Tuesday, December 8, 2009

No bull, no chaser, just the best films of the aughts.

Who’d a-thunk it? We’ve hit the end of the first decade of the new millennium! To be honest, I had it in my head that the end of the decade would be at the close of 2010, not 2009. However, after seeing list after list of the best films of the decade from everyone from the New York Times, Empire Magazine, and a pretty decent list from Paste Magazine, I decided that it would not be the proper finish to the decennium without my very own contribution to this endless stream of lists.

I’m going to do these in alphabetical order, because I really have a problem with ranking terrific films as being “better” or “worse” than each other. For my money, a great movie is just that: a great movie.

Incipit . . .

4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days
Written and directed by Cristian Mungiu
--The objectivity that Mungiu brings to the haunting story of two young women trying to arrange an illegal abortion in Communist Romania provides for a pitch perfect look into the difficulty of life in Eastern Europe and the horror of what these women and others like them went through in situations like this. This film is wonderfully directed, with a combination of both handheld work and beautiful, classically constructed shots. This is taut, gripping stuff.

Adaptation
Written by Charlie Kaufman, directed by Spike Jonze
--Charlie Kaufman took his own struggle to adapt Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief and wrote a screenplay that is the dramatization of that struggle to write the screenplay of the movie that ends up on the screen. If it sounds confusing, watch the film. You’ll understand exactly what I mean. Adaptation is staggering proof that as screenwriters go, there are people who write movies, and then there’s Charlie Kaufman.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence
Written for the screen by Ian Watson & Steven Spielberg, directed by Steven Spielberg
--A.I. Artificial Intelligence is widely regarded as the film Stanley Kubrick might have directed. The futuristic re-telling of the Pinnochio story works wonderfully as visual spectacle and also forms an undeniable emotional connection. Kubrick’s ending, often mistakenly attributed to Spielberg, gives him the last laugh on those who think they can figure him out. If you think David’s story ends happily, I encourage you to take a closer look. You might just be surprised.

Casino Royale
Written for the screen by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, & Paul Haggis, directed by Martin Campbell
--As an action film, Casino Royale succeeds on every front. If I had a quarter for every time I thought “They’re NOT!” only to be proved wrong, I would be a few dollars richer after watching the film. Daniel Craig is wonderful as 007 and brings a rough-edged quality to Bond’s signature devil-may-care approach to his job and his life. Just when I thought the film had reached its zenith, I was thrown back in my seat, shocked to find a beating heart present amongst the gunshots, explosions, and shaken martinis.

City of God
Written for the screen by Paulo Lins & Bráulio Mantovani, directed by Fernando Meirelles & Kátia Lund
--Many modern directors use all kinds of tricks to heighten the action on screen, including handheld cameras, quick cuts, time-lapse sequences, slow-motion, and speeding things up. While Meirelles and Lund use all of these tricks, the way they use them is wonderfully distinctive. Instead of distracting the viewer with gimmick after gimmick, their extensive use of these visual flourishes is wonderfully naturalistic and actually achieves the lofty goal that those who use them rarely reach: intensifying the visual experience of the film. City of God is one of the best-directed films I’ve ever seen.

The Constant Gardener
Written for the screen by Jeffrey Caine, directed by Fernando Meirelles
--This a throwback to an older version of the thriller, when the characters were what drove the story, instead of the action-packed moments designed to keep you on the edge of your seat. Ralph Fiennes is outstanding as a bureaucrat in Africa trying to uncover the conspiracy behind the murder of his wife. With wonderful direction from Meirelles, The Constant Gardener lingers in your mind after it’s over. Name another thriller that does THAT.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Screenplay by Wang Hui Ling, James Schamus, & Tsai Kuo Jung, directed by Ang Lee
--Nowadays, hyper-kinetic fight scenes are the norm, but back in 2000, this stuff was breathtakingly new. Ang Lee’s take on the wuxia film blew my teenage mind. Not only do the fight scenes achieve a sense of visual poetry, but the love stories are incredibly poignant and the ending unforgettable. Films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon are why I love the movies.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Written for the screen by Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry, & Pierre Bismuth, directed by Michel Gondry
--After Adaptation, the fact that this film is a cinematic mind trip is no surprise. The fact that it’s that emotionally compelling is. What’s even more shocking is the grace and poise that Jim Carrey brings to his performance as Joel, a man trying to have his ex-girlfriend erased from his memory. As it turns out, Ace Ventura can REALLY act. As for Kaufman, the literal depiction of the whirl of thoughts, feelings, and memories taking place in Joel’s mind is something that only he could do, and do this well.

