Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Best of the Decade: 50 Favorite Films Part 3

Bringing us to the end of the countdown are 10 films that I'll put up against the best any other decade has to offer any day. All in all, the 00s have been the best decade for cinema since the 70s, not too shabby I say. And I was going to say I'll let these films speak for themselves, but there's plenty of words still to come. I confess to getting a little carried away with a couple of my reviews. But hopefully these reviews will convince you of the urgency with which you must see all these films, before the decade is too far behind us. And if not the reviews, think of the pretty pictures. Because really, each of those expresses more than any of my reviews possibly could.

10. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2008)It has apparently been agreed that there is nothing that can be said about this instant classic – and this is the only film I’ve ever seen in theaters that I could immediately make that claim of – that hasn’t already been said over and over again these past two years. Also out there is the notion that all of that critical ink spilled on its behalf cannot sufficiently sum up the greatness of Paul Thomas Anderson’s crowning achievement. I don’t dispute either claim, so I’ll keep this brief. Suffice it to say that this is one of the boldest, most ambitious works of film in my lifetime and seeing it in theaters I finally realized what it must have been like to catch the likes of Chinatown, A Clockwork Orange or The Conformist back in the early 70s. Daniel Day Lewis settles any question as to which actor gave the definitive performance of the decade (actress is far trickier). His Daniel Plainview, far from sympathetic, yet too humanized to be a true villain, is a towering character creation of the highest order. The screenplay delivers more quotable than ever other film on this list combined, and both the cinematography and the score prove equally ambitious as Anderson’s vision. But I’m merely repeating what everyone already ought to know by now, so with that, ladies and gentlemen, I’m finished. (Tristan)

9. Caché (Michael Haneke, 2005)
There are few movies that I might call truly disturbing. And no, horror movies generally don’t make the grade. Leaving aside the question of quality, most horror movies are easily rationalized, hence not disturbing. Cache is a film of a different caliber, a film that doesn’t leave your head, a film to make you glance over your shoulder to make sure no one’s watching.

Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche star as Georges and Anne Laurent, a successful French middle class couple who seem to have a prosperous and happy home life. Georges starts receiving videotapes of surveillance footage of their house and his activities. At first the tapes are seemingly benign but become more and more disturbing. I won’t give away anything else, but nothing is resolved by the end of the movie anyway. There are lots of issues raised along the way – French colonial guilt, the relationship between Georges and his wife, ingrained racism in French society. But this is a film about the things that are hidden – and the terror of knowing that some things are unknowable. (Rahul Ragunathan)

8. Gosford Park (Robert Altman, 2001)
Gosford Park beggars any description that can do it justice. Set in 1932, it is a multi-layered and complex story: ostensibly an English country-house whodunit, the film is laced through with an Upstairs, Downstairs examination of the relationships between the gentry and their servants, a dash of 1930’s Hollywood and a classic Altman sensibility. In Altman films, no scene ever begins on the screen, but the viewers wander into the story in progress, usually with multiple conversations and subplots evolving in each scene. Running at a mere 137 minutes, the film brings to life dozens of characters, including notable performances by Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, Bob Balaban (as a producer of Charlie Chan films), Kelly McDonald and Clive Owen, just to name a few. If you’ve only watched it once, you haven’t really done the film justice and you’ve undoubtedly missed more than you know; multiple viewings are highly recommended, and put on the subtitles at least once to help fill in the gaps. The film is also notable for reintroducing Ivor Novello (played by Jeremy Northam) and his songs to US audiences. A British actor, singer and songwriter on a par with Noel Coward and Cole Porter, Novello is now all but forgotten in America, but his songs are catchy, clever and well deserving of being revived. (Kevin Johnson)

7. Lord of the Rings (Peter Jackson, 2001-2003)
The main strength of Peter Jackson's adaptation of Tolkien's masterpiece is the characters. It's not that Gandolf is as you pictured him in your head if you read the book, but that Ian McKellen becomes a Gandolf you can believe in. The same goes for Elijah Wood's Frodo, Viggo Mortensen's Aragorn, and virtually every other character, both major and minor, in this three movie epic. Besides this, the storyline is largely identical to the books and so deserves little note, but it should be said it is rendered remarkably coherently considering that the original three books often make reference to events detailed in many other volumes. This is largely because Jackson doesn't make the mistake of trying to explain everything that happens, actually believing that the audience is smart enough to look up unfamiliar references or just make the imaginative leaps required by the film. If there is any critique of this instant fantasy classic it is Jackson's addition of a modern sense of humor into several scenes throughout the film (Gimli the dwarf, for example, frequently comes off as the comic relief in the film), an addition that often seems in stark contrast to the otherwise intact Tolkienverse depicted therein. (Guiseppe Getto)

6. 2046 (Wong Kar Wai, 2005)
If In The Mood For Love is Wong Kar Wai’s La Dolce Vita, then surely 2046 is his 8 ½. After all, it’s certainly the most stylish film centered on a creative genius in the 1960s balancing the women in his life with his science fiction epic in progress since Fellini’s masterpiece. And until writing that last sentence, the similarities between the two had never seemed so apparent.

