Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Best Of The Decade - Honorable Mentions

As I prepared to make my list for the best films of the Aughts, I was expecting it to be a lot more difficult then it was. After collecting some lists of the films released and then brutally paring down a list of movies that I knew simply couldn’t not be on the list I found I was two over and after the minimum of hemming and hawing, I kicked two back to this list.

These films aren’t the best films of the first decade of the 2000’s. I hesitate even to use the term runner up, because if I thought about it much I could probably pick movies that where better then these.

What these are, are the films that without which any list dealing with the cinema of 2000’s would be a fraud. Call them the honorable mentions if you must, to me this simply is what made up the cinematic landscape for the past decade.

This is the first decade that I’ve been completely cinema conscience for, though I was film sentient by the end of the nineties, it’s a different situation because year by year these are the movies I defended, sharpened my critical teeth on, and loved. In a lot of ways over the better films that will make up the second half of this list, beyond the classics and canon films I explored, these are the films that MADE me. The films I chose rather then the ones I’ve had chose for me.

How could I not give them a moments tribute?

Traffic- A lot of people seem to have some what forgotten about this film, lumping it in with other inferior “Big Issue Oscar Bait” movies (Perhaps because America’s War On Drugs has been eclipsed by an even more foolish campaign). That’s a shame, because for my money Traffic is second only to The Limey in Soderbergh’s Oeuvre.

A startling adult story, that eschews the easy answers that most films of this type provide, in exchange for carefully observed human detail and a stunned all encompassing view of America’s War On Drug’s utter failure. A stunning script by Stephen Gagaan, coupled with Bencio Del Toro’s break out performance, and Soderbergh’s never better direction and cinematography make for the best American Policier since The French Connection.

Donnie Darko – Detractors say that Darko is awkward and overblown. I say if there are any other two words that better describe adolescence I’d love to hear them. Richard Kelly’s movie still plays as an honestly observed and deeply odd fable. Its Kelly’s knack for anchoring his surreality in the mundane world of the every day that still makes him a talent to be reckoned with.

O Brother Where Art Thou? – O Brother Where Art Thou is one of the Coen’s Funniest and most humane films, as well as one of the funniest and most humane of the decade. There are bits in O’ Brother that simply never fail to get me, from the world’s slowest “Record Selling” Montage (Naw ma’am we just can’t keep them Soggy Bottom Boys on The shelves) to the performance of The Big Lebowski as the venal incumbent governor Pappy O’ Daniels “Thank God your mother’s died giving birth to you, if she’d seen you now she’d a died of shame”. The Eerie beauty of Deakin’s never better cinematography, from the sun dappled beauty of the baptism the three wander into, to the ominous absurdity and perverse splendor of the KKK Rally, to the lyrical exquisiteness of the final shot O Brother Where Art Thou is one of the most pleasurable films to watch I have ever seen.

Brick – As you might have caught the other day I have something of an affection for the films of Rian Johnson. Brick still feels as fresh as ever, Johnson’s trick is he makes movies that only seem artificial. Once you get past the fact that his cast of teens are talking like Bogie and Bacall Brick becomes as honest and deeply felt as anything else in Noir. By the time that last dark inference is made by the femme fatale, its not playing dress up anymore. It’s the real thing.

Black Snake Moan – Craig Brewer’s hysterical Southern Gothic, was the craziest and most unique film of the decade. Simultaneously played completely straight and like a Mad Magazine parody of itself, Black Snake Moan played without a safety net. It dared you to laugh and care with equal balls, campy but not camp, with scenes of stunning power, coupled with some that are sublimely ridiculous (I love the fact that the scene where Ricci deflowers a young delivery boy is shot like something out of a slasher movie) its worthy of Williams. Bolstered by Ricci’s fearless performance, Brewer’s considerable directing prowess and Jackson actually playing it down a little, I can only hope that Brewer breaks out of movie jail soon. We need more directors unafraid to swing for the fences.

Matrix Reloaded/Revolutions – Yes they’re a mess, but I love these crazy, ambitious, ridiculous and occasionally awesome films.

Hannibal – How do you follow up one of the most respected thrillers of all time? After all Demme’s film was such a happy accident that there’s no way you could really replicate it (witness Ratner’s disastrous Red Dragon) Well Scott and company Make it a jet black comedy and then just don’t bother to tell anyone. Ridley Scott lent things such a respectable sheen that few noticed just how bizarre this movie, basically about a cannibalistic James Bond complete with exotic locals and cat and mouse set pieces, really was. Personally I had a great time with it and if you don’t giggle at Gary Oldman’s character, a born again Christian who wants to feed Hannibal to a bunch of pigs and sucks down martini’s made of Children’s tears, expounds “Nobody beats the Riz!” your sense of humor is either dead or needs to get a whole lot sicker.

