Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Top 50 Films of the Decade 2000-2009 Part II

40. Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002)
Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven is a throwback to the Douglas Sirk films of the 1950s, where simmering erotic tension was just beneath the surface, and even if they were not explicit, you could tell that homosexuality and bi-racial romances were being implied. In a way, Haynes made the film that Sirk never could. Julianne Moore gives an excellent performance as a housewife you believes she has the perfect life, until she finds out her husband (Dennis Quaid) is gay, and it sends her into a tailspin. Dennis Haysbert plays her gardener, and despite their racial differences, the two start to fall in love. Patricia Clarkson is great in a small role as the nosy neighbor who sticks her nose in where it doesn’t belong. Haynes does a great job recreating Sirk’s dazzlingly Technicolor look, and the score by Elmer Bernstein brilliantly evokes the classic scores of the 1950s. This is not the 1950s as it really was – but how it was as filtered through the movies.

39. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003)
This was a critical favorite back in 2003, but for some reason it has lost some its praise over the years. This mystifies me, as I still find Sofia Coppola’s drama of isolation and alienation to be both touching and funny. Bill Murray gives a great performance as an aging movie star who goes to Japan to make a lot of money shooting a whiskey commercial, and while there he meets Scarlett Johansson’s bored wife or a famed photographer. The two of them bond, and spend more and more time together, yet the relationship never becomes sexual like we think it’s going to. Instead, the movie just observes these characters in a foreign land with no one else to hang onto. I know that Johansson really has not delivered on her early promise, but she is fantastic in this movie, and Murray’s performance is still one of the best of the decade. Go back and watch the film again, and I think you’ll fall in love with it all over again.

38. About Schmidt (Alexander Payne, 2002)
Alexander Payne has firmly established himself as one of America’s best filmmakers (now make another damn film Alex!), and About Schmidt is one of the big reasons why. The film stars Jack Nicholson in one of the best performances of his career as a recently widowed man who travels across country to be at his daughter’s wedding. About Schmidt is a subtle comedy, which mixes in healthy doses of tears along with the laughs. Schmidt is a guy who has never been all that open or loving with the people in his life, and he has become isolated and remote by the passing of his wife – a woman who he pretty much hated by the end. Kathy Bates gives a lively performance as his future in law, but this really is Nicholson’s show. He foregoes his usual tendency to simply play Jack, and instead gets inside the skin of a character unlike anything he has ever played before. A sly comedy that sticks with you long after it’s over.

37. The Aviator (Martin Scorsese, 2004)
Unlike most of his cohorts who came of filmmaking age in the 1970s, Martin Scorsese is still turning out great films. The Aviator is at first glance, just another splashy, big budgeted Hollywood biopic, concentrating on Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) in the years before he became the crazed, germaphobic recluse who locked himself in his Las Vegas hotel and never came out. DiCaprio perfectly captures Hughes – which is a challenge because physically, I don’t see much resemblance. The movie is essentially about how the same things that destroyed Hughes – his possessiveness – is also what made him great in the first place. Brilliantly filmed by Scorsese and Robert Richardson, the film is almost three hours long but moves at a restless pace throughout. DiCaprio is great, but he is supported by a wonderful cast – most notably Cate Blanchatt in her Oscar winning turn as Katherine Hepburn. The Aviator is one of the many triumph’s of Scorsese’s career.

36. A.I. (Steven Spielberg, 2001)
I know Spielberg caught a lot of slack from critics for taking over one of Stanley Kubrick’s dream projects, but in my mind, A.I. is an almost perfect blend of the two radically different filmmakers. To those who say that Spielberg screwed up by giving the film a happy ending, all I can say is that if you call a movie which ends with the extinction of the human race a happy ending, then be my guest. This is Spielberg at his darkest – from the family who abandons David (Haley Joel Osment), to the Flesh Fair, to Gigolo Joe, to William Hurt as the icy, cruel inventor (which is right out of Kubrick by the way – watch the scene where he reaches for the naked woman’s breasts), this was the start of what in my mind has been the most fascinating segment of Spileberg’s career (at least until the latest Indy movie that is). A brilliantly well made film. I doubt Kubrick could have done any better.

