Sunday, November 19, 2017

Top 15 of the 2010's

15. Hugo (2011) directed by Martin Scorsese

Boy what a love letter of a movie this is. Martin Scorsese is my favorite living filmmaker, and this is like his tribute to the movies themselves. It has a nostalgic tone for the silent era of movies, and in particular the work of fantasy master and former illusionist Georges Melies, most known now as the man behind the famous 1902 movie A Trip to the Moon. Main character Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is our guide through the bustling Paris train station whose walls he lives in. He meets a variety of characters, played by wonderful actors like Sacha Baron Cohen, Emily Mortimer, and Christopher Lee, and but in particular is drawn to Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) who eventually leads Hugo to "Papa Georges" (Ben Kingsley) who has accused Hugo of thieving before, from his desk in his trinket shop in the station. Papa Georges' back story eventually intertwines with Hugo's, as Hugo tries to rebuild a sort of robot his father (Jude Law) left to him.

It's a glorious visual marvel, so obviously fake in many scenes, but fittingly so, with a style evocative of the types of children's storybooks the movie itself is adapted from. Scorsese creates these amazing adventurous worlds for us to inhabit. The hissing and fog filled walls and clocks of the station, so different from the busy people-crammed place outside its walls. The whole thing has a kid-like adventure feeling to it that no other movies I can think of have. I wouldn't characterize it as a "kids movie" like so many have, I'd say it's a movie for adults who remember what it was like to be a kid.

14. Toy Story 3 (2010) directed by Lee Unkrich

In Toy Story 3 we get back to Woody, Buzz, Jessie, Rex, Potato Head and the whole gang yet again. Andy is now 17-years-old and getting ready for college. His beloved toys lay in his toy chest, unplayed with for years. Misunderstandings ensue, and the toys are donated to the Sunnyside Daycare. There they meet a host of other toys led by the fluffy, strawberry scented, Lots-O'-Huggin' Bear (voiced by Ned Beatty), and Ken (Michael Keaton), who immediately falls for the Barbie doll that Andy's sister had donated. They're told that Sunnyside is an ideal place for toys. They're played with all day, 5 days a week. But after one day in the "caterpillar" room, with the youngest kids (or, "not age appropriate" as Buzz says), they begin to doubt the sincerity of Lots-O and the other toys. Meanwhile, Woody has been snatched up by a sweet little girl named Bonnie and taken to her home where he meets another set of lovable toys, but he's determined to get back to his friends and to Andy.

There was something about Toy Story 2 that didn't connect with me. It didn't have the simple magic that the first Toy Story had, but didn't have its own magic to ride on either. Toy Story 3, on the other hand, has that magic. There's an amazing amount of heart poured into this movie; the characters and relationships (both positive and negative) drawn with more care and developing in much more interesting ways. I even found Lots-O's backstory fascinating on its own in how it shaped the toy we see. There's also a wonderful development between Jessie and Buzz, made most hysterical when Buzz gets accidentally switched to Spanish mode, taking on the over-the-top poetic lover mode of a stereotypical Spanish hero.

Pixar delivered us another masterpiece, with the best ending since the perfection of Monsters, Inc's. Toy Story 3 may not reach the poetic brilliance that Wall-E did, or cut straight to my heart like Remy's love of food in Ratatouille did, but it easily sits next to the family saga/action bonanza of The Incredibles and the unadorned majesty of the original Toy Story as not only Pixar's best work, but among the great gifts the art of animated cinema has ever given us.

13. Boyhood (2014) directed by Richard Linklater

In the summer of 2002, Richard Linklater began one of the most ambitious movies in film history. In his home town of Houston, Texas, Linklater started shooting an unnamed movie starring Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, his own young daughter Lorelei Linklater, and then 7-year-old Ellar Coltrane. Each year for the next 12 years he got the cast and crew back together for a handful of shooting days to tell the story of the boyhood of Coltrane's character Mason, from the ages of 6 to 18. And that's what we get, following Mason from 1st grade into his first days as a college freshman.

The movie is made up almost only the small moments of life. During its 164-minute epic length run time, Linklater gives us a series of life moments. They're not all big speeches or scary incidents. Sure, there are talks about the nature of life and thoughts on the magic all around us in our world, as well as fights and drunken step fathers and all that, but nothing is played to the back of the room. It's all very intimate and insular to Mason's life. After all, life isn't made up of the big moments, but of a series of small moments with occasional spikes in emotion. As I was watching it the first time, like Mason's mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette), I expected more, I expected better, I expected bigger. It wasn't until the end credits rolled that I really understood what it was I'd just watched, which was a truly extraordinary movie. I realized how many times Linklater and his cast, especially his two still growing stars, could've stepped wrong and didn't. Could've hit false notes and didn't. Could've gone for the big Oscar moments, but didn't. Linklater doesn't even give us milestone markers like "1 year later" or "age 14" or whatever, and the movie is better off for it. We realize we're in different times through changed hair cuts or subtle signs of growth (or braces), and it was startlingly fascinating to see both the kids and adults grow older over the course of the movie.

I don't know if it's the best movie of Linklater's career, I'd put it behind Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Dazed and Confused from his oeuvre, but it may end up his most iconic. And since Linklater has always been fascinated with time as a filmmaker, it may be the most Linklater-esque movie he's made.

12. Jauja (2014) directed by Lisandro Alonso

Lisandro Alonso is a filmmaker I'd never heard of before diving into his 2014 film Jauja. But it's obvious to me that he's a director of great talent and one to watch and look forward to in the years to come. Jauja stars Viggo Mortensen as Danish Captain Gunnar Dinesen in 1880's Argentina, leading an engineering project as well as working with soldiers on the eradication of the local native people. In tow is his young teen daughter Ingeborg (Viilbjørk Malling Agger), who is in love with one of the young soldiers in the group, and lusted after by one of the older soldiers. Inge and the young soldier, Corto, run off together one morning. When the Captain awakens to find his daughter gone, he sets out after her, alone. This is pretty much the extent of the story in Jauja.

We are told in the opening titles that Jauja is an El Dorado-like fabled earthly paradise that many looked for, but that they always "got lost along the way." Lost could certainly fit the description of the characters, as Inge doesn't really know where she's going with Corto, and the Captain doesn't really know where he's going in looking for Inge. Lost could also describe the experience of many viewers to the approach Alonso takes as a filmmaker. The movie is very slow moving, few if any close ups, long takes, with beautifully filmed landscapes that made me feel often that it was like Hou Hsiao-Hsien had made a western about a man looking for his daughter. But in the last third, things take an odd, and fascinating turn down the rabbit hole of surrealism, leaving many viewers lost as to what it all means, or maybe what even actually happens. Perhaps that's the "getting lost along the way" that we're told up front happens with Jauja.

In the lead role, Viggo Mortensen gives one of his best performances. Speaking both Danish and Spanish, Mortensen has such command over his body language and the way he's presenting himself that although there isn't a ton of dialog in the movie, we're never left wondering where the Captain is emotionally. It's terrific work from one of our best actors, who we haven't seen enough of lately. It's also remarkable to think of how many languages Mortensen has now spoken on screen. By my tally he's now spoken English, Spanish, Danish, French, Russian, and the fictional language of Elvish.

We know from the opening shot that Inge wants a dog, so when the Captain runs across one in his quest and he follows, where is the dog leading him? When he gets to where the dog led him, where is he? Who is this Danish speaking old woman in the middle of the Argentinian desert? How is she who we think she is? In Norse mythology Hell is presided over by a woman and her dog. Is this Hell? Is the Captain searching through Purgatory, unaccepting of returning to see the woman? What kind of western ever gets us to ask these kinds of questions? One of the greatest, that's what kind.

11. Midnight in Paris (2011) directed by Woody Allen

I have a soft spot for Woody Allen movies. Even supposedly terrible ones like Scoop are films I can generally enjoy a great deal. Granted I've only seen about half of his movies, but there hasn't been even one that I downright disliked, simply a couple I haven't cared for as much. Owen Wilson plays the lead role of hack screenwriter Gil Pender. He churns out crappy Hollywood movies but yearns to write a book and be important and worthy like his literary heroes. He's in Paris on vacation with his fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams), they tagged along with her parents who're there on business. While the clock strikes midnight one night, a car pulls up and a jovial group of people pull Gil in with them and take him to a party. At the party he sees a guy who looks mysteriously like Cole Porter singing songs to adoring listeners, and meet a couple who introduce themselves as the Fitzgerald's, Scott (Tom Hiddleston) and Zelda (Alison Pill). Scott takes a liking to Gil and offers to take him along to a bar they're going to to meet up with Hemingway (Corey Stoll). Gil finds himself magically drawn into the world of 1920's artistic Paris, a time and place he'd dreamt of his whole life. He runs across Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody), Luis Bunuel, Man Ray, Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Picasso, Matisse, and TS Elliot, among others during the few extraordinary nights he's able to return to this magical place. He also happens to run across the beautiful Adriana (Marion Cotillard), who has Picasso, Hemingway, and legendary bullfighter Juan Belmonte fighting for her affections. Gil falls for her just like the others do as he dreads the inevitable end of his miraculous journey through 1920's Paris.

Owen Wilson is one of the better actors when it comes to playing the traditional "Woody Allen" role. He has a bit of Allen's neurosis, while also keeping his strangely laid back charm, and some shades we've not seen from him before. His ability to portray Gil's hopeless romanticism, while those around him try to destroy it, is essential to making the movie work. Wilson's Wedding Crashers love interest McAdams is pitch perfectly hateable as Gil's relentlessly unsupportive fiancee. Marion Cotillard is as luminous as Paris itself, making it unsurprising that so many of these artists are inspired by her as their muse.

The script is Allen's strongest since Sweet and Lowdown, the sweetness and romance fully coming through without being forced in the slightest. The gorgeous photography by ace cinematographer Darius Khondji brings an extra amount of warmth to the movie that fits in nicely with the unassuming romanticism Allen's going for. I also like Allen's comments on coming to terms with the times you live in and not getting bogged down in the nostalgia of the past, because the people in that time probably didn't think everything was so great, and idealized an era previous as well. Even with a little bit of intellectual comments on nostalgia, it's still hard not to think of this movie as simply one of the sweetest love stories I've seen in a long time, and always glad to see one of my favorite filmmakers working at such a high level.

