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?


  1. I'm going to take a guess as to what I might find on your top ten list.
    Brokeback Mountain, Children of Men, Capote, Avatar, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Lost in Translation. Black hawk down? I'd like to think that you'd put City of God on here, though I'm not sure you will. I also think you might include kill bill but only if you're counting it as one movie, the same with lord of the rings. You're also fond of Billy Elliot. I'm thinking Almost Famous and There Will Be Blood are big contenders. But I"m not sure. I guess I'll find out later this week.

  2. I shall text you how you did, so as not to spoil the surprise for everyone else. Suffice to say that you're very perceptive on some fronts, and very wrong on others.

  3. I'm gonna' say Avatar, A Single Man, The Hurt Locker, WALL-E, Up in the Air, The Fantastic Mr. Fox...and four more really good ones. I guess mine are more your favorite in the last yearish.

  4. Awww, Rhesa, you suck at this game, and I love you for it.