Monday, January 04, 2010

Top Ten Movies of the Decade

No, not this decade, the last one...

Some notes about these films. First of all, they are MY top ten movies. This is not an attempt to predict which films will be most influential, or which films have the most academic merit or whatever.

There are some films that deserve mention, but didn't make my top ten. Those include Requiem for a Dream, Far From Heaven, Signs, Y Tu Mama Tambien, The Band's Visit, Monster's Ball, Ratatouille, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Children of Men, Million Dollar Baby, The Hours, The Savages, Adaptation, and George Washington. Those were on my short list, and you should see them if you haven't.

But see these first:

10. The Royal Tenenbaums

Wes Anderson is sort of the goldilocks of directors. Some of his work, notably Rushmore, comes off as too cold, pitching its darker registers adrift in a sea of irony that loses the viewer. Elsewhere, as in the life Aquatic, he reaches for sentimental cloudbursts that are jarring and arbitrary.

The Royal Tenenbaums is Anderson at his finest. Weaving together his signature stylized style with the solipsistic intensity of his sad lunatics who themselves treat major life decisions as set pieces. This is grand melodrama and character study all in one.

Favorite scene: A drug addict, played by Owen Wilson, is confronted by two friends. The action is upstaged by the presence of two hilariously absurd paintings. They seem to provide cover as Wilson proceeds to sneak out the back window after confessing an addiction to (of all things) mescaline.

9. Kill Bill, Vols. 1 & 2

Originally intended, and best viewed, as one complete project, the Kill Bill films demonstrate that Tarantino is capable of making films that no-one else ought. His films are stylistic exercises; post-modern reflections on how film communicates that succeed by evincing a mastery of, well, what films communicate. The film’s characters exist in our collective consciousness, and his films draw upon our own referential landscapes to provide the drama.

The Kill Bill narrative is at once simple (Uma Thurman wants to Kill Bill, and does so) and beguilingly complex. The Bride is iconic because she was written as an icon. She serves as a travelogue of put upon female protagonists, and Uma Thurman’s esoteric features encapsulate each one, from Hepburn to Anime. In true Tarantino fashion, the character is (in the strictest sense) static and only changes as we learn more about her.

The dialogue is rich and glorious, an exercise in the importance of context. Tarantino’s gift of juxtaposition is unparalleled, though oft-imitated. Consider the discussion between the Bride and her first victim, in which they discuss the prospect of a knife fight under the stands.

Favorite Scene: A handsomely filmed ninja fight sequence, back-lit in royal blue so as to appear two-dimensional. It is at once jarring and reassuringly familiar.

8. Unbreakable

M. Night Shamalyan’s follow-up to the Sixth Sense was less heralded, but far superior. A brilliant deconstruction of the super-hero myth, the film follows a character (Bruce Willis) who suddenly realizes he is a superhero, and always has been. I have a soft spot for movies that create narrative tension in unconventional ways. This is an outstanding example.

It’s tough to believe now, given the forced Razz-Ma-Taz of his most recent works, but Shamalyan was once a very patient director. The thrills and chills of his best work are the product of a magnificent sense of timing. There is a scene where Willis tests his revelation by attempting to bench press more and more weight. This methodology is brilliant in the way it flows naturally from the character (we believe that the humble everyman would use precisely this test), and also in the way we slowly discover it with him.

And yeah, Unbreakable has a twist ending and, no, I didn’t see it coming. I key to pulling off a surprise ending lies not in making the conceit so esoteric as to be indiscernible (as most films do, particularly those attempting to tap into Sixth Sense mojo). Rather, it is to engross the audience in a plausible alternate reality, such that they have no compulsion to get a step ahead of the narrative.

Favorite scene: One of Willis’ gifts is that he has a psychic sense of good and evil, which he applies in the middle of a train station. Most directors would overplay the incumbent flashbacks and imagery, but Shamalyan pulls off the task of rescuing the scene from the histrionic abyss.

7. United 93

9/11, and the ensuing war, provoked a miasma of abysmal cinema In an attempt to force their ideology on their narrative, Syriana, In The Valley of Elah, and others sacrificed the essential truth of their narratives. Perhaps, then, it is fitting that a contextualized account of the events of about United Flight 93 should emerge as one of the landmark films of the new century. It is commendable more for what it doesn’t do than what it does do.

