by saying that Kill Bill is not two movies. It was written as one movie, filmed as one movie, and treated as one movie: the studio just decided, and not without good reason, that they weren't going to release a four-and-a-half hour long bloody kung fu revenge epic, so they split it up for commercial purposes. Still; one movie. Singular. That's not my opinion, that's fact. That aside, I firmly believe that Kill Bill is one of the great modern masterpieces that has been completely misunderstood in its time. Tarantino delivers, as usual, a sharply observed, darkly comic, emotionally resonant film full of blood and gore; a film with a furiously pumping heart. In Kill Bill, we witness what must be the best performances seen in a Tarantino film, as delivered by Uma Thurman and David Carradine. Bill and The Bride are two of the most fascinating characters in recent memory, and the performance that create them are beautifully realized. The fact that neither of these fine actors received Oscar nominations for their work, much less the wins they deserved, is a sin. Seriously: every time the Academy gave Million Dollar Baby an Oscar over Kill Bill, God killed a panda. Awards, I suppose, are irrelevant, but it would have been nice to see the real cinematic achievement of the year be awarded. (...Million Dollar Baby? Best Picture? Really? Man, I hate this game.) Kill Bill is masterful in all its aspects: the script switches effortlessly between moments of bizarre comedy and honest drama: Bill's monologue about Clark Kent and Superman is a highlight, as is the pitch-perfect ending, which cannot be improved upon in any way. The film looks wonderful, both in its design aspects and its cinematography, and is edited skillfully. On the surface, Kill Bill is just violent, and, admittedly, it is. But it's more than that: it's an explanation of violence. It's a meditation on cruel, violent people, and why they act the way they do. It dramatizes how no one truly believes they're a bad person, no matter what they do. It gives no one character the moral high ground, and paints no one as being 100% evil (...with, maybe, the exception of Daryl Hannah's character. Elle Driver is just plain nasty.) Kill Bill is an incredibly entertaining film, but also an important one: it shows us what happens in a world without moral accountability.

6. Brokeback Mountain (2005)
-directed by Ang Lee
God, what a beautiful movie. It pains me to put this at #6, but I can't, in good conscience, demote any of the movies above it, so here we are. Brokeback Mountain has been dismissed as 'that gay cowboy movie.' Admittedly, it's a movie about gay cowboys, but to compartmentalize it is to deny its universal power. As Roger Ebert said in his review, 'the more it understands its individual characters, the more it applies to anyone. I can imagine someone weeping at this film, identifying with it, because he always wanted to stay in the Marines, or be an artist, or a cabinet-maker.' Brokeback Mountain is about all of the things we deny ourselves because our world, our surroundings, say we can't have them. It's about the happiness we sacrifice for the appearance of normality. It's about the regrets we keep in our head for years, which we may never speak about, but will always feel. It's also, simply, a love story. Two young men meet and share one innocent summer together. Only later, when they find themselves trying to make their emotions gel with the real world, does it become a conflict of interest. It's also a study on the effects of repression on the people around the repressed: the beautiful character study of Ennis's wife Alma comes immediately to mind. It helps that the movie is staggering to look at: Rodrigo Prieto's cinematography is stunning. I feel like I can pause this film at any moment, print the frame on which I paused, and hang it as a piece of art. And...that scene. That damn scene. To avoid spoilers, I'll simply say that it involves a room, a shirt, and no words. You'll know it if you've seen the movie. That scene is possibly the only scene in all of cinema (that I know of) that can choke me up every time I watch it. This movie hurts, but in a worthwhile, bittersweet way.

5. Lost in Translation (2003)
-directed by Sophia Coppola
Speaking of bittersweet...Lost in Translation is one of the most spectacular movies I've ever seen, in that it accomplishes so much by doing so little. The characters don't say much; they don't do much. Most of the film consists of its two stars sitting in their hotel, or walking around the streets of Tokyo. The only time in the entire film in which a character chooses to say something dramatic and big and obvious, we don't get to hear it. This movie is an elegiac love-letter to all the things we can never have. Bill Murray turns in his best performance, as well as one of the seminal performances of the decade. He's so..understated, but somehow incredibly affecting. The whole movie, in fact, is incredibly understated. As I previously said in my entry on The Virgin Suicides, Sophia Coppola is a director less interested in words and actions than she is in moods and feelings. She attempts to convey, without words, loneliness, quiet desperation, contentment, and that most elusive of emotions: happiness. Coppola understands what it feels like to be completely in a moment: to look at something: a blossoming cherry tree, petals falling to the ancient stone walkways of a shrine's pavilion, and be completely, utterly happy with the world, if only for a moment. Not the giddy, showy happy: the kind of happy that settles under your stomach like a fire. Coppola understands how one moment can encapsulate everything you've ever needed to feel. Lost in Translation is absolutely full of this moments. Unlike most films, Lost in Translation understands what it is to be human.
(Fun game for people who've seen the movie: What do you think Bob says to Charlotte at the end? My favorite theory, which I think perfectly fits the movie, is this: "As soon as you can, call your husband and tell him you love him.")

