Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Top 50 Films of the 2000s part 3, or How the 'best of' continues

This is obviously a biased list of titles that range from Oscar winners to animated gems, and the only criteria I used was: "movies that I have thought about, have rewatched over and over again and which have stayed with me in one way or another." It's a "best of" list only in the sense that that 'best' is utterly subjective.

[Check out parts 1 and 2 here]

10. Pan's Labyrinth
Few directors could do the dazzling and gorgeous effects we see on screen in Pan's Labyrinth at the cost that Guillermo del Toro did them. Even fewer are able to seamlessly merge effects and good storytelling to great effect. This dark fairy-tale for adults (or really mature and violence-ready children) is one of those films I come back to time and time again. It works on so many different levels I'm always scared of flattening it: is it an allegory of Franco's regime? Is it an assault on storytelling in the face of cruelty? Is it a moratorium for fantasy or a redemption of it? Is it a great gothic story or an Alice in Wonderland for Franco's Spain?

9. Volver
The movie that turned Penelope Cruz from a beautiful Spanish actress making bad choices when it came to Hollywood movies to a gorgeous Spanish actress earning her first Oscar nomination for an Almodovar film and seeing her become an actress to be reckoned with. Almodovar's film is so sumptuous (no wonder it's obsessed with food!) and so funny and so heartwarming (that you forget it opens with an episode around child-molestation and murder!) it gets me every time.

8. Revolutionary Road
It's an unpopular film with some from a director that has polarized opinions about his work ever since he won the Oscar for (the still undervalued) American Beauty. And I'll say it now: Sam Mendes is a director that enthralls me. What others decry as his stylistic obsession (with perfectly calculated frames and shots that might feel stifling in their exactness) is what draws me most to his oeuvre. Adapting Richard Yates's bleak and unforgiving look at American suburbia in the 1950s, Mendes - reuniting a 'titanic' pair (Kate Winslet and Leo DiCaprio), creates what is to me a 50s tragic melodrama that stifles the viewer in order to mirror the claustrophobia April and Frank Wheeler experience.

7. Mullholland Dr.
Many of these films on my list I loved on first viewing. Not this one. But then, first-viewings rarely do David Lynch films any favours. The distorted, fractal, dream-like structure of Mullholland Dr is no difference. Here was a movie that captivated my thoughts and haunted me for weeks on end, demanding a reviewing - not for mere understanding (for how futile and thankless that would be) but for the joy of reliving the carefully calibrated experience of the film. Naomi Watts has never been better than here, embodying the fragile and yet cunning nature of her ephemeral character (what are Lynch's characters but mere shadows, mirrors and dream images?).

6. Amélie
Few films can pull off a suicide and milk it for laughs without seeming grotesque or unseemly. Yet this Jean Pierre Jeunet film strikes that fine balance between dark humour and light-hearted tone when it comes to things as death, sex, love and relationships. Amélie won many hearts upon its release (mine included) and there's no shortage of reasons why. Here was a visually stunning film with a truly magnetic lead whose 'fabulous destiny' (as the french title dubs it) is a joy to watch. The colours pop, the dialogue snaps and the blend of romance, humour and urban-fairy-tale style are hard to resist.

5. The Hours
The cast list alone would have secured this film's presence in this list, yet if films like Evening have taught us is that regardless of the strength of your cast, you need a good film behind them to make it work. Carefully adapting Michael Cunningham's novel of the same name, Daldry & co created a three-pronged meditation on writing, reading, living and breathing using Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway as both its center and end-goal. Meryl, Nicole and Julianne each command the screen and embody these characters with the pathos of womanhood - those close ups that Daldry privileges so much are only stunning because these three actresses can emote widely and subtly without succumbing to mere posture. That each is given juicy scenes (Nicole in the train station, Julianne and Toni's scene in the kitchen, Meryl's meltdown) with literate and awfully eloquent writing only helps elevate this great adaptation.

It's no surprise a PIXAR film made it to my Top 5. Six of their seven releases would have easily made it to a Top 25 list (Cars still ranks as my least-favorite PIXAR film and the only one I never saw in theaters) but to keep things fair, I restricted myself to only one in the Top 10. Andrew Stanton's Sci-Fi romantic 'green fable' film is not only gorgeous but a master-class in animation. To make the two protagonists as emotive as they are, able to convey as many emotions as they do without falling into the Dreamworks-like anthropomorphism we are so used to is a feat in itself. Part Buster Keaton, part Woody Allen and part Johnny 5, WALL-E is a character that became an endearing part of my life last year (just ask any of my friends how many times I use "EEEE-VAAH" in normal conversation). For showing how astounding PIXAR can be and bringing to fruition almost ten years of film-making, WALL-E deserves as spot in my Top 5.

