Meeting in the Aisles

Films of the Decade – The Aftermath

Posted in Features by le1gh on January 5, 2010

The full countdown is here.

A quick recap, then some further notes and observations:

FILMS OF THE DECADE

THE LIST                                                                                       SEE ALSO (Honourable Mentions)

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)          Tarnation (2004)

2. Mulholland Dr. (2001)                                                        Serenity (2005)

3. Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001)                                             4 Months 3 Weeks 2 Days (2007)

4. The Incredibles (2004)                                                       Femme Fatale (2002)

5. Brokeback Mountain (2005)                                            L.I.E (2001)

6. Innocence (2005)                                                                 Let the Right One In (2009)

7. I For India (2006)                                                                Capturing the Friedmans (2004)

8. A.I – Artificial Intelligence (2001)                                Southland Tales (2006)

9. The Darjeeling Limited (2007)                                        Since Otar Left (2003)

10. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-3)                      Moulin Rouge (2001)

11. City of God (2002)                                                               Black Book (2006)

12. Shaun of the Dead (2004)                                               High Fidelity (2000)

13. Talk to Her (2002)                                                             Offside (2006)

14. Memento (2001)                                                                 The Bourne Supremacy (2004)

15. Gosford Park (2001)                                                         A Prairie Home Companion (2006)

16. A Ma Soeur! (2001)                                                           My Summer of Love (2004)

17. A Serious Man (2009)                                                      Adaptation (2002)

18. The Lives of Others (2007)                                             The Dreamers (2004)

19. Up (2009)                                                                              Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2008)

20. Code Unknown (2000)                                                    The Edge of Heaven (2007)

21. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)                                     Together (2001)

22. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)                 In the Mood for Love (2000)

23. School of Rock (2003)                                                      The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005)

24. In This World (2002)                                                        The Class (2008)

25. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)                                                    The Orphanage (2008)

26. Requiem for a Dream (2000)                                        Keane (2004)

27. Dogville (2003)                                                                    Russian Ark (2002)

28. This is England (2006)                                                     Almost Famous (2000)

29. Zodiac (2007)                                                                      Memories of Murder (2004)

30. No End in Sight (2007)                                                    Grizzly Man (2005)

The Ones That Got Away:

Inevitably some films slip through the cracks and here are just a handful of those I wish I’d seen and can easily imagine might have found their way on to my list of favourites if I wasn’t such a 350-film-a-year slacker:

A One and a Two (2000)

George Washington (2000)

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001)

The Best of Youth (2003)

Head-On (2004)

2046 (2004)

Man Push Cart (2005)

Still Walking (2008)

Where The Wild Things Are (2009)

Missing in Action:


You’d have thought that 30 places x 2 was enough to list all the films I really wanted to honour. Fat chance. Here are a handful of titles that I’m slightly ashamed to have ultimately left out:

Breakfast on Pluto (2005) – Neil Jordan’s lyrical tale of a transvestite starring an eerily convincing Cillian Murphy.

Finding Nemo (2003) – Pixar at their most kid-friendly and charmingly inventive.

Fish Tank (2009) – poetic social realism from Britain’s Andrea Arnold.

Jindabyne (2005) – Fine Australian feature based on a Raymond Carver short story previously used in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts. Great performances by Gabriel Byrne and Laura Linney.

Little Miss Sunshine (2006) – Accessible US indie par excellence; the climactic dance number was a joyous jaw-dropper.

Casino Royale (2006) – the Best Bond (Daniel Craig) and Best Bond Movie either since Goldfinger or since, well, ever.

Old Boy (2003) – put New Korean cinema on the map with visceral, stylish intensity.

The Dark Knight (2008) – the best live-action superhero movie ever. Ledger’s Joker is a revelation.

Comme Une Image (2004) – In France Agnes Jaoui makes effortlessly witty ensemble comedy-dramas the way Woody Allen used to.

