Wednesday, May 12, 2010
Top 50 of the 2000s: #10-1
10. The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006): Another film that has dropped somewhat from my rough January list, due to nothing about the movie itself. Others are just moving up and have necessitated some juggling of the order. Judging by other movies that that I love – Antonioni’s Blow-Up, Coppola’s The Conversation, De Palma’s Blow Out, even Bertolucci’s The Conformist – this is a movie tailor-made for my tastes. The reason that I am able to love all of these similarly-themed films is that each of them, despite countless parallels, comes at things from a slightly different bent. To me, The Lives of Others has a much more compassionate, longing undercurrent to everything that is happening. Wiesler seems totally committed to the East German state, but behind the icy demeanor, what slowly emerges is a longing for something else. At least that’s my take, whether or not that makes sense to anyone else I can’t say. It plays like a thriller but has a longer lasting impact than any thriller I have ever seen. Furthering the connection to a movie like The Conformist, this is a story that will stick with you long after it has finished. And that is one of the key marks of a great film.
9. Downfall (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004): Possibly the most parodied performance of the decade also happens to be among the finest, as Bruno Ganz pulls of a believable turn as the decaying Adolf Hitler. The controversy surrounding the film’s release in Germany is understandable, as it is a testament to the power of Ganz’s performance that he somehow manages to make Hitler at times seem like a regular person. Just admitting that, though, gives the whole movie a very unsettling feel. You see the Hitler that listens to children singing or cares so deeply for his pet German shepherd and almost feel guilty that for a split second you aren’t looking at him as arguably the most evil man of the 20th century. But the humanizing aspect of the performance actually serves to make it all the more horrifying. The thought of a man capable of such kindness to little kids or the women under his care one minute who can then fly into a rage in which he damns the entire population of Berlin to death is disturbing. Hirschbiegel shoots the film very well, showing just enough of what is going on outside the bunker to keep everything in perspective, but never sacrificing the effective claustrophobic environs of the bunker for more combat footage. This is another downer of a film, but one that is absolutely essential.
8. Atonement (Joe Wright, 2007): As I said, 2007 will be featured prominently throughout this series. My estimation of Atonement has continued to grow and I don't think any film (even Eastern Promises) benefited more from watching it again. This movie skyrocketed up my list after I watched it last week. This was originally slotted somewhere in the 20s, but watching the gorgeous photography from Seamus McGarvey is too overpowering to keep it from at least this high of a position. The technical aspects of Atonement are marvelous, not only in McGarvey’s cinematography but also in some bravura camera movements. The famed tracking shot of the beach at Dunkirk is every bit as impressive as it is hailed to be. I love the way that the story is broken up in the first third, with scenes taking place out of sequential order to perfectly reflect the different perspectives of everyone involved. I previously believed that the final two thirds of the film were significantly weaker than the first, but I was just wrong. The war scenes are very effective. This is equal parts mystery, romance, and heartbreaking tragedy. Of all of the films in the countdown, this might have benefited most by my re-watching it before finalizing the list. It is a movie that is enjoyable due to how well-made it is, but distressing to watch it unfold. Drama of the highest order with photography that is achingly beautiful.
7. Once (John Carney, 2006): Another complete revelation to me when I finally watched this for the first time a few weeks ago. As soon as I finished watching it I had to discuss it with somebody and so I immediately shot off an e-mail to WitD’s Sam Juliano (who I knew was a big fan) just to rave about it. He’ll attest to the fact that I was completely gushing. I could not believe that I had waited years to finally get a copy. I have never really been a fan of musicals, which I saw that this is routinely said to be. That label is a misnomer, as this is nowhere near being a musical in the Singin' in the Rain or West Side Story sense. Rather, this is simply a movie about music or dealing with music, not a traditional musical. Then again, even that description might not be completely accurate, as the music is simply the means by which two completely different people are able to connect. The relationship between the Guy and Girl (yes, no names are given) is what matters, not necessarily the music. To be certain, the music is fun and it’s rewarding even as a viewer to watch as the two are able to blend together their musical abilities and magically write a cycle of songs. I could rave about this movie all day and my suspicion is that over time, this is one that will continue to increase in stature. It’s not easy to make such a simple, laid-back movie so incredibly powerful, but John Carney pulls it off. It runs the gamut of emotions – uplifting, funny, sad, poignant, downright joyous. Carney even manages to avoid the predictable conclusion and instead end things with a perfect finish. A great, great movie.
