Thursday, January 21, 2010

Jonathan's Top 50 Favorite Films of the Last Decade (2000-2009) Part IV--Nos. 5-1

5. Kill Bill Vols. 1 & 2 (2003, 2004) dir. Quentin Tarantino-- I know this might seem a bit like cheating, but you can't really have one film without the other. It's an extended version of the normal Tarantino narrative, which is non-linear. The film doubles back several times. Vol. 1 moreso than Vol. 2. The first is very much exposition and action. It briefs you on everything that led up to the massacre the day before her wedding, while the second is a continuation of her journey to the ultimate goal: killing Bill. It really is an impressive feat for Tarantino. He kept raising his own bar in terms of his love for film. In Pulp Fiction, it was his own twist on classic gangster films. In Jackie Brown, he put an intelligent spin on blaxploitation and caper flicks. With this one, we saw vintage Spaghetti Western, Anime, Kung Fu and Hollywood action spun into a wildly entertaining package. I always feel as if I'm practically standing up in my chair as I watch his movies. They're so much fun. They're artsy popcorn movies. And who doesn't love that winning combo?!I haven't really discussed the usage of music in films during this countdown. There have been plenty of opportunities, most recently The Royal Tenenbaums, but let it be said that the way music is used in this film is brilliant. In one score alone, there are Spaghetti Western-style trumpets and Kung Fu-style woodwinds. Pay close attention to the showdown between Beatrix Kiddo (Uma Thurman) and O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu). As they approach each other, swords ready to lock, the music to Santa Esmerelda's version of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" begins to play. It's percussive and it keeps building. By this point they first cross their swords and the wild acoustic guitar strumming comes into the fold. Tarantino cuts to a shot of O-Ren who breaks from the action after her sword holder has been broken by Kiddo. The camera pushes in towards her as she gives the perfect "Oh, now it's on" look and the music reaches a crescendo where a lone trumpet starts playing some serious notes. It's something else.It's Tarantino's details, in the end, that give him an edge over most directors. The final "showdown" between Kiddo and Bill is great because of the lack of "showdown". What would a QT film be without dialogue. How Carradine escaped getting an Oscar nomination is beyond me, because Tarantino gave him the perfect monologue. I could re-watch his discussion about his love of the mythology of Superman over and over again. He begins slurring his speech after several shots of Tequila, yet his message is made crystal-clear. It's amazing how successfully Tarantino can draw out a scene without letting it drag. There has to be a great deal of trust going on between cast and crew when you're risking twenty extra minutes for a scene that can be done in five. It's all confidence and it's all QT. Brilliant saga.

4. High Fidelity (2000) dir. Stephen Frears-- How sage-like can a film be where its primary message is scorned love and Rock N Roll are synonymous? Other films have danced around this idea, but no other film, or book for that matter, have made it its plot. Nick Hornby's book of the same name was a starting off point when John Cusack along with his three co-writers and director Stephen Frears brought it to life. It's another one of those easily watchable movies, where the cast and crew never step wrong. It's a testament to the England-born Frears, as a genre director, that he can make a film this concentrated in Chicago. It's as Chicago of a movie as you'll see. There have been other comedies to have romanticized the city a bit, but High Fidelity gives you the real thing. Filmed entirely on location, you see corner record shops, popular neighborhood bars, and tiny apartment buildings where only the struggling thirtysomethings in this film would inhabit.

The main thing that needs to be understood about High Fidelity is that the characters really love hearing themselves talk. Not all of them are arrogant, but they all do speak just to have people listen to them. And some of the time it doesn't even matter if anybody's listening. It's good to have friends to the point where you can talk and not really give a damn if they're paying any attention to what you're saying. Rob, himself, has an ongoing discussion with the audience. He confides in them way more than he does with the characters. We're as close to confidants as he's allowing himself to have. It's pulled off in such a way that it doesn't feel forced or hurtful to the rest of the movie. We almost feel privileged that he's letting us in on his troubles.

And what about the romantic storyline between Rob (Cusack) and Laura (Iben Hejejle)? Rob is convinced his heartbreak in all of his failed relationships is directly linked to the music he loves and none moreso than with Laura. Even when they're together, you can feel them dancing around each other. They can only trust one another to a certain point. The film leaves us on a wonderful note with a near-transcendent musical performance by Barry and a last monologue by Rob discussing his hope for lasting love and comfort with Laura. I haven't felt quite as good at the end of a film than when this one closes out with Stevie Wonder's "I Believe When I Fall in Love." It wants you to feel as optimistic as the protagonist does and it succeeds.

3. The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005) dir. Judd Apatow-- For sheer laugh-out-loud moments, I, personally, can't find another comedy in the last ten years that even comes close. Judd Apatow's directorial debut, in my eyes, is still his funniest film to date. He's obviously approaching a different stage in his career with his latest and much darker feature, Funny People, but I still don't see him coming close to this one. It's made with the kind of heedless joy of a guy who has nothing to lose. The title, itself, suggests low-grade, B-movie schlock, but Holy Mother of God is that way off base. The laughs are cheap, but these actors bust their asses off to get them. You have to applaud that kind of work and dedication. I did. I did twice in the movie theaters (something I never do) and probably fifteen to twenty more times since then. Everybody wants a laugh that comes from the very pit of their stomach. They want to be grasping for air as they watch the insanity unfold in front of them. That's what this film did for me. I just laughed and laughed and laughed. I was truly proud of the individuals who made it.