Aviator – Martin Scorsese has never made an impersonal film, so it was somewhat shocking when a lot of people thought he did with this one. In reality I find The Aviator to be one of the director’s most personal, and probably the closest we’ll ever get to an autobiographical statement from the filmmaker. In telling the story of Hughes, Scorsese parallel’s it to his own passion, perfectionism, problems with women, and if Easy Rider’s and Raging Bulls is to believe, even his own mental breakdown.

But its not just a psychological purge. Its also one of Scorsese’s most purely pleasurable films to watch, filled with the tactile detail (The decadence of The Coconut Grove shot in Technicolor Glory), little bits of throwaway genius (The cuts between Hughes caressing the sides of Katherine Hepburn intercut with him stroking the rivets of his plane) and sheer beauty that makes Scorsese’s films such a joy to watch.

Backed by one of Scorsese’s greatest supporting casts ever and a suitably driven lead performance by Di Caprio (Really for my money where he really came out of Titanic’s shadow) The Aviator remains a stunning achievement.

Z Channel – At once the most poignant tribute to the cinema I know of, and a chilling cautionary tale. The amazing thing about Xan Cassevette’s documentary is she never allows one to pollute the other. Crafting the story of Jerry Harvey, a programmer and preservationist, who saved film (including the directors cut of The Wild Bunch) showed them to the world, and ended his life and that of his wife in a monsterous act of violence.

I’m in awe of this film, and not only because if I am honest I see so much of myself in poor doomed Jerry Harvey, but because Xan’s film comes close to capturing what it is that really drives us hardcore film freaks. What causes us to sit in the dark hour after hour, to dig up that obscure film, to hunt down and devour a directors work in the course of a weekend. It captures more then any other movie the narcotic bliss of cinema, and is unafraid to show what a terrible price addiction to it can yield.

The Departed – Pure Bliss. Scorsese says he directed it as a tribute to Robert Aldrich and Sam Fuller, and its that and some. It might not be the deepest movie Scorsese ever made, but the craft on it is impeccable, and its psychological depth is underrated. One of the shortest two and half hour movies ever maid.

Mulholland Dr. – One of the most exquisitely haunting films ever made.

Pan’s Labryinth – Guilmero Del Toro has a dangerous imagination. Its alive and it will sink its teeth into you. Its never been applied better then here, telling this adult and tragic fairy tale with the skill of a master craftsman and a soul of an artist. Del Toro is one of the filmmakers who I most value in the world. I can’t think of a better example to show why. (I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how great Doug Jones is in this. He’s really really great truly a modern day Chaney.)

A History Of Violence: David Cronenberg made one of his most quietly subversive films with History, taking his theme of how the mind and body betray us out of the supernatural (or perhaps more accurately the ultra natural) and putting it smack dab in middle America. Like all great social commentary History works just as well as an example of what its criticizes (This film basically makes Haenke's career unnecessary), telling a great story with strong central performances by Mortenson and Bello, building a hot coil of suspense and dread (with the help of perfectly amused performances by Ed Harris and William Hurt) before exploding into action that is shot and edited like Hollywood set pieces and end with their participants in bloody tatters on the floor. But its in Cronenberg’s usual Darwinian and Freudian concerns that the movie really finds its unsettling depth providing a startling meditations on the limits of self determination and the genealogy of violence in people… and nations.

Road To Peridition – Sam Mendes is pound for pound one of the most underrated filmmakers of the day. His only crime happens to be working in a time when Formalism is out of vogue. Of all the filmmakers working today I feel his is the ripest for rediscovery twenty years down the line. The Gangster Greek tragedy, Road To Peridition provided a fitting swan song for both Conrad Hall and Paul Newman. Though it is arch, I also found it moving and beautiful, complemented by Jude Law’s delightfully kinky performance as a very fucked up hitman, and Daniel Craig, in the type of role he is unfortunately no longer able to play. Its old school, but as Bill said, “I’m all about the old school.”

A Prairie Home Companion – Some thought that Altman’s final film was too sweet for the cantankerous old bastard. But I’ve always found the core of Altman to be humanism rather then cynicism, and I don’t know if a Director has had a more fitting capstone to a career then this. It’s a flawed film to be sure, I’m watching it right now and I find myself fast forwarding through the Lindsey Lohan and Kevin Kline scenes. But it’s a lovely little film and avoids the slapdash feel that some of the later Altman films had, while retaining the easy intimacy that has always made Altman such a pleasure to be with, assembling one of Altman’s greatest ensembles, centered by Keillor’s gentle performance though wisely undercutting it with Woody Harrelson’s and Lily Tomlin’s edgier acts, for one last go round. Sentimental sure. But Goodbyes should be.

