Thursday, December 31, 2009

The 50 Best Films of the Decade (40-31)

40) Casino Royale (2006) dir: Martin Campbell

The best Bond film ever made with some of the best action sequences of the last decade. The only bad thing about Casino Royale is that the best sequence comes within the first 15 minutes, a high-energy chase through a construction zone in a developing African city (I could look up which city, but really?) Quantum of Solace wasn't terrible, but please give the Bond films back to Martin Campbell. He did this one and another pretty good one (Goldeneye). Let's just stick with what works, ok?

39) Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009) dir: Werner Herzog

Honestly, given another few months, this film might move up on the list. A perfectly written, perfectly conceived, and perfectly cast film. Nicholas Cage is the only person who could have played this role, and there are very few roles that I could say that about. Cage's hyperactive, frantic expressions work brilliantly here. John Updike once wrote of Vladimir Nabokov: "Nabokov writes prose the only way it should be written. That is, ecstatically." That's how Werner Herzog directs Bad Lieutenant.

werner herzog and nicolas cage

38) Adaptation (2002) dir: Spike Jonze

Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze made amazing films before Jonze went to the big leagues and Kaufman started getting all up in his own business. (Maybe I should see Synecdoche, New York again?) A silly, twisty comedy that becomes a thriller that becomes a comedy again, Kaufman managed to adapt a book about flowers and make it completely about himself. Sounds like something I would do.

37) High Fidelity (2000) dir: Stephen Frears

Frears' best film since My Beautiful Laundrette (boo-ya!), I almost forgot High Fidelity still came out within the last ten years. I was still in high school when I first saw it, and it was maybe the first time I saw a comedy in theaters that was both really funny and "a film." Intensely enjoyable with the performance that made Jack Black a star.

36) Munich (2005) dir: Steven Spielberg

That's right. Spielberg was in top form this decade -- and Munich was neither pro nor anti-Israeli. It presents the story of what men do when they feel threatened, and the systematic process by which war can be conducted in modern times. The film also looks great, and Spielberg creates some wonderfully suspenseful moments. I'm thinking of the sequence where the little girl runs back into the apartment where the bomb is ready to explode.

35) Gran Torino (2008) dir: Clint Eastwood

It's been difficult for me to fully embrace Clint Eastwood as a director. I enjoyed Mystic River, but thought Million Dollar Baby was way overpraised. In the last few years though, I finally got it. His best film is Gran Torino, though the also excellent Letters From Iwo Jima could also be on this list (one of those many Honorable Mention omissions). Gran Torino allows Eastwood one more chance to be the ultimate bad-ass, though he's a bit more crotchety here than when he made films with Sergio Leone.

34) Swimming Pool (2003) dir: Francois Ozon

One of many glorious mindfucks that came out in the past decade, Ozon lets us watch two fine actresses do their thing, with motivation and agenda always under the surface. Charlotte Rampling plays a mystery novelist tired of doing the same old stories. She travels to her editor's empty home in France to get some inspiration. What she finds there is his sexually bold daughter, and a mystery far more cerebral than your standard Agatha Christie.

swimming pool

33) You Can Count On Me (2000) dir: Kenneth Lonergan

"Remember what we used to say to each other when we were kids?" Thank goodness Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo leave that question unanswered. It's part of the often-brilliant subtlety of this drama. Lonergan's follow-up film, Margaret, comes out this year. We can only hope it's as incisive and well-structured as You Can Count On Me.

32) No Country For Old Men (2007) dir: Joel and Ethan Coen

The film that finally got the Coen brothers their directing Oscar is a masterpiece of suspense. Javier Bardem's performance as Anton Chigurh is one of the most menacing and eerie in recent years. His eyes show no conscience and no remorse. It is his actions, contrasted with the persistent but ultimately flawed police work of Tommy Lee Jones' Sheriff Bell, that lead to No Country's spare and nihilistic conclusion. The Coens' first film, Blood Simple, also took place in rural Texas. This setting is the perfect backdrop for characters that simply get up to no good.

31) The Lives Of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) (2007) dir: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (spelled correctly on the first try!)

If you haven't seen this film yet, do yourself a favor and Netflix this action. Some people think it suffers from Return Of The King Neverending Syndrome, but I think it ends exactly where it should. For a story that crosses over so many years, and with lives that are undeniably connected, each new twist lends new meaning. Ulrich Mühe plays an agent in the East German secret police in the 1908s. He's charged with spying on a playwright who's suspected of acting against the government. This story develops not because of political intrigue, though, but because of a woman. Even the most hardened of communist politicians have weaknesses.

The 50 Best Films of the Decade (50-41)

I turned 18 in 2000 and spent the better part of the last 10 years watching movies, often more than one a day. Narrowing down a list to 50 was particularly difficult, not just because there were so many good films, but that so many of them resonated and stuck with me throughout the years. This list, therefore, can never be a definitive representation of my real thoughts about the movies listed. More accurately, these are the films that I watched repeatedly, that struck a chord and shaped my outlook.

