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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Favorite of the "00s": 31-40

Counting down my favorites of the oughts, are here are my next 10..... (here are 41-50 in case you missed them)

40. Once (2007): A super low-budget, completely charming modern day musical. The songs are lovely, the story simple and sweet. It's definitely movie you remember fondly.

39. 25th Hour (2002): For a Spike Lee movie, it's really only tangentially about race relations. It's mostly about regret, dreams, 9/11, and a deep love for the complexities of life in New York. The story concerns the last hours in New York of a drug dealer (Edward Norton) before he is sent to prison. If I saw this again, I have a feeling it might place even higher.

38. Monsoon Wedding (2002): One of those movies that just makes you feel good. Director Mira Nair paints a vivid picture of a modern Indian family gathering around the arranged marriage of their daughter. Definitely one that is just as enjoyable on repeat viewings.

37. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (2008): This Romanian film is about a young woman (Anamarica Marinca) who tries to obtain an illegal abortion for her friend in communist-era Romania. Naturalistic, tense, and hard to shake.

36. Mystic River (2003): While I think Clint Eastwood's output has been a bit hit-and-miss this decade (although Million Dollar Baby almost made my list), this is a definite hit. A crime procedural with lots more going on under the service. Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, and Marcia Gay Harden are all superb.

35. Best in Show (2000): I've probably seen this Christopher Guest mockumentary movie more than any other film on the list. The portrait of dog show attendees is eminently quotable. My favorite characters? Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara as mismatched terrier owners.

34. American Splendor (2003): Based on autobiographical comic books by Harvey Pekar, this movie combines live action, comic books, and even a little documentary. The movie really captures the lives of those who live on the edge of mainstream society. It's really funny, really moving, and has great performances by Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis.

33. Wonder Boys (2000): If I was making a list of the most overlooked films of the decades, this would definitely be on it. Michael Douglas plays Grady, a college professor with writer's block and a weekend of interactions with others. Not a ton of plot, but the actors (including Frances McDormand, Tobey Maguire, and a pre-Tom Katie Holmes) and the atmosphere are so winning.

32. Milk (2008): Sean Penn again. He turns in a great performance as groundbreaking gay politician Harvey Milk. A biopic that, instead of being about an entire life, is really about a political awakening and a political movement. Timely and moving.

31. The Departed (2006): Martin Scorsese finally won his Oscar for this movie (which won Best Picture as well). While not Scorsese's masterwork, it's certainly the best he's been in years. A gripping and fun (despite the copious deaths and blood) cat-and-mouse game between organized crime and the Boston police. Jack Nicholson overacts a bit, but Damon and Dicaprio are the best they've been and Vera Farmiga proves her potential.

For this group, you have a few great movies from abroad (Once, Monsoon, 4 Months), Academy Award favorite (Milk, Mystic River, The Departed) and somewhat overlooked gems (25th Hour, Wonder Boys).

Thoughts on any of these films, readers?

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Favorites of the "00s": 41-50

If I fell in love with the movies in my teenage years in the 90s, it was definitely the 00s (the oughts?) when I became a voracious consumer of film. I saw most of the Oscar nominees, most of the critically acclaimed films, and most things by my favorite directors. Looking back on my many happy hours on the couch or in the theaters, I've come up with a list of my favorite 50 movies of the past decade. I'll be gradually revealing them, all the way to #1!

First, a caveat. I could easily fill this list with 100 movies. I'm also not calling this a "best" list for many reasons. I don't necessarily think every movie on this list is a greater or better-made movie than those that didn't make the list. They are just the ones that spoke to me and that I remember fondly. Some I've seen many times, some only once. If I rewatched them all, I'm sure my rankings would change. On to the first part of the list..... And yes, for my purposes, I'm calling 2000-2009 a decade.

50. Crash (2005). After beating Brokeback Mountain for the Oscar, this movie was pretty widely scorned in many corners of the film community. While not without its flaws, I think it is a deeply humanistic, well-acted, engaging, and well-crafted movie about modern race relations.

49. Wendy and Lucy (2008). So real you are there. Understated, contemplative, mysterious, and oh so heartbreaking. This story about a drifter (Michelle Williams) searching for her lost dog has a lot to say about alienation and modern America.

48. The Constant Gardener (2005). Great performances by Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz (who took home the Supporting Actress Oscar) in this movie about a diplomat discovering evil deeds by a drug company in Africa. Director Fernando Meirelles (look for him higher up on the list) knows how to craft a great political thriller that engages you with the emotional lives of its characters.

