Meeting in the Aisles

Films of the Decade – Part V: No.15 – No.11

Posted in Features by le1gh on December 28, 2009

Part I is playing the music over here.

Part II is lighting the lights up here.

Part III is putting on its make round about here.

And Part IV is dressing up right over here.

Just to clarify some potential confusion: each entry, from 30 down to Number 1, has two films listed. Only the first is on The List; the second (‘See Also’) is another fine, usually underrated film that, for me, somehow evokes the first and is worthy of at least a mention, if not an “official” placing. Plus the chance to big up the likes of Memories of MurderKeane, Anvil! and A Prairie Home Companion is just too good to pass up…

15)            GOSFORD PARK (2001)

Dir: Robert Altman  Scr: Julian Fellowes

Stars: Michael Gambon, Helen Mirren, Maggie Smith

Few US filmmakers seemed so defiantly American as Robert Altman. Poking holes in the hallowed fabric of jingoistic flag-wavers across wartime (M.A.S.H), myth-busting ‘Wild West’ history (McCabe & Mrs Miller), Hollywood (The Player) and contemporary urban malaise (Short Cuts), his patented creeping-vine camera, dense, overlapping audio and quirky ensembles appear not snide dissension, but rather the ultimate in onscreen democracy (though of course his style is just as ‘directed’). Transplanting this to a veddy-veddy English 1930’s country house, murder-mystery parlour game sounded a fraught yet fascinating, perhaps fatal, experiment. But we should have realised that Altman more than anyone, knows the rules of his particular game.

Gosford Park roams upstairs and downstairs, through upper-class ladies chambers and below-deck servants’ quarters, for a pitch-perfect dissection of class warfare and a witty comedy of so-called manners. Julian Fellowes’ sparkling, crystal chandelier of a script (replete with the sort of juicy one-liners that Maggie Smith and co devour for elevenses), allows Altman the refractions and reflections he savours, while an impeccable, largely British cast play backstairs intrigue to the hilt. A living, breathing, quietly seething masterpiece, it makes most ‘period’ movies look like the stuffy, fussy literary adaptations they are. Top hole, sir.

Gosford Park Clip: Murder

See also:


Dir: Robert Altman  Scr: Garrison Keillor

Stars: Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Kevin Kline

Great artists’ swansongs must be handled with care: few know that their latest work will in fact be their last, yet we mine them for clues to a final solution or summation. Still, this low-key, shaggy, sweet-natured tribute to another artist (Garrison Keillor) and medium (radio) altogether somehow feels like the perfect Altman send-off. A closing down theatre, a rag-tag company, even an angel of death serenely stalking the hallways; there’s a melancholy sense of loss that permeates the entire film, but never at the expense of self-pity. Which makes it an fitting elegy to an unsentimental, enduring, underdog spirit.

A Prairie Home Companion Trailer:

14)            MEMENTO (2000)

Dir & Scr: Christopher Nolan

Stars: Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano

I’ve seen Memento half a dozen times at least, and every time its fractured retro-sequencing always takes me by surprise. Complex, confounding but never incoherent, Christopher Nolan’s corkscrewing mystery, based on brother Jonathan’s short story, is a formalist’s delight, told from back to front, as with Pinter’s Betrayal or Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow. But fancy narrative tricks are mere surface pleasures. Delve further into Memento’s dank, rabbit-warren-heart and you uncover that rare beast where plot, character perspective and audience experience all meld as one.

Taking a hoary thriller cliché (a crime-solving amnesiac) Nolan spins his protagonist Leonard Shelby’s short-term memory loss handicap to constantly resituate and re-evaluate the actions and words of everyone around him – excluding, tragically, himself. The underlying notion that we all, to varying degrees, lead lives of continual, rationalized self-deception is profoundly dispiriting stuff; but Nolan’s Chinese box-structuring and sneaky black humour – a chase where Shelby doesn’t know if he’s hunter or hunted – makes the whole disorientating mind-f*ck exhilarating. A film designed for today’s ADD, piecemeal re-viewing (spot the chilling freeze frame switch during the ‘Sammy Jankis’ episode), Memento inevitably propelled Nolan to Hollywood’s A-list, where despite Batman successes, he’s yet to top this haunting modern classic.