10. Sing Street (2016) directed by John Carney

John Carney’s Sing Street was one of the most unfairly overlooked movies of 2016. It’s the coming-of-age story of Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a teenager in 1985 Dublin, Ireland. His family is falling apart, his parents constantly fight, economic times are tough, he’s being transferred to a new Catholic school full of bullies and harsh administration, and (as we all do at that age) he’s trying to figure out who he is as a person. Conor plays a bit of guitar and writes a bit of poetry, but he doesn’t really know who he is yet. What 15-year-old does? Into the mix, as usually happens in these stories, steps “the girl,” Raphina. Conor asks her to be in his band’s next video, to which she agrees. He then promptly walks away and up to Darren, the only friend he’s made at his new school, and says “We need to form a band.”

Conor gets lessons in music from his hash smoking college dropout brother Brendan (Jack Reynor), and finds a songwriting partner in multi-instrumentalist Eamon (Mark McKenna). Quickly, the boys form up their band (which they call Sing Street) and even have an original song written for the video Conor invited Raphina to be in, which they cheaply shoot in hodgepodge costumes and makeup. The shoot is a success, the song is actually good, and it leads to more of both happening. Conor, of course, falls hard for Raphina.

Conor ends up finding himself through the band and through music. It all started because he wanted to impress a pretty girl, but it took hold of him and became a much deeper experience than that eventually. And this is where the movie really shines. I don’t remember other fiction movies being able to capture the unexplainable joy and soul connection of playing music together. We can watch great concert documentaries, but never had a movie captured that with characters in a way that spoke to me (as someone who has played music for a long time, both in bands and by myself) until John Carney’s 2007 movie Once. He then recaptured that magic on a much larger budget with his next movie Begin Again, which is wonderful even if it’s not got Once’s charm. He then moved on to Sing Street, which is one of the most joyous movies I’ve ever seen. Carney has a way of playing off the looks between band members, the sideways glances and just the energy between the performers. Like in Once, he got real musicians to play the lead roles, which I think made a huge difference. These guys aren’t faking their abilities or their joy. They’re just playing these great songs (which Carney co-wrote, alongside his duties as writer/director of the movie) and we feed off their performances.

Carney started out as the bass player in the great Irish band The Frames (led by his future Once star Glen Hansard), before leaving to pursue filmmaking. So he has music in his bones, and it has shown in his three brilliant music driven movies. Carney gets the music so right, but this movie doesn’t work if the love story falls flat, and thankfully he also wrote two great lead roles in Conor and Raphina. Raphina isn’t just a pretty face, and she isn’t a manic-pixie-dream-girl there only to spur Conor’s character development. Raphina is a fully well rounded character, played in a beautifully heart felt and vulnerable performance by Lucy Boynton. She has her own arc, her own insecurities and strengths and weaknesses. And Conor loves her through all of it.

9. Ex Machina (2014) directed by Alex Garland

Ex Machina has all the elements of great science fiction. Mostly, it has the greatest element of science fiction: ideas. There's a lot going on here, comments on human nature, sexual politics, bro friendship, and, of course, it's central theme: artificial intelligence. The story is very simple: Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a low level employee of billionaire tech developer Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Nathan invites Caleb to his secluded mountain cabin for unknown reasons, only to eventually find out that Nathan wants Caleb to give the Turing test to Ava (Alicia Vikander), an AI robot Nathan built. Things begin to disintegrate quickly, as Ava asks Caleb to break her out of the cabin, and Nathan seemingly plays endless mind games while also drinking and partying like it's the end of the world. Ex Machina was the directorial debut of screenwriter Alex Garland, and it's extraordinary in its directorial control. The uneasy mood, intellectual engagement and intrigue, and the framing shots and careful unfolding of the narrative show that Garland is obviously a big fan of Kubrick, but he never apes or steals. It's just obvious in its inspiration. And Garland doesn't abandon the intellectual approach in the finale, even as he ramps up the tension and lets the sparks start flying. It would be remarkable storytelling even from the most experienced of filmmakers. From a first time director, it's very exciting and I hope it points to big things to come.

8. The Assassin (2015) directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien

Taiwan's Hou Hsiao-Hsien is one of the most acclaimed filmmakers in the world, and has been a favorite of mine since I first saw his Three Times back in 2009. Long time passion project, The Assassin, stars the impossibly beautiful Qi Shu (her third collaboration with Hou) in the title role. Her magnetic work carries the movie despite the fact that I think she only says about 5 sentences. She plays Yinniang, a 9th century woman who was taken away from her family as a child and trained to become an unparalleled killing tool. We join her as she starts having that downfall of many a movie assassin, human emotions. Tasked with a target of her former betrothed husband, Tian Ji'an (Chang Chen, reuniting with his Three Times cohorts), Yinniang must decide whether or not to defy her master or to betray her heart.

All of this plays out in Hou's typical elliptical and slow storytelling. I've read that the original script explained much more of the story and either through the shooting or during the editing process Hou took things out so that the final product is much more opaque and not straightforward. It lends a wonderful intrigue to the movie, because even though it's not fast paced we are often trying to figure out what's going on, and why. There was a point late in the movie when I had an epiphany as to what was going on and how certain characters related to each other. On the first viewing it makes for a very layered and fascinating viewing experience, and on re-watches lends an even deeper experience.

All of that on top of the fact that this is one of the most beautiful, visually striking movies ever made. Not just the impeccable costuming and set design but also the landscapes (filmed in central and northern China) and Hou's genius in photographic framing in addition to the staging of the action. Hou has always made beautiful movies, but this is no question his most beautiful yet. It won him a Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival the year it premiered there.

Viewers who come into the movie based on the exciting trailer or the promise of the typical wuxia (ancient martial arts) movie will be numbed by the pregnant silences and even the way Hou shoots the action, not up close and flashy like a Hollywood director, but from his usual medium or long shots, with the action often over before you know it. And yet, because it's so different from what we're conditioned to expect, that's why I find so many of the sequences still vividly in my mind even days and weeks after watching it. The birch tree forest fight (and I didn't even realize who Yinniang's opponent was until later, reading about the movie), Yinniang taking on hordes of guards in the trees outside Tian Jian's compound, shot from long distance so that most of the action is obscured by the trees. It's really extraordinary stuff for us Hou fans. I'm glad he made a wuxia film all his own, instead of trying to make an action movie to have a hit or something. And the fact that it got him some of the best notices of his career was just icing on the cake.

7. La La Land (2016) directed by Damien Chazelle

A great love letter to the cinema and to Los Angeles itself, La La Land was a movie I didn't think would happen. That is, I didn't think that Damien Chazelle could have really followed up Whiplash with a movie in the same realm of greatness. What La La Land is, though, is the work of a truly brilliant filmmaker. Seeing it in the theaters, with all the expectations I brought with, and the Oscar hype that surrounded it at the time, I loved it but wasn't quite as in love with it as I felt I wanted to be. Watching it without all that build up recently, I was bowled over by the visual brilliance, the low key charm of its lead actors Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone (reteaming for the third, and by far best, time), and the directorial choices in both shot selection and framing, and the camera movement. It's audacious in almost every way, unabashedly uncool in what it loves (old school musicals, classic Hollywood dancing, and jazz), and defies expectations by being indebted to all these old school Hollywood and French New Wave (Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort in particular) movies, while being decidedly modern and relevant. The nostalgia element that is so central to Midnight in Paris comes up again here, though Chazelle gives weight to the other side (here personified by John Legend's modern jazz/pop star, Keith) more than Allen did in his movie. To get lost in this movie is to get lost in a perfect melding of the old and the new.

6. Gravity (2013) directed by Alfonso Cuaron

Alfonso Cuaron has my money any time he makes a movie. I've liked or loved every single movie of his I've made. My least favorite in his catalog, the third Harry Potter movie, is typically considered the epitome of that franchise. I'd closely followed the production of his follow up to "best movie of the 2000's" Children of Men (named as such on this very blog). When he finally released Gravity in 2013, I was completely blown away. Sandra Bullock's central role as astronaut Ryan Stone was the best work of her career, and she was supported by one of the most visually ambitious movies ever made. The opening shot alone is 17 minutes long, and all of this was done with Bullock and co-star George Clooney the only non cgi items on screen. The planning that had to go into the lighting of the actors faces, to match what would be done in the computer, is staggering to think about. The simplicity of the movie, though thematically ambitious, is its key. It lets the realism it presents to become a kind of horror movie. A survival horror movie. But then it touches on things like making the decision to keep fighting for life when the universe seems destined to kill you. The decide to live even when you're grieving an unimaginable loss. There are beautiful images of womb-like safety, and triumphant rebirth. How many $100 million budget Hollywood movies have the poetic and artistic talent and balls to try and get you to think and feel these kinds of things? Only the type Cuaron makes.

5. The American (2010) directed by Anton Corbijn

The American is a startling and brilliant movie for a multitude of reasons. It contains one of George Clooney’s best performances, is shot mostly in the picaresque Italian countryside, and is the engagingly subtle tale of an assassin hiding out in a small Italian village. Based on British author Martin Booth’s spy novel A Very Private Gentleman, The American follows Jack (Clooney) as he flees Sweden, running from men who are trying to kill him. We’re not sure why, but Jack’s handler Pavel (Johan Leysen) says it’s because Jack has lost his edge now that he’s getting older. Jack goes to where Pavel sets up a safe house in Italy, but a paranoid Jack runs away on his own to a different town. He’s eventually set up with a job to make a gun for Mathilde (Thekla Reuten, the innkeeper from In Bruges). While in the town, Jack becomes involved with local prostitute Clara (Violante Placido), despite Pavel advising not to “make friends” with anyone, telling him “you used to know that.” Jack also crosses paths with local priest Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), with whom he has many philosophical conversations. But Jack never lets down his guard, even as we can tell he wants to for Clara.

Violante Placido, as Clara, is kind of the heart of the movie, at least in regards to what she means to Jack. Placido is even more beautiful than her mother Simonetta Stefanelli (whom most of us know better as Michael’s Italian wife Apollonia in The Godfather), but with the same expressive eyes, sweet smile and intriguing Italian sensuality. Possibly the best scene in the movie is one in which they go out on a real date at a restaurant and her girlish excitement at being with a guy she could actually connect with is endearing. When a man comes over selling roses and she tries to shoo him away, trying to tell Jack, “He thinks we’re a couple,” Jack retorts simply with “It’s okay.” The look in her eyes, seeing that Jack isn’t embarrassed she’s a prostitute and actually enjoys being with her, being seen with her, and thought to be her guy, almost brought tears to my eyes in what that means to Clara and how beautifully Placido expresses that. But, of course, this movie works because of George Clooney. There may be no other actor as interesting to watch as he thinks. Jack’s mind is always going, even as he keeps a relatively stone faced exterior. Clooney says so much with his eyes and his body language, and even the tone of his voice, so much more effectively than most actors. He has always been able to sell that there’s a lot going on under the surface, and Jack is one of his best characters. Jack is lost, at a crossroads in his life, and he’s a broken man in many ways. He sees possible redemption for himself in his relationship with Clara, maybe, as long as he can stop wondering if she’s a fellow assassin out to kill him.

