Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Best of the Decade: 50 Favorite Films Part 2

Here's the second installment which will take things all the way to the edge of the top 10 (coming tomorrow, god-willing). Speculations are welcome, though - who am I kidding? - entirely unexpected. I would actually classify the forthcoming top 10 as fairly on par with critical consensus, exceptions being a late film from a recently deceased master, a work of cinematic genius always lurking in the shadows, and a film that been relegated to the role of second banana to the director's beloved masterpiece. But more on those tomorrow. For now, here's 25 -11.

25. Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh, 2008) I’m an Anglophile and I hate chick flicks, plain and simple. So with Happy-Go-Lucky I was torn. On one hand it takes place in London, but on the other hand the poster was just so . . . pink. I rented the film on a whim when I had run out of British films that weren’t fantasies, historical fiction, or set in dystopias. And who knew such a down-to-earth movie could be made about such an extraordinary character?

Poppy, played by Sally Hawkins and guided by director Mike Leigh’s improvisational style, got on my nerves at first. She’s a loud, obnoxious, and constantly having a laugh. This character study follows Poppy through a series of situations like driving lessons, flamenco dancing, a visit to her sister, and her work as a primary school teacher. Poppy takes every instance in her life optimistically, never letting the clichéd worries of other leading ladies get to her.

As the film progresses, I started to see Poppy as – while delightfully childish – the most well adjusted character in the film. She isn’t just a happy-go-lucky teacher, Poppy has people and life figured out to such an extent that I’m jealous. We see this quality best when she is contrasted with her embittered driving instructor Scott. While everyone else in the film complains and expresses their discontent with their own lives and the way society works, Poppy is always hopeful and this allows her to see predicaments from a unique perspective. Poppy is independent, resilient, and upbeat. All in all, Happy-Go-Lucky is what every chick flick should be, but never is. (Madeline Schichtel)

24. Volver (Pedro Almodovar, 2006)
Volver is strange, funny and Penelope Cruz is excellent as a wife and mother who stashes a dead body in the freezer of a restaurant and goes about her business. Penelope Cruz's sister keeps seeing the ghost of her dead mother, whose ghost is often confused by townsfolk as a visiting Russian. Though I grimace every time I use the word "quirky," Volver is certainly that; no hamburger phones necessary. (Matt Larner)

23. Goodbye Dragon Inn (Tsai Ming-liang, 2003)
If you believe, as I do, that a great film can envelop you in a feeling – a feeling unique to that cinematic artifact itself – and that this state can exist in place of plot, dialogue or whatever else expectations dictate; if you kinda, sorta, maybe see where I’m coming from with that idea, then do yourself a favor and check out Goodbye Dragon Inn. The film follows the last hurrah of a theater in Taipei as it screens the classic Dragon Inn one final time before closing its doors forever. At the sparsely attended screening, a motley collections of oddballs and troubles souls wander among the seats and halls and bathroom stalls looking, longing, and remembering. It stands as one of the most fascinating explorations of cinematic space from the past decade and the fragmented stories presented seem only in service of bringing out the character of the old theater itself. The impending tragedy of the loss of this richly realized place hangs over the film from the very beginning. And not surprisingly, as we behold the theater knowing it to be for the last time, we see it in gloriously explicit detail. A location it may be, but it’s also a character you’re not likely to forget. It’s a bold and successful move from one of the most interesting Asian directors working today. (Tristan)

22. Lost in Translation (Sophia Coppola, 2003)
Circumstance can lead to friendships that would never have formed otherwise (not a comment on my friendship with Mr. Tristan Johnson -ed.). The situation of Lost In Translation is one with some laughs, particularly for those who have spent time in Japan or any place they felt a stranger in. Really this movie is like The Godfather but you know, more INTENSITY. (Kent Sugiura)

21. Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino, 2003/2004)
Kill Bill’s first volume sits at the tip-top of my pile of cinematic entertainment - neatly perched atop Starship Troopers and Peking Opera Blues, the later which it certainly owes at least a small debt to. Entertainment value is of course in the eye of the beholder, and Kill Bill spares nothing in its total chokehold on my attention. Beautiful women, unending acts of cartoon violence, revenge encapsulated in list format and a handful of infectious tunes expertly plucked from obscurity by Tarantino himself, all wrapped up in a sleek package of camera angles and quick cutting that amounts to no less than a cinephile’s wet dream. That last part really seals the deal.

