Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Top 50 Films of the Decade 2000-2009 Part III

30. Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002)
Writing is one of the least cinematic actives that you can do. How many ways are there to shot a man sitting at typewriter working through his book? But that is precisely what Spike Jonze’s Adaptation is about. Working off a brilliant screenplay by Charlie Kaufman, the film stars Nicolas Cage (in an amazing dual performance) as both Kaufman himself, and his twin brother Donald. Charlie works hard and diligently trying his damnedest to adapt Susan Orlean’s book, The Orchid Thief, a nearly impossible task he finds. He ends up injecting himself into the screenplay, as well as Susan Orlean herself (Meryl Streep) in her own story about The Orchid Thief (Chris Cooper). Meanwhile, Donald is carefree and easy, and has taken a screenwriting course from Robert McKee (Brian Cox), and has now decided that he too can be a screenwriter, and has come up with an idiotic screenplay entitled The Three (which strangely enough, seems to have been adapted in the horrible film Three). Kaufman has always been fascinated with how the human mind works, mainly his own mind, and in Adaptation he comes up with a brilliant screenplay about his mind and writing in general. And when he cannot come up with an ending, good old Donald is there to supply one.

29. Minority Report (Steven Spielberg, 2002)
Spielberg’s science fiction film, based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, is a brilliant Hitchcockian thriller set in a future world where people are arrested for crimes that they haven’t committed – yet. Tom Cruise stars as one of the cops who monitors the near future from murders that are about to take place, and then he and his team race in and stop them before they can happen. But when the machine tells him that he is going to kill someone, he goes on the run like many a Hitchcock hero – an innocent man wrongly accused. Or is he? This is the type of film that Spielberg does better than anyone else. The futuristic world he has created is full of details and wonderfully original creations (most notably, those creepy, crawly spider things). Cruise is excellent in the lead role, but I think Samantha Morton, as one of the three people who can see the future, is even better. Many think that Spielberg screwed up the ending – tacking on a happy one where it didn’t belong. But did he really, or did he just show us that like the Tim Blake Nelson says at one point, they are put where they can dream whatever they want forever.

28. In the Bedroom (Todd Field, 2001)
Todd Field’s In the Bedroom announced him as a major talent as a director. The film is a perfect adaptation of the Andre Dubos novel about a middle aged couple (Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek) whose life and marriage falls apart after the murder of their son, prompting Wilkinson to take matters into his own hands. Field’s film is a tightly wound thriller and a shattering family drama all at the same time. Field’s film slowly gets under our skin, and then involves us in the ever tightening noose of the plot. Tom Wilkinson’s performance here made him a star – a subtle, powerful performance of a grieving father, and the film offered the best role that Sissy Spacek had in years, and reestablished Marisa Tomei as an actress to watch for. One of the best debut films of the decade.

27. Sideways (Alexander Payne, 2004)
Alexander Payne’s Sideways is a sly comedy for grown-ups. Two men go on a wine tasting tour on the weekend before one of them is to become married. Paul Giamatti is the wine connoisseur (which in his case is a fancy way of saying alcoholic) who is still reeling from the fact that his wife has left him, and he cannot get his latest book published. His best friend is Thomas Haden Church, who just wants to let loose and have fun before he gets married. They meet two women – Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh – and that’s where things get really interesting. Sideways is a movie about two middle aged men still stuck in adolescence, who with the help of the women in their lives, start to take real steps towards adulthood. All the critical bashers of the movie – who claimed that most movie critics who celebrated the film looked like Paul Giamatti and wanted to bone someone who looked like Virginia Madsen – were misguided. This is just a lovely, life affirming little gem of a comedy.

26. Little Children (Todd Field, 2006)
If In the Bedroom was the film that announced Field to the filmmaking world, than Little Children is the film that cemented his status among the best directors out there right now. Little Children is an even more complex, more assured directorial effort than In the Bedroom was. The films title is supposedly about the children in the movie – but it really applies to all of the characters, who are one way or another all stuck in childhood. Kate Winslet gives a great performance as the housewife of an older husband, who is never around, who is bored just raising her kids. When she meets stay at home dad Patrick Wilson, everything changes. Wilson is the quarter back type – the guy who never looked at her in high school – and so when they start an affair, it’s an ego boost for her. For him, it’s a way to rebel against his wife (Jennifer Connelly), who earns all the money, and pushes Wilson to be more than he thinks he’s capable of. He is a guy who has never really progressed past who he was in high school – he was always good looking and popular, so he didn’t need to really develop a personality. Add in Jackie Earle Haley’s brilliant performance as a local pedophile, struggling to stay straight, and Little Children becomes one of the most interesting, deeply felt movies of the decade.

