Monday, May 10, 2010

Top 50 of the 2000s: #20-11

20. Road to Perdition (Sam Mendes, 2002): American Beauty is routinely cited as Sam Mendes’ best film, and in terms of originality and historical significance, I don’t know that I could argue. But the Mendes film that I most often return to is Road to Perdition, which manages to take Tom Hanks miscast as a hitman and make a gangster-slash-road movie that works. Some will argue that Road to Perdition is little more than an average classically-set gangster film, and when I initially watched it in theater I leaned close to agreeing with such an opinion. Knowing the source material, I now have a better understanding of where the story is coming from and am able to get into it completely. But even if someone refuses to accept the story, I cannot see any way that a fan of cinema would remain unmoved by the cinematography from DP Conrad Hall. The lighting is so unique, creates such a singular visual style, that I don’t even know how to describe it. It looks like nothing else I have seen before or since. The most gorgeous cinematography I have ever seen comes from Terrence Malick films. This last work in the career of the great Conrad Hall rivals anything in The New World or Days of Heaven, which is the highest compliment I am capable of giving a cinematographer.

19. Mystic River (Clint Eastwood, 2003): Perhaps I spoke too soon in anointing The Hours to be the favorite to claim the title of “most depressing film in the countdown.” It is hard to top Eastwood’s screen version of Dennis Lehane’s novel in terms of morose, miserable atmosphere. Everything about it brings nothing but impending dread. Once we see a young Dave Boyle abducted as a kid, the predestined fatalistic finale hangs over everything else that takes place. A number of performances are disturbingly impressive, with Sean Penn and Tim Robbins in particular more than up to the darkness of the story. I don’t know how else to describe the story than to say that it is haunting. Ala Howard Hawks, Eastwood simply tells the story and lets the images and acting speak for itself – nothing very tricky or fancy about it at all.

18. The Aviator (Martin Scorsese, 2004): The Departed and Gangs of New York have their proponents, but for me The Aviator remains the best film made by Marty Scorsese in the 2000s. Stepping away from the gritty, street-level films that are his bread and butter, in this case Scorsese opts for a big, colorful, full-blown Hollywood production. By "Hollywood production" I don't mean that it is rare for Scorsese movies to have a huge budget and resources. I am referring to the "hugeness" or it all. This atmosphere is perfect to tell the story of a bombastic personality like Howard Hughes. This film looks like nothing else in the Scorsese catalog, which to me is a definite positive, as it is interesting to see him working with such interesting, vibrant colors. But in staying a Scorsese film, he does not completely abandon familiar territory. While it might not be immediately obvious, Scorsese is the perfect man to bring to life the descent into madness and obsession that consumed Hughes’ life. After all, who else can convey such neuroses than the man who brought us Travis Bickle? DiCaprio is nothing short of outstanding in the role of Hughes.

17. Sideways (Alexander Payne, 2004): My nominee for the best comedy of the decade has to be Alexander Payne’s Sideways. Rather than simply lampooning the pretentiousness of wine aficionados, the movie does a nice job of taking jabs at wine enthusiasts without completely ridiculing them. It comes across as respecting the passion, while laughing at the quirkiness and seriousness with which they approach the hobby. The four lead performances can all make a case for being the best in the film – the love interests played by Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh are outstanding. But it is the relationship between Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Hayden Church) that is the most fascinating. They are hilarious together, as two men who seemingly have nothing in common and yet remain such close friends. It is hilarious to watch as they gets themselves worked up to the point that they obviously cannot stand to be in each other’s presence, yet all the while it is obvious that they will have the other’s back no matter what comes up. Every time I watch it, there are moments in the film where I start prematurely laughing because I am anticipating the witty dialog that Miles or Jack is about to ramble off. Even Miles’ often-played Merlot explosion never fails to make me laugh.

16. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg, 2001): I had a weird experience watching this a few weeks ago. When I did my annual countdown, I was certain that I had seen A.I. and felt lukewarm about it. I remembered finding it OK, but nothing great. When I re-watched it last month, by the time the film ended I was completely in shock. Anyone else ever had this happen with a film? Anyway, I realized that there was no way that I had seen A.I. in its entirety and not been blown away. Because, rest assured, it most definitely blew me away. I now believe that I would rank only Schindler’s List and Raiders of the Lost Ark ahead of it in terms of the best from Steven Spielberg. As crazy as it sounds, I was also unaware of the Kubrick connection to the entire project, which shows how little attention I gave this film until recently. It was a terrible oversight on my part and I’m just glad that I remedied it. The whole thing is outstanding, but the section that gives me goosebumps is the one that I keep reading criticism about - the end. I find the coda, after David is frozen for 2,000 years, to be incredible. It is both uplifting and heartbreaking, which I have rarely seen pulled off. I don't know how someone could claim that ending was bogus for being "overly sentimental." Such a reaction is ridiculous and I would guess has a lot to do with the general backlash against all things Spielberg that many people continue to harbor.