Vanilla Sky – Cameron Crowe is so far ahead of the game on this one its not even funny. For my money it’s the most underrated film of decade. Capturing in away that I don’t know anyone else has, the way Pop Culture has utterly colonized our minds, our ideas of love belong to Truffaunt, romance from Dylan, and Father’s from Peck

Catch Me If You Can – Spielberg’s most underrated film. While deceptively as light and airy as the best of his entertainments, Catch Me If You Can carries within it a deep well of melancholy that lends the film a depth that’s heartbreaking. There are images as desperate and sad as any in Spielberg’s career. Frank staring into the window at the family that’s left him behind, that single dollar wafting through the breeze. Backed up by Amy Adam’s lovable debut, Tom Hanks breezy turn as Frank’s mellow Javert, and Christopher Walken doing his only recorded acting in the last decade or so.

Almost Famous – Its many things, a memory piece, a tribute to some of the greatest music ever made, a great coming of age story. But its also one of the saddest examinations of art there is. A deconstruction of the myth that it can be enough, that it can shield you from the pain of life completely, that when you get lonely “all you have to do is go to the shelf and visit a few of your old friends.” It takes apart the easy lie that art can ever, or should ever, be enough.

The Fountain – The Fountain is about as earnest and unguarded as a high school mix tape, made for the prettiest girl in school. To make matters worse thanks to the Sci Fi and Fantasy trappings it was like a mix tape filled with Rush and King Crimson. The look of horror that mainstream critics got when they received said tape would seem to confirm the analogy. And that leaves us the girl in black glasses and beanie who picked up the tape after they where all gone and quietly fell in love. Then the son of a bitch made The Wrestler got all popular and won’t talk to us anymore. God!

The Incredible – Part Objectivist fairy tale, part expert genre deconstruction, part family drama as honest as The Royal Tenenbaums, all animated marvel. Only the presence of an even better Brad Bird film kept it off the top ten list.

The Two Towers- This is a stand in for Peter Jackson’s entire trilogy but somehow that felt like cheating. Two Tower’s is my favorite anyway best balancing the trilogy’s epic scope and spectacle, and human anchor provided oddly enough by a character who only existed in digital form. Crafting an epic worthy of the best of Lean.

Sweeney Todd – One of my most watched films of the decade. A dark opulent operetta that manages to work both as simple grotesquery and human drama. Particularly in Helena Bonhamn Carter’s performance, finding tragedy in a character whose always been portrayed as something of a one dimensional harpy before then. Its dark, stunningly beautiful, and queasily funny. Its one of Burton’s best movies The Stuff that nightmares are made of.

Undertow - Southern Gothic at its best. Greene is a true poet, and as much as I’m enjoying his current detour into screwball comedy, I hope he returns to his roots soon, filmmakers who can do this don’t come along every day.

Shaun Of The Dead/Hot Fuzz – My favorite movie Comfort food. I love Edgar Wright in away I love few filmmakers, and few things give me as much pleasure as revisiting his particular cinematic universe.

Munich – I still haven’t fully digested this one.

The Dreamers – Is no doubt a clumsy film, but love is clumsy. And Dreamers is a love story, one for the cinema, life the past, and the fucked up people who we meet on our way through life, the ones we have to let go of one day. There’s no saving them, if you try you just get taken down as well. But for awhile its just brilliant.

Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance – Oldboy gets all the attention but for my money Mr. Vengeance is the best film of the trilogy. A cold bone hard crime film with an ending worthy of Kubrick.

A Scanner Darkly – Richard Linklater out did himself, with this the first Philip K. Dick adaptation that treated him like he deserved to be adapted. A mournful movie, that captures the tone of Dick’s most personal novel. Compulsively watch able.

Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead – The greatest American Crime film of the decade.

Darjeeling Limited- Every popular film gets a movie where the critical community decides they’ve gotten to big for their britches and decides to tie said director to the whipping post for a spirited game of “Kick the every living shit out of the artist.” The Darjeeling Limited was for some reason the time when most critics decided it was time for Anderson to get his paddling. Which is a shame as I consider the film to be one of Anderson’s best and the perfect showcase for all the things that make him one of the most unique, lovely and above all gentle voices in American cinema.

Which means this, as perfect a blend of Anderson’s warm humanism, weary humor and wry existentialism got sorely underrated.

Also underrated Anderson’s lyricism, the shot of the lanky Brody spindling across the screen as the desperate Bill Murray begs him to wait is one of my favorite shots of the decade. A shot rich in both meaning and composition, that’s laugh out loud funny to boot.

Well tomorrow I’m off for Austin, when I get back I’m going to do a write up of the three “Almost Ons.”and then onto the end of the decade proper.

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