Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The 21st Century Action Hero


Every era has its own particular brand of hero.  The action movie has gone through several periods and had several different types of heroes.  In the ‘40s and ‘50s it was the American soldier, generally in World War II, in the ‘50s and ‘60s it was the cowboy, in the ‘70s the inner-city cop, in the ‘80s the muscle-bound super-soldier, in the ‘90s there was a whole jumble of different types, though tending to emphasize the average guy in an extraordinary situation.  In the first decade of the 21st century, a new trend has emerged--call him the post-9/11 super-spy, or the globalized killing machine. (Or don’t, I’m under no illusion that those are catchy names.)
That summary of hero-types is of course a one-sentence gloss on over half a century of movies, and even confined to a single type of film in a single country (America), it’s extremely reductive.  But I’m only gonna elaborate a little more, so just go with it.  The 21st century action hero I’m talking about here of course exists alongside plenty of contemporaries as well, both (relatively) new (the Superhero), fairly old (the Inner-City Cop), and various attempts at throwbacks (Ryan Gosling in Drive, everybody in The Expendables).  So we should not consider this hero-type to be completely separate and unique, but bound up in and coexisting with dozens of concerns, trends, movie genres, available star personae, and various past hero-types, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting to elucidate the differences.

I see this hero-type as springing from two primary examples, who then influenced others: Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) from 24, and Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) from The Bourne Identity and sequels.  Together, they are probably the most influential action heroes of the millennium.  After them followed the new James Bond (why do they all have J.B. as initials? No clue) movies starring Daniel Craig, Liam Neeson (as Bryan Mills) in Taken, and Saoirse Ronan in Hanna, among others.  (Others movies that might be related, but which I won’t discuss here: Shooter, Inception, The International, ColombianaHaywire.)  All of these characters actually have a lot in common, both in how they act and the conflicts they are involved with.  
Bourne and Bauer are each defined by a sleek, Apple-and-Blackberry-era sense of style: short-cropped hair, functional-but-probably-expensive clothes, nearly always in black.  No shiny leather or kung-fu in business suits, the emphasis is on efficiency all the way through.  Their fighting styles are similar--highly adept at hand-to-hand combat, as well as any weapon close to hand, willing to use whatever force is necessary to subdue opponents.  Their movements are highly trained, quick, and again efficient--they don’t go in for high kicks or shouting, no flamboyance, just killing.  They prefer handguns and sniper rifles, definitely higher-end than a cop’s revolver, but refraining from Rambo-style heavy hardware like BARs or flamethrowers.  They can take on anyone, but they are not gods--they can be hurt, tortured, though they are never killed.  They do not slaughter with impunity, but generally fight one-on-one against other highly-trained killers. These characteristics are generally mirrored by the others that followed them, especially Neeson in Taken.  Bond of course still loves his suits, and spends more time being a pretty-boy than any of the others. Hanna is more colorful, but then her under-size and unique qualities as a teenage girl rather require it.  For all of them, though, there is an emphasis on sleek style, killing efficiently, and a preternatural sense of focus and intensity.  Their movies are fast-paced, intense, with lots of chase scenes and sequences of bone-breaking violence.

None of this is brand new.  Spies and assassins in the ‘70s were always focused and deliberate, John Woo’s heroes were always businesslike and in black (generally suits), sleek and cool have been prized qualities in a (anti-)hero since the noir period.  A lot of these qualities could be sourced to Jean-Pierre Melville and his movies, especially Le Samourai.  Perhaps most strangely about the new types is the way they are never allowed to love (romantically, at least).  If they fall in love, their lover will almost certainly die, and knowing this they are likely to avoid deep relationships whenever they can help it.  Noir heroes were often like this as well, but modern heroes before this would nearly always get the girl.  
Luc Besson was already pushing heroes like this in the early ‘90s.  La Femme Nikita and Leon: The Professional have much in common with Bourne and Hanna.  There is also a probable influence of Michael Mann, especially in aesthetics.  Mann loves that cool-but-not-unrealistic, man-with-a-certain-set-of-skills hero, and his movies are textbook examples of how to craft a “highbrow” action movie.  But Mann’s heroes are always localized, limited, romanticized, and rather old-fashioned.  Our new super-spy-types are the opposite.
The most notable thing about this new generation is their emergence in this globalized, post-9/11 world.  This defines nearly everything about them--they are meant to be (anti-)heroes for our time, not romantic figures of the past like the cowboy, but existing now, immediate, relevant.  They are defined by the world around them, its systems, networks, and geopolitics.  What separates them most is their different stances toward the government and law and order.  Bauer is the ultimate government employee/operative, the counter-terrorist expert and defender of America.  Bond follows in his footsteps (though of course he greatly pre-dates this decade), but for Britain.  Their stance toward superiors and elected officials may change and shift over the course of a film’s plot or a show’s 8 seasons, but ultimately we know they are always working toward the good of the country (whichever it is).  Bourne, on the other hand, is a victim of government and a symbol of its guilt.  Hunted by the same type of intelligence services Bauer and Bond work for, Bourne is just out for himself, to find his memory and place in this world.  He does attempt to get justice for his dead girlfriend and shows mercy on a couple of those caught in the crossfire, but really he’s out to take down the system from a sense of personal outrage and revenge.  Hanna is very similar.  Geopolitics matter less to them than personal rights and wrongs, and they couldn’t care less what result their actions will have to the balance of power between countries.  Nevertheless, they can’t escape the system; it’s all around them.