There’s not a wasted scene or even moment here, really. Everything tells us something, as long as we’re paying attention. Corbijn’s photography here (along with cinematographer Martin Ruhe) is extraordinary. The movie is beautiful to look at, for sure, but it’s also framed so gorgeously and often in a way that assists the narrative. There are shots where there are things in the background that inform the foreground, or shots that show us the labyrinthine streets of the Italian mountain town, or ones that frame Clooney in a way that underscores what’s happening narratively. It’s a movie that could and should be studied by film students for the brilliance of the shot selection.

Corbijn’s allowance of silence in the movie is likely what turned off some viewers, but it’s what captivates me. He lets words hang in the air as we contemplate something as simple as two different people calling Jack “Mr. Butterfly.” Well, he has a butterfly tattooed on his upper back, which we’ve seen multiple times, but have both of these people seen it? Is it connection or coincidence that these separate people used those specific words? Jack doesn’t live in a world of coincidences. Other movies point out this kind of possible connection, but The American knows it made its point and doesn’t need to bash us over the head with it. It doesn’t insult our intelligence, it respects us as viewers.

4. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) directed by Wes Anderson

Wes Anderson makes movies like no other. They don't look like other filmmakers' movies, they don't feel like other filmmakers' movies, and the characters don't talk like other filmmakers' characters talk. I've been hit and miss on his movies over the course of his career, loving a few, hating one, and the others falling somewhere in between. I've often said that the Wes Anderson-ness of his movies keeps them at a distance from real emotions and characters and thus keeps us in the audience at a distance from his movies. The Grand Budapest Hotel is the most Wes Anderson-y of his movies yet, and his most extraordinary.

Reminding me a bit of The Saragossa Manuscript in its Russian doll-like unfolding of the story, though not nearly as down the rabbit hole as that movie can be, we eventually arrive at the central story of Monsieur Gustav, who is played by the great Ralph Fiennes in what might be his greatest performance. Gustav is funny, profane, intelligent, well put together, and always in control. His protégé Zero (Tony Revolori) narrates a good part of the story, even though it's done by the older Zero, played by F. Murray Abraham. What follows is a series of funny, exciting, ridiculous, thrilling filmmaking of the highest order.

Anderson assembles a great and large cast, as always. But this is his largest, and greatest cast yet. All of the regulars are here, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, and others, but thankfully even when they're mere cameos (as they are by those actors) they fit within Anderson's crazy world of a movie. And he gets wonderful work out of all of them, most particularly Abraham, Revolori, and Fiennes. This is also, by far, I think, Anderson's best looking movie. That the budget for this movie is listed at $30 million is ridiculous when thinking about how distinct every part of this movie is, and how bland movies with many multiples of that budget are. The sets, costumes, locations, everything is impeccable and I wouldn't have been surprised if I'd seen a $100 million budget attached to it. But Anderson does so much with what he has, proving that cinematic creativity isn't dependent on budget in the slightest.

I laughed out loud many times while watching this movie. It is simply a delight from start to finish. I found myself resisting a bit at first, almost even thinking I may not be in the mood for a Wes Anderson movie right now, but he won me over with this magical, wonderful movie.

3. Whiplash (2014) directed by Damien Chazelle

"There are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'good job'"

So says Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons) to his student Andrew (Miles Teller) as justification for his abusive and manipulative teaching style at the Shaffer Conservatory of Music in Whiplash. Andrew is a 19-year-old, Buddy Rich worshipping, aspiring jazz drummer at the fictional academy (obviously meant to evoke places like Julliard). When he catches the eyes and ears of the notorious Fletcher, who conducts the prize jazz band of the school, he feels like he's made a break on his way to being a legend like Charlie Parker. But things aren't easy in the hyper competitive world, and Fletcher doesn't make anything easier. He flings many things at his students (racial and homophobic slurs, general insults, even occasionally furniture) in relentless pursuit of perfection.

We see Andrew, through the confidence gained by being accepted as an alternate in the band, ask out the pretty girl that works at the concession stand of the theater he frequents with his dad. Melissa Benoist is charming and cute as the girl, Nicole, while Paul Reiser is wonderfully real and loving and supportive as the dad. Andrew progressively uses Fletcher's motivation to push everything but drumming out of his life, even to the point of getting rid of the bed in his dorm room for a drum set so he can after hours and all hours practice. The movie asks us (and its characters) if a single minded pursuit like this is good for the musician or the person who's doing it. Certainly Andrew achieves more under Fletcher's exacting demands than he would have otherwise, but does he actually gain any creativity or artistic understanding? Or is it merely an athletic feat of becoming a human metronome. The movie's moving finale leaves us with this question. Is it a triumph? A descent into madness and inhumanity? Is it a talented slap in the face to Fletcher as a teacher, or an endorsement of him?

Miles Teller and JK Simmons could not have possibly given better performances. Simmons is all bulging veins and muscles and intensity, while Teller strikes a remarkable balance of shy self doubt and growing confidence and even arrogance. Teller also does the majority of his actual on screen drumming, a body double being used only for insert shots and whatnot. This gives a real lived in feel to the character, as they aren't forced to cut around the fact that the star isn't actually playing the instrument we believe he is, as is usually the case. It also gives Teller a chance to really imbue Andrew with telling physicality, so that we don't even need a lot of extra dialog because we can read his body so obviously. Simmons is likely soon to hear his name announced as Best Supporting Actor at the Academy Awards, and it will be with great reason. It will go down as the defining role for the great character actor, even above his lovable Mac MacGuff from Juno, his loudmouth J. Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi's Spidermanmovies, or even his terrifying white supremacist prisoner on the TV show OZ. He finds a humanity and sense of really caring about the students he's abusing, giving us at least some sympathy for his extreme approach to teaching.

Finally, the work of the filmmaking team of writer/director Damien Chazelle, editor Tom Cross, and cinematographer Sharone Meir make this personal drama in the world of school jazz bands into a psychologically and viscerally thrilling movie. They get the camera right in there with the action of the band, while often cutting to the rhythms of the music in a wonderfully propulsive manner that often has the same effect on us in the audience that a car chase or a shootout has on us in a traditional action movie. Chazelle, in just his second time behind the camera, made a truly personal and affecting movie and announced himself as a filmmaker to really watch.

2. Cloud Atlas (2012) directed by Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis

What is the point of a movie like Cloud Atlas? I'd say that the point of a movie like this is to shame other filmmakers for their lack of ambition and insistence on giving us the same ole shit. Not a film for people who don't pay attention, or those uninterested in thought provoking art, Cloud Atlas is a movie for those of us that thirst for greatness. This is one of the great movies ever made.

To give a plot synopsis is futile. Writer/directors Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer weave together six or seven different plot lines from across hundreds of years and many locations. It's a thriller, a romance, comedy, sci-fi/action movie. It's everything you could want in a movie. It was adapted from the 2004 novel by David Mitchell, unread by me. If the novel is anything like the movie, I would've thought it completely unfilmable. What Tykwer and the Wachowski's have done, however, is extraordinary work on every conceivable level. The movie has wonderful and distinct looks across all of its stories, which also takes many recognizable faces and reincarnate them across the stories. Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Susan Sarandon, Ben Whishaw, and many others appear across many, if not all, of the stories. Korean actress Doona Bae was my favorite, although everyone is flawless in their roles, stepping up their game since the filmmakers were setting such an ambitious bar. Also obscenely amazing make-up allows the actors to jump not only through the timelines to play their differing characters, but also jump through ages, races, and even genders.

Unsurprisingly, with what I've just said, Tykwer and the Wachowski's were unable to get any studio financing for the project. Ultimately they raised a little over $100 million independently to make the movie. I wouldn't have been surprised if you'd told me the budget was $400 million. It's expert filmmaking through and through, making more of its budget than any movie in recent memory.

Ultimately, Cloud Atlas takes on themes of love, kindness, friendship, and human decency. Actions ripple across time and space and give us the sense that no persons life is without meaning or influence, even if we don't feel it while we're alive. It's a life affirming movie of the highest order. It's also the type of movie that comes along not very often that affirms the great power of cinema. I think the filmmakers were laying down the challenge to all other artists to push themselves into greatness. Although I've not been a fan of their previous work, this film is exhilarating and enriching to the soul.

1. Upstream Color (2013) directed by Shane Carruth

Shane Carruth got strong notices (and many awards) for his 2004 debut film Primer, a mega-low-budget movie about two friends who stumble into inventing a time machine. Made for just $7,000, the film is remarkable in many ways. My favorite way is the elliptical and complex storytelling, so that we’re not always sure where we are in the timeline of the movie. Carruth feels no need to spell everything out for us, and has even said that although he had to figure out the complex timeline of the movie in order to make it, it’s not necessary for the viewer to. I love that he didn’t spoon feed us everything, or anything, but also that it’s not just a puzzle to figure out. You can work to figure out the logistics if you want, but it’s not necessary to enjoy the movie. There’s also the immortal line “Are you hungry? I haven’t eaten since later this afternoon.” Unfortunately, he struggled through financing his next picture, a sci-fi masterpiece of a script called A Topiary, before eventually abandoning it to make 2013's Upstream Color, which for my money is the best movie of the 2010s.

Upstream Color is a mesmerizing, hypnotic, nearly silent movie. Not silent like The Artist, I say it's silent simply because it relies very little on dialogue. There is plenty of dialogue in the movie, but it doesn’t rely exclusively on it to tell its story or convey ideas. The movie is more about the rhythm of the narrative, the extraordinary cinematography, and the overall sound design. Or I guess I should say that these elements are elevated more here than they are by other filmmakers. The sound design is integral to the story in a way you pretty much never see, and can’t really be explained unless you’ve seen it. Also low budgeted (though Carruth has refused to say, because he felt Primer got too much press for its budget and not for the movie itself, but I've seen estimates showing this one around $50,000), still absolutely gorgeously made, you’d never guess from looking at it that it was a low budget movie, except for the fact that it’s unlike any movie you’ve ever seen.

