Thursday, May 6, 2010
Top 50 of the 2000s: #40-31
40. Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe, 2000): At one time, this movie was a Top 20 selection for the decade. Unfortunately, it hasn’t held up quite as well on repeat viewings. The appeal of the story is still there, as I would have loved nothing more than to have been alive in this era and leading the life of Patrick Fugit’s character. That being said, while I still enjoy it, I can’t help but seeing it as coming dangerously close to being just a fictionalized story that incorporates as many Led Zeppelin-related rock n’ roll clichés as possible into the tale. It remains wildly entertaining for me and if for nothing other than the music it is worth watching. This entry makes it sound like it is a movie that I dislike, which is not the case or I wouldn't have included it in the Top 50 at all. I am just explaining why it at one time appeared in the top twenty and is now #40. Still one I enjoy watching, if not quite as much as I initially did.
39. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009): OK, OK, I was wrong. I admit it. When I first came home from the theater and tried to give the latest Tarantino film a rating, I admitted that I liked it but was a bit underwhelmed. I thought it was a 7/10 type movie. Watching it again, though, I quickly realized two things. First, I enjoyed the film a lot more when I didn’t watch every minute expecting laughs like Pulp Fiction. And second, that my original criticism of the film having some fluff sprinkled throughout its near three-hour running time remains valid. I still firmly hold the belief that Basterds is better in parts than it is as a whole. But those outstanding parts are among the best work that Tarantino has done. The opening interrogation scene is superbly paced and shot. The tavern sequence, as some of the Basterds go undercover as Nazi officers, is both fun and intense. The audacity to change history, as Tarantino does in the shocking finale, was probably too bold for me to stomach – even now, I still am a little surprised he had the guts to go through with and, even more shocking, that it was so well received in many quarters. But the quote that has stuck with me since I re-watched it is Christoph Waltz’s Landa declaring that, “In the pages of history, every once in a while, fate reaches out and extends its hand… What shall the history books read?” This, I think, helps to explain what Tarantino tried to do. Whether you buy it or not is a different story. I’m still not completely sure how it works in the end, but it’s an interesting thing to see how a twist of fate could have radically rewritten history. While I ponder my final verdict on the historical liberties, I just have to admit that I have too much fun watching Waltz and Brad Pitt not to place this movie in the list. Does it make me a hypocrite for reassessing my initial reaction?
38. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2000): A film title that alludes to anything Preston Sturges-related is halfway home to winning me over. The first movie released by the Coens in the decade remains one of their most beloved, also contributing to a sudden explosion of popularity for the bluegrass and folks artists who performed the music used in the soundtrack. Set in the Great Depression and based loosely on Homer's The Odysseey of all things, the movie somehow works. Its charm is almost irresistible, and even those that aren’t particular fans have to at least acknowledge how infectious the Coen’s playfulness can be. I have to admit to never having been a George Clooney fan, and he does get a bit annoying at times, but on the whole remains humorous throughout. His compatriots in the trek are even more entertaining, as John Turturro (a longtime Coens favorite) is amazing, as is Timothy Blake Nelson. The Depression-era fairy tale is just too much fun to keep off of a list like this.
37. The Hours (Stephen Daldry, 2002): The film most likely to take the title for most depressing in the countdown has to be Stephen Daldry’s The Hours. I didn’t see this one when it initially hit theaters and only recently watched it for the first time. The importance of this detail is that I went into it pretty fresh, without much of an idea of what the story centered on and how its unique structure would work. The three parallel stories, taking place in three different eras, is never fully explained, but this is actually to the film’s benefit. The enigmatic atmosphere created by it is palpable. In reviews that I have read, a lot is made of the gay and bisexual overtones of many of the characters, which seems important to a lot of writers and critics. It didn’t make a bit of difference to me, as I was much more interested in the way that Daldry manages to show the interconnectedness of actions through the ages. One action can have ramifications for years to come. People that have never met can be more alike than relatives. It is a draining, depressing movie, but certainly one of the best of the decade.
36. Match Point (Woody Allen, 2005): Yes, it prominently shows off its influences, calling to mind similar stories like A Place in the Sun and Woody Allen’s earlier Crimes and Misdemeanors. But I have always felt that Match Point is coming from a different place. In A Place in the Sun and Crimes and Misdemeanors, we see two characters wrestling with a decision that they do not want to make but cannot see any other way to solve their problems. It is still a reprehensible decision, but the audience at least sees the anguish they go through in making the choice. In Match Point, Chris seems nowhere near as torn. Perhaps he struggles to actually put his plan into motion, but everything happens very quickly and he admits afterward that he had to do it. I think this distinction in lead characters is significant in allowing Match Point to stand on its own. It is not as good as either of the two earlier movies I mentioned, but it’s still the best work that Woody Allen has done in over a decade. The ruminations on the role of luck in one’s life are interesting, and Woody uses the tennis metaphor to set the audience up in the final act. He uses the opening freeze frame of a tennis ball lingering over the net to toy with the audience in a way that would make even Hitchcock smile.
