Search This Blog

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Favorites of the "00s": 1-10

After all my favorites, here are my top 10 of the decade. The movies that I love, adore, worship, could watch over and over again. I saw each of these movies in the theater, and I can still feel the thrill I felt watching each one of them. My list includes a few which have shown up on endless end of the decade lists, and (I hope) a few surprises as well. I make no apologies for my love of these movies.... In case you missed it, here are previous installments:

Without further ado.....

10. No Country for Old Men (2007): While not without its flashes of humor, this is perhaps the least jokey movie of the Coen Brothers canon. A tense-as-hell thriller that also happens to be about the nature of evil. Javier Bardem, as Anton Chigurh, creates one of cinema's greatest villains.

9. Junebug (2005): This movie is perhaps remembered for Amy Adams' outstanding breakout performance, which earned her an Oscar nomination, but that's only the beginning of its charms. A hilarious and touching portrait of a disconnected family in rural North Carolina and what happens when a wandering son and his new British wife visit. A beautiful film that perfectly captures family dynamics.

8. Memento (2001): Ingeniously plotted and directed by Christopher Nolan, it's about a man (Guy Pearce) with a disease where he can't remember more than a few minutes. All he knows is he is trying to find his wife's killer. Oh yeah, and the movie starts at the end and moves to the beginning. It may sound like a gimmick, but it works perfectly and gains in emotional power as the movie progresses.

7. Rachel Getting Married (2008): Another great movie about a broken family and what happens when one returns. Anne Hathaway plays Kym, a recovering addict who returns for her sisters' boisterous and extravagant wedding. Director Jonathan Demme used a semi-documentary style to film this movie, and you constantly feel as if you're in on the action. This is one that I've found elicits either a "Love It" or "OK, but don't see what the big deal is" response. I fell in unconditional love, and I hope you do too.

6. Lost in Translation (2003): Director Sofia Coppola perfectly captures the feeling of being lost in a foreign land, and in your own skin. There are really three main actors in this movies: Bill Murray, Scarlett Johannson, and Tokyo. They each perform their roles perfectly, and this movie includes one of the greatest ambiguous endings of all time.

5. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000): Director Ang Lee created pure movie magic with this Chinese fantasy where his actors and actresses guide through the treetops. Two great love stories and the most innovative action sequences of the decade.

4. Talk to Her (2002): I liked this movie when I first saw it, and on subsequent viewings its turned into one of my all-time favorites. I love director Pedro Almodovar, and I think this is his masterpiece. It's about many things, including bullfighting, ballet dancing, the meaning of love, the meaning of friendship, and fate.

3. Far From Heaven (2002): Director Todd Haynes recreates both the style and content of a 1950s-era weepie, but he adds a modern day subtext. The craft of this film is simply astonishing, and the performances could not be any better. I can't think of another film that simultaneously causes you to think so much about its craft while being completely moved by the story. Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert, and Patricia Clarkson are all masterful.

2. Mulholland Drive (2001): David Lynch's weird/sexy/scary/sad dream of a movie demands repeated viewings. The great thing about this movie is that, as bizarre as it is, it's entirely possible to come up with a coherent emotional explanation for everything that occurs. Naomi Watts gives what I think is the female performance of the decade in a role that requires an enormous range. Absolutely stunning.

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004): Charlie Kauffman wrote one of my favorite movies of the 90s (Being John Malkovich), and I think this is even better.I doubt that I've seen any other movie this decade as much as this one. A perfectly written, directed, and acted movie, and I'm sure most readers have seen it. Could Kate Winslet be any better as Clementine? As Jim Carrey ever given a better performance? Have you ever watched it and not thought about what you would use "Lacuna, Inc" for in your own life?

What do these movies all have in common? In my mind, they are all extremely close to flawless moviemaking. Looking at these movies, it's hard to pick out anything I would have changed. Several of my movies showed up on many critics end of the year lists- Eternal Sunshine, Mulholland Drive, Crouching Tiger, No Country. A few others-particularly Junebug and Rachel Getting Married-are more personal favorites. What do you think readers? Do you have a person 10 best?

Coming up soon in a future post: A recap and stats for my decade list.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Favorites of the "00s": 11-20

Moving on to the top tiers of the past decade. Here's my list. Once again, this is a "personal favorites" list, not necessarily the greatest of the decade. That said, feel free to chime in with your shock/agreement in the comments.

20. Up in the Air (2009): This movie felt simultaneously of the moment and like a classic Hollywood comedy/drama done right. Clooney is the best he's been, and he has tremendous support from Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick. After a second viewing I'm thinking this maybe doesn't quite deserve top 20 placement, but it's quite an achievement. Special props to director Jason Reitman, who recovered after the highly overrated Juno, which is many miles away from my top 50.

19. The White Ribbon (2009): Disturbing director Michael Haneke makes a movie that uses stunning black and white cinematography to tell the engrossing and disturbing story of a German village in the early part of the 20th century. It will stick with you long after its over. The fact that the fun but unremarkable Secret in their Eyes beat this for Best Foreign Film last year is an outrage.