For a couple of years, I was trying to figure out why I didn't hold the other Apatow produced or directed films as high in regard as this one, when it finally dawned on me: Steve Carell. It seems so obvious, now, but it's true. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, Jane Lynch, Ramony Malco, Jonah Hill, and all the other Apatow players, but without Steve Carell the films seem boyish. He adds an adult classiness to a film. The idea of the character was a Carell invention from his days at Second City and he trusted Apatow and Co. with the rest of it. It's one thing to pity a character. Yes, Andy Stitzer is a pitiful person, but I was rooting for him the whole way through. The moment you first see him walk across the living room of his apartment with a severe case of morning wood, you know you're going to like him. He's too earnest not to. The scene where Catherine Keener's character attempts to get Andy to ask her out is very well-written and performed. This is a mature scene. It's Apatow via Carell and Keener. You can have as many gross-out moments as you want, but the film has to have heart above all else. And it does. More than most. The Bollywood sequence during the credits is perfect. You think that it seems wrong and out of place, but you can't really convince yourself of it. That's kinda how I feel about the entire film.

2. The Departed (2006) dir. Martin Scorsese-- Where do you begin with a film like this? It's not, in any way, normal. Sure, it might be the first movie Scorsese's directed that contains a linear plot, but look at the way it's put together. The script by William Monahan, which is adapted from Andrew Lau and Alan Mak's Hong Kong original, Infernal Affairs, is pretty basic. The plot does weave in and weave out in its own complex way, but Scorsese had to have looked at it and thought that he could make it into an auteur's film. It looks like one. Certainly the plot is linear, but its editing isn't. I like a filmmaker who has respect for his or her audience. He never tells us that we're going back and forth between the past and present. A character will be talking in the present, then we're shuffled back to a scene from the past and because of the pacing and cinematography, we're completely aware of this. We don't need to see the tag "Six months ago". Although, I'm a big fan of the opening tag of the film, "Some years ago." It has a perfect nudging quality to it. Like Scorsese and Monahan are having a bit of fun with us.

The Departed is always moving along. You have to have an appreciation for the way Scorsese and his crew put a film together. They're jump cuts, odd dissolves, and floating camera shots that just make the film dance. It dares you to be bored with it. As with the classic Scorsese drama, Rock N Roll plays a huge part. The music, along with Howard Shore's score, comes in from all angles and it never lets up. It's another great device used in going from past to present. This is the third time he used The Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" and it might be the best. The way he cuts the opening scene used to this ominous tune is masterful. Every pronounced drum beat is used to cut to another shot. It's perfect.

His ability to get the exact type of performance he wants out of his actors is on full display, here. There's not a wasted word or action in this film. There are scenes where you can tell the actors are improvising and it works so well. Both Alec Baldwin and Mark Wahlberg might've had career performances and Jack Nicholson returned to his wonderfully distrustful form with the crime boss to defeat all crime bosses. One performance that might be overlooked is Ray Winstone's character Mr. French. I, personally, find him the most terrifying character in the movie. He's a completely different type of scary than Frank Costello. While Frank enjoys making big scenes to get his point across, Mr. French lays low and says very little. It's the look that makes the point. Very reminiscent of DeNiro's Jimmy in Goodfellas. There are a small group of directors who make great films from time to time. There's an even smaller group who are sure bets. Not to sound like I'm beating a dead horse, but Martin Scorsese is the latter. He may be most comfortable in a certain genre, but he can take any material and make it a "Martin Scorsese Film". That's his gift and this film is all the evidence I need to prove it.

1. Almost Famous (2000) dir. Cameron Crowe-- I look back on the past decade of films I've seen and I find that many were good, many were bad, and a select few were great. The 50 on this list were of the last variety. At the age of 17, I began to look at movies as more than entertainment. I saw them as ways to achieve a catharsis. I was a junior in high school when this all started becoming apparent to me. I first saw Almost Famous that year. This film and my own revelation about movies premiered, if you will, at about the same time. This is one of the many reasons it's number one on my list. I have my own personal favorites of all time and this one certainly ranks highly, but I don't know if there is a movie out there that I can still say was made for me. I love this film. To me, it's perfect. I don't say that often. I just think this film has no need to change a single word of dialogue or a single frame. It stated its purpose from the very beginning and I still have as much fun watching it today as I did in the spring of 2001.By now, everyone knows the basic story of Almost Famous. It's a semi-autobiography about Cameron Crowe's stint as a rock journalist for Rolling Stone magazine back in the early 70s. Crowe, himself, got to tour around with Led Zeppelin, the Eagles, Bob Dylan, and The Allman Brothers Band. He places his version of himself, William (Patrick Fugit), with a fictional rock group not far removed from Zeppelin and Bad Company called Stillwater. Everything else that comes along is one lovely surprise after the other. Small moments, I mean. I love how William's mother, played masterfully by Frances McDormand, is not the typical stifling mother. She loves her son and truly wants what's best for him. Kate Hudson easily gives her best performance to date as Penny Lane, the "Band-Aid" or groupie that follows Stillwater from town to town and looks after William along the way. Philip Seymour Hoffman, making a final appearance on this list, makes use of his short time on screen with a funny and touching performance as William's writing mentor, Lester Bangs. His monologue about "cool and uncool" at the end is my favorite part of the film. Billy Crudup and Jason Lee are absolutely perfect as the two budding rock stars, whose in-house tension threatens to break up their band.When I said this movie was made for me, I wasn't lying. The musical references in it are plentiful and I got every single last one of them. When one of the Band-Aids comes up to the hotel room and says, "Simon Kirk from Bad Company is down by the pool", I knew exactly who she was talking about. (For those of you who might not know, Kirk was the drummer in Free beforehand). More than anything, I identified with William's uneasiness about adulthood and his inability to find the in-crowd. I didn't have issues with making friends in high school, mind you, but I did struggle from time to time with not being one of the "known guys." William's declaration of his love for Penny and Hoffman's speech at the end that I just spoke of are two scenes that were able to assuage some of the self-pity I felt. In any event, I think Cameron Crowe wrote and directed the perfect film for teenagers and it's a damn shame that most of us were seeing the other swill that was being produced at the time. Once again, I happened upon this film at the right time in my life and my gratitude for it, its director/writer, producers, actors, crew members, distributor, etc. is overwhelming and I thank all of them VERY much.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Jonathan's Top 50 Favorite Films of the Last Decade (2000-2009) Part III--Nos. 10-6

