Best of the Decade, addendum

So, of course twenty-five is a ridiculous number of films and shows to pick out of a ten year span.  And, of course there were many that I debated putting on the list up 'til the very last second.  In simple numerical order, without assigning "better than" status, here are twenty-five "almosts":

10) WALL-E
11) BLOW

Best of the Decade, part III

So here you go, the last five of the official twenty-five picks for Best of the Decade.  It's been fun trying to compile this list, and I hope you've had fun reading it and thinking about it.  Please leave comments and discuss if you'd like; I'm always interested in another person's views, and I hope that you'll indulge me by attempting to breach that authorial wall with me that for whatever reason I have set up with the actual readers of the blog.  This should be slightly more communal.  In any case, here they are...let the hate/discussion/love begin:

I can't really think of a movie in the last decade that I found so quietly moving and disturbing at the same time, that affected me personally on a level as deep and terrifying, as THERE WILL BE BLOOD.  Director Paul Thomas Anderson's epic character study is a film that works its way slowly into your mind, beginning with a masterful 15 minutes, which treks Daniel in the very beginning of his career, through the discovery of his son, that contains no dialogue, and is, for all intents and purposes, a silent film in and of itself.  And really, if the rest of the film's 2 hours and 45 minutes had no dialogue, it wouldn't make that much of a difference, either.  Sure, we'd lose out on the "I drink your milkshake!" fun that everyone had after the movie came out, but the film would still contain beautiful images and fierce performances by Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano, and that wonderful score by Johnny Greenwood would still be there, too.  But, thankfully there is dialogue, and we are treated to Daniel's diatribes against "people," his discussions with restaurant patrons who are staring at his table, his amazing "I'm an Oil Man" speech, and all of Paul Dano's spot-on evangelical theatrics, and that last line, declaring the end of it all - literally everything, film included - would not carry such significance.  This is a towering achievement for American cinema.  It's a film that deserves to be seen again and again, and I'm happy to oblige.

In a decade that saw Quentin Tarantino's directorial output more than double, it's no surprise that I should choose two of his films for my list, not only because he's one of my favorite directors, but also because he is consistently entertaining, thought-provoking and batshit insane.  In the same vein of KILL BILL and the highly underrated DEATH PROOF, INGLORIOUS BASTERDS is a quintessential Tarantino hodgepodge of ideas, images half-remembered from grindhouse flicks, hilarious dialogue, and memorable characters placed within a pure-cinema milieu to create a wholly fascinating, singular piece of work.  Christoph Waltz as Nazi villain Hans Landa, "The Jew Hunter," is a revelation, and Brad Pitt is hilarious and über-macho as Lt. Aldo Raine, leader of the Basterds, an all-Jewish squad sent behind enemy lines to terrorize and wipe out the Nazi threat.  Only in a Tarantino re-telling of World War II would cinema play such a triumphant and vital role, with the main characters aside from Raine, being involved in one way or another with film making or exhibition.  Indeed, the final showdown, a ballsy rewriting of historical fact, takes place inside a theatre, and engages the audience on both sides of the screen by implicating them in the action, removing, with the giant head of vengeance (the Jewish owner of the theatre) laughing as the place burns down around them.

David Mamet's thriller about the missing daughter of a high-level government official (it's the President; don't tell anybody) is an amazing piece of work that still gives me an adrenaline rush every time I watch it.  Largely overlooked upon its release in 2004, SPARTAN is slowly growing in reputation, either by simple recommendation, or because those who kinda, sorta liked it back then are giving it another go as the years pass by.  Regardless of all of that critical reception crap, though, the movie is engaging, cryptic, and trusting of an audience that all too often gets talked down to by the Hollywood system, as if we can only understand things that are spelled out for us to the tiniest detail.  While that may be true to a certain extent, and with certain audiences, Mamet's gift with SPARTAN is that the film easily appeals to a wide variety of demographics, with its high-caliber performances by Val Kilmer and William H. Macy, its staccato Mamet dialogue repeating phrases and exclamations that create a sort of poetry within the film, and its wonderful camerawork.  It's a spy thriller unlike any I've ever seen, its characters grounded in reality unlike the many action flicks that get passed off in theatrical release every year.  It's no James Bond at all, and maybe it's an anti-spy thriller.  It's brilliant, whatever it is.

