Saturday, May 8, 2010
Top 50 of the 2000s: #30-21
30. Femme Fatale (Brian De Palma, 2002): I love doing internet searches on the films of Brian De Palma, because the range of opinions is so extreme that it makes it virtually impossible to gauge how you will react to one of his movies until you have actually seen it. I have been on a serious Brian De Palma kick for months and the fact that Femme Fatale is in the Top 50 should make clear where I come down on De Palma. Say what you will about him, but the man is a master in telling a story with the camera. Even if you don’t like his plots, even if you believe him to be a hack that has been ripping off Hitchcock for decades, I don’t see how you can deny what an inventive technician he can be behind the camera. The opening shot in this film is a case in point. Rebecca Romijn’s Laure is laying on a hotel bed, watching the final showdown between Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson in the noir classic Double Indemnity. De Palma focuses on the TV, allowing Laure’s face to glare back off the screen, so that we watch her watching the scene. Simple, yet such brilliant work. The early heist scene is both sensual and suspenseful. The story is convoluted as hell, containing unbelievable, hallucinatory plot details. Really, the plot is inconsequential. In my mind, you can either revel in De Palma’s style that is on full display – flashbacks, dreams, split screens, replayed scenes – or if you aren’t a fan to begin with, you probably will not like this one. I am a fan, so I rank it among De Palma’s best. When I watch a quality De Palma film, I feel like I am watching somebody at work who just loves everything about cinema - the techniques, the possibilities, the history. And that always appeals to me.
29. The Return (Andrei Zvyagintsev, 2003): This is another difficult movie to place, at least initially. I have seen it described as being in the “Tarkovsky style,” which for most cineastes is as strong an endorsement as can be given. As someone who has struggled with Tarkovsky from the get-go – I don’t at all dislike his films, they’re just hard for me – I didn’t know what to make of the comparison. After finishing it for the first time, I was equally as puzzled about what to make of the film. It was one of those rare movies where you either love or hate what you just watched and it’s not entirely clear which the case is. The visuals were undeniably spectacular, but what to make of the story being told? It’s one that needs to be fully digested and mulled over. As I scoured the ‘net and looked to see what others thought, I came across a statement form Washington Post film critic Stephen Hunter that summed up exactly how I came feel about The Return: It's not the sort of film one can be said to enjoy, but it is the sort of film that has the clarity of a dream and lingers for hours.” This one worms its way into your psyche and stays there. It is not one that you turn off or walk out of the cinema and soon forget. Director Andrei Zyvagintsev has crafted a movie that uses a MacGuffin worthy of Hitchcock or Huston, yet allows enough allegorical interpretations for each viewer to take something different from it. Everything about the story is ominous, and childhood actors Vladimir Garin and Ivan Dobronravov convey the uneasiness with the skill of veteran actors. Why did their father disappear and then return after twelve years? What is in the mysterious box that he secretly digs up? You’ll have to answer these questions yourself, as Zyvagintsev isn’t conventional enough to tell.
28. No Country for Old Men (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2007): The Best Picture winner in the monumental cinematic year of 2007. Even though I rank it behind at least four or five other movies of the same year, it is an engrossing, haunting film that is as good as advertised. I remain shocked at how successful the movie became, particularly at the box office where it was a smash. I suppose this is a testament to how well it can play as a simple thriller or action movie. To look at it in this fashion, though, is to overlook so many intricacies included in the film (or are at least attempted to be). I say “at least attempted to be” because I do think that some key sections of the book do not translate as seamlessly to the screen as others. I am a big fan of Cormac McCarthy’s novel and the best parts of the book were the inner monologues and ruminations of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. Some of these were able to be included, many others weren’t. Normally I am not one to make a big stink over “the movie pales in comparison to the book” type of stuff and I am not meaning to imply that. Just pointing out that I can't help but think about my favorite parts of the book whenever the screenplay gives room for the Sheriff to reflect. Tackling the themes of this film is too large a task to accomplish in this limited space. But it’s another instance of a movie that leaves room for interpretation and deserves to be watched multiple times.
27. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000): I go back and forth on whether my favorite Ang Lee film is Lust, Caution or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. For now, I stick with Crouching Tiger, although that could change in the future. I’ve said it multiple times on the blog, but I still am shocked that I like this movie as much as I do. Martial arts-related films usually do nothing for me. In this case, the action is so well-choreographed without being dragged out to interminable lengths, that it is much more accessible to viewers like me. Plus, the chemistry that develops between the leads means that there is a very human element to everything taking place in this mystical world. The back-and-forth between Michelle Yeoh and Ziyi Zhang is the most interesting aspect for me, as their relationship walks a line between friendship and rivalry.
26. Bright Star (Jane Campion, 2009): Another film that I immediately knew I liked, but didn’t completely know what to make of. Bright Star is a movie that you need to give some time to really sink in, mull over a few days, and then try and make sense of it later. This is a slow-moving, contemplative look at the relationship between Fanny Brawne and poet John Keats. The deliberate pacing is fitting, allowing the gorgeous visuals to take center stage and the relationship between Fanny and Keats to develop through unconventional means like walks in the forest, love letters back and forth, and information passed by mutual acquaintances. Campion employs a surprisingly simple storytelling technique, but her script makes the love affair between Fanny and Keants feel very natural and real, not the typically sped-up or forced Hollywood romance. The movie has a definite Malick feel, which is great news for Malick nuts like me. The best performance of the movie probably comes from Paul Schneider as Charles Armitage Brown. He is annoyingly perfect for the role and is likely to irritate the viewer as much as he does Fanny. This is the only film I have ever seen from Jane Campion and I am very impressed. The fact that I wanted to watch this one again almost immediately after finishing it is one of the highest compliments I can give to any movie.