It's told non-linearly and often abstractly, but the basic story of the movie is that of a woman, Kris (played by the intriguingly beautiful Amy Seimetz) who is drugged and kidnapped by a man known in the credits only as Thief (Thiago Martins) who, through the drug he slips her (which has some sort of worm in it), is able to put her in a hypnosis-like state. Eventually he leads her to liquidate her bank account and all other money and give it to him, before he disappears. Somehow she’s then led, still in a hypnotic state, to the Sampler (Andrew Sensenig) a pig farming sound recorder, who removes the worm from her body and transfers it to that of one of his pigs.

Suddenly, Kris awakens in her SUV on the side of the highway, unaware of anything that has happened in the previous days. She returns to find her house littered with blood stains, things missing, food all over, and eventually no money in her bank accounts and fired from her job (go mysteriously missing for days with no explanation and this is what would happen). Later, on a train, she meets a man, Jeff (Shane Carruth) whom she has an almost metaphysical connection to. They fall in love, and both start to unveil their secret pasts and what happened to them, with more in common than we would've anticipated.

The story is told without any rush, with a beautiful, Malick-esque intermixing of natural and urban settings. Stolen moments helping to fill in the gaps of what would normally be a big Hollywood thriller of kidnapping and thievery. Carruth gives a nice leading man performance, but the star here is Seimetz, whose work is truly extraordinary. She gives Kris a look haunted from her past, but also her brief smile lights up her face and lets us see that Kris really is in love with Jeff. They weren't drawn together because of their pasts, they were drawn together seemingly in spite of them. Weirdly, I could continue detailing the entire plot and it still wouldn’t ruin the movie, but I’ll leave it there for you to discover on your own. The movie works the first time around, no matter how much you know about it. But like all the great pieces of art, it enhances upon each viewing as your understanding of it and emotional connection to it grows.

I first saw this movie in 2013 when it came on Netflix streaming (where both of Carruth’s movies still are), but it has stuck in my memory since then and I’ve revisited it multiple times. It’s always less confusing than the first time around. But even then, I didn't care that I was confused on a story level because Carruth had me mesmerized by every second and so it was more that I didn't know what to expect and wasn't always sure where we were headed. Now I know, and so the atmosphere works even better because I can give myself over to the movie and let it wash over me while also picking up on a ton of little things I'd missed in previous viewings. I "got it" the first time around, Carruth's movies don't beg re-watches because you don't understand every little thing, you don't need to. They beg re-watches because he respects the audience’s intelligence and refuses to explain every little thing to make sure we understand it. I enjoy Upstream Color much more than I did Primer (which I also really like) and will continue going back to it over and over again. And at just 96 minutes, Carruth doesn't overstay his welcome, he ends things perfectly and in a way that makes us want to enjoy the ride again and again.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Favorite Best Picture winners


I've only seen 56 out of 90 Best Picture winners, but for as much flak as I've given the Academy over the years for not picking the best movies to be awarded the top award, there are very few of them that I dislike, and there are 18 of them that I rate 10/10. So this was a surprisingly difficult list to make. But here we go anyway with my favorite winners of the biggest award a movie can win. Since I've written about all of these movies in the past, and/or recently on the top lists of the decades, I decided to ask specific questions about the movie and the year they came out. These are my favorite movies that've won the Best Picture Oscar, but were they each the best movie nominated? What about the best movie of the year? Let's find out:

An honorable mention top 5 for:

Schindler's List
The Hurt Locker
Amadeus
Dances with Wolves
Silence of the Lambs

10. The Godfather part II - 1974


- Was it the best movie nominated?

The nominees at this year's ceremony were:

The Godfather, part II
Chinatown
The Conversation
The Towering Inferno
Lenny

I would argue that The Godfather, part II wasn't even Francis Ford Coppola's best movie nominated for Best Picture that year, as I slightly prefer The Conversation. And I prefer Chinatown to both.

Verdict: No, it wasn't the best of the movies nominated for Best Picture that year.

- Was it the best movie of the year?

1974 had five movies on my top movies of the 1970's list, but The Godfather, part II was the lowest rated among them. I had The Conversation, Blazing Saddles, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, and Chinatown above it.

Verdict: No, it was not the best movie of 1974.

9. Rocky - 1976


- Was it the best movie nominated?

The nominees at this year's ceremony were:

Rocky
All the President's Men
Bound for Glory
Network
Taxi Driver

Amazingly, a year in which all nominees are great movies, a feat which almost never happens. There wouldn't have been a wrong choice. The Academy loved the underdog story of Rocky, understandably. It's a big emotional crowdpleaser, those are great Oscar choices (see Chariots of Fire, The King's Speech, etc.). I could hear arguments for any of the movies, but Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, I think, easily stands atop the nominees.

Verdict: No, it wasn't the best of the movies nominated for Best Picture that year.

- Was it the best movie of the year?

Again, it's a great movie from a year of great movies, but Taxi Driver is its superior.

Verdict: No, it was not the best movie of 1976.

8. Rain Man - 1988


- Was it the best movie nominated?

The nominees at this year's ceremony were:

Rain Man
Working Girl
The Accidental Tourist
Mississippi Burning
Dangerous Liaisons

While Mississippi Burning is a powerful, if simplistic, movie, and the others all have their moments, Rain Man is the only truly great movie in this group, I think. Great performances by Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman, a wonderful script, and subtly terrific control from director Barry Levinson, who never bettered this movie.

Verdict: Yes, it was the best of the movies nominated for Best Picture that year.

- Was it the best movie of the year?

1988 was a great year for movies, but Rain Man wasn't even in the top three (it's fourth). It might've been the best American movie made that year, but with Krzysztof Kieślowski's The Decalogue, from Poland, and Japan's animated masterpieces My Neighbor Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies, also coming out that year, there's no way Rain Man can claim "best movie of the year" status.

Verdict: No, it was not the best movie of 1988.

7. No Country for Old Men - 2007

- Was it the best movie nominated?

The nominees at this year's ceremony were:

No Country for Old Men
Atonement
Juno
Michael Clayton
There Will Be Blood

A fine group of movies, even if I thought Atonement fell too flat when it should've been emotionally devastating, Juno is too self conscious, and There Will Be Blood hangs its hat too much on a performance that doesn't work for this viewer. But, to me, No Country for Old Men easily stands atop this group of movies. Joel and Ethan Coen's win for Best Director that year marked just the second time the award had been shared (it had previously happened when Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise shared the award for West Side Story).

Verdict: Yes, it was the best movie of the movies nominated for Best Picture that year.

- Was it the best movie of the year?

2007 holds the record as the year with the most 10/10 ratings I've given out, 11 in total. So it has a real argument as the best year of film ever. Six of those movies made it into my top list of the 2000's. While it was above such greats as Eastern Promises, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, and 5 Centimeters Per Second, No Country for Old Men was listed below Pixar's Ratatouille for my list.

Verdict: No, it was not the best movie of 2007.

6. Annie Hall - 1977

- Was it the best movie nominated?

The nominees at this year's ceremony were:

Annie Hall
The Goodbye Girl
Julia
Star Wars
The Turning Point

A few great movies in there, to be sure, including the too often forgotten The Goodbye Girl. This year marked the 19th and final Oscar ceremony hosted by Bob Hope. The Turning Point set a record for most nominations without a win (11), a record later tied by Spielberg's The Color Purple. Although it surprised many people that it beat out the cultural phenomenon of Star Wars, Annie Hall is the best of these movies, I think.

Verdict: Yes, it was the best movie of the movies nominated for Best Picture that year.

- Was it the best movie of the year?

1977 was a great year for movies, it had four entries into my top movies of the 1970's list. The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh, Star Wars, Annie Hall, and my top rated movie of that year, Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Verdict: No, it was not the best movie of 1977.

5. The Apartment - 1960

- Was it the best movie nominated?

The nominees at this year's ceremony were:

The Apartment
Elmer Gantry
The Alamo
Sons and Lovers
The Sundowners

Despite some heavy hitting names among those involved with the Best Picture nominees that year, including John Wayne, Fred Zinnemann, Burt Lancaster, and others (not even including Alfred Hitchcock and Psycho, for some reason), The Apartment is just such a perfect movie that it easily stands above the rest. The Apartment was the last black-and-white film to win Best Picture until Schindler's List in 1993.

Verdict: Yes, it was the best movie of the movies nominated for Best Picture that year.

- Was it the best movie of the year?

Even with the previously mentioned Psycho being released that year, and being my #7 movie of the decade, The Apartment was my #2 movie of the 1960's.

Verdict: Yes, it was the best movie of 1960.

4. Unforgiven - 1992

- Was it the best movie nominated?

The nominees at this year's ceremony were:

Unforgiven
The Crying Game
A Few Good Men
Howard's End
Scent of a Woman

While A Few Good Men and The Crying Game have many great things in them, and Scent of a Woman does contain a great performance from Al Pacino, none of these movies are on the level of Clint Eastwood's masterpiece. Oscar fun facts from this year include composer Alan Menken becoming the first person to win two Oscars in back-to-back ceremonies, winning for Best Song and Best Score for Aladdin, the year after winning both for Beauty and the Beast.

Verdict: Yes, it was the best movie of the movies nominated for Best Picture that year.

- Was it the best movie of the year?

While there are two other 1992 movies on my top list of the 1990's, Werner Herzog's Lessons of Darkness and Spike Lee's Malcolm X, and both are astoundingly great movies, neither is as good as Unforgiven.

Verdict: Yes, it was the best movie of 1992.

3. On the Waterfront - 1954

- Was it the best movie nominated?

The nominees at this year's ceremony were:

On the Waterfront
The Caine Mutiny
The Country Girl
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
Three Coins in the Fountain

While it's astounding that Rear Window isn't in that group, it's pretty obvious to me that On the Waterfront was the best movie of the bunch. I like the other movies, but don't love them. This year was notable both as Marlon Brando's first win for Best Actor, as well as his fourth consecutive nomination, a record still unmatched. On the Waterfront had the most nominations and most wins this year.

Verdict: Yes, it was the best of the movies nominated for Best Picture that year.

- Was it the best movie of the year?

While On the Waterfront was my #7 movie of the 1950's and is on my top 50 list of all-time, Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai is the best movie made that year.

Verdict: No, it was not the best movie of 1954.

2. Casablanca - 1942

- Was it the best movie nominated?

