31 January 2010

Film: Best Movies of the Decade

How fitting that my 100th post on this blog brings me back to my first love: film. It's been nearly three years since I started it, and--save a couple semesters--I've done my best to maintain it. I hope you enjoy this list, which is hardly complete. I'll follow this up with a post of 50 honorable mentions.

Here goes:

25th Hour
(2002, Spike Lee)
The definitive guy movie of the decade. On the eve of his prison sentence, Monty Brogan (Ed Norton) reflects on his friendships and poor decisions over the years and in the process reveals the devastation his drug dealing has brought on his family. Featuring great supporting performances from an insecure Philip Seymour Hoffman, an overly confident Barry Pepper and a stoic but strong Brian Cox. Oh, and it manages to say more about our "post-9/11" world in a few minutes than most movies did in their entire run time.
Further Viewing: Bamboozled (2000), Inside Man (2006), Miracle at St. Anna (2008)

500 Days of Summer
(2009, Marc Webb)
A romantic comedy that's not terrible is a miracle in and of itself, but one that includes realistic dialogue and scenarios? That's unheard of. Music video director Marc Webb makes a remarkable debut, one that's totally honest with its audience, even when it has a few tricks up its sleeve.

Almost Famous
(2000, Cameron Crowe)
Perfectly captures teenage innocence, the '70s, rock 'n' roll, the pressures of your first big job, falling in love, and anything else ya got. This is Crowe's masterpiece.

(2001, Jean-Pierre Jeunet)
Has there ever been a more likable protagonist than Amélie? She's a person so unwaveringly nice and generous person, she has to be a work of fiction. But none of this would work if Audrey Tautou weren't so genuine.

American Gangster
(2007, Ridley Scott)
Another appropriate title would have been the title of the article it's based upon: "The Return of Superfly." After the commercial failures of his last three projects, Scott teamed up with his ol' buddy Russell Crowe, attached a perfectly cast Denzel (clearly relishing his bad guy role) and much, like The Departed, emphasized the psyche--not the firepower--of the two leads.
Further Viewing: Black Hawk Down (2001), Matchstick Men (2003), Kingdom of Heaven (2005)

(2001, Takashi Miike)
The first half flawlessly blends mystery and romance, the second is a terrifying trip into obsession. A movie with a palpable sense of dread. Seek it out immediately.

Before Sunset
(2004, Richard Linklater)
Nine years after their brief encounter, Jesse and Celine reconnect in Paris and their real-time conversation about all their how their lives didn't turn out the way they planned carries significant heft. But it's more than just the dialogue that resonates: each gesture carefully adds another detail of the regret they both feel. One of the most affecting and rewarding movies you'll ever see.
Further Viewing: Waking Life (2001)

Big Fish
(2003, Tim Burton)
After the dark dreck of the despicable Planet of the Apes remake, many wondered what one of the most gifted directors would do next. He turned his sights on Daniel Wallace's magical novel, a father-son tale that never once feels trite. Albert Finney is terrific as the larger-than-life patriarch, whose tall tales don't sit well with his son (Billy Crudup). The ensuing conversations and stories paint a picture of a man whose big dreams and full life had to be filled with big stories. The more fantastic sequences--with Ewan McGregor--are a delight to behold, but the intimate scenes with Crudup and Finney are touching.
Further Viewing: Sweeney Todd (2007)

(2006, Rian Johnson)
A gripping detective thriller set in the shifty world of high school. The seedy clubs are backstage of theater productions, the dark alleys are rows of lockers, but the hard-boiled dialogue remains consistent. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is marvelous as a Phillip Marlowe in sneakers, with Matt O'Leary as his trusty sidekick. Tremendously well-written, especially for a film with a budget of under $500,000.
Further Viewing: The Brothers Bloom (2009)

Children of Men
(2006, Alfonso Cuarón)
From the opening scene--a bomb goes off in a crowded café, sending a disoriented man scrambling to find his arm--sets up the alarming sense of certainty viewers feel throughout this rough-edged masterpiece. It's pretty hopeless until the ending, which leaves the viewer to decide whether hope is fulfilled or destroyed. A terrifying vision of the future, filled with realism, masterful camera tricks and honest performances.
Further Viewing: Y Tu Mamá También (2002), Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

City of God
(2003, Fernando Meirelles)
Think of it as the Brazilian GoodFellas: a comprehensive, engrossing mob tale from its violent origins to its devastating end. This is the work of a startling visionary who knows exactly what he's talking about.