The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) – The Coens’ oddest, most melancholy and slyest comedy – until A Serious Man came along.

The Dark Knight – The Joker:

However the one exclusion above all that counts as a personal screw up (that’s what you get for trying to balance and parallel 30 pairs of films) is Alfonso Cuaron’s brilliant, gritty dystopia, Children of Men. Probably my favourite film of 2006, thematically rich – what would happen if babies stopped being born? – technically groundbreaking (the two key, one-take sequences, particularly the first inside the ambushed speeding car) and even boasting one of hit-and-miss Clive Owen’s very best performances, it’s another classy, emotionally gripping effort from one of the greatest directors working today.

My love of Y Tu Mama Tambien is already well documented, but Cuaron also made by far the decade’s best directed Harry Potter film (Prisoner of Azkaban), which took the series from kiddie flick to edgy, hormone-fuelled adolescent adventure (don’t believe me? What other Potter film opens with its teenage hero under the bedclothes playing with his “wand”?). Children of Men has visual effects as special as demolition derbies like 2012 or Armageddon, but grounds them with an integrity and a humanity that those films never even knew existed, let alone might be lost with the end of civilization.

Children of Men – Ambush:

Annus Mirabilis:

Common wisdom has 2007 as the decade’s “annus mirabilis,” particularly in American cinema, with heavyweight, unapologetically auteur fare like There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men, The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford and Zodiac. But, for me, the real standout year was 2004. Aside from my own favourite Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, plus others on the List like The Incredibles, Tarnation, Capturing the Friedmans, Shaun of the Dead, The Bourne Supremacy, My Summer of Love, The Dreamers, Keane and Memories of Murder, try and whittle those plus this lot down to a Top 10 (or two):

Spider-Man 2, Sideways, Comme Une Image, House of Flying Daggers, Bad Education, Before Sunset, CollateralHowl’s Moving Castle, Downfall, Kinsey, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Motorcycle Diaries.

As one of the defining movie characters of the year might put it, “How about that for a slice of fried gold?”

2001 wasn’t too shabby either – four of my Top 10 – Mulholland Dr., Y Tu Mama Tambien, A.I Artificial Intelligence and the first of the Lord of the Rings trilogy – were all released that year. Plus L.I.E, Memento, Gosford Park, A Ma Soeur!, The Royal Tenenbaums, Together and Moulin Rouge! In fact, 2001 has 11 on the List compared to 2004’s 10, so while its quality is ostensibly superior, I’m pretty sure the quantity on a wider, non-List level doesn’t quite match up.

The worst year? By least number of List entries, 3, that would be either 2003 or the last two years. Which could mean either that the decade tailed off early, I got far more picky, or I just didn’t catch the best stuff since 2007.

Same Folks, Different Strokes:

Perusing other Best of the Decade lists, many repeat choices don’t make my list, although other films from the same directors do: Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown instead of Hidden; The Coens’ A Serious Man over No Country for Old Men; preferring Richard Linklater’s School of Rock to Before Sunset; or even The Incredibles over Wall-E. All those more cited alternatives are good, maybe even great films, with knockout scenes (see below) but ultimately didn’t move or provoke me as much as those I went with.

No Country for Old Men – “Call it.”

There Won’t Be Blood…:

I’ve tried a couple of times, but I just can’t get excited by P.T Anderson’s period epic in the way that its devotees do. Many things about it are extraordinary: Anderson’s handling of the near-wordless introduction and stunning oil blaze sequences; Jonny Greenwood’s hypnotically atonal score; Robert Elswit’s luminous cinematography that somehow feels both full-colour and sepia; and of course, Daniel Day-Lewis’ gargantuan performance, Godzilla to the film’s – and screen acting in general – Tokyo. His baptism scene is one of the all-time great pieces of screen acting:

And yet… I think many critics have projected readings into the film that simply don’t hold up. If it’s really about America’s twin faiths of religion and capitalism, then why is the Church, and Paul Dano’s slippery preacher, so little match for Daniel (Day-Lewis / Plainview)? The fast-forwarded coda, though ripe for milkshake-spouting quotes and YouTube mash-ups, feels like an awkward adjunct that skims through and short changes Plainview’s relationship with his son. By making him such an unredeemable sociopathic monster, it strips away several layers of complexity that Anderson himself and Day-Lewis had carefully applied. And it didn’t tell me (or predict) one thing about our oil obsession that wasn’t abundantly clear from watching the news for the last, oh, twenty years.