Unburdened by the “necessity” of showing us how conflicted and hypocritical our country is, United 93 is allowed to be what it is, a stunning piece of art. Like a Rembrandt, the film indelibly paints a picture of what life was like in that place, at that time. The history and context speak for themselves, and director Paul Greengrass gives them only a passing mention (the movie begins with a shot of the terrorists praying). The war on terror began with those men and women who took back control of the plane.

We know the stakes. The film makes them real and apparent to us all over again, as Greengrass leverages his extraordinary technical gifts to contend with the physical and temporal limitations. He can’t imply dominance with a clever camera angle. There are no grizzled policy vets to explain moral of the story; no starry eyed neophytes forced to choose between their convictions and their careers. Hell, George Clooney doesn’t even have an associate producer credit on this film.

Favorite Scene: “Let’s roll”. ‘Nuf said.

6. Brokeback Mountain

Those who dismissed the Brokeback as pro-gay agitprop missed the point entirely. This story of two men who find both comfort and discord within each other speaks to the deepest longings of the male condition. Ang Lee gives us a portrayal of two men that is, above all else, centered in truth.

One can hardly offer enough praise for Heath Ledger’s brilliant performance. He plays a man so unsure of who he is that he fails everyone, from his wife to his children to his gay lover. For him, Brokeback Mountain is a respite from failure, where he is unencumbered by the demands of a less-conflicted person.

Favorite Scene: While audiences remember “I wish I could quit you, Jack”, for me, the most haunting scene features Ledger, holding the jacket of his murdered lover. The look on Ledger’s face is one of a man who has come to the realization that he will never be known. It is the most heartbreaking scene in perhaps all of cinema.

5. Wall-E

By my lights, this is the best animated film ever made. Much has been made of the films wordless opening reels, but much should be made of them. They parallel the best stanzas in movie history.

From that point, the Pixar team gives us a profound snapshot of an American culture that has become unwilling even to take care of itself. The film contrasts the deepest longings of an adorable, um, robot with the passionless consumption of a freewheeling craft-bound population.

Wall-E is ABOUT something, but not in the preening, self-satisfied mode of the preachy blockbusters (I’m looking at you, Avatar), but in the sense that we should simply be better. This is a running theme throughout the best of Pixar’s films (Ratatouille, Up, The Incredibles), which, in addition to their epic visual delights, paint a picture of a society that has abandoned common sense.

Favorite Scene: Dancing. As the population aboard the ship finally awakens to its reality, the love struck, um, robots spiral through space to Thomas Newman’s gorgeous score.

4. Lost in Translation

Anyone who has spent extensive time in a foreign country understands how valuable the familiar becomes. Favorite songs, clothes, food and even catch phrases tether us to our unique sense of self. Enter Lost in Translation, which begins as a prototypical Bill Murray “fish out of water” story becomes a nuanced meditation on how our sense of distance forms and changes us.

The film is fascinating in the way it observes the two main characters (the other played by Scarlett Johansson) discovering each other. They do so out of necessity, ultimately clinging to each other in an attempt to contextualize their experience.

No film in the last decade recreates a more genuine sense of alienation. Sofia Coppola won an Oscar for her screenplay, which is a master class in the use of visuals to tell a story. In his best work, Murray is an actor who reacts to his circumstances. He speaks for the audience with a dry weariness that could be mistaken for deadpan. Tokyo, with its luminous cityscapes and claustrophobic streets, becomes a character in and of itself, defining Murray’s character and adding to his melancholy.

Favorite Scene: After an unfortunate run-in with a highly-automated treadmill, Murray swims in the hotel pool. The high ceilings and windowed walls are a towering presence. There he swims, small and overwhelmed in a seemingly never-ending pool. The scene sets the tone for entire film.

3. Let the Right One In

If not the best horror film ever made, certainly the most haunting horror film ever made. The film tells a story of a profoundly lonely Swedish boy (Oskar) who encounters an equally lonely girl his age (Elie), who turns out to be a vampire. Well, that description didn’t do it justice, did it?