Cold Mountain
(2003, Anthony Minghella)
A movie that grows richer as time goes on. This isn't your father's Civil War movie: there are no winners in the final months of the conflict, only losers. This Deep South Odyssey works only because you believe the love between Jude Law and Nicole Kidman is that strong. It also helps that the gritty realism of deserters and devastated victims of war fill in the rest of the film, eliminating any Hollywood shine.

(2005, Paul Haggis)
Is it well-acted and well-written? Yeah. Is it brutally honest? Yeah. Is it preachy? Yeah, that too. But Haggis' directorial debut is the kind of movie that comes around so rarely: a movie that holds up a mirror to America (and humanity) and shows it its own hideous reflection.
Further Viewing: In the Valley of Elah (2007)

The Dark Knight
(2008, Christopher Nolan)
I could write pages and pages about this game-changing movie, which pretty much redefined everything that came before it. It inspires. ethical debates. It has an impeccable cast, from the shortest supporting performance of David Dastmalchian to the piece-de-resistance of the late Heath Ledger. Its story has more and more layers upon each viewing. In short, this is about as good as it gets.
Further Viewing: Memento (2000), The Prestige (2006)

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father
(2008, Kurt Kuenne)
More compelling and tear-jerking than just about any movie you'll ever see. One half is a gripping true-crime story, the other is filled with righteous indignation over a corrupt Canadian justice system. This is a documentary made to shake you with nothing but the truth.

The Departed
(2006, Martin Scorsese)
A crime epic like nothing you've ever seen. Leave it to Scorsese to add context to a mob saga. There's plenty of shootouts, but also lots of deeper themes about true identity and cultural heritage. Plus, the cast (including Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, and Jack Nicholson--all at the top of their games) is one of the best ever assembled.
Further Viewing: The Aviator (2004)

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
(2007, Julian Schnabel)
Most biopics are as flat and uninteresting as West Texas. But every once in a while, a true storyteller comes along to inject some life into someone's life story. Jean-Dominique Bauby, the editor of French Vogue had a stroke in his 30s, paralyzing all but his left eye. But his spirit could not be contained. He blinked his memoirs with the help of his longsuffering nurse. If this sounds a bit boring, trust me it's not. This is about as riveting as they come.

Donnie Darko
(2001, Richard Kelly)
I'm not going to pretend like I know everything that's going on in this movie. But that's part of what's so rewarding about repeat viewings of this spiritual-supernatural-completely unreal coming-of-age story.

(2008, John Patrick Shanley)
Here's a movie you can dissect and discuss for days on end, thanks to a script filled with clues and misinterpretations. No two people will have the exact same theory on what happened. But that's not the point. It's more of how misconceptions and assumptions tear apart people's lives. It's a shame more people haven't seen it.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
(2004, Michel Gondry)
A romantic comedy that defies convention or boundaries. A stunning piece of technical genius, but also filled with powerful but realistic performances. In short, this is a movie that gets everything right.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall
(2008, Nicholas Stoller)
Smarter and more resonant than a dozen romantic comedies, Jason Segel's screenwriting debut is more honest and funny than anything with Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey.

(2007, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino)
A filmgoing experience like no other: a Z-grade double feature done with grade-A talent. Rodriguez's Planet Terror is the more entertaining zombie-infestation gross-out and Tarantino's Death Proof is a talky revenge thriller. But the best part is the fake trailers that connect the two films: each a surprisingly well done parody of a subgenre of horror.

High Fidelity
(2000, Stephen Frears)
Here's a guy movie that actually doesn't insult men--or women. The characters are complex, but not overly so. Yes, we like to make top 5 lists and obsess over records, but that doesn't mean we don't regret some things or feel cheated or wish our lives could be better.
Further Viewing: The Queen (2006)

In America
(2003, Jim Sheridan)
An immigrant tale that doesn't feel like it's been told 1,000 times. Based on director Jim Sheridan's own life experience, the movie feels authentic because it is. It's also unpredictable. Nothing in the film feels methodical. It unfolds realistically.