…or Steven. Or Quentin:

Steven Soderbergh continues to be the most intriguing filmmaker of our times: a restless, workaholic technophile, unpredictably flitting between styles (from pastiches like The Good German and The Informant! to opaque biopics like the Che films) and scale (Ocean’s Umpteen Hollywood razzle-dazzle to zero budget digital experiments like Bubble or The Girlfriend Experience) like Beyonce changes outfits mid-show. I’m glad he’s out there, doing his own thing – and yet, I can’t think of a single film this decade as essential as his best work in the 80s and 90s – sex, lies and videotape, The Limey and his masterpiece Out of Sight. Traffic comes the closest and that was almost a decade ago itself.

Quentin Tarantino – Is Tarantino the most ill disciplined, indulged talent since Michael Cimino and Heaven’s Gate? Three hours and two films to tell Kill Bill’s simplistic revenge drama? The standalone Deathproof was tiresomely over-extended compared to its original Grindhouse double-bill running time. And Inglourious Basterds grinds to a halt almost every time the immaculate Christoph Waltz leaves the fray. Tarantino’s proved he can handle action scenes, car chases and cracking duologues set pieces – now he needs someone to keep him on a leash and make another tight, vice-like trap like Reservoir Dogs to get back his real bite.

Most Overrated / Worst of the ‘Best’:

Nobody expected anything less than garbage from Paris Hilton’s The Hottie and the Nottie or anything from Martin Lawrence, but here are offenders either mistakenly lauded, popular or that, on paper, promised much but delivered next-to-nothing.

Bad Boys 2 (2005) – standing in for the entire oeuvre of Michael Bay’s boombastic porn aesthetic, even by his shocking cynical standards, this soulless, sadistic, jingoistic, racist trash is appalling.

Changeling (2008) – Clint Eastwood at his most turgid and reactionary, Angelina Jolie at her Oscar-baiting hammiest. By the way, did you know: it’s not her son?

Crash (2005) – not as bad as some of its detractors now make out, but stunningly didactic and manipulative in places; and beating Brokeback Mountain to the Best Picture Oscar makes it about as overrated as an average-to-poor movie can be.

Elephant (2003) – Gus Van Sant tackles Columbine-esque high school massacres in his ethereal style, drifts aimlessly down corridors, makes a couple of reactionary assumptions, then floats away. Thanks for that, Gus. Please get Milk, asap.

For Your Consideration (2007) – Christopher Guest and crack improv troupe tackling awards season hyperbole should’ve been a slamdunk. Instead it’s shockingly sloppy and crass. The fine line between stupid and clever just got erased.

Irreversible (2002) – Ugly, mendacious, pseudo-profound, reversed exploitation flick. Apparently we need to see Monica Bellucci raped in graphic detail for nine minutes to understand the horrors of abuse. Tihsllub.

Monster’s Ball (2001) – desperate attempt to get gritty with the awards crowd and push capital punishment, suicide and racial buttons. Halle Berry’s historic Oscar-winning performance is almost as embarrassing as her bawling award acceptance.

Righteous Kill (2008) – Pacino. DeNiro. No Michael Mann. A dog’s dinner of a thriller with a thunderously obvious twist from two old hounds who should know far better.

Team America: World Police (2004) – moments of anarchic brilliance (Kim Jong-Il’s ‘I’m Ronely’) but overall a juvenile, knee-jerk, cowardly response to world policing that, inadvertently or not, endorsed much of the Bush administration’s worst tenets.

