Friday, January 22, 2010

Best Films of the Decade

I was looking over the hundreds of comments on Roger Ebert's blog about his picks for the best films of the decade. Most people offered their own opinions about the best films, many of which disagreed with Ebert's. I found that my top picks were mostly different, as well. I was most surprised by some of the people's...disappointment? anger? about his choice for the best film of the decade, Synecdoche, NY. I do not consider it a masterpiece, but it didn't cross my mind to attack Roger for it. This inspired a great explanation from him about the purpose of his "best films" lists. To paraphrase: they are not intended to be predictions of widespread appeal, they are movies that "got to him" personally. Those films evoked an emotional response that elevated him from the audience and into a state of quasi-euphoria. I will work from this template when constructing my list. The following movies "got to me." They reached in me and tugged on all the right cords at all the right times.

On another point, Ebert and I differ. Mr. Ebert insists that ranking movies--one better than another--is silly. Movies are vastly different from one another and it's impossible to appreciate one miraculous film over another. In a sense, I understand what he's saying, and even agree with it. I don't think enumerating the films helps readers decide what is better. On the other hand, I believe it forces me to choose which emotions, messages, ideas and philosophies displayed in films are the most important to me. If two films are equally well-made, competently constructed, enjoyable and meaningful, which one did I like better? This usually doesn't speak to the film's quality, because I couldn't tell you which film Casablanca or Godfather was better made. I decided somewhere along the line that I liked Casablanca better. The decision speaks of me, my values and my tastes. I assign the rankings for me and no one else. Well, perhaps to squabble with my friends over which films are better. I once read an article about Shakespeare that says something like: we know so little about Shakespeare that biographies about him tell more about the biographer than they do of him. Lists of movies are the same. They tell more of the author than of the movies. So if you're looking for great movies, ignore the numbers. If you want to know more about me, take the rankings into account.

20. Million Dollar Baby (2004)

19. Thirteen Days (2000)

18. Mystic River (2003)

17. Kate & Leopold (2001)

16. Syriana (2005)

15. Pirates of the Caribbean (2003)

14. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

13. Blood Diamond (2006)

12. Finding Nemo (2003)

11. Musa (2001)

10. The Departed (2006) On occasion, remakes are better than their formidable foreign inspirations. Such is the case with the Departed. Based on a series of Hong Kong flicks, the story is transported to Boston and given a gritty down to earth realism that trumps the original's stylistic melodrama. The story involves two moles. One who infiltrates the Massachusetts state police and the other who infiltrates the Irish Boston mob. The Departed has rigid Shakespearian symmetry rarely seen off the stage. The story is constantly balancing itself out with each new development.

Going in, I was pretty confident it was going to be a good movie based on the talent it drew. The cast is full of star superpower: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, Mark Wahlberg, Vera Farmiga (likely Oscar nominee this year for Up in the Air) and Ray Winstone (you know...Beowulf. That guy). And it's directed by king of crime movies, Martin Scorsese. It's better than I thought it would be.

09. Spider-Man 2 (2004) Because Spider-Man 2 was bookended by two barely passable action movies, this gem may be lost to movie obscurity--a flash in the pan franchise that petered out. Peter Parker is probably the most beloved comic character in history. The nice-guy geek that just wants to do the right thing and sacrifices his wants (and sometimes his needs) for the good of others. It took inspired casting to get the correct Peter Parker. Here, inspired casting strikes the perfect chord again with Alfred Molina as Otto Octavius. I always thought Doc Ock was a lame villain. Not his movie counterpart. He's brilliant and powerful, likable and menacing in the same breath.

Peter is out of high school now, broke, lovelorn, and exhausted from his nights as Spider-Man, two jobs and college. The love of his life, Mary Jane, is dating someone new. She's now famous and her face is on billboards and posters in Peter's path wherever he goes. When he drops his books, they are stepped upon. His powers are lapsing due to stress. His. Life. Sucks. But, no matter what, he has the compulsive need to do the right thing.

The first film's fight scenes were unimpressive and lacked the freedom of movement they needed. Too often, it was easy to tell that the characters were on wires. Spider-Man 2 makes the most of CGI. This time, we get fights on the sides of buildings and trains and much more webslinging--something sorely lacking in the first film. It really captures the feel of a Spider-Man comic. The world is exaggerated. It's a world where Melodrama is status quo. Buildings are taller. Action is bigger. Misery is worse. Color is brighter. Responsibility is heavier. Sacrifice cuts deeper. It's the perfect realization of Marvel Comics morals on the silver screen.

08. The Dark Knight (2009) Intense. Director Christopher Nolan doesn't half-ass anything when it comes to the most popular comic book characters in the world. This is one of those pure adrenaline pumping action movies the advertisements make every other movie out to be. This one's the real thing. It achieves what comic books no longer seem to be able to do: it creates concern for the safety of the main characters. Anymore in comics, characters can be dismembered and burned to ashes, but writers will find some way to pull the character back to life. In this Gotham City, there are no guarantees.