35. The Man Who Wasn’t There (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2001): If this doesn’t make it obvious, as they are already making their third appearance in the list, I think that the Coens were rarely short of spectacular for the entire decade. The Man Who Wasn’t There is another quirky effort from the brothers, a dark, tongue-in-cheek drama masquerading as a film noir. The black and white photography from longtime Coens collaborator Roger Deakins is arguably the most impressive of Deakins’ superlative career. The characters are every bit as quirky as other memorable Coens personalities, with the supporting actors all adding flavor to the final product – Michael Badalucco as the incessantly chattering brother-in-law; Frances McDormand as the annoying unfaithful wife; Jon Polito as the scheming upstart drycleaner; and Tony Shalhoub as the high-priced defense attorney. But what fully puts the film over is the complete lack of flavor in Billy Bob Thornton’s Ed Crane. Nobody could have made the character fit the title more perfectly than the brooding Thornton. Also worth pointing out is the amazing soundtrack that incorporates Beethoven perfectly.
34. Miami Vice (Michael Mann, 2006):This is another instance where the response to a movie is all over the map. Some consider Mann’s reimagining of the classic TV show to be among the finest crime dramas ever made. Others are convinced that it is the weakest film in Mann’s entire filmography. Both are taking things to the extreme. The best crime drama of the decade? No, it’s not even Mann’s own best crime drama of the decade. But is at as bad as some have declared it? I think not, as evidenced by it’s placement in the Top 30 here. In fact, the horrible reputation that it held among many critics and movie fans kept me away from it for the longest time. When I finally watched, I disagreed with the negative assessment, but could see where some people make take exception. Almost everything is overly stylized and glossy, but Mann holds it all together. It works very well as a straight action movie, but is even better as a Michael Mann examination of what makes criminals, or in this case those pretending to be criminals, tick.
33. The Reader (Stephen Daldry, 2008): I have gone back and forth as to whether this latest Stephen Daldry film deserves to be placed here or close to the Top 20. I’m still not completely sure I am making the best decision, but this is still high praise for a film that elicited varying degrees of critical acclaim. Many reviewers took offense to active participants in the persecution of Jews being portrayed as also being victims of the Nazis and the Holocaust. Hanna Schmitz is convicted of crimes that she apparently did not commit, but does that mean she is completely innocent? No, it does not. But does this in turn justify imprisoning her for anything, even if she is not guilty of the acts for which she is convicted? These are interesting questions without easy answers. Kate Winslett proves once again that she might be the finest actress working today and justifiably earned the Oscar for Best Actress. This is certainly a polarizing film, to the point that I flip-flop myself on my true feelings for it. For now, I keep it as my favorite of Daldry’s two big accomplishments this decade.
32. Gone Baby Gone (Ben Affleck, 2007): The first movie to appear from what I consider the best year of the decade. 2007 was monstrous, particularly in American cinema (or if you want to expand it, English-speaking cinema). Expect much more from this year to be sprinkled through the countdown. This one easily could have been rated even higher, but plot twists are such a tricky thing. For most of its two hours of running time, Ben Affleck shows himself to be surprisingly adept at allowing a tense mystery to believably unfold. His younger brother Casey is light years ahead of him in terms of acting ability and he is allowed to shine in the leading role as Patrick Kenzie. He and Michelle Monaghan have great chemistry together. The knots that Patrick is tied in, conflicted over what he needs to do and what he _must_ do, is gripping stuff. The ending, though – as is so often the case with modern mystery or thriller novels – gets a bit too tricky for its own good. Is it believable? Yes, but it might be just a bit too much. Even so, the drama is engrossing enough to make up for any problems one might have with the conclusion. And Casey Affleck turns in a second incredible performance for the year.
31. Lust, Caution (Ang Lee, 2007): More from 2007, but this time from outside of the English-speaking world. Ang Lee, who had already come to the United States and been highly successful, returned to Chinese cinema to make this Hong Kong-based WWII espionage thriller. The story centers on a group of college students who plot to get one of their own close to Mr. Yee (played by Tony Leung), a collaborator and high ranking official of the puppet government set up by the occupying Japanese. Using pure sex appeal, they manage to get Wong Chia Chi close to him as a mistress. Then an unbelievably deceptive tale of espionage and counterespionage unfolds, boasting enough explicit sex to earn the film an NC-17 rating in the US. The sex scenes can be graphic, but are nowhere near as explicit as the rating would lead one to believe. They are raunchy to be sure, but fall short of being a glorified porno. The atmosphere Lee fosters in recreating war-torn Hong Kong and Shanghai, working with Mexican-born cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, is what sticks with me most. The unhurried pace that Lee takes in telling the story could be hard for some to accept, but it is worth the effort. I think a valid argument could be made that this is the best film Ang Lee has made to date.