In Bruges
(2008, Martin McDonagh)
Most movies find their protagonists trapped in an idyllic small town. But the twist here is that they're trapped in a hellhole in Belgium. There's a little bit of underlying sadness in the conversation of two men who have devoted their lives to the business of killing, but the movie is still ferociously funny and delightfully off-kilter.

The Incredibles
(2004, Brad Bird)
Just a superhero movie? Think again. This is less about the family's superpowers and more about how society has made those superpowers something to be ashamed of because it distinguishes them from the rest of the average population. Like Dash says, "Everyone's special, which means no one is." Biting satire in a kids' movie? You bet your Hai Karate.
Further Viewing: Ratatouille (2007)

Inglourious Basterds
(2009, Quentin Tarantino)
After you see a movie six times, you start to notice things. Like how every performance is richly detailed, how intense each scene is, and how detailed each setpiece is. You also notice how aggressively, well, awesome this movie is. A well-crafted piece of historical pulp fiction, this multi-layered revenge fantasy is as elaborate and entertaining as they come.
Further Viewing: Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003), Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004)

Let the Right One In
(2008, Tomas Alfredson)
Twilight, schmilight. This is the ultimate teen vampire romance. Relationships don't get more complicated than the one between Oskar and Eli, the bullied boy and his vampire pal. Plus, it's not exactly clear if Eli wants to give up the blood-sucking life. A complex love story that feels real, even with its fantastic elements.

Little Miss Sunshine
(2006, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris)
A dysfunctional family tale that's authentic because none of the revelations feel out-of-the-ordinary. For the most part, anything that the Hoovers experience, your family could just as easily go through. Oh, but it's still hilarious.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy
(2001-03, Peter Jackson)
No one knows the definition of painstaking better than Peter Jackson (except maybe James Cameron). A years-in-the-making epic that made sure every minute detail (from how many soldiers in a battle scene to the proportions of a treehouse to height of each character) is perfected. In a way, it's almost too perfect, and definitely too long, but incredibly entertaining nonetheless.

25 January 2010

Film: Best Performances of the Decade


Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman
American Psycho (2000)
As one of the greatest living actors, Bale never gives anything less than his all. But this was the start of his tremendous transition from admirable child actor to an obsessive craftsman. There are lots of good actors, but few immerse themselves like he does. Here is a portrait of a man who has absolute control of every situation and uses his power to become an emperor of Soho, depraved in every possible way imaginable. But history doesn't repeat itself. In the self-obsessed '80s, no one bats an eye.
Photo courtesy of Lionsgate/The Telegraph

Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh
No Country for Old Men (2007)
Never before has a character with such a goofy haircut been such a terrifying presence. Unlike so many other kill-anything-that-gets-in-his-way sociopaths, Chigurh is a man driven by his desire to finish the job, by whatever means necessary. He's also beholden to random chance. Tough but fair if you want to look at it that way.
Photo courtesy of Miramax

Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat Sagdiyev
Borat (2006)
The word "fearless" gets thrown around a lot these days to describe performances simply because they did what the role called for (nudity, kissing another dude) but it's rarely been more applicable than comedian Sacha Baron Cohen's portrayal of a racist Kazakh journalist who, deep down, really just wants to learn about the mythic American dream. Cohen's ad-lib skills blow anyone in Christopher Guest's impressive troupe out of the water and his comedic timing is perfect. It was a trick he could only pull off once, but it worked.
Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview
There Will Be Blood (2007)
The 2008 documentary Man on Wire documents Philippe Petit's high-wire walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center. I submit that Daniel Day-Lewis's walk between over-the-top and hamming-it-up in P.T. Anderson's darkly comic masterpiece was even tougher. No one else could have tread such a fine line for such a boisterous character. He embodies a man full of ambition but equally full of it. Yet there's not a single moment when a character challenges him that a viewer could expect the slightest possibility of victory. Rarely has a character been so devoid of any morals been depicted so vividly onscreen.
Photo courtesy of Paramount Vantage

Heath Ledger as the Joker
The Dark Knight (2008)
The most telling sign of his excellence in this role: he would have won the Oscar even if he hadn't died. Ledger was an actor who bucked every trend, refusing to fit any definition or boundary. While Jack Nicholson defined the role in 1989 with a brilliantly over-the-top take on Batman's adversary, Ledger took it in a much sinister direction. Depending on which account you read, he was hoping his performance would be so dark he would be fired, but Christopher and Jonathan Nolan used that ugliness to set an unrelenting tone for perhaps the most realistic comic book movie ever made.
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.