10. Mystic River (2003) dir. Clint Eastwood-- The man's masterpiece. As clear of a statement as I can make. Clint Eastwood has made many films that can be called great on one level or another, but this one's his best in my eyes. I felt as if I had been put through the ringer when I first saw it. The film stayed with me days after my initial viewing. I couldn't get the story, characters, somber mood, or overall theme out of my head. I remember having dreams about it before AND after I saw it. People talked it up for weeks leading up to my viewing it to the point that I was having dreams based upon what I thought the film was about. I had seen the trailer and I knew Sean Penn was going to give a knockout performance and, of course, he did. I just didn't realize that I would be taken so much by Tim Robbins' performance. He was astounding as the abused Dave. I felt uneasy the entire time as I watched him slowly unravel, strand by strand. It hurt a little, because I knew what inevitably was going to happen to him.Eastwood, the director, has been know to cast Eastwood, the actor, in many of his films and I'd say for the most part, it worked. I was perfectly fine with him in Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby and I even got a kick out of Space Cowboys if you can believe it or not. I found, though, that his ability to step back and let some of America's finest screen actors take the reins and truly make this an actor's movie was a big step for the silver-haired giant. This is maybe why I favor Mystic the most. Like Junebug, this film is steeped in setting. Shooting entirely on location in Boston was so important to Eastwood that he even wrote, performed, and recorded the original score there. The broken sidewalks, the duplexes with all-vinyl siding and the chain link fences were only a smattering of important details that brought this story of child abuse alive. We hear the "Southie" accents and we know exactly the people we're dealing with. They're working class and they're proud of it. This film operates as if tragedy is only a misspoken word away. I can't say enough about it. One of the finest dramas of the last quarter century.

9. The Fog of War (2003) dir. Errol Morris-- A documentary's main charge is to expose its subject for the truth and, then, allow the audience to make a final judgment. Whether it's something obvious like Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will or presented with varying shades of gray like Jeff Fuererzeig's The Devil and Daniel Johnston, we, the audience, are always left with a sense of judicial entitlement. We've looked at every piece of evidence and now we want to hand in our final verdict. The brilliant thing about Errol Morris is that he probably has formed an opinion going into a number of his interviews, but there's not a trace of that while we're watching it. He can look directly at a convicted murderer or a topiary gardener or a pet cemetery owner, all, with an open mind. This is what makes him the best at what he does. Never more did he accomplish this than in his interview with the late former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara.

McNamara, of course, was the Secretary of Defense during the beginning and height of the Vietnam War and thousands upon thousands of individuals personally wanted to see to it that he was put to death. His public persona was viewed as cold and superior. He didn't have a lot of supporters at the time and didn't when he passed away only a few short months ago. Morris was probably one of those thousands upon thousands, thus giving him the perfect opportunity to clear up his own doubts about McNamara's humanity. What we ended up getting was an objective rediscovery of the very scenarios that led to President Lyndon Johnson's decision to invade. We get a man who warned not only Johnson, but President Kennedy against ANY involvement in Vietnam. I was completely staggered by the information that was placed in front of me. I felt dizzy and by the end I realized that I was looking at a man, who in his own way, was making amends. Morris once said that it's tough to apologize for the deaths of over 50,000 American soldiers and few more million Vietnam ones, but I think he and McNamara made it possible to forgive. I guess judgments vary in their own way.

8. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) dir. Wes Anderson-- I think Wes Anderson might be the closest thing to cinema's version of a classic children's novelist that I've ever seen. I've tried my best to rationalize his stories and I can't come up with a damn plausible thing. His mind exists on a completely different plane of thought than any other filmmaker, past or present. The worlds he's created are very closely related to Roald Dahl or Shel Silverstein.

He showed flashes of genius with his rookie effort Bottle Rocket and his second film Rushmore, but he blossomed into the auteur we know today with his third feature, The Royal Tenenbaums. With co-writer, Owen Wilson, Anderson took the most ridiculous scenario for a family living situation and made it tangible and sympathetic. Each character is wounded and they go about dealing with their pain in very specific ways. Each of the three children, grown up though they are, react to situations in a childish manner, none moreso than Ben Stiller's character, Chas. He holds on to an old, deep-seeded resentment towards his neer-do-well father, Royal (played brilliantly by Gene Hackman), and with the recent death of his wife, he easily transfers all of his anger and sadness onto him. The other two siblings, Richie and Margot, internalize their feelings which include a secret love for one another.
I've always loved how Anderson frames his shots. They look like photographs. It's as if everything within the shot requires an equal amount of attention. A car parked across the street in the background holds just as much importance as the main action going on in the foreground. His camera work serves the best interest of the story. There's a shot at the end of the film that sums up the sequence of events before it. It's a long, tracking shot that surveys the aftermath of a wedding ceremony in which many disastrous things have occurred, including the death of Chas' dog. In one shot, every character gets his or her own line of dialogue, which also includes Royal purchasing a dog for Chas and giving it to him after the death of his old one. On delivery, the adult Chas has never looked more like a child. He's not behaving like one this time. He simply looks like one. Royal stands over him as Chas pets the animal and after all the turmoil and despair he's lived through, he finally says, "I've had a rough year, Dad" and I swear it brings me to tears everytime. It's one of the most touching moments I've seen in a movie and, yet, it's so simple. Anderson works with so little to present so much and Tenenbaums is the best-represented of this idea.

