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.


KP said...

Man, I really dig your list. You and I are very similar in our tastes and appreciation for movies. I did a top ten of the decade myself, which bears a close resemblance to yours. If you haven't seen my blog, check it out:

Peace out!

- Kevin

Jonathan said...

Thanks, man! I really do appreciate it. And we certainly do have a similar taste in movies. I mean, my God. I've yet to see Moonlight Mile, but it's high up on my Netflix queue, so I'll get back to you. Great looking blog.