Neeson is less influenced in politics, but he’s still international, focused intently on rescuing his daughter, who has been kidnapped by sex slave traffickers in Paris and is being quickly moved through Europe along a network that extends through Eastern Europe and to the Middle East.  Neeson used to work for the CIA, but intelligence systems never really figure in the plot--this is international crime, all underground, not spy agency stuff.  Both he and Bauer torture their enemies to gain information.  Bourne may psychologically intimidate someone, but he refrains from torture, possibly because he knows what it feels like.
Ultimately, it is the way they are located in this new world order that makes them most unique.  Unlike most American heroes (and of course Bond and Hanna, among those I’ve mentioned, are not American), they are highly international, often ending up in Europe, always mobile.  They are constantly using high-tech gadgets, but unlike past heroes--such as early Bond--these gadgets are often on the market when the film comes out, and never more than a generation removed--realism is a watch-word for these characters.  (Hanna is the most science-fiction-ish, but even she is being held to standards of believability as much as possible.)  While they are loners, constantly in motion, they find it very difficult to get off the grid--surveillance is everywhere, they can be picked up going through airports, using a credit card, even walking down a street.  They are deliberately postmodern in their ethical and existential dilemmas.  Where an older generation of hero--like the Cowboy--may be an enigma to others but understands his own aims and choices, the postmodern hero (as exemplified by Bourne or Hanna) either doesn’t know his own identity or is caught in a conspiracy he must try to escape from.  In the postmodern world, identity is fragmented, there’s always a larger, more sinister picture, and they are indeed watching you. (And here The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo movies may have an intersection as well.)

These heroes are (or are intended to be) creatures of our moment, locating the tensions between security and freedom, surveillance and privacy.  They are avatars of our modern anxiety, and our patronage of their entertainments suggest their concerns do indeed hit home.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Another possible source text for Tree of Life?


Probably not.  Nevertheless, the similarities and parallels struck me immediately.  If you've seen it, you'll probably notice them as well.  The whole chapter is equally beautiful and brilliant--heck, so's the whole book--but here's the important passage, where he describes the change that came over Francis at his conversion, and his evolution into both a saint and a poet:

     So arises out of this almost nihilistic abyss the noble thing that is called Praise; which no one will ever understand while he identifies it as nature worship or pantheistic optimism.  When we say that a poet praises the whole creation, we commonly mean only that he praises the whole cosmos.  But this sort of poet does really praise creation, in the sense of the act of creation.  He praises the passage or transition from nonentity to entity; there falls here also the shadow of that archetypal image of the bridge, which has given to the priest his ancient and mysterious name.  The mystic who passes through the moment when there is nothing but God does in some sense behold the beginningless beginnings in which there was really nothing else.  He not only appreciates everything but the nothing of which everything was made.  In a fashion he endures and answers even the earthquake irony of the Book of Job; in some sense he is there when the foundations of the world are laid, with the morning stars singing together and the sons of God shouting for joy.  
--G. K. Chesterton,  St. Francis of Assisi

Note: The Latin for priest is pontifex, which has its root in pons, pontis, n. --bridge. 

Friday, March 30, 2012

Final Best of the '00s Round-Up

So I've finally finished my Best Movies of the Decade countdown, but I figured I'd do one last post rounding everything up.  There are links to all the other posts in the series below, as well as the complete list of films in order below the fold.  In particular I wanted to list the Honorable Mentions that didn't make it on the list (because 60 just isn't enough, I guess?), and you can find them down at the bottom of this post, below the fold.  I also just like making lists of random things, and there are so many things you can make a Best of the Decade list about, so I've included two other items here as well, namely Best TV Show and Best Albums of the '00s.  Hope these are at least somewhat interesting.