I'm not a fan of the original Batman movies starting with Tim Burton's 1989 blockbuster. They were corny and played loose with characters. Jack Nicholson's Joker was a goofy, pathetic caricature of the one I knew from comics. By the time Jim Carrey joined the ranks of villains, the series lost all sense of suspense.

With the godsend relaunch of the Batman franchise, we are introduced to a Batman that has presence for the first time, a Bruce Wayne with the charm he needs, and villains with presence and threat. Heath Leger's Joker (instead of the stupid, floppy-hatted Jack Nicholson) is brutal, intriguing, sadistic and, most importantly, pitch-black funny. Aaron Eckhart joins the cast in this installment as the incorruptible District Attorney Harvey Dent. Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordan has a bigger role to play. Michael Caine is back as Alfred, the sage advisor and moral center of both films. Rachel Dawes, Batman's one time squeeze, is no longer played by Katie Holmes--whose flat performance in Batman Begins revealed weaknesses in the script. She's replaced by the more reliable Maggie Gyllenhall. The cast is a who's who of awesome.

Dark Knight works as a crime thriller and a faithful comic book adaptation. It's not faithful in the sense that it follows a comic book script, but remains faithful to the characters. In Harvey Dent's and the Joker's case, seeing them played seriously adds new dimensions to their characters. I didn't think I wanted them changed, but all the changes were improvements. It was the decade that comic book fans have been waiting for and Dark Knight provided the perfect capstone.

07. Lost in Translation (2003) I can only get completely lost within a few movies, letting the experience take me where it wants. This is one. I've seen my share of action films from Tokyo. I've seen the occasional drama from Tokyo. Never have I loved Tokyo until I watched this movie, made by an American. As I understand it, making the viewer fall in love with Tokyo was director Sophia Coppola's secondary objective. She visited Tokyo and fell in love with it, so she wanted to share the experience. I am glad she did because Tokyo is beautiful and I'm not sure if I'll ever see it in person.

The story involves two characters trapped in their lonely minds, surrounded by people who don't understand them, verbally or philosophically. They find each other in an unfamiliar city and enjoy each other's company. It is an event for both of them. A lovely, wonderful, once in a lifetime experience and they both know it. Even though they only know each other for a few days in their long lives, it's easy to tell they form a lifelong bond and friendship.

Lost in Translation gave me the opportunity to hang out with two fantastic, funny, interesting people in a beautiful city. This is one of those rare movies that gave me the warm fuzzies.

06. Hotel Rwanda (2004) It's a movie so well made, with such a miraculous story, that it's pretty tough not to love. What makes it better than other true stories is that the film walks us through each step of the event so we understand what is happening and how. Other films are more exploitative, relying on the emotion that genocide evokes, showing brutal images, knowing we will react with compassion. The film brings light to: the impotence of UN soldiers, Rwandan background, American News presence, Red Cross involvement and how all those threads weave into Paul Rusesabagina's life and actions. Not often do I find "inspirational true stories" great , but this one had a story worth more respect than ten sports films combined.

05. No Country for Old Men (2007) The Coen brothers usually add comedy or phantasm to otherwise cold and unforgiving worlds. They don't bother this time. It's all unforgiving. The only funny moments are when characters deliver lines that sound surreal in our comfy environments.

The movie ratchets up intensity by placing characters in situations where they must race against time in a series of events no longer than a few seconds each. The characters have such short term goals, a scene's payoff may just be a character living from one end of a hallway to the other. Then, without warning, the movie stands still. No music, not much sound to speak of. Maybe the wind or the rustle of cloth. The characters wait and so do we. The camera subtly inches forward to reveal the importance of a moment. Of course, the waiting wouldn't be intense without the lurking presence of Javier Bardem's  villain, Anton Chigurh.

Chigurh is not a man. He is a force of nature, unstoppable, undiscerning, always moving, circling in on his prey. The capable protagonists recognise him as an incredible force. The difference in how they approach him reveals the movie's purpose. It is an altogether different movie experience from anything in recent memory.

I loved how the movie didn't add any bright red to the blood and didn't add heart-pounding music or a contemporary soundtrack. I loved that characters figure things out without being told what's going on. It's not the most satisfying movie, but it is so expertly made, intriguing and unpredictable that I had one of the most enthralling experiences of my life at the movies.

04. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) Some movies just aim to be fun. They have no other purpose than to entertain. On occasion, these types of movies achieve near-perfection, such as The Princess Bride and Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. The crime genre has some worthy submissions: Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrells, Zero Effect, and Kill Bill: Vol 1. None have come close to the non-stop riotous fun in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Most of the credit must go to the performers Robert Downy, Jr., Val Kilmer and Michelle Monaghan. They form believable characters I cared about in a zany crime-ridden cinematic world. Don't let me mislead you; the creators are in top form. Screenwriter Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boyscout, The Long Kiss Goodnight), who usually keeps his tongue firmly in cheek, takes his first stab at directing. The film combines aspects from hard-boiled fifties detective movies, modern Charlie Kauffman-esque narration, out-and-out comedy, and pop-culture references. A few moments in the film were completely unexpected. It deviated from so many norms that I found myself not even trying to figure out the next twist. It's a rarity to catch me off-guard. It's even rarer to get me to stop guessing.