Memento Clip: Sammy Jankis

See also:


Dir: Paul Greengrass  Scr: Tony Gilroy

Stars: Matt Damon, Joan Allen, Brian Cox

No one could accuse Robert Ludlum’s lumpen airport novels of sophistication, let alone craft, which makes the resurrection of his amnesiac rogue operative Jason Bourne the decade’s most heartening revival. Doug Liman kicked things off with Identity, but when British director Paul Greengrass’s virtuoso, neo-cubist handheld shooting and breakneck editing took over, the series truly came alive. Supremacy’s raw, visceral stunts and breathless, up-close combat – here and in the later Ultimatum – raised the bar for modern movie action (even jumpstarting James Bond), all anchored by unusually thoughtful Tony Gilroy scripts and Matt Damon’s bruised (and bruising), understated star power.

The Bourne Supremacy Trailer:

13)            TALK TO HER (2002)

Dir & Scr: Pedro Almodóvar

Stars: Javier Cámara, Dario Grandinetti, Leonor Watling

I’ve tried hard to avoid tokenism on this list, but if there’s one director who had to be represented at all costs, it’s our Pedro. With the possible exception of Wes Anderson, I can’t think of another filmmaker this decade as prolific, unique, stylistically consistent and consistently excellent. Bad Education, Volver, even Broken Embraces could all grace any ‘Best Of’ round-up, but, somewhat predictably, I’ve gone for perhaps his most acclaimed and honoured achievement. Well, sometimes even the critics get it right.

The story of two ‘girlfriends’, dancer and bullfighter, in a coma and the two men, nurse and journalist, devoted to them, it’s an irresistible set up for Almodóvar to weave another of his intricate, swooning meditations on love in all its often disturbing guises. He effortlessly shuffles timeframes and relationship dynamics (and from nowhere, a masterful surreal, monochrome silent short film), successive temporal and personal layers fanning out ever more complex, contentious readings of each protagonist’s desires, fears and disabilities, physical or emotional (or both). Eschewing a trademark female ‘muse’ performance, a la Carmen Maura or Penelope Cruz, Almodóvar’s group of inspired actors show how, at his peerless best, the maestro communicates straight from, and to, the heart.

Talk to Her Trailer:

See also:

OFFSIDE (2006)

Dir: Jafar Panahi  Scr: Panahi & Shadmehr Rastin

Stars: Sima Mobarak-Shahi, Shayesteh Irani, Ayda Sadeqi

Remember Life of Brian’s sketch about disguised women illegally attending stonings? Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi (Crimson Gold, The Circle) takes a break from punishing social tracts for a comedy that echoes Monty Python, deftly scoring serious points about his country’s ludicrous gender inequality. Panahi’s intrepid football-mad ladies, prohibited from attending matches, dress up as lads determined to see their national team play a crucial World Cup qualifier. As in Alan Clarke’s The Firm, football action itself is scarcely glimpsed, throwing the focus on another grossly uneven field of play in extended take, charming vignettes. A cheeky, voluble true underdog story.

Offside clip: “She’s a first timer.”

12)            SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004)

Dir: Edgar Wright  Scr: Wright & Simon Pegg

Stars: Simon Pegg, Kate Ashfield, Nick Frost

[From my original capsule review] “Only genuine fans could make a respectful homage (to George A. Romero’s Living Dead series) and only genuine talents could simultaneously mark out their own big screen turf in such style. Director Edgar Wright and star Simon Pegg’s script never settles for mere parody. Instead they slice and dice genres, expertly blending gut-wrenching gore and gut-busting laughs, while still crafting a gripping, poignant redemption story. Chock-full of lovely casual touches – Pegg meeting Spaced co-star Jessica Hynes’s like-for-like team of survivors – and great comedic performances, Shaun even nails a sly portrait of sleepwalking, suburban 21st century Britain.”