And finally, to end on a more positive note – the actors that have made the work of writers, directors, cinematographers, technicians and other actors come to vivid, unforgettable life in the last ten years. RIP, Mr. Ledger…

Performances of the Decade:

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

10. Tilda Swinton – Michael Clayton (2007)

09. Amy Ryan – Gone Baby Gone (2007)

08. Kierston Wareing – Fish Tank (2009)

07. Amy Adams – Junebug (2005)

06. Helen Mirren – Gosford Park (2001)

05. Maria Bello – A History of Violence (2005)

04. Cate Blanchett – Notes on a Scandal (2006)

03. Rachel Weisz – The Constant Gardener (2005)

02. Marisa Tomei – The Wrestler (2008)

01. Meryl Streep – Adaptation (2002)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

10. Robert Downey Jr – Tropic Thunder (2008)

09. Christoph Waltz – Inglorious Basterds (2009)

08. Mark Ruffalo – You Can Count On Me (2000)

07. Benicio Del Toro – Traffic (2000)

06. Brian Cox – L.I.E (2001)

05. Ben Kingsley – Sexy Beast (2001)

04. Jack Black – High Fidelity (2000)

03. Heath Ledger – The Dark Knight (2008)

02. Javier Bardem – No Country for Old Men (2007)

01. Casey Affleck – The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (2007)

BEST ACTRESS

10. Carice Van Houten – Black Book (2006)

09. Natalie Press / Emily Blunt – My Summer of Love (2004)

08. Sally Hawkins – Happy Go Lucky (2008)

07. Charlize Theron – Monster (2003)

06. Juliette Binoche – The Flight of the Red Balloon (2007)

05. Anamaria Marinca – 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (2007)

04. Nicole Kidman – Dogville (2003)

03. Kate Winslet – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

02. Maribel Verdú – Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001)

01. Naomi Watts – Mulholland Dr. (2001)

BEST ACTOR

10. Campbell Scott – Roger Dodger (2002)

09. Romain Duris – The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005)

08. Sean Penn – Milk (2008)

07. Damian Lewis – Keane (2004)

06. Viggo Mortensen – A History of Violence (2005)

05. Gene Hackman – The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

04. Haley Joel Osment – A.I – Artificial Intelligence (2001)

03. Ulrich Mühe – The Lives of Others (2006)

02. Daniel Day-Lewis – There Will Be Blood (2007)

01= Johnny Depp – Pirates of the Caribbean (2003)

01= Heath Ledger – Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Films of the Decade – Part III: No.24 – No.21

Posted in Features by le1gh on December 11, 2009

Part I can be found here:

Part II is here:

24)            IN THIS WORLD (2002)

Dir: Michael Winterbottom  Scr: Tony Grisoni

Stars: Jamal Udin Torabi, Enayatullah

With ten films this decade, from larky Madchester chronicle 24 Hour Party People to chilly dystopian sci-fi Code 46, protean Michael Winterbottom is Britain’s busiest filmmaker. That sounds like a backhanded compliment, a la Spinal Tap being metal’s “loudest band”, but the ceaseless hive of activity Winterbottom generates, criss-crossing genres and global locations, adds to his particular brand of mercurial work, never as impactful as 2002’s In This World.

Scripted documentary? Vérité drama? Winterbottom ducks and dives along the borders of fact and fiction, he and unsung writer Tony Grisoni laying out a framework, but then grabbing two non-professional Afghan refugees, Jamal and Enayat, and basically accompanying them on a hellish attempted flight to London, via tourist meccas Pakistan, Iran and Turkey. Using a skeletal crew and opportunist digital camerawork that matches its material step-by-improvised-step (traumatic rides in cramped pick-up trucks and stifling cargo containers), it’s possibly the tensest road movie ever made. But one that still finds time to rejoice in small wonders: ice cream in Tehran; street football kickabouts, well, anywhere. Winterbottom flips the knee-jerk xenophobic views of immigration to show with sad-eyed wonder, that this world, in all its hostility and beauty, is all we all have.

