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.