Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The 50 Best Films of the Decade, 20-1

It's already more than a week into the new decade.  Time to finish this sucker up.  Sorry, again, that it has taken me so long.  I guess I decided to write too much about each film and turned this into a greater commitment than I really had ample time to see through.  But I have persevered!

20. The Incredibles (2004)

I read a "decade wrap-up" blog post recently knocking Brad Bird's riff on superhero movies and spy flicks, and even after the well-written and clear review, I still don't quite get how anyone can dislike this utterly charming, 100 mile-per-hour blend of action, fantasy and comedy.  I'll admit, I had my doubts at first, mainly due to it's sort of creepy motif about championing the stronger and more intelligent, and allowing them to lord their gifts over inferior beings.  But the film is just so relentlessly fun and exciting, so clever in how it rewires pulp imagery and some very adult genre films into something accessible to mass audiences and children, so packed full of incident and spectacle and humor...it just overwhelms you with goodness until you completely forget your reservations about its "Ayn Rand for Beginners" theme.  This is PIXAR's greatest triumph out of a decade in which they rarely faltered.  (I mean, wow, "Cars"...Seriously, what the hell happened? Why did they have shelves if they were talking cars!  Cars can't reach shelves!)

19. The Devil's Backbone (2001)

Forget the over-rated, disjointed "Pan's Labyrinth"; this is the best film Guillermo del Toro's ever made, and the decade's best horror film.  During the Spanish Civil War, young Carlos finds himself at a strange orphanage, haunted by a ghost named Santi.  Del Toro is, on one level, making a creepily effective conventional ghost story, as Carlos and his fellow orphans get increasingly bold in their paranormal investigations.  But "Devil's Backbone" is also more serious film about the terror inherent in childhood, borrowing liberally from the surreal Spanish drama "Spirit of the Beehive." Carlos, a sensitive and perceptive young man, is fully aware of his surroundings, and knows things well before most of the adults in charge figure them out, but is thoroughly unable to affect genuine change...Over time, this reality gets far more dangerous and upsetting to him than the spirit who may or may not be roaming the grounds.  The way Del Toro gradually builds tension during the film is nothing short of masterful, typified by the undetonated, defused bomb planted in the center of the orphanage's courtyard.  This place, we come to understand, is not IMMEDIATELY threatening, but bad things have happened here, and very likely will again.

18. Borat (2006)

In 500 years, no film will offer a more compelling, clear depiction of who the Americans of the past decade were, how we lived and how we saw ourselves than "Borat."  We're just going to have to deal with that.  Sacha Baron Cohen's crude, mean-spirited and gut-bustingly hilarious pseudo-documentary takes his Kazakh TV host character on the road, meeting an assorted variety of rubes, misogynists and bigots and tricking them into revealing their true natures to a global audience.  The film became an international phenomenon on the back of Cohen's skill as a comic performer - his fearlessness, his way with a catch phrase, his quick wit in the face of massive idiocy - but he's also a frequently insightful and cutting social critic.  A scene where Borat discusses dating and sex with some intoxicated fraternity brothers gets some laughs, but soon enough becomes deeply troubling, even stomach-turning, and far more revealing than anyone appearing on camera (Cohen included) probably realized at the time.  I like!

17. No Country for Old Men (2007)

After back-to-back disappointments ("Intolerable Cruelty" and the reprehensible "Ladykillers"), the Coen Brothers returned in fine form with this cold-blooded, nihilistic modern-day Western.  The film hits on all the Coens' greatest strengths - colorful dialogue, enigmatic characters, a carefully consistent aesthetic, unexpected bursts of violence, expert use of repetition - and it's easily their most suspenseful film to date.  From the moment the fiendishly clever, totally intractable hitman Anton Chigurh (an almost-unnaturally, inhumanly laconic Javier Bardem) is introduced, "No Country for Old Men" refuses to let the viewer relax, plunging us into a relentless pursuit that could only end tragically.  Chigurh is chasing some misplaced drug money that has accidentally come into the possession of welder Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), and is himself being pursued by the largely apathetic, contemplative Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), but Bardem constantly remains the driving force at the film's center.  Consider a shootout in which Chigurh pursues Moss out of a hotel room and into the city streets.  We barely even need to SEE Bardem in this sequence at all.  He has established Chigurh's menace so convincingly in previous scenes, just a faint shadow against a nearby wall, or the sound of him busting through a door by blowing a hole through it with an air gun, is panic-inducing.  In many ways, "No Country" is more concerned with the nature of Chigurh's chase than the specific incidents, or where everyone ends up.  What could possibly motivate him to keep going, despite hopelessness, defeat and injury?  Why push forward, even though he doesn't seem to need the money or care about what happens to him?  He's capable of great acts of cruelty and brutality, but what's most chilling about Chigurh is his total lack of motivation.  He just kills.  It's what he does.

16. Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Quentin Tarantino's thrilling WWII saga is wonderfully cinematic, and filled with innovative, beautifully realized images, but I almost feel like it would work just as well as a play.  This isn't true of any of QT's other work, which is so tied to the cinema and its history that it wouldn't even make sense in another medium.  But "Inglorious Basterds" is really a series of long scenes about liars and the slow, deliberate, methodical ways that their lines are undone.  The script is sometimes reminiscent of mystery plays, such as Anthony Shaffer's "Sleuth," in which a game or puzzle is introduced, and we follow a character gradually untangling everything in real time.  Only in "Basterds," the man working out the mystery is a Nazi known as the "Jew Hunter," and we're firmly on the side of those attempting to conceal the truth.  Christoph Waltz is a revelation as the villainous and brilliant Nazi, Col. Hans Landa, who seems to delight equally in toying with his victims and reveling in his own powers of deduction.  Probably Tarantino's best-written film since "Pulp Fiction," and the one that best marries his love for film history and his unerring knack for genre dialogue with his preternatural ability as a storyteller.

15. What Time is it There (2001)

When I say that Tsai Ming-liang's ingenious, impenetrable "What Time Is It There" isn't for everybody, I mean it's for hardly any people at all.  A sometimes-funny, sometimes-depressing but always self-conscious and deliberate "art film," the movie's slow pace, frequent digressions and ambiguity are sure to thwart any filmgoers who don't have the patience to just experience the cinema without having to figure everything out.  There's really no clear statement I can make with confidence about what Tsai's film actually "means" - the story concerns a lonely street vendor (Hsiao Kang) who sells his watch to a woman (Chen Shiang-Chyi) on her way to Paris and thereafter becomes oddly obsessed with this encounter. But these incidents are just a jumping off point for Tsai's amusingly dark (or darkly amusing?) observations about the disconnectedness and cold isolation of modern urban life, and how we're most alone when lots of other people are around.  He suggests, by the end, that we are all more in sync than we realize, but that to behold and appreciate this synchronicity would destroy it.  Which is a depressing thought...but also kind of funny.

14. Minority Report (2002)

Here's a word you can't often use to describe Steven Spielberg movies: Under-appreciated.  But I'll be damned if "Minority Report" missed out on its fair share of accolades for including some of Steve's best-ever action sequences EVER, a twisty, unpredictable noir-inspired script, a perfectly-realized and detailed near-future setting and gorgeous, hallucinatory cinematography from Janusz Kamiński.  "Minority Report" just keeps upping the ante, getting more intense and provocative and imaginative as it goes along.  This is a relative rarity in the science-fiction genre, where the best ideas are usually explained by some opening text before the main action even starts.  "Minority Report," conversely, is overloaded with clever, well-thought-out little touches, from experimental (and gruesome) future eye surgery to mechanical retinal-scanning spiders to realistic vomit sticks and jet packs to cereal boxes that play their own commercials.  There's enough material here to power five conventional, mainstream sci-fi films.