The Best TV Show of the Decade: LOST (2004-2010)
I really don't watch that much television (in fact I have more and more aesthetic and moral issues about the whole thing) and I don't get HBO, so take this selection for what it's worth.  I watched Lost for years, viewing the first two seasons on DVD but the third through the sixth season on the designated nights on TV, living with the characters and the mysteries as I had never done with a show before.  It's the kind of show that inspires incredible fan devotion as it ranges from pop culture riffing to soap opera relationship drama to complex moral questioning amid a constantly shifting and evolving plot, all anchored to some of the best characters you'll ever see on TV.  Of course, it was a frustrating show as well, one that was constantly withholding things from its viewers, occasionally got mired in contradictory subplots, and ultimately refused to explain some of its core mysteries, eliciting a bit of a backlash.  I understand those who hated the ending, but I disagree with them.  I found the final episodes beautiful and emotionally satisfying, and I think they crystallized what had really been at the center of the series all along.

If there is a unifying theme to Lost, it is the human incapacity to create our own redemption.  Each major character comes from a flawed, broken home, and is consequently flawed and broken him/herself.  They come to the Island and are given a second chance: If they can only put aside their pasts and work together for the future, they could be happy.  But one by one, their pasts come back to haunt them, and they fail to find happiness for more than a few moments.  Desperately, they seek control, they seek complete free will, confident that if they could just have one more chance, with everything out of the way, they could finally make it right.  But it is not to be.  The universe is too big, too complex, and too cruel for them to ever be able to control it; they are lost in a sea of troubles, and the only constants they can find are in each other.  Each of them must learn to give up this search for control and certainty, to accept some things on faith and hope.  Ultimately, redemption can never be forced from within, only bestowed from above.  But grace can only be accepted by letting go.  That is, perhaps, what heaven is: a place to let go of all the hatreds, worries, gnawing insecurities, and tortured regrets that plague our earthly lives, and accept the people around us in love and gladness.  This grace is not earned, it is merely accepted.  That is what the final scenes show.

My Favorite Albums of the Decade
I have far less confidence in my musical opinions than I do in my filmic opinions, but I have them anyway and I think this list is pretty solid, so take it or leave it.  Albums are restricted to same release time span as movies.

1. Illinois (2005) by Sufjan Stevens
Honorable Mention: Everything else he did this decade, but especially Seven Swans (2004)

2. Funeral (2004) by Arcade Fire
HM: Neon Bible (2007)
3. Love and Theft (2001) by Bob Dylan
HM: Modern Times (2006)
4. Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends (2008) by Coldplay
HM: A Rush of Blood to the Head (2002)
5. How to Dismantle and Atomic Bomb (2004) by U2
HM: All That You Can't Leave Behind (2000)
6. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002) by Wilco
7. American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002) by Johnny Cash
HM: American III: Solitary Man (2000) and American V: A Hundred Highways (2006)
8. Fleet Foxes (2008) by Fleet Foxes
9. I and Love and You (2009) by The Avett Brothers
HM: The Second Gleam (2008)

10. Day & Age (2008) by The Killers
HM: Hot Fuss (2004)
*   *   *   *

The rest of the Best of the '00s Posts:  Part 1: Intro and #60-55.  Part 2: #54-40.  Part 3: #39-25.  Part 4: #24-11.  Part 5: #10-2.  Part 6: #1.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Best Movie of the '00s: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy



(be warned, this post is insanely long.)

 I grew up with The Lord of the Rings.  
The phrase may be overused, on any number of things, but in my case its absolutely true.  I grew up on it, and on every major version of the story, too. 
I must have been around six years old when I saw the Rankin/Bass animated version of The Hobbit, and I saw both the later Return of the King and Ralph Bakshi Lord of the Rings some time in the next couple years.  I’m not sure of the exact chronology, but I must have become conscious of the books at about this time--my parents had paperback copies on our shelves.  I read The Hobbit in second grade, and the complete Lord of the Rings in third grade.  The latter took me months--I kept getting distracted--but I was absurdly proud of the achievement for years.  By the time Jackson’s version of The Fellowship came out in 2001, I’d read the complete series at least twice, and by now I think I’m at five.  But it hasn’t been just some personal obsession--it’s a family and community thing, a shared devotion among friends and relatives alike.  I encouraged my brother and sister to read the books and was excited when they did.  I remember accompanying sixth grade homeschool buddies who dressed up as hobbits to the theater, and sitting next to friends who couldn’t stop repeating all the good lines in my ear.  I bought the soundtracks and listened to them dozens of times.  My family bought first VHS, then DVD and Special Editions of the films, and we’ve all seen them more times than we can count.  It’s like a culture.  The best illustration I can give is to recall a family reunion at Thanksgiving a couple years ago.  All of us cousins (20 of us?) went to the basement after growing bored with the grown-up talk upstairs and watched the Extended Version of Fellowship, arranged on couches and chairs and the floor and lying on top of each other, ranging in age from 3 to 20 and all rapt to the screen for a film every one of us had seen before.
I say this to clarify a point: There was never any question what my choice for #1 Film of the Decade would be.  Any other choice would have been dishonest.  This list is of movies that mean the most to me, and no other film (or trilogy) has come close to being as influential in my life.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Best Movies of the '00s: Part 5

