Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Best Movies of the '00s: Part 4

24.  The Bourne Ultimatum (2007, Greengrass)
This movie stands for the whole trilogy, the most consistently thrilling action movies of the decade.  I regard this as one of the great purely kinetic action films in history, taking its place alongside The Road Warrior and Aliens as an unrelentingly intense thrill ride.  Bourne is the most influential action hero of the new century, and his desperate search for self mirrors America's own.

23.  King Kong (2005, Jackson)
Both a faithful work of epic reimagining and a subtle work of film criticism, Peter Jackson fills the film with dozens of homages, references, and expansions on the comparatively bare-bones original, making room for all the different interpretations that have grown up over the years, but most of all giving free reign to all the dreams he's ever had about Kong since he saw it in boyhood and attempting to make those dreams reality.

22.  Hot Fuzz (2007, Wright)
Yes, I actually think this is better than Shaun of the Dead.  I laugh harder, at least, and I find Nick Frost's character here more endearing.  And who doesn't love Simon Pegg's apocalyptic-stranger ride back into town, toothpick in his mouth and crossed shotguns on his back?  Or the glee with which the two friends fire two guns whilst jumping through the air? I'm sure I'm not alone in my eager anticipation of the next installment in the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy.

21.  Let the Right One In (2008, Alfredson)
A horror movie for people (like me) who aren't really fans of horror movies.  A gentle story of first love, twisted and darkened into a disturbing tale of supernatural bloodlust and outsider vengeance that haunts the shadows of an apartment complex on a snowy evening.  Perhaps something like an early Grimm's Fairy Tale, before it was made safe for children. Heartbreaking, beautiful, and disturbing.

20.  The Royal Tenebaums (2001, Anderson)
Wes Anderson's masterpiece. A hilarious, stylized, ensemble comedy that darkens suddenly into generational tragedy, before offering the possibility of forgiveness and redemption in a final sequence remarkable above all not for its ludicrousness, but for its truly generous spirit.  The cast, led by Gene Hackman in his last great role, is one of the best of the decade, the writing by Anderson and Owen Wilson is as clever and witty as it could possibly be, and the soundtrack is, as ever, perfect.

19.  The Wrestler (2008, Aronofsky)
Mickey Rourke gives perhaps the decade's greatest male performance as a minor league professional wrestler, past his prime, who can't manage to stop his slow spiral of self-destruction. Sometimes inertia really is too great, even when lifelines are offered.  I remain a bit of an Aronosky skeptic, but this heartbreaking neo-realist throwback really is his masterpiece.

18.  The Departed (2006, Scorsese)
Is it Scorsese's best work? No, of course not.  Does it dissect the foibles of the male impulse to rage and machismo as well as his work in the seventies?  Unfortunately, no.  But it does do things Scorsese had never done before--it generates tremendous suspense, it twists and turns with astonishing ease, and it has the ferocious bite of Cape Fear and Gangs of New York without losing sight of its central plot. It also has one of Scorsese's best casts ever (even if Nicholson goes over the top), and it finally justifies his devotion to DiCaprio with that uneven actor's first really great grown-up performance.

17.  Children of Men (2006, Cuaron)
Probably this decade's most persuasive view of the apocalypse, Alfonso Cuaron's adaptation of P.D. James's novel envisions a humanity incapable of reproducing and living out its final days by tearing itself apart in pointless conflict.  Cuaron's long-take aesthetic creates an incredibly immersive and terrifying Britain of constant danger that unfortunately doesn't look much different from present-day war-zones in Africa and the Middle East.  Into this world, a child is born, and the weight of it all shall be on his shoulders.

16.  Finding Nemo (2003, Stanton)
Pixar had made brilliant films before, but this is the point where the studio cemented its all-time great status.  Nemo is beautiful in a way so far only surpassed by Wall-E (and parts of Tangled) among CGI films, and its story is still the most moving to me of all Pixar features.  There are moments here I still can't think of without a lump in the my throat (the tragic beginning, the sojourn in the whale's mouth, Marlin's sad swim away from the Sydney harbor).  Plus I still laugh at the kiddie humor.