The past decade was surprisingly good for horror fans, offering several noteworthy and absolutely horrific excursions into the genre, including the exploitation revisionism of THE DEVIL'S REJECTS, and the return to horror-comedy in Sam Raimi's DRAG ME TO HELL.  None, however, were so brilliantly concocted, plotted, and genuinely blood-curdling as Neil Marshall's British film THE DESCENT.  The film is a claustrophobic nightmare, as it follows a group of female friends on a cave exploration trip in the Appalachian mountains a year after one of them loses her family in a horrible tragedy.  They end up squeezing through small passages in order to reach larger chambers, eventually becoming trapped deep within the cave system.  It's terrifying, uneasy, and chilling, and then the monsters show up.  I think what I found so appealing about the film is its sure hand at what it was doing, setting up its characters as people who the audience can actually care about, putting them into an already horrific situation, and then upping the ante once the darkness starts to set in as they try to find their way out.  All horror films at their heart are steeped in this sort of Freudian return to the womb scenario, but none tap into it quite so literally and unabashadly, or so well.  THE DESCENT's biggest surprise is that it plays on a lot of different fears, and when its lead character is 'reborn', whether in the American ending or the original ending, it is a genuine release, both for character and audience.

For five seasons, David Simon's drama chronicling the investigations of the Baltimore Police Department and the many, many, many characters on either side of the cases is one of the best television shows ever, and that's not coming from me lightly, especially since the past decade has seen a revitalization of the medium, most of the fiction shows on cable stations (WEEDS, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, MAD MEN, DEXTER, DEADWOOD) are outstanding examples of how to write and execute fully fleshed-out characters, plotlines with nuance and finesse.  What makes THE WIRE special, though, is that it really culminates around the end of its third season to make a point of every single person, no matter what they have done or how they have done it, is neither completely good or bad, while asking serious questions about the way our society functions in order to praise some, and condemn others.  Is the entire world corrupt at some tiny, minute level, or are we all redeemable because we are inherently good but sometimes get caught up in machinations of the society's circumstances at large?  On top of that, each character is important, gets thoroughly examined, and receives a proper denouement in a final episode that not only brings everything to a close, but further postulates on the possible outcomes of the things that culminated by that time.  It's a stunning achievement, worth every single minute it was on screen, and rewards multiple viewings with its endlessly fantastic character work, utilizing actors, non-actors, real gang members from Baltimore, real cops, and virtually no familiar faces - though Richard Belzer's Detective Munch showing up in the end was sublime and completely appropriate, even with its being a stunt.  THE WIRE is one of those perfect shows, where everything that happens means something, and everything matters to the viewer.  It's just...perfect.


Best of the Decade, part II

Continuing on with my Best of the Decade list, here is Part II, which features ten more of my twenty-five picks.  Again, these are in no order, other than random.

I know, I know; DEADWOOD is a television show.  I don't care.  For three seasons (2004-2006), creator David Milch's drama was one of the most daring things on television, featuring great writing, intriguing plotlines and one hell of an ensemble cast.  Ian McShane is unforgettable as Al Swearengen, and it's his character that really sells much of the show.  He's a wheeler-dealer, a businessman first and a scoundrel second - ruthless, cunning, and terrifying.  Among my favorite moments are the introduction of Ellsworth (the fantastic Jim Beaver) uttering the lines, "I may have fucked my life up flatter than hammered shit, but I stand before you beholden to no human cocksucker," and the sub-plot season 3 involving Dan Dority and Captain Turner's rivalry.  It's a shame that HBO cancelled DEADWOOD before everything could wrap up properly, but the lingering, poignant ending of the final episode is just as fitting for a drama that was based as much in real history as the larger-than-life storytelling of the Old West itself.

Park Chan-Wook's revenge masterpiece is as much about the quest for vengeance as what it actually means to finally have it.  Shocking, original and entirely without fear, this is the strongest offering from a particularly talented director whose national cinema had somewhat of a renaissance in the 2000s (THE HOST, among others, easily qualifies as essential viewing).  Featuring a highly choreographed fight in a cramped hallway as the protagonist Oh Dae-Su must combat his way through a ton of attackers with a clawed hammer, the film's appeal stretches well beyond the blood and guts of the revenge tale, focusing on the human side of the once-captive Dae-Su as much as anything else, and what he eventually brings on himself.

