Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Best Movies of the Decade: Honorable Mentions

Okay, so now that we've got the Worst Films lists done with, it's time to move on to the good stuff.  For those of you who have fallen behind, here's where the find those lists:

Worst Movies of the Decade:

So before I actually list the Top 50, which I'll do in groups of ten, the same way, I wanted to do some "Honorable Mentions." These are films that occurred to me when I was writing the Top 50 that just didn't make the final cut.  I've also put some of these films into a category called "Unseen Gems."  These are great little movies that didn't quite hit my Top 50, but that I wanted to highlight because I feel like they are underseen or underappreciated.  So here are the best little movies from the past 10 years that never had a breakout moment, but should have.


Owning Mahoney (2003)

A fascinating true story about a bank manager with a devastating, out-of-control gambling addiction who sort of backs into an embezzlement scheme.  Phillip Seymour Hoffman is truly brilliant as the hapless anti-hero, whose love of risk-taking quickly turns obsessive and dangerous.

3-Iron (2004) / Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring (2003)

Two films by Korea's Kim Ki-Duk that both rather brilliantly look at people living on the fringe of society, who seem to share a desire to disappear completely.  "3-Iron" is a study of a man who squats in stranger's homes while they are away, but who ends up secreting living with, and spying on, a beautiful woman stuck in a failed marriage.  "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring" looks at the life of a monk from childhood to adulthood through scattered sequences set during the titular seasons.  Both films have such a steady, deliberate pace and such careful, intense attention to detail, they develop a lyrical, almost hypnotic quality, like a visual Zen koan.

May (2002)

When I saw "May" theatrically in 2002, it felt like the introduction of Lucky McKee as a new cult icon for horror fans.  99% of the horror films released in this past decade were generic by design, reassuring viewers that they knew exactly what to expect by borrowing the name and concept of an older film or extending an already-tired franchise.  "May" relentlessly refuses to clue you in on what's coming next, or to follow pre-conceived notions about character development.  The story of a deeply troubled young woman and her increasingly gruesome personal fetishes, "May" borrows heavily from '80s horror movie tropes and even classic stories like "Frankenstein," but does so in a way that's ceaselessly inventive, tongue-in-cheek and darkly hilarious.  Plus it features not one but TWO breakout performances, from Angela Bettis and Anna Faris, the latter of whom was up until this point known exclusively for pretending to be Neve Campbell in the reprehensible "Scary Movie" series.

Our Brand is Crisis (2005)

Probably the most devastatingly cynical look at how exactly political campaigns go about their day-to-day business I have ever seen, Richard Boynton's harrowing documentary looks at the impact an American consulting firm (which includes well-known campaign strategist James Carville) had on the 2002 Bolivian presidential election.  I have no idea why the owners of Greenberg Carville Shrum (GCS) would agree to allow their work to be filmed for posterity, as most of it consists of intentionally making things up in order to deceive Bolivian people about issues they (the consultants) only half-understand, but thankfully for film fans everywhere, they did agree.  The result is as shocking and disheartening as it is entertaining.

Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005)

Miranda July's quirky, twee independent comedy-drama about love, family and relationships is like the anti-"Garden State."  Whereas that film uses quirk as a replacement for actual conflict or drama, a shorthand so audiences know who are the "good guys," July sees a world in which we all suppress and hide our individuality, for fear that others will misunderstand and reject us.  Which is not only more authentic, but also more engaging, relateable and charming.  We come to love her anti-social misfits, each of whom is seeking a connection while simultaneously afraid to go out and make one, not because they look cute in a helmet or they like the same bands that we do...but because they remind us of ourselves and the odd peculiarities we keep hidden from one another.

Surfwise (2007)

Doug Pray's documentary about the life and family of philosopher and health guru Doc Paskowitz reminds us that madness and intelligence often go hand-in-hand, and how creative, spiritual, well-meaning people can sometimes turn out to be monsters.  It's a simple film that tells a true story, but also turns into a surprisingly deep and troubling study of contradictions.  Paskowitz and his large family lived for years on end in a camper, spending their days surfing, foraging and studying Dad's far-out theories on health, biology and medicine.  There's a real romance to the scenario at first, but before long, it becomes clear that all of the children and their mother were permanently damaged by this upbringing, and suffered extreme hardship in service of their (unrepentant) father and husband's ideals. 

Dirty Pretty Things (2002)

Stephen Frears' grim, gritty film effortlessly combines 3 genres - it's a wrenching tragedy, a gripping thriller and a thoughtful piece of social commentary about the immigrant experience in London, all at once.  Nigerian Okwe (the always-reliable Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Turkish Senay (Audrey Tautou) stumble upon an illegal organ harvesting scam in the hotel in which they both work, but their second-class status and need to remain under the radar prevents them from steering clear of trouble.  The great Sergi López (probably best known in America as the villain from "Pan's Labyrinth") does some fantastic scene-chewing as the heavy.

