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.

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