I’m not sure what description would suffice. I’ll say this. By casting a sympathetic (pre-adolescent) girl as a vampire, the film is able to trim the fat of hackneyed sexuality from a legend that is, at its core, about the most substantial of human suffering.

The film is more interested in truth than lore. The various vampire trivia are introduced piece meal, and only as the narrative requires. There is more watching than talking (it’s a Scandinavian film, after all). Here’s a homework assignment. Observe the way Elie reveals her nature to Oskar, and the dialogue that results. Compare that to the approach of Twilight, the synthetic teeny-bopper flick released the same week.

It’s worth noting that, like Twilight, LTROI has legions of fans who compensate for their paucity with a special zeal reserved for great, unheralded films.

Favorite Scene: The (wordless) ending, which I will not reveal here. It is not a “surprise” ending, though it is surprising, insofar as it illuminates each event prior.

2. No Country for Old Men

I firmly believe that history will regard this film as superior to Fargo, which is saying something. The Coen Brothers bring us a profound discussion of fate and morals that uses each as a tool to paint a bleak world in which death seems as inevitable as it is.

No Country is notable for its lack of a musical score. Its absence makes us realize how much we rely upon aural cues to frame a situation. We are never told what to think, and must therefore always be thinking, and pondering the mess before us.

James Brolin is a terrible actor, a blank slate who never connects with the material. The Coen Brothers parlay this to their advantage, and Brolin becomes a sort of rogue counterbalance to the resolute Anton Chgur (played by Javier Bardem in arguably the decade’s best performance). We know what Anton will do. We do not know how the protagonist will react.

Favorite Scene: Anton Chgur confronts a convenience store clerk and asks him to flip a coin. This is Coen Brothers writing at its best, building a frenzy of subtext into colloquial dialogue. The two men are saying nothing, but talking about everything.

1. You Can Count on Me

It’s a shame that critics have forgotten this little masterpiece. You Can Count on Me gives us the two most plausible, real characters I have ever seen on film. The film tells the story of a troubled brother who comes to visit his sister and her son in the small town where they grew up. And that’s about it.

This is not a high concept movie, but a real one. There is not one false note (and I don’t take that term nearly so lightly as do other critics) in the interaction between the main characters, played by Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo. At first glance, she has her life together and he doesn’t. As the story unfolds, we see the manifestations of their shared tragedy (their parents die in a car accident in the film’s first reel), as well as their inner wisdom.

Over time, the brother becomes a sort of father figure to the son, and inevitably fails him, but so does the mother, and so does everyone fail each other. Kenneth Lonergan’s screenplay flawlessly demonstrates the universality of family relationships, and how imperfect people struggle to make the easiest of decisions when they are confronted with their imperfection.
This is a flatly amazing film.

Favorite Scene: The brother and sister are reaching a breaking point in their frustrations with one another. At the precise moment at which most indy flicks veer into melodrama, the characters instead go to the rooftop to smoke pot, which leads to the most honest discussion I have ever seen on film.

49 Up*

It would be considerably odd to count a continuation of the Up series, arguably cinema’s landmark achievement, in this post, as it began in the 1960s. It would also be an atrocity not to mention it. For those who do not know, the Up series began as a BBC special, intended to highlight the discrepancies associated with Britain’s (then) rigid class system.

That “special” began when its subjects were seven years old. Since that time, director Michael Apted has caught up with each subject every seven years. Since that time, Apted, who began work on the project in his 20s, has become the successful director in his own right. Having shed its roots as a sociological experiment, the Up series has become a meditation on destiny. The film’s subjects are real people, who make the same mistakes and see similar triumphs throughout their lives.

The film has the (dubious?) distinction of having invented reality television. The Real World borrowed generously from Apted’s technique of splicing cutaway interviews with real-time action, and the films primed British audiences for the original Survivor.
That said, the series has captured lightning in a bottle, pairing one of the world’s great directors (he was a lowly production assistant for the first installment) with interesting and contemplative children who would grow up to be interesting and contemplative adults.

As important, the subjects (who are well known in England) have not attempted to parlay their fame into another career, rescuing this project from becoming a post-modern disaster. To witness the Up Series is literally to witness a once in a lifetime event.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Keep posting stuff like this i really like it

1:12 AM  

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