Monday, December 21, 2009

Little Jimmy's Top 50 Films of the Decade (Part One)

Well, as I had said I would, I decided to compile my favorite films from the decade, come up with some arbitrary ranking system, and post it in two sections. Below is the bottom half, in ascending order. I plan to post the top 25 tomorrow.

While compiling my list, I came across this, which either reveals me to be tapping into the zeitgeist (heh, heh) or being wholly unoriginal or incapable of independent thought. Well, you should probably be forewarned that there were many instances where I didn't go against the grain with the common critical consensus of many films that came out this decade, and the instances where I did may seem a bit...odd. Or ultra pedestrian. It's tough to say. (Maybe it's not for me to say.)

I think it goes without saying that compiling such a list is such an odd exercise. The comparisons and editorial decisions one must make end up being borderline perverse. (How did Audition end up being right next to High Fidelity? And what criteria made one above the other?) I really have no satisfying answers to such questions about the overall ranking. It may be safe to say that I like whatever's at the #36 spot just as much as whatever's at the #37 spot; just for radically different reasons.

Now let's talk about some of the movies that aren't on the list. First off, let's face it: I haven't seen several critically lauded films of the decade, like The Lives of Others, I'm Not There, I've Loved You So Long and City of God (to name a few out of many). There are also a few "Oscar bait" films that just came out that I've yet to see. Yes, I am ashamed. And yes, I'll get around to seeing them. (In fact, I will admit that, although there are some foreign films here and there, my list is very U.S.-centric.)

Then there are films that I have seen that have been lauded and put on many "best of" lists that I flat-out didn't like (or at least, wasn't wild about), like There Will Be Blood, The Royal Tenenbaums, Dogville, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence or Knocked Up. Nope. Sorry, folks. Didn't care for them. They didn't have a snowball's chance in hell of making the Top 50, let alone the Top 100.

Then there were films that I thought were just fine but still didn't have any shot of making the list, like Munich, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Almost Famous. I mean, these are fine films that I really enjoyed. Just...not even remotely enough to consider them for the list.

And finally, there are some films that very, very regrettably, didn't make the cut, which I suspect will bemuse many of my readers, to put it mildly. As much as I enjoyed these films, when push came to shove, I couldn't find room for Half Nelson, Far From Heaven, Snow Angels or Grizzly Man. They actually were on early drafts of the list, but slowly and steadily got pushed out (even after doing a little cheating by combining some sequels and trilogies into one slot). This may bemuse readers even more when they see some of the films that did make the list. So how about we consider these movies Honorable Mentions?

(I know the absence of these movies and others will no doubt make some of the movies that did make the list fill you, dear reader, with a mixture of pity and contempt for me. Hell, you may already be feeling that sad mix for Yours Truly while realizing I just admitted that I liked Snow Angels better than Munich. Such are the rules of the game when one tries to compile any such list as this one. I'm braced for your ridicule.)

As for what's on the list...well, see for yourself. Like with all "best of" lists, they say less about the films than they do about the person compiling the list.

And finally, a word on the commentary. I intended to post a paragraph of commentary for each film, then realized that would be retarded. For a top 10 list, sure. For 50 freakin movies? That's going to take a while. So, for now, I'm just presenting the list, then in early 2010, I'll slowly and steadily add a brief commentary for each movie. How long will it take? Who the hell knows? But for now, you'll just get the list.

Okay. Enough stalling. Here it is.


50. The Squid and the Whale
(Noah Baumbach, 2005)
Already, I know a few of my regular readers will be dismayed to find this 1908s period piece about the divorce of two Brooklyn intellectuals on my list. Many saw this as a tiresome and manipulative melodrama. I however, saw it as a painful portrayal of familial relationships experiencing total collapse: that point where family members are downright hateful and vicious toward one another (exemplified when the younger son tells his mother he’s upset that he has her features, because he thinks she’s ugly). Noah Baumbach’s quasi-autobiographical film is one of the most accurate examinations of that communication meltdown among family members.