10.  Inglourious Basterds (2009, Tarantino)
After watching Inglourious Basterds on the opening weekend back in 2009, I came back with my head buzzing, sat down, and wrote an interpretation of the film on a few sheets of yellow legal pad.  It was probably my first real piece of film criticism.  In that essay, I proposed that the film could be seen as a combination/extrapolation of The Dirty Dozen and Once Upon a Time in the West: Just as Leone set his film within a mythologized filmic version of the Wild West created by an entire genre of films, Tarantino’s insight was to recognize that World War II Europe has become a similarly abstract cinematic playground, with possibilities far beyond the historical realties and boundaries or the era.  Hence the title of the first chapter in the film: Once Upon a Time. . .in Nazi-Occupied France.  Tarantino is playing around with history and genre just as Leone was doing in the sixties.


I still think this view is correct, as far as it goes, but I’ve come to realize that the film is doing far more than that.  While all of Tarantino’s films are postmodern meta-movies that mix and match genres, Inglourious Basterds goes further, interrogating the effects that cinema has on audiences and on the real world.  Investigating propaganda and the thin line between corrupting influence and legitimate entertainment, it is a self-reflexive commentary on the war film genre on both sides of the conflict, offering an incrimination of both while admitting the appeal of simple, bloodthirsty fun. It is an indictment of the Nazi sin of defiling cinema, using a literal death-by-blazing-film to punish such a crime.  And finally, it is an act of celebration and reclamation of old, pre-war cinema for today, rescuing directors (Riefenstal, Pabst) and actors (Max Linder, Lillian Harvey) from the obscuring cloud of fascism, while condemning others (Emil Jannings) for their complicity.  An enormously complex commentary on the nature of film and its relation to politics and history, centering a battle within genre for the soul of cinema, it is Tarantino’s masterpiece.

9.  Spirited Away (2001, Miyazaki)
Hayao Miyazaki is the greeatest animator of all time, and this is his masterpiece.  This is saying something, as he already had two world-class masterpieces in My Neighbor Totoro and Princess Mononoke, and several other films very nearly as great.  Here, however, Miyazaki moves beyond his usual gentle, well-structured storytelling style into a realm of surrealism, ambiguity, and mystery that actually caused controversy within Studio Ghibli during production.  Chihiro's journey parallels that of Alice, a journey through a metaphorical rabbit hole into an abandoned Japanese theme park, and from there into a boathouse of the gods, a world of spirits and magic where reality is slippery and nothing is as it seems.  The boathouse is a world unlike anything else in cinema, a dominion ruled by a capricious witch who dotes on her monstrous baby, populated by living soot-sprites, talking frogs, many-limbed boiler-men, polluted river-spirits, and dragons who look like teenage boys.  Chihiro must learn to work and grow to survive in this world, proving herself by determination and courage.  In the film's extraordinary final act, however, this dramatic arc seems to fall away in service of poetry.  As if in a dream, all obstacles fall away in the face of Chihiro's newly awakened love and empathy.  Where Alice was stymied by Wonderland's paralyzing lack of rationality, Chihiro succeeds by maintaining her purity and innocence and by offering true emotional understanding to those trapped in this strange land between sleep and death.  With this ending, Miyazaki succeeds not only in his greatest imaginative achievement, but in one of the most profound statements of his humanist philosophy.


8.  The Dark Knight (2008, Nolan)
A seismic leap forward in the superhero genre and one of the most exhilaratingly huge action films ever constructed, The Dark Knight is not merely a crime drama with costumed vigilantes, but a film of enormous thematic complexity as well. It is a film consumed by dualities: good and evil, darkness and light, order and chaos, sanity and psychosis, grief and rage, truth and lies.  The very structure of the film reflects this in the difference of its two halves, before and after the Joker's capture.  The focus is on the knife edge separating the extremes and the spin of a coin it takes to flip from one to the other.  The implications are both moral and political:  What are we prepared to do to preserve civilization in the face of barbarism?  The answers mark the film as perhaps the most profound cinematic statement yet on the age of terrorism.


7.  In the Mood for Love (2000, Wong)
Wong Kar-Wai, the lovesick beat poet of the '90s, leaves behind single 20-something protagonists for married 30-somethings, in the process slowing down his usual blurry-clear photography and pop sensibility, exchanging them for a neo-classical style and lounge jazz rhythm that seems like his apotheosis.  It isn't quite as fun as his earlier films (and it isn't my favorite), but it feels more mature and profound.  Sometimes falsely identified as a societal critique, the film is instead an emotional and atmospheric portrait of a moment in time, a long, drawn-out moment of romantic possibility.  When it finally ends, as all moments must, it is whisked away in a haze of cigarette smoke, eternal only in memory (and celluloid), where it can be replayed again and again, as time goes by.


