Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Ten Great Films of 2000-2009

     Here it is, the first installment in my Ten Great Films of the Decade series. The problem I had with making the list (laziness aside) was how to find and arrange the films.  I try to be objective but lets be honest, personal preferences will always affect a top ten list.  

Honorable Mention: The Dark Knight
     First of all Heath Ledger’s interpretation of the Joker is the superlative character and nothing will ever change that fact. Also, the performance of Aaron Eckhart and Christopher Nolan’s skill as a director should not be ignored. The Dark Knight is like watching a grand opera, but then the fat lady trips and falls into the orchestra pit.  The third act is poorly paced, confusing and strangely enough, the absurdity of Christian Bale’s Batman voice becomes more apparent.  Batman sounds great when he is threatening crooks or talking to Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) but his somber monologue near the end is unintentionally hilarious. In the end, if The Dark Knight were more consistent then, it would easily be on the list, instead I can only give it an honorable mention.
     Now that my thinly veiled tirade about over-popularized blockbusters is done…

10. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
     If there is one filmmaker that defines ambition then it would be Peter Jackson.  His films are so larger-than-life that even his bad ones (i.e. Dead-Alive) look impressive and are far from boring.  This is due to the fact that Jackson refuses to cut from pre-production.  It took eight years to create The Lord of the Rings and only 18 months actually involved filming scenes.  The rest of the time was spent on making the setting of Middle-Earth and the “inhabitants” as real as humanly possibly, even if it meant building locations from scratch.  Whether it be the lush green of The Shire, the tragically ignored performance by Andy Serkis as Gollum, or the siege of Minas Tirith, The Lord of the Rings is a sight to behold.

 9. District 9
     If The Lord of the Rings gave the fantasy genre new life through sophisticated filmmaking then District 9 gave science fiction new life by breaking the genre down. Constantly switching between the formats of a documentary and an action film District 9 deconstructs the cliché associated with both The Day the Earth Stood Still and Close Encounters with the Third Kind in a dark and grimy fashion.  Instead of aliens landing somewhere “important” like Los Angeles they land in South Africa.  Rather than aliens exploiting humans, the typical is reversed as these aliens are forced into concentration camps.  Actually it is surprising to not see District 9 as allegory to apartheid. Symbolism aside the fact is that District 9 is the best science fiction film of the decade just for treating this genre with a level of creativity and maturity only found in other genre films like Silence of the Lambs and Annie Hall.

 8. Pan’s Labyrinth
     The 2000s will be known as the geeky years thanks to franchises like The Lord of the Rings, Batman, and Harry Potter; but it should be noted that these years also saw foreign films being more ambitious than most blockbusters, and Pan’s Labyrinth is a fine example of this trend.  Taking place during the Spanish Civil War, Pan’s Labyrinth is about a little girl and how she copes living with her ailing mother and her violent stepfather. She then has visions of a fantastic world that revolves around The Fawn: a giant bipedal goat creature who teaches her the ways of his world.
      Pan’s Labyrinth is the fantasy drama of the decade because while the Lord of the Rings is meant to simply be escapism, Pan’s Labyrinth provokes discussion about escapism.  The overall point the director Guillmero del Toro was making with Pan’s Labyrinth was to deconstruct escapism by pushing it to a logical extreme.  The world of The Fawn may provide a sense of security for the little girl but the war surrounding her is very real and will not end for her sake.  In short, Pan’s Labyrinth looks just as good as the The Lord of the Rings, but the story has enough emotional and intellectual depth to rival Saving Private Ryan.

7. Memento
     Christopher Nolan’s Memento is his best film, not because of the story itself but because of the storytelling.  The story of Memento is simple enough; a man with short-term memory loss (think Dory in Finding Nemo) is trying to find the man who killed his wife. His only leads are his notes he uses in place of memory and the name John G. He must use his wits to find the killer, he is a badass, Etc. But if the story begins with the final scene, would it still be compelling? Yes it has been before, but with Memento Christopher Nolan goes further to see if a film can be compelling if the scenes told in reverse chronological order, and it works.  Memento takes a classic Film Noir plot and refreshes it with a post-modern view of film storytelling and that alone is praise worthy. Watch Memento just see how well Christopher Nolan controls this concept.

6. Amélie
     Paris is the city of love as well as the home of Amélie Poulain, a cheery yet introverted young woman. Amélie has always lived isolation due to her parents worrying about her health so she found pleasure through her imagination.  But after finding and secretly returning an old man’s box of childhood toys, she decides to help others with their troubles.  Even though this plot summary is giving people insulin shock the film Amélie is a very well made type of sugar cookie.
     Amélie is a weird little film that does not try to be deep, but the crew is so skilled and so crazy that it is just too fun to ignore.  First of all Audrey Tatou provides a brilliant performance as Amélie Poulain as she embodies the character with such elegance and cheekiness that is like watching Audrey Hepburn playing a clown.  The director Jean-Pierre Jeunet is known for being very visually minded, and in Amélie he stylizes it to a shameless degree.  The colors look like candy; and there are a lot of weird little visual metaphors yet it is edited tightly so that nothing detracts from the experience.  Amélie is the best kind of crack, a comedy not afraid to be surreal, and too charming to forget. Sadly, this film may not seem that original at first due to hipsters ripping it off since 2001, and speaking of hipsters...