15.  Mystic River (2003, Eastwood)
Eastwood's finest film since Unforgiven (narrowly edging A Perfect World), this titanically acted drama is a profound meditation on the ways time can change people and break down relationships.  Anchored by the finest performance of Kevin Bacon's career (who underacts while his co-stars overact), there were few more wrenching films this decade. 

14.  O Brother Where Art Thou (2000, Coen)
The most purely enjoyable of all the Coens' films.  A hilariously unique adaptation of The Odyssey that draws from Preston Sturges-style comedies, classic American literature (particularly Huckleberry Finn and The Grapes of Wrath), and early-20th century bluegrass and gospel music, in a wild, allusion-filled journey through a mythological Depression-era South.  It also features one of the Coens' finest casts, wittiest scripts, and most hopeful views of human nature.

13.  The Prestige (2006, Nolan)
A character study wrapped in an enigma, wrapped in a mystery, with both Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale turning in stellar double roles.  A dissection of obsession and revenge embedded in a richly detailed steampunk-ish world, where nothing is as it seems.  For anyone who doesn't think Nolan can tell stories with images.  Are you watching closely?

12.  The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007, Dominik)
This haunting evocation of the last days of the West's most famous outlaw can be seen as a synthesis of the disparate influences of John Ford, Terrence Malick, Henry King, and Robert Altman, with a historical didacticism reminiscent of Ken Burns.  It has many ancestors, yet there is still else nothing quite like it.  As others have pointed out, the film (aided by the magnificent performances of Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck) maps the moment at which legend fades into mere celebrity.  Perhaps a bit too long, it would still be worth a look for its musical score and cinematography alone, both among the best of the decade.

11.  The Incredibles (2004, Bird)
My vote for the finest Pixar film (at least before the heartbreaking and elegiac Toy Story 3), this Brad Bird directed epic is a complex satire of the superhero, drawing from The Fantastic Four and Watchmen, paired with an analysis of the modern American family and a critique of the suburbs and middlebrow education system.  It wraps all that up in a top-notch action movie that puts just about everything else released this decade to shame with its thrilling fight sequences and hilarious dialogue, and manages to make it all a massive, PG-rated blockbuster. Considering the skill, risks, ambition, and originality on display here next to all but two or three other blockbuster movies of the decade just about boggles the mind.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Best Movies of the '00s: Part 3

39.  Gangs of New York (2002, Scorsese)
Arguably Scorsese's most ambitious film, it can be wildly uneven and is held back by miscasting, but there's still nothing else like it:  A massive epic of violence and squalor, telling a forgotten tale of American history with the conviction of a master blacksmith pounding out a sword.  Daniel Day-Lewis is magnificent and terrifying as a Nativist gang leader intent on exterminating the Irish immigrants.  Scorsese is often at his best at his most rough around the edges (see Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Last Temptation of Christ), and this is certainly his roughest of the decade. Here Scorsese takes the measure of John Ford and The Searchers, and attempts to top him.

38.  The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004, Anderson)
Wes Anderson's films are always about control freaks who learn they can't control everything, and Steve Zissou, "a showboat and a little bit of a prick," is no exception.  This is Anderson's largest canvas yet, and he paints it with typical obsessive gusto, noticeably leaving brushstrokes on even the tiniest of visible details.  The story is ridiculous, as always, and the surprisingly bloody shootouts with pirates are a highlight. But ultimately, as it must, the realization of impotence comes, and the story ends in tears.  For it to end otherwise might seem true to the humorous tone and the Boys' Own fantasy world, but it would not be true to the characters, and that devotion to character is what makes Anderson truly special.