It had never occurred to me to consider 2046’s merits as an homage since I’ve always been more fascinated by the unique temporal lens through which it comments on the most peculiar state of the city, the great city of Hong Kong. That’s been a defining characteristic of Wong’s filmography, and twice now he’s rocked cinema with a film that bottles up the spirit of the city, with Chungking Express in the years prior to the 1997 turnover from British hands, and then a decade later with 2046, under ever-evolving political circumstances.

The numbers mean everything in the world. A brief history lesson: British relinquish control of Hong Kong to China in 1997, launching a 50 year period of gradual transfer to Chinese governance. The deadline, 2047, which means the titular date marks the final year in which Hong Kong legally retains something of its old identity. It’s a date always on Wong’s mind, and here it looms in an enigmatic science fiction story evolving from the mind of a 60s writer, one we’re already familiar with from In the Mood for Love. That makes it a film made in the mid 00s, set in the 60s, with visions of an uncertain future constantly on its mind. For Wong Kar Wai, that sounds about right.

And before I burn myself out digressing on the intellectual euphoria 2046 sends me into, I’ve got to make mention of just a few of the other things that are going so right here. If asked what I thought the sexiest film ever made was, this would be my runner up (marginally behind The Unbearable Lightness of Being) because it knows how to latch onto finer details and use them to elicit desire. It’s a stylization of fetishization, much in the way Mad Men often is, and the camera dwells at length on wisps of smoke, mysteriously gloved hands, shoes sliding back and forth across the hardwood floor. Passion simmers in these moments, building towards the elegant sexual release of each romantic tryst. And if you think can imagine how good it all looks, just wait till you hear how it sounds. The pulsating score will pull you into a symphonic spiral that carries you from the 1960s to the distant future and back again. Then there’s that cast, lead by the incomparable Tony Leung, who, like Guido Contini and Joe Gideon before him, is defined by the women in his life. They come in the form of Zhang Ziyi and Faye Wong, of Gong Li and Maggie Cheung, and they’re equally mysterious, romantic, compelling and, to be totally superficial, remarkably beautiful. And if that’s not enough reasons to watch, then I’m confused why you’ve read this far. (Tristan)

5. The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005)
I have not seen any other Terrence Malick films. And, typically, I get at least somewhat restless when watching any long film lacking a highly narrative plot. I hadn’t been sure of what to expec before watching this, but I know it hadn’t been one of extreme excitement. Honestly, I didn’t think I was going to like the film.

This movie proved that thought wrong. It showed me that, if I open my eyes a bit more, there could be a whole different world that I could experience, hidden within unusual gems of filmmaking. And this was one of them.

The film is long. I doubt I could recap the exact plot; I didn’t even catch all of it the first time I watched it. But that wasn’t the point. I was stunned at what I saw on screen. If a picture is worth a thousand words, than a movie should be able to inspire a million. Now, I’m not a man of many words, so I’m going to sum up the many adjectives that could be used to describe this film into one sentence: The New World is simply the most cinematographically beautiful film ever made. There is no doubt about it. For being two and a half hours long, it starts out gorgeous and never lets up. I did some research; the only use of CGI was to recreate a couple of extinct species. Everything else was naturally photographed, making it all that much more impressive.

The acting, too, is wonderful; I’ve really come to respect Colin Farrell within the past few years, due in most part to this film and In Bruges, and Christian Bale and David Thewlis are welcome additions in their supporting roles. But, at heart, the film is a love story set in the most natural of places; a world old to us, but entirely new to the characters. And the love is not based around dialogue, but rather the images, and the sounds, of the natural world surrounding the characters, immersing us viewers into a real world set so far away, proving a spectacle to the eye. Beauty can be found within every shot. There are few films I would consider to be true pieces of art, but The New World is definitely one of them. (Miles Johnson)

4. Werckmeister Harmonies (Bela Tarr, 2000)
There are some films that have to be experienced first-hand; there’s really no way to coherently explain the plot of Werckmeister Harmonies, but one has to try. A circus comes to a small Hungarian town, bringing along the gigantic carcass of a dead whale, which may (or may not) represent natural order (harmony) in the universe. It’s deathly cold. There’s going to be an eclipse. Sinister political portents surround the ominous appearance of the “Prince” along with the circus. And suddenly, the entire metaphysical fabric of this town seems to dissolve in an orgy of violence.

Werckmeister Harmonies is not a film for everyone. It is extremely slow (only 39 shots in two and a half hours). It’s in a foreign language (which shouldn’t matter at all, but does, to many people). It’s in black and white (and has some of the most breathtaking tracking shots ever put to film). But I hardly notice the time when I’m watching this film. The goal is not to understand, but to feel, to let your mind wander, to immerse in the world of the film. It’s a truly rewarding experience. (Rahul Ragunathan)

3. Dogville (Lars Von Trier, 2004)
I was enamored with Dogville from the opening frame, a bird’s eye shot establishing the town as a shell, a blueprint built on an empty stage, where characters play out their lives in Our Town fashion with no realization of the theatricality of their living circumstances. The stage was quite literally set for a film that would challenge my perspective, and as I prepped myself for a ballad commenting on film versus theater, I was taken completely off guard as the film went on to tackle the whole of human nature. I should have expected nothing less from Lars von Trier.

