Sunday, May 30, 2010

Let's try it then...

We'll see how this works. Since the countdown begins on Tuesday, today would be the proper time to reveal who will be leading it off. Hopefully this systems works, giving folks a few days to contemplate their own lists. If it isn't working at some point in the countdown, please speak up about it. I think it'll go OK, though, because the more interesting thing will hopefully be my thoughts on the director and the way that I personally rank the films. Plus, I am not revealing the whole list at once, so not ALL suspense will be lost. I'm most interested in having people involved, as Nostromo argued in his defense of this approach.

So, here we go... the first director up will certainly elicit wildly varying opinions and assessments of his work, both pro and con. For me, he's a creator of wonderful escapist blockbusters and also deeply personal projects. He is: Steven Spielberg.

Let the countdown begin... start formulating your own lists and thoughts for Tuesday.

Quick Question for the Directors Countdown

I am still torn on whether to give advance notice on each director in the countdown or just go like before, with a "surprise" posting each day. They are going to be counted down in order of personal preference (roughly), so I can't decide which method would b be best. I know this is a busy holiday weekend here in the States, but if anyone sees this and wants to weight in right before the start of things on Tuesday, I'd love to hear some thoughts.

Basically, the two options I would consider going with are this: 1) A normal countdown like I've been doing; 2) Reveal the next director two days before that entry (basically at the end of the previous post) so as to allow everyone to compile their own lists for each person. I honestly can't decide which would be better. So I'll go with whatever everybody else would prefer. If you have a moment, tell me what you think would work best.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

RIP: Dennis Hopper (1936-2010)

I just saw the headline that Dennis Hopper passed today. In all honesty, I didn't realize that he was in such bad shape, and only now remember hearing that he had been battling prostate cancer. At any rate, he had a remarkable run in Hollywood, with a number of credits that would be considered highlights in the careers of many other people - directing a classic like Easy Rider and countless memorable supporting roles. The two that stick me with most are his Photojournalist in Apocalypse Now and Frank Booth in Blue Velvet. He was a truly great actor.

Friday, May 21, 2010

June 1... It Begins

Just posting an update to say that the directors countdown will begin on Tuesday June 1. Things will work exactly as I described in the earlier post, except that I decided to expand it to a Top 30, so I can comment on a few other directors that I love.

The only thing that I will reiterate is that the rankings of films for each director will be based on my own taste, not necessarily which ones are "best" or "greatest." In a lot of cases, favorite and best will coincide, but not always. I really hope that everyone else will contribute lists as well, as it will be very interesting to compare others feelings toward each director. I also want to point out that I will be including every film that I have seen from each director, but just because a movie is included doesn't necessarily mean that I like it. Many great directors have made some horrible movies, but if I have seen them I am going to include them in the lists. And I should also note that, while the list has not yet been finalized, if there is an abundance of American directors, it may be a result of simply being more familiar with overall bodies of work. I won't be faking anything - I'm going with the directors that I love to follow/watch.

So, until June 1... I'll be doing nothing but watching movies!

Friday, May 14, 2010

The next thing to do...

OK, I know that I said I would be taking some time off from any sorts of projects, but lately I've been prolific (by my standards) in working on things for the blog, so I figure that I might as well ride the productivity while it lasts. The latest idea I have is another countdown, but not one nearly as labor intensive in terms of writing - believe me when I say that the two countdowns that I have run thus far have been grueling, as I've been writing the entries as I go. My latest idea is inspired by the "Favorites of My Favorites" series that director and blogging pal Jeffrey Goodman ran at the last lullaby (and) peril blog. The idea was that Jeffrey made a case for why he loved a particular director, then ranked his favorites for each of them. I like this idea, as it will allow me to touch on a number of favorites and great films, while also spurring discussion about directors that I love. Even more interesting, it will force me to fill in gaps in director's filmograhies that I am missing, thus getting me to see more films rather than simply re-watching as I tend to do.

The basic premise for me will be the same as how Jeffrey did it - a short intro explaining what appeals to me about a director or something that I find interesting about them. Then, I will try and rank the films that I have seen from each of them. The only twist for me will be in trying to construct a loose Top 25-type list where I am basically counting down my favorite directors. I say loose, because ranking entire bodies of work is probably even harder than ranking individual films. Still, I think it will be fun to try and do. I have been watching movies like crazy lately in order to get started. I'm thinking an every other day format would work well for this one too, but I'm open to thoughts on that one. The reason two days for each entry sounds good is that I hope that each post will spur discussion about the individual directors, what people like or dislike about them, and hopefully other folks contributing lists of their own.

