Tuesday, May 4, 2010
Top 50 of the 2000s: #50-41
50. Kingdom of Heaven – Director’s Cut (Ridley Scott, 2005): I don’t know what it is about Ridley Scott, but the man has a fixation with releasing endless streams of updated DVD editions of his films. Just look at what he has done with something like Blade Runner, making a sport out of seeing how many different ways he can cut the film (to whatever degree), repackage it, and then put it on the market and watch people gobble up more copies. To say it is annoying is an understatement – thank goodness, I’ve never really been a huge fan of that Scott classic and have no need to scoop up any updates or editions. In the case of this much-maligned 2005 release, though, Scott’s DVD of his own director’s cut is absolutely essential to appreciating the film. Although it did make money, the theatrical run of Kingdom of Heaven was a disappointment (particularly in the United States), with critical opinion was mixed at best. The biggest problem with the theatrical cut was the result of disagreements pitting Scott and writer William Monahan against studio executives. The execs wanted the movie to play like a nonstop sword-fighting thriller, while Scott and company wanted to take a more epic approach. The result was that the studio cut the film by 45 minutes, sacrificing key sequences that help to flesh out characters. It was, quite simply, a horrendous editing job. With these sections added back into the director’s cut, the story is much less disjointed. Flashbacks used to give more perspective on why the characters are involved in the Crusades add a lot. Flaws still remain in the film, and those that are hesitant of “historical action epics” like this are still unlikely to care for it. But this is a personal selection, as I for one am a sucker for precisely this kind of film.
49. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008): I normally am not one that goes for vampire movies, or supernatural/horror films of this sort. I don’t know what it is, but I just have a hard time getting into them. Let the Right One In is so well made, and played out in such a contemplative manner, that these thoughts never really entered my mind. In fact, after watching the movie and mildly enjoying it, it only continued to grow in stature as I ran back through it in my mind. Alfredson does an incredible job of setting the scene, utilizing the snow and a forbidding-looking apartment building to mimic the isolation felt by the young Oskar. And the reason that the supernatural/horror aspect never feels hokey is that Alfredson doesn’t overdo it. The young girl as a vampire isn’t necessarily the focus. Instead, the relationship that develops between Oskar and Eli is most important. The vampire issue is just another layer in that relationship that is slowly built up to being as important as most horror directors would immediately make it. I also marvel at how impressive that final sequence in the school swimming pools is – the direction is superb.
48. Munich (Steven Spielberg, 2005): This may be criminally low, so I will be interested to see how people respond to its placement. I have recently come to appreciate the work of Steven Spielberg even more than in the past – perhaps in response to noticing how much of a backlash he receives from self-anointed amateur cinema experts who seem to feel that anyone who makes a blockbuster cannot be taken seriously. Spielberg’s output in the 2000s provides further proof that such a supposition is ridiculous. As I say, this might be far better than where I am ranking it, and the questions that it asks are certainly worth ruminating – can a violent response ever be controlled? I usually am annoyed at the whole “violence begets violence” theme that is driven into the ground by many films, but I don’t think that necessarily applies here. In my mind, the violent response to the 1972 Munich Olympics hostage issue is justifiable. And I think Spielberg feels this way too. The question he asks, of how you control a mission like this once it takes on a life of its own, is even more interesting than the “violence begets violence” cliché. Eric Bana is terrific in the lead and Spielberg does a fantastic job in creating edge-your-seat sequences.
47. A Serious Man (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2009): This might have been the hardest movie to try and place. The Coen Brothers had another incredible decade, receiving critical praise and box office success. And this 2009 release possesses a lot of the same sophisticated, quirky humor found in all of their films. But A Serious Man is different. For whatever reason, it never received a full-blown theatrical release – I actually HAD to wait for the DVD in order to see it – and is definitely much less accessible than their other releases in the decade. This is what I like to a call a “creeper,” meaning a movie that might not have you walking out of the theater calling it a masterpiece, but one that will play on your mind for days and weeks afterward. By that time, you very well may consider it among the finest work the Coens have ever done. Even now, when I rank it among their best, it is not an easy film to love. It is an unsatisfying film, offering virtually no answers to any of the questions that are posed, but this is precisely the point. Larry, the main character, never seems to find the answers that he looks for as he goes from rabbi to rabbi in search of instruction. So it is no surprise that we in the audience remain equally bewildered. A challenging film for sure, but one that will reward repeat viewings.
46. Gangs of New York (Martin Scorsese, 2002): _This_ is why I re-watch films so often. Not only do I enjoy watching favorites many times, but I also feel like I need to revisit films that did not connect with me on a first viewing. I went into the theater in 2002 as a Scorsese nut hoping for another gangster epic. And that was the problem. I knew that the story took place well before that time frame, but I was expecting something dealing with the “roots of organized crime” which is actually a larger focus of Herbert Asbury’s original work than it is in Scorsese’s film. The film plays more like a John Ford epic mythology type film - ala something like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance - recounting how New York City was built. I was pushed toward giving the film a reappraisal when Gangs placed highly in Doniphon’s own countdown of the best of the decade at The Long Voyage Home. I am glad that I did, as it is a far better film than I originally gave it credit for. There are still rough patches to be sure – Cameron Diaz is woefully miscast and is at times cringe-worthy in trying to come across as a pickpocket raised in the slums. DiCaprio is superb as usual, if not quite reaching his highest point. But Daniel Day-Lewis is nothing short of electrifying as Bill the Butcher. This movie could likely earn a spot in many Top 50 or 100 of the decade lists simply on strength of Lewis’ role. He is that good. Oh, and that Scorsese guy also doesn’t miss many opportunities to remind that he can still tell a story through pictures as well as anyone.
