Thursday, December 31, 2009

The 50 Best Films of the Decade, 50-41

If you missed the start of the list, which opened with Honorable Mentions and other introductory material, it can be found in all its overly-long, needlessly-complex glory here.  Now on to the proper list...

50. The King of Kong (2007)

It's hard to believe that one of the most popular and enduring documentary films of the past 10 years involves a controversy over who got the highest score in "Donkey Kong."  But, of course, the movie's not really about "Donkey Kong," or arcade games more generally, but the archetypal face-off between the two men competing for the high score title - lovable loser Steve Wiebe and self-described "Sauce King," massive dickbag Billy Mitchell.  Wiebe's such a classic movie underdog, and Mitchell such a despicable nemesis, they at times come across like scripted characters, a nerdy incarnation of Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed.  There are plans to adapt the documentary into a fictional film, but it's hard to imagine how any actors could bring any additional resonance to this struggle or insight into these personalities that we don't already get from seeing the real people involved.

49. The Hurt Locker (2009)

Kathryn Bigelow's monstrously intense Iraq War film does 2 things extremely well - capture the chaotic, occasionally nightmarish day-to-day existence of a member of the US Army's Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit serving in Baghdad, and explore the psychological impact this experience can have on the men and women who live through it.  Most war movies, even good war movies, don't really try to do either of these things.  Typically, we see the life and death of American soldiers as a kind of highlight (or lowlight) reel - basic training, shipping out, bonding with brothers in arms, the carnage of modern combat and, finally, the hell of Post-Traumatic Stress or long-term injury.  But "Hurt Locker" is more about the small, quotidian details, the way that even facing death by shrapnel-heavy explosion becomes a job after a while, and how some people get hooked on the adrenaline rush in spite of themselves. 

48. Before Sunset (2004)

"Before Sunset" is a wonderfully humorous, melancholy romance that culminates in one of the decade's best final scenes, a perfect encapsulation of the relationship between Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) and a really potent use of dramatic ambiguity.  After meeting 9 years earlier on a train to Vienna, and failing to make a pre-arranged rendezvous afterwards, the American Jesse and French Celine suddenly reconnect in Paris and spend about 90 minutes (in real time) dissecting what, if anything, it all means.  Romantic comedies often have, at their core, a simple message about spontaneity, jumping in head-first when something feels right and never holding back when it comes to love.  But rarely do these films ever capture the gravity and potentially tragic consequences of this sort of behavior.  "Before Sunset" is smart enough to realize that it's not always as easy as "thinking with your heart," and that when adults make sudden, spontaneous decisions, lives literally hang in the balance.

47. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

The best of the "Harry Potter" films is also a tragic story about families being ripped apart, a fleet and exciting fantasy adventure (with just a dash of science-fiction) AND something of an advertisement for traveling the English countryside.  The previous entries in the series were like bloated Hollywood kiddie films; the later "Potter" films tend to get a bit overstuffed with incident and outsized, almost Shakespearean, theatrics.  "Azkaban," and director Alfonso Cuaron, hit all the series' now-familiar notes just right, from the pale-green, stately grounds of the Hogwarts Academy, the ethereal wonder of the Patronus spell and the mind-bending horror of the titular prison and its Reaper-esque wards, the Dementors. 

46. I'm Not Scared (2003)

In Italian director Gabriele Salvatores' gripping, virtuoso thriller, a nine-year-old boy makes a shocking discovery in a hole in the ground, near a wheat field, on the edge of his small town.  It's a discovery that will forever alter the way he sees himself, his home and his family.  Salvatores' story (based on a novel which itself was based on a real-life incident in Milan in the '70s) isn't so much about young Michele's discovery and how it eventually gets resolved, though he handles the machinations of the plot with ease and impeccable style.  Instead, it's something of an experiment in telling a complex story entirely from the perspective of a young boy, who is himself struggling to understand not only what is happening but why and how, questions most adults would not even bother to ask themselves.  Everything in Salvatores' film, particularly the cinematography of Italo Petriccione, which takes in the rough, monochromatic countryside almost exclusively from a child's height, pushes the viewer to filter these troubling, sometimes horrifying, events as they would appear to an innocent, just starting to understand that the world can not only be cruel, but also indifferent.

45. American Psycho (2000)

In the Bret Easton Ellis novel that inspired this film, decadent homicidal maniac Patrick Bateman is an insatiable monster, a maniac whose dark, uncontrollable urges push him to commit acts of savagery so heinous as to be almost indescribable in mere prose.  Accurately sensing that there's no way a film audience could withstand 2 hours in the company of such a villain, director Mary Harron and co-screenwriter Guinevere Turner turn his story into a gleefully perverse satire of '80s corporate culture, misogyny and the masculine insecurity that powered both.  Here, Bateman's never actually terrifying, but more a comically pathetic brute who happens to have a good tailor, particularly when star Christian Bale is delivering self-aware, caustic, "rehearsed" monologues about business cards and disaffected pronouncements of his urgent and immediate need to return some videos.  Bale, dressed in a raincoat, attacking women with axes while discussing the semiotics of Huey Lewis and the News albums will forever remain one of the iconic images of '00s film.