Then Volume 2 comes along and feeds us all the plot that was more or less beside the point in the first installment. Which is fine, I guess. Actually, it’s all pretty great, but I’d rather avoid any game of compare and contrast between the two halves because they’re playing entirely different rhythms. And while I clearly am a bit biased toward Volume 1, it’s scarcely a complete entity without its more conversational companion. So for here, it’ll be just Kill Bill, with the complete arc of this classic revenge story modeled on a rich cinematic history of them. Of course, where Volume 2 falters just a bit for me is that in film, how you tell the story matters more than what that story is. But I’m willing to forgive a bit too much ‘what’ in this case on account of that rapturous first half. And taken as one, I can’t come up with any bloody detraction sufficient to deny it a spot among these 50. (Tristan)

20. Millennium Actress (Satoshi Kon, 2001)
Memories and thoughts are among our most personal assets. They're completely ours; perhaps the only thing that ever truly is. When we first meet reclusive septuagenarian Chiyoko Fujiwara, she is about to be interviewed upon the demolition of the movie studio she worked for long ago. As she is given a key, a relic that she once treasured and then lost, Chiyoko uses it to unlock the memories and thoughts that have long been stored away and buried. Much of Chiyoko's memories center around a mysterious political opponent who's on the run and who gives Chiyoko the key after a brief meeting. It feels like a dark, twisted, animated Before Sunrise/Before Sunset moment: that one chance meeting affects the characters for the rest of their lives. However, what makes this film better than a usual extended flashback flick is Tachibana and his partner, inserting themselves into Chiyoko's memories as they're interviewing her. They're our reference points into Chiyoko's memory and ultimately made me think about memory itself; how we insert and delete moments and how we ultimately see things as we want to see them. Ultimately, however, it doesn't matter what's real and fake within Chiyoko's memory. As she states herself at the end, it's chasing the dream and keeping hope alive in her thoughts that counts. (Sandip Sarma)

19. The White Diamond (Werner Herzog, 2004)
South America sure brings of the best in Werner Herzog. Also, so do crazy people. The subject de jour is actually a step on the sane side for Herzog – Graham Dorrington is a scientist with just tweak of madness hell-bent on taking his patented airship on a maiden voyage through the tree canopy of Guyana, seeking there a kind of atonement for the death of his longtime friend and collaborator, killed there in an mishap some years ago. Herzog’s documentation of Dorrington’s quest is fascinating to behold, but of equal interest are his observations on the natural world itself. His respect for the wonders of nature are refreshing, especially as he reiterates the idea that some things have no right to be captured on camera – that they only deserve to be seen by those daring to make the trek themselves. He also continues his welcome tendency of getting sidetracked with other bizarre and fantastic characters that cross paths with his films in progress. The White Diamond wouldn’t be the marvel that it is without the majestic image of a lone crew member moon-walking on a rock overhanging the waterfall. I chalk it all up to Herzog himself; his unique perspective on both people and the world they’re lucky to be a part of seems an invaluable one for film – documentary and fiction alike. (Tristan)

18. In Bruges (Martin McDonagh, 2008)
“Maybe that’s what hell is, the entire rest of eternity spent in fucking Bruges.”

On the surface, In Bruges consists of little more than an endless stream of obscenity, violence, and hilarity cast in the most classic sense of boys behaving badly. Rarely (if ever) has a movie so seamlessly blended coke snorting midgets, contract child killing, acid dropping hookers, and rampant racism, sexism, and midgetism. Were anyone over the age of 60 to ever see this film, their Pacemakers would burst out of their chests like the infamous Alien before their wrinkled, gnarly fingers finished punching the last digit of the FCC’s phone number (alas, if only they knew how to program auto dial numbers into their cell phone).

Jokes in poor taste at the expense of the nation’s social security recipients aside, In Bruges is so much more than that. While true, the film frolics gleefully in the anything goes, caustically un-PC culture brought mainstream in somewhat equal parts by South Park, The Aristocrats, and the Internet, the film refuses to stand on its sophomoric silliness alone. Despite their absolutely horrendous failure at decency, the film’s main characters approach their dilemmas and defining moments with a touch of what could almost be called dignity and righteousness.

This quiet probing of morality and responsibility buried in the subtext of the film probably explains why the movie has achieved such a resonance with its audience. In a society where the lunatics seem to be running the asylum, where being a decent person and a successful person simultaneously seems to involve a constantly toggling definition of “decent”, where we might simultaneously have tabs in our browser open to dead baby jokes, streaming porn, our law homework, and an e-mail home to Mom, the story of three damned men struggling to find even one guiding principle of life is a story to which even the most jaded among us can relate.