25. Mystic River (Clint Eastwood, 2003)
Clint Eastwood even more firmly established himself as more than a movie star, but a legitimately great filmmaker this decade, and for me Mystic River is the best film of his career aside from his masterpiece Unforgiven. Set in Boston, the movie tells the story of three childhood friends who have gone off in wildly different directions. Sean Penn has become a husband and father, but still has crime connections that can get dirty work done when he needs it. Kevin Bacon has become a cop, and is determined to solve the crime in front of him, no matter where it leaves. And most tragically, Tim Robbins has also grown up to become a father, but because of an incident in his childhood, has become damaged goods – there is something not quite right about him. When Penn’s daughter is murdered, Bacon is assigned the case, and Robbins becomes the chief suspect. But not everything is as it appears. Like Eastwood’s masterpiece, Unforgiven, Mystic River is a film about the causes and effects of violence – how one act can irrevocably affect someone’s life forever. This is Eastwood at the height of his filmmaking powers.

24. Traffic (Steven Soderbergh, 2000)
Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic is the director’s best film. He tells three overlapping stories about the futility of the drug war. In one, the newly appointed drug czar (Michael Douglas) struggles with his new job as his daughter (Erika Christenson) falls into abuse herself. In another two cops (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman) try and catch a major drug smuggler, only to have his wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) take over while he is in prison. In the best segment, Mexican cop Benicio Del Toro stops a major drug run, but is interrupted by an army general who hires him to bring in a hit man for a major drug cartel, and this is only the beginning to the corruption Del Toro sees over the course of the film. Shot is three distinct visual schemes, the film paints a dizzying portrait of the drug war – a war where nobody wins, and everyone loses. For every victory there are a thousand loses. Soderbergh has spent most of the rest of the decade experimenting, but he has never made a film this good since.

23. 25th Hour (Spike Lee, 2002)
Spike Lee had an interesting decade as a filmmaker starting with the under seen and underrated Bamboozled and ending with the under seen and underrated Passing Strange. But to me, his best achievement of the decade was this 2002 film about a drug dealer (Edward Norton) on his last day of freedom before going to jail for years. The film, coming a year after 9/11 didn’t shy away from the new New York (it even features a lengthy conversation where outside the window we can see ground zero), and instead embraced it. The sequence where Norton pours out of all his rage in a lengthy monologue where he blames everyone else for what happened to him, before finally coming around back to himself is one of the best sequences that Lee has ever shot. Yet the whole movie is electrifying and alive. Norton, who had a troubling decade where he rarely delivered the type of performance that I know he is capable of, is simply amazing here, and he is supported by a great cast including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper, Brian Cox, Rosario Dawson and Anna Paquin. A tour de force for Lee that ranks right along his very best films.

22. Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky, 2000)
This was the decade that Darren Aronofsky really established himself as a filmmaker. After his ambitious debut film, Pi in 1998, Aronofsky raised his game another level when he made Requiem for a Dream, one of, if not the best, movie ever made about drug addicts. Most films about drug addicts are about the world around them when they get high, but this is a film that concentrates on the world that the addicts retreat to when they’re high. Four different drug addicts are portrayed here, whose lives fall apart over three seasons. In the summer, everything seems to be going okay – Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly and Marlon Wayans are three heroin addicts who have decided to try and make money selling drugs, not just taking them. Meanwhile, Leto’s mother, Ellen Burstyn, dreams of going on the game show she watches every day, and has convinced herself it’s going to happen – so she starts taking diet pills, which are essentially just speed. Fall brings the beginning of their downfall, as none of their plans go like they were supposed to, and rifts in the relationships start forming. By winter, all four characters have been ripped apart in one way or another, driven to jail, prostitution, hospitals or mental wards. Brilliantly shot, edited and scored (by Clint Mansell, who is on the best breakout composers this decade), Requiem for a Dream is a gut punch of a film. The film is not just about drugs – but really about addiction of any kind, and how people substitute real happiness for a quick fix that ultimately destroys them.

21. The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, 2008)
Following The Fountain, an equally ambitious and flawed film, Aronofsky took a major departure for him, making this brilliantly, stripped to the bone film featuring one of the very best performances of the decade by Mickey Rourke. Rourke plays Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a once famous wrestler during the 1980s, who now 20 years later is still trying to hold on to the last remnants of his fame. His money is gone, his groupies are gone, and years of steroid use and wrestling, have left his body a complete and utter wreck. But he keeps going unable to let go of the past. He tries hard to reconnect with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), but he doesn’t really know her, and she has moved on. The only real relationship he has is with a stripper (Marisa Tomei), who like Randy is getting too old for her profession. There is a tenderness and sympathy between the two of them. Rourke is amazing in his comeback role, and The Wrestler is a heartbreaking character study, from its opening montage to its tragic final image.

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