6.  Pan's Labyrinth (2006, del Toro)
Like Bridge to Terabithia crossed with Schindler's List, Pan's Labyrinth is a fantasy of childlike imagination in the midst of absolute evil and horrific violence.  Guillermo del Toro gives free reign to his imagination in his creature designs on a level only surpassed by Hayao Miyazaki among contemporary filmmakers, and his creations here have the indelible, unforgettable power of your own nightmares.  What is innocence and what is evil?  Can anything pure and fragile survive in the face of such cruelty and brutality?  Or should evil be the one frightened?  Is beauty the one that really conquers?  On a temporal level that may be too much to ask, but in an ultimate sense the film suggests that may very well be the way of it.


5.  Memento (2000, Nolan)
Do you know how you got where you are?  How you got into this room?  Are you sure that's what really happened?  Are you sure your mind isn't playing tricks on you?  Leonard Shelby doesn't remember any of that.  Ask him a few minutes from now and he won't remember this conversation.  He's trained himself to live without, though.  He's tattooed rules onto his body, attempted to drill routine into his muscle memory.  He's on a mission, and nothing is going to stop him.  But how will he know when he has succeeded?  And how can he know he's on the right track, on the right mission in the first place?  Maybe it's not just his mind playing tricks on him, maybe he is doing it to himself.  People do it all the time.  Maybe he's concealing something from himself, telling himself lies to prevent collapse.  Maybe you are, too.  After all, when it comes right down to it, what's really separating him from you?


4.  No Country for Old Men (2007, Coen)
When they want to be, the Coens are the most deliberate and perfectionist filmmakers since Kubrick, and that's what they are here.  In partnering with novelist Cormac McCarthy, the brothers have offered their most indelible vision of a Hobbesian universe, a world where everyone must devise their own code, their own system for living, in order to survive in the face of violence and evil.  The three central characters are pitted against each other in an existential chess match that can only end in death, their personal codes in conflict just as much as their bodies and intellects.  Llewelyn Moss: an opportunist, self-confident and self-sufficient, who believes he has control of his own life.  Sheriff Ed Tom Bell: the old man of the title, principled, weathered, gradually losing faith as he sees his ideas of the way the world should be mocked at every turn.  Anton Chirgurh: a sociopathic killing machine, believes himself an embodiment of fate, but fallible and blind to his own vulnerability.  They could be a revisionist take on the three central characters from a Leone spaghetti Western, tightened and focused instead of widened and iconic.  


The film is a revisitation of themes, styles, and plots from the Coens' Blood Simple, Miller's Crossing, and Fargo, but this time the philosophy is given even greater resonance by McCarthy's scorched-earth dialogue.  I suspect it may be their magnum opus.


3.  The New World  (2005, Malick)
A film that deserves so much more than the woefully small space I can here devote to it.  When it premiered in the last days of 2005 it was met with mostly bemused and exasperated dismissals from the critical establishment, which was then countered with a massive push-back from the still-young online cinephile community.  It is a film that almost always inspires boredom or ecstasy--there is no middle ground.


Malick does not merely look back on the historical events of Jamestown in 1607, he transports the audience there, re-imagining every moment with a sensory immediacy I've never felt with any other filmmaker.  Far from a simple indictment of English colonialism or celebration of a lost Native American culture, the film continually sets up dichotomies and then finds ways to collapse them in a constantly evolving vision of history.  Every detail, every moment, is presented as a New World in itself.  Malick examines the idea of America without worrying about politics or legal structures, instead identifying her as the ultimate land of possibility, untamed and impossible to put in a box.  While set in the 17th century, his strongest influences seem to be from the American Romantics and Transcendentalists of the early 19th.  Like Thoreau, he sees the individual in conflict with society; like Whitman, he sings a song of connection between all living things; and like Emerson, he sees history as a river reminiscent of "the flux of all things," and "every man an inlet to the same and all of the same."  Malick's melding of image and sound are unequaled, and the last five minutes are among the most perfectly transcendent passages of film I've ever seen.  It is no exaggeration to say that this film changed my life, and I'm not really sure how it's only at #3.