4. Black Hawk Down (2001)
-directed by Ridley Scott
If any scene can rival the Brokeback Mountain scene in terms of its ability to move me to something nearing tears, the end of Black Hawk Down would be that scene. This movie is incredibly emotionally draining: We are allowed brief moments of peace at the beginning, but once the action starts, Black Hawk Down is two hours of demonstration of the costs of war. For most of the film, we, like the characters, don't get a moment that isn't drenched in blood, sweat, and the constant promise of realized mortality. There are moments of courage, of heroism so moving it's difficult to believe that it actually happened: there are also moments of anger, doubt, grief, and failure. One of the most powerful moments in the film comes at least two thirds in: a man is dying on a table, and a young medic labors to save his life. A fellow soldier assists in the improvised operation. Something goes wrong: the wounded soldier is screaming, and the medic looks up at his comrade for a moment, almost imperceptibly shaking his head. Every time I see this, I'm struck by how young they all are, how men my age are being thrown into situations that would scare the toughest and most world-weary adults. I, like the medic, see all the lost potential, the terse reality that a bullet creates when it enters a human being. At the end of the film, we encounter the same realities: there are moments of courage, of heroism, of success, but at the end of the day, there are seventeen boxes filled with wasted bodies, and countless more on the street. We all like to think that we'd be willing to die for the people we love: Black Hawk Down shows, accurately and graphically, exactly what that looks like. It shows the price that we ask young men to pay for abstract notions of patriotism and freedom. Not every cause is worthwhile, but every cause has a cost. Black Hawk Down doesn't judge what cause it worth dying for and what isn't: it simply shows who dies, and who doesn't.

3. Children of Men (2006)
-directed by Alfonso Cuaron
Here, possibly, is one of the greatest technical achievements of our time. Before I can talk about anything else, I have to talk about Children of Men's camera-work. Consider a battle-scene, near the end: a shot begins by following the main character; it follows him through an attempted murder, a desperate escape through a bus of wounded refugees, and into the middle of a firefight through a crowded building. The take lasts for at least five minutes, and every single element shown on screen is real, planned and orchestrated in perfect time. It's absolutely jaw-dropping. So is the design of the movie: never has an apocalyptic future looked so effortlessly real, so thoroughly lived-in. I could watch this movie every day and still find some new aspect of design in the background worth seeing. This movie is more detailed than a Da Vinci fresco. Superficially, the film is an action-thriller: We get characters, the characters have to run, they are chased, and eventually the plot is resolved. What makes this film special, however, is the documentary aesthetic that Children of Men achieves. I've never seen a movie that looks and feels so completely, thoroughly realistic. Children of Men doesn't stop for cliches, or Hollywood ideas of action: if someone dies, they die quickly, regardless of how important a character they might be. There are no great dramatic death scenes, filled with inspiring monologues. Someone is shot in the neck and bleeds out like a pig in a slaughterhouse. Another person is done in by a brick. Another is captured, never to be seen again. And the film, like life, just keeps moving. The world doesn't stop and take respectful notice of events. Aside from its technical achievements, which are incredibly impressive, the film is rife with great dramatic moments: take, for instance, Theo overhearing his friend explain Theo's past to someone else. Notice how the camera never leaves his face. A lesser film-maker wouldn't have had the courage to let the actor make the scene: Alfonso Cuaron, arguably the greatest working director, lets Clive Owen say all that needs to be said in his face. Other great moments include Miriam talking in the abandoned elementary school, or Jasper's final actions. This whole film is one damn string of great moments. Children of Men will be respected and studied for generations, long after crap like Twilight has melted away.

2. Almost Famous (2000)
-directed by Cameron Crowe
Finally, some levity. While the last eight films have been depressing in some way or another, Almost Famous makes me almost incalculably happy. It's like free-basing 150 CCs of joy directly into your veins. This whole movie leaves me with a big, dumb grin on my face. Much of this can be attributed to the script, which is easily one of my favorite scripts ever. It's witty, light on its feet, insightful, and wonderfully balanced. One can also blame the actors: this ensemble delivers a veritable deluge of wonderful performances: the standout is Kate Hudson as Penny Lane, the band-aid, but Patrick Fugit, Frances MacDormand, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Billy Crudup, Jason Lee, Fairuza Balk, Anna Paquin, Jay Baruchel, Zooey Deschanel, and more besides give some of the best performances of their careers. Seriously, has there been another film recently with such a bounty of great performances? Perhaps what endears this movie to me the most is how heartfelt it is: it truly loves its subject. As a fellow music-lover, I can't help but like anyone or anything that loves music so openly and innocently. Almost Famous is full of tiny moments that make the movie, set to one hell of a soundtrack: Penny Lane dancing alone in an abandoned venue to "The Wind," by Cat Stevens, Zooey Deschanel leaving home to Simon and Garfunkel's "America," the whole tour-bus singing "Tiny Dancer" as a way of showing forgiveness. This movie is funny, heartfelt, and moving. It's harder to write about happy films, as there are fewer heavy-weight words and phrases with which I can express my admiration, but trust me: Almost Famous is as deserving of all the big words it can get as any film on this list.

Now, #1. Drum-roll, please!

1. Y Tu Mama, Tambien (2002)
-directed by Alfonso Cuaron
This might be a controversial choice. Of all the movies this decade, I pick the low-budget sex-comedy-turned-road-movie? Damn straight I did. Y Tu Mama, Tambien is one of the most beautiful, intelligent, resonant movies ever made, and deserves to be treated as such. The movie is incredibly layered. On the surface, it's, like I said, a sex-comedy-turned-road-movie. Below that, it's a bittersweet coming of age tale. Below that, it's a treatise on the current state of Mexico. Below that, it's an examination of the human capacity for callousness as well as selflessness. Below that, it's about life and death. About the way people choose to live, and the way people choose to die. Y Tu Mama, Tambien works on every one of these levels, as well as others that I have yet to mention. Admittedly, this film is tough to appreciate the first time around: I don't want to spoil anything, but the film's plot unfolds in such a way that you need to see it more than once to fully appreciate the film's nuances. Things that seem irrelevant or out-of-place the first time become tragic and eloquent when you know the whole story. That's not to say, of course, that the film isn't good the first time. Far from it. Y Tu Mama, Tambien does what all the best books and movies do: they read as if you wrote them, if you had words beautiful enough to do it. As if they know how to express the primal feelings you don't have words for. They take the intangible, and turn it into something extraordinary. Y Tu Mama, Tambien is a singular, incredibly powerful cinematic experience. It can speak to anyone about anything: it understands the human condition, loves it, embraces it, and shapes itself into a beautiful mirror of it. Look into it, and you'll see more than yourself: you'll see yourself as you wish you could be, you'll see yourself as the kind of person you envision before you fall asleep at night. This movie puts a name to the things we all feel, but can never quite express.