Five years on, with Wright, Pegg and Frost now best buddies with Spielberg and Tarantino, their success seems almost preordained. But what made Shaun the sole survivor among other DOA TV-to-film transfers (Mitchell & Webb’s Magicians, Lesbian Vampire Killers) is equal attention to beautifully crafted gags and that unerring portrait of modern life(lessness) and male arrested development. Put simply, it’s comic chops that scores a zombie attack (in time) to Queen; it’s far greater ambition that offers social commentary the match of Loach and Leigh. And neither of them imagined your overgrown kid mate as an undead pet. Comedy of the decade.

Shaun of the Dead clip: ‘White Lines’

See also:


Dir: Stephen Frears  Scr: D.V. DeVincentis & Steve Pink & John Cusack and Scott Rosenberg

Stars: John Cusack, Iben Hjejle, Jack Black

If there’s one overworked, juvenile trope in recent comedy, it’s the overgrown man-child finally forced to grow up (Will Ferrell, Judd Apatow and co have fashioned whole careers from it). Thank goodness then for this mature, textbook adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel, switched from London to Chicago, with John Cusack confiding to camera about his lifelong, list-making love affair with rock music and rocky romantic track record. Clear-eyed and honest about male insecurities and infidelities, Cusack’s on top rain-drenched, lovelorn form. Funny, savvy and featuring a joyously eclectic All Time Top Five soundtrack (13th Floor Elevators, Beta Band, Stevie Wonder).

High Fidelity clip: The Beta Band

11)            CITY OF GOD (2002)

Dir: Fernando Meirelles, Kátia Lund Scr: Bráulio Mantovani

Stars: Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Firmino, Douglas Silva

Hard to ignore a sensationalist media tagline like “the Brazilian Goodfellas;” but on its original international release, there were genuine fears that this panoramic, decade-spanning crime epic set in the eponymous Rio favela could easily slip through the subtitled cracks. Now, laden with awards and along with say, Amelie and Pan’s Labyrinth, one of the few official foreign-language crossover hits (on permanent DVD price reduction at your local megastore), City of God’s success has somewhat backfired. Claims abound that Fernando Meirelles’ showy camera moves, multi-track edits and hypnotically percussive soundtrack only glorify the gun-toting drug dealers and shantytown hoods; that the titular irony is simplistic.

Interesting that Scorsese’s mob rarely suffered similar accusations, but pedantry and cheap comparisons aside, quite simply this is electrifying filmmaking. Working from Paulho Lins’ mammoth novel, Meirelles and Lund’s sinuous, hot-blooded style is seductive, but also gritty enough to shine a light on the shameful reality of desperation-borne greed and dead-eyed amorality bred by relentless, state-sanctioned poverty. They also elicit knockout performances from a roster of abandoned street kids, effectively leading by socially responsible example. Such altruism is noble – and obviously necessary – but matters little without onscreen dynamism. City of God blazes from both barrels.

City of God clip: L’il Ze

See also:


Dir: Paul Verhoeven  Scr: Verhoeven & Gerard Soeteman

Stars: Carice Van Houten, Sebastian Koch, Thom Hoffman

You know that unwritten rule that sombre history be rendered with reverence? Paul Verhoeven doesn’t. [again, from BBC Collective] “An epic, rip-roaring, double-crossing wartime thriller, Black Book finds Dutchman Verhoeven back home after 20 years goosing America’s skirts and on top form. Accept Schindler’s List remade as an unashamed B-movie spy throwback and enjoy the outrageous exploits of Rachel (a star-making turn from luminous Carice Van Houten), betrayed Jewish fugitive-turned-resistance-fighter-turned-Nazi mole. Verhoeven’s still kinky (check out the cheeky Basic Instinct full-frontal reference) but hasn’t shown such rigour and purpose in decades, subtly needling his own Hollywood impulses and climaxing with one of cinema’s great cynical final shots. Orange pulp of the highest quality.”

Black Book trailer:


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  1. […] And Part V didn’t mean to take up all of your sweet time here. […]

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