37.  Kill Bill Vol. 1 & Vol. 2 (2003, 2004, Tarantino)
This two-movie revenge story is probably Tarantino's most undisciplined effort, but it is also the most fun.  I'm still not sure the second film's sudden shift in tone actually works emotionally, but it's still fascinating for the way it reflexively re-examines and re-shapes the narrative up to that point, bringing out hidden themes and introducing the elements of doubt and moral ambiguity which have always kept QT ahead of his imitators.

36.  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind  (2004, Gondry)
Though it at first seems like one of those mind-blowing modern movies of twisting narrative complictions, this Charlie Kaufman-scripted gem has little interest in actually confusing you.  Instead it wants to make you feel, to dissect a failed relationship from the end backwards, and to mess around with the way memories work in a delightfully low-fi unpretentious way.  It succeeds admirably at all three.

35.  Where the Wild Things Are  (2009, Jonze)
Breaking out of the shadow of his brilliant collaborator Charlie Kaufman, Spike Jonze proved he is one of the finest directors working today with this powerful re-envisioning of the classic picture book. Max's imaginary land is extraordinary, big and grand and even beautiful, but it isn't all fun and games.  Essentially this is the story of a child's temper tantrum, and if you can't understand the pain and blind rage of such an outburst and appreciate the desperate need to be understood, perhaps you were never a child.

34.  Ratatouille (2007, Bird)
A Kunstlerroman that refuses to let the artist get away with bad behavior, as so many others do when making excuses for genius.  This one insists on morality as an artistic principle.  A treatise on art and the role of the critic disguised as a children's cartoon, weaving in the ideals of high art with the talking animal humor.  Have you ever seen another movie that attempts to visualize what taste is like?  And actually succeeds?

33.  The Proposition (2005, Hillcoat)
As dark as anything ever done in the genre, The Proposition is an Australian western about those quintessential western themes--the taming of wilderness, the suppression of barbarism, and the price paid for the coming of civilization.  The brutality here can be sickening, but the powerful moral complexities resemble those of Sam Peckinpah and Cormac McCarthy.

32.  The Village (2006, Shyamalan)
This terribly underrated film was mistaken for a supernatural thriller with a dumb twist ending.  It's not.  It's  a portrait of a community, a morality play with political implications that critiques the nature of founding narratives.  Christopher Nolan would spend much of the decade investigating the lies individuals tell themselves; here Shyamalan does the same thing with an entire village.  It also helps that it's absolutely gorgeous, shot with the eye of a true filmmaker, and features an incredible ensemble cast.

31.  Shaun of the Dead (2004, Wright)
Unlike a simple genre parody, this "romantic comedy with zombies" stands on its own as something special.  It manages to turn the zombie genre's traditional social critiques into a satire of modern slacker-geek culture, plus smuggle in moments of genuine fear, danger, and pain, while remaining hysterically funny, clever, and unassuming throughout.  It announced the arrival of Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright, all three of whom would go on to be pillars of modern comedy, and paved the way for a whole string of major British talent to break out of low-budget television comedy, including Joe Cornish, Richard Ayoade, and Chris O'Dowd.

30.  Spider-Man 2 (2004, Raimi)
The quintessential superhero movie. It delivers heartbreak with the thrills, genuine danger with genuine humor.  Peter Parker is the great everyman superhero--the one any kid can relate to, any kid can grow up to be.  He embodies the ideals of the superhero more purely and innocently than any other, and this film is not only an action flick, but genuinely heartwarming for those of us who value those ideals.  It is a rare superhero film that works equally well in both its character scenes and its fight sequences.  Read my full review here.

29.  Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003, Weir)
Peter Weir is one of the undersung masters to come out of the '70s, and this is his only film of the decade.  Like all his work, it is beautifully lensed, and like much of his work it is a study of a community and the various bonds and rules that give it structure. Unlike nearly all his other work, it is a grand adventure film, filled with thrilling battle sequences on the high seas.  What come through strongest are the virtues of the 19th century military man, peculiarly British values of honor, duty, and cool under fire, so unknown to us today.  "England is under threat of invasion, and though we be on the far side of the world, this ship is our home," says Captain Jack. "This ship is England." 