The nominees at this year's ceremony were:

Casablanca
For Whom the Bell Tolls
Heaven Can Wait
The Human Comedy
In Which We Serve
Madam Curie
The More the Merrier
The Ox-Bow Incident
The Song of Bernadette
Watch on the Rhine

A decent set of movies, really. Interesting factoid, The Ox-Bow Incident was the last Oscar nominated movie to only be nominated for Best Picture. Although Casablanca won Best Picture and Best Director for Michael Curtiz, The Song of Bernadette won the most awards on the night, with 4. Also, of the "big awards", only Best Original Screenplay went to a movie not nominated for Best Picture. This was the last year until 2009 that there were 10 nominees for Best Picture. Anyway, yes, of course Casablanca is the winner of this group.

Verdict: Yes, it was the best of the movies nominated for Best Picture that year.

- Was it the best movie of the year?

Although 1942's Bambi is a great movie, one that was on my top list of the 1940's (yet received no Oscar nominations), Casablanca is most definitely the best movie of 1942.

Verdict: Yes, it was the best movie of 1942.

1. The Godfather - 1972

- Was it the best movie nominated?

The nominees at this year's ceremony were:

The Godfather
Cabaret
Deliverance
The Emigrants
Sounder

It's not a bad list of movies, but pretty uninspiring outside of The Godfather, I think. Although Bob Fosse's Cabaret set an Oscar record for most wins without winning Best Picture, with 8 awards that night. The ceremony was notable also for Marlon Brando's refusal of his Best Actor award, as well as the first competitive Oscar win for Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin won Best Original Score for his 1952 film Limelight, which was only eligible at that year's Oscars because it screened for the first time in Los Angeles that year. Of course, that it won is a ridiculous anomaly, but also further enraging because Nino Rota's iconic and influential score for The Godfather wasn't even nominated (due to some bullshit controversy about Rota reusing part of a score he'd previously written for another movie). Regardless, I had three 1972 movies on my top list of the 1970's but only The Godfather made the cut from this group.

Verdict: Yes, it was the best of the movies nominated for Best Picture that year.

- Was it the best movie of the year?

Of those other two 1972 movies, Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God, and Gordon Parks Jr.'s Super Fly, both are inferior to The Godfather.

Verdict: Yes, it was the best movie of 1972.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Top 25 of the 2000's

This list was tough because I think the 2000's is the best decade for film. American and internationally, filmmaker were killing it in the 2000's. Now, of course I'm biased because this is the decade of film which I really came of age as a film watcher, and is the decade from which I've seen the most amount of movies. But, the fact is that I could've expanded this list out to more than 40 entries and still not run into a movie I hadn't rated a 10/10. So, let's take a look at the movies I did include, in my vote for greatest film decade:

25. Katyn (2007) directed by Andrzej Wadja
During WWII, the Soviets massacred thousands of Polish citizens, both soldiers and civilians, in the Katyn forest in April and May of 1940. The estimates on how many were murdered is between 12,000 and 22,000 people. The Nazis, as the relationship with the Soviets turned south, exposed the genocide and used it as propaganda against them. When the Soviets took control of Poland after the war, however, they turned and claimed the Nazis were the culprits, committing the crimes in 1941. In post-war Poland, to even suggest that your brother died in Katyn in 1940 was considered treason, as the Soviet backed government propagated the lie covering up their actions in Katyn.

Among those murdered was Jakub Wajda, the father of 14-year-old Andrzej, who would go on to be the most important filmmaker in Polish history. Andrzej has said he knew he needed to make a movie about the Katyn massacre, but he wasn't able to tackle it until 2007, at the age of 81. What he gave us is one of the most powerful war movies I've ever seen because, although the movie takes fictionalized characters to tell the story, it sees the reality of how war spreads over people like a plague. Once the war is over, it's not really over because now we have to live with the consequences of war. And that's how we see this story, often playing out through the women: wives, mothers, sisters, daughters of those killed. Some holding out hope, some trying to move on, some just wanting the closure that truth brings. Katyn is a powerful movie that plays on us like no other WWII movies have.

24. Mulholland Dr (2001) directed by David Lynch

David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. is a fascinating dream of a movie. I would say it’s nightmarish, but for a good amount of its running time it’s over-the-top cheery and almost phony. Of course, as the movie goes on we begin to see that those times where it felt fake might have been for a reason. We descend into the fractured psyche of Diane Selwyn, or maybe a woman named Betty, as she arrives in Los Angeles and meets Rita. They go on a series of adventures, but then like its closest analogous movie, Bergman’s Persona, things start to break down and we begin to see that everything is not what we might’ve previously thought it to be. We begin to see Diane in a different light, as a more down on her luck and paranoid and angry character, seeing Rita less idealized as well.

But Mulholland Dr. works even if you don’t try to figure it out. Lynch’s approach has always been dreamlike, and this is his most successful dream. The movie plays on fears and emotions without even always consciously evoking them. The Silencio sequence, the person behind the dumpster at the cafe. Why do these sequences work? What exactly are we meant to feel? Why? It’s an odd movie to talk about, really, if you’re trying to explain it to someone who hasn’t seen it. So, if you haven’t seen it, remedy that as soon as possible. It’s a masterpiece, and this is coming from someone who doesn’t even really like Lynch as a filmmaker.

23. The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (2009) directed by Terry Gilliam

Terry Gilliam, another filmmaker I don't much care for. But when I watch this movie, I miss Heath Ledger more than ever. He reached great heights with his Oscar-winning performance in The Dark Knight, which was his final completed performance, but not technically his final role. He died midway through re-teaming with his The Brothers Grimm director (and former member of Monty Python) Terry Gilliam in the dark comic fantasy The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. The role he left behind was that of a mysterious stranger who joins up with the supremely odd theatre troupe of the title character. Thanks to the story, one involving a magic mirror that allows people to enter into a world of imagination partially controlled by Dr. Parnassus, Gilliam was able to recast Ledger's role during the sequences inside the Imaginarium. He recast it with three great actors who wanted to honor Ledger's memory, and took on the roles without payment (all three deferring their money to Ledger's daughter Matilda). Gilliam has said that many actors (including Tom Cruise) offered their services, but he wanted to "keep it family" with actors whom Ledger had befriended, therefore the casting of Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell to complete the role.

Gilliam has always been known for his distinct imagery (often in a fantasy setting), but is a filmmaker I usually find short on story and character. Here, he is not. I've not typically been a fan of Gilliam’s, even his celebrated visuals, but this movie made me reconsider (I’ve since revisited much of Gilliam’s work and found that my dislike of his non-Monty Python movies hasn’t changed just because I love this one). Although the CGI isn't perfect, we're not always convinced that the actors and the effects are occupying the same space, the overall feel and impact of the images works the way I assume Gilliam wants it to. And that’s because of the amazing and dreamlike imagery in the Imaginarium. The fact that we don’t believe the effects actually ends up elevating the dreamlike state of those scenes.

22. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007) directed by Sidney Lumet
The last film directed by the legendary Sidney Lumet, 50 years after his directorial debut 12 Angry Men announced him as a bright new talent, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is both a fascinating character study of a disentegrating family, and a terrifically suspenseful crime thriller. Hank (Ethan Hawke) is 3 months behind on his child support payments, and his older brother Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is in trouble with the IRS for embezzling countless dollars from his employer. Andy's wife Gina (Marisa Tomei) complains that he doesn't open up to her the way he did on their vacation to Rio, and Andy thinks maybe they could start over their life by moving there. Andy comes to Hank one day with a proposition, a mom and pop jewlery store robbery where they'll use toy guns so that there's no chance of anybody getting hurt, the owners will be taken care of by insurance, and the overall haul should be around $600,000. More than enough for both of them to fix their problems. Hank says that it sounds like a victimless crime, so he agrees to pull the job. I'll stop plot description there because one of the movies many pleasures is the way it slowly reveals the complete happenings of how the robbery goes spectacularly wrong. I will say that it shows remarkable confindence from first time screenwriter Kelly Masterson that the robbery is not the climax of the story, but the catalyst for it.

This movie nearly ended up in last week's "Best Cast" list, and there's not a weak link in the bunch. Hawke and Hoffman both do what might be the best work of their considerable careers. Marisa Tomei is her always underrated self. Albert Finney, Michael Shannon, Rosemary Harris, Amy Ryan, they're all wonderful as can be. But really the movie hits the highs it does because of Hoffman and Hawke. The casting of Hawke and Hoffman as brothers seems wrong at first, but the movie uses it as an advantage to show the opposing effect that each brother has within the family, Hoffman as the first born, and Hawke as the baby. They also work so well with each other that you feel the sense of history and brotherly connection that Hank and Andy share. Hawke should be commended for his fine work here as Hank. Most actors would shy away from the role of the obviously weaker brother, but Hawke completely nails Hank as the inadequate scared little boy in over his head. And since it's masterfully directed by Lumet, this movie becomes one of the great hidden gems of the 2000's. A wonderful swan song for Lumet's amazing career.

21. Eastern Promises (2007) directed by David Cronenberg
As the movie opens, we meet Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts), a mid-wife at a London hospital. A young teenager dies after giving birth in Anna's ward, and while searching for any sort of identification Anna stumbles upon the girl's Russian language diary. In an attempt to find the rightful home for the newborn, she takes the diary to a local Russian restaurant where the owner, a seemingly kind old man named Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), offers to translate it for her. While at the restaurant, Anna crosses paths with Seymon's son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and his best friend and driver Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen). Anna's Russian born uncle warns her that these people are part of vory v zakone, the Russian mafia, but when Anna's motorcycle breaks down one night outside the restaurant, Nikolai gives her a ride home. There is a strange attraction between the two, but he warns that she should stay away from people like him. Nikolai insists he is just the driver but we've, not long before this, seen him casually dismember the body of a mobster that Kirril had put out a hit on. Anna gets slowly sucked into this world and fights to protect the current and future safety of the baby. Nikolai meanwhile must handle his unstable captain Kirril, and make progress in the eyes of the cold hearted boss Seymon. Kirril and Nikolai also have to deal with the fact that when you put out a hit on another member of the mafia, his family might come looking for you.