7. Juno (2007) dir. Jason Reitman-- I'm not sure whether it takes patience or a suspension of belief or what, but to enjoy a movie like Juno, you have to have at least one of those. It's almost impossible to believe that a sixteen-year-old speaks quite like the title character, but there I was not giving a damn. There was a group of moviegoers who couldn't stand Juno and there was a group that found her utterly charming. I was one of the ones that found her charming. Ellen Page was really the one that made Juno the three dimensional character that she was. Say what you will about Diablo Cody's quippy dialogue, but without the right actress, Juno was going to be an annoyance. Of course, I'm sure she was that, anyway, to the first half that I just mentioned, but she wasn't to me. OKAY?! Now that we've cleared that up let me say that this movie is fun. It's smart, it has economical directing from Reitman, and it never lets up on the nine-month journey we're taking with this girl and her wild cast of family and friends.

The family and friends. My goodness, the family and friends. What a strange bunch of people to be collective rocks in your life. Juno has a father and stepmother who, beyond all of their quirks, love her and want her to do what she feels is best. That's what I took away from the parents: they were willing to say, "Hey, you put yourself in this adult situation? You're gonna figure out the best adult solution." Parents are rarely written with this much intelligence and care in a teen comedy. And what about her two best friends? Leah, played by Olivia Thirlby and Paulie Bleeker, played by Michael Cera. These two can be viewed as extensions to Juno's personality. Leah is much more of a "girl" and Paulie is much more reserved and internal. They really fill out Juno more than anything. Every encounter that Juno has with a character feels like an enlightening experience. She's too misfit-like to have never met a stranger, but she's got a honed-enough sense of humor that you wouldn't know that. Maybe she wants to be a misfit, but through these important months, she finds that she's as much of a teenager as any of her peers. The joy in her knowledge that Paulie is as close to a soul mate as she'll ever come across is the most beautiful aspect of the film and that very last shot is as fitting of an ending to a film that I've seen.

6. Lost in Translation (2003) dir. Sophia Coppola-- One of the highest compliments I can give to a film is its place of setting can make me yearn to go there. Lost in Translation does exactly that. I felt a strong urge to drop what I was doing and hop a flight to Tokyo. More than anything, the film tapped into the feeling of alienation and the hope that someone else felt the same way. I can imagine it would be frightening to be in a different country, especially Japan, where the cultural differences are astronomical. One can easily find comfort in a mutual longing for familiarity. Enter Bob and Charlotte, played by Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. Bob is a film actor shooting a whiskey commercial in Tokyo and Charlotte is a newly-married twentysomething tagging along with her photojournalist husband. For the first half hour, they appear to be on a collision course to a soul-searching experience.

They spot each other in various places including an elevator, the lobby of the hotel where they're both staying, and a restaurant, where Bob finally works up the nerve to try and "rescue" her from shallow Hollywood schmoozing with her husband and a B-list movie actress. Solitude is something they both appreciate above all else. They have disarming senses of humor that allows them to react accordingly to the people they find ridiculous. On the surface it seems smug, but it fits with their situation. They're in a strange place, so it makes sense that they might act out as a defense mechanism. I've previously shared my views on a particular scene where Bob and Charlotte lie in bed together and talk. I've used quite a few different adjectives throughout this countdown and it's becoming tiresome to me, but that one scene...LOVELY! My God, it just gives me friggin' goosebumps every time I watch it. And what about the very last scene? He's able to properly say goodbye to her after a meaningless "so long" the first time. He's in the cab on his way back to the airport and he spots her walking down a street. He tells the cabbie to stop the car. He gets out, runs her down and whispers something to her that we, the audience, cannot hear. I accepted after the second viewing that whatever Bob tells Charlotte, it's something that I wasn't supposed to hear. The effect is there, though. She cries, they kiss, he gets back in the cab and it's very satisfying. Imagination can get you the rest of the way. Maybe nothing happened, but to bastardize a classic line, "They'll always have Tokyo."

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Jonathan's Top 50 Favorite Films of the Last Decade (2000-2009) Part II

20. Charlie Wilson's War (2007) dir. Mike Nichols-- I treat films written by Aaron Sorkin much like I treat the ones written by Charlie Kaufman. In these situations, the writer is who I think of first. It's a rare occurrence, but true nonetheless. Sorkin has always been one of my favorite writers, overly-idealistic though he sometimes is, his characters are saying some of the freshest and wittiest dialogue you'll hear in television or film. That being said, Charlie Wilson's War is vintage Sorkin. It's everything I just mentioned and more. Tom Hanks heads up the cast in the title role and he succeeds as the flawed protagonist. Both Julia Roberts and Amy Adams are wonderful as the two main women in Wilson's life. They guide him through personal and professional choices he has to make. The scene-stealer and the classic Sorkin character is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman as the pot-bellied, chain-smoking, foul-mouthed, AND idealistic Gust Avrakatos. As much as I loved Javier Bardem in No Country, this is who the Oscar should've gone to. All and all, it's a great entertainment. One that can be watched anytime and anywhere.