Well, there we have it. Where did I go wrong? Where did I go right? How would you rank these movies? Don't be shy! I want to argue.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Best of the Decade: Volume 3

Let's pretend that I posted something yesterday, and I'm off to a great start in my firestorm of content. Can we do that? I think we can do that.

20. Mystic River (2003)
-directed by Clint Eastwood
If nothing else, see Mystic River for its acting. Featuring an ensemble comprised of Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Marcia Gay Harden, Laura Linney, Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburn, Emmy Rossum, and supremely underrated young actor Tom Guiry, Mystic River could very well be the most well-acted film of the decade. Bring some tissues, though, as this movie is anything but cheery. The plot centers around three adults who were friends in their youth (played by Penn, Bacon, and Robbins): one day, one of the children is kidnapped and held for nefarious purposes (screw discretion: molestation). The film explores how that one event creates a maelstrom of chaos that tears through otherwise happy lives. The spark that ignites the forest fire comes when Penn's daughter is murdered on the same night that Robbins (the child-abuse victim) comes home with blood on his hands. I won't explain any further, so as to avoid spoilers, but, to quote my Twitter feed, "this shit's intense." Sean Penn and Tim Robbins receive most of the acting accolades, and rightly so, but one of the stand-outs for me was young Tom Guiry, who plays the murder victim's boyfriend, who becomes the first suspect. The scene in which he finds out about his girlfriend's death, and confesses that he was going to marry her, is utterly heartbreaking. Hell, this whole movie is. Doesn't mean it's not a great movie, though.

19. WALL-E (2008)
-directed by Andrew Stanton
Sometimes, the simplest concepts are the most difficult to execute, the easiest to screw up, and the least attempted kind of film. Sometimes, though, the simplest concept is the best movie. WALL-E has a premise any child could, and does understand it: boy meets girl, boy likes girl, boy and girl save the day. Who cares if the boy is a trash compactor and the girl is a glorified iPod? These are the movies, dammit. WALL-E has to be one of the bravest films in recent memory, in that it refrains from dialogue for almost half of the film. This, especially coming from a purported 'children's movie,' is astounding. Too often, movies attempt to cover up lack of content with quick editing, or an overload of content, or a frenetic pace. WALL-E is quiet, controlled, and methodical; it has enough faith in its material to sell itself. The film has plenty of time for small moments of sublime beauty: WALL-E and EVE watching the sun set over burning oil tankers, WALL-E trailing his hand through a planet's ice-ring, and, of course, the 'define dancing' scene, in which the two heroes simply move through space to music. It all sounds so very elementary, but it creates moments of pure magic. That the rest of the film is spectacular doesn't hurt, either: WALL-E looks better than any animated movie I've ever seen, no doubt partly because of cinematographer Roger Deakins' (aka God's) help with the film's look. The design, as well, is utterly engrossing. Every frame of WALL-E has something inventive, creative, beautiful, and worth seeing. And you know what? The film works wonderfully on an emotional level. The plight of WALL-E and EVE moved me far more than any of their more serious, live-action counterparts of 2008. Jamal and Latika can suck it. Benjamin and Daisy can go cry to their mothers. I don't even want to get started on Frost and Nixon. My heart belonged to a little trash compactor and his iPod.

18. Before Sunset (2004)
-directed by Richard Linklater
This recommendation comes with one corollary: to fully appreciate Before Sunset, you must first see its 90s predecessor, Before Sunrise. With its companion piece, Before Sunset reveals itself to be one of the most intelligent, bittersweet treatises on young love, failed expectations, and the slow acceptance of reality ever made. In the first film, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), spend one night together in Vienna. They're young, they're in love, and they think that doing such pedestrian things as exchanging numbers or contact information will dim the passion of their experience. Instead, they agree to meet again in Vienna in exactly six months time. In Before Sunset, Jesse and Celine meet at a book store in Paris, ten years later. The entire film consists of them walking around in real time, having a conversation. But my God, it's a conversation worth hearing. They start simply: catching up on each other's lives, finding out what kind of person they've each become, but all too soon, the bare threads of their lives begin to show, and they confess that the lives they've led aren't the lives they wanted to lead. Restrained, slightly sad, and more than a little autobiographical, Before Sunset perfectly captures the way that reality slowly takes the place of dreams, until the dreams are forgotten and the reality is set in stone. It's almost impossible to describe this film and do it justice: Watch Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. Together, they're hardly longer than the second Transformers movie, and they are much, much more worth your time.