47. In the Bedroom (2001). A portrait of a crime and its affect on the marriage and lives of the parents involved. Director Todd Field's debut was stunning. He portrays the emotional loss of his characters so beautifully. Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek give two of the best performances of the decade as the central couple.

46. Little Miss Sunshine (2006). Indie quirk done right. The whole cast is terrific (I vote Steve Carrell and Toni Colette as best in show), and the story is just so much fun to watch. I think it loses a little of its novelty on repeat viewings, but the first time I saw it was some of the most fun I had at the theater this decade.

45. Goodbye Solo (2009). Indie director Ramin Bahrani's movie of a Senegalese cab driver and his friendship with a man at the end of his life. Bahrani's movies have a similar naturalistic vibe to those of Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy) that I love.

44. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). Later in the decade, when the quirk of The Life Acquatic and The Darjeeling Limited became tiresome, I kind of soured on Wes Anderson. But this movie was so well put together. It's like a charming storybook of a dysfunctional family. It's designed beautifully and this time he gets some authentic emotion into the strange characters.

43. Ratatouille (2007). One of Pixar's triumphs of the decade. Remy, a rat who can cook, leads this charming tale set in France. The scenes of restaurant critic Anton Ego's flashback and subsequent review of Remy's cooking are some of my favorite scenes of the decade.

42. Pan's Labyrinth (2006). Truly frightening and truly original. Mexican director Guillermo del Toro helms a movie where Alice in Wonderland meets real-world political violence. The result is fascinating.

41. Little Children (2006). Director Todd Field has made 2 movies (this and In the Bedroom), and they both make my list. For everyone who thinks American Beauty is a great movie, try this one. It has similar themes of suburban alienation, but it doesn't condescend to its characters in the same way. Kate Winslet and Jackie Earle Haley, both nominated for Oscars, are superb.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

If You Love Mad Men....

Watching Season 3 of Mad Men, now on DVD, I've once again fallen in love (and obsession) with the show. The complex characters, the sociological undercurrents, the costumes, the ads, everything. If, like me, you are in love with Mad Men, here are a few movies you should check out. A couple are from the 50s/60s era, and a couple are modern imaginings of the era, like Mad Men itself. There's a certain sense of tension and subtext that I love in much work from and about this era in American history.

The Apartment (1960)

Jack Lemmon plays CC Baxter, a lowly New York City office worker. He gains points with his supervisors by offering up his apartment for their extracurricular affairs. His conscience hits him, though, when he falls in love with Fran (Shirley MacLaine), a woman damaged by an affair with her boss. This movie, while cynical in its own right, is more open-hearted towards its characters then Mad Men. Its portrait of status-climbing men and harrassed secretaries, however, will be quite familiar. This movie is easily in my top 10 of all time, my favorite movie by one of my favorite directors (Billy Wilder).

All that Heaven Allows (1955)

Douglas Sirk is a German director who made melodramatic , highly stylized technicolor Hollywood movies filled with subtext commenting on the social mores of the time. While I might slightly prefer "Imitation of Life," which deals with 1950s-racism, "All that Heaven Allows" is a better match for Mad Men. It's about a widowed woman (Jane Wyman) who dares to step outside the stuffy parameters of her culture in dating a working-class younger man (Rock Hudson). Imagine an older Betty Draper gone rogue.

Far From Heaven (2002)

Director Todd Haynes took Douglas Sirk and made a brilliant homage to his work. He brings a similar subtext to the work that you see in Mad Men. He uses the style of Sirk and pulls i
n a modern subtext of race and sexuality. Another of my favorite movies, with great performances from Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert, and Patricia Clarkson.

Revolutionary Road (2008)

This movie version is not as brilliant as Richard Yates' 1961 novel, but how could it be? It's honestly one of the best books I've read and I've seen it mentioned often as an influence on Mad Men. The movie is still very engrossing, with a remarkable performance by Kate Winslet. Kate and Leonardo Dicaprio play Frank and April Wheeler, a sort of version of Don and Betty Draper who are more outwardly uncomfortable with the trappings of their suburban life. The workplace, the secretaries, and the suburban milieu definitely recall Mad Men.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

I'm Back!: Review Round-Up

I've taken a bit of a break from blogging since the frenetic and exciting Oscar season, but that doesn't mean I've taken a break from movies. I'll write some quick thoughts on the movies I've seen since then. A few 2009 catch-ups, a few rewarding rewatches, and a few older movies that were new to me.