03. Memento (2000) Before The Prestige and the Batman movies, Christopher Nolan took a story I believed impossible to film and made it a masterpiece. It's about a man who lost his short term memory who is trying to solve his wife's murder. Someone who loses his short term memory can only remember what's going on for a few minutes at a time. Things that are happening around them are never committed to permanent memory. They just dissolve in the past. When first hearing about Memento, I couldn't figure out how the audience wouldn't become aggravated with a character who didn't know what was happening. I thought I would dislike him and get sick of repetitive behavior. I was surprised when the story unfolded in a way in which we didn't know any more than the hero, Leonard (Guy Pearce). Equally surprising, I quite liked Leonard. His way of dealing with his "condition" is at times painful and other times funny--Memento makes great use of comedic reprieves.

Memento introduced a new way of telling a story that was appropriate to the material. Most films follow a template so ingrained into our psyche that we can scarcely see a way to avoid it. We have great stories told within the confines of formulas and pre-conceived structure, but it is refreshing to view things in a different way.

02. Solaris (2002) The original Solyaris (1972) focused on ideas and philosophy within its epic running time. This Solaris carries the same themes and story, but could be considered the original's poetic equivalent. Solaris (2002) focuses on mood, emotion, and acting rather than dialogue and meditation. Director Steven Soderbergh doesn't pause long enough to let ideas sink in like Tarkovsky did in the orginal. Soderbergh relentlessly moves the story along, forcing us to let the movie wash over us instead of interpreting scenes' meanings. To fight the mood is to destroy the experience. Several viewings are recommended.

Psychologist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney in his best performance) is transported to a space station that orbits the mysterious planet Solaris to investigate the odd behavior of the crew. Once there, he finds his long dead wife has been resurrected (Natasha McElhone). Events leading up to Kelvin's space Odyssey are shown in masterful flashbacks with sparse dialogue. They convey emotion better than any exchange of words. We see Kelvin's deceased wife in most of them. It's interesting to compare Kelvin's real wife in the flashbacks with the doppelganger on the space station. There are several differences. Kelvin accepts some differences and rejects others, ultimately choosing to view the resurrection of his wife as a gift.

Even though it doesn't delve deeply into philosophy, the movie is inundated with questions about existence, creation, God and life. Repeat viewings prompted me to question things I accepted as truth. Solaris is more (or less) than a series of poorly explored ideas. It's a story about two characters, in love, who are given a supernatural second chance. This is my favorite love story of the decade, full of heartache, failure and redemption.



01. Closer (2004) Consider this the ultimate anti-romantic comedy. None of the whimsical feel-good BS that accompanies comedic love triangles will be found here. You will see the visceral human instinct that makes us petty, vengeful, deceitful, desperate and manipulative. While showing us all those things, the film manages not to undermine Love. Some of the characters truly feel for each other. The film does not dwell on the shiny, happy side of love. It shows us what love, most often represented as a pure and virtuous emotion, can turn us into.

The film centers on four 30-40 something individuals and the romances of their lives that briefly entangle. All four main characters are basically normal. They're liars or cheaters absorbed so deeply by their own importance they don't notice the feelings and needs of others. The film displays but doesn't doesn't explore the psychological effects sex and cheating have on people. Instead, it shows how sex and cheating, mixed with the right words and timing, can be wielded as powerful weapons.

Two out of the four lead performances were nominated for Oscars--Clive Owen and Natalie Portman, both deserved. And even though Jude Law wasn't nominated, he should have been. The audience identifies with Clive Owen's and Natalie Portman's characters as the "wronged" individuals (though, no one in this film is pure), but we all probably have more in common with Jude Law's character than we'd like to admit. He's a wimp. He's wishy-washy. He's a cheat. He's a jerk with calculated manners. He does not notice his flaws. In every situation, he believes himself wronged. It's a realistic portrayal of common self-deception.

This film, more than any other from the 2000s, resonated with me. I know these people. I was these people. This movie is more intense than any crime thriller or horror movie. The things in this movie can and have happen to me. And it's scary.

Honorable Mentions: All of these films barely missed being in the top 20. That may sound strange, but it's true. The above movies were very difficult to sift out of these. Everyone owes it to themselves to watch these too. Avatar, Up in the Air, The Hurt Locker, Wall-E, Frost/Nixon, Eastern Promises, There Will Be Blood, Juno, The Queen, The Fountain, Flags of Our Fathers, Letter from Iwo Jima, Pan's Labyrinth, Children of Men, Casino Royale, Tsotsi, Good Night and Good Luck, The Bourne Supremacy, Shaun of the Dead, The Incredibles, Spartan, Millions, Master & Commander, Secondhand Lions, City of God, Ripley's Game, Hero, The Pianist, Minority Report, About a Boy, 25th Hour, Shrek, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, LOTR: Fellowship of the Ring, The Way of the Gun, Requiem for a Dream, Amores Perros, Almost Famous, Traffic.


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