17. The Departed (2006)
-directed by Martin Scorsese
The Departed is all kinetic energy. Despite its run-time of over two hours, The Departed chases, jumps, turns, dashes, and fights through to the end, attacking the viewer like a whirlwind. Scorsese is one of the most gifted working directors, and, for The Departed, he leaves everything he has at the altar of cinema. This film's complicated web of plot threads, involving lies, deceptions, and hidden identities, is easily navigated, thanks to a literate, concise script, a sure directorial and editing hand, and virtuoso performances from Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon. The movie is jam-packed with memorable sequences: the chase to the roof-top, fueled by mistaken identities and ended in a moment of sudden violence, the shoot-out in the warehouse, and, of course, the blood-soaked finale, which will simply blow your mind (for readers who've seen the movie, I really do apologize for such an aggressive pun).

16. The Hurt Locker (2009)
-directed by Kathryn Bigelow
How does she get away with it? Kathryn Bigelow has created a movie that just seems to ooze contradictions, but somehow, improbably, it all works. The film is so quiet in its issues that some have labeled it completely apolitical, yet it's almost impossible to walk out of this film without understanding what it was trying to convey. It's a film of staggering dramatic impact, but seems to be based entirely on action sequences. The movie has little to no plot: it's a string of vignettes that happen to the same characters, yet it feels like it's telling one hell of a story. How does it all work? Maybe it's the talent involved: Kathryn Bigelow is nothing short of a genius, and brings an uncompromising artistic sensibility to the movie. It could be the acting: Jeremy Renner delivers one of the best performances of 2009, as do Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty in supporting roles. Perhaps it's the cinematography of Barry Ackroyd, which is beautiful while appearing pedestrian (yet another contradiction), and the editing of Bob Murawski and Chris Innis, which is laser-focused and intense. I don't know. It's probably all of these things. The Hurt Locker gathers a bevy of disparaging elements and fuses them into something elementally profound, pulse-pounding, and moving.

15. Hotel Rwanda (2004)
-directed by Terry George
Dramatizing a genocide isn't easy. There's something about the murder of millions that just seems...hard to bring to the screen convincingly. Maybe it's the fact that crimes occurring on a scale so large are almost impossible to fathom; that any attempts at drama will be met with skepticism. Hotel Rwanda manages the subject with dignity and grace. I think much of its success comes from the decision to compartmentalize and reduce the scale of the events portrayed: director Terry George uses the events happening at the Milles Collines hotel to represent the event as a whole. Amazingly, it works. We almost never leave the confines of the hotel, yet are given a clear, resonant picture of the chaos that happens outside its walls. Indeed, setting the film at the Milles Collines has an ancillary benefit: as the story is ultimately one of hope, its body count is relatively low. To create a more graphic representation of the Rwandan genocide would have been too much for most viewers. Luckily for us, the story is one of hope and redemption. If every death is a tragedy, than every life saved is a miracle. Hotel Rwanda is in the business of miracles, and, after watching the film, it's hard not to feel like you got your money's worth of miracles.

14. Moulin Rouge! (2001)
-directed by Baz Luhrmann
I really don't know how to approach this film objectively. This was one of the keystone movies of my adolescence, in that I watched it early, loved it, and watched it again and again. There's something in the pulsing energy, the frenetic but not chaotic pitch, the perfect balance of sublime silliness and melodrama-level tragedy, that just draws me in. And why shouldn't it? Moulin Rouge! is a spectacularly well-made film: everything looks great, everything works great. The music numbers are inspired, the performances are pitch-perfect, and the story is, if not dazzlingly original, dazzling in its execution. And you know what? This movie is just plain fun. Not all of it, admittedly, but the parts that go for levity pay off wonderfully. The movie is compelling drama: though I've since moved past such a phase, my sister still cries every time she watches it, even though she's seen it more times than is possible to count with all her fingers and toes. Moulin Rouge! is a bit silly, but it knows that, it embraces that, and it uses that to its advantage. The film's heart is in exactly the right place: it breathes beauty, freedom, truth, and love, and encourages all viewers to do the same.

13. Synecdoche, New York (2008)
-directed by Charlie Kaufman
Here's a misunderstood masterpiece if there ever was one. On its release, Synecdoche, New York was dismissed as thick, difficult, and nearly incomprehensible. Only Roger Ebert stood on its side, and recently christened it the best film of the decade in his version of the list I'm transcribing now. Well, to put it simply: Roger Ebert is right, the other critics are stupid. End of story. Now, I'm not saying that Synecdoche, New York is easy: I've seen it at least six times since its release, and I'll be damned if I can tell you what actually happens in the movie. On the surface, it tells the story of theater director Caden Cotard, who attempts to stage a play encompassing the entirety of the human experience. I'm not even going to attempt to describe what happens from there, but, honestly, it's irrelevant. It doesn't matter. The whole is less relevant than the sum of its parts. Each scene is beautifully crafted, well acted, and, above all, exquisitely written. I honestly think this could be the greatest screenplay ever written. Writer/director Charlie Kaufman imbues his scenes with such tenderness, such insight, that they become poetry. The last monologue of the film deserves to be recognized as a genuine piece of literature, and treated as such. Who cares if everyone who watches this film doesn't understand every part of it? There's something worthwhile here for everyone; more than something. Lots of things. Synecdoche, New York is an abyss which, if one stares long enough, will begin to stare back.