2.  Yi Yi (2000, Yang)
There is more of life in five minutes of this film than most works of art can manage in their entirety.  Every stage of life, from childhood to youth to marriage to middle age to old age and death, is encompassed in this film's three hours, and it does it with such boundless grace and subtlety that it consistently astounds.  If it is better than The New World, it is only in its sense of permanence and almost architectural structure.  Both films are astonishingly beautiful, but where Malick's images flow like water in a never-ending stream, Yang's come one after the other in a gentle but nevertheless firm and deliberate rhythm, leaving each shot on screen exactly as long as it needs to be.  Many reviews attempt to schematize the plot, which is tempting, for the film follows multiple characters over a very long runtime, accumulating incident until it is comparable in scope and detail to a 19th-century novel.  But this would be a mistake, for Yi Yi is not interested in being a soap opera or melodrama, and detailing all the events of the plot would only serve to lessen and trivialize it.  Rest assured, it is not a strange or difficult film, but a story of a middle class Taiwanese family as they struggle with various personal issues over a period of several weeks or months.  In many ways, this story and these characters could be found in any industrialized country, and by the end of the film this family will seem no more foreign to you than your next door neighbors.

The tone of the film is melancholy, occasionally heartbreaking, but I leave it refreshed and joyful.  All those poor, lonely people, running around and hurting themselves, oblivious to how alike they are in their pain.  The film is a profound act of love and sympathy by Yang, to his characters and to his audience: he helps us empathize along with him, shows us our own petty, sorrowful selves, and lets us know we're not alone.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Best Movies of the '00s: Part 4

24.  The Bourne Ultimatum (2007, Greengrass)
This movie stands for the whole trilogy, the most consistently thrilling action movies of the decade.  I regard this as one of the great purely kinetic action films in history, taking its place alongside The Road Warrior and Aliens as an unrelentingly intense thrill ride.  Bourne is the most influential action hero of the new century, and his desperate search for self mirrors America's own.


23.  King Kong (2005, Jackson)
Both a faithful work of epic reimagining and a subtle work of film criticism, Peter Jackson fills the film with dozens of homages, references, and expansions on the comparatively bare-bones original, making room for all the different interpretations that have grown up over the years, but most of all giving free reign to all the dreams he's ever had about Kong since he saw it in boyhood and attempting to make those dreams reality.


22.  Hot Fuzz (2007, Wright)
Yes, I actually think this is better than Shaun of the Dead.  I laugh harder, at least, and I find Nick Frost's character here more endearing.  And who doesn't love Simon Pegg's apocalyptic-stranger ride back into town, toothpick in his mouth and crossed shotguns on his back?  Or the glee with which the two friends fire two guns whilst jumping through the air? I'm sure I'm not alone in my eager anticipation of the next installment in the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy.


21.  Let the Right One In (2008, Alfredson)
A horror movie for people (like me) who aren't really fans of horror movies.  A gentle story of first love, twisted and darkened into a disturbing tale of supernatural bloodlust and outsider vengeance that haunts the shadows of an apartment complex on a snowy evening.  Perhaps something like an early Grimm's Fairy Tale, before it was made safe for children. Heartbreaking, beautiful, and disturbing.



20.  The Royal Tenebaums (2001, Anderson)
Wes Anderson's masterpiece. A hilarious, stylized, ensemble comedy that darkens suddenly into generational tragedy, before offering the possibility of forgiveness and redemption in a final sequence remarkable above all not for its ludicrousness, but for its truly generous spirit.  The cast, led by Gene Hackman in his last great role, is one of the best of the decade, the writing by Anderson and Owen Wilson is as clever and witty as it could possibly be, and the soundtrack is, as ever, perfect.



19.  The Wrestler (2008, Aronofsky)
Mickey Rourke gives perhaps the decade's greatest male performance as a minor league professional wrestler, past his prime, who can't manage to stop his slow spiral of self-destruction. Sometimes inertia really is too great, even when lifelines are offered.  I remain a bit of an Aronosky skeptic, but this heartbreaking neo-realist throwback really is his masterpiece.


18.  The Departed (2006, Scorsese)
Is it Scorsese's best work? No, of course not.  Does it dissect the foibles of the male impulse to rage and machismo as well as his work in the seventies?  Unfortunately, no.  But it does do things Scorsese had never done before--it generates tremendous suspense, it twists and turns with astonishing ease, and it has the ferocious bite of Cape Fear and Gangs of New York without losing sight of its central plot. It also has one of Scorsese's best casts ever (even if Nicholson goes over the top), and it finally justifies his devotion to DiCaprio with that uneven actor's first really great grown-up performance.


17.  Children of Men (2006, Cuaron)
Probably this decade's most persuasive view of the apocalypse, Alfonso Cuaron's adaptation of P.D. James's novel envisions a humanity incapable of reproducing and living out its final days by tearing itself apart in pointless conflict.  Cuaron's long-take aesthetic creates an incredibly immersive and terrifying Britain of constant danger that unfortunately doesn't look much different from present-day war-zones in Africa and the Middle East.  Into this world, a child is born, and the weight of it all shall be on his shoulders.


