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.


  1. Since I have not seen the #1 spot, I won't say anything about it. I like most of the list, though I might have switched Children of Men and Almost Famous, but it would have been close.

    I think I would have kicked Lord of the Rings out of the top ten as well. It is the best of the trilogy, but I don't agree with the concept of letting one movie stand for the trilogy. I am not a fan of "let's reward the whole trilogy by honoring one of the movies." I probably would have switched Lord of the Rings with Hotel Rwanda or the Hurt Locker.

  2. I suppose...I dunno, those movies really are just some of the most impressive films ever committed to celluloid, so it felt disingenuous to not include them at least somehow. And yes, I did struggle with placing Children of Men and Almost Famous in their current order, but I think I like it this way. Though, mind you, it was very, very close.