Werner Herzog's documentary was compiled from the tapes of Timothy Treadwell, a bear enthusiast who took a yearly trek to live with and study bears in their natural habitat, and whose obsession ultimately led to his death at the paws of one of his beloved grizzlies.  Maybe Treadwell was a man who got too close for his own good, forgetting that he was dealing with truly wild animals who merely tolerated his presence because it wasn't too intrusive.  Maybe he wanted to die in such a way; it doesn't seem like he would mind that much, they're only doing what bears do, after all.  But Herzog doesn't let the film stay that simple, infusing it as he does everything with the sense that there could never have been a different outcome for a man so obsessed with something.  As in his fiction films, and his other documentaries, Herzog is obsessed with others who are obsessed, and cannot stop from endlessly being fascinated with such indivuals.  In the midst of all that obsession, however, there is a quiet, emotional and very sweet film about a man who really could not help the way he was or the things he truly cared about.

The moment I first knew that Wes Anderson's third film would live up to expectations was the opening sequence, framed like a storybook, narrated by Alec Baldwin, and outlining the downfall of the Tenenbaum kids, who had once all shown such potential, but who had all, through varying circumstances, reached a lull at roughly the same time and decide the best thing to do would be to move back into their home, just like their absentee father Royal, in the hopes that it might revitalize them and make them care once again.  The Tenenbaums are crushed people, but they truly do care about one another at the end of the day.  The film is fussy and fidgety, but the characters are what Anderson is all about, and he really nails a homerun with Margot, a playwright with writer's block who really can't stand her husband, a sublime Bill Murray, and who can't even let anyone know that she smokes.  Arresting, dry humor really make this film a thing of pure beauty, and the music selection is phenomenal.  The highlight is Royal's outing with his grandkids, set to Paul Simon's "Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyard."

This startling documentary penetrates the façade of the United States terror suspect detention protocalls as it follows the story of a taxi driver who was picked up off the road and sent to prison for years without formal charges or any means of proving that he didn't belong there, mostly because suspects were stripped of their rights completely and subjected to anything their captors could think of.  Alongside this story of completely fucked-up proportions, the film chronicles the war on terror, the effect it has had on the U.S.'s international image and relationships, and exposes the fragile cracks in our own freedoms that have been setup by our government post-9/11.

"You've got red on you."  What starts out as a boring day quickly becomes one in which z------ are terrorizing the neighborhood in the very first Rom-Zom-Com, which is how stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, and director Edgar Wright, describe their little homage to Romero and all things Zed-word related.  Absolutely hilarious, but also perfectly serviceable as a gorefest, SHAUN OF THE DEAD is one of those miraculous coming-togethers of material and talent that only come along once in a blue moon.    The cast is brilliant, featuring many many wonderful BBC actors that really haven't broken here in the U.S., and maybe that's for the best.  Still, an amazing, entertaining film that is wholly original...in its own way, of course.

KILL BILL, vol. 1
Quentin Tarantino's energetic excursion into martial-arts spaghetti-Western territory is a splatter-filled revenge tale that's so epic, it took two films to do it.  Though I really love the second film, too, the first half is so much fun that it's hard for me not to like it slightly more.  Plus, Uma Thurman (really stuntwoman Zöe Bell) kicks a whole lot of ass in the teahouse segment, just before serving up Lucy Liu for shashimi dinner.  It's the perfect action movie with really interesting characters and a highly reverential treatment for material that used to not get a second look from serious cineastes.  Thankfully, Tarantino isn't afraid to go with his obsessions, for better or worse, because often times I find them just as thrilling in that mind of his as he does.

After a decade, finally someone made a good Batman film.  While most would say THE DARK KNIGHT is the definitive take on the character, I think that the first film Christopher Nolan directed is just as intriguing and striking, if only because it attempts to understand the origins of what Batman is before setting him up for a fall and a confusing set of circumstances in the second film that calls into question everything he thinks he stands for.  There is a lot of time spent with Bruce Wayne in this first outing, which is sorely lacking from THE DARK KNIGHT, which tends to focus more on the iconic nature of what Batman has become.  The reason BATMAN BEGINS is better is that there could not possibly be a sequel like THE DARK KNIGHT if this didn't exist to set it up.