The same disclaimer will apply here as in my other countdowns: I haven't seen everything. In fact, compared to a lot of the knowledgeable folks that visit Goodfella's, I've seen very little. So, for the majority of the directors I get to (particularly ones with huge bodies of work), I will not have seen all of their films. This in no way precludes someone from making a list, in my opinion, as the rankings are going to be purely personal taste. They will be the films that I like best. Which ones am I most likely to return to or look forward to re-watching. The reality is, there will probably only be a few directors where I have seen EVERYTHING they have made. I intend to only include films that I have seen, which means some important ones could be missing, but at least it will be an honest assessment by me.

Thoughts? Additional suggestions or ideas? Let me know what you're thinking. I'm looking toward starting this in June at some point, but would love to hear if this sounds interesting to those that would be following along.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Top 50 of the 2000s: #10-1

10. The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006): Another film that has dropped somewhat from my rough January list, due to nothing about the movie itself. Others are just moving up and have necessitated some juggling of the order. Judging by other movies that that I love – Antonioni’s Blow-Up, Coppola’s The Conversation, De Palma’s Blow Out, even Bertolucci’s The Conformist – this is a movie tailor-made for my tastes. The reason that I am able to love all of these similarly-themed films is that each of them, despite countless parallels, comes at things from a slightly different bent. To me, The Lives of Others has a much more compassionate, longing undercurrent to everything that is happening. Wiesler seems totally committed to the East German state, but behind the icy demeanor, what slowly emerges is a longing for something else. At least that’s my take, whether or not that makes sense to anyone else I can’t say. It plays like a thriller but has a longer lasting impact than any thriller I have ever seen. Furthering the connection to a movie like The Conformist, this is a story that will stick with you long after it has finished. And that is one of the key marks of a great film.

9. Downfall (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004): Possibly the most parodied performance of the decade also happens to be among the finest, as Bruno Ganz pulls of a believable turn as the decaying Adolf Hitler. The controversy surrounding the film’s release in Germany is understandable, as it is a testament to the power of Ganz’s performance that he somehow manages to make Hitler at times seem like a regular person. Just admitting that, though, gives the whole movie a very unsettling feel. You see the Hitler that listens to children singing or cares so deeply for his pet German shepherd and almost feel guilty that for a split second you aren’t looking at him as arguably the most evil man of the 20th century. But the humanizing aspect of the performance actually serves to make it all the more horrifying. The thought of a man capable of such kindness to little kids or the women under his care one minute who can then fly into a rage in which he damns the entire population of Berlin to death is disturbing. Hirschbiegel shoots the film very well, showing just enough of what is going on outside the bunker to keep everything in perspective, but never sacrificing the effective claustrophobic environs of the bunker for more combat footage. This is another downer of a film, but one that is absolutely essential.

8. Atonement (Joe Wright, 2007): As I said, 2007 will be featured prominently throughout this series. My estimation of Atonement has continued to grow and I don't think any film (even Eastern Promises) benefited more from watching it again. This movie skyrocketed up my list after I watched it last week. This was originally slotted somewhere in the 20s, but watching the gorgeous photography from Seamus McGarvey is too overpowering to keep it from at least this high of a position. The technical aspects of Atonement are marvelous, not only in McGarvey’s cinematography but also in some bravura camera movements. The famed tracking shot of the beach at Dunkirk is every bit as impressive as it is hailed to be. I love the way that the story is broken up in the first third, with scenes taking place out of sequential order to perfectly reflect the different perspectives of everyone involved. I previously believed that the final two thirds of the film were significantly weaker than the first, but I was just wrong. The war scenes are very effective. This is equal parts mystery, romance, and heartbreaking tragedy. Of all of the films in the countdown, this might have benefited most by my re-watching it before finalizing the list. It is a movie that is enjoyable due to how well-made it is, but distressing to watch it unfold. Drama of the highest order with photography that is achingly beautiful.