15. The Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson, 2001): I suppose that I could have revealed this earlier, but with trilogies, I chose only to include my favorite of each series. So, for the classic Tolkien trilogy, I have to go with the first installment. The Return of the King is routinely cited as being the perfect finish to the series and is viewed as the strongest of the films. I slightly give the edge of The Fellowship, although all three are topnotch and are worthy of a placement in this part of the rankings. The amount of stuff that has been written about these films throughout the blogosphere is staggering, and I am nowhere near being enough of a Tolkien aficionado to comment on a lot of what is said. What I will point out, though, is that I have trouble differentiating between the three films in the trilogy. It is not so much that I am an advocate of viewing them as a single movie, but more that they are each of such high quality and flow so well together that I respond equally to all three. What earns Fellowship the nod is that the experience I had watching it for the first time trumps that of the two sequels and thus it will likely remain my personal favorite.

14. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007): I have to be honest and admit that I am no great fan of Paul Thomas Anderson. He may be one of the most talented and beloved filmmakers in Hollywood, but until There Will Be Blood he had not released a single film that I could say I loved. Hard Eight was a solid enough debut. I liked Boogie Nights, but never felt it was as good as critics claimed it to be. Magnolia I have never understood, as it seems like a lesser Robert Altman. Punch-Drunk Love has its moments when I feel like I’m going to completely go for it, but I’ve yet to ever completely reach that point. With There Will Be Blood, I finally got there. Daniel Day-Lewis turns in another towering performance. Many have accused him of simply aping his role as Bill the Butcher in Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. I can understand the thinking, but Lewis would not be the first to play similar roles and make both of them memorable – do the names John Wayne and Jimmy Cagney ring a bell? And there are some subtle differences. Whereas Bill was merciless throughout, Daniel Plainview manages to keep some of his rage subdued until he reaches a murderous boiling point by movie’s end. Robert Elswit shines as director of photography, displaying a vision of the west that is as barren as anything ever committed to celluloid.

13. Flame & Citron (Ole Christian Madsen, 2008): Following the successful formula perfected by Jean-Pierre Melville in his prime, Danish director Ole Christian Madsen created this potent mixture of noir and war film. The movie looks spectacular, with certain sequences that are as impressive as anything in this countdown. I bring it up every time I mention the movie, but those first fifteen minutes that recount the Nazi conquest of Denmark are spectacular. Combining true wartime newsreels with footage shot specifically for this production, the lead character "Flame" narrates what it felt like to be a proud Dutch citizen watching his nation being taken by force. In a short period of time, the stage is properly set for the tale of espionage and resistance that unfolds. In terms of the many WWII resistance films released this decade, I am in the minority that considers Flame & Citron to be the best. I obviously like Inglourious Basterds and Black Book – I obviously wouldn’t have included in the Top 50 if I didn’t – but give Flame & Citron the slight edge due to the interesting relationship and personalities of the two lead characters. It might not be as intellectual as great Melville works like Army of Shadows, but it is still a wonderful combination of action and drama.

12. Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg, 2007): For the life of me I cannot figure out why A History of Violence is so critically-acclaimed, while Eastern Promises is often looked at only as a reasonably successful follow-up collaboration between David Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen. The supposedly “compelling issues” raised by A History of Violence have always come across to me as being too forced, too superficial. It felt like it started strong and became too preposterous for me to stomach as things continued to progress. Eastern Promises, to me, towers above its lauded predecessor. The story, at least on initial appearance, is a fairly conventional gangster tale. But there is much more than meets the eye (which I won’t give away) and Cronenberg expertly manages to disguise the secret well into the film. Looking back, there are obvious hints that should make it known, but the first time around I honestly was not completely aware of the twist until it was obvious to anyone with half a brain. The unique thing about this crime story, though, is that like Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, rather than tell it in the traditional Italian-American mafia setting, Cronenberg creates an entirely new world for such a gangster epic. In this case, he creates a London underworld where Russian and former Soviet immigrant communities remain ruled by all-powerful crime lords. The whole subculture completely envelops you while watching. There are also a number of wonderfully gritty performances, coming from Armin Mueller-Stahl as the Russian mob patriarch, Vincent Cassell as Mueller-Stahl’s son, and Mortensen as the thug with a heart. Originally slotted just outside the Top 20, I jumped this one way up the list, as I savor it more each time I watch it. It is a tough, brutal movie, but Cronenberg gives everything such a lyricism that it is intoxicating.