There is violence in the movie, as there has been in nearly every Cronenberg movie, but the violence is not exploitative in any way. Cronenberg doesn't necessarily want to thrill you with action sequences or fight scenes, he wants you to see how difficult it would be to fatally slice someone up with a razor. He wants you to see the consequences to the body when you get stabbed with a knife (fragility of the human body is a recurring theme throughout Cronenberg's career). As he himself has pointed out, there are only about 4 or 5 scenes of violence in the movie, but you will hear many people talk about how violent it is. It's not because there is a lot of it, it's because Cronenberg takes violence seriously and doesn't want to trivialize it by making it part of a standard action sequence. In so doing, the violence makes a bigger impact on people's minds. The movie has also become somewhat notorius for an extended fight sequence in a bath house where Viggo Mortensen is naked throughout. This was also not done simply to give the movie a calling card, it was done because Nikolai has nothing to hide behind in this fight. No pads, no armor, no weapons. It makes the fight all the more effective because we can see how vulnerable Nikolai is to attack, and that adds an extra layer of danger and suspense to the scene. Also, kudos to Viggo Mortensen for taking on that scene when every single other star in Hollywood would've balked at it. As Cronenberg said, he was lucky that he cast an actor in the part and not a star.

20. The Aviator (2004) directed by Martin Scorsese
This spot goes to my favorite living directors masterpiece of the decade, Martin Scorsese's The Aviator, from 2004. From what I've read, the movie is 2 hours and 50 minutes long, but it has flown by for me the many times I have watched it. Scorsese favorite Leonardo DiCaprio proves yet again what a versatile actor he can be in the right circumstances. His take on legendary billionaire Howard Hughes is fascinating in the small details he adds into his performance. His striking blue eyes bouncing between paranoid fear and defiant rebeliousness, which serves the movie well since Hughes often feels he has to prove himself to the unbelieving people he comes into contact with, people like Alan Alda's smarmy Sen. Brewster, Alec Baldwin's Pan Am exec Juan Trippe, or even the other people in Hollywood who say that he's mad to try making his movies in the unconventional way in which he chooses to make them in. The ending may not work as well if we weren't familiar with what Hughes ended up being, a reclusive germophobe who spent his final years in a hotel room overlooking Las Vegas. It's wonderfully tragic (from a dramatic standpoint) to see Hughes rise above his illness and accomplish his greatest achievement, only to allow his demons to take a final hold of him, while he's looking hopefully to the future. An ending worthy of Shakespeare, and a testament to what an amazing decade it has been for moviegoers that this masterpiece is only #20.

19. The Dark Knight (2008) directed by Christopher Nolan
There's not much left to say about The Dark Knight, one of the most talked about movies of my generation. I love it despite its flaws. The main flaw with it is that Nolan pitches everything at a climax, so that there's eventually no more drama to wring out, as we haven't had a chance to ebb and flow. When it's all climax, you run out of build-up and resolution to let the energy keep flowing. But despite that major flaw, the movie is wonderfully acted, well shot, and contains one of the great villains of cinema.

18. 5 Centimeters per Second (2007) directed Makoto Shinkai
5 Centimeters Per Second is one of the most beautiful movies I've ever seen, in both a visual and thematic way. It's the story of two people who were inseparable as kids (both entranced by the falling cherry blossoms, which allegedly fall at 5 centimeters per second) but are split apart by their families moving. But they are determined to meet up again, they do and fall in love as teenagers, only to be split apart again, before becoming adults who still think of each other but have moved on with their lives (or are trying to learn how to). It's breathtakingly animated. Writer/director Makoto Shinkai allows so many shots of lonely looking objects to linger a bit longer than most would let them, underscoring the longing our characters feel for each other. At just 63 minutes, 5 Centimeters doesn't outstay its welcome, but Shinkai takes his time unfolding his story in a way that makes sure it doesn't feel truncated either.

The story reminded me forcibly of Hou Hsiao-Hsien's great Three Times, another love story set against 3 separate time periods (and was my honorable mention in my previous top ten of the decade). Of course, Hou set the stories apart by having the same actors playing different characters in different time periods and then watched how they play out their love scenarios. Shinkai simply gives us three segments from the same characters, as they grow older. The first segments are strikingly similar, as the man (boy in 5 Centimeters case) seeks out the woman (girl) before eventually meeting and sharing a simple expression of affection, although Shinkai's ending is as achingly beautiful as Hou's, it's in a different way, since 5 Centimeters follows the same characters throughout its 3 stories, we don't leave our characters at the end of the segment. So there isn't the ending note of love, since we will catch up with Shinkai's characters (and his first segment ends on a less fully romantic note, there's some mixed feelings there). The unreciprocated feelings in the second story are interesting and worthwhile as a story, but don't have quite the same emotional weight as the opening segment.

The final segment, though marred a bit by a too on-the-nose power ballad that stands at complete odds to the sparseness of the rest of the soundtrack, is the ambiguous end to the story that maybe isn't so ambiguous once you think about it. Our hero is haunted by the lost love that never got to see its fruition, while the heroine still occasionally thinks back on those days gone by, even as she has moved on. The chance meeting that the hero has longed for finally happens, but how you feel about the outcome will ultimately depend on each viewers interpretation of the characters feelings at that point in their life.

17. Three Times (2005) directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien
I first discovered Hou Hsiao-Hsien's brilliant Three Times back in 2009 and was bowled over by it. Hou's style, slow paced, gorgeously filmed, but not distractingly so, mesmerized me. I was also taken by the incredible beauty of lead actress Qi Shu. But mostly, I just flat out loved the first of the three times that Hou gives us. I think the opening section, the simplest of the three segments, is one of the greatest pieces of filmmaking I've ever seen. Its simplicity gets right to the heart of the love story, and I've never felt such joy just watching two people hold hands.

Sadly, the next two sections don't live up to the first (honestly, how could they?). The second segment is at least interesting from the point of how different it is. It's filmed like a silent movie, complete with title cards for dialog, using the same actors from the first section to play out a love story of a different sort. It has a tremendous score, and is unbelievably beautiful to look at, but doesn't have the emotional resonance of the first section. To be fair, it's not meant to, since Hou isn't just repeating the same love story in different times, but it doesn't work as wonderfully as the first. The final section is the only one set in modern times, and is by far the weakest. It doesn't ruin the movie, but it is not a great piece of drama and keeps the movie as a whole from unencumbered genius. But this is still one of the great movies of the decade and deserves its spot in the top 25. Hou is one of our best filmmakers, and this is my favorite film of his in the 2000's.

16. Unbreakable (2000) directed by M. Night Shyamalan
M. Night Shyamalan is pretty much a joke now, after the colossal failures of his last few movies, but there was a time when he was thought of as a Spielberg/Hitchcock hybrid for a new generation, mainly due to the unforeseeable success of 1999's The Sixth Sense, which got him Oscar nominations for Screenplay and Director. His career has been seen by most as a steady decline since then, with many pointing to 2002's Signs as his last good movie (though that movie has plenty of detractors, myself not among them). Until this year's Split, which served as a sort of backdoor sequel to Unbreakable.

But watching this movie it was obvious that Shyamalan had genius within him. This might be the best superhero movie ever (only The Incredibles can top it, in my mind), and it's because it has not only the serious dramatic weight that Christopher Nolan would get credit for introducing to the genre 5 years later with Batman Begins, but also the visual audacity not seen in any other entry to superhero movies. There are deliberate multi-minute shots, definitely not seen in the hyperkinetic work of the genre today. For instance, it's just over 9 minutes into the movie when we get to shot #3. Then there are the motifs like Elijah and glass ("the kids called me Mr. Glass"), where we see him often reflected in mirrors, glass panels, TV screens, etc. The color motifs of purple for Elijah, green for David, and pops of color (red, orange, blue, whatever) from the normally dreary palette for when David senses someone bad. There's that simple attention to visual detail and depth that no other superhero movie has. This is really masterful filmmaking, no matter what happened to Shyamalan afterwards.

I believe Unbreakable should stand atop the mountain of superhero movies, despite being an original creation and not a Batman, Superman, or Spiderman adaptation. It's steeped more in comic lore than any other, and it is steeped in greatness more than any other comic book movie.

15. Yi Yi (2000) directed by Edward Yang
Taiwan's Edward Yang was one of the most respected filmmakers of world cinema, and most often cited as his masterpiece is his 2000 drama Yi Yi (sometimes translated as A One and a Two). A nearly 3 hour human epic focusing on the Jian family living in Taipei. It starts with a wedding, and a visibly pregnant bride, and ends with a funeral, in between containing everything life could contain: joy, pain, anger, regret, love, and the constant search for the whole truth of it all. It's a truly great movie.

We mostly follow NJ (Nien-Jen Wu), the father of the family, as he struggles with money, disagreements with his partners in the failing business he runs, and a chance meeting with his first love, 30 years after he'd run away from her, making him contemplate his choices and direction in life. We also see Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee), NJ's teenaged daughter, struggle through the mess of being a teenager. Making friends, hanging out, discovering boys (and boys discovering her), her relationship with her elders, and more. We see a bit of the mom in the family, Min-Min (Elaine Jin), but mostly the other person we follow is Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang), the 8-year-old son as he navigates being a kid; a curious, sensitive kid. Writer/director Yang manages all of this and more with an author's sense of detail and character building. Like John Sayles's Lone Star or Bergman's Fanny and Alexander, this is one of the few movies I'd describe as novelic. It is so richly made, and with such care. I've rarely felt closer or more curious about the fates and futures of movie characters than this family.

Yang was a member of the Taiwanese New Wave, alongside one of my favorite filmmakers Hou Hsiao-Hsien. He even cast Hou in his third movie, Taipei Story, in 1985. Nien-Jen Wu, the father NJ, is a celebrated writer/director himself (his 1994 movie A Borrowed Life was named by Martin Scorsese as the 3rd best movie of the 90's), and worked as an actor and writer for both Hou and Yang throughout his career. And he's tremendous in the lead role here, playing a thoroughly good man who contemplates his life while trying to be a good dad, and a good and ethical business man. The kids, neither of whom had ever acted before or much since, are both tremendous. Especially little Jonathan Chang as the son searching for truth in the world. It's a beautiful trio of performances in a beautiful movie.

14. The Incredibles (2004) directed by Brad Bird
This is the best and most thrilling action movie ever made, if you ask me (which by reading this blog, you're kinda doing). I also think that with the issues of marriage and family and trying to find yourself when you don't know who you are anymore, The Incredibles is Pixar's most adult movie, most thematically complex, even though it's disguised as a bright colorful action movie for kids. Each character is created with a distinct personality, each speaks differently about their feelings and actions (you'd be surprised how little this happens in movies once you start paying attention to it), and the voice acting brings that last little bit to make these truly remarkable characters. All of that said, it's also just a mind blowingly amazing action movie, with set pieces that put Bond and Bourne to shame. The attack on the plane is my personal favorite, as the mounting fear in Helen's voice, and the parental actions she takes to possibly sacrifice herself for her children are a rare action sequence that makes me tear up with its dramatic implications. Then there's also the "discovering the joys of your abilities" quality of Dash vs. the flying machines. When Dash starts running (with unexpected success) on the water of the ocean, he lets out a little "oh man, that's so awesome I can do this" kinda giggle that lights my face up every time I watch it.