18. Wall-E (2008): Perhaps no production company had a more commercially and critically successful decade than Pixar, and this is my favorite of their movies. An homage to Charlie Chaplin, an environmental parable, and a biting satire of the direction of our country. Oh yes, and the sweetest love story between non-verbal robots you've ever seen.

17. Into the Wild (2007): Director Sean Penn tells a sprawling, deeply American true story of a confused and idealistic young man journeying gradually away from traditional society. Emile Hirsch is exuberant in the lead role, and great supporting roles from Catherine Keener and Hal Holbrook lend depth to the proceedings in their crucial supporting roles.

16. The Hurt Locker (2009): Someone finally made a great movie about the Iraq War, and it was Kathryn Bigelow, who also made history as the first female director to win an Oscar. A great suspense movie that, instead of wasting time preaching about the war, simply puts you in the action. Suspenseful and disturbing, this is truly expertly crafted cinema.

15. A Serious Man (2009): I may have laughed more at this movie than any other this decade. Only the Coens could make going through complete hell this funny. A modern day Job story that uses all the magic of the Coens and their collaborators to tell its story.

14. Gosford Park (2001): Robert Altman, who made one of my favorite movies of all time (Nashville), hit another peak in 2001. Gathering perhaps the best cast of the decade, Altman created an absorbing comedic mystery about social class. This is truly a movie that improves on repeat viewings, and almost requires them to appreciate the nuances of the sprawling ensemble cast.

13. Before Sunset (2004): Director Richard Lanklater astonishingly made a movie even better than Before Sunrise (1995), one of the most charming movies of the '90s. This movie is an older movie, full of regret and lost opportunities. Shot in real-time, its almost unbearably emotionally tense and resonant.

12. You Can Count on Me (2000): Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo give two of the decade's best performances as a responsible sister and her ne'er do well younger brother. This type of movie, a realistic slice of life about family bonds, is one of my favorite types. And this is one of the best.

11. Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001): Director Alfonso Cuaron shows American directors how to put real emotion and social commentary into a teen sex comedy. About a road trip between two teen boys and an older woman, this movie is perfectly crafted and filled with so much humor and heart.

This 10 seems to lack a unifying theme, doesn't it? I guess many of these films successfully tread that difficult line between comedy and drama ( Y Tu Mama, You Can Count on Me, Gosford Park, Up in the Air, Wall-E). Finding that balance can be a very tricky thing. Another thing that I notice about these movies is how strong their scripts are. Any of them could stand alone as a work of art, and provided a great basis for the director's vision.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Some major catching up.....

The last month of the school year has kept me from my blogging, but now I'm on to summer break! Expect much more regular blogging from me. I didn't ignore movies over the last month, though. I'll try to write at least a few quick thoughts about what I saw. A couple in the theater, a few 2009 catch-ups (most of which I should have skipped), and some older movies from prominent directors. Here they are, in reverse chronological order.

In Theaters.....

Please Give (2010)

Director Nicole Holofcener directs affecting movies that are the definitions of small gems. I was very impressed with her latest outing about two families intersecting over New York real estate. It's about guilt, relationships, and what gives us meaning in life. The actors are across the board great. Can Catherine Keener do any wrong? I've rarely seen an actress who can play heartless bitch (Being John Malkovich) and warm-hearted mother (Into the Wild) equally well. As the good-hearted but conflicted furniture dealer, she makes her character both very sad and very funny. I also absolutely loved Rebecca Hall as a selfless granddaughter and Amanda Peet as her completely opposite sister. This movie is definitely one worth checking out.

Grade: A-

Greenberg (2010)

If director Nicole Holofcener finds the humanity beneath her flawed characters, director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) makes you wallow in dysfunction even longer before you find the humanity. Greenberg stars Ben Stiller as a 40ish man who is paralyzed by his disdain for the world. When housesitting for his absent brother, he begins a relationship with his brother's nanny, played by mumblecore darling Greta Gerwig. What follows is funny, painful, and very interesting to watch. Baumbach is a master of writing witty and insightful dialogue that reveals the inner lives of his characters. I was very struck by Gerwig's naturalism, fearlessness, and believeability in her role. While much younger than Greenberg, she also feels stuck in a life she never imagined for herself. I'm a little more mixed on Stiller. While I think he was good in the role, it's difficult to watch him and not think of past characters he's played. I think it would have been interesting to see this movie played by an unknown actor, so the audience could look at his character with fresh eyes. Nevertheless, if you like movies about dysfunctional and sometimes unlikable people (as I do), I would recommend this movie.

Grade: B+

From 2009....

The Informant! (2009)

Matt Damon gives a good performance as a con artist in Steven Soderbergh's movie that is, let's face it, rather dull. There's no one to really root for or care about in the movie, so it ends up being a bit of a slog. A big dissapointment.