6. The Black Dahlia (Brian De Palma, 2006): I am already anticipating the collective gasp from most followers of the blog. That is, except for you Doniphon – I at least know that you are with me! Whereas Once was a movie that I just never got around to seeing for whatever reason, The Black Dahlia was one that I intentionally avoided. The reviews were unbelievably negative upon its initial release and I assumed that it was one that I could safely skip and move onto other worthwhile films. Once again, Doniphon at The Long Voyage Home clued me into something I was missing. Trusting his judgment, I decided to give it a shot. I loved it. Then, I had to buy a copy and make sure that it was as good as I thought. It held up. In fact, the movie remained stuck in my mind, similar to how the mysterious murder of the Dahlia consumed the two lead detectives of the story. So, this is the biggest limb that I will go out on for this list, as I do not hesitate in anointing The Black Dahlia to not only be among my personal top six films of the decade, but I now consider my favorite film ever directed by Brian De Palma. The main complaint about the film seems to be that the narrative is incomprehensible, but as Doniphon and I have discussed before, this is just De Palma lulling the audience into that belief. Multiple viewings actually show the he basically lays everything out for the audience. A first-time viewer is unlikely to pick up on all of these clues, but they are all out there to be pieced together. This is one of De Palma’s great appeal qualities for me: his ability to make the viewer think he is being tricky, when in reality things are not as complicated as you think. There is also a surreal aspect to chunks of the film that might be off-putting to some, but it works for me in a weird Twin Peaks kind of way. De Palma the visual stylist also shines here, as the sequence where he transitions from a shootout outside a storefront to the discovery of the Dahlia’s body is spectacular.
5. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003): This one drops a spot from the January rough draft, but only because the four films ahead of it are so strong. I still stand by my often-repeated claim that this is the best movie made by a member of the Coppola family in the last thirty years. This is actually the only film I have seen from Sofia, so she is batting .1000 with me as a director. I had planned on refraining from taking any shots at her turn in The Godfather III, but I can’t help it, she and her father deserve all the razzies they get for that. So, I’ll plead with her not to consider a return to acting at any point in her future. But why would she need to with directorial skills like this? And it’s not just her directing here, as the original screenplay also deserves recognition. What could have easily been dragged into the dreaded cheesy chick-flick territory never even approaches such negatives. Bill Murray should have won an Oscar for Best Actor but was nudged out by Academy favorite Sean Penn in Mystic River. Scarlett Johansson showed the promise here that everyone hoped she would live up to. Unfortunately, I don’t think she has – even in the other films in this countdown that she stars in, Match Point and The Black Dahlia, she comes across as very mechanical. Not in Lost in Translation, though. Here she is almost perfect. What it ultimately comes down to for me and this film, I suppose, is that I find the whole thing charming. Maybe it has something to do with personal experience. Although not the same in terms of age difference, I’ve had relationships that had a dynamic similar to the one here – not romantic, but unique in being different from a normal friendship. That personal connection certainly adds something to the experience.
4. Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007): I don’t see how anyone can watch this film and ever listen to Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” and not be reminded of either this movie of the Zodiac killer in general. The association has been imprinted that powerfully in my mind. David Fincher is another director that is popular both among critics and fans, but one that I never really warmed up to until 2007. I liked Se7en, but outside of that found a lot of his other blockbusters to be overrated. Zodiac was very different. What I like most about it is how it can be approached differently by each viewer. By the title of the film, it would seem that the central issue is examining who actually pulled off the sensational murders and taunted the police along the way. But the more that I watch the movie, the more it seems that the true point is examining the effects of obsession. Robert Graysmith becomes so consumed with discovering the killer’s identity – not necessarily bringing about justice, but just “looking into his eyes” – that it ruins the life he has built for himself. Fincher never resorts to cheap tricks or “got ya” moments to create tension. He doesn’t need to – the movie and story are just flat-out scary. I find few movies genuinely scary, but this is one of them. It’s just unnerving to me in a way that few other films have ever matched. The dread that builds up as Fincher follows years of investigation and speculation is beyond compare. The fact that this was not the top film of its year once again speaks to what a monumental twelve months of cinema 2007 was.
3. Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, 2003): I don’t know how I could write only a capsule of David Lynch’s crowning achievement, or do so without copying everything I wrote in the annual countdown. So I apologize in advance to those that have faithfully followed the blog, as you’ve probably heard much of this before. The experience I had watching Mulholland Dr. for the first time remains one of the most memorable movie-watching experiences of my life. I had no clue what I had just watched, but I didn’t care – I just knew that I had sat through an undisputed masterpiece. I immediately began playing things back through in my mind, trying to put the pieces together. I’ve now reached a point where I think I can put forth a coherent explanation of what happens in the movie, but that’s really unimportant. Part of me thinks that analyzing it any further than I already have might ruin some of the sheer enjoyment I get from watching it. Perhaps this outlook will eventually lead me to understanding and appreciating Lynch’s later incomprehensible Inland Empire? At any rate, I would give anything to be able to once again experience this movie as I did the first time. Dreamy and magical are the words that come to mind when I think about it. Experiences like that are what hooked me as a serious movie nut.
2. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007): If forced to make a list of my favorite westerns of all time, I would put The Assassination of Jesse James behind only two other films – Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. And even then, I’d be tempted to find a way to nudge it toward the top spot! The movie was criminally overlooked when it came time for the 2007 awards season, but it seems to have enjoyed an ever-increasing reputation among those in the blogosphere. Maybe it’s my love of all things Malick that draws me to this film, but similar to that master’s best works, The Assassination manages to cast some sort of spell over me that keeps me enthralled for its three-hour running time. Somehow Roger Deakins lost the Academy Award for Best Cinematography to Robert Elswit’s work in There Will Be Blood, but in my opinion it is a no contest. Deakins here produces some of the finest work I have ever seen. The famed train robbery sequence never does anything less than give me chills. I had reservations about Brad Pitt as Jesse James but he is more than just serviceable, he approaches greatness. Casey Affleck doesn’t just approach greatness; he achieves it as Bob Ford. The personality he creates for Bob is perfect – at times annoying, neurotic, loyal, occasionally bold. The number of great scenes and sequences here come one on top of another: the train robbery, standing on the ice and firing into it, the tense dinner table showdown, the coda that closes the film. It took a lot to keep this from the #1 slot, but as we’ll see, my top selection is also an all-time favorite…
1. The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005): There was certainly no suspense or drama as to what my top pick would be. Anyone who has followed the blog at all knows that not only do I love Terrence Malick, but this film in particular is one that I hold very dear. I mentioned the great experience that I had watching Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. for the first time. I had a similar epiphany with The New World. The great thing about The New World is that I manage to get that same out-of-this-world feeling every time I watch it, even now after having seen it at least six or seven times. I recently bought my third copy of it when I picked up the Blu Ray a few weeks back, which now sits beside the original DVD and the Extended Cut. I hate double-dipping (or in this case triple-dipping) on things, but if anything cries out to be watched in HD or Blu Ray it is the work of Terrence Malick. I pretty much poured out everything I had to say about the film in my review for the annual countdown (so I’ll at least direct folks there for a more thorough discussion). What I will reiterate is the way that I am continually drawn into this movie. Everything about it works for me. In my original review, I described it as “an all-encompassing, overwhelming onslaught of all the senses,” and that is the best way that I can explain it. Malick’s story, where fact and myth are swirled into his own unique concoction, hits me both in the stomach and the heart. The cinematography from Emanuel Lubezki is the best I have ever seen, bar none. The music could not have been more perfectly selected and now I cannot listen to a single note of Wagner’s Rheingold or Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 without wanting to watch this film. I could go on for pages singing this film’s praises. Instead, I’ll encourage folks that haven’t to read the extended piece I already wrote and leave any comments they would like. I will just finish by admitting that the more that I think about it, and more that I watch it, the closer I come to realizing that The New World is probably the best movie I’ve ever seen. If not, it’s damn close.