Finding Nemo
Written by Andrew Stanton, Bob Peterson, & David Reynolds, directed by Andrew Stanton & Lee Unkrich
--I dare you to try to watch Finding Nemo without once cracking a smile. It can’t be done. The film is stunningly animated, wonderfully funny, and beautifully tender. The voice cast is outstanding, with particular credit going to Ellen DeGeneres’ hilarious work as Dory. In Pixar’s long line of diamonds, Finding Nemo is the crown jewel.

Gosford Park
Written by Julian Fellowes, directed by Robert Altman
--Gosford Park is a perfect addition to Altman’s storied tradition of taking a genre story and turning it on its ear. It starts as a whodunit and ends as a whydunit by using the familiar conventions of the Agatha Christie-style mystery to illuminate the socially tense delicate balance between the aristocrats visiting a country house and the servants serving their every whim. The first time you watch Gosford Park, you’re figuring out what the puzzle looks like. Every other time after that, you’re figuring out how the pieces fit together. This film fascinates like few ever do.

The Lord of the Rings
Written for the screen by Phillipa Boyens, Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson, & Stephen Sinclair, directed by Peter Jackson
--Peter Jackson’s project was one of the most ambitious in the history of cinema; that he succeeded so well is nothing short of a movie miracle. On their own they have their ups and downs, with The Return of the King the best film of the trilogy, but seen together? Together, The Lord of the Rings is one of the best literary adaptations, fantasy films, and trilogies ever made. Lumping three films into one slot is cheating, and I know it. They were clearly meant to be seen as one (albeit HUGE) film anyway.

La Vie En Rose
Written by Isabelle Sobelman & Olivier Dahan, directed by Olivier Dahan
--Biopics, such as they are, are nothing new. Even though it contains many of the biopic’s conventions, La Vie En Rose is so much more than that. If some actors are born to play certain roles, Marion Cotillard was born to play Edith Piaf. She’s simply radiant. The masterful final act is one of beauty, grace, and heartbreak.

Letters From Iwo Jima
Screenplay by Iris Yamashita, directed by Clint Eastwood
--I’ve seen a ton of films about war, but few of them have shaken me to the depths that this one did. Letters From Iwo Jima refuses to accept the traditional definitions of “good guy” and “bad guy.” For the first time, I felt that I truly saw those who the history books always painted were evil. I looked at their faces, and realized that they weren’t so different from my own. In a year when Eastwood released two films about the battle of Iwo Jima, this film is far-and-away the superior effort. A masterpiece from an American master.

Lost In Translation
Written and directed by Sofia Coppola
--Lost In Translation is one of those modest little films that sets out to tell a story that appears simple and straightforward. Bill Murray is the middle-aged man in crisis. Scarlett Johansson is the young woman in limbo. The impact of their encounter, set against a background of Tokyo, insomnia, and late nights, is too wonderful for me to even think of spoiling for you. Thoughtful, funny, and poignant, Sofia Coppola’s little film is one that I will cherish for the rest of my life.

Million Dollar Baby
Written for the screen by Paul Haggis, directed by Clint Eastwood
--Hilary Swank’s performance as an aspiring boxer is one of the single greatest pieces of acting I’ve ever seen. Morgan Freeman is excellent. Clint Eastwood is great in front of the camera, and even better behind it. I don’t like choosing “favorites,” but this film would be on the shortlist of my all-time favorite movies. Some films have the power to change the viewer. Million Dollar Baby changed me.

Moulin Rouge!
Written by Baz Luhrmann & Craig Pearce, directed by Baz Luhrmann
--Exhilaration! Lightning fast direction. Head-spinning songs. Vibrant colors. Elaborate production numbers. “They wouldn’t do THAT!” This is crazy! “Oh, yes they WOULD!” The musical is back and its name is Moulin Rouge!