I'm also going to forgo the usual "honorable mentions" list, as there were literally hundreds of films that I saw and loved that didn't make the top 50, any of which might be on the list in a different time.

Without further ado, counting backwards:

50) Dancer In The Dark (2000) dir: Lars Von Trier

This film somehow survives as the least draining and depressing film Von Trier ever made, and that's just because it has some nice songs in it. Dancer In The Dark explores a young woman's imagination, and Selma Jezkova's is a colorful one indeed. She sees Technicolor Hollywood musicals in a grim, dreary world of deceit. Get performances by Bjork, David Morse, Catherine Deneuve and Peter Stormare round out this sorrowful depiction of rural American life.

49) The Return (Vozvrashchenie) (2003) dir: Andrei Zvyagintsev

Many of the films on this list concern the relationships between estranged fathers and sons. However, unlike the more whimsical take we get from Wes Anderson, Zvyagintsev gives us a harrowing "adventure" in the Russian wilderness. A father returns to take his two sons on vacation in a remote area of Russia after having disappeared 12 years earlier. Zvyagintsev's follow-up film, The Banishment, is still unavailable in the U.S.

48) Death Proof (2007)/Inglourious Basterds (2009) dir: Quentin Tarantino

Okay, I promise I'll only cheat a few more times during the list. Death Proof was technically part of Grindhouse, though I own the DVD separately from Planet Terror, and Inglourious Basterds is a different film altogether, however I'm still struggling with only having a few 2009 films on this list (things take time), so let me put these two together. In Death Proof, Tarantino made a straight-up, 70s B-movie with A-list talent. Most other filmmakers would have made a boring dud, but Tarantino's sharp dialogue keeps us glued until the final car chase, which is really worth waiting around for. With Inglourious Basterds, he does about 10,000 things in one. It's a jumble of WWII archetypes, with a brilliant villain, and some of the best structural set-ups of any film in recent memory.

47) Sexy Beast (2002) dir: Jonathan Glazer

One of only a few debut films on this list, Jonathan Glazer's Sexy Beast is a heist film that's barely about the actual heist. It's all about Ray Winstone's Gal and Ben Kingsley's Don Logan. In the best performance of his career, Kingsley plays a temperamental (to say the least) criminal who flies to Spain to recruit the retired Gal for one last job. What happens when he receives a decisive "No" becomes one of the most quotable and memorable sequences of the decade.

46) Talk To Her (2002) dir: Pedro Almodovar

My favorite among Almodovar's many great films of this decade, Talk To Her, analyzes the relationship of two men and a woman in a coma. There's a level of un-reality in this film, as there is in Volver. We're not sure if we want Alicia to come out of her coma, as perhaps the relationship between her and Benigno is better as long as things remain unsaid, or unheard.

45) The Man Who Wasn't There (2001) dir: Joel Coen

Back in the early part of this decade, each new Coen brothers film release was an event, if only because us college-folk thought another Big Lebowski was on the way. That's not what we got, but The Man Who Wasn't There is the Coen's ingenious take on old American noir. It's grim and futile, but like most of the more nihilistic Coen films (Barton Fink, No Country For Old Men) extremely funny.

44) The New World (2005) dir: Terrence Malick

The Thin Red Line (1997) contrasted the beauty of nature with the frenetic confusion of war. In The New World, we got to really see the beauty the way John Smith must have seen it, or at least as portrayed by Colin Farrell, a much better actor than he's given credit for. Slow and bright, like all of Malick's films, this story is perfectly suited to his lens. (Note: I've only seen the theatrical 135 minute version, not the extended 172 minute edition.)

43) Collateral (2004) dir: Michael Mann

It was a big deal in 2004 that a major filmmaker was shooting an entire film digitally. This format was frightening to see on the big screen at first. But nobody ever captured the grainy, subdued look of Los Angeles the way Mann does in Collateral. Add that to its exciting premise and a story carried by two top-notch performances by Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx.

42) L'enfant (2005) dir: Jean Pierre and Luc Dardenne

Bruno and Sonia are a young couple in love. He's a petty thief always looking for an easy way to score, so when Sonia presents him with their newborn child, Bruno sells it for a quick buck. Sonia freaks out and Bruno goes in search of the child. This is a film with a clear look at youth, and the fighting forces of responsibility and frivolity.

41) Undertow (2004) dir: David Gordon Green

The best film by one of the decade's greatest new filmmakers, Undertow is equal parts drama, adventure and suspense. Green captures the mood of a decaying South better than most, and Undertow gives us a character in Deel Munn who is greedy, ruthless, and fascinating. We identify with the two runaway children, but want to see more of Munn each minute.

The rest of the list is coming tomorrow.