A Very Long Engagement (2004)

Another great, underseen movie with Audrey Tautou, this WWI-era epic from Jean-Pierre Jeunet may be his best work to date.  Amazing visuals and a unique take on the style of the period (which has an almost steampunk, hyperreal appearance) whisk us through the story of a French couple divided by war yet desperate to reunite.  Though the filmmaking itself is thoroughly contemporary, and heavily reliant on digital effects, this is the sort of sweeping, romantic storytelling that essentially died with the old studio system.

Funny Ha Ha (2002)

Okay, the so-called "mumblecore" films of Andrew Bujalski aren't going to be for everyone.  (The term refers to ultra-low-budget movies with largely improvised dialogue and amateur actors, typically focused on interpersonal relationships).  But if the trend has one standard-bearer against which all other mumblecore movies should be judged, it's 2002's "Funny Ha Ha."  The story of a confused, sort of meek girl named Marnie who has recently graduated college and is trying to find her way in life, the movie begins as just casual, disconnected conversations, but very unassumingly and lackadaisically sort of coalesces into a pretty observant coming-of-age comedy.  Sometimes, it's refreshing to see a comedy that's just about smart people saying funny things, and that isn't always hurtling back-and-forth between set-ups and punchlines.

And here's the rest of the "Honorable Mentions," films I would have included on the Top 50 List if it were a Top 76 instead.  (These are not ranked...The order is random).


Black Book (2006)

Paul Verhoeven's bold, sexy, harrowing WWII spy adventure brings back the days when war movies could be both sad and exciting at once.  The thrilling (mostly fictional) tale of a woman's exploits in and out of the Dutch Resistance is unabashedly pulpy, with a zeal for foiling Nazi plots that would make Lt. Aldo Ray proud.  Verhoeven's films just have a liveliness and energy that are fairly unmatched among contemporary directors, and he really sinks his teeth into this material, making for one of his very best films.

Encounters at the End of the World (2007)

Werner Herzog's travelogue chronicling his time spent in Antarctica is probably the most uplifting movie ever made about the end of the world.  Herzog makes a few disarming discoveries at the South Pole - mainly, that the southernmost continent is a place of immaculate beauty and wonder, filled with lovable, brilliant eccentrics, almost all of whom believe that the human race is doomed for extinction in the near future.  In between the iceberg-themed doomsday prophecies, we hear the strange, psychedelic music of the Ross Sea seals, meet a man whose fingers prove he's descended from Aztec Kings, follow a volcanologist as he explores an ice cavern created by an explosion of magma and hear Herzog dismiss a botanist as a quack and a freakshow in voice-over narration WHILE THE GUY IS STILL SPEAKING!  This movie is brilliant, as one would expect from a true master and living cinematic legend.  Watch it on Blu-Ray if that option is open to you.

I Heart Huckabees (2004)

David O. Russell's madcap metaphysical farce, "I Heart Huckabees," was like a Monty Python sketch stretched out to feature length, and I mean that in the best way possible.  An anarchic, delightfully silly story about "existential detectives" investigating the life of a corporate-hating environmental activist, the movie, like the Python group's best work, expertly mixes the high-brow and low-brow without ever really hitting a false note.  (Okay, maybe once or twice).  It works as well as it does almost entirely due to the chemistry and ace timing of the fantastic ensemble of actors, including Dustin Hoffman, Naomi Watts, Lily Tomlin, Jason Schwartzman, Isabelle Huppert and, yes, Mark Wahlberg in one of his 2 great performances this decade.  (The other was "The Departed.")

WALL-E (2008)

PIXAR was, for the most part, kicking ass throughout this entire decade, churning out a series of all-around great entertainments - funny movies with solid storylines, genuine emotion, memorable characters, terrific action scenes and comedy that works equally well for audiences of all ages.  That's no mean feat.  But "WALL-E" was the PIXAR film that packed the biggest emotional wallop, for me, and that struck me as the most daring, visionary film the studio has yet released.  The story of a garbage-compactor robot stranded on a dystopian future Earth who falls in love with a visitor from another world, "WALL-E" is almost a silent film for a full half-hour.  It really focuses on character development, and the use of small gestures and carefully-observed details, more than any other contemporary animated film I can name.  In that way, it's closer to preserving the legacy of Walt Disney animation than anything they've done under their own brand since "The Lion King."