My favorite film of 2009, and a really really dark portrait of a psychotic person off their meds, Jody Hill's exhilirating, take-no-prisoners brand of comedy exhibited in OBSERVE AND REPORT is the stuff cinema needs to survive.  While certainly not for everyone, this Seth Rogen vehicle is much more than the dumb characters comedy many were expecting, and it knocked a lot of people right on their asses.  Misunderstood, possibly, but definitely praised by those who 'got it', this is a fantastically funny flick (yeah, I did it) that I have watched several times in the past few months, and it keeps getting better.

Joel and Ethan Coen's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's revisionist Western is a masterclass in technique, storytelling and just about everything else.  Roger Deakins's cinematography is flawless, and the shot composition really makes the most out of the striking Texas landscapes.  Anton Chigurh is a figure of mythic proportions, flitting in and out of the scene almost like a vapor or a mist, bringing Hell with him wherever he goes.  As he tracks Llewelyn and the money missing from a botched drug deal, he compulsively offers nearly everyone he crosses paths with the straight-up 50/50 chance at life or death that they share every single day, with a flip of a coin and a pressurized unit designed for killing livestock.  The Coens won the Best Director Oscar for this film, but even if they hadn't, they'd still get my vote for two of the very best filmmakers in the world.

Best of the Decade, part I

It's a dubious task attempting to come up with a list of the best films from the past decade.  How does one go ahead with such a crazy endeavor and not go insane trying to pick just ten films?  Well, I didn't pick ten - I chose to go with 25.  And the way I did it is to just pick the ones I loved the most, and which I think everyone would be better in some way from having seen, whether or not you share my opinion on them or not.  So, without further ado, here are ten of the twenty-five I have picked, complete with my feeble attempts to explain why I chose them.  They are in no order whatsoever, because that would just be too much.

David Fincher's masterpiece is one of the crowning achievements of American cinema in the last decade, without a doubt.  Part police procedural, part newspaper investigation (a la ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN), and part character study, ZODIAC is a methodical recounting of the thirty year manhunt for the serial killer named Zodiac who was never caught, and whose identity may well never be known.  Drawn largely from the book by Robert Graysmith, played by Jake Gyllenhall in the film, and various other police and newspaper documents, the film relies heavily on factual evidence, and even when you're sure who the killer is, there's no way to know beyond a reasonable doubt.  Utilizing a cool and detached style, Fincher subverts genre expectations, and instead of simply retreading the waters he'd already explored in SE7EN, creates a powerful study of the effect a serial killer has across many different lives and occupations, from police, to reporters, to personal obsessions that destroy families.  The film also features a wonderful performance by Robert Downey, Jr., and the use of Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man" at the beginning of the film is one of the most striking combinations of song and picture imaginable.  I'll never get it out of my head.

By far the best superhero movie to appear in cinemas in the Oughts is Brad Bird's THE INCREDIBLES, an animated film that follows a family of supers-in-hiding following the outlawed use of superpowers due to lawsuits and other such nonsense on the parts of those rescued as well as the supervillians.  After a thrilling set-up with Mr. Incredible and FroZone taking out a baddie, the film jumps to present day, where the Parrs are just ordinary, everyday folk; boring, predictable and routine, but happy to have one another all the same.  Mr. Incredible/Bob Parr, however, gets his kicks by going out at night and stopping small-time crooks and vandals, and gets himself and his family caught up in a plot hatched by an evil genius from long ago.  The film's animation is gorgeous, and really reinvigorated the action/adventure genre for children - I seriously doubt without THE INCREDIBLES that UP would have come along quite so quickly - and was also a part of the decade's renewed obsession with superheroes.  It's thrilling, gorgeous to look at (check out the water effects once the team makes it into action), and truly touching and hilarious.  Coming from Brad Bird, or Pixar, who also have some other serious contenders for "best of" mentions - WALL-E, RATATOUILLE - that's not really such a suprise.  As far as animation is concerned, this really was their hey-day.