12. Waltz With Bashir (2008)
-directed by Ari Folman
For me, Waltz With Bashir is the cinematic equivalent of a sucker punch to the stomach. No, more than that: it's being beaten by a baseball bat, it's being obliterated by a locomotive. It's having your soul sucked out through your teeth. Sounds fun, right? Waltz With Bashir is possibly the only film of its kind: it's an animated documentary that uses a macabre, surrealist lens to make sense of a massacre. The visuals are astounding. From the opening moment, in which a wild dog charges down the street, to the closing shot, in which the viewer's animation safety net has been brutally substituted for live action, Waltz With Bashir provides an endless parade of moments both horrifying and fascinating in their combination of unspeakable crimes and surreal beauty. The scene, roughly twenty minutes into the film, in which a young Ari Folman and his two friends in the war rise out of the sea to approach a screaming crowd, illuminated by flares, still sticks with me. I don't know how to describe this movie, visually speaking. It's completely unique. It's fascinating. It's unsettling. The whole film strikes an uncanny balance between interest and revulsion: through the unreal medium of animation, Waltz With Bashir strikes at the heart of how much can go wrong in a world fueled by the dark side of human nature.

11. Gosford Park (2001)
-directed by Robert Altman
Alright, it's time for a tempo change. Gosford Park isn't exactly a feel-good comedy, but it's much brighter than the past few entries. Even if it's a murder mystery. The point isn't the murder here: the point is the complex web of human interaction that takes place between the rich guests of a hunting party in 1930s England, the servants of its well-staffed house, and the flashpoints of conflict when the two socioeconomic worlds merge. Gosford Park is one of the most engaging, complex, witty, labyrinthine films I've seen in a long time. It's almost impossible to grasp the full implications of every action on first viewing, but even for the casual viewer there's many a gem to be found. The acting ensemble is both gigantic and talented: Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, Clive Owen, Kelly MacDonald, Emily Watson, and Michael Gambon immediately stand out in my mind, but this could because their names are the ones I can remember off the top of my head. Gosford Park contains no bad performances, and almost no mediocre ones (sorry, Ryan Phillipe). The web of humanity that the script casts is almost impossibly interesting: I feel like I could watch this movie every day for a year and find something new every time. Robert Altman, one of America's great directors, shepherds his bemused herd of actors through the plot's twists and turns with wonderful dexterity. Watching Altman direct an ensemble like this is like watching a master pianist use the entire range of a grand piano.

Tune in...later (I'm not promising tomorrow this time. If not tomorrow, then Sunday, perhaps?) as I reveal the top 10 of the decade. Any predictions?

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Best of the Decade: Volume 2

Back again, and ready to list so hard your metacarpals fall off. It's that kind of day. Moving right along then, we'll continue the best films of the decade. Today: #30-21.

30. A History of Violence (2005)
-directed by David Cronenberg
I love this movie because viewers can get exactly as much out of it as they like. If you want a standard action-thriller, you've got it. If you want a familial drama that explores the passed-on similarities between parents and posterity, you've got it. If you want an intellectual piece about man as animal, and the prevalence of violence in society, you've got it. This film offers an abyss of thought, but never foists it on the viewer. In other words, if you feel like interpreting things ad infinitum, this movie works great. If you'd like to watch Viggo Mortensen break several noses, the movie's great for that as well. It's rare that a film like this comes along; one that seamlessly merges stereotypical action violence with stronger thematic undertones. Director David Cronenberg's trademark, however, is doing just that. Watch for a brilliant turn by William Hurt: he enters the film at the very end, and only for about ten minutes, but he leaves an unforgettable mark on the film.

29. Collateral (2004)
-directed by Michael Mann
Here's another film that plays in the intersection of art and commerce. On the surface, Collateral is a fast-paced action film, involving hit-men, car chases, and gun-fights on the elevated train. All this is just fine, but alone, it wouldn't be enough to get the movie on this particular list. Director Michael Mann takes the material and elevates it with style, substance and great performances. Special mention must go to Tom Cruise: though I can't say I'm a fan of his, Collateral, like Magnolia and Born on the Fourth of July, show Cruise to be an actor of subtlety, range, and unplumbed depth. His Vincent, a world-weary hit man with a knack for words, is a great creation. Jamie Foxx and Jada Pinkett-Smith are more than up to the task of matching him, however, and both give finely tuned performances. Mann's signature directorial style is easily evident here, as he returns to the crime world in LA after so memorably capturing it in Heat. The film's script is witty and literate; the monologue about Santa Claus and his ugly, unloved brother, Black Peter, is a wonderful highlight.

28. The Virgin Suicides (2000)
-directed by Sophia Coppola
Let me just get this out there: I love Sophia Coppola. I love her writing, which is poetic without being stilted. I love her style, Which is fluid, surreal, almost dream-like, while taking place in seemingly mundane environments. I even love her employment of indie bands for soundtracking, even if it launched the heinous 'Nick and Nora'-style movies that we get now. She's only made three movies, but two of them will appear on this list, and the other easily could have as well. The Virgin Suicides is Coppola's most lyrical piece; she errs toward poetry and visual beauty more often than not, and it's never more evident than in this adaptation of the already poetic and dreamlike novel by Jeffrey Eugedenides. This film eloquently and touchingly captures a snapshot of youth, both before and after the loss of innocence. The Virgin Suicides evokes, perhaps, a warm summer, a chat by the fire, a night with a lover: things that are beautiful and cherished, but disappear all too easily. More than any other director working today, Sophia Coppola paints with tones and moods more than with words or images, and her films are great because of it.