11. United 93 (Paul Greengrass, 2006): I don’t know what to say about this film without sounding completely cheesy. To call it “powerful” or “sobering” seems so cliché when dealing with a historical event like 9/11. The fact that the movie itself never once ventures into such tasteless areas speaks to what an accomplishment Paul Greengrass achieves. When the film was first released, I was hesitant as to how it would work and had two main concerns: one, that it was too soon for such a movie to be made; and two, that it would almost certainly be an over-the-top flag-waiving exercise. After watching it, neither concern was ever an issue. The heroism doesn’t feel forced. The horror is never sugarcoated. The documentary style that Greengrass uses gives everything a real-time feel that makes every minute heart-pounding. The story covers many hours, but everything feels like it is happening in real-time as the action cuts from the hijacked plane, to FAA control centers, to NORAD. The story is one that is certainly well-known to any American, and I would guess to most people on the planet that lived through it, so it is shocking to experience the terror that is created as the action moves toward the final storming of the cockpit. Everyone knows what the conclusion will be; many likely know all the details about the buildup. Even so, it is alarming to watch it all play out. The Michael Mann-like approach of simply dropping the audience into the story, without any regard for character development or background information, was the perfect approach to tell this story.


  1. Dave, I've seen all of these except Flame & Citron, which I do see showing up on Sundance every so often. I've never given Road to Perdition that second look, so I retain my original negative opinion. Similarly, a second viewing of The Aviator might improve my opinion of it, but I was quite underwhelmed the first time. The others are all solid choices.

    About Daniel Day-Lewis: Bill the Butcher was a caricature, which was what Gangs of New York required, while Daniel Plainview is a character, however grotesque he turns out to be by the end. I loved both performances, but the latter is the better.

  2. Dave, your comments about "Eastern Promises" duplicate my thoughts exactly--from its standing in comparison to "A History of Violence" to your observation that the latter film starts out strong and then just becomes preposterous. I absolutely agree that "Promises" fits the mold of the classic gangster epic and by placing it in a new context gives it a fresh spin.

  3. Some great choices there, though I got to disagree with A.I. Artificial Intelligence, not because I think it's "overly sentimental", but because I felt it was a very cheap way to end a wonderful movie. I rarely feel as though a movie suffers because of it's ending, but if I had to name two movies that do, it would be two Spielberg : A.I. and War of the Worlds. I don't known if I'm really ambivalent about Spielberg because he made those two great movies that ended with, in my opinion, absolutely mediocre endings or because of Crystal Skull.

  4. Samuel - Road to Perdition required more viewings from me as well, so maybe you will come around on it. The Aviator I watched again specifically for this series and I still love it. Something about the "hugeness" of it all just appeals to me.

    R.D. - Yes, we are definitely on the same page regarding the two Cronenbergs. Of course, the two of us are in the minority it seems, because A History of Violence is routinely listed as one of the top 10-15 films of the decade, while Eastern Promises comes in much further down the list.

    ThatQuebecGuy - If the ending of A.I. is not overly sentimental, then what is "very cheap" about it? I guess I just don't understand the criticism. Because David finally gets his wish it is cheap? I'm a pretty cynical guy, but not that much! (LOL)

  5. Another fine, diversified list! My favorite of this particular lot is A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE, which for me is a Top 10 finisher, but SIDEWAYS and THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING are masterful, and have no complaint at all with every one of the others, especially FLAME AND CITRON, THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, ROAD TO PERDITION, THERE WILL BE BLOOD< MYSTIC RIVER and THE AVIATOR. That particular Cronenberg is not one of my favorites by him, but I can well respect your admiration, and I'll admit UNITED 93 has grown on me.

    I completely disagree with The Quebec Guy on the ending of A.I., but I think you handled that well. The last fourth of the film was as emitionally overwhelming as anything I've ever seen.