Cate Blanchett as Jude
I'm Not There. (2007)
She wuz robbed. Though I'm certainly a Tilda Swinton fan--no one plays a woman whose world is about to unravel better than she--but Blanchett, who long ago proved she could play any role asked of her, was the most impressive and fully realized interpretation of Bob Dylan. It's more than just a gender-role reversal. Her performance is downright visionary, playing a real-life person every knows yet injecting her own verve into the interpretation.
Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Company

Julie Christie as Fiona Anderson
Away from Her (2007)
Steering as far away from TV-movie-of-the-week sentimentality, the veteran actress makes the Alzheimer's stricken Fiona a woman of tremendous depth, pride but also a twinge of sadness. The revelations of the movie are painful to watch but breathtaking to behold, but none of it would feel quite so real with anyone else in the lead role.
Photo courtesy of Lionsgate

Anne Hathaway as Kym
Rachel Getting Married (2008)
One of the most complex onscreen character's in recent memory, Kym would be a challenge for any actress of any age to play, let alone someone as young as Hathaway. So for the star of former garbage like The Princess Diaries and Havoc to not only show all those layers but elicit even the slightest bit of empathy from a woman so inherently unlikable, is nothing short of miraculous.
Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II
The Queen (2006)
I'm not always that big on performances of real-life people. To me, it's a much bigger challenge to pull off an original character. But here, I was blown away by Helen Mirren. Most people know the public image of England's monarch--regal, stoic, powerless--but here we got to see the private life. The one who at first seems unphased by Diana's death but then realizes just how deeply she was affected. The one who quarrels with newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair, not because she doesn't like him, but because she feels unnecessary around him. This is true performance.
Photo courtesy of Miramax

Michelle Williams as Alma
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
By far the best part of a vastly overrated movie. This is no distraught housewife routine. With a mere facial gesture, she reveals the immense devastation and betrayal she feels after learning of her husband's affair and her determination not to put up with his cover-up act. You feel all her emotions: shock, sadness, anger, pride. And all this from someone who used to be on Dawson's Creek.
Photo courtesy of Focus Features

22 January 2010

Film: Funniest Movies of the Decade

Now, let me just preface this list by saying it's going to make me look really immature, picking these as the 10 funniest movies of the decade. They may not be the "best" comedies (for example, I love Lost in Translation, but it didn't make me laugh as much as Superbad). The following flicks, while they may have not been daringly original or have a good message, provided the most laughs per minute for me over the past 10 years.

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
(2004, Adam McKay)

Will Ferrell's finest hour. A hilarious examination of hubris, chauvanism and disastrous '70s fashion, the corps of actors (including David Koechner, Steve Carrell, Paul Rudd and Christina Applegate--not to mention cameos from Luke Wilson, Tim Robbins and Ben Stiller) were all in peak improvisational form, making this one of the most quotable movies of the decade.
Best Line: "I killed a guy with a trident!" - Brick (Steve Carell)

Best in Show
(2000, Christopher Guest)

The always reliable crew of Christopher Guest (whose number is too large to count) doesn't really act so much as brilliantly ad-lib their way from scene to scene. This tale of beyond-obsessed dog owners on their way to a competition is filled with awkwardness (thanks to Eugene Levy), an abundance of nut knowledge (thanks to Christopher Guest) and dogs dressed as Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh (thanks to John Michael Higgins and Michael McKean).
Best Line: "We met at Starbucks. Not at the same Starbucks but we saw each other at different Starbucks across the street from each other." - Meg Swan (Parker Posey)

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
(2006, Larry Charles)

