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.


Marcy said...

The Royal Tenenbaums and Batman Begins are awesome. But like many, I do think The Dark Knight, though it did depend on the existence of BB, really blew the everything out of the water. TDK left me speechless.

While I'm not a huge fan of No Country For Old Men, I love Javier Bardem's performance. Truly frightening.

matt said...

I think what strikes me as a bit off between the two Batman films is that tonally, there's just not something that sits with me completely about TDK. I really like it, but as a lifelong comic book geek and Batman aficianado, BEGINS really strikes a chord with me that TDK really only does about 2/3 of the time. I don't know if it's that Harvey Dent gets short shrift, or if I don't quite buy that people living in Gotham would actually believe Batman capable of pure murder after everything that has transpired or what...it's just something that never felt resolved enough for me to LOVE with the big letters like everyone else. And, of the two, I think the first flick is the more emotionally complete...