John Hillcoat's Western, set in the Australian Outback of the 1880s, is a gorgeously photographed sucker-punch.  From a screenplay by Nick Cave - my vote for the best multi-format storyteller of our time - the film tells the tale of three outlaw brothers who have committed horrendous acts throughout the territory, and the 'civilized' society that is trying to bring them to justice and tame the wild impulses of a country still in its infancy.  The film is exceedingly violent, sharing the same obsessions with murder and violent struggle that Cave often sings about, but it isn't a glorification of bloodletting.  If anything, the violence of THE PROPOSITION is some of the most sickeningly realistic ever put on screen, from makeup to sound effects.  Featuring a ferocious performance by Danny Huston as the psychotic older brother that Guy Pearce has been charged to kill, and a great turn by Ray Winstone and Emily Watson as Captain and Mrs. Stanley trying to remain civilized in a land that is not, this one is fantastic.

Haunting and poetic, frightening, chilling, and somehow sweet and loving; LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is the vampire movie that I never thought I'd see, especially in a world obsessed with sparkling nonsense and shirtless "werewolves."  But here it is anyway, in all its subtle, magical glory, existing in defiance of expectation, and providing a resonating experience not soon forgotten.  The film tells the story of a young boy who befriends a young girl in his apartment complex, and they soon become good friends, despite the fact that the girl is a vampire.  Where this goes and what happens, I won't spoil for you, but the scenes on the monkey bars are some of the most complex and beautiful scenes I've seen in a long time.

Of all the Apatow-written/produced/etc. comedies to come out this decade (and there have been many great ones), this is my absolute favorite, if only because the screenplay by actor Jason Segel manages to be hilarious, truthful and sweet in all the right ways and finds that perfect balance between sophisticated comedy and "low-brow" nerd-dom the Apatow brand is known for.  Literally every character has a best line, and Russell Brand is perfect as egotistically self-absorbed rock star Aldous Snow.  I can't really explain why I loved it so much, but for me, it gets better with each viewing, and the fact that I still laugh-out-loud at many of the jokes proves its staying power.

This German film from 2004 may be the most accurate portrayal of the last days of the Third Reich ever to see celluloid.  Bruno Ganz is chilling in his portrayal of Hitler, showing just enough of the humanity in the monster to make him a compelling character, but never attempting to justify him or make him sympathetic.  Told from the perspective of one of his secretaries that stayed with what was left of the government in the Berlin bunker where most of them died, it is a glance inside what it would have been like to be in the throes of such a charismatic sociopath.  At the time this film came out, I was working toward my BA in History at the University of South Carolina, studying the propaganda of the Reich and its roots in World War I and early German folklore.  My professor, Robert Herzstein, actually chuckled during the film to see Ganz hiding the feeble hand that Hitler kept behind his back much of the time, and had nothing but praise for the film's attempts at accuracy.  Aside from that, the movie is a portrait of a time and place and people that will never be fully known.  It is an often overlooked film from the past decade for unknown reasons.

When I left the theater after seeing this film, I felt like I had run a marathon.  It's a complex, intense work from director David Cronenberg and star Viggo Mortensen, both of whom are clearly at the peak of their abilities.  Following a power struggle within the Russian mob of London, the film may seem an odd choice for a filmmaker usually prone to express fears about 'otherness', but if you look a bit deeper, you can see that Cronenberg's obsessions with forced change and fear of one's own body / abilities are all there.  The bath house scene is definitely the most memorable, with a fully nude Mortensen taking on several men in a fight to the death as they attempt to execute him.  It's horrific, bloody, and wonderfully choreographed and shot.  This is suspense.  This is a thriller in the truest sense of the word.

The past decade was definitely one for superheroes and origins, but IRON MAN deftly manipulated the formula by presenting us with Tony Stark, a man who is middle-aged, an alcoholic, and incredibly quick-witted.  The banter between Robert Downey, Jr. and anyone else is one of the main draws here, as Downey's swagger and confidence are embellishments based on his once drug-addled past.  IRON MAN gives us a superhero who isn't all good, who has flaws and likes to have a good time, and who discovers his purpose in the pursuit of justice.  It's a thrill ride, and it features spectacular special effects, but that's no reason it can't stand with the big boys.  It brings out the wanna-be hero in all of us, and there's nothing at all wrong with that.  This has always been what Marvel's particular brand of superhero is about, but it has never been so perfectly developed on screen as in IRON MAN.