2009 Catch-Ups

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Director Wes Anderson and I have been going through a sort of rocky relationship. I loved loved loved Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. Then came The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which I hated. All the sudden his cleverness and attention to artistic detail seemed to become overly fussy and overly precious. Then The Darjeeling Limited, which I didn't hate but met with a gigantic shrug. It didn't exactly bore me, but it also didn't seem to contain any genuine emotion.

This is all a leadup to Fantastic Mr. Fox, and I'm happy to say that Wes and I are on solid footing again. While it's not as good as Anderson's best, the animated form certainly suits him. The puppets are absolutely gorgeous, the voiceover talent perfect (especially Clooney in the lead), the score memorable and the story very sweet and moving without becoming too cutesy. It's light, it's fun, and I really enjoyed it. What's next, Wes?

Grade: B+

Food, Inc.

This movie (nominated for Best Documentary last year) is basically a mash-up of the books Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. I've read both books, and the movie really didn't give me any new information not included in the books. It was also interesting that the movie made the industrial organic (Earthbound Farms) into heroes, where Pollan had a much more nuanced view of them in his book.

That said, I think this movie gives a good overview of the food industry for those who may not have read the books. I would have preferred something more in-depth, but it was an easy movie to watch.

Grade: B-

A Prophet
This highly acclaimed movie was France's entry for Best Foreign Language Film last year. Tahar Rahim plays a young illiterate Arab man named Malik sent to a French prison who rises through the ranks of Corsican organized crime to become something very powerful. Almost the whole entire 2 1/2 hour movie deals with life in prison for Malik. As long as the movie is, it is riveting the whole way through. Rahim's performance is outstanding, and you are with his character the whole way through, even when his moral choices become quite questionable. Director Jacques Audiard tells his story with great care and with the occasional avant-garde flourish that gives the movie a touch of magic.

As well-crafted as this movie was, there was a small part of me that wanted just a bit more. More of Rahim's soul, more of his backstory, more to care about. Still, this is definitely a movie worth seeing.

Grade: B+


The Dark Knight (2008)

I actually appreciated this movie a lot more on its second viewing. Heath Ledger's performance as The Joker is even greater than I remember. Plus, director Christopher Nolan creates a world that is consistently dark and refuses to play on the sometimes irritating jokiness of past Batman movies. While I think the movie is a bit overlong, and has one climax too many, this is a superhero movie with a dark soul and a lot to think about.

Grade: A-

You Can Count on Me (2000)

I love this movie, plain and simple. The family dynamics independent film is one of my favorite genres, and this one is great. Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo, two actors I adore, turn in two of the best performances of the past decade in this movie as a brother and sister reconnecting. Ruffalo is Terry, the screw-up who crawls back to the small town he grew up in. Linney is Sammy, the put-together (but not really) single mother who cares so deeply for her son and brother that it hurts. It's a small, delicate, and delightful movie about family bonds that doesn't disappoint. If the final scenes don't put a lump in your throat, check your pulse.

Grade: A

New Views

The Daytrippers (1996)

I caught this 90s independent comedy mostly because of the cast. Parker Posey (I'll watch her in anything), Stanley Tucci, and Hope Davis. It was fun, but also a little disjointed and a little too infected by quirkiness. It's about a woman (Hope Davis) who takes along her family to go confront her husband in Manhattan when she finds a suspicious note. It also made me realize that many indie films seemed to mature into more cohesive movies in the 2000s.

Grade: C+

Let the Right One In (2008)

If you see one movie about teenage vampires, please see this instead of Twilight. This Swedish movie is about a 12-year-old boy who meets his neighbor, who just happens to be a vampire. The movie doesn't waste much time showing us how this young vampire lives. It does take a while to figure out who to root for and who to root against in the movie. The movie has just about the right amount of gore to be exciting and scary without being over-the-top. The movie plays a lot with adolescent anxieties in the movie. It also has a really terrific ending. Horror is definitely not my favorite genre, but this is one worth checking out (it's on Netflix's "Watch Now").

Grade: B

The Prestige (2006)

If you see one turn-of-the-century movie about magicians, I would recommend this one over The Illusionist, starring Edward Norton. The Prestige, directed by Christopher Nolan, pits Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale against one another as dueling magicians who are always trying to one-up one another with the tricks. The magic is fun to watch, the performances are good (by Jackman, Bale, and Scarlett Johannson), and it has a nice twist ending. What the movie lacks is emotional investment. You are interested in the story, but don't really care about the characters.

Grade: B-