28.  Hero (2004, Zhang)
A Rashomon-esque tale of conflicting memories of events, larger and more beautfiul than anything I had ever seen before.  The color-coordinated fight sequences are as grand as any ever filmed.  A pity it ends up being nationalist propaganda at the end.

27.  Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000, Lee)
The film that re-started a whole genre and became an international phenomenon.  Hero is grander and more beautiful, but this is the more profound film.  Love vs. social restrictions, youth vs. age, temper tantrums vs. serenity; it is among the most meditative action epics ever made.

26.  A History of Violence (2005, Cronenberg)
Some have praised this film for its subversive critique of small-town Americana, but I actually think that's the film's weakest aspect. Instead, I'm in awe of the visceral psychological portrait of a family under violent attack from within and without, mapping the tensions and fault-lines of a breakdown in trust.

25.  A. I. Artificial Intelligence (2000, Spielberg)
Inspired by the story idea and example of Stanley Kubrick, Spielberg was spurred to make his most knotty, difficult, and intellectually complex film.  The result is hard science fiction of a scope and depth not seen since Blade Runner, and a vision of the future that seems more ambitious and bleak the more you think about it.  As pure and fluid as E.T., but with none of that film's optimism.  This one continues to rise in my estimation.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Best Movies of the '00s: Part 2

54.  Open Range (2003, Costner)
Arguably the first good traditional western in a generation.  The plot is classically simple, the archetypes are natural and believable, Robert Duval is superb, Kevin Costner proves he can still direct. This is why I love the genre.

53.  Eastern Promises (2007, Cronenburg)
Viggo Mortenson transforms himself into a hulking, tattooed Russian mobster with a noble secret in one of the finest performances of the decade.  The inverse Mortenson and Cronenburg’s other crime drama, A History of Violence, where a decent family man has a disturbing secret. As dark and viscerally compelling as mob movies get.

52.  Brick (2005, Rian Johnson)
This brilliant first film from writer/director Rian Johnson transforms a SoCal high school into a Chandler-esque mean street, populated by characters speaking the best hardboiled dialogue since the Coens' Miller's Crossing.  Made on a tiny budget, this one proved that it's possible to make a foot pursuit as exciting as a Michael Bay car chase, if you have enough talent.

51.  Catch Me If You Can (2002, Spielberg)
Spielberg outdoes even Ocean's Eleven in '60s caper film style, and perhaps, anchored by DiCaprio's career-second-best performance, develops his daddy issues themes to their fullest, most realistic extent.

50.  Wall-E  (2008, Stanton)
I have a feeling this would rank higher if I had seen the film in theaters instead of waiting a year to catch it on Netflix Instant Play.  Nevertheless, one of Pixar's most beautiful films-- the weightless fire extinguisher dance is a highlight.

49.  Apocalypto (2006, Gibson)
A nightmare vision of a foreign civilization about to be snuffed out forever.  Unrelenting and remarkably realized, shot entirely in an ancient language in the middle of the jungle, the ambition alone has to be applauded.  After a horrific first half of rape and pillaging, the second half becomes one of the most tense and exhilarating chase thrillers ever made.  Perhaps the twisted reverse image to The New World?

48.  Letters From Iwo Jima (2006, Eastwood)
Eastwood's account of the Japanese defense of Iwo Jima is gripping and humane, an act of compassion that nevertheless sees clear-eyed the flaws in the Japanese aggression, strategy, and culture that led inexorably to Hiroshima, defeat, and national shame.

47.  The Hurt Locker (2009, Bigelow)
When every other Iraq War movie could only offer elephant art liberal bromides, Kathryn Bigelow crafted a tense, termitic action film that focused on the war on the ground and the men who lived it.  The movie may strain credulity in its final act, but their are at least three set-pieces here among the most intense and suspenseful ever filmed.