In This World Clip (Italian subtitles):

See also:

THE CLASS (2008)

Dir: Laurent Cantet  Scr: Cantet, Robin Campillo, François Bégaudeau

Stars: François Bégaudeau, Boubacar Toure, Dalla Doucoure

A pet peeve of mine is the trend for casting non-professionals, assuming they’re more ‘real.’ Want a new face? How about the thousands of unknown trained actors out there? That said, authenticity is rarely so expertly achieved as in Laurent Cantet’s Palme D’Or-winner, about genuine inner city, multi-ethnic schoolkids and the teacher struggling to understand, let alone instruct them. Based on lead Bégaudeau’s own autobiographical tome, Cantet’s fine-tuned intuition showcases the unaffected, vibrant performances of his kids, the constant classroom negotiations of language and discipline, boldly remaining almost exclusively within school walls. Probably the best movie about teaching ever made.

The Class Clip: Apologise

23)            SCHOOL OF ROCK (2003)

Dir: Richard Linklater  Scr: Mike White

Stars: Jack Black, Joan Cusack, Mike White

Star performances don’t necessarily have to come from the greatest actors. Few people would credit Jack Black with a whole lotta range, but plug him in to trademark schlubby, self-obsessed man-child setting, turn the mania all the way up and watch him power an entire movie. Playing an ageing wannabe guitar hero turned fake substitute teacher and making use of his own Tenacious D rawk background, this is his fret-busting, string-shredding magnum opus; his (screenwriter Mike) White album; his stairway to movie star heaven.

What makes School of Rock more than just a Black hit single, in fact one of the best, most uplifting fish-out-of-water / inspirational-teacher / underdog comedies (talk about covering your bases) in years, is ultimately director Richard Linklater. He turns White’s deft, irreverent script into a symphonic ensemble with pinpoint junior casting – not a stage-school brat in sight, these kids are more than alright – instinctively knowing when to allow the film to breathe as a real group effort and when to let Black loose. It all seems so effortless but if mainstream Hollywood comedy were this easy, School would be the rule, not the exception. Then again, not all comedies are backed in Black.

School of Rock Clip: Guitar Lessons

See also:

THE BEAT THAT MY HEART SKIPPED (2005)

Dir: Jacques Audiard  Scr: Audiard, Tonino Benacquista

Stars: Romain Duris, Niels Arestrup, Linh Dan Pham

Refreshing to see a foreign-language remake of a Hollywood film given how much America scavenges from abroad, especially one as assured as Audiard’s reinvention of James Toback’s 1978 debut Fingers. Yet for all Audiard’s delicate precision, it’s rising star Romain Duris’ simmering presence that powers the film. Both violent debt collector for his crooked father and passionate piano prodigy, Duris’ bottled-up, finger-tapping restlessness wordlessly conveys the constant internal battle between brutal, cornered reality and soulful artistic escape. His intensity and daring vulnerability wholly matches Harvey Keitel’s go-for-broke performance in the original, announcing Duris as France’s acting find of the decade.

The Beat That My Heart Skipped Trailer:

22)            CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (2000)

Dir: Ang Lee  Scr: Hui-Ling Wang, Kuo Jung Tsai, James Schamus

Stars: Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi

Ang Lee, of refined dramas Sense and Sensibility and The Wedding Banquet – directing a no-holds-barred martial arts movie? Actually Lee’s fastidious aesthetic suits the unrequited love and repressed emotional strand of this handsome wu xia (“martial chivalry”) epic, as do actors of Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh’s innate nobility. But as anyone ambushed by Crouching Tiger knows, it’s the astounding leaps and bounds of its gravity-defying fight scenes that sweep you off your feet.