44. Lost in Translation (2003)

Those who criticized this somber indie comedy (a som-com!) as depicting Japan and the Japanese negatively, as exotic caricatures and profoundly "foreign," basically missed the point.  Sofia Coppola's film isn't so much about visiting Japan, though the country does provide a lovely and colorful backdrop for the leisurely narrative.  It's about the way that travel, particularly perfunctory or enforced travel stemming from business rather than pleasure, robs us of our feeling of personal security and our sense of self.  Our homes are places where we surround ourselves with creature comforts - we enjoy being there, because we've stuffed it full of things we like - and even the swankiest hotel can't really live up to that standard.  For Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) and Bob (Bill Murray), wandering around so far out of their element has an even greater and more disconcerting impact. By taking them away from their usual distractions, Tokyo won't allow them to escape thinking about their problems.  Watching them take comfort in one another's (platonic) company is pretty much a non-stop delight, highlighted by Murray's more-deadpan-than-deadpan delivery, Coppola's steady, patient hand at the helm, one of the cinema's great karaoke sequences and Lance Acord's swooning, kaleidoscopic cinematography.

43. Sexy Beast (2000)

Ben Kingsley gives arguably his career-best performance in this unpredictable, frequently hilarious twist on the British gangster film.  Sir Ben so completely disappears into the role of frustrated mad-dog criminal Don Logan, it's almost surprising he was ever able to pull himself back out and resume his normal life.  The film opens with Logan flying out to Spain to visit Gal (Ray Winstone), an old colleague who has retired along with his ex-porn star wife Deedee (Amanda Redman), in order to strong-arm him into returning to London to pull one last heist.  Logan's in the employ of the suave Teddy Bass (the always-stellar and perfectly cast Ian McShane), and they need one more experienced guy, and Gal really doesn't have a say in the matter.  Just as the situation - complicated by Logan's longstanding feelings for Deedee - comes to a head, writers Louis Mellis and David Scinto cut to the heist itself, leaving us to piece together the events that transpired during the time jump ourselves.  It's a daring move, but the film pulls it off, mainly because Jonathan Glazer's full-throttle pacing (the film has a relentless, almost manic energy) and the terrific lead performances don't give us time or inclination to worry about such minor details as the resolution of the film's main conflict.

42. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)

"Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" seemed to promise a major comeback for writer Shane Black, the king of '80s action screenplays.  He made his directorial debut with this film, the...wait for it...BEST ACTION-COMEDY OF THE DECADE.  Instead, Black didn't go on to direct any more movies, and it was star Robert Downey Jr. who embarked on a fabulous and fully-revived career immediately afterwards.  (To be fair, Downey's career is stronger than ever at this point.  He's freaking Tony Stark.)  There is not a film in the entire rest of the Top 50 for which the specifics of the plot matters less than this one.  Suffice it to say that the movie is a send-up of buddy cop movies AND Raymond Chandler novels at the same time, and that RDJ and Val Kilmer play the unwitting partners at the film's center, solving a needlessly-elaborate crime.  Black's intensely ironic sense of humor (Downey Jr. narrates in voice-over that's constantly cracking wise and calling attention to itself) and fondness for bathroom humor could have easily turned on him, but he consistently hits the perfect balance between the sophomoric and the clever, like your best friend from college after 4 and a half beers.  Plus, it's exceptionally rewatchable, and really holds up to repeat viewings, a true sign of a great comedy.

41. Best in Show (2000)

Christopher Guest's improvisational ensemble comedy "Waiting for Guffman" is funny, but it's almost too incisive.  Its observations about small American towns and the somewhat simple folks who live there are often funny, but twinged with mean-spiritedness.  His folk rock send-up, "A Mighty Wind," was a bit too affectionate towards its subjects, and felt toothless as satire, more an excuse to write silly songs than anything else.  "Best in Show" represents the high water mark for the Guest & Co. mockumentary formula, looking at the Dog Show circuit with a combination of enchantment and despair.  Fred Willard's performance as the sort of clueless, increasingly desperate TV commentator, rightfully gets a lot of praise, but nearly all the Guest regulars get a chance to shine.  (Two of my favorites: Ed Begley Jr. also gets a lot of mileage out of a brief appearance as the cautiously optimistic hotel manager dealing with a variety of canine-related issues, and Jane Lynch winningly captures the essence of a hyper-competitive poodle trainer.)


Rebecca said...

I consider every person should read this.

Joleen said...

The dude is completely just, and there is no suspicion.