Waking Life (2001)

Richard Linklater's experiment into rotoscoped animation is a gimmick, sure, but it's a wacked-out, fun gimmick that's probably the decade's best "head" movie.  We follow the main character (modeled and voiced by Wiley Wiggins) through a dream, or more accurately a successive series of dreams, from which he can not awake.  And though each sequence is realized using the same animation technique - of having artists literally animate over digitally-shot live action film - the visuals itself take on radically different styles depending on who's animating.  There's no real narrative at all, save a repeated suggestion that the character may be unable to awaken because he has died.  Some of the bits are funny, some are familiar (one monologue about a shooting at a gas station is taken from the little-seen Scorsese documentary "American Boy"), some are thoughtful (in a Metaphysics 101 kind of way), some are strange and unsettling, but the final effect of seeing them all together is pretty goddamn deep, man. You dig?

Bowling for Columbine (2002)

I like Michael Moore's more recent documentaries, like "Fahrenheit 9/11" and "Sicko," but those feel more like polemics and less like real FILMS than "Columbine," a movie that's more about asking questions than providing one person's insights and answers.  Moore identifies a problem, or at least a situation - a lot of people in America are getting killed by guns, despite the fact that we're not the only country that has guns - and then just sets about examining it from a variety of perspectives.  Sometimes, yes, he goes a bit over-the-top and actually hurts the case he's trying to make, as when he chases down and harasses a somewhat disoriented Charlton Heston, but the majority of this film is a pretty fair-minded, even-handed look at America's gun culture.  And it's also humorous and fun to watch, a rarity for political documentaries of any stripe.

Gosford Park (2001)

Robert Altman's last great film was really two movies in one - a dissection of the inner-workings of two communities occupying the same English manor house over the course of a long weekend in the '30s, and a murder mystery.  It was an ideal set-up for an Altman film, as so many of his films are pre-occupied with looking into how people operate socially in groups, studying human interaction almost anthropologically, but it does mean that the Agatha Christie-style whodunit plot kind of gets the short shrift.  A massive ensemble cast of legendary British actors are all given just enough to do to maintain their interest, and Andrew Dunn's elegant, understated cinematography is like a delicate high-wire act.  Some movies, you can just tell that you're in the hands of a true master, and you can just relax and enjoy what comes, knowing that everything will all fit together. 

Femme Fatale (2002)

Like all of Brian De Palma's best work, "Femme Fatale" is ludicrous, completely over-the-top and just a bit sleazy.  He proudly combines Hitchcock's eye and innate understanding of pacing with the sensibility of an '80s Skinemax erotic thriller and I love him for it.  "Femme Fatale" opens with one of the most invigorating, crackerjack sequences of De Palma's entire career, a bold diamond heist amidst a premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.  We follow one of the thieves, Laure Ash (played by Rebecca Romijn) as she double-crosses her cohorts and skips the country.  Years later, she will return as the wife of a diplomat...only to be recognized and thus pursued for the stolen loot.  And that's just the beginning of this twisty, stylized, thoroughly ridiculous but always-amusing mindfuck of a movie.  Highly recommended for people who don't need movies to always color within the lines or, you know, make sense.

Amelie (2001)

I'm not really into "adorable" movies, which are too often self-consciously trying to charm, or "cute" you to death.  But I have to say, "Amelie" and its plucky, post-ironic heroine just sort of work on me.  After finding a box of toys and knick-knacks that once belonged to a young boy, and tracking down its now-adult owner, Amelie decides to dedicate her life to doing good and helping others, and in the process, she learns that it's sometimes okay to help herself, too.  I know, it sounds saccharine and irritating.  And that's without even mentioning the use if impressionistic special effects to highlight Amelie's inner thoughts and fantasies, or the long list of quirky eccentrics that fill out the supporting cast.  But the story is told with a sincerity and a clarity of purpose that makes the more "delightful" and twee aspects feel sort of earned...the characters are all whacked-out goofballs, you could say, but they are carefully thought-out, three-dimensional goofballs.  Anyway, years later, it's still a charming film.

The Proposition (2005)

John Hillcoat's gritty, dark Australian-set spaghetti western recalls some of the classics of the genre, particularly Altman's "McCabe and Mrs. Miller."  Essentially a story about people in impossible, filthy, hopeless surroundings who nevertheless attempt to hold on to some basic element of humanity amidst all the chaos, the film is most memorable for its violent set pieces and the melancholy soundtrack by Nick Cave (who also wrote the screenplay).  Guy Pearce stars as an outlaw presented with the titular bargain - hunt down and execute his older brother (played with a barely-concealed, seething rage by Danny Huston) or see his younger brother hang.  Unlike a lot of the great spaghetti westerns, the details in "The Proposition" all feel right for the period, from the ramshackle sets to the dust-coated costumes, even the once-immaculate tea sets of the villain, English gentleman Captain Stanley (an intense, brooding Ray Winstone).