13. Head-On (2004)

Fatih Akin's "Head-On" is a romance set in Germany's Turkish immigrant community that builds to an absolutely devastating climax.  Why does the conclusion hit me so hard each time I watch the film?  I think it's because Akin cleverly opens the movie with comedy, winning us over to the character's perspective by letting us laugh at their rough-edged humanity.  Then, once we're committed, he injects tragedy to their lives.  The film opens with a premise that could be played completely for humor...Aging addict Cahit (Birol Ünel) crashes his car into a wall (on purpose) and is taken to a psychiatric hospital.  There, he meets the equally suicidal Sibel (Sibel Kekilli), and the two of embark on a marriage of convenience, allowing her to escape from her overbearing, traditional father and brothers and party to her heart's content. The unlikely love that develops between them is handled with humor and honesty, and Akin's script and his actors rarely hit a false note. And, of course, it builds to one of the saddest endings of any contemporary film.  This is the sort of honest conclusion that most American directors, even iconoclasts like Alexander Payne or Wes Anderson, repeatedly prove too timid to explore, a recognition that even things which seem destined to work out sometimes don't, and that life is about surviving the disappointments and coping with the failures as much as anything else.

12. Ghost World (2001)

Terry Zwigoff's film takes feelings of alienation and isolation that you may have never been able to put into words, and sets an entire film around them.  The film's intelligent introverts have accepted as inevitable the idea that they will always be all alone, forever, and it has made them utterly unable to connect with other human beings even when the opportunity presents itself.  But it's, you know, a comedy.  Just as cynical, geeky recent high school graduate Enid (Thora Birch) finds herself outgrowing her friendship with her classmate Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson), she encounters another lost and lonely soul, record collector Seymour (Steve Buscemi).  They embark on a tentative friendship that largely reveals a lack of experience with the ritual on both sides, but also a mutual intelligence and respect that sets them apart from the dullards around them, before eventually drifting apart.  The haunting final sequence finds Enid leaving it all behind for good - Seymour, Rebecca, her father, her former life - and bound for nowhere in particular. She's a bit older, and a bit wiser, but not really any happier.

11. Zodiac (2007)

David Fincher's gripping police procedural about the never-solved Zodiac Killer case contains more raw information about the real murders and the major players than you'd likely get from a 2 hour History Channel documentary.  But though it covers all the names and dates, all the leads and false positives and blind alleys that kept the case open and the killer walking the streets for decades, the film's not about Zodiac the person or his motives.  As in real life, those remain beyond the film's grasp...Even when suggesting whom the killer might be, "Zodiac" never even pretends to understand who he really was, or why he did what he did.  Fincher's focus remains squarely on the men who grew obsessed with catching the Zodiac, what drove them, and how their eventual failure to actually get their man wrecked havoc on their lives.  He also finds time to give a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at how the police investigation unfolded, and to offer a compelling theory on the identity of the actual Zodiac Killer.  And it's impossible to talk about the genius of this film without mentioning the obsessive realism and attention to detail, in particular the stunning recreation of San Francisco in the '70s.  (One of my favorite moments is the amazing time-lapse recreation of the Transamerica Pyramid being built, a perfect visual encapsulation of the passage of time and a poignant reminder that, though the Zodiac investigators were running around in circles, the city picked itself up and moved on.)

10. The Dark Knight (2008)

After the grandiose, incident-packed "Batman Begins," which got the Christian Bale Batman series off to a fresh but largely conventional start, co-writer/director Christopher Nolan really elevated the superhero genre with the follow-up, "The Dark Knight."  No longer a movie about sacrifice, duty and heroism, as you typically expect with Batman movies, Nolan was now making a film about the corrupting nature of power, the sinister appeal of Fascism and authoritarianism, the way fear and anger spread virally, infecting whole populations overnight, and the nature of madness itself.  That the film also has the feel of a crowd-pleaser, and contains sufficient spectacle to rank among the most popular movies of all time, is a testament to Nolan's gift for storytelling and for balancing high-minded themes and explosions without diluting either.  Heath Ledger, unrecognizable under grotesque make-up, gives one of the decade's most frightening, transformative and memorable performances as The Joker; through unfortunate circumstance, he essentially disappeared into the role and was never heard from again.

9. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

"Rushmore" will probably always be my personal favorite Wes Anderson movie, but "Royal Tenenbaums" is the one that distills his idiosyncratic style down to its most essential and clearly-expressed form.  As much a word-of-mouth family history as a story, Anderson careens around through time and between the Poles, giving us just enough of a sense for who the Tenenbaums are to appreciate the next sequence we're about to see.  Gene Hackman gives my vote for the Best Comic Performance of the Decade as patriarch Royal Tenenbaum, whose lifelong selfishness and duplicity have not exactly endeared him to his family, but who is now determined to unite them all under one roof.  In later Anderson films, like "The Life Aquatic," his familiar quirks - the '60s British Invasion music and folk songs, frequent montages focusing on details and minutae, labels and titles that emphasize the "written" aspects of the story, deadpan humor - feel like gimmicks, shorthand that he's contractually obliged to use to remind people they're watching a "Wes Anderson movie."  But here it feels accurate, like he's not overwhelming us with Wes Anderson's favorite things but channeling the Tenenbaum Family's style and personal taste.

8. Oldboy (2003)

"Oldboy" is like a nightmare you remember well enough to talk about later, with images you can't shake out of your head for days and a strange, internal logic all its own.  Mild-mannered Oh Dae-Su (Hwang Jo-yun) is kidnapped from off the street and imprisoned in a spare hotel room for 15 years with no explanation.  When he gets out, he's determined to find out who kidnapped him and why...but when he eventually pieces it all together, he doesn't like the answers much.  Director Park Chan-wook directs with a manic energy that viscerally simulates his hero's mounting paranoia and desperation.  He will do anything to find the person responsible for what happened to him, a task that's more important to him than the people around him, than his own health and well-being, that may even be more important than his freedom itself.  One virtuoso sequence of Oh Dae-Su sacrificing his sanity in the service of his revenge plot follows another - the incredible single-shot hammer fight, eating the live squid, the tooth-pulling - all of them infused with an off-kilter, dreamlike quality that makes everything seems somehow unreal, too brutal and purposelessly cruel to have actually happened.

7. Gangs of New York (2002)

Yes, I know, this is probably the single most controversial film on the entire list, and it's here in the Top 10.  To all the haters, I say...bring it.  Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York," his best film this past decade, is a constantly entertaining and artful illumination of a largely-obscure period in American history, highlighted by the expressive, sweeping photography of Michael Ballhaus, the massive eye-popping Dante Ferretti sets and a perfect, scenery-chewing performance from Daniel Day-Lewis.  Amidst all this awesomeness, to think that people have the audacity to complain that supporting player Cameron Diaz was miscast, discounting the entire film on the basis of her sometimes-unrealistic accent. clear skin and pretty face.  As if the distraction of seeing a well-known starlet reasonably acquit her way across a few dramatic sequences were enough to undo brilliant sequences like the feuding fire fighting companies, the scores of immigrants pouring off of arriving ships, the knife-throwing demonstration or the Draft Riots.  Scorsese wisely realizes that the main narrative, a revenge story about a kid who infiltrates the gang of the man who killed his father, was mainly a frame on which to hang his real subject - the community that grew up around New York's "Five Points" in the mid-19th Century, and how events at that time shaped the urban American landscape we know today. 

6. Children of Men (2006)

It's such a cliche to say that something "works on so many levels" that even Homer Simpson has been known to adopt the phrase.  But Alfonso Cuaron's ingenious, dystopian sci-fi thriller "Children of Men" genuinely deserves such praise.  The story of a world where humans have lost the ability to reproduce, and thus have resigned themselves to impending extinction, is a haunting examination of how the present only has meaning when considered as one incident in a larger narrative, and how human beings process tragedy while clinging to hope.  It's also a social commentary on how fear makes us turn against the weakest and most helpless people around us, and how governments and regimes (from both sides of the political spectrum) hold on to power by perpetuating this fear and scapegoating minorities.  Plus it's a tender and involving human drama that pays close attention to small character details, and manages to fold in more than its fair share of surprising comedy.  And finally, it's one of the best action films in a generation, turning the loud, flashy, quick-cut style of faux-auteurs like Michael Bay on its head in favor of deliberate, immaculately-realized single-take sequences that put the audience directly in the midst of gruesome, chaotic violence.