46.  Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004, McKay)
Probably the most influential American comedy of the decade--Will Ferrell and Steve Carrell and Paul Rudd and Judd Apatow and Adam McKay all made it big here--but it's mostly on the list because of Baxter.

45. City of God (2002, Meirelles)
The movie Slumdog Millionaire wished it could be.  A searing portrait of slum life in Rio de Janeiro, following dozens of characters across a decade in a terrifying, hilarious, endlessly exciting mosaic.

44.  Gran Torino (2008, Eastwood)
Eastwood takes a step back from Oscar-bait and crafts his most unassuming and funny movie of the decade.  The humor and simplicity enliven the underlying themes, however:  The old gunslinger learns his guns are no longer acceptable, but manages to find an even more heroic alternative.

43.  Black Hawk Down (2002, Scott)
One of the most adrenaline-pumping, you-are-there war movies ever made, this was the about the only good depiction of American soldiers in the Middle East until The Hurt Locker 8 years later.

42.  Stranger Than Fiction (2006, Forster)
Detractors might call it Charlie Kaufman-lite, but this clever high-concept comedy still plays with philosophical problems as diverse as destiny vs. free will, existentialism vs. nihilism, reality vs. fiction, and the very nature of stories, and the lighter touch means you still feel good about yourself in the morning.

41.  Gladiator (2000, Scott)
Shallow and inaccurate, but gloriously epic entertainment. Russel Crowe's Maximus is the most heroically heroic protagonist of the decade--no angst, underdog, unlikely, or anti- prefix required.

40.  Battle Royale (2000, Fukasaku)
The set-up is nonsense: Apparently Japan has collapsed because unemployment reached 15%, so in response to the violent uncontrollable youth the government decides to send one class of high school students per year to an island where they all have to fight to the death for the country's amusement.  The concept is ridiculous, but the resulting movie is spectacular, 2 parts Lord of the Flies, 1 part The Most Dangerous Game, and one part Saved by the Bell. The kids’ characters are sketched in brief, bold strokes, and the film gradually comes into focus as a metaphor for the social violence of high school, writ large by the addition of machine guns and horror gore.  There's nothing else like it.  I could really put this one a lot higher.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Best Movies of the '00s: Part 1