While mainstream critics raved, Asian cinephiles griped that earlier masterpieces like The Magic Blade or A Touch of Zen had done it all before, without the patina of arthouse kudos. Perhaps. But Lee respects and understands tradition, taking a 1930s story cycle, insisting on poetic, word-perfect Mandarin from his non-native-speaking cast and co-opting legendary fight choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping (fresh off The Matrix). The resulting kinetic sequences, notably a night time rooftop pursuit and Chow and firecracker Zhang Ziyi’s mesmerising ballet atop swaying bamboo trees, are jaw-droppers in their own right. And as an emissary to bring a ghettoized genre to wider acclaim, ushering in similarly spectacular, coloured-coded martial artistry like Hero and House of Flying Daggers, it’s unparalleled. Next up, Michael Haneke tackles Transformers 3.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon Rooftop Pursuit:

See also:

IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (2000)

Dir & Scr: Wong Kar-Wai

Stars: Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk

The curlicue of backlit cigarette smoke, the contours of lustrous cheongsam, the shimmer of neon-hued, rain-slicked streets, the momentary caress of fingertips… Something about Asian society’s more decorous, formal codes lend themselves to tales of forbidden love that used to be Jane Austen and co’s province. Honeycomb-lit stars Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung – brought together by their respective, unseen spouses’ illicit affair – are achingly gorgeous, but lest this all appear a mere Hong Kong fashion spread, Wong’s fragmented, dreamlike structure and facility to tease alienation and emotional echoes from dazzling surfaces makes a mood piece some altogether more resonant.

In the Mood for Love trailer:

21)            THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001)

Dir: Wes Anderson  Scr: Anderson & Owen Wilson

Stars: Gene Hackman, Ben Stiller, Anjelica Huston

“Family isn’t a word… it’s a sentence” runs the snarky tagline for Wes Anderson’s terrific Tenenbaums, inadvertently highlighting the clever-clever hipness that Anderson’s critics think he’s all about, but missing the messy, heartfelt melancholy that underpins it. Whimsical, theatrical (the cast practically get curtain calls) and flaunting influences * – Scorsese slow-mo, Welles’ wide-angles, even Charles Schulz’s Peanuts – like merit badges, Anderson and co-writer Owen Wilson, as did their Rushmore protagonist Max Fischer, create a hermetic, bourgeois, storybook world (snappily narrated by Alec Baldwin) in which to strut their precocious stuff. Gritty social realism it ain’t.

Instead Anderson places these self-obsessed dreamers under an ornate magnifying glass, gently raising the dramatic heat until their protective carapaces and quirks melt away, revealing the screwed-up big kids beneath – none bigger than hustler father Royal, the great Gene Hackman’s last great role. Indeed Anderson’s entire crack repertory company – Huston, Bill Murray, the Wilsons – are at their tragic-comic peak; few screen moments choke me up more than Ben Stiller’s plaintive “I’ve had a rough year, Dad,” and Hackman’s gruff, overdue consolation. Family isn’t a sentence for Anderson, it’s a series of cinematic letters, perhaps his life’s work; Tenenbaums is a great American novel. On film.

The Royal Tenenbaums Trailer:

* see the superb video essay series on Anderson’s influences by critic and filmmaker Matt Zoller Seitz here.

See also:

TOGETHER (2001)

Dir & Scr: Lukas Moodysson

Stars: Gustaf Hammarsten, Lisa Lindgren, Michael Nyqvist

You can choose your friends, but not your family – unless you try and make your friends your family. But what if they’re not really your friends? Lukas Moodysson’s touching, hilarious comedy occupies a 70s left-wing Swedish commune, where free love has emotional costs and kids games involve playing tortured Pinochet prisoners. Moodysson gently torments his motley crew of inactive political activists and jaded romantics with a warmth (and Abba soundtrack) missing from later attempts to shock, despite being usurped as Europe’s reigning cinematic enfant terrible by Von Trier and Gaspar Noe. Maybe like his commune-ists, he just needs a hug.

Together Clip: “Franco is Dead.”