19. Superbad (2007) dir. Greg Mottola-- This new renaissance of comedy that attacked us less than ten years ago has upped the ante for not only humor in film, but also a sense of sentimentality. The stock company of players from writer-producer-director Judd Apatow are maybe five years away from being mentioned with the same group that helped make Woody Allen as true an artist as he is. They've changed the way we look at comedies and one of the best examples is Superbad. This raunch-fest of a film is so grounded in 1970s cool that it could've come out then and be seen as even more revolutionary than Bananas or Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex, But Were Afraid to Ask. Jonah Hill and Michael Cera play our two lovelorn and incredibly horny high school almost graduates. They discuss naughty things, laugh, and curse the fact that they can't do anything about it. While most people enjoyed Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Fogel aka McLovin, the true show-stoppers were Officers Slater and Michaels played by Bill Hader and co-writer Seth Rogen, respectively. They gave this gross-out comedy a whole new dimension, keeping it fresh the entire time. One of the great comedies of the last decade.

18. Ocean's 11 (2001) dir. Steven Soderbergh-- I remember seeing this film my senior year of high school and coming to the realization that, at the time, I had not seeing anything quite as cool. With very few exceptions, I still feel the same way today. While almost killing the franchise with the two sequels, this terrific remake of the Rat Pack original has re-set the standard for what we deem as "cool". I'm not talking about early-teens, we-use-this-phrase-all-the-time "cool". I'm talking about a true state of mind. Even the dorkiest of characters in this film go about their jobs in such a manner, simply because of the task in which they are involved. Soderbergh continued to prove his worth as not only an auteur, but a great genre director with Ocean's 11. And the cast. What more can you say about the cast? Clooney, Pitt, and Damon are good enough, but who would've been crazy enough to put Carl Reiner, Don Cheadle, Elliot Gould, Bernie Mac, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan, Eddie Jemison, and Shaobo Qin together and think that it would actually work. Well, my friends, it did and then some. Hat's off.

17. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004) dir. Adam McKay-- Without some of the sentimentality that the later Apatow-produced or directed films would bring, this might be the beginning of what those carried on. This film is funny. Plain and simple. No other words to describe it. It's ridiculous, it's inanely stupid, it's childish, but dammit it is funny. I've always described this as a 90-minute-long SNL sketch and that's why it's my favorite Will Ferrell movie to date. With former head writer of SNL, Adam McKay, co-writing and directing, Ferrell created one of the great comedy characters of the last twenty-five years. Ron Burgundy is the kind of guy that believes he's intelligent, good-looking, and above all a true professional, but we, the audience, know he's not. We forgive him, though, because he does it with such aplomb that it's damn near impossible to stay mad at him. Paul Rudd, David Koechner, and a brilliant Steve Carell offer up terrific supporting performances in this hysterical satire of not only the news business, but pretty much everything else.

16. O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000) dir. Joel and Ethan Coen-- God, those two brothers certainly know how to have fun. They're just always winking at you, aren't they? In every movie, even the more dramatic ones, it's like they're playing a practical joke on you that you, yourself, HAVE to laugh at. They are at the top of their game with this one. Not only is it a great laugh-fest, it's a filmmakers film. The sepia-toned hue of the film that makes it look like a Depression-era photograph is just the effect they were wanting to achieve. You almost have to give it up to cinematographer Roger Deakins as much the Coens. They are so great with dialogue, and Everett played by George Clooney (one of their finest creations) says some wonderful things. "I am the damn pater-familias", "Well, there are all manner of lesser imps and demons, Pete, but the great Satan hisself is red and scaly with a bifurcated tail, and he carries a hay fork", and "Me an' the old lady are gonna pick up the pieces and retie the knot, mixaphorically speaking", are just a sampling of the screw-loose phrasing in this film. Sit back, watch, listen to some great bluegrass, and marvel at what the Coens can do.

15. Chicago (2002) dir. Rob Marshall-- One of the few musicals, especially of the recent ones, that I can enjoy suspending reality for a couple hours. A musical adaptation can only work if you are okay with the option of the songs interrupting the story. The characters are there talking and BOOM there they go, tapping their feet and singing away. Most stage musicals are all songs to begin with, so it naturally works for that particular medium. With film, you really have to impress your cynical audience with the songs or you're going to lose them fairly quickly. Chicago impresses. As a matter of fact, I wanted them to sing and dance the entire time. If they were going to do other numbers like the ones I had been seeing, I say "HELL YES!!" Bring it on. Much of the success was a confluence of directing, writing, production and casting. Each actor was surprisingly great in their respective roles. You don't figure Gere, Reilly, Zellwegger, Latifah, and Zeta-Jones would be able to pull it off, but they do and then some. An entertaining film if there ever was one.

14. Up (2009) dir. Pete Docter-- What a beautiful movie. Pixar continues to make good on all of its promises. They've yet to make a disappointing feature and this one just might be the pinnacle. It has such a simple, yet inventive story. You have all of your time completely invested in each character. I went to see this movie in 3-D and by the end of the first ten minutes, my glasses were misted over due to my incessant tear flow. I mean, my GOD, animation isn't supposed to do this. Then, you realize that's what many of the great early Disney creations were all about. They always had funny characters, but intense, even sad themes. I guess Pixar's been doing that from the beginning. This was just the first time I had a real reaction to it. I truly hated the villain of the movie and I wanted him very much to die. I truly loved our protagonists and I wanted them to very much be successful. In a film of this variety, that's all you really need.

13. Gangs of New York (2002) dir. Martin Scorsese-- I'm aware that a great deal of people find this epic to be muddled, a bit overdone, and easily a disappointment in comparison to the rest of its director's work, but I find them to be wrong. I mentioned before that when Spielberg leaves it all on the screen with a take-no-prisoners attitude he's one of the best. I feel the same way about this film. It's all there and if you can't deal with it, move on. Most did, I didn't. Maybe the reason was that I was looking for something to latch onto at the time. A director, if you will. I felt that director was Scorsese, thus when upon release I saw perfection up on the screen. While the performances of DiCaprio and Diaz weren't top-notch, Day-Lewis more than made up for it with his all-out performance. This was a return to form for the great method actor and I still think it's his best work. This was the film that Scorsese had been wanting to make since the early seventies. Obviously, it would've been rather difficult to finance it back then. It was just as difficult when he finally began production, but he finished it and I left the theater quite overjoyed. I feel that it's just as impressive of an epic as Lawrence of Arabia or Bridge On The River Kwai.