Also, there’s a midget on horse tranquilizers. That shit’s fucking funny. (Aaron Benmark)

17. Millennium Mambo (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2001)
An art house fairytale for the 21st century. But it’s not so whimsical really, ultimately more about inevitable alienation than the spellbinding power of romance. Vicky exists in a sleeping beauty-esque dreamstate fueled by an unending stream of liquor and nicotine. The nights stretch on and the pulse of the background music hums in our ears long after it’s ceased to play. Our eyes and minds drift in and out of focus, taking everything in, but leaving it till later to sort out. It’s a film that demands commitment – twice I’ve sat through it without taking my eyes off the screen – but it’s a mesmerizing experience that only Hou Hsiao-hsien could orchestrate. I’d have loved to work Café Lumiere onto the list somewhere, but decisions had to be made and so there was no room for my other favorite film of his from the decade; sunnier, if no less alienating than Millennium Mambo proves to be. (Tristan)

16. Friday Night (Claire Denis, 2002)
From the languid hours of a Parisian traffic jam is born a doomed romantic tryst. We catch up with Laure at a crossroads in her life, and through the endless night we watch her needs, desires and impulses bubble to the surface. The transportation woes set the pace for the film, which drifts along as those caught up in it oscillate between swings of emotion and mindless compliance. When Laure offers a lift to a handsome stranger, their surroundings allow the basic need for human connection to simmer beneath the cordial conversation. And having just used the word ‘simmer’ I’m forced to throw out any remarks about how their relationship heats up or how the plot is most certainly a slow burn, but cliché cooking metaphors aside, this film only gets better and better as it carries you so effortlessly into the night. It’s a trace that can be wearying, but also sexy, fulfilling, and empathetic. At times, it’s even magical - literally - a lampshade inexplicably floats across the room, and a metallic letter resettles in its proper place on the back of a car. This never breaks the mood. In fact, it may just be what elevates it to the level of the great ethereal film experiences – the second time Claire Denis has given us one of those. (Tristan)

15. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)
Quentin Tarantino holds my personal record for being the first director of whom I have seen all of his major works. The first R-rated film I ever snuck into was one of his. Whenever I recommend films or directors to my friends, he almost surely comes up. And that was before Inglorious Basterds was even released.

Tarantino films often have one of two things going for them. Either they are built around incredibly well written dialogue, like Pulp Fiction, or a lavish visual style, like Kill Bill. And, before Basterds was released, I would have had a hard time saying which one of these was my favorite. I had been hesitant before I saw it – I’m not a huge fan of war films - and even with a Tarantino spin, I wasn’t convinced I would love it.

But I did. There are dozens of reasons why it works, but the main one is that it successfully combines clever dialogue with impressive visuals. It has many terrific performances, most notably Christoph Waltz as ‘The Jew Hunter’ Col. Hans Landa, whose slippery yet charismatic personality can make even a glass of milk seem terrifying, and Melanie Laurent as Shosanna, the cinema owner whom Landa almost killed years before. Brad Pitt and his Southern-Italian accent are hilarious. Even Eli Roth can’t make this a bad movie. Though he is the worst part of it.

As far as this being a war film, it lacks one major part: the war. And Tarantino is smart for bypassing it. The plot is built around the dialogue, and the dialogue wanders around, making the conversations seem far more realistic. It also makes the film quite long, meaning all the more time to enjoy it. The violence, while it remains prevalent, is not the main aspect of the story. When it does occur, it does so to the extreme, and with style. And, in a move that takes the film somewhere no other World War II film has dared, Tarantino chooses to negate some of the key facts of history in place of his own version. His solution pays off, and clearly sets Inglorious Basterds into a realm of it’s own. It might just be his masterpiece. (Miles Johnson)

14. The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007)
To me The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford may have been one of the most overlooked films of the decade; I know it's bold statement but every time I think about, see, and hear debates about this film it just inspires so much in me. Now many have complained about this films: 160min runtime, how (unlike most westerns) gun battles are few and far between and how even after Jesse James is killed (spoilers?) the film continues where many thought it should have ended. But let me preface my blurb by saying I'm not a huge film snob, and am usually bored by the films of Ozu and Malick by comparison, but this even with its runtime kept me interested throughout. From the acting by its amazing supporting cast, its pitch perfect narration, and Roger Deakins' cinematography which is reason enough for one to see this film. And where some felt this film should have ended, I feel the film got even stronger as it wound to its conclusion. The reason being this film is not about Jesse James, who like Brad Pitt was/is larger than life, it's about Robert Ford (Casey Affleck). The kid who like Mark David Chapman, a nobody kills the one he loves. The film is just a great and unique journey as we watch Robert go from fan, to friend, to subsequently murderer of Jesse all for fleeting fame and perhaps reasons never fully understood by Robert. And to end I'll quote Roger Ebert and say; "Yes, it is long, at 160 minutes. There is a sense that an epic must have duration to have importance. The time reaching ahead of us must be as generous as the landscape unfolding before us. On this canvas Dominik portrays his hero at a time when most men were so powerless, they envied Jesse James even for imposing his will on such as they." (Marvin Hudgens)