13. Take Care of My Cat (2001) directed by Jeong Jae-eun
2001's Take Care of My Cat is one of those movies that doesn't sound like it'd be extraordinary, but it is. It's about a group of 5 young women in South Korea, just out of high school, and how they grow, work, and basically how they handle the world at such a transformative age. It has no love story, but contains characters that I want to see more of. It's just under 2 hours long, and that times flies by. Coming-of-age movies are one of my favorite genres, and this is right at or near the top of the heap.

The friends, as can happen in school and sadly not so much later in life, are all of differing social classes, and may even sound like clichés, even though they're not. There's the rich girl Hae-joo (Lee Yo-won), the poor girl Ji-young (Ok Ji-young), the dreamer Tae-hee (played by the amazing Doona Bae, from The Host and Cloud Atlas), and the twin sisters Bi-ryu and Ohn-jo (Lee Eun-shil and Lee Eun-jo). The sisters get the short stick, development wise, but the other three are really wonderfully drawn and played by the actresses. They grow and change and develop in perfectly believable ways, never a false note or false drama, though there were many times it could've gone that way. It's a great trio of leads, even though I can't quite put my finger on why it's so good.

And that's kind of the whole thing about the movie. Writer/director Jeong Jae-eun has crafted a startling movie that has nothing startling in it, really. It's just SO good. The music is impeccable, the framing of the shots, the cinematography, everything is top notch. I want to see this movie over and over again throughout my life. I know it's going to be one of those that really stays with me. Which is a remarkable thing to say about the movie because what do I know or can relate to about being a 20-ish Korean girl? Nothing whatsoever. Yet I was moved by these actresses and their story. Jeong has created herself a truly amazing movie that plays on us like music. We may not be able to articulate what makes it special, it just is.

12. Adventureland (2009) directed by Greg Mottola
Greg Mottola's coming-of-age/the-summer-that-changed-everything movie, Adventureland, was my favorite movie of 2009. Adventureland is the most wonderfully realized, delicately crafted, and emotionally affecting movie about young people that I've ever seen. It captures a moment in time that didn't even exist in my life, yet I connect to it so deeply I almost can't explain it.

There's not a single moment in the movie that rings false to me, and so many moments that transcend the maligned "young adult/teen" genre. Of course, it's not about "teens", it's about people just out of college realizing that their studies in Comparative Literature or Russian and Slavic Languages don't mean much in the real world. It's also about those fragile feelings of first love, real friendship, jealousy, and taking the wrong advice because you don't know any better yet. More than anything really, it's the story of first love. But because everything is so carefully constructed, capturing life, the feeling of real life, it's about much more than that simple genre description might allude to. Sure, it's not documentary-esque real life, it's idealized and nostalgic, but in the best way possible.

11. Before Sunset (2004) directed by Richard Linklater
Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy (consisting of 1995’s Before Sunrise, 2004’s Before Sunset, and 2013’s Before Midnight) is the great trilogy of cinema, I think. It’s a fascinating look at a couple, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) at vastly different times in their lives. Before Sunrise finds them in their early 20’s, in love with life and ideas and philosophy and all that great college era stuff. They meet and fall in love over the course of a night roaming around Vienna. Before Midnight sees them dealing with the mundanity of parenthood, the crumbling of love when you don’t protect and nurture it, and the ruts that we all fall into in relationships that lead to fights and unhappiness.


Before Sunset, my favorite of the series, follows Jesse and Celine through a 90-minute meetup in Paris as he’s on a book tour for a book he wrote about the events in Before Sunrise. The movie takes place in real time, as Jesse has to catch a plane back to his life in the US, while Celine goes about her life in Paris. We see both the love and the pain caused by the events in Before Sunrise. We see the missed connections and the longing for the feelings of love that were created that magical night in Vienna. We see Jesse and Celine’s immediate re-connection, falling back into their love of talking and connecting with one another. We see the things they keep and the things they share with the other, before it all seems to come out in a car ride back to Celine’s apartment. And, ah! The perfection of that ending. “I know” has never felt so romantic and full of possibilities.

10. No Country for Old Men (2007) directed by The Coen Brothers
2007's No Country for Old Men is the Coen brothers best work, and they're no strangers to great movies. I would count their The Big Lebowski, Raising Arizona, Blood Simple, and Miller's Crossing as really great movies (and that's with thinking their generally regarded crowning achievement, Fargo, is just "good"). Of course, Javier Bardem's Oscar-winning villain is the part that sticks in everyones mind, but the work done here by Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, and Kelly MacDonald can't be overvalued. MacDonald in particular deserves more attention than she ever got. The scene where she gets a piece of news she didn't want to get, her reaction brings tears to my eyes every time I watch this movie, and I don't think I can say that about any other scene in the typically emotionally distant Coen catalog.

One of the most tense movies I've ever seen, I was so wrapped up in the story that like many people, I was caught off guard by the ending. We're trained by other movies to expect some sort of showdown between the main characters, and when we don't get it, I was left quite disappointed. It wasn't until I kept thinking about the ending, and watched the movie a couple more times, that I was hit by its brilliance. The Coen's go for intellectualism and metaphor rather than the emotional release of a showdown. I wasn't sure at first if they'd made the right decision, but I'm more sure than ever (after my last viewing) that they did make the correct choice.

9. Talk to Her (2002) directed by Pedro Almodovar
I already admired even if I hadn't quite loved Pedro Almodovar's movies when I finally came to Talk to Her. This is not just one of the great movies of the 2000's, but one of the great movies ever made, period. The story, of two relationships of very different types, gets us to identify and relate to these four people in surprising ways. The amount of life that Almodovar injects into this movie is astounding. Every frame pulses with the energy of life. He tackles weighty topics in the same movie in which you'll find dick and poop jokes. And the turn of the plot comes as such a shock that we cannot believe it, just as we wouldn't if it happened in real life. But Almodovar never cheated, it's not a twist in the regular movie sense. It's kind of a twist in the way that life twists us. Overall, I just can't quite get over how much life is in this movie. That was the theme that kept coming up to me. Even side characters are so precisely written that one doctor character has one small scene and he felt like a fully formed person. The movie also contains the craziest, funniest, wildest movie-within-a-movie I've ever seen.

8. Ratatouille (2007) directed by Brad Bird
The first thing I wanted to do when leaving the theater after seeing Ratatouille on opening day was cook. Cooking is one of the great joys of my life, and it is one of the great joys for Remy the rat too. Re-watching this movie so many times, I'm actually a little bored by the opening 20 minutes or so, until Remy gets to Paris. From then on the movie is perfect. It's hilarious, heartbreaking, romantic, and filled with a love of life and food. Peter O'Toole's performance as the food critic Anton Ego is the movie's key, I think. When presented with the title dish, vegetable peasant food thought unworthy of the high end restaurant in which it's being served, he is raced back to childhood and the comfort and love he felt when his mother made him the dish. Then he follows with one of my favorite monologues in movies, about the relationship between art and art criticism. Heady stuff to put in a "kids movie" but that's because Pixar isn't trying to make movies just for kids, they're trying to make good movies period. The fact that Ratatouille isn't even the best Pixar movie of the decade is further proof that they can edge out Studio Ghibli as the best animation studio in the world.

7. In Bruges (2008) directed by Martin McDonagh
Colin Farrell's effortlessly heartbreaking yet hysterical performance as the endearing naughty boy Ray becomes much more impressive every time I watch this infinitely rewatchable masterpiece. Brendan Gleeson's work shows that many more layers to his character, the wonderfully paternal Ken. And even Ralph Fiennes' deliriously over-the-top mob boss becomes more of a joy to watch, as well as making such a deeper impact on a dramatic level. McDonagh's screenplay shows off his roots on the stage (where he's often considered one of Ireland's top playwrights) in its use of a small number of locations and characters, and his attention to the detail of his dialog. In what may be the movie's best scene (although it's really too tough to pick just one), a simple piece of dialog shifts the entire mood of the film. Not in many movies would a line like "Good. Because he wasn't a bad kid, was he?" change the course of the movie, but the line is loaded with meaning where it's placed in the screenplay, and delivered with such brilliance, it has a remarkable impact. And that's without thinking about the scene being a masterfully subtle 6 1/2 minute long single take.

McDonagh should also be commended for his ability to mix the profane with the spiritual, violence with the magical, and most simply (yet remarkably) the comedy with the drama. In Bruges would be a tremendous piece of work for any filmmaker, but the fact that it was McDonagh's first makes it all the more impressive.

6. Wall-E (2008) directed by Andrew Stanton
The next movie on my list is the Pixar tour-de-force that is Andrew Stanton's Wall-E, quite possibly the greatest of all animated movies. Its visual invention and nearly silent opening section are reminders of what a little ambition can do for a movie. Stanton and his co-writers provide pointed commentary on the laziness of the human race and where our reliance on technology will logically lead us to (a commentary lost on so many viewers who thought the filmmakers were just making fun of fat people). But at its heart, Wall-E is a simple love story, one that just happens to star robots.

Most of note, really, is the genius creation of the title character. Stanton gives ample time for his mostly silent hero to show of his comedic skills, ones worthy of the great Buster Keaton. Stanton has actually said that he and his staff studied the entire available catalogs of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton in an effort to understand and emulate the great silent comedians. Wall-E is a delightful creation, and the movie starring him equally enchanting. It was another one that didn't quite hit me with its full force on first viewing. Looking back on my original review, I wasn't even sure if it was Pixar's best movie. After repeat viewings, I always find wonderful little details in it, plus there's still the beautiful sequences like Eve and Wall-E's dance, and the simplicity of the story proves to be a strength rather than a hindrance. Our adorable hero and his quest for love hits me in the gut every time since that first viewing. It's really a testament to the strength of the decade's movies that a masterpiece like Wall-E is only 6th. And I'm already starting to wonder if that position is too low.