Mulholland Dr.
Written and directed by David Lynch
--In his way, David Lynch has been the Boo Radley of American film for years. You don’t really know what he’s doing, but you sure are curious to find out. Mulholland Dr. is a hypnotic film like few modern films are. Lynch found the perfect balance between his trademark dreamy surrealism and the barest glimpse of narrative consistency. I think Mulholland Dr. actually makes perfect sense if it’s approached a certain way. . . but good luck with that. You may not have a clue what’s going on, but I dare you to try and stop watching.

Munich
Screenplay by Tony Kushner & Eric Roth, directed by Steven Spielberg
--When Munich was released in 2005, it was alternately decried in certain Israeli circles as being pro-Palestinian and in certain Palestinian circles as being pro-Israeli. The heartbreaking truth of the film is a deftly nuanced look at the history of the conflict between two great cultures that is alternately thrilling and horrifying. The performances are strong, the ending penetrating, and the final shot unforgettable. Munich is a criminally overlooked gem.

No Country For Old Men
Written for the screen and directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
--From beginning to end, No Country For Old Men is a textbook example on how to make a proper film. The writing is terrific, the direction is nearly flawless, and the cast, particularly Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Kelly Macdonald and a chilling Javier Bardem, is excellent. This is one of the best films the Coen brothers have ever made. While they’ve made a career out of putting strange characters in even stranger situations, here, Joel and Ethan Coen do the strangest thing of all. They play it straight.

Once
Written and directed by John Carney
--The mere existence of Once is enough to restore a person’s belief in the possibility of the miraculous. The film was shot for a paltry $160,000 over 17 days, with two leads whose combined acting experience was one small part in a 1991 movie. In almost any other situation, all of those factors could have been a recipe for disaster or, at the best, mediocrity. That’s what makes the beauty of Once so astounding. It’s a musical without artificiality, a romance without clichés, and a coming-of-age story without platitudes. When people talk about movie magic, this is what they’re talking about.

Shrek
Screenplay by Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, Joe Stillman, & Roger S. H. Schulman, directed by Andrew Adamson & Vicky Jenson
--For all of the talk of the brilliance of Pixar, if I had to choose my out-and-out favorite computer-animated film, I might just give the nod to a little movie about an ogre and a talking donkey. Shrek’s ability to thoroughly deconstruct the fairy tale while simultaneously re-affirming its most basic principles is nothing short of genius at work.

Spider-Man 2
Written for the screen by Alvin Sargent, Alfred Gough, Miles Millar, & Michael Chabon, directed by Sam Raimi
--In most superhero movies, the obligatory “regular guy” stuff is what you have to sit through until the hero emerges on screen to jump, fly, and smash his way to victory. That’s what sets Spider-Man 2 apart. The focus is squarely on the trials and tribulations of Peter Parker, not Spider-Man. As a result, the costume never overshadows the character. In many ways, the real world sequences with Peter are more interesting than Spidey’s action setpieces. Note-for-note, Spider-Man 2 is the finest superhero film I have ever seen.

There Will Be Blood
Written for the screen and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
--Anyone who watches a lot of movies gets used to certain rhythms, conventions, and stylistic tendencies that can point the way to where the film is headed. There Will Be Blood is something wondrous and rare: a truly original, honest-to-god, full-blooded, living breathing MOVIE. The performances are perfect. The music is perfect. The direction is almost flawless. Brooding and raging his way across the screen, Daniel Day-Lewis deserves a place in the pantheon usually reserved for actors like Brando. Simply put, this is what you call a masterpiece.

Traffic
Screenplay by Stephen Gaghan, directed by Steven Soderbergh
--Traffic serves as an unflinching look at the world of those who buy, sell, and fight against illegal drugs. Despite juggling a number of stories, characters, and locations simultaneously, Soderbergh (who also served as the film’s cinematographer) always keeps the viewer grounded visually as to exactly where the action on screen is taking place and what’s going on. Before hyperlink cinema became all the rage, Traffic did it first, and in some cases, much, much better.