Nicole Kidman at long last gets the role of her career. Grace, the mysterious stranger who stumbles into Dogville, is both the standard von Trier heroine and the best of them. Playing against her are the citizens of Dogville, the richest ensemble of characters in any film of the last ten years. To single anyone out would be to remove them from the fantastically compelling collective which they represent. They are Dogville, and Grace is the ever-present exterior force unto which they must react.

Non-specific spoilers: As Dogville approaches its final act, I find myself swept up in a swell of anticipation as I realize that rock bottom despair is about to shift abruptly into euphoric retribution. What I’m feeling seems to violate personal mores – the kind that sound good in theory, untested – yet there I am, deriving perverse glee from the brazen atrocities unfolding on screen. No film has ever incited such dramatic mood swings in me, and to answer the question of whether von Trier’s emotional fuckery is warranted, I say hell yes. Because like the results or not, Dogville challenges us. It rips us out of our comfort zone and forces us to consider what we might do in Grace’s place. And on paper it’s impossible to understand how misfortune could beget such rage, but von Trier’s cinema is as intimate as it gets, and Dogville awakens feelings we never knew we were capable of. It’s confusing. It’s scary. It’s great cinema. (Tristan)

2. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)
Warning: Hyperbole ahead.

When asked to speak about Spirited Away, you will have difficulty finding the words, and not because you didn’t get it, or because you’re anything less than a master of words and wit, but rather for the fact that it is such a singularly unique vision that you are simply unpracticed in describing things so wondrous and new. Hayao Miyazaki animates with a fluidity that makes the most abstract of concepts seem grounded in reality. Colors so vibrant and alive that they almost become characters themselves. The film operates under the guise of a “coming of age” tale, but this mask stays on only long enough to immerse you so wholly in a world of magic and imagination that you simply have no choice but to, yourself, dive further into the adventure. While so many events and creatures in this film seem fantastic and unreal, there’s something very familiar about it all. Something you can’t quite describe, but you know it’s there. Things like love, loss, and growing up. And still other things like greed, fear, and betrayal. You realize quite quickly that you’re connection to the narrative is so powerful that it is a disservice to separate or segregate the film in any way from the pantheon of other amazing live-action films, simply because it is animated. Every frame a photograph, every line of dialogue too real to be written. The film transcends not just the decade in which it was made, but the medium itself, becoming a true work of art that will give even the most cynical realists pause to consider not just what it means to grow up, but what it means to be alive. (JD Forslin)

1. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)Fall 2006, the point in time that I launched my Netflix account, was akin to the beginning of recorded history in my development as an incorrigible movie addict. I can point to a handful of films that I connected with on a meaningful level around that time, but not a one of them can hold a candle to Mulholland Drive. There was nothing before it, and in a way, there’s been nothing ever since.

Let me set the scene, fittingly, not such a different one from the way the film starts off. It’s in the middle of the blackest night, suck in a car on the roadside – for real, I was working as an overnight traffic attendant prior to an MSU football game. I sit in the car along with my friend Brian and to pass away the lonely hours, we watch movies from my laptop. I knew nothing of Mulholland Drive, and the only David Lynch film I’d seen was his comparatively normal The Elephant Man. But there, sitting in a car in pitch-black night, I first watched Mulholland Drive, and I’d like to think Lynch himself couldn’t have picked a better theater.

It changed me. I’d never before seen a film where I could spend the hour following engaged in serious debate over what exactly just happened. For that I’m lucky to have had Brian around, or I’d have gone mad on the spot from not being able to flesh out the thoughts running rampant through my mind. But Mulholland Drive is no intellectual mind-fuck of Charlie Kaufman caliber. No, what raises it beyond that is all the mystery and intrigue hits you on a truly emotional level. The definitive scene (of the film, of the decade, of all time?) two love-struck heroines sit together in the sparse and spooky Club Silencio. A chanteuse belts out a powerful song. A blue haired woman watched from the balcony. Our protagonists can’t help but cry, and inexplicably, we feel it. We don’t understand it, but we feel it.

And that’s what makes Mulholland Drive such a unique film experience. It allows us an astonish experience that runs the full emotional spectrum from passion to joy to devastation to terror without ever fully comprehending what’s going on. And what’s going on is entirely beside the point, not that it isn’t a blast trying to decipher the myriad riddles. For its sheer significance in my film development, for its brilliant sidestepping of narrative conventions, for its once in a lifetime performance by Naomi Watts, for its cryptic club that hits in the heart, not the head, for the man behind Winky’s and the foreboding cowboy of death, and for somehow, against all odds, actually working, there can be no other best film of the decade than Mulholland Drive. (Tristan)

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