5. High Fidelity (2000) directed by Stephen Frears
High Fidelity is another one that didn't immediately make an impact on me. As a 17-year-old, I walked away from the theater loving Jack Black's hilariously over-the-top know it all Barry, but not really connecting with John Cusack's self-loathing (yet often arrogant) Rob, and his travails through the top 5 loves of his life, and why they didn't work out. A few years later, I watched the movie again and found it deeply affected me on an emotional level, now that I had some life experience with what Rob was talking about, and a deeper love of the pop-culture that Rob also cherishes. Now, as a 26-year-old with even more experiences, I find more than ever that I connect not just with Rob, but with Barry, Dick, Liz, and Laura. All the characters are amazingly well drawn (much of which comes from Nick Hornby's brilliant novel) and brilliantly played by the actors, with even Jack Black seeming like a real character, and not just Jack Black.

Sometimes a movie feels so personal to me that I fear showing it to other people, afraid that their opinion (whether positive, negative, or indifferent) will color mine in some way and my love of it will be somehow tainted. This is a movie like that. I occasionally hesitate in recommending such a deeply personal favorite, especially one that I don't think will connect with someone as fully as it does with me, immediately at least. Some people aren't willing to revisit movies that they didn't love the first time around. But I do have such a deep love and connection with it that I can't help but put it on this list and want to recommend it to anyone with an open mind.

4. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) directed by Michel Gondry
This is one of the most interesting visual experiences ever put on screen, with Michel Gondry able to project what the inside of our minds just might look like.

The crowning achievement in Charlie Kaufman's catalog, in my eyes, teaming him again with French music video director Gondry (who had previously directed Kaufman's script Human Nature, unseen by me). A haphazard journey through the memories of Joel Barish (a never better Jim Carrey) as he tries to erase his recently ex-girlfriend Clementine (the always brilliant Kate Winslet) from his mind. Kaufman started from the idea of erasing someone from your memory (who hasn't wanted to do that before?) and the impact that memories have on us as people. The way a loved one can get so associated with something that to remove it would be to remove a part of your own being. The impulsive Clem has had Joel erased from her memory by a company called Lacuna that provides such a service. As a way of getting back at her, Joel decides to erase her from his memory. Joel at one point asks Dr. Mierzwiak (the infallible Tom Wilkinson) if there's any chance of brain damage caused by the erasing. He answers "Well, technically speaking, the procedure is brain damage."

There's an achingly sad moment later in the movie when you realize that Joel doesn't remember the song "My Darling Clementine", even though it had deep meaning to him long before meeting Clem. It had become so associated with her in his mind that to remove her removes all traces of the song as well as his childhood favorite, Huckleberry Hound. For the majority of the movie we travel with Joel through the good and bad memories of the two years he spent with Clem. It's hysterical, heartbreaking, amazingly true to life while being totally surreal. Also, the brilliant score by Jon Brion is worth mentioning. It plays more like an accompaniment to the action onscreen, instead of trying to underline it, or try and inform the audience how to react emotionally. The movie is a beautiful, hilarious, and melancholy trek through the emotions one experiences with both the good and bad in a relationship, and how you should live with the balance of the two instead of trying to forget. Your memories help make you who you are, appreciate that you have them.

3. Almost Famous (2000) directed by Cameron Crowe
With Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe finally achieved the flawless synergy of his love of rock music and the personal relationship dramedy that he’d been trying to perfect since his debut with Say Anything. Crowe used his experiences as a teenaged journalist for Rolling Stone magazine (where he toured with Led Zeppelin, The Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and The Eagles, among others) as the basis for his autobiographical masterwork. And while the theatrical cut of the movie is wonderful, the cut that makes it onto my list is the Untitled: Bootleg cut (i.e. Director’s cut). Although most director’s cuts are fairly worthless and indulgent, the original cut of Almost Famousonly had one drawback (to me), which was that it felt a bit rushed. Crowe’s Untitled cut adds in just enough scenes to make the movie feel more lived in, more detailed, and add more character moments so that we really get to know and love these people.

Even though the movie skirts so close to cliché at nearly every turn, it never felt anything but alive to me. A lot of the credit for that goes to Crowe’s (deservedly) Oscar-winning script, but I think even more of it goes to the best cast he’s ever assembled. From Patrick Fugit as our hero William, to Frances McDormand’s overprotective mother and Zooey Deschanel’s flighty sister, Jason Lee and Billy Crudup’s quarreling band leaders, to Kate Hudson’s perfect Penny Lane and most especially Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lester Bangs (still his greatest of many, many great performances), the closest thing William has to a mentor. Hell, Crowe even gets a terrific performance from Jimmy Fallon. Fugit though, as the newcomer of the bunch, deserves special mention for his ability to capture a certain youthful naiveté and earnestness, while also taking us on William’s coming-of-age journey with enthusiasm and joy. It’s one of the great youth performances the movies have ever given us.

Probably the most talked about sequence in the movie is the “Tiny Dancer” scene. I’ve heard it described as transcendent by some, and ridiculous (or worse) by others. It is, of course, the former. After a night of in-fighting and much drug taking, the whole group is angry with Crudup’s Russell Hammond as he gets on the bus wrapped in a towel and still a little bit high. The bus sets off, and Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” plays over the bus speakers. Eventually everyone joins in singing along, and with it, Crowe shows us the kind of healing power great music can have. Nobody says anything to Russell about the night before. They don’t have to. Music is a powerful thing, and Almost Famous captures that like no other movie I can think of.

2. Pan's Labyrinth (2006) directed by Guillermo del Toro Guillermo del Toro had shown promise with some of his earlier films, most particularly in the comic book adaptation Hellboy, and his ghost story The Devil’s Backbone. But he had never melded his extraordinary talents as a visual stylist with some storytelling craft as well as he did with his 2006 masterwork Pan’s Labyrinth. He wrote a simple story about a young girl escaping from her hellish life into a fantasy world that may not be any less brutal, but tells it with an elegance and assurance that he’d only hinted at before. The effortless flow of the story makes the simplicity all the easier to enjoy, with the only character who isn’t really a defined good guy or bad guy being the Faun who opens up this alternate world to our young heroine.

Movies with children as the lead characters can often get bogged down in “cute” moments from the young actors who fail to give much in the way of a real acting performance. Pan’s Labyrinth is not one of those movies. Premier among the movie’s many pleasures is the central performance from Ivana Baquero as Ofelia. The rest of the cast is littered with wonderful performances as well, but Ofelia is our guide and needs to be something truly special. Baquero is most certainly that. The film’s detractors often point to the simplistic nature of the movie as a negative, usually pointed at Sergi Lopez’s villainous Captain Vidal as the biggest offender. So what? So he’s obviously the bad guy, and he’s a really, really bad guy. He’s not even the most memorable villain, as the infamous Pale Man sequence has demonstrated. Regardless, do we denigrate The Adventures of Robin Hood because Claude Rains is so wonderfully hissable, or the Harry Potter movies because Voldemort is one-sidedly evil? No, we enjoy the obstacle for our heroes to overcome. And the movies are better for it.

The feeling that often stays with me after watching Pan's Labyrinth is one of a beautiful melancholy. The Javier Navarrete score is gorgeously haunting, and fits the movie perfectly. The rich cinematography from Guillermo Navarro, as well as Del Toro’s developing compositional brilliance, leaves us with some stunning images. One thing I would like to address that Del Toro purposefully leaves open to a bit of interpretation is whether or not this fantasy escape is all happening in Ofelia’s head. There’s a shot near the end where Vidal runs into Ofelia talking to the Faun, but he can’t see the Faun. Del Toro has said he meant this as adults aren’t as in tune with the fantasy world as children, more than that the fantasy world doesn’t exist. And that’s the way I’ve always looked at it as well. I’m more one who believes in the fate of the fig tree as an indication of what was real and what wasn’t. What is very real though is that this is one of the great movies I’ve ever seen, and I have no problem having it as my #2 movie of the decade.

1. Children of Men (2006) directed by Alfonso Cuaron
I have rarely been as emotionally impacted while watching a movie as I was sitting in the theater watching Children of Men. Having since seen it multiple times, I am more convinced than ever that it is the best movie of the decade, and one of the greatest achievements in all of cinema. Its story is very simple: the year is 2027, and the human race has been infertile for the past 18 years. An emotionally disconnected former activist (now anonymous bureaucrat, played by Clive Owen) is asked by his ex-wife to escort a young girl to safety across the dangerous obstacles now occupying England as the world's last surviving powerful nation. The by now well known complication being that the girl is pregnant. Director/writer/editor Alfonso Cuaron uses this concept as the basis to tell a powerful story of action, love, and hope rarely touched in cinema. The almost oppressive grimness of the frighteningly realistic future setting is offset with the optimism brought about by the prospect of a future generation.

Children of Men has become somewhat famous for its single-shot sequences, including an assault on a car that lasts for more than 4 minutes, and a shot during a chaotic battle that lasts for around 7 1/2 minutes. The thing that many people don't know about these shots are that they aren't really a single shot, but a couple of shots stitched together through the aid of computers. Some detractors have taken this as a negative, as though the only point of single-shot sequences is an exercise in technique. The single-shot sequences, whether actually a single unaided shot or not, work as a single take, not allowing the audience the chance to distance itself through an edit. We can't get away from the action, because the camera isn't getting away from the action, making the movie all the more tense and exciting.

Werner Herzog has often said that the world is starved for great images. With Children of Men, Alfonso Cuaron continues his fight to give us extraordinary images. He has the audacity to be poetic in an almost Herzog-ian way such as in the scene where the soldiers all stand around dumbfounded at the sound and sight of the baby Theo is escorting out of a building. Some people, even in the midst of the fighting and destruction going on around them reach out to the baby as the first sign of hope in nearly 20 years. The soldiers, many of whom are probably too young to even remember seeing a baby in their lifetimes, look on at the young child in a paralyzing shock. It's a tremendously moving sequence, and again, Cuaron's use of music (an opera) is very reminiscent of Herzog. Cuaron has given us some wonderful images in his previous movies. Y tu Mama Tambien, A Little Princess, and even his Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban were expertly filmed and gave us gorgeous shots to behold. But nothing he'd ever done in the past prepared me for the power and poeticism of some of his work here. I would single out more shots, but I could nearly single out anything in the movie and use it as an example, since Cuaron often finds the poetry of images in small ways that many viewers may not even be aware of or remember.

Some great movies that just didn't make the list include:

The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
Spirited Away (2001)
The Pianist (2002)
Adaptation. (2002)
Whale Rider (2002)
Lost in Translation (2003)
Master and Commander (2003)
Shattered Glass (2003)
Zodiac (2007)
Once (2007)
Encounters at the End of the World (2007)
Superbad (2007)
Coraline (2009)