35. Inland Empire (David Lynch, 2006)
Lynch’s second surrealist shot at Hollywood of the decade proved once again that the older Lynch gets, the weirder he gets. This film, which he financed and distributed by himself, is about an actress (Laura Dern, in a stunning performance) making a film called On High in Blue Tomorrows, which is a remake of an old Polish film that was abandoned after the two leads were murdered. Thus begins this exercise in surrealism that includes a sitcom about giant rabbits speaking in non-sequitor with an inane laugh track in the background, and a group of prostitutes doing the Locomotion. What does it all mean? Well, I don’t have time to explain that here, nor would I really want to (or honestly, I don’t think I could), but this is a film that Lynch was born to make. That he had to make. A masterpiece.

34. The Man Who Wasn’t There (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2001)
The Coens second film on this list is this wonderful, comedic film noir with Billy Bob Thornton’s best performance at its core. Thornton plays a barber who is so quiet that no one ever quite notices when he is around. He narrates his story in classic film noir style, and we learn about his wife’s (Frances McDormand, brilliant as always) infidelity with her boss (James Gandolfini), while at the same time he is approached by a sleazy man (Jon Polito) asking for an investment in a new idea called “dry cleaning”. Thornton decides to blackmail Gandolfini for the money, thus setting off a sequence of events, where the entire weight of the world comes crashing down on Thornton. The film is a classic firm noir story, with twists that only the Coen brothers could have thrown in (the constant talk of UFOs for example). Brilliantly shot by Roger Deakins, The Man Who Wasn’t There is a throwback to the type of film Hollywood doesn’t seem to know how to make anymore.

33. The Lord of the Rings (Peter Jackson, 2001-2003)
No single film in Jackson’s trilogy would be, in my mind, worthy of a place on this list. But taken together as a huge, 10 hour epic, it is impossible to deny the filmmaking skill, and the storytelling ability that is on display throughout this entire series. From the opening scenes of Fellowship, which establishes Frodo, Gandalf and the rest of our heroes, through The Two Towers (which in my mind, is the best of the three films), which deepens the characters and the story, right up until the final moments of The Return of the King, which strike the perfect emotional note, we are in the hands of a master storyteller. Am I cheating in putting all three of these films together in one spot? I don’t think so, because to me, they really are one, staggering work.

32. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2005)
Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men works on any number of levels. At its most basic, it is a wonderful Christian fable, about a vengeful God who punishes humanity by making them unable to reproduce for 30 years, thus throwing the whole world into chaos, before a miracle happens. It is also an intelligent dystopian view of the future, and breathless action film (those long, unbroken tracking shots during the climatic gunfight in the dilapidated refugee city are amazing). The movie is anchored by Clive Owen’s solid performance as a man who is long past the point of caring, until he is given a shattering wake-up call. Cuaron has been making great films for a while now – among them Y Tu Mama Tambien – but Children of Men is the film that lifted up among the top echelon of directors working today.

31. The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009)
Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon is an engrossing, methodical black and white film about a small town in Germany just before WWI, where the adults teach the children a set of absolutist moral values, and are shocked to discover that the children expect them to uphold the same moral code. The danger is teaching children these values, according the movie anyway, is how it gives rise to them being easily swayed to following them on a larger scale. Specifically, for this film, the children of this movie will grow up to become the Nazis under Hitler 20 years later – but the theme is universal and could be set anywhere from Muslim countries that produce terrorists, to the American South where Christian fundamentalists bomb abortion clinics. The film is epic in scope, brilliantly shot by Christen Berger is gorgeous black and white, the film feels like it is based on a classic novel, but the work is all of Haneke’s own. One of the best filmmakers in the world right now, The White Ribbon is one of his masterpieces.

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