Grade: C-

Michael Jackson's This Is It (2009)

Would you like to watch a documentary where Michael Jackson doesn't actually sing or perform his best, or well at all? If you do, this is the movie for you. Cobbled together after MJ's death, this seemed very opportunistic to me. Slightly entertaining to see what the show would have been like, but not insightful or revelatory in any way.

Grade: C-

Nine (2009)

Before it was released, Nine was considered a shoo-in to sweep the Oscar nominations. Then it was released and..... it pretty much flopped. The problem? The biggest one is that it's a musical with very few memorable songs. Adapting a great movie (Fellini's 8 1/2) into a pedestrian musical was perhaps not the best idea, although I've heard the stage version is better. The performances range from poor (Kate Hudson) to fair (Daniel Day Lewis, Nicole Kidman) to good (Penelope Cruz). Sole greatness comes from Marion Cotillard. Her two numbers ("My Husband Makes Movies," "Take It All") are easily the highlights of the movie and the only time where it approaches real emotion.

Grade: C-

The Messenger (2009)

Overshadowed by the Best Picture-winning The Hurt Locker, also about the Iraq War, The Messenger has many merits of its own. Chief among them are the lead performances by Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson as soldiers who notify next of kin when a soldier is killed and a very good supporting performance by Samantha Morton as a grieving widow. The episodic structure of the movie mostly works well. You can see the varied reactions that occur when families hear about their loss. My favorite included Steve Buscemi as a father whose grief immediately turns to anger. I was engaged with the movie the whole way through, but in the end it lacked the raw power and energy of The Hurt Locker. Still, a well-crafted independent movie.

Grade: B

Older Films.....

Inland Empire (2006)

I'm a pretty big fan of David Lynch. Mulholland Drive is one of my all-time favorite movies, and I also love Blue Velvet. I'd heard that Inland Empire stretched the limits of understanding for even David Lynch fans, and I'd have to agree. For the first hour (of the three hour film), I was enthralled. It's about an actress (Laura Dern) making a movie that seems to have a curse on it. Then, she enters a house on the set and.....chaos ensues. After this point, it's very difficult to make sense of the plot. It includes a sitcom starring rabbits, a house of prostitutes doing The Locomotion, and some Eastern European hitmen. While Mulholland Drive definitely takes some strange twists and turns, in that movie there is definitely a way to interpret it using dream logic. I'm confounded as to the meaning of Inland Empire. That said, many of the set pieces have a typical Lynchian artistry to them that haunt you long after the movie is over. Laura Dern also gives a bravura performance that keeps you connected to the movie. It's haunting, strange, and incomprehensible.

Grade: B-

The Fountain (2006)

Speaking of movies that take some work to comprehend, here's another one. From the very diverse director Darren Arronofsky, who seems to be able to pull off any genre with artistry, from drug movie (Requiem for a Dream) to neorealism (The Wrestler) to sci-fi/fantasy (The Fountain), comes a very pleasant surprise. It's about..... a Spanish explorer (Hugh Jackman) on a quest from a queen (Rachel Weisz) and a doctor (Jackman again) and his dying wife (Weisz again) and a yogi/astronaut (Jackman again) on a quest many hundreds of years in the future. It's a low-budget fantasy movie that nonetheless is gorgeous to behold. Jackman, in particular, also injects real emotion and life into this conceptual mind bender. I'm not sure that it completely, 100% works, but I really enjoyed it and found myself unexpectedly moved.

Grade: B+

Lovely and Amazing (2001)

I had good memories of seeing this movie in the theater, and it has held up well. Director Nicole Holofcener (of the current Please Give) crafted this drama about a family of women, their self-worth, and what makes people feel valuable. Again, Holofcener is a master at getting nuanced performances from her great actresses (Catherine Keener, Emily Mortimer, Brenda Blethyn), and she brings a lovely balance of humor and pathos.

Grade: A-

A Woman Under the Influence (1975)

Gena Rowlands gives a soul-baring, fearless performance as a housewife struggling with mental illness and an abusive husband (Peter Falk). This movie is no TV movie, though. Director John Cassavettes was renowned for his realistic style of filming, and this movie is akin to being stuck in a room with the characters for 2 1/2 hours. I admired the film greatly, and I think Rowlands' performance is astonishing. And yet, by the end of the movie I felt myself more drained than excited by the filmmaking. It goes on for a little too long, especially when Rowlands' character leaves the movie. I'm glad I saw it, but I don't think it's one I'll be watching again.

Grade: B

Bigger Than Life (1956)

This recently rereleased comes from director Nicholas Ray, best known for Rebel Without a Cause, and it was a very exciting discovery for me. James Mason plays a mild mannered school teacher whose illness, and an experimental drug he takes, lead him to rebel at 1950s society. Throughout the film, Ray takes many shots at the typical suburban middle-class morality of the time. While he was obviously forced to include a requisite "happy ending," it's clear that his message is much darker. For those who like Mad Men, here's another movie that helps highlight the uneasiness many artists were feeling in the 50s/60s. Highly recommended.

Grade: A-