  6. Dave: Regarding your A.I. question,yes, I have had that massive turn-around from ambivalence/dislike to total embrace. One such turn-around was Miami Vice, and the other was, oh hey, it was A.I. It is by some measure the most thought-provoking blockbuster ever made (I don't know that you can call something as lead-paced as Blade Runner a blockbuster), filled with some of the keenest explorations in the "what makes us human, if anything?" realm of sci-fi musing. That's why I will never understand those who say the ending is sentimental. For one thing, it shows a child getting his wish, and then dying, so... you're welcome? Second, it brings the movie full-circle, from a mother growing to love the artificial image of cute boy to that robot having his perfect day with an equally false image of that woman. Too, he's being gawked at the whole time by the advanced mechas who only gave him this illusion of happiness so they could dissect his memories. It is by any measure, the most cynical and damning moment of the entire film, cementing the idea that there is quite possibly nothing that makes us truly human. I jumped on the hate bandwagon when I first watched it, but the ending is not only the farthest thing from sappy, it's far more essential than the "first ending" nearly everyone wishes it'd ended at.

    Also, I agree on Eastern Promises. I think it took the ambitious and perceptive issues raised by History and ironed out the wrinkles. Better acting, better story and a better handle on what it's really getting at (though I do very much like AHoV).

  7. I'm always glad when I come across someone who feels as I do about the relative merits of A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. The former is a rather formulaic thriller with, as you say, some unsubtle points about violence and morality grafted on top. The latter is a brutal, brilliant upending of the mob thriller, exploring the subtexts of the genre — gay attraction and repression, spirituality, the protection of traditional domesticity — in much more complex ways than its predecessor. It's the best film Cronenberg has made in years, and one of his best overall. I never got why it was overlooked in favor of the silly, shallow first Viggo collaboration.

    The list continues to be very interesting, Dave. Lots of films I wouldn't pick myself, but that's why people have different tastes.

  8. I'm kind of surprised no one has mentioned Cronenberg's best movie of the decade, Spider. An absolutely brilliant piece of movie making, and one of the five or so best films he's made. I like Eastern Promises a lot too, though, and seeing great actors like Mortensen and Cassel getting to play off each other is a real opportunity. Of the films here, I really love Mystic River. For me it's the best thing Eastwood has done, and unlike a lot of the filmmaker's other recent stuff, treats people as people rather than as political or moral objects. It's a pretty devastating movie, and I think Eastwood's direction amplifies its tragic components without making it overblown (the key scene is near the end, with Linney and Penn in bed).

  9. For what it's worth, I also prefer Eastern Promises over A History of Violence. The earlier film shows its comic-book roots too obviously at times (see also Road to Perdition). I have nothing against comic books, but something about those two graphic novels, at least as translated to film, hasn't worked for me, whereas Promises felt more like the real deal.

  10. Well my vote goes to A History Of Violence over Eastern Promises. I love both so I won't try to knock one over the other. Like Doniphon I am a huge fan of Mystic River and consider it his second best movie after Unforgiven. Road To Perdition also hit me after a second viewing. I absolutely love that film and the comparison to Mallick is perfect. It is an incredibly beautiful picture to look at. Count me in as someone else that loves the conclusion of A.I. Its the ending that elevates this film to greatness in my opinion. I don't understand why people find it to be sentimental. Jake perfectly summed up its profound message, which for me also had a scientific experimentation angle to it. The aliens seem to be trying to understand the petty "feelings" of the human robot child. In their future world there only seems to be observation and science without much emotion. I found that implied message very moving. I also love Sideways, There Will Be Blood, and Flame And Citronen. I agree with your thoughts on Paul Thomas Anderson and I also find the first Lord Of The Rings to be the best. I am not a fan of The Aviator though and I still can't get into 9/11 movies. I will watch United 93 eventually but I have yet to see it or want too......M.Roca

  11. As far as A.I.'s ending is concerned, I thought the movie really lost it's momentum, it felt like it kept wanting to end, but chose not to and honestly, I didn't buy the alien thing; too neat, too easy (that's where my "cheap" comes from). Plus for a movie that I found very emotional, the ending left me completely cold. But on the bright side, I got to say it fits the tone and it doesn't feel out of place, it was still very much grounded in the sci-fi fairytale atmosphere the whole movie had.

    But that's all VERY subjective.