Even though he won his Oscar for THE DEPARTED, I think GANGS OF NEW YORK was Martin Scorsese's best film from the past ten years, if for no other reason than its sheer ambition, and that it gave us one of the most iconic characters of American cinema: Bill the Butcher.  Set against the backdrop of the Civil War draft riots, GANGS OF NEW YORK follows a lot of characters over a long period of time that saw difficult and violent growth for the city that never sleeps - the period when it started to realize its potential and left utter lawlessness behind in favor of greater prosperity (much like the Australia in THE PROPOSITION).  From the opening brawl in the streets of the Five Points that introduces many of the characters and sets the story in motion to the final blows in the riot-filled streets of a ravaged city, the film is filled with great images that create a real sense of a time and place that really did once exist, but which has now been almost forgotten even in the history books.

Writer/director Craig Brewer's film is an amazing exercise in pulpy, engaging and extremely cinematic storytelling, allowing image, music, and character to blend together seamlessly in a thoroughly entertaining film.  Samuel L. Jackson's broken down bluesman, Lazarus, is a revelation for an actor who has come dangerously close to self-parody, and Christina Ricci's portrayal of nymphomaniac Rae who must be cured by Lazarus - by being chained to his radiator so that he can break her loose of the devil's grip no less - is erotic, sympathetic and very funny.  The iconic opening sequence, much like in Brewer's HUSTLE AND FLOW, is a simple font for the title, over a single shot of Rae flipping off a tractor.  It's a no-frills approach that really lends itself to the sort of pulp-ridden tale that has been concocted, and when the soundtrack cranks up in the last half of the film, with Sam Jackson himself playing a version of "Stagger Lee" in a sweat-drenched blues bar, it's just like heaven.



In the hope of actually giving a much more thorough trek through my recent viewings, I write mini-reviews/thoughts/etc. of those movies I just don't have the time to devote to writing up as a longer piece. Ladies and gentlement, once again, I give you an installment of "Blurbs":

I think this one gets a bad rap.  Ripley crash-lands on a prison planet that's almost part monastery.  The prisoners are all hunted down one by one by a new hybrid birthed from a rottweiler (a bull in the original and restored cuts of the film), and, not to give anything away, Ripley ends up getting impregnated by one of the nasties.  Personally, I think its themes of motherhood and religious experience are dead-on for the series, and it's a fitting end for the Ripley character - until ALIEN: RESURRECTION, which I also like, but for much different reasons.  This was also David Fincher's first film as director, although he now disowns it due to how much the studio interfered with him both in- and post-production.  The film is visually stunning, creepy, and I really like the rod puppet effects for the new Alien.

Not to be confused with the amazing television series, David Mamet's 1991 film is actually based on a novel, and actually is more about personal identity than the murder mystery (though that's a really interesting and twisty road, too).  William H. Macy and Joe Mantegna are amazing as detectives Sullivan and Gold (respectively), and the dialogue is as crisp and staccato as you might imagine.  I've written a bit about Mamet before, but this was my first trip through HOMICIDE, and I can't wait to take it again; it's a thrilling and thoroughly intriguing, very seedy and sordid trip.

A fun, action-filled take on the characters of Watson and Holmes, with plenty of chemistry to spare between Robert Downey, Jr., and Jude Law.  While the plot leaves a bit to be desired, it's an origin of sorts, foretelling the events to transpire in (hopefully) future installments between Watson and his main nemesis, Professor Moriarty.  The direction by Guy Ritchie is stylish and effective, and truth be told, I'm just glad he's back making movies like this and has finally moved past whatever phase possessed him to make SWEPT AWAY and REVOLVER.

A hard-hitting drama that pulls no punches in its depiction of life for the "fallen women" of Catholic Ireland in the 1960s.  Following four girls who have been placed in the care of the church, the film is a scathing indictment of the church's Protect the Weak Men Against Their Desires decree that found women who were the victims of rape, abuse and mere rumor locked away for indefinite periods of time so that they could labor their sins away.  During this time, they are abused, mocked and belittled by the nuns who are in charge, and some even get locked away in mental asylums for simply speaking the truth.  Nora-Jane Noone is great as Bernadette, and the rest of the cast is very good as well.  I've been into Irish history lately - particularly the uprisings and the split and all that, so I found this intriguing.  Worth a look.