45. Inside Man (Spike Lee, 2006): Yes, 25th Hour would be the more obvious choice to include Spike Lee in this countdown, but I am siding with the entertaining personal favorite Inside Man. Perhaps due to having worked in a bank for a few years, something about ingenious bank heist schemes continues to fascinate me. To be sure, similar such plots have been used in past heist films, but it feels unique here. What elevates Inside Man above many other similarly-plotted movies is, in my estimation, two key details. The first is the outstanding chemistry established between Denzel Washington as the negotiator and Clive Owen as the leader of the bank robbers. The cat-and-mouse game is played out superbly, with incredibly well-written dialog from screenwriter Russell Gewirtz. Washington is so smooth as Frazier its hard to fathom that the man is even acting. The other unique element to this film is director Spike Lee and the way that he – like other legendary New York filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese – imbues his films with his own view of the city he loves. Reviews of Inside Man make much of the “melting pot” aspect that Lee includes in the film, but it’s a legitimate observation. The various economic, racial and class differences are on full display as the mystery unravels.
44. Letters From Iwo Jima (Clint Eastwood, 2006): Here we have the second entry of a film that I would guess is ranked higher by those that are fans. At one time, I likely would have agreed and placed it higher, considering it the far superior effort in comparison to Eastwood’s companion Flags of Our Fathers. I no longer think the gap is quite as wide, but definitely remain convinced that Letters is the better of the two. An interesting question I recently saw raised concerning Letters is if it gets extra points simply because of the novelty of an American filmmaker showing a legendary battle from the perspective of the “enemy?” I actually think there could be something to this, but it ultimately doesn’t matter – it is just a flat-out excellent movie, regardless of perspective. Eastwood would seem an odd choice to direct a movie focusing on the perspective of Japanese soldiers on Iwo Jima, but I am struck by what a wonderful fit it actually is. The reason I think it works so well? The theme that permeates everything that takes place behind Japanese lines on Iwo is the same one that Eastwood has dealt with many times in his career as both an actor and director – honor.
43. The Departed (Martin Scorsese, 2006): This is another film that I have watched quite a few times and go back and forth on where to place. The first time I watched, I thought it was good but far from the film that should have gotten Scorsese his long-deserved Oscar. Subsequent viewings had me feeling even better about it, even to the point of thinking it might be one of Scorsese’s greatest films. Now, I’m more toward the middle of that spectrum, recognizing that there are significant issues with the story, but that these deficiencies are more than outweighed by some outstanding performances and Scorsese’s usual directorial skills. There is an abundance of acting talent assembled here and everybody shows themselves worthy of such company, even if Jack Nicholson at times takes things overboard. Everyone else is very good, from Leo and Matt Damon, to Ray Winstone and Alec Baldwin. The story suffers a bit from trying to compact a Hong Kong trilogy of films into a single movie, and thus the ending feels incredibly rushed and forced. But there are moments that are among the best of recent Scorsese history. As overused as many people think The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” is, I still love that opening voiceover sequence set to one of the greatest songs in rock n’ roll history.
42. Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, 2008): Yes, I am sticking these Eastwood films near each other and putting the less likely of the two in front. Is Gran Torino as “great” of a film as Letters From Iwo Jima? When I think in terms of “greatness” I think of how a movie will be looked on years down the road, what kind of influence or impact it could have. So in that regard, it most certainly is not. In fact, I think that if made by 98% of the directors out there, Gran Torino would be an unmitigated disaster (some think it is already _is_ a disaster). I personally find something impressive about seeing an arguably cliché-ridden movie put across on the sheer charisma and determination of an actor/director. Many of the racial elements are based on stereotypes, which some viewers find abrasive. I would direct anyone interested to check out Tony Dayoub’s wonderful Cinema Viewfinder blog and search out his feelings on the movie. As he has repeatedly pointed out, the stereotyping of gangbangers and other racial minorities may be offensive, but it works because it mirrors the bigoted “they’re all the same” outlook of Walt. I have seen Gran Torino described as Eastwood’s deconstruction of his Dirty Harry role, similar to Unforgiven being used to reexamine the The Man With No Name persona that made him famous. I don’t think such a comparison is going too far, but the movie stands tall even without such a historical connection.
41. Public Enemies (Michael Mann, 2009): Another one that increased significantly in stature on re-watches, and also a film that will likely polarize viewers. The main reason that I think the movie was off-putting to so many people is the way that Michael Mann has approached many of his recent films. Background info and character histories are chucked out the window. Mann just drops the audience right into the middle of a story and relies on them to fill in the gaps, either through knowledge they already possess or by creating their own theories of why the characters find themselves in their predicaments. Being the history nut (particularly concerning crime) that I am, this strategy is perfectly fine with me – I was well-versed with the Dillinger saga and didn’t really need any background or supporting information to know what was going on. Others apparently did, because I’ve personally talked with people who commented precisely on this issue. Outside of this, Public Enemies features some of the best of Michael Mann – the apartment building stakeout is incredible, as is the closing sequence featuring Dillinger in the cinema. It is amazing how Mann is able to make the final scene feel so poignant. Johnny Depp is wonderful as Dillinger, as I expected him to be. The only bum note for me is Christian Bale, who I don’t know has played a role I have liked since Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V. He doesn’t quite work as Purvis, but I can overlook such a misstep because everything else is so entertaining.