27. Sunshine (2007)
-directed by Danny Boyle
I'll be the first to say it: Sunshine isn't perfect. I'm not the biggest fan of the last fifteen to twenty minutes; I'll admit the film very nearly loses itself before finding redemption in the last two shots. What comes before that, however, is so accomplished, so memorable, so balls-out brave, that I'm willing to forgive the film its mis-steps. Sunshine is valiant stab at achieving 'hard' science fiction, aka science fiction with an emphasis on science rather than fiction. Danny Boyle seems to be channeling Kubrick in the film's early passages, which build up a slow, creeping sense of unease that burns under the film like a persistent itch. The design of the film is absolutely spectacular: made for a fraction of the budgets of larger sci-fi films, Sunshine looks much, much better and far more realistic. The Icharus 2 is one of recent cinema's most memorable set-pieces. To the fantastic sense of pacing, eye for style, and beautiful designs, the film adds an accomplished ensemble: Cillian Murphy, Cliff Curtis, Rose Byrne, Michelle Yeoh, Chris Evans, Troy Garity, Benedict Wong, and Hiroyuki Sanada create a perfect machine of believability. Rarely does one find such a fleshed-out, developed cast. As if all this weren't enough, Boyle and screen-writer Alex Garland play with the idea of what happens when you find and converse with God.

26. No Country For Old Men (2007)
-directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
This is easily one of the most technically proficient, classically well-made films in recent memory. Everything in this film approaches perfection: the pacing is almost unbearable, and I mean that in the best way. Suspense builds and builds and builds, pay-offs come fast and unbidden, and then the slow, steady building of tension starts again. This film hits you like the ocean: slowly building, moving faster and faster until you're slapped by a wall of water, and then as quickly as it came, it's gone again, and there's nothing you can do but wait for the next wave. The performances are exercises in brilliance: Javier Bardem, as Anton Chigurgh, the angel of death, gathers most of the laurels, but it's hard to ignore Josh Brolin, Kelly MacDonald, and Woody Harrelson acting for all they're worth. The script is filled with moments of cold, stark beauty that pierce like wind on a winter day. So why isn't this one higher on the list? I don't know. If this were a list of greats, it'd be near the top. I suppose my only complaint about No Country For Old Men is it doesn't quite stir the emotion in me that the other films on this list do. Not that this film doesn't stir any emotion: I'm just saying that what the films higher on this list do to me mean more than the technical perfection of this one.

25. Minority Report (2002)
-directed by Steven Spielberg
Say what you like about Spielberg: some people complain, saying he's too mainstream, too sentimental, too commercial. Well, yes: Spielberg is mainstream, commercial, and sentimental. He's also created some of the most iconic films in memory. I've always been one to prefer Spielberg's more 'out there' attempts to his Big, Serious Dramas. In other words, I'll take Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., and Raiders of the Lost Ark any day over Schindler's List. Minority Report tiptoes the line between the two kinds of Spielberg: yes, the film is quite serious, but in a rather goofy sci-fi sense of the word. I mean 'goofy' with the best possible connotations: I love this film. I love the performances (even Tom Cruise), I love the gorgeous futuristic design, I love the impressionistic cinematography of modern-day demigod Janusz Kaminski. I love the film as a treatise on free will. And, God help me, I love the moments of levity, of which there are many. This film is commercial, mainstream, and sentimental, but it's also flat-out dazzling.

24. Adaptation (2002)
-directed by Spike Jonze
Charlie Kaufman. What can I say about Charlie Kaufman? In short: he's the most inventive writer working today. Most people will hold up Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as the peak of his creativity, but I prefer his other films; specifically, this one, the film in which, for whatever reason, he writes himself into the story. More than that, he writes his own story: attempting to adapt The Orchid Thief. He dramatizes this while dramatizing the book itself, and then throwing good taste out the window to make the kind of ending that he himself promises in the movie that he'll never write. It's crazy, meta fun at its absolute best. Toss in Nicholas Cage, who here proves that he's a fantastic actor when he wants to be, Chris Cooper, being both incredibly compelling and completely insane, and Meryl Streep as a journalist turned drug-runner, and you've got something completely and utterly unique. This is undoubtedly one of the best screenplays of the decade, but it's also one of the best films.

23. Undertow (2004)
-directed by David Gordon Green
Before he was making stoner comedies like Pineapple Express, David Gordon Green was a real film-maker. Not just a film-maker: an artist. In Undertow, Green reaches the zenith of his creative talent, bringing a perfect storm of story, actors, and style to create a film unlike any other. Green's style is often described as 'Southern Gothic,' but I prefer Southern Surrealism, in that his films take place in the deep south, and watching them feels like walking through a dream. On the surface, Undertow is a chase movie about a pair of adolescents running from their blood-crazed uncle. To give a plot description, however, is to undersell the quiet, haunting nature of this little film. It's jam-packed with little moments of surreal beauty and oddness; very few films can get away with a long, involved monologue about chigger bites without seeming stupid. Undertow does it in spades.

22. Munich (2005)
-directed by Steven Spielberg
Munich is a bit of a Spielberg rarity in that it doesn't fit comfortably into either of his accepted personas: it's certainly not goofy or fun-filled, but it doesn't quite gel with his accepted dramatic style. Munich is a large, angry movie with lots of questions, but no answers. The plot recounts the events following the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics; namely, a 'counter-terrorism' unit whose principle goal is to eliminate enemies of Israel through bombs, murder, and other forms of subterfuge. Munich adroitly displays a never-ending cycle of violence, but has no easy answers for how to stop it. To augment the film's intellectual maturity, Spielberg brings the full brunt of his film-making experience, crafting a taut, engrossing thriller that never feels like its beating you over the head with its message.