  12. Oh, and sorry for the double posting, but I forgot to say that Jake's take on the ending is really interesting. Doesn't change my opinion of it though! ;)

  13. Very interesting selections here Dave. There Will Be Blood and A.I. are likewise two of my favorites from the decade, so it's wonderful to see them here.

    I couldn't agree more with Jake's take on the ending to the latter; far from the sappy, sentimental ending many take it for, it's indeed a haunting and pessimistic coda that raises the kind of lofty questions about humanity and love that most films don't come close to having the stones to touch. The most heartbreaking moment for me being when the end teases that Teddy has viewed David much like David has his mother for the entire movie, adding layers of poignancy to the story. A brilliant, ambitious masterpiece.

    I also applaud your inclusion of United 93 and Sideways, two films that didn't make my cut, but that I do hold in very high regard. I still need to see Flame & Citron and Road to Perdition from this list, and though I liked Eastern Promises quite a bit, for me History for Violence remains the superior work.

    The only film here I actively don't care for is Mystic River, which I just simply found to be a rather weary and uninteresting police procedural elevated by strong acting and technical polish. It just didn't do anything for me, but as was said earlier, these lists wouldn't be interesting if everyone agreed with everything! Can't wait for the top 10 Dave, really nice job so far.

  14. Sam - Thanks for the kinds words... there are certainly some great ones here.

    Jake - Great analysis of A.I., which I agree with. I'm also glad to see so much agreement on Eastern Promises.

    Ed - More Eastern Promises love... I love the love! (LOL) I agree on lists like this being a mixed bag, but that's why I am so interested in them. I actually find it much more interesting to personal lists/selections from people whose taste I respect, than to see "greatest" or "best made" films type of lists.

    Doniphon - I have to admit to not having seen Spider... it's one of those I mentioned as part of the disclaimer that started this countdown. I definitely need to, just haven't gotten to it yet. I originally had Mystic River slotted a few spots higher but, for whatever reason, I chose to drop it a little in my final preparations. Still, I think it's top flight Eastwood, probably behind only Unforgiven (and maybe The Outlaw Josey Wales) in terms of what I think is his best.

    M.Roca - United 93 is definitely worth watching if it at all interests you. As I said, I had serious reservations going into it as well and came away completely impressed by how Greengrass handled it.

    ThatQuebecGuy - I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree. I thought that the coda played very well.

    Drew - I agree with everything you say here except for two points - the one concerning Eastern Promises and assessment of Mystic River. Of course, you didn't need a response to know this, as they are after all included among my Top 20!

  15. I have seen all except for "Flammen and Cintronen" and "United 11" and of those they are all solid choices though I do believe IMO "There Will Be Blood" should reside in the top 10 and I know that "Eastern Promises" will not make my top 25.

  16. John - Flame & Citron is one you need to see... our tastes run very similar and knowing your appreciation for both noir and Melville, I think it's one that you would definitely like. As for There Will Be Blood, you could be right, but it's getting tough to separate these. Although, I will say that the top 5-6 for me really separate themselves from the pack in terms of personal enjoyment. Hows that for a teaser of the Top 10?!

  17. What fun! Thanks for this analysis and the great conversation that it engenders. I have seen eight of ten for 11-19 (missing Perdition and Flammen -- Flammen is on order) and agree all of the rest of these are worthy of top fifty status for the decade. Is the order correct? Who knows -- we all have a little different take and that is the fun of the dialogue. My only complaint: I think non-English films are slightly under-represented. I am looking forward to the top ten.

  18. Mark - You're right about the non-English films. My viewing in this decade in particular (and really the 90s, I suppose, too) is heavily slanted toward English films. So having seen significantly more of them, it is inevitable that they are going to be more highly represented here. But, I'm going with what I have at least seen, so there's not much I can do about that one at the moment! (LOL)

    I'd love to hear your thoughts on Flame & Citron after you get a chance to see it.

  19. Great list, I respect most of these choices (never understood the universal love for Sideways) and have many of them on my own top 20.

    I also agree with you about Eastern Promises being far superior to A History of Violence. So does Kristin Thompson:
    It's a great read for fans of either film.

  20. I cannot compare to experts here. Going to movies with friends, I always end up seeing wrong stuff. However my take are: And Then There will Be Blood, No Countries for Old Men; "O Brother Where are Thou?" by George Clooney. These are movies that give impression in many aspects.