3. Closer
I'm probably in the minority when it comes to my undying love for this Mike Nichols's film. But no other film has tapped into my feelings about relationships as well as this stage-to-film adaptation. It destroys me emotionally every time I watch it. You may deem it misanthropic (and I would agree) and you may claim its cold and unflinching in its portrayal of these mostly dysfunctional and mean-spirited characters (and I would agree) but there is something oddly familiar to me about Anna (the understated and undervalued Julia Roberts), Alice (the explosively sexy Natalie Portman), Dan (a meek and miserable Jude Law) and Larry (a frightening and cunning Clive Owen). That probably says more about me than about them, but I feel at home with these characters and Marber's script, with its stagey/Mamet-like dialogue punches me in the gut every time. And I love it for it.

2. Moulin Rouge!
This list is mostly about films who have stayed with me over the years. I still remember the first time I saw Baz Luhrmann's musical. I remember being rapt with awe in front of the TV (silly of me to have missed this in the big screen!) and knowing that I had found a film that I would never forget. From its sumptuous costume design and visual flair, to its modern re-working of vintage songs, to its by-the-numbers star-crossed-lovers plot, to its obsession with intertextuality and meta-drama, it felt like finding a cinematic soulmate. My love for Ms Kidman found its start here (I vaguely remembered her as 'that girl from Batman Forever, can you believe it?) and the Tango of Roxxane shot up to being my number one movie scene of all time (such choreography! such editing! such passion!) This is a movie I watch every couple of months and while it may have its flaws, it's a movie I know I could not live without.

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Picking my number one film of the decade was probably the easiest choice of the entire list. Michel Gondry's visually inventive and stunning film, working from an off-beat (and brilliant) Charlie Kauffman script is a wonder of a movie. Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey, as Clementine and Joel, give performances that feel real even when the situations around them are crazy (I particularly love the scene in Joel's childhood kitchen with Carrey making good use of his comedic chops playing a four year old version of Joel, while Clementine can't help but bask in the stylish 60s setting). This is most likely the greatest contemporary romantic comedy because dysfunction and the quotidian take front and center, eschewing rom-com staples like "platonic and idealized romance" as well as an unambiguously happy and hopeful ending. Joel and Clementine's relationship (and our experience of it) fractures and frames our viewing experience, so as to let us experience the highs as well as the lows without polishing or organizing them to make them feel cinematic.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Top 50 Films of the 2000s part 2, or How the 'best of' continues

This is obviously a biased list of titles that range from Oscar winners to animated gems, and the only criteria I used was: "movies that I have thought about, have rewatched over and over again and which have stayed with me in one way or another." It's a "best of" list only in the sense that that 'best' is utterly subjective.

20. Minority Report
Was there a better Spielberg film this decade than Minority Report? Sure, the Academy gave a nod to the otherwise under-appreciated Munich (which should be rewatched if only to catch Daniel Craig in some snug jeans...) but I think that this Tom Cruise film (his best film in a decade that saw him go from bona fide movie star to laughing stock) is one for the ages. Taking a solid dystopian/futuristic premise (in the world of the film criminals are arrested before they commit the crime) and wonderful supporting performances, Spielberg creates a beautifully rendered film that looks as slick as it works.

19. Adapation
I love Charlie Kauffman soo much. I have yet to revisit Synecdoche, NY (which I really think I should) but for making me enjoy a Nicolas Cage this much, he deserves mad props. Also, I'm a sucker for metafiction so this film about a book being adapted into a film that turns out to be the same film we are watching being adapted... (see? I'm confused already) is a triumph for me on several different levels. Spike Jonze's direction grounds the crazy premise in a fully lived-in world and offers his actors (Cage, Streep and Oscar-winning Cooper, not to mention the lovely Swinton and the underrated Greer) the room to stretch their thespian muscles and give memorable performances in a film as funny as it is sad and as entertaining as it is smart.