16.  Finding Nemo (2003, Stanton)
Pixar had made brilliant films before, but this is the point where the studio cemented its all-time great status.  Nemo is beautiful in a way so far only surpassed by Wall-E (and parts of Tangled) among CGI films, and its story is still the most moving to me of all Pixar features.  There are moments here I still can't think of without a lump in the my throat (the tragic beginning, the sojourn in the whale's mouth, Marlin's sad swim away from the Sydney harbor).  Plus I still laugh at the kiddie humor.


15.  Mystic River (2003, Eastwood)
Eastwood's finest film since Unforgiven (narrowly edging A Perfect World), this titanically acted drama is a profound meditation on the ways time can change people and break down relationships.  Anchored by the finest performance of Kevin Bacon's career (who underacts while his co-stars overact), there were few more wrenching films this decade. 


14.  O Brother Where Art Thou (2000, Coen)
The most purely enjoyable of all the Coens' films.  A hilariously unique adaptation of The Odyssey that draws from Preston Sturges-style comedies, classic American literature (particularly Huckleberry Finn and The Grapes of Wrath), and early-20th century bluegrass and gospel music, in a wild, allusion-filled journey through a mythological Depression-era South.  It also features one of the Coens' finest casts, wittiest scripts, and most hopeful views of human nature.


13.  The Prestige (2006, Nolan)
A character study wrapped in an enigma, wrapped in a mystery, with both Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale turning in stellar double roles.  A dissection of obsession and revenge embedded in a richly detailed steampunk-ish world, where nothing is as it seems.  For anyone who doesn't think Nolan can tell stories with images.  Are you watching closely?


12.  The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007, Dominik)
This haunting evocation of the last days of the West's most famous outlaw can be seen as a synthesis of the disparate influences of John Ford, Terrence Malick, Henry King, and Robert Altman, with a historical didacticism reminiscent of Ken Burns.  It has many ancestors, yet there is still else nothing quite like it.  As others have pointed out, the film (aided by the magnificent performances of Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck) maps the moment at which legend fades into mere celebrity.  Perhaps a bit too long, it would still be worth a look for its musical score and cinematography alone, both among the best of the decade.


11.  The Incredibles (2004, Bird)
My vote for the finest Pixar film (at least before the heartbreaking and elegiac Toy Story 3), this Brad Bird directed epic is a complex satire of the superhero, drawing from The Fantastic Four and Watchmen, paired with an analysis of the modern American family and a critique of the suburbs and middlebrow education system.  It wraps all that up in a top-notch action movie that puts just about everything else released this decade to shame with its thrilling fight sequences and hilarious dialogue, and manages to make it all a massive, PG-rated blockbuster. Considering the skill, risks, ambition, and originality on display here next to all but two or three other blockbuster movies of the decade just about boggles the mind.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Best Movies of the '00s: Part 3

39.  Gangs of New York (2002, Scorsese)
Arguably Scorsese's most ambitious film, it can be wildly uneven and is held back by miscasting, but there's still nothing else like it:  A massive epic of violence and squalor, telling a forgotten tale of American history with the conviction of a master blacksmith pounding out a sword.  Daniel Day-Lewis is magnificent and terrifying as a Nativist gang leader intent on exterminating the Irish immigrants.  Scorsese is often at his best at his most rough around the edges (see Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Last Temptation of Christ), and this is certainly his roughest of the decade. Here Scorsese takes the measure of John Ford and The Searchers, and attempts to top him.


38.  The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004, Anderson)
Wes Anderson's films are always about control freaks who learn they can't control everything, and Steve Zissou, "a showboat and a little bit of a prick," is no exception.  This is Anderson's largest canvas yet, and he paints it with typical obsessive gusto, noticeably leaving brushstrokes on even the tiniest of visible details.  The story is ridiculous, as always, and the surprisingly bloody shootouts with pirates are a highlight. But ultimately, as it must, the realization of impotence comes, and the story ends in tears.  For it to end otherwise might seem true to the humorous tone and the Boys' Own fantasy world, but it would not be true to the characters, and that devotion to character is what makes Anderson truly special.


37.  Kill Bill Vol. 1 & Vol. 2 (2003, 2004, Tarantino)
This two-movie revenge story is probably Tarantino's most undisciplined effort, but it is also the most fun.  I'm still not sure the second film's sudden shift in tone actually works emotionally, but it's still fascinating for the way it reflexively re-examines and re-shapes the narrative up to that point, bringing out hidden themes and introducing the elements of doubt and moral ambiguity which have always kept QT ahead of his imitators.


36.  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind  (2004, Gondry)
Though it at first seems like one of those mind-blowing modern movies of twisting narrative complictions, this Charlie Kaufman-scripted gem has little interest in actually confusing you.  Instead it wants to make you feel, to dissect a failed relationship from the end backwards, and to mess around with the way memories work in a delightfully low-fi unpretentious way.  It succeeds admirably at all three.