Back at the end of 2009 and beginning of 2010, it seemed that every movie critic in the country and every movie blogger in the blogosphere became obsessed with putting out “Best Movies of the Decade” lists.  I was fascinated by this fervor, eagerly reading scores of these lists, agreeing and disagreeing with placements, and searching out films listed that I had never heard of before.  I immediately started work on my own list, but quickly realized that there were far, far too may gaps in my knowledge of movies of the decade for me to put together anything like a comprehensive list.  Also, I had nowhere to put it.  Since the time I first started this blog, I’ve been planning on doing this list, it’s just taken me a really long time to get around to it.  (So no, if you were wondering, this isn’t some silly attempt to fit my list to the mathematically correct decade of 2001-2010.  I only considered non-documentary feature films theatrically released between 2000 and the end of 2009.)
The last decade--the 2000s, the Aughts, whatever you want to call it--encompassed my entire adolescence.  Consequently, I was at once extremely limited in what I saw theatrically in the first half of the decade, and entranced in a perhaps outsized way by many films other might consider childish or unsubtle.  My movie-watching habits and tastes have changed and matured a great deal, even over the last year, so the order of this list has undergone a great deal of shuffling.  In the end, though, I wanted it to reflect my own tastes over the decade accurately.  I didn’t want to make it just a record of my opinion over the past two weeks, but over the past several years.  So while many of the films up high on the list may be difficult, adult, or obscure films that I have only just begun to appreciate, I resisted the logical urge to knock off too many old favorites.  Why deny that I really loved certain movies when they came out, even if I can’t muster quite the same enthusiasm right this minute?  But don’t take this the wrong way: I don’t mean I put actually bad movies on this list or anything, just that a few got to stay on there or maintain their positions for sentimental value.  I also resisted putting films on the list just for their objectively “worthy” qualities, but tried to keep it to movies that meant something to me personally.  For instance, I’m perfectly fine with people proclaiming Polanski’s The Pianist a masterpiece--objectively, I think it’s definitely excellent, and I initially put it on my list.  But it didn’t make a strong enough impression on me to keep it on their in the end.
Of course, I keep seeing new movies from the past ten years that I think ought to be on the list.  I’ve even seen several recently that are absolutely among the best movies of the decade, and that I really have no justification for not including.  But I had to make the cut-off somewhere and I didn’t want to keep rearranging everything, so I disqualified any movie I saw for the first time in the last three months (which also gave me time to start writing up little blurbs in spare moments over that span).  That means that I’m Not There, That Evening Sun, Russian Ark, Into the Wild, Hunger, and Lost in Translation, all of which are truly excellent and would have placed, are all disqualified.
Finally, there are, of course, numerous other films I have yet to see that featured on quite a lot of people’s lists.  Many of them look very good, and I hope to get to them eventually, but I simply haven’t gotten around to it yet.  A small sampling of the most highly-regarded films that I have yet to see are as follows:  Mulholland Dr.,  Inland Empire,  Far From Heaven,  Talk to Her,  Sideways,  Before Sunset,  4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days,  United 93,  American Splendor,  Moulin Rouge,  25th Hour,  Waking Life,  A Christmas Tale,  Amores Perros,  Requiem for a Dream,  Traffic,  Half Nelson,  Munich,  Capote,  Gosford Park,  Synecdoche, New York,  The Lives of Others,  Little Miss Sunshine,  Crash,  Memories of Murder,  Syndromes and a Century,  The Squid and the Whale,  In Bruges, and Elephant.  I haven’t seen any movies by Lars Von Trier or Tsai Ming-Liang made last decade, and I haven't seen any movies by Michael Haneke, the Dardenne brothers, Guy Maddin, Olivier Assayas, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, or Jia Zhang-Ke at all, nor any of the movies from Iran or the Romanian New Wave.  Sorry.  I’ll get right on that.
So anyway, after all those caveats, how is this even a legitimate list?  . . . Let me get back to you on that.  But here it is anyway:  My list of the 60 best movies of the last decade.  (Why 60?  Why not?)

60.  The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005, Admamson)
No films could never live up to the brilliance of the books, and the sequels quickly descended to mediocrity, but this first one managed to capture a feeling of childlike wonder and magic in a way no other film of the decade quite achieved.

59.  Casino Royale (2006, Campbell)
Bond was given a new look and a new life.  He was no longer cheesy but cool again, and even emotional.  The poker game may be ridiculous, but the action sequences had never been better.

58.  Zoolander (2001, Stiller)
It's about narcissistic stupid people, but it's not narcissistic or stupid, just funny.  Who doesn't remember David Bowie's proclamation, "It's a walk-off!" with a chuckle?

57.  Hotel Rwanda (2005, George)
A powerful portrait of the Rwandan genocide, focusing on an African character in an African issue movie, for once, not a blundering Westerner learning Third World facts.

56.  Old Joy (2006, Reichardt)
Two old friends, both stuck in ruts. Nothing is really solved, many things are left unsaid.  But in the silence between words, we understand their pain and simple melancholy.  The catharsis of the end may not last for the characters, but it is an experience they will never forget, and we are better for having lived it with them.

55.  Unbreakable (2000, Shyamalan)
M. Night Shyamalan has become hated and mocked, but for a string of films at the beginning of his career he was the unmatched king of the Twilight Zone.  This is one of the finest explorations of the superhero yet made, substituting quiet and emotional connection for the chaos and frenetic action of most superhero movies to get at the heart of the archetype.