49. Once
(John Carney, 2006)
This musical-that-doesn’t-feel-like-a-musical about a busking Irish musician and an Eastern European woman meeting then working together to write and record songs about their unconsummated love is a sweet and sad delight from beginning to end. When the credits rolled I was sad that we were done with these two. Plus, the music’s really, really good.

48. Together (Tillsammans)
(Lukas Moodysson, 2000)
Lukas Moodysson’s comedy-drama (which really nails the perfect blend of that oxymoronic genre) about a modern-day commune in Stockholm manages to poke fun at its characters without mercilessly mocking them. Even some of the most contemptible characters are portrayed with sympathy and respect. Like Once, Together charmed the hell out of me and comes very close to becoming cloying without ever crossing that line.

47. Adventureland
(Greg Mottola, 2009)
There are many details, big and small, that Adventureland gets just right. The bonds made between co-workers at a demeaning customer service job. The way the staff undermines the petty rules and policies of the job. The makeout sessions in the back seats of car that result in disappointment and rejection the morning after. The sadistic cruelty of being forced to listen to the same damn song 20 times a day. Writer-director Greg Mottola expands the coming-of-age theme he used to good comic effect in his debut film Superbad to make a sincerely touching, funny and honest film about being young, falling in love and the indignities and delights of getting your first incredibly shitty job.

46. The Puffy Chair
(Jay Duplass, 2005)
One of the first films of the hatefully named "mumblecore" movement (Christ, I hate that term, yet still I use it) and a film my sister and I strenuously disagree over. A couple having problems goes on a road trip to work things out between each other (as well as to buy a present for the boyfriend's dad), then brings the boyfriend's brother along, adding unneeded tension. Emotionally honest and complex, the acting and writing make everything about this ultra low-budget film feel like you’re watching real people talking spontaneously. Hell, most documentaries don't feel this natural.

45. Funny Ha Ha
(Andrew Bujalski, 2002)
Another entry in the so-called "mumblecore" subgenre (see? I used the word again!) that blew me away with how well it portrayed the awkward and fumbling way people in their 20s with feelings—or lack thereof—for one another interact. Although seemingly improvised (and some may argue lazily improvised), the excessive "yeah, well's," and "it's like...I dunno's" are very deliberate. We're watching very astute and hyper-self-aware characters constantly at a loss for words precisely because they're so astute and self-aware. And it's astounding to see a phone conversation between two people who use no complete sentences and don’t raise their voices be so intense and crushing.

44. Head-On (Gegen die Wand)
(Fatih Akın, 2004)
Written and directed by a German-Turk that deals with the cultural clash of east versus west, old versus new, Head-On turns the obnoxious romantic comedy genre on its ear with two people who meet the exact opposite of cute (they "meet gross," I suppose). In fact, on the two characters' first "date" (they meet in an institution after both of them survived failed suicide attempts), the woman, Sibel, shatters a beer bottle and slices her wrists (the correct way). Although the second half of the film doesn't have the same manic and intense energy of the first, it's necessary to show the protagonists drift apart and proverbially wake up from their romantic idealizations of one another and their relationship.

43. Lost in Translation
(Sofia Coppola, 2003)
This movie got a lot of backlash after heaps of praised were piled upon it. I still think it’s great. Maybe that’s because I think Bill Murray is amazing and can do no wrong. Well, he is amazing, can in fact do no wrong, and this is one of his finest -- and warmest -- performances. I particularly loved the brief shot of Murray quietly singing along to the song Scarlett Johansson sings ("Brass in Pocket" by The Pretenders) on karaoke with quiet yet sincere affection.

42. Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in)
(Tomas Alfredson, 2008)
Oh, holy hell yes. A young boy being picked on at school gets help with sticking up for himself from his new friend and neighbor, an ancient vampire in the body of a 12-year-old girl. I loved the deliberate pace of the film as well; it took its time telling its story without being dull. It's also gorgeously shot. (If you missed it in the theatres, if you get the chance to watch it on Blue Ray on a hi-definition television, do yourself a favor.) Sweet, funny and terrifying, of course this was one of the best films I saw this past decade.