12. No Country for Old Men (2007) dir. Joel and Ethan Coen-- It's a bit brutal, isn't it? Lotta blood, terse language, and overall violence. Yet, I knew I was loving this tragic opera masterpiece of a Cormac McCarthy adaptation from beginning to end. It's incredibly faithful to the book, actually, but the Coens are right there. You'd know their style of writing from anywhere and you can pick out the McCarthy and you can definitely pick out the Coens. There are scenes that you want to turn away from, but alas you can't. And the sound of the film. It's so quiet. It makes the violent scenes all the more jarring when they come. They're unexpected and I think I jumped several times the first time I saw it. Purely personifying evil is Anton Chigurh played brilliantly by Oscar-winner Javier Bardem. I felt uneasy the entire time, much like I felt when I was younger watching the Coens' Raising Arizona and the heavy of that film, Leonard Smalls played by Randall "Tex" Cobb. Anton comes out of the very darkest of shadows and destroys everything in his path and I was a bit scared when I saw him. This might be seen as the Coens best film, but I have a feeling they have a couple more in them.

11. Finding Nemo (2003) dir. Andrew Stanton-- Right after I saw Up, I said that I had just seen my new favorite Pixar film. Upon further review in doing this countdown, I still can't let go of my original favorite. Classic Pixar characters fill the screen of flowing colors in this heart-stopping, lovely film. One of the things that I've always respected about Pixar is their ability to find the true voice talent that fits perfectly with their characters. They don't need the most obvious of A-list stars. They go after the talent. Who better to play the overprotective, neurotic clownfish, Marlin, than Albert Brooks? Who better to play the gung-ho, tough-as-nails, Gill, than Willem Dafoe. And who better to play the quirky, yet lovable companion, Dory, than Ellen DeGeneres? They all do a marvelous job of finding what makes their characters tick and they instill some of their own personality into it. I can't begin to tell you how many times I laughed at the these fish said. This is just as much made for adults as it is children. It's funny and touching and, I feel, impossible to dislike.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Jonathan's Top 50 Favorite Films of the Last Decade (2000-2009) Part I

I found that most people were creating their own lists of the last decade at the end of 2009 and I, myself, am a fan of the old "Top ???" lists, so I'm going to create one myself. I really have no criteria for the first 30 or so. I tried to think about how many times I viewed them and base the list on that, but that's really just asking for trouble. To be honest, a couple may be on here for "trendy" purposes. Make no mistake, though: I enjoyed, immensely, every single film on this list. No doubt about it! I'm going to briefly explain the first 30, delve a little deeper in the next 10, then do my usual rambling for the final 10. I hope you enjoy!

50. Bedazzled (2000) dir. Harold Ramis-- If there ever was a guilty pleasure on this list, it's this one. Brendan Frazer performs the comedy equivalent of a ballet in this film and it's not talked about enough. I find it enjoyable and I always have. Plus, Elizabeth Hurley ain't too bad on the eyes. YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN!!!

49. Junebug (2005) dir. Phil Morrison-- Very few films are successful in their attempt at portraying the South in its true light. I've never viewed as perfect a film in its geographical depiction as this. While many saw this as character-based, this film was utterly based in setting. Beautiful movie.

48. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007) dir. Sidney Lumet-- A brilliant look at family dysfunction by a director who refuses to quit. It's as hard-edged a melodrama as you'll see, and Sidney Lumet was 83 when he made it. Wonderful performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei, and Albert Finney.

47. You Can Count On Me (2000) dir. Kenneth Lonergan-- Great character study starring Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo, who play a troubled, but close brother and sister pairing. I feel that these are career performances for both actors up to this point. Linney should've won the Oscar and Ruffalo should've been nominated. Produced by Martin Scorsese.

46. Atonement (2007) dir. Joe Wright-- Wright may be the director of the next decade. He has a flair for visual cinema that is rivaled only by a select view. This is a story that might've been rather boring to me in another director's hands, but in Wright's, he made it soar. The shot that dramatizes the aftermath at Dunkirk may be worth the price of admission alone.

45. United 93 (2006) dir. Paul Greengrass-- As objective and straightforward a look at the tragedy of September 11th as you'll see in cinema. Greengrass took the simple approach: hand-held camera, no-name actors, and plenty of suspense to give the audience as close of a "front row seat in history" as it could. Unforgettable film.

44. Rachel Getting Married (2008) dir. Jonathan Demme-- People talking. People discussing their lives. Mulling over their fears and trepidations for what's coming down the pike. Robert Altman would not have been prouder of a film this decade. Married was truly a return to form for Demme who sat back and observed the utter dysfunction with his camera. This contains Anne Hathaway's "bridge" performance to the next stage in her career.

43. Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) dir. Clint Eastwood-- The man can't stop making good films. It's impossible. For the past seven years Clint Eastwood has been on a roll and nothing he's directed before quite prepared me for this sympathetic and very subtle companion piece to his previous film, Flags of Our Fathers. A wonderful Japanese film by a wonderful American filmmaker.

