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?


  1. The plant lady!! I don't disagree with anything on the list so far; however, I was surprised to see the Incredibles appear so early.

  2. Now they can go home, Chuck! Yeah, I suppose The Incredibles did come a little fast, but what can I say: there were tons of good movies this decade, and it's easy for one to get lost in the shuffle.

  3. This doesn't have much to do with your list, but I would argue that Trainspotting is probably Boyle's best known film...But that might just be me.

  4. Maybe among the cinephile crowd, but as far as the average moviegoer is concerned, I think it's Slumdog Millionaire. Trainspotting is popular on the indie circuit, but Slumdog Millionaire is the one that the masses got out and saw. All those Oscars don't hurt, either.

  5. I'm really surprised to see 28 Days Later on here! I'd like you to know I think Cillian Murphy is absolutely gorgeous.