41. The American Astronaut
(Cory McAbee, 2001)
Good Lord I love this movie. Entertainment Weekly's description of Cory McAbee's low budget sci-fi musical hits the nail on the head: "Imagine a long Laurel & Hardy skit directed by Salvador Dali." I couldn't have put it better myself. Beautifully shot, delightfully silly and wholly imaginative, The American Astronaut, a loving send-up of the midnight movies from the 1950s, was such a wonderful find during the early part of the decade. I’m eagerly looking forward to seeing McAbee's follow-up film, Stingray Sam.

40. Before Sunset
(Richard Linklater, 2004)
Making a sequel to Richard Linklater's 1995 film Before Sunrise seemed at first not only unnecessary, but counter-productive and outright tacky. It's precisely the film that doesn't lend itself to answering any type of, "what happens next to these characters?" questions. (Didn't Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy's cameos in Waking Life scratch any such itches?) But amazingly, not only does Linklater pull it off, he makes it seem like a necessary companion piece to his previous film. When we were first watching these young idealistic people in the first film, we're now seeing them older, perhaps wiser, and slightly more jaded by life. And it also does answer the questions Before Sunrise poses without feeling like a cheat.

39. District 9
(Neill Blomkamp, 2009)
Both "science fiction" and "sci-fi," this film about alien refugees in a Johannesburg shantytown called District 9 both has its cake and eats it, too: delivering a thoughtful allegory for apartheid and a fun shoot-em-up action adventure. This is exactly the type of movie that science fiction geeks (including — if not especially — Yours Truly) have waited to see for years.

38. 25th Hour
(Spike Lee, 2002)
Maybe it took something as horrific as the terrorist attacks on September 11 to make Spike Lee temporarily take the large chip off his shoulder and make a film that shows compassion towards his fellow New Yorkers. (An non-racist Irish-American firefighter in a Spike Lee Joint? Will wonders never cease?) The aftermath of 9/11 looms over 25th Hour, which concerns a drug dealer's last night of freedom before serving a seven year prison sentence. A mournful feeling of loss pervades the film as it conveys in microcosm (Ed Norton's prison-bound character) and macrocosm (New York post-9/11) the metaphorical end of a life, until a spark of hope appears in the end.

37. Adaptation
(Spike Jonze, 2002)
With their 1999 film Being John Malcovitch, Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze made their mark in the feature film world (after working in the land of television writing and music video directing, respectively). And as much as I love that movie (it would probably be on this list if it was released a year later), I think it was their follow-up film, Adaptation, that really solidified their metafictional conceit and Kaufman's recurring writing motifs (in hindsight, Malkovitch feels like a warmup film). Adaptation does a superb job chronicling the screenwriting process and the frustrations inherent to trying to tell an unconventional story (about an orchid thief) in a maddeningly conventional format (feature films). Charlie Kaufman (the character, and presumably the writer) wants to break free of the false tropes in screenwriting while his twin brother (i.e., Kaufman's inner-Pollyanna) wants to write a crowd-pleasing formula film. It's both about adapting an art work from one medium to another but also about "survival of the fittest" in Hollywood as well as Adapting in Life (Title Case Intended).

36. Primer
(Shane Carruth, 2004)
Shane Carruth's low-budget indie film contemplating what would happen if limited time travel was accidentally discovered in the real world did for me what Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko does for its fans. I find Primer compelling, puzzling and genuinely mind-blowing in a way that I don't with Donnie Darko. The low-key scientific jargon that Abe and Aaron mutter to each other throughout the course of the film and the way we're two steps behind two brilliant people who are confused themselves give Primer a sense of authenticity. It's true science fiction, not "sci-fi," and demands multiple viewings that deliver more rewards with each subsequent viewing.

35. The Hurt Locker
(Kathryn Bigelow, 2009)
The opening title card to this enthralling movie tells us that "war is a drug." The film then introduces us to one of its hopeless addicts. Katherine Bigelow's intense and propaganda-free war thriller follows an American bomb-diffusing squad in Iraq and introduces us to James (played masterfully by Jeremy Renner), a reckless yet skilled bomb disposal expert who takes unnecessary risks, much to the dismay of the rest of his team. This movie hooked me in immediately and never let me go until the closing credits, succeeding as both a high-stakes thriller and low-key character study.