A movie that has the brains to go with the laughs. Going undercover as bumbling, racist reporter Borat Sagdiyev, Sacha Baron Cohen revealed the worst parts of human nature with a big, dopey grin and uncontrollable laughter. The scenes are funny not because they are uncomfortable, but uncomfortable because they are funny. Brüno tried to replicate this formula, but with less success.
Best Line: "May George Bush a-drink the blood of every single man, woman, and child of Iraq!" - Borat (Sacha Baron Cohen)

The Hangover
(2009, Todd Phillips)

Here's a movie that by all accounts shouldn't have broken any new ground or been any better than your latter-day National Lampoon venture. But it was. And not because it was raunchy, but because it was genuinely funny and intriguing. Hats off to a potential Best Picture nominee.
Best Line: "What do tigers dream of/When they take a little tiger snooze?/Do they dream of mauling zebras/Or Halle Berry in her Catwoman suit?/Well, don't you worry your pretty striped head/We're gonna get you back to Tyson and your cozy tiger bed/And then we're gonna find our best friend Doug/And then we're gonna give him a best friend hug/Oh, Doug!/Oh, Doug!/Dougie, Dougie, Doug-Doug/But if he's been murdered by crystal meth tweakers/Well, then we're sh*t outta luck." - Stu (Ed Helms)

Hot Fuzz
(2007, Edgar Wright)

The Brits strike back! After delivering an impressive debut with Shaun of the Dead, Edgar Wright brought back Simon Pegg and Nick Frost for this loving tribute to cop movies both good (Point Break) and bad (Bad Boys II). Is it hilarious even if you're not into British humor? Yarp!
Best Line:
Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg): "He's appointed himself judge, jury and executioner!"
Danny Butterman (Nick Frost): "He's not Judge Judy and executioner!"

The Room
(2003, Tommy Wiseau)

A complete travesty on every single level, this is not only the worst movie ever made, but also the worst-made movie ever. Still, that doesn't stop it from being wildly entertaining, with its atrocious dialogue, subplots that go nowhere and horrific sex scenes that go on way too long. In other words, it's a masterpiece.
Best Line: "You are lying! I never hit you! You are tearing me apart, Lisa!" - Johnny (Tommy Wiseau)

State and Main
(2000, David Mamet)

Mamet's style certainly isn't for everyone, but this out-of-the-blue comedy (if you know anything about Mamet, you know he's best at twisty, F-word-laden dramas) about a film production that may never finish is relentlessly funny. Each character has a personality (gasp!) and a bevy of funny lines. Plus, there's a touch of something you never find in a Mamet movie: sweetness.
Best Line: "Who designed these costumes? It looks like Edith Head puked, and that puke designed these costumes." - Walt Price (William H. Macy)

(2007, Greg Mottola)

Despite containing some of the most vulgar dialogue since Clerks, this film has a heart beneath its rough exterior. All the frustration of teenage life (especially if you're not in the upper echelon of popularity) is on full display here, but with a shield of humor. And even if the wacky cop subplot belongs in a different movie, it's still gut-busting.
Best Line: "I'm sorry the Coen Brothers don't direct porn." - Seth (Jonah Hill)

Team America: World Police
(2004, Trey Parker & Matt Stone)

More entertaining than most Michael Bay movies, funnier than most Eddie Murphy movies, this marionette-starring action comedy blows doors and delivers laughs by the ton. Part of a tremendous balancing act between stupid and smart comedy, the creators of South Park pull it off unbelievably well. Remember: the real enemy are celebrities who think we want to hear their political opinions.
Best Line: "When you see Arec Barrwin, you see the true ugriness of human nature." - Kim Jong-Il (Trey Parker)

(2001, Ben Stiller)

Who's one of the funniest characters ever created? One name and five syllables: Der. Ek. Zoo. Lan. Der. Though it could have failed miserably (ask SNL how many of its sketches have turned into funny movies--the answer is two and a sequel), this Manchurian Candidate (and apparently Glamorama) rip-off provides the laughs, even if the inept character only has one look.
Best Line: "You're dead to me, son. You're even more dead to me than your dead mother." - Larry Zoolander (Jon Voight)