13. The Fall (Tarsem Singh, 2008)
I was hesitant to watch The Fall. I’d seen Tarsem Singh’s The Cell and, even when I looked past the odd pairing of Jennifer Lopez and Vince Vaughn, I couldn’t will myself to like it. While The Cell catered to a beautiful and daring set design, the plot remained just another crime drama with a pretentious conclusion. But I eventually watched The Fall, due to mild curiosity and a bout of Pushing Daisies withdrawal. To my own surprise, I loved it. Maybe I’m a softy, but the character of 6-year-old Alexandria (Catinca Untaru) is brutally adorable and the dialogue between her and the paralyzed, defeated Roy (Lee Pace) is remarkably genuine. In the film, Roy entertains Alexandria with an epic tale, promising to continue the story if she steals morphine for him. The film does an excellent job of seeing Roy’s increasingly fatalistic story through Alexandria’s imagination, transferring the people around the hospital into fantastic characters like an explosions expert, an ex-slave, and even Charles Darwin. Whether the setting is a 1920s hospital in Los Angeles or somewhere in Alexandria’s mind, no detail is overlooked. After countless viewings, I’m still catching little things that cross over from the real world to Roy’s story. It’s no surprise that The Fall took four years to shoot in over 20 countries. All in all, it’s a film worth seeing for its originality and the lengths Tarsem and his crew took in creating it. To put it plainly, no other film is comparable to The Fall. It’s in a class by itself. (Madeline Schichtel)

12. Beau Travail (Claire Denis, 2000)
You can’t help but feel the heat of Beau Travail. Few films have captured extreme conditions as overwhelming as the desert sun that holds an oppressive stance over the French Foreign Legion training tirelessly in Djibouti. It scorches - the images alone are enough to induce the delirium that raises this loose adaptation of Melville’s Billy Budd to the level of cinematic poetry. Bookending the film are two consuming nightclub sequences in which the strained Sergeant Galoup looses himself on the dance floor. Beautiful when we first witness the act, it gains all the more impact as we return to the scene, a full film later having now seen the strictly regimented Galoup strained to his wits end. It’s in that final scene on the dance floor that we at long last see him cast aside his ordered world and cut loose. There’s not been a better closing scene on film since. The perfect hypnotic conclusion to a film that often feels like a mirage. (Tristan)

11. The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001) The Royal Tenenbaums has been a personal favorite of mine for many years. I love Wes Anderson’s style in general, because no matter how depressing the storyline should be, with all of the misfortune put upon the characters, he manages to invoke a message of hope – that things, no matter how bad the situation may seem, will find a balance. He does this through humor, but not in any of its typical forms. It comes purely situational, displayed through characters’ emotions and reactions, and it works so well because of how the actor’s portray their characters. I enjoy every member of the cast, with Gene Hackman, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Luke Wilson standing out the most.

This film accomplishes two other things that many films don’t. For one, it has excellent camera work. In a single-shot at the end of the movie, following the characters around a fire truck, every major character is shown finding some closure to their personal story. He also makes excellent use of montages; two of my favorite scenes are when Royal is given a chance to bond with his grandkids by teaching them various illegal activities, and when all of the key events of Margot Tenenbaum’s past are revealed to her husband and her brother. The other part of the film that blew me away was the soundtrack. Anderson knows how to utilize music to make a simple shot seem extraordinary, such as when Nico’s ‘Chelsea Girls’ plays as Margot gets off the bus to meet Richie.

Richie’s attempted-suicide scene stayed with me more than anything else; it takes the story of the film to a far deeper level by making the family face the effects they have had on one another. Easily the darkest part of the story, it is followed immediately by two of the funniest moments; first, the expression on Dudley’s face as he walks into the room with the suicidal Richie, and then his reaction to Margot at the hospital.

The Royal Tenenbaums is one of the most memorable film’s I have ever watched. The entire film balances the raw emotions – the happiness, depression, love, dishonesty, and hope of everyday life perfectly, and manages to make makes every scene into something unforgettable. (Miles Johnson)

Yar! Here be the Top 10!


  1. I still don't get the Inglourious Basterds thing.

  2. I kinda thought it was porn for movie lovers. Apparently we watch different kinds of porn.

  3. It was inglourious porn for movie lovers!