5. City of God (2002)

Pretty much every young international filmmaker with a lot of energy and a fondness for contemporary music gets compared to Martin Scorsese, but Fernando Meirelles' relentless, ceaselessly inventive crime epic really does warrant consideration alongside Marty's classics.  This is mainly because Meirelles embarks on a similar project to Scorsese - the dissection of a particular neighborhood, how it functions, the individuals who fill various roles and how these shift and change over time - and does so with a personal flair and a puckish, child-like desire to subvert expectations.  The film demands our attention from the first moment; it opens with blurry, frenetic footage of a chicken darting through the streets of the Rio slum known as 'City of God,' trying to avoid having its head chopped off. Its characters will essentially replicate the bird's behavior for the rest of the movie.  Though the neighborhood has its resident stone-cold killer (Lil' Ze, played with ferocity, but also sympathy, by Leandro Firmino da Hora), most of the characters are laid-back and likable.  They go into crime not because they relish the thought of breaking the law, but because it is the best (and in many cases, only) opportunity presenting itself to them at the time.  The film spans decades and eventually gives you the sense of familiarity with your surroundings, but it's not familiarity with the twisty, multi-faceted and overcrowded neighborhood itself.  That would take much more than one film (even the follow-up TV series wasn't up to the task).  Instead, it's a familiarity with the rhythms of life there, and the complex choices faced by those the City's residents. "City of God" was the most audacious, brave and purely entertaining film of the decade.

4. Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

Peter Jackson's last great film, and easily the crowning achievement of his "Lord of the Rings" adaptation project, "The Fellowship of the Ring" was everything its sequels yearned to be but weren't.  Let's face it...Some time between this film, the ponderous final half of "The Two Towers" and the bombastic, overlong and punishingly maudlin "Return of the King," Peter Jackson started believing his own hype.  He stopped making larger-than-life, exciting, risky genre movies (of which "Fellowship" is the best example) and started making "serious cinema."  Now his movies are 4 hours long and exhausting, and not nearly as fun as they should be.  "Fellowship" is everything you'd ever want from a Tolkein adaptation, and really seems to "get" the timeless appeal of the books.  Sure, the monsters and swordplay and sorcery are fun, but it's really a eulogy for humanity's pre-Industrial way of life, when we were just finding our way as a species, and were, by necessity, still in touch with the natural world around us.  Jackson infuses every scene in his film with a sort of quiet, stoic melancholy, a sadness at seeing innocence drained from the lovable main characters that permeates the whole film from the first scene onward, but somehow never gets in the way of the spectacle.  I don't want to be too hard on the following films...They both have their strong points (particularly Gollum, still the most compelling and life-like motion-capture animated character in film history), and the trilogy taken as a whole is a remarkable achievement.  But watching the other two can, at times, feel like a chore.  "Fellowship" is thoroughly enjoyable, a sweeping, effects-driven, continent-spanning adventure that's still quirky, intimate and oddly personal.

3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

Charlie Kaufman understands the mechanics and shifting emotions of relationships better than any other screenwriter working today.  He (along with director Michel Gondry and Pierre Bismuth) could have written a straight-forward, chronological movie about the love affair at the center of "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," and it would probably still appear somewhere on this Top 50 list.  Instead, he sends us hurtling through Joel and Clementine's life together backwards then forwards again, jamming the awkward moments of dysfunction right up into the first kisses and pillow talk.  The result is a head-trip that feels instantly relateable, the kind of movie that seems to crystallize thoughts you've always had but just never seriously entertained before.  Kaufman's premise resembles those in Philip K. Dick's more caustic satires - Joel (Jim Carrey, in his best performance to date) pays the somewhat questionable Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) to erase all memory of his previous relationship with the moody, eccentric Clementine (Kate Winslet) from his brain.  Joel experiences the process of "forced forgetting" as similar to time travel. He's whisked backwards through his time with Clementine, seeing incidents unfold and then disappear forever into the void.  Simultaneously, we see scenes of Dr. Howard's assistants, one of whom (Elijah Wood) is stealing Joel's moves from his memories and using them to seduce Clementine, who has also had a procedure to erase her memory of Joel.  And this gets to the heart of Kaufman's concept; the fading relationship of Joel and Clementine, just like the budding relationship of Patrick and Clementine, is doomed to end in failure, but that does not mean it was not real love, and that the experience of it wasn't authentic. Even if Joel and Clementine wound up repeating the pattern forever - dating, forgetting one another, then getting back together - that could itself prove to be a certain kind of happiness, with the thrill of finding one another outweighing the heartache of being torn apart.  I'm realizing now that I just got through an entire discussion of the wonders of this movie and didn't even talk about Jon Brion's amazing score, Michel Gondry's wonderfully light touch with the film's sometimes surral visuals and brilliant use of repetition and visual patterns or Ellen Kuras bright, kinetic, even disorienting cinematography, which reinforces Joel's feelings of sensory overload and fatigue!  Crap!