34. American Splendor
(Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini, 2003)
I'm rarely wild about biopics (with some exceptions, such as this film and Tim Burton's Ed Wood). For one, I agree with Quentin Tarantino when he said that very few lives are interesting from start to finish. Also, there's something lost in translation from watching documentary footage of the subject speaking spontaneously and watching an actor do his or her best to recreate that spontaneous bit of genius. Then, there are the insufferable tropes associated with biopics (the troubled childhood, the strained relationship with family, the rise to stardom, the "I'm famous" montage, the decline to drugs, etc., etc.). Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini's quasi-biopic/quasi-documentary/quasi-comic book adaptation about quasi-famous comic book writer Harvey Pekar bypasses all of those problems by taking just the best parts of the three above-mentioned genres to make a compelling story about someone who's both a "regular Joe" and a brilliant artist. Mixing documentary footage with film recreations staged by actors (with the real Harvey Pekar narrating), the movie's self-conscious attention to its own artifice adds a level of authenticity that wouldn't exist if it were a straight biopic or documentary. Plus, Pekar (as film character, comic book character and real guy) is a really interesting guy character.

33. The Station Agent
(Thomas McCarthy, 2003)
I'll admit it: indie-comedy-dramas about quirky outsiders in suburban environs (Garden State, Thumbsucker, 12 and Holding) are like catnip for me. I usually enjoy them on a "comfort food" level even if they're not any good (and often, they're not). But I think I can muster up some sense of objectivity and say that The Station Agent is actually good. Very good, in fact. You'd think this film (about a dwarf who inherits an abandoned train station who moves in to cut himself off from the rest of the world) would be either horribly exploitive or shamelessly maudlin, but it's neither. At its heart, it's about three very lonely people who deal with loneliness in different ways (the titular station agent, a dwarf named Finbar, seeks isolation from the world, while his neighbor Joe is like an overexcited puppy that craves companionship from anyone who comes by, while Olivia seeks a surrogate family to replace the one she believes was taken from her). It may go without saying that the three stars -- Peter Dinklage, Bobby Cannivale and Patricia Clarkson -- are excellent, but what the hell, it bears repeating: they are. So's the writing and the directing. And the story. And the environs (hey, this indie-comedy-dramas about quirky outsiders in suburban environs had already had me at "hello").

32. American Psycho
(Mary Harron, 2000)
Although Mary Harron's adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' once-reviled novel (mercifully) cuts out some of the more horrifically graphic portions of the book, I remember audience members groaned in dread and disgust more than once when I first saw this in the theatre. Christian Bale's seminal performance as sociopathic and soulless businessman (seriously? What does he actually do? Every time someone comes into his office he's just reading magazines, making dinner reservations, doodling or listening to the latest '80s pap.) Patrick Bateman is utterly compelling and both constantly funny and horrific. The film -- and book -- perfectly exemplifies the cost of needing money, taste and status above all else through the perfect metaphor: Wall Street power executive as serial killer. From the scene where executive whip out their, um, business cards to Bateman's incessant terror of not getting a good seat at the hot restaurant to him obsessing over the production details of the latest pop music, this film shows a world where style and taste way, way, way overshadows anything resembling substance. I have to return some videotapes.

31. 28 Days Later…
(Danny Boyle, 2002)
Taking its cues from George A. Romero's seminal Living Dead films (in particular from Day of the Dead, my favorite of the bunch) yet technically not a zombie movie (the infected can starve to death, and therefore die, and therefore aren't undead), 28 Days Later... is an unpretentious and intense cinematic experience for those who are into that sort of thing (and I suppose I am). And it also serves as a good reminder: hippies screw everything up.