18. Children of Men
Sometimes I love films for their actors (see above) or for their writers (see below) and sometimes, it is the director that takes center stage for me in why I love a film. There's no denying that Alfonso Cuaron is one of the greatest directors working today and not content with giving us the greatest Harry Potter film of them all (and don't even try to make an argument for any of the others), he went ahead and turned a dystopian novel based on a world where no can reproduce into a strikingly beautiful melancholic visual journey. Clive Owen as Theo (given the task to protect the only pregnant woman on the planet - see how easily that could have devolved into Michael Bay/Bruce Willis territory?)

17. Erin Brockovich
Lately I feel like the only Julia Roberts fan/apologist around (it is no surprise that two of her films make my Top 25 even in a decade that saw her relegated to smaller roles given her choice to raise her family, but it seems she's gearing up for a comeback with two films lined up for release next year). But I dare anyone, fan or not, to watch Erin Brockovich and not relish the delicious way in which Roberts takes this real-life role and utterly makes it an iconic Roberts-role. Soderbergh's direction allows her to breathe and in its seeming simplicity (especially compared to his more showy work that year in Traffic) manages to keep her performance front and center (quite a gamble if you think about it). Good thing Roberts has the goods (comedic, dramatic and physical) to deliver - her 'numbers' monologue alone makes me love this film more than I would have originally thought possible (I mean, the story itself isn't the stuff of good films, now is it?).

16. Gosford Park
This is one of the films from this past decade that gets better with every viewing and whose grip on me didn't come from my first viewing experience but which crept on me as I kept revisiting in. Altman's whodunnit film, framed within the confines of English High society yet from the point of view of those who serve them (it is no accident that we are only privy to scenes with servants present) is a great example of a successful use of an ensemble cast. While Helen Mirren and Maggie Smith are the clear standouts (the former for her restraint the latter for quite the opposite) every single actor shines throughout, and they do so because the improvisational nature of the script and the wandering camera never let this feel like a film but more like an experience. Throughout we are invited as guests to this party and come to know the secrets behind the death that opens the conflict in the same way that characters move through them.
15. Kill Bill (Vol 1 & 2)
It might be a cop out to place 'both' these films under one spot but they seem so organically paired (they were supposed to be, after all, just one film) that while I enjoy Vol 1 and its Japanese-tone/setting more than Vol 2's spaghetti Western style/frame, I can't sacrifice one for the other. Uma Thurman's Bride is a character for the ages - at once wounded and broken yet with a resilience and a strength usually reserved for much more testosterone-fuelled heroes of action films. Much like with other films on this list, Tarantino's double feature won my heart with the Crazy 88s sequence which swings from high camp (the spanking with the sword) to full out gore (anyone ever count how many limbs are lying around?) to beautifully stylized fight choreography without lowering the stakes or sacrificing the driving narrative.

14. Thank You For Smoking
As Part 1 made clear, Up in the Air won me over (unsurprisingly) and while Oscar went ga-ga (or I guess Dia-blo!) over Juno, it is this Aaron Eckhart vehicle that cracks me up everytime when it comes to Reitman's filmography. A scathing look at capitalism, individualism, modern families and American 'values', Thank You For Smoking manages to take on controversial issues with mordant bite and witty humour. Maria Bello and Eckhart bring the house down as cut-throat corporate bitches with (maybe a blackened) heart.

13. Atonement
That green dress! I mean, I know there are more reasons to love this Joe Wright directed film, but that library scene alone makes me swoon every time I watch it. It's not just the fact that the erotics of Kiera and James are framed in such an apropos location (what is Atonement if not an exploration of the intersection between texts and sex?) but that the sex appeal of the scene is done mostly by suggestion with little or no nudity required to entice (and excite!) its audience. A breathtaking performance by Saoirse Ronan makes the first act of this film a gem in itself, and while it meanders and loses me quite a bit when it becomes a war film, Garai and Redgrave manage to salvage the film and make it one of my all-time favorite failed romance films this decade gave us.

12. Ratatouille
How do you successfully blend a story of a rat who wants to be a world-class chef, sumptuous animation and still manage to hit notes of 'being/finding yourself', 'family' and vermin? I have no idea, but clearly Brad Bird and his team over at Pixar know something I don't about making heart-warming, beautifully rendered films with off-beat premises.