2. There Will Be Blood (2007)

There was no more complicated, fascinating, inscrutable, iconic film character in the '00s than Daniel Plainview, and this is a movie that's entirely about him.  Therefore, it's #2 on the list.  Oh, sure, it has other attributes.  In more than a century of gritty Westerns, the cinema has rarely portrayed the American frontier as a more dark and menacing hellscape than cinematography Robert Elswit and director Paul Thomas Anderson present here.  The depiction of the early days of the American oil industry and the outlines of how the business was conducted in the early part of the 20th Century is fascinating and relevant to our own moment in history.  In order to power our machines, we must send men literally deep into the bowels of the Earth, at great risk to their personal safety, and this movie makes that decision horrifyingly, palpably real.  The character of Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), a small-town pastor who will resort of Machiavellian tactics to achieve his goals, is compelling enough to warrant a movie of his own.  But this is Daniel Day-Lewis' film all the way, embodying a man who's as much a force of nature as a character.  Somehow, Day-Lewis was able to gain an understanding about this man, who scarcely seems to understand himself.  Plainview speaks in calm, measured tones to disguise his impulsive, reckless temperament.  He surrounds himself with colleagues and family despite a professed hatred for people.  He will allow himself to be humiliated in front of a large crowd of people, but will rage at minor perceived slights.  It's a bit like seeing a fearsome monster playing at being a person, afraid to upset the natural order of things.  It's a thrilling, classic performance.

1. Mulholland Drive (2001)

No film this decade was more intriguing, and no film demanded rewatching, further speculation and discussion more than David Lynch's masterpiece. I think it's his greatest film, which is saying something, because the guy's responsible for a number of fantastic movies, as well as one of my favorite TV series of all time.  In addition to its puzzle-box structure, that rewards careful attention and repeat viewings, Lynch manages to perfectly balance between comedy and suspense for over 2 hours. The movie can be SCARY and hilarious, almost at the same time, which both enhances its dream-like quality (because dreams, as we all know, can shift moods in a moment) AND makes it just an extremely entertaining way to pass a few hours.  The film's first hour coalesces roughly into a sensible story (really a few interconnected stories, as these scenes were designed as a pilot for a TV show): Betty (Naomi Watts) has come to LA with stars in her eyes, and lands an audition for a big movie role; the film's director, Adam Kesher (Justin Thoreaux), loves Betty but receives a variety of not-so-subtle warnings that he must cast a different goal in the part; Betty's new roommate Rita (Laura Elena Harring) has been in a car crash and doesn't remember who she is; and all the time, a vague conspiracy involving a cowboy and a little man in a wheelchair and a homeless man behind a dumpster and a scruffy hitman is forming, with Kesher's film at its center.  The second half follows people who resemble their alter-egos in the first half, but are clearly different individuals (Betty is now "Diane," Rita is now "Camilla").  Soon enough, attentive viewers will sense the connection between the two stories, how we've seen one view of reality as it exists and one alternate depiction of reality from within a character's subconscious mind.  Throughout, Lynch uses stock Hollywood techniques and allusions to classic cinema, mixed with absurd dialogue and surreal imagery, noting the way that movies (and the industry that creates them) recreate our dreams and then slowly dismantle them.  By the time it's all over, he's built up the central conceit so deftly and with such fascinating ambiguity, you want to go back and watch it all again just to pick up what you missed.  That still happens to me, and I've seen the movie at least 12 times.