42. State and Main (2000) dir. David Mamet-- When David Mamet decides to take a day off, this is the film you get. That, of course, is a compliment. I found this lighthearted fare about the struggles of making a film on location, to be absolutely delightful. Like in most Mamet-written/directed films, a terrific ensemble cast spews the brilliant words that Mamet creates.
41. Inglourious Basterds (2009) dir. Quentin Tarantino-- Like every film he does, Tarantino pays tribute. Here, he pays tribute to the Spaghetti Western, the POW film, and classic action. He never falters and he, once again, reminds us that the actors we don't remember (Christoph Waltz) are usually the best. Also, I love a good rewriting of history.

40. Sideways (2004) dir. Alexander Payne-- Payne and his cohort in writing, Jim Taylor, have a knack for dissecting the human condition and making their audience feel slimy about it. Paul Giamatti and a wonderful Thomas Haden Church are the purveyors of this. I think I spent half the movie with my head in my hands, feeling sorry for this incredibly stupid pair of misfits touring the wine country of California before the latter's impending nuptials. Hysterical fun.

39. City of God (2003) dir. Fernando Meirelles-- I've always been a sucker for the inner-city crime drama and this one is Boyz 'N Tha' Hood set in Rio de Janeiro. There is nothing more tragic in the movies, than the promise of youth being snuffed out by its own choices. A beautifully-shot, well-executed film.

38. Battle Royale (2000) dir. Kinji Fukasaku-- This might be the first true foreign film I've ever seen and I'm proud of that distinction. My God, is this movie tense. I never, once, felt a moment's rest from its onslaught of brutality and I know that's the way the director liked it. Lord of the Flies-inspired, but MUCH better.

37. Slumdog Millionaire (2008) dir. Danny Boyle-- This multiple Oscar-winner just might've set the standard for the "little movie that could". It went from almost-straight-to-DVD to million-dollar iconic story of love and redemption. The "kiss" scene at the end breaks my heart every time.

36. 3:10 to Yuma (2007) dir. James Mangold-- I've yet to see the original, but this version of the good cop/good outlaw story sets my own personal standard for the genre. Not being a huge fan of westerns, I walked out of the movie theater in awe of the character study disguised as a western that I just witnessed.

35. Man On Wire (2008) dir. James Marsh-- What a fun way to attack a documentary. It very much reminded me of the best Errol Morris films, where the real people are more fun to watch than the fictional kind. An exciting film from beginning to end, culminating in the exciting wire walk.

34. Munich (2005) dir. Steven Spielberg-- When Spielberg decides to leave it all on screen with a take-no-prisoners attitude, he's the best damn filmmaker out there. He goes for the throat with this behind-the-lines portrait of the men given the task of assassinating each individual responsible for the deaths of the hostages at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. Brilliantly done.

33. A Prairie Home Companion (2006) dir. Robert Altman-- I can't say enough about my love for ensemble acting and the great Robert Altman left us with this lovely ensemble piece about the goings-on of the popular radio show on its very last night. Hysterical performances from everyone involved.
32. Waking Life (2001) dir. Richard Linklater-- Another love of mine in cinema is when characters just talk. They have conversations that don't necessarily have a great deal of importance, but you certainly listen. Linklater achieved that in Dazed and Confused and he achieved it, here, with a film that was innovative upon its release. It's the "dreamiest" film I've ever seen.

31. Crash (2005) dir. Paul Haggis-- Say what you will about Haggis and his obvious attempts at an overall message, but he was incredibly effective with this parable about racism in Los Angeles. A bevy of characters "crash" into one another during a thirty-six hour period and the drama does not stop.

30. Road to Perdition (2002) dir. Sam Mendes-- Mendes' second film was as visually stunning, if not more so than his first. Like Joe Wright, he has a flair for the dramatic and in this morose gangster film, he uses the late cinematographer Conrad Hall to paint the landscape. Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Daniel Craig, Jude Law, and Tyler Hoechlin give great performances on their way to the tragic, yet hopeful ending.

29. Training Day (2001) dir. Antwan Fuqua-- My tolerance threshold for dirty cop movies is pretty low, but this one escapes under the radar simply based on performance. Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke go balls out in this gloss-free look at a day in the life of a narc trainee in L.A. There are parts of that city that you don't usually see in films and Fuqua did a good job of just forcing it on you. Great entertainment.

28. Capote (2005) dir. Bennett Miller-- A stark and uncompromising look at Truman Capote's descent into alcoholism and depression while attempting to finish his book, "In Cold Blood." Miller directs a film very reminiscent of early Malick and Philip Seymour Hoffman gives an uncanny portrayal of the legendary writer. Highly recommended if you haven't seen it.

27. There Will Be Blood (2007) dir. Paul Thomas Anderson-- If you want my personal opinion, P.T. Anderson is the best American filmmaker of the last ten years. His films exist on their own and this particular one separates itself from even the rest of his work. It's dry, it's desolate, and it never apologizes. You want madness from the very beginning to the very end? Here's your film.

26. Catch Me If You Can (2002) dir. Steven Spielberg-- Oh, Spielberg can have a little fun, too. I always describe this film as "one of the most watchable movies I've ever seen." It's absolutely true. It's fun and light-hearted and Leo Dicaprio gives, in my opinion, his best performance, here. Tom Hanks and Christopher Walken are terrific, as well, in supporting roles.

25. Adaptation (2002) dir. Spike Jonze-- Charlie Kaufman has to be one of the most rare of artists in Hollywood where the writer is more of an auteur than the director. Obviously, I take nothing from Spike Jonze, who's equally as proficient, but Kaufman knows how to mess with his audience's mind more than any other writer working. This is a terrific screw-loose dramedy. Nicolas Cage gives his most understated and touching performance.