United 93
Written and directed by Paul Greengrass
--The story of the terrorist attacks of 2001 is not a story that is easy to re-visit, because, unlike many other historical films, we were there and we know how it was. When I first heard about this project, I immediately thought that 5 years didn’t seem like enough time to wait to make the film. I was wrong. The screenplay is completely respectful of those who died on board United Flight 93, and Greengrass’ signature handheld style has never been more effective. As the film neared its conclusion, I reached over and took the hand of the person I was with. Even though a part of me wanted so badly to look away, I couldn’t. United 93 is essential cinema.

Finis.

11 comments:

Heather said...

Only seen 4 of the 25. I'm behind in my movie watching apparently.

I'll still never agree with you on Spider-man 2 being the best super hero movie. It was entertaining without a doubt but not the type of movie I would go out of my way to see again. Felt like a lot of whining and drama (like the type from jr. high). Doc Oc was cool, and the scene in the train made me cry (but than again so did Pokemon the First Movie... and the 5th one... and...). I guess I should stop arguing against it since it's gotten to the point where I don't really remember anything about it even though I've seen it 5 times. Must have not been memorable... I didn't like the fact that his mask got ripped every fight scene. Why can't he block his face? That was too the point of stupidity, I think. Come on; it's your face!

On a side note, I'm glad Watchmaniacs didn't get on your list :-D

Patty said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Patty said...

Thank you for the nod to Casino Royale; I'm normally not a big James Bond fan, but the opening chase scene and the heart wrenching conclusion of this one blew me away as well.

I now have a list of some new movies to try. :)

Chris W said...

Adam, I must commend you on a very well made list. If I had put a list of actual movies together (Which I'm still trying to talk myself into not doing) there would be more than a few similarities. Well done in calling out CASINO ROYALE and I'm sorry Heather but SPIDER-MAN 2 is amazing. While I don't think it's as good as BATMAN BEGINS or THE DARK KNIGHT it is an AMAZING movie, one that and I can and do watch all the time. Once again Adam, well played sir!

Jenny said...

On the Father's Day after the extended version Lord of the Rings boxed set came out, our family watched the whole series, back-to-back. It was quite an experience. :D

Christina said...

13/25. Though not sure if Nemo counts. ;)

Senor Granto said...

Haven't seen everything on this list but I have most. I would have included Gran Turino though but it seems like Eastwood was already well represented on your list. Looking forward to Invictus.

Adam said...

I loved Gran Torino, and in a perfect world it would have been included. I just didn't want the list to turn into a total Eastwood love-fest, you know?

Senor Granto said...

I feel you there, he has been on fire this decade so I guess some had to miss the cut.

Adam Zanzie said...

Adam, nice work here. There are many titles that didn't make my list both because I didn't have enough room for them and because, well, I didn't feel that they needed my support. Spider-Man 2, is, for me, the only film in the trilogy that's worth watching numerous times because, as you say, Raimi focuses more on Parker instead of the hero. I like Million Dollar Baby a lot, too, but I have to admit that my enthusiasm for Paul Haggis died after I saw Crash- which pretty much spelled out the kind of screenwriter he seems to be aiming to be.

Loved the nods to Spielberg and Lynch and especially Altman: I was surprised to see Gosford Park in your list, which I consider one of the decade's top twenty.

Of course, I think your list could use a few Scorsese titles, hehe. Also, have you considered De Palma? He's one of the most divisive living filmmakers, yes, but once you start watching more of his movies, believe me: you'll be hooked. Most people agree that Femme Fatale was his strongest effort this decade. Myself, being the lefty that I am, I'm most partial towards Redacted.

Adam said...

Thank you, good sir.

I'm interested to know why Gosford Park's inclusion surprised you though. Hopefully the quality of my list was not so dubious as to inspire surprise when a great film like GP "snuck" in. :-) I've seen the film about 8 times and it quickly became one of my very favorites. I also adored Altman's last film, A Prairie Home Companion. See that one? It's wonderful, and that's not a word that I use very often to describe a film.

I know what you mean about Haggis to a degree. Crash . . . had some issues. Fortunately, between the magnificent MDB and In the Valley of Elah, which I believe is extremely underrated, there is room to hope that Crash is the exception, rather than the rule.

As for Scorsese, if Raging Bull had been released last decade, it would most definitely been on the list. :-)

De Palma, eh? I've only seen a few of his films, but, given your words of praise, I'll have to check him out more extensively.