7. Once (John Carney, 2006): Another complete revelation to me when I finally watched this for the first time a few weeks ago. As soon as I finished watching it I had to discuss it with somebody and so I immediately shot off an e-mail to WitD’s Sam Juliano (who I knew was a big fan) just to rave about it. He’ll attest to the fact that I was completely gushing. I could not believe that I had waited years to finally get a copy. I have never really been a fan of musicals, which I saw that this is routinely said to be. That label is a misnomer, as this is nowhere near being a musical in the Singin' in the Rain or West Side Story sense. Rather, this is simply a movie about music or dealing with music, not a traditional musical. Then again, even that description might not be completely accurate, as the music is simply the means by which two completely different people are able to connect. The relationship between the Guy and Girl (yes, no names are given) is what matters, not necessarily the music. To be certain, the music is fun and it’s rewarding even as a viewer to watch as the two are able to blend together their musical abilities and magically write a cycle of songs. I could rave about this movie all day and my suspicion is that over time, this is one that will continue to increase in stature. It’s not easy to make such a simple, laid-back movie so incredibly powerful, but John Carney pulls it off. It runs the gamut of emotions – uplifting, funny, sad, poignant, downright joyous. Carney even manages to avoid the predictable conclusion and instead end things with a perfect finish. A great, great movie.

6. The Black Dahlia (Brian De Palma, 2006): I am already anticipating the collective gasp from most followers of the blog. That is, except for you Doniphon – I at least know that you are with me! Whereas Once was a movie that I just never got around to seeing for whatever reason, The Black Dahlia was one that I intentionally avoided. The reviews were unbelievably negative upon its initial release and I assumed that it was one that I could safely skip and move onto other worthwhile films. Once again, Doniphon at The Long Voyage Home clued me into something I was missing. Trusting his judgment, I decided to give it a shot. I loved it. Then, I had to buy a copy and make sure that it was as good as I thought. It held up. In fact, the movie remained stuck in my mind, similar to how the mysterious murder of the Dahlia consumed the two lead detectives of the story. So, this is the biggest limb that I will go out on for this list, as I do not hesitate in anointing The Black Dahlia to not only be among my personal top six films of the decade, but I now consider my favorite film ever directed by Brian De Palma. The main complaint about the film seems to be that the narrative is incomprehensible, but as Doniphon and I have discussed before, this is just De Palma lulling the audience into that belief. Multiple viewings actually show the he basically lays everything out for the audience. A first-time viewer is unlikely to pick up on all of these clues, but they are all out there to be pieced together. This is one of De Palma’s great appeal qualities for me: his ability to make the viewer think he is being tricky, when in reality things are not as complicated as you think. There is also a surreal aspect to chunks of the film that might be off-putting to some, but it works for me in a weird Twin Peaks kind of way. De Palma the visual stylist also shines here, as the sequence where he transitions from a shootout outside a storefront to the discovery of the Dahlia’s body is spectacular.

5. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003): This one drops a spot from the January rough draft, but only because the four films ahead of it are so strong. I still stand by my often-repeated claim that this is the best movie made by a member of the Coppola family in the last thirty years. This is actually the only film I have seen from Sofia, so she is batting .1000 with me as a director. I had planned on refraining from taking any shots at her turn in The Godfather III, but I can’t help it, she and her father deserve all the razzies they get for that. So, I’ll plead with her not to consider a return to acting at any point in her future. But why would she need to with directorial skills like this? And it’s not just her directing here, as the original screenplay also deserves recognition. What could have easily been dragged into the dreaded cheesy chick-flick territory never even approaches such negatives. Bill Murray should have won an Oscar for Best Actor but was nudged out by Academy favorite Sean Penn in Mystic River. Scarlett Johansson showed the promise here that everyone hoped she would live up to. Unfortunately, I don’t think she has – even in the other films in this countdown that she stars in, Match Point and The Black Dahlia, she comes across as very mechanical. Not in Lost in Translation, though. Here she is almost perfect. What it ultimately comes down to for me and this film, I suppose, is that I find the whole thing charming. Maybe it has something to do with personal experience. Although not the same in terms of age difference, I’ve had relationships that had a dynamic similar to the one here – not romantic, but unique in being different from a normal friendship. That personal connection certainly adds something to the experience.

4. Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007): I don’t see how anyone can watch this film and ever listen to Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” and not be reminded of either this movie of the Zodiac killer in general. The association has been imprinted that powerfully in my mind. David Fincher is another director that is popular both among critics and fans, but one that I never really warmed up to until 2007. I liked Se7en, but outside of that found a lot of his other blockbusters to be overrated. Zodiac was very different. What I like most about it is how it can be approached differently by each viewer. By the title of the film, it would seem that the central issue is examining who actually pulled off the sensational murders and taunted the police along the way. But the more that I watch the movie, the more it seems that the true point is examining the effects of obsession. Robert Graysmith becomes so consumed with discovering the killer’s identity – not necessarily bringing about justice, but just “looking into his eyes” – that it ruins the life he has built for himself. Fincher never resorts to cheap tricks or “got ya” moments to create tension. He doesn’t need to – the movie and story are just flat-out scary. I find few movies genuinely scary, but this is one of them. It’s just unnerving to me in a way that few other films have ever matched. The dread that builds up as Fincher follows years of investigation and speculation is beyond compare. The fact that this was not the top film of its year once again speaks to what a monumental twelve months of cinema 2007 was.

3. Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, 2003): I don’t know how I could write only a capsule of David Lynch’s crowning achievement, or do so without copying everything I wrote in the annual countdown. So I apologize in advance to those that have faithfully followed the blog, as you’ve probably heard much of this before. The experience I had watching Mulholland Dr. for the first time remains one of the most memorable movie-watching experiences of my life. I had no clue what I had just watched, but I didn’t care – I just knew that I had sat through an undisputed masterpiece. I immediately began playing things back through in my mind, trying to put the pieces together. I’ve now reached a point where I think I can put forth a coherent explanation of what happens in the movie, but that’s really unimportant. Part of me thinks that analyzing it any further than I already have might ruin some of the sheer enjoyment I get from watching it. Perhaps this outlook will eventually lead me to understanding and appreciating Lynch’s later incomprehensible Inland Empire? At any rate, I would give anything to be able to once again experience this movie as I did the first time. Dreamy and magical are the words that come to mind when I think about it. Experiences like that are what hooked me as a serious movie nut.

2. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007): If forced to make a list of my favorite westerns of all time, I would put The Assassination of Jesse James behind only two other films – Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. And even then, I’d be tempted to find a way to nudge it toward the top spot! The movie was criminally overlooked when it came time for the 2007 awards season, but it seems to have enjoyed an ever-increasing reputation among those in the blogosphere. Maybe it’s my love of all things Malick that draws me to this film, but similar to that master’s best works, The Assassination manages to cast some sort of spell over me that keeps me enthralled for its three-hour running time. Somehow Roger Deakins lost the Academy Award for Best Cinematography to Robert Elswit’s work in There Will Be Blood, but in my opinion it is a no contest. Deakins here produces some of the finest work I have ever seen. The famed train robbery sequence never does anything less than give me chills. I had reservations about Brad Pitt as Jesse James but he is more than just serviceable, he approaches greatness. Casey Affleck doesn’t just approach greatness; he achieves it as Bob Ford. The personality he creates for Bob is perfect – at times annoying, neurotic, loyal, occasionally bold. The number of great scenes and sequences here come one on top of another: the train robbery, standing on the ice and firing into it, the tense dinner table showdown, the coda that closes the film. It took a lot to keep this from the #1 slot, but as we’ll see, my top selection is also an all-time favorite…

1. The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005): There was certainly no suspense or drama as to what my top pick would be. Anyone who has followed the blog at all knows that not only do I love Terrence Malick, but this film in particular is one that I hold very dear. I mentioned the great experience that I had watching Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. for the first time. I had a similar epiphany with The New World. The great thing about The New World is that I manage to get that same out-of-this-world feeling every time I watch it, even now after having seen it at least six or seven times. I recently bought my third copy of it when I picked up the Blu Ray a few weeks back, which now sits beside the original DVD and the Extended Cut. I hate double-dipping (or in this case triple-dipping) on things, but if anything cries out to be watched in HD or Blu Ray it is the work of Terrence Malick. I pretty much poured out everything I had to say about the film in my review for the annual countdown (so I’ll at least direct folks there for a more thorough discussion). What I will reiterate is the way that I am continually drawn into this movie. Everything about it works for me. In my original review, I described it as “an all-encompassing, overwhelming onslaught of all the senses,” and that is the best way that I can explain it. Malick’s story, where fact and myth are swirled into his own unique concoction, hits me both in the stomach and the heart. The cinematography from Emanuel Lubezki is the best I have ever seen, bar none. The music could not have been more perfectly selected and now I cannot listen to a single note of Wagner’s Rheingold or Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 without wanting to watch this film. I could go on for pages singing this film’s praises. Instead, I’ll encourage folks that haven’t to read the extended piece I already wrote and leave any comments they would like. I will just finish by admitting that the more that I think about it, and more that I watch it, the closer I come to realizing that The New World is probably the best movie I’ve ever seen. If not, it’s damn close.

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.

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.”

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.

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.