21. 28 Days Later (2003)
-directed by Danny Boyle
Danny Boyle is one of the most visually interesting directors at work, and what strikes me most about 28 Days Later are the visuals. Has there ever been a more effective prologue than Cillian Murphy's long, solitary walk through a deserted London? The images Boyle captures are beautifully evocative: a taxi weaving through a city of the dead, a city on fire, framed by wind turbines, a rain-soaked castle filled with soldiers and women in red dresses. What's all the more impressive is that all this beauty comes in the midst of a graphically violent zombie movie. Boyle effortlessly meshes his more lyrical interludes with truly horrific encounters with the recently un-deceased. Throw in musing on the state of mankind (best exemplified during the final dinner, in which Christopher Eccleston's character says that all he sees is people killing people), and you've got something special, something far more worthwhile than Slumdog Millionaire, Boyle's best-known film.

I'll keep cranking these out later, then. Twenty more to go, and I figure, just for funsies, I'll do a decade-wide Oscar ballot, which is to say, my picks for the five best in every category this decade. Will the fun never end?

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Best of the Decade: Volume 1

Hello all! I realize that it's been forever-and-a-half since I last posted on here, and I apologize for that. In hopes of earning your good graces again, I've prepared a veritable barrage of marketable content that I'm going to rain on your unsuspecting minds like fire-bombs on Dresden. As a sort of welcome-back celebration, I've decided to tackle the topic that most other movie-related sites have long since covered: the best film of the last decade: the 2000s. The Aughts. The Naughties. The Thousands. Whatever you feel like calling them. Point is, there were movies. Some were good, many were bad, many more were ball-shrivellingly terrible, and a few were great. This week, I intend to introduce you to the great ones. So, for your viewing pleasure, I've compiled a list of the 40 best films of the Aught/Naughties/Thou--last decade.
A reminder: I say 'best,' but I probably mean 'favorites.' I'm too arrogant to think that I don't have good taste, so, chances are, I think my favorites list isn't too shabby as far as quality is concerned. That being said, bear in mind that this list is nothing if not subjective. If you disagree with something, which I'm sure you'll do at least once, then there's a fairly good chance that you're right. I'm just going to pretend that you aren't. So there. Anyhow, without further ado: I'll do ten movies a day, starting today, hopefully ending Friday. We'll see.

40. Lat den Ratte Komma In (Let the Right One In) (2008)
-Directed by Tomas Alfredson
Screw you dumb kids and your ridiculous Twilight. If I want to subject myself to a vampire movie, I don't want angsty sparkling Mormon vampires. I want my vampires bloody, angry, and overall monstrous. They're MONSTERS, dammit. Twilight may not deliver as a vampire movie, but Let the Right One In certainly does. Taking place in Sweden, its country of origin, Let the Right One In explores the relationship between Oskar, a bullied, angry twelve-year-old, and Eli, a vampire who has been twelve for a very long time. The movie's greatest strength is that it never shies away from the brutal content associated with its subjects: this vampire is more Nosferatu than Dracula. The fact that the vampire in question looks like an adolescent girl makes the moments of brutal violence all the more shocking. Let the Right One In has the audacity to turn Eli into a tool of Oskar's adolescent angst and rage. As I'm sure you can imagine, the idea of every pubescent tween having a monster in tow willing to wreak havoc on whomever they like is more than terrifying. The film uses this plot device to thoroughly explore the psychological issues it addresses, while never losing its horror-film edge: Let the Right One In is not for the faint of heart. Those who can stomach it, however, will find one of the only truly satisfying horror films of the past ten years.

39. Sin City (2005)
-directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller
I'm just not sure how to classify this movie. It contains plenty of action, but doesn't feel like an action film. It has all the trappings of film-noir, but doesn't quite feel right as a film-noir. It's certainly not a sit-down drama, but it offers compelling emotional moments. Perhaps Sin City is truly unique. Certainly its visual style has yet to be equalled, despite the efforts of a few copycat films. The black-and-white/negative/three-color effects are gorgeous in a way that doesn't take away from the action prevented. Similarly, the three-story structure doesn't distract from the film's pulsing energy: rather, the presence of different narratives clashing against each other serves to heighten Sin City's frenetic intensity. Beautifully shot, skillfully directed, and effortlessly acted by a gaggle of talented thespians: Clive Owen, Mickey Rourke, Rosario Dawson, Bruce Willis, Benicio Del Toro, and Brittany Murphy immediately come to mind, but the whole film is packed with wonderful performances. Sin City is a singularly unique cinematic experience.

38. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)
-directed by Peter Weir
Everything about this film's marketing; the title, the posters, the publicity shots, are trying desperately to convince you that this movie is some lost B-movie from the 60s, released on a whim. How wrong they are. Master and Commander doubles as both a pulse-pounding action film and an engrossing meditation on the consequences created by every action. Sure, there are huge battle scenes, epic set-pieces filmed with an eye for entertainment, but the film never allows the viewer to forget that the rush of battle always leads to the grim morning-after realization of the price that has been paid. I'm making this movie sound like a downer, but it isn't. At its heart, it's a sea-faring adventure that just happens to retain its conscience when other action films happily make theirs walk the plank. An extra goodie: the film is rife with wonderful violin/cello duets performed by the actors themselves.

37. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
-directed by Ang Lee
There have been larger kung-fu films recently: grander scales, bigger action scenes, more beautiful vistas. None of these, however, can claim the emotional heart and maturity that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon can. The film's plot, which revolves around two pairs of lovers, one in their reckless youth, the other in repressed old age, never takes a false step: it avoids becoming the cliche that it could have easily became, and instead cuts right to the center of the issue at hand: the things people are willing to do when they have decided that love is the motivating factor. It's a nice ancillary benefit that these actions just happen to take the form of kick-ass fight scenes, beautifully choreographed by Yuen Woo-Ping. The fight scenes are instantly iconic and memorable: Zhang Ziyi and Michelle Yeoh soaring over the roof-tops of a sleeping palace, Zhang Ziyi destroying a tavern as a lesson in manners, the wonderful climactic fight in the bamboo grove. And who could forget, of course, the final duel between the two lead women: if I've ever seen a better fight in a film, I can't remember it.