5. No Country For Old Men
     In a world where hipsters are trying make it big in the film industry with cheap dramatic-comedies about quirky characters, it always brings joy to me that Joel and Ethan Coen are around to break their kneecaps, metaphorically speaking. The Coen brothers are the definitive “quirky” directors because they understand a concept called subtly. While their scripts always had characters that have odd habits these traits do not define their movies.
     No Country for Old Men revolves around a serial killer with a penchant for coin flips and cattle prods, a redneck that replaced his brains for second pair of balls, and Sheriff Tommy Lee Jones fighting over a bag full of money. But their traits and tics are only salad dressing when they are actually symbols of a nihilistic world. The killer is like the Grim Reaper as he storms across the country destroying anything in his path.  The money is like a plague as people who are near or drawn die unceremoniously. Finally there is Tommy Lee Jones who takes a tragic turn as a man failing to stop any of the bloodshed.  No Country for Old Men is the worst kind of fable; one that shows that the world has lost any sense of morality, and the only way to survive is with instinct. Furthermore the story is held together with an excellent, Hitchcockian screenplay that will make any hipster film student wish that they were a philosophy major instead. It is an absolute downer, but it makes for a great double feature with Amélie or with the next film.

4. Oldboy
      Straight from South Korea is Oldboy, a tragic revenge thriller that is as grimy as a heroin needle, and as intense as one slowly going into your eye.  The story follows Oh Daes-su, an ordinary business and family man, who is kidnapped by an unknown posse after a drunken night on the town.  For 15 years he is locked in a windowless condo without any explanation.  With nothing better to do, Oh Daes-su trains his body so that he can be able to find and kill the person who imprisoned him.  But after he is freed, his search for vengeance is complicated when he meets a lovely sushi chef.  At this point Oldboy sounds like an atypical, ultraviolent, action flick and that is true for the most part.  
     From the get go it is clear that director Park Chan-wook was practically raised on films like Death Wish and Dirty Harry; but Oldboy transcends this model by becoming a different kind of beast, a Greek tragedy.  Like a Greek tragedy, Oldboy revolves around the suffering of Oh Daes-su, a character who is being mercilessly punished by an unknown force.  As he moves along he becomes increasingly unhinged and desperate until the climax when he finally has a breakdown. It also helps that Choi Min-sik (the lead actor) does one of the most intense performances of the decade.

3. Spirited Away
      Hayao Miyazaki is easily one of the finest animation directors working today. Miyazaki is neither a descendant nor a forerunner since nothing seems to compare to his work.  Spirited Away is often appraised as his best film (I disagree but that is another article entirely) because it defines everything that makes him so great. By combining elements of both Japanese myth and European fairy tales (especially Alice in Wonderland) his characters are diverse, surreal and lively. The story is deceptively simple as Miyazaki tackles various subjects like environmentalism and greed through the main plot about a girl learning to become a young woman. Moreover, this is all orchestrated through some of the finest hand-drawn animation and art direction in the history of the style.
     Just watch Spirited Away, sure it maybe an anime, but the year is 2012. Ignoring any film due to its foreign qualities is just trivial if not totally backwards. Besides, anyone willing to watch films about sparkly vampires, giant blue alien hippies, nerdy wizards and evil rings do not have the right to say they are too cool for a cartoon.

2. City of God
     City of God is the Brazilian answer to Goodfellas and it is just as good. Not much to say beyond that.  But for the sake of credibility allow me to elaborate that statement.  Like Goodfellas, the story of City of God revolves around a narrator’s point of view of real gangs throughout a large time period. Specifically it is about a kid who grows up to be an aspiring photographer while his friends succumb to the pleasures of being a gangster.  Both films are also very violent and stylized by filmmakers that are hard-hitting and virtuosic with their abilities. Aside from these fact though, the comparisons seem to end.
     While Goodfellas is ambiguous about whether the gangster lifestyle is worth the risk, City of God outright states that one has to be insane or desperate to think that being a thug is a good idea.  Any decadence found in Goodfellas is replaced in City of God with grime and horror.  As many characters, gangster or not, die horrifically throughout the story and it only gets bleaker.  Even the titular setting seems to rot as the violence escalades further into a war.  Whilst it lacks the class of Goodfellas, City of God is a piece of cinema that is just bold and disquieting as this classic… so much for brevity.

1. Pixar
     Here is a funny story, when creating a rough draft for this list I originally had four films by Pixar Studios.  This is less a testament for how biased I am than how great Pixar has become in throughout the decade.  Their work in computer animation is beautiful. The settings in each film always have a very colorful aesthetic and the characters are as dynamic charm of Chuck Jones’ short whilst not deviating from the sophistication of Walt Disney.  The Pixar artists are easily the most acclaimed animators since Walt Disney and his Nine Old Men; yet it is not just because of the animation but for their unbelievable screenplays as well.
     What is commonly said about the Pixar staff is that their films appeal to both children and adults but that almost sounds negligible. The phrase “kids and adults ” seems to be stemmed from the idea that the best the adults can hope for are pop culture jokes that kids will not understand; but a Pixar film is much deeper than a clever joke. While it is true that every Pixar film is a slapstick comedy by design, all of them are built around moral issues that would amaze any adult. Up is less about an old man’s adventure in a flying house than it is about his difficulty coping with the death of his wife.  WALL-E, with as few words as possible, latches on to many ideas like preserving the environment and what it means to be a sentient being. These stories are able to attract any kind of audience and intrigue them in a way that many “serious” films have failed to try.   They transcend any insolent thought that animation as childish. But even more impressive is that Pixar has been able provide such integrity over the course of an entire decade.

   That is it, now what is your favorite film of this decade? Don’t be shy; it’s not like I’m asking for your address.

     Anyway, the Academy Awards this Sunday and if you want to check out my predictions the click here. If you want to read my rant about the Oscars then click here