35.  Where the Wild Things Are  (2009, Jonze)
Breaking out of the shadow of his brilliant collaborator Charlie Kaufman, Spike Jonze proved he is one of the finest directors working today with this powerful re-envisioning of the classic picture book. Max's imaginary land is extraordinary, big and grand and even beautiful, but it isn't all fun and games.  Essentially this is the story of a child's temper tantrum, and if you can't understand the pain and blind rage of such an outburst and appreciate the desperate need to be understood, perhaps you were never a child.


34.  Ratatouille (2007, Bird)
A Kunstlerroman that refuses to let the artist get away with bad behavior, as so many others do when making excuses for genius.  This one insists on morality as an artistic principle.  A treatise on art and the role of the critic disguised as a children's cartoon, weaving in the ideals of high art with the talking animal humor.  Have you ever seen another movie that attempts to visualize what taste is like?  And actually succeeds?


33.  The Proposition (2005, Hillcoat)
As dark as anything ever done in the genre, The Proposition is an Australian western about those quintessential western themes--the taming of wilderness, the suppression of barbarism, and the price paid for the coming of civilization.  The brutality here can be sickening, but the powerful moral complexities resemble those of Sam Peckinpah and Cormac McCarthy.


32.  The Village (2006, Shyamalan)
This terribly underrated film was mistaken for a supernatural thriller with a dumb twist ending.  It's not.  It's  a portrait of a community, a morality play with political implications that critiques the nature of founding narratives.  Christopher Nolan would spend much of the decade investigating the lies individuals tell themselves; here Shyamalan does the same thing with an entire village.  It also helps that it's absolutely gorgeous, shot with the eye of a true filmmaker, and features an incredible ensemble cast.


31.  Shaun of the Dead (2004, Wright)
Unlike a simple genre parody, this "romantic comedy with zombies" stands on its own as something special.  It manages to turn the zombie genre's traditional social critiques into a satire of modern slacker-geek culture, plus smuggle in moments of genuine fear, danger, and pain, while remaining hysterically funny, clever, and unassuming throughout.  It announced the arrival of Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright, all three of whom would go on to be pillars of modern comedy, and paved the way for a whole string of major British talent to break out of low-budget television comedy, including Joe Cornish, Richard Ayoade, and Chris O'Dowd.


30.  Spider-Man 2 (2004, Raimi)
The quintessential superhero movie. It delivers heartbreak with the thrills, genuine danger with genuine humor.  Peter Parker is the great everyman superhero--the one any kid can relate to, any kid can grow up to be.  He embodies the ideals of the superhero more purely and innocently than any other, and this film is not only an action flick, but genuinely heartwarming for those of us who value those ideals.  It is a rare superhero film that works equally well in both its character scenes and its fight sequences.  Read my full review here.


29.  Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003, Weir)
Peter Weir is one of the undersung masters to come out of the '70s, and this is his only film of the decade.  Like all his work, it is beautifully lensed, and like much of his work it is a study of a community and the various bonds and rules that give it structure. Unlike nearly all his other work, it is a grand adventure film, filled with thrilling battle sequences on the high seas.  What come through strongest are the virtues of the 19th century military man, peculiarly British values of honor, duty, and cool under fire, so unknown to us today.  "England is under threat of invasion, and though we be on the far side of the world, this ship is our home," says Captain Jack. "This ship is England." 


28.  Hero (2004, Zhang)
A Rashomon-esque tale of conflicting memories of events, larger and more beautfiul than anything I had ever seen before.  The color-coordinated fight sequences are as grand as any ever filmed.  A pity it ends up being nationalist propaganda at the end.


27.  Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000, Lee)
The film that re-started a whole genre and became an international phenomenon.  Hero is grander and more beautiful, but this is the more profound film.  Love vs. social restrictions, youth vs. age, temper tantrums vs. serenity; it is among the most meditative action epics ever made.


26.  A History of Violence (2005, Cronenberg)
Some have praised this film for its subversive critique of small-town Americana, but I actually think that's the film's weakest aspect. Instead, I'm in awe of the visceral psychological portrait of a family under violent attack from within and without, mapping the tensions and fault-lines of a breakdown in trust.


25.  A. I. Artificial Intelligence (2000, Spielberg)
Inspired by the story idea and example of Stanley Kubrick, Spielberg was spurred to make his most knotty, difficult, and intellectually complex film.  The result is hard science fiction of a scope and depth not seen since Blade Runner, and a vision of the future that seems more ambitious and bleak the more you think about it.  As pure and fluid as E.T., but with none of that film's optimism.  This one continues to rise in my estimation.