A Serious Man (2009)

"A Serious Man" is the most nimble and effortlessly entertaining dark comedy the Coen Brothers have made in a long time; it's probably their best comic film since "The Big Lebowski."  It's a story about how Judaism, like other faiths, offers far more questions than answers, and fails to really resolve any of the Great Mysteries of Human Life on Earth, despite elaborate promises to the contrary.  Which doesn't sound like a hilarious premise, necessarily, but as we watch Larry Gopnik's somewhat idyllic suburban life slowly begin to unravel, culminating in a series of utterly defeating personal tragedies, there's really no possible reaction except laughter.  Special kudos to Fred Melamed for portraying one of the most awkward, uncouth individuals in recent cinematic history, the preening Sy Ableman, with whom Gopnik's wife embarks on an ill-fated affair.

The Others (2001)

Alejandro Amenabar's atmospheric, spooky haunted house flick, "The Others," proves that a talented director with a nimble touch and an eye for the interplay between light and shadow can whip up a compelling horror movie from a whole lot of nothing.  "The Others" has Nicole Kidman before she overdid the face injections to the point of resembling the Caucasian cousin of the Avatar aliens, one surefire gimmick - children who must not be exposed to natural light - and one plot twist - which I will not mention here.  There's not much else, but then again, Amenabar doesn't need much besides a pretense to build a gorgeously sinister mansion set.  The resulting film is entertaining and surprisingly frightening, at least for a period-set haunted house movie. 

A History of Violence (2005)

David Cronenberg's idiosyncratic "History of Violence" begins with a relatively simple premise...A Philadelphia mob enforcer (Ed Harris) arrives in a small town and informs the owner of the local diner, Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), a quiet and unassuming family man, that he's been recognized as a long-lost criminal colleague, and they have come to take him back home to answer for his varied past betrayals.  The film has an intriguing first act, during which we wonder whether this same guy, who seems to mild-mannered, could possibly be the criminal these guys are after.  We then move into an intense second act, where we see some consequences of Tom's refusal to go along quietly.  And then, the film becomes totally unexpected and absolutely brilliant at the end, as we watch the two men, Tom and his other self, collide into each another.  These scenes represent the best film acting I've ever seen from Mortensen, who instantly switches between terror and menace, and a genuinely provocative examination of the fleeting, schizophrenic nature of human identity.  We are whomever we say we are, when you get right down to it, and the ability of an individual to show one face to some people and a vastly different face to others can be truly chilling.

Collateral (2004)

Okay, so the final act of Michael Mann's crime thriller/character study kind of falls apart, substituting dumb action cliches for a satisfying conclusion.  The movie still earns its spot on the honorable mentions list for the dazzling nighttime LA cinematography and the terrific performances from leads Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx.  Cruise, who was not better than this in any movie this decade, save possibly "Tropic Thunder," plays a hitman who takes a cab driver captive for an entire night, forcing the stranger to assist him in making his homicidal rounds.  The film could easily have turned hokey if both leads didn't play it with such sincerity, utterly dropping their typical movie star routines and just letting the material speak for itself (which is unexpected in an action film).  A sequence in a jazz club between Cruise's assassin and the club's owner (Barry Shabaka Henley) is among the most stripped-down and minimalist in Mann's entire filmography, and also one of the best.

You Can Count on Me (2000)

One of the essential movies about male-female siblings, Kenneth Lonergan's "You Can Count on Me" tells a melodramatic story in such a simple and poignant way that it feels universal.  Single mom Sammy (Laura Linney) reunites with her wayward brother Terry (Mark Ruffalo) after several months with no contact.  Close ever since losing their parents at a young age, Sammy and Terry share a complex relationship, made even more difficult by Sammy's young son - struggling with the loss of his own absent father - and her various other faltering relationships.  Yet Lonergan manages to strip away all of these specifics, using them largely as devices to drive the conflict along, and keeps the bond between Sammy and Terry at the film's core.  Ruffalo kind of irritates me these days in movies...It feels like he tends to fall back on ticks and mannerisms a lot, and can't ever really disappear into a character.  But he's pretty sensational here, and I defy anyone who has a sibling, or any close family member, to make it all the way through this one without getting at least a little misty.

Watchmen (2009)

Zack Snyder's "Watchmen" films does what I had thought no comic book movie could do.  It accurately bring Alan Moore's epic meta-comic to life on the screen PLUS it manages to make this nearly 20-year-old material seem relevant once more.  NO previous Moore adaptation, including the largely-successful "V for Vendetta," had actually done this, and I had grown cynical, scarcely believing it possible, let alone from the director of the wholly loathsome "300" working with some of Moore's most medium-specific and, yes, dated material.  I think the secret, or one of the secrets, is that Snyder doesn't let the grandiose scale of the thing overwhelm the little details...The way Rorschach pulls up his mask to eat beans, or the way Daniel Dreiberg fidgets around nervously when making love without a costume on.  These little touches remind you that the larger-than-life heroes are still human, which is kind of the whole point anyway, right?


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