25. Black Book (Paul Verhoeven, 2006): Yes, even more WWII resistance. This seems to have been a popular setup for the decade and while I don’t think this is the best movie to touch on the issue, it comes very close to being so. Although Verhoeven returned to his native Holland to make this film, the thing that I love about it is how it plays like a good old fashioned, entertaining Hollywood war film. There are copious amounts of twists, turns, and action to satisfy the most passive of viewers. But the film also contains interesting character studies, particularly in the film of Ellis and the machinations she has to go through in order to survive in different worlds. I am still a neophyte in terms of Verhoeven’s overall body of work, but what Black Book showed was what a technician he could be. He has camera movements – I am thinking of the scene when Rachel and her family are trying to sneak away on the barge – that are sublime. Inglourious Basterds seems to have been anointed as the resistance film per excellence, but Black Book is actually the superior film.
24. The Proposition (John Hillcoat, 2005): This brutal western set in Australia was a revelation to me when I watched it for the first time in 2007. I knew virtually nothing about it but saw it referenced as being the best western released in the last decade. When I got the chance to see it, I briefly agreed with that assessment. Until I saw another western later in the year, I agreed that The Proposition was the best to be released in some time. It is a gorgeously photographed movie, showcasing the sprawling Australian landscape. The natural beauty serves as a contrast to the extreme brutality and violence that characterizes the story. A scene of a judicial whipping in the center of a town is downright cruel. Many have made the connection to the writing of Cormac McCarthy, particularly his novel Blood Meridian, and it’s a natural link. The magnificence of McCarthy’s writing is contrasted by the endless violence of his story, similar to the juxtaposition created in The Proposition.
23. Collateral (Michael Mann, 2004): The third Michael Mann entry in this decade and, in my opinion, his best film of the 2000s. It’s actually very close between all three, but what sets Collateral apart for me is the wonderful atmosphere and tone that Mann is able to create in late night Los Angeles. Mann is a master at disguising action movies or thrillers as burning character studies. He sticks with his latest style of throwing audiences directly into a story, with little background or buildup, but there is just enough of a setup to pave the way for future developments. The early scenes between Jamie Foxx’s Max and a District Attorney played by Jada Pinkett-Smith are wonderful. Some people have argued that the screenplay is weak, but Stuart Beattie’s dialog in close-quarters situations like this is actually outstanding. The discussions between Tom Cruise’s calculating Vincent, a fare that Max picks up and is unwittingly drawn into a series of contract murders, move like a singsong melody which plays well with the muted reds and yellows of streetlights in the L.A. night. Cruise and Foxx both shine throughout the entire film, with their interplay holding everything together. If you think about it, the scenario is preposterous – why wouldn't Vincent’s employers provide him with the necessary transportation? This might be too big of a hurdle for some folks to overcome. But watching it play out, things are so entertaining, and Cruise’s brooding philosophical diatribes so intriguing, that it’s easy to forget the outlandishness of the plot.
22. Up (Pete Docter & Bob Peterson, 2009): My knowledge of animated film is almost zilch, even concerning the wildly popular movies of Pixar. I haven’t seen all of their films released this decade and have come to learn that many actually regard Up as a middle of the road effort in comparison to other successes like Ratatouille, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, or Wall-E. I haven’t seen the first two so I cannot comment, but I disagree completely about the latter two. Based on my limited experience with Pixar, Up stands head and shoulders above the rest. Not only that, but I think that it is probably the best film released in all of 2009. The fifteen minute silent sequence at the beginning of the film that recounts the life of Carl and Ellie as a married couple is as fine a piece of filmmaking as I have seen the entire decade. It is something on par with great silent directors like Chaplin and Keaton. The remainder of the film is also of high quality, with Ed Asner shining as the cynical Carl – I love his line about he and Russell moving the house across the mountain and how “we're gonna walk to the falls quickly and quietly, with no rap music or flash-dancing.” The interaction between Carl and Russell really is touching and the entire movie plays as a wonderful fable for both children and adults.
21. City of God (Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund, 2002): Yes, this one was a bit higher when I mad a quick list in January and it has done nothing to deserve falling in the rankings. It is just that other movies continue to get better for me and new entries have moved it down a few notches. Still, it is a powerhouse movie, taking well-known crime story arcs and giving them a fresh feel and power. As I said in my review for the annual countdown, this is one of the few movies that manage to truly appall me. The scene where a young kid is forced to shoot another child is horrifying every time I see it. Rather than repeat myself, I will reiterate what I said in that write-up: “Certainly a great film is not found in a single scene, but for me it undercuts the key criticism that is leveled against City of God: the fact that it retreads a lot of ground that has been covered in previous crime films. To be certain, the influences of American crime dramas are obvious – the realistic, documentary feel of Martin Scorsese’s early works, the quirkiness and sometimes humorous episodic structure of a Tarantino film, the childhood to adulthood scope of countless gangster films. I’ve seen some claim that the only difference is setting the film in the favela of Brazil. Maybe this is true, but it glosses over what an enormous variation this is. Exploring an underworld that most viewers know very little about, it looks at issues of crime and life in the ghetto differently than any of the previously mentioned films. And in the end, its answers, or lack thereof, are no easier to digest than the scene I described in the first paragraph.”