Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Top 10's of the decades - 2000's

10. 5 Centimeters Per Second (2007, directed by 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.

9. Adventureland (2009, directed by Greg Mottola)
I wrote, when I first saw it, that Adventureland was a rare movie. I wrote that it was so good that I sat in my seat hoping it didn't screw it up, and it didn't. One thing I didn't realize the first time I watched it was that I wasn't just watching the best movie of 2009, I was watching one of the great movies of the decade. 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.

8. No Country for Old Men (2007, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen)
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.
 
7. In Bruges (2008, directed by Martin McDonagh)
Every time I watch In Bruges, it grows on me. Colin Farrell's effortlessly heartbreaking yet hysterical performance as the endearing naughty boy Ray becomes that much more impressive. Brendan Gleeson's 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 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's McDonagh's first makes it all the more impressive. I still haven't caught up to his followup, 7 Psychopaths, but he already has this masterpiece under his belt.
 
6. Wall-E (2008, directed by Andrew Stanton)
 
The number 6 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.
 
5. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004, directed by Michel Gondry)
I have also previously written about my #5, Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, from 2004. It's one of the most interestingly done visual experiences ever put on screen, with 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.

4. 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 occasionally 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.

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 Famous only 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 intaking, 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.

The great German director Werner Herzog has 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.

1 comment:

Daryl Nobbs said...

I'm surprised to see Spirited Away not make this one!