24. Ray (2004) dir. Taylor Hackford-- I give as much credit to Hackford as I do to Foxx's unreal portrayal of the late Ray Charles. His knowledge of popular music from the 50s and 60s which he honed on his Hail! Hail! Rock N Roll, was put to full use in this unflinching biopic of the late soul legend. The ending feels a bit forced, but by that point I ceased to care. I was enthralled by the execution, then, and I still am today.

23. Minority Report (2002) dir. Steven Spielberg-- This is the best film Spielberg directed this decade and one of the best he's ever done. While never a huge fan of the dystopian genre, this adaptation of the short story by Philip K. Dick was very entertaining and very suspenseful. I can't begin to imagine the headaches involved in getting it made, but he along with a great cast make this one worth every penny.

22. The Aviator (2004) dir. Martin Scorsese-- Anybody who says that the great one can't be a genre director needs to take a look at this film. It's so well-crafted that I can hardly find the flaws. Scorsese, like any great leader, surrounds himself with smart, talented people. His longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, and cinematographer, Robert Richardson bring every tiny technical intricacy that makes them great at what they do and this is what comes out. It's a visual cornucopia. Dicaprio and Blanchett ain't too bad, either.
21. The Dark Knight (2008) dir. Christopher Nolan-- The finest comic book film adaptation ever. Accept no substitutes. All comic book film adaptations should simply cease production after this masterpiece. Thank you very much.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

2009: 150 Films Update

Phew. What an interesting summer it's been. I can't quite recall being this action-oriented during the months of June, July, and August. Work has always been in the mix during this time that used to mean a level of freedom, but with the added gigs and recording sessions I've been involved in, I've inevitably slowed down my film-watching production. The fact that Alabama football kicks off in seven days probably won't help much, either, but I'm going to do my best to stay true to the goal I've set for myself. Over the past month, I've seen films that have been very challenging for me and I've padded those out with some easy, if not quite as rewarding, films, as well. I definitely enjoyed more than others, but I tip my hat to any film that can get me one closer to my goal. I will say that the sports film The Express about Ernie Davis, the first African-American Heisman Trophy winner, was very good film. I am a sucker for the sports movie, but I felt it was done just right with good performances turned in by Rob Brown and Dennis Quaid. Anyway, here's to staying on path.

The Marriage of Maria Braun (Fassbinder)
Harold and Maude (Ashby)
Baghead (M. and J. Duplass)
Boiler Room (Younger)
49th Parallel (Powell)
Lola (Fassbinder)
Veronika Voss (Fassbinder)
Funny People (Apatow)
I Vitelloni (Fellini)
Late Spring (Ozu)
District 9 (Blomkamp)
I Know Where I'm Going! (Powell)
The Happening (Shyamalan)
Umberto D. (De Sica)
The Express (Fleder)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

What Kind of Ridiculous Sound Bites are We to Expect from this Team?

There's a movie being filmed currently by Three Kings director David O. Russell, which stars The Batman, himself, Christian Bale. Now if recent history reminds us, these two individuals aren't the most tactful in moments of duress on the set. Russell doesn't particularly take well to certain actors (Lily Tomlin) criticizing his directions and Bale doesn't enjoy cinematographers lighting the set during important scenes (I will say, though, after viewing Terminator: Salvation, there are no real scenes of importance). That being said, I'm actually hoping these two titans of overreacting combine forces for the ultimate sound bite. Something so grandiose and over the top, that we'll be discussing it for, at least, a year. I want there to be signs of a struggle. Witnesses talking about how scarred they were after viewing the ferocious onslaught of words and fisticuffs that ensued after Russell and Bale had had just about enough. If either one wins an award for the film, I'd like for the other person to literally punch them in the back of the head when their name is called. These are the types of things that I believe CAN happen if we all come together and do a little bit of hoping.

Unfortunately, both Russell and Bale's mutual anger issues will probably cancel each other out leaving us with nothing but a film to watch. Which is fine, of course, but still. On the other hand, Mark Wahlberg is involved with the project, as well., Mr. Wahlberg isn't really notorious for on-the-set issues, but he is a roughneck from Boston. I'm thinking he just might be the missing ingredient that we need in this molotov cocktail of a situation. Maybe he could whisper not-so-sweet nothings in Russell and Bale's ears about the other person. BY GEORGE, this could happen! It could REALLY REALLY happen!!! In case you're not sure what I'm referring to, I will leave you with links to these amazing clips of frustration gone awry.

Monday, July 13, 2009

2009: 150 Films Update

Hello out there. I've been a little bit busier over the last three weeks, so the amount of films I've been watching has slowed down, but I think I'm still doing well, all things considered. The last fifteen films I've watched have been wonderfully diverse, from documentaries and rock concerts, to operas, thrillers, and quirky comedies. There are some that I have enjoyed more than others, but I do feel better for having watched every single one of them. I'm proud to say that I've finally discovered the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, also known as The Archers, who churned out some of the most prolific films of the 1940s and 50s in England. I'd be a liar if I didn't admit that one of the main reasons I came to Powell-Pressburger is their large impact on my personal favorite filmmaker, Martin Scorsese. Anyway, here are the fifteen latest films I have viewed.

Born Into Brothels (Kaufmann, Briski)
Drag Me to Hell (Raimi)
The Soloist (Wright)
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Powell)
Heaven and Earth (Stone)
Man On Wire (Marsh)
The Red Shoes (Powell)
Dave Chappelle's Block Party (Gondry)
Where the Light Is: John Mayer Live in Los Angeles (Clinch)
The Commitments (Parker)
The Tales of Hoffmann (Powell)
Atlantic City (Malle)
Hancock (Berg)
Peeping Tom (Powell)
Away We Go (Mendes)