36. Grizzly Man (2005)
-directed by Werner Herzog
One of only two documentaries to find their way onto this list, Grizzly Man is a bizarrely fascinating portrayal of Timothy Treadwell, the 'Grizzly Man,' who lived for thirteen summers in close contact with Grizzly bears in the Alaskan wilderness until he was mauled and killed with his girlfriend. Werner Herzog is never sentimental or overly sympathetic: he shows us Timothy at his best and most philanthropic, but also shows him when he is petulant, immature, and selfish. Herzog, through testimonials, interviews, and footage that was shot by Treadwell himself, paints a picture of a troubled individual, and the effect that his life and death had on the people around him. Most people use 'documentary' as a synonym for boring, but I was completely engrossed by Grizzly Man from start to finish.

35. The Hours (2002)
-directed by Steven Daldry
Three women, three parties, three eras, one day. The Hours adapts Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer-winning masterpiece to capture the lives of three women as they plan their own parties. One must first give special mention to the acting: Julianne Moore, Nicole Kidman, and Meryl Streep are at their best in the three lead performances, and receive considerable support from the likes of Ed Harris, John C. Reilly, and Miranda Richardson. The Hours tells three different stories, but never allows its characters to get lost within their own labyrinth. The film weaves each of the three threads together with skill and confidence, tying in the recurring themes as each character faces their fate. Of special note is Phillip Glass's evocative score, which is almost obsessive-compulsive in its ability to uncover hidden meaning through repetition. This film is ambiguous, challenging, dark, and altogether satisfying.

34. Requiem For a Dream (2000)
-directed by Darren Aronofksy
It's quite hard to place this film in any sort of list. Yes, it is very well-made. Yes, it's incredibly effective in what it sets out to do. It's just Depressing. Suicide-inducing. So, to place it on a list, I have to reconcile my immense respect for it as a piece of art with the terrible, terrible feelings it inspires. Perhaps I should just focus on the acting: most impressive is Ellen Burstyn, whose Sarah Goldfarb is one of the most impressive creations of the new millennium. Jennifer Connolly is no slouch, however, and turns in a performance if untold depth and resonance. Perhaps I ought to focus on the direction: Darren Aronofsky whips out every trick in the cinematic playbook to viscerally evoke the highs and lows of drug addiction. Perhaps I should focus on the technical elements: the quick, merciless editing, the blankly effective cinematography, the haunting and memorable Clint Mansell score. Maybe if I draw attention to these aspects, I can pretend the movie doesn't make me feel so bad. Maybe...

33. Memento (2001)
-directed by Christopher Nolan
Memento begins with an amazing concept: it sets out to tell its story in reverse-chronological order. In other words, it goes backwards. This alone, done successfully, would be a significant cinematic achievement. Christopher Nolan doesn't just do it, however: he does it with style, insight, and wit. Memento is incredibly well-made, insightfully written, and contains one hell of a twist, which must have been difficult to pull off, given that the movie starts at the end. Structurally, Memento is innovative, but it wouldn't be nearly the film that it is if it weren't a great story in its own right.

32. Pan's Labyrinth (2006)
-directed by Guillermo Del Toro
Pan's Labyrinth offers one of the richest, most creative cinematic worlds to grace the silver screen in recent memory. Pan's Labyrinth takes its main fantasy plot, involving Ophelia, a young girl who must deal with fauns, giant toads, fairies, pale men with tiny legs, and all manner of fantasy beasties to take her place in the Underground Kingdom, and seamlessly integrates it with the harsh realities associated with living in Franco-era Spain. The film effortlessly transitions from glossy fantasy to guerrilla war film and back again without breaking a sweat. When the two worlds intersect, it's both beautiful and shocking. The cast is strong all-around, with a wonderful breakout performance from Ivana Baquero, with fantastic supporting performances from Sergi Lopez, as Captain Vidal, and the always-great Maribel Verdu as a house-keeper turned double agent. Pan's Labyrinth would be unable to achieve greatness, however, without the signature power of its visuals, namely the painterly, impressionistic cinematography, and the macabre, surreal production design. Special mention goes to the makeup department for creating The Pale Man, one of recent cinema's most indelible monsters.

31. The Incredibles (2004)
-directed by Brad Bird
Pixar has been consistently churning out quality film after quality film: almost any of their films this decade would make a worthy addition to the list. Sadly, I can't find room for all of their films, but I certainly intend to include a few. Among them is The Incredibles, arguably Pixar's most complex effort. The Incredibles paints a multi-faceted portrait of the lives of the mediocre, and those who can't quite fit in. What's more, they paint this portrait with super-heroes. Sure, there are insights about life in America's middle-class, but they come in between fighting killer robots and vanquishing super-villains. The Incredibles works as an action movie, as a comedy (really, this movie's flat-out hilarious), and a family drama. Doing all this with characters who can turn invisible, stretch themselves, freeze things, etc., is no easy task, but Brad Bird and team are more than up to the task. The Incredibles isn't a great family film. It's a great film, period.

There's volume 1. Tune in later for the rest. Until then, what do you say? Solid choices? Not so much? Anything I'm rating too high? Any predictions for the #1 spot? Let me know.