11. The Devil Wears Prada
This might seem like a 'light' inclusion (it is, after all a film about the fashion world told through mostly formulaic comedic cliches) but Meryl as editrix Miranda Priestly, Anne as the plucky Andrea, Stanley as the bitchy () and Emily as...well, Emily, lift this adaptation (from a mostly grudge-driven and mean-spirited albeit hilarious novel of the same name) to another realm. Patricia Field's costumes alone and Streep's cerulean monologue make this a rewatch-staple every couple of months.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Top 50 Films of the 2000s part 1, or How the 'best of' continues

This is obviously a biased list of titles that range from Oscar winners to animated gems, and the only criteria I used was: "movies that I have thought about, have rewatched over and over again and which have stayed with me in one way or another." It's a "best of" list only in the sense that that 'best' is utterly subjective. (Also, since these are my criteria, this explains why 2009 titles aren't as well represented - I need more time to digest and work through them).

25. Lilo & Stitch
What better way to kick off my list than with one of my all-time favorite Disney films? (Albeit one that didn't get the critical and box office love it deserved) It may not match the brilliance of the string of Pixar gems that peppered the 2000s or the buoyancy of the 90s renaissance of Disney musicals, but Chris Sanders's Lilo and Stitch has such an off-beat premise, such a gorgeous water-coloured palette and such an adorable pair at its center, that I can never refuse its charms as it blends sci-fi, Hawaii, Elvis and riffs on buddy-movies and advancing a beautiful theme surrounding "family" ("Ohanna means no one gets left behind").

24. 8 Women
It seems my idea of "Foreign Films" is restricted to French and Spanish language films (with the occasional Miyazaki thrown in). This is something I should work on, but I could do worse in finding two countries with a wider and more interesting filmic selection. Francois Ozon's 8 Women, while uproariously campy and unswervingly stylish (almost to its own detriment) it is such a joy to watch that I can't help but light up whenever the eponymous 8 women from the title (which include such French beauties as Isabelle Hupert, Catherine Deneuve and the luminous Ludivine Sagnier) burst into song and dance. Who knew there could be a whodunnit that could work just as well as a musical and as an actressexual dream?

23. A Single Man
In compiling this list I've realized how much respect and adoration I have for wonderfully aestheticized films. That's not to say that all "pretty" or "formally disciplined" films are good, but that when an attention to an aestheticized form is paired with the right tone and story, the results can be mesmerizing (just wait for my Top 5 - they all conform to this). Tom Ford's film - while recent in my memory, has been haunting me now for over two weeks. After watching it, I thought it was a good film with a heartbreaking performance by Colin Firth, if not the home run I wanted it to be (the film, not the performance). But the more I think about it, the more I fall in love with Ford's film: its European flavor, its gorgeous art direction, its meticulous shots, its obsession with the male body.

22. Up in the Air
In choosing another 2009 title, I didn't have to go far. It is not surprising any of Reitman's films would have finished in my Top 50: I love his style of storytelling and with this George Clooney vehicle he's hit all the right spots. Described as "Death of a Salesman starring Cary Grant" (by Roger Ebert, I believe), Reitman's film has us follow Ray Bingham as he finds the world as he knows it slowly ebbing away. If to travel is to live, as he believes, what happens when one is no longer in flight? With a pair of lovely supporting ladies (Farmiga and Kendrick), Clooney and Reitman's witty film is a joy to watch, even as its ending feels at once to hopeless and too hopeful.

21. Lord of the Rings Trilogy
I know it's a cop-out (see 15) but how can you really separate these three films that together they make one of the most daring cinematic achievements of all time, let alone the decade? Every time I talk about these films I feel I should re-watch them yet again (I've rewatched them here and there but never in a row, never in any systematic way) because every time I catch them on cable or at someone's house I am enraptured by the way Jackson & co. manage to make Middle Earth's conflict feel so epic and yet so grounded. If I had to choose one film to spotlight it would be Fellowship (Two Towers suffers from being the middle film and Return of the King for all its greatness feels too long and its multiple endings always feel less engaging than they should be). A great ensemble, enviable special effects, a gorgeous score and the lovely New Zealand canvas just add to the overall wonder that these films created over three years of my life (and for years to come, I'm sure).

Runners-up (in alphabetical order):
Batman Begins, Bring it On, Brokeback Mountain, Catch Me If You Can, Chicago, Duplicity, Frida, Finding Nemo, Hairspray, Legally Blonde, Mary and Max, Match Point, Mean Girls, Memento, Monsters, Inc., Notes on a Scandal, Once, Something's Gotta Give, Spiderman 2, Spirited Away, The Incredibles, There Will Be Blood, Transamerica, Unfaithful, X2.