30. Hot Fuzz
(Edgar Wright, 2007)
You can tell that director Edgar Wright, star/co-writer Simon Pegg and co-star Nick Frost are having the times of their lives playing with every big budget action film trope: high-speed car chases, jumping through windows while shooting their guns sideways and firing their guns up in the air going, "Aaaaaaaah." Both a parody and perfect example of the shoot-em-up films of the past 20 years, Hot Fuzz may be one of the most fun and fun-loving films made in the decade.

29. Shaun of the Dead
(Edgar Wright, 2004)
Another film from Wright & Pegg, and another film blatantly taking its cues from Romero's films (this time Dawn of the Dead), Shaun of the Dead starts out as a bit of a laugh until we find the eponymous Shaun's mother has been bitten by a zombie ("We don't say that word") neighbor and needs to be shot. Sure, it's more or less a comedy. But unlike the vile and repugnant spoof films by Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, this isn't a crass and cynical parody of Romero's films but a technically masterful quasi-parody made with loving care by -- and for -- genuine fanboys. Like Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead was made with love, and it shines through upon viewing.

28. A History of Violence
(David Cronenberg, 2005)
Though possibly his least...Cronenbergian (Hey, if "Lynchian" is a word, so is that) since The Dead Zone, A History of Violence still has the Canadian auteur's sticky fingerprints all over it (it's about the connection between physicality -- albeit via physical violence -- and identity). Sweet-natured Tom's altercation with two killers ultimately -- and unfortunately -- reveals his true identity: that of an ultraviolent "reformed" killer named Joey, who's reinvented himself to adapt to small-town country/family life. I particularly found the subplot with the son and the schoolyard bully fascinating. As the son of "Tom," he tries to evade and diffuse conflict. When he finds out he's the son of "Joey," he embraces excessive violence. Such a fascinating and engaging variation on the venerable, "How much of our identities are innate and how much are fabrication?" trope in fiction. And let's not forget William Hurt's fascinatingly oddball/funny/creepy portrayal of mob boss/older brother Richie.

27. The Departed
(Martin Scorsese, 2006)
One of the best films that one of America's best mainstream filmmakers has made in years. In fact, I'll go so far as to say The Departed is Martin Scorsese's best film since his seminal Goodfellas. (To me, Casino learned all the wrong lessons from Goodfellas and overused the device of voiceover narration so much it was insufferably distracting; when I first saw Casino, I almost felt compelled to yell at the screen, "Will you shut up? I’m trying to watch the movie!") With the help of the stellar cast, Scorsese uses what's good and fun about the standard cops-and-robbers/undercover-cop-getting-in-over-his-head genre, but knows that it's believable human behavior, not plot, that creates tension. I'm not wild about the phrase, "instant classic," but fuck it, since the shoe fits, I'll use it: The Departed is an instant classic. Also, if you haven't yet, go see Infernal Affairs, the Hong Kong film The Departed is based on. Both films are different enough yet actually complement each other really well: it’s fascinating to watch how Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan took the basic elements of Andrew Lau and Alan Mak's film and expanded on them to make The Departed both a faithful remake yet its own thing (Infernal Affairs' story is just as entrenched in Hong Kong’s culture, history and geography as The Departed's is in Boston’s).

26. Oldboy (올드보이)
(Park Chan-wook, 2003)
My friend Abe Goldfarb once described this film as “cinematic rape,” and I don’t think he’s too far off. A man is imprisoned for 15 years for reasons and by parties unknown, then let free. He uses his newfound freedom to figure out who imprisoned him, and why. And through the course of this bizarre revenge thriller, we find out the whos and the whys. Oh, boy, do we find out. As Oldboy unfolds, we’re shocked and horrified at the answers that eventually get doled out to us. But we’re also mesmerized by the scenes of low-key drama and compassion its protagonists display to one another, and equally mesmerized by the spectacular fight sequences (which exist to serve the characters and story, not the other way around). This is a film about people consumed with rage and a need for revenge, and shows us how this desire for revenge eats people alive.

(For the top 25, click here.)

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Blogger Philucifer said...

See, I always thought "The American Astronaut" was what David Lynch would do if he made a musical.

To each his own...

11:04 AM  

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