Monday, October 5, 2009

The Movie of the Decade

• Written and directed by Steven Spielberg
• Starring Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law, Frances O'Connor, Sam Robards, William Hurt, and Brendan Gleeson; with the voices of Jack Angel, Ben Kingsley, Robin Williams and Meryl Streep
• Released June 21, 2001

Stanley Kubrick died March 7, 1999, just four months before his final directorial effort, "Eyes Wide Shut," was released to theaters. He didn't live to see the 21st century and, consequently, the year 2001, which is an awful shame. Kubrick's work often seemed ahead of its time, even when it was telling stories about the present.

"A.I." was so far ahead of our time that even Kubrick failed to bring it to fruition. Based upon a short story by Brian Aldiss, "A.I." required visual effects that no one thought possible until Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park" appeared in 1993. And even then, Kubrick felt that Spielberg himself would be a better director for the project, that it was more attuned to his sensibilities. By this, I imagine Kubrick simply meant that Steven could work better with children and visual effects, for the subject matter was certainly no lighter than what Kubrick was accustomed to.

So Spielberg did direct "A.I.," and adapted the screenplay himself from a screen story by Ian Watson. The result is his darkest and arguably most daring film, and one that began the most interesting string of films in his legendary career.

There's no use in dancing around it, so let's cut right to it: That third act. It has become de rigueur to criticize how Spielberg ends his films, and seemingly everyone hates the ending of "A.I." Many people still think the beings David (Haley Joel Osment) encounters at the end of the film are aliens, when they are clearly advanced mechas -- robots, just like him. They are identical in form to the statue we see at the Cybertronics building where David was built, the one David draws from memory for his "mother," Monica (Frances O'Connor).

Another common misconception is that Kubrick intended the film to end with David trapped at the bottom of the sea, staring into the face of the blue fairy statue that he thinks will make him a real boy. Spielberg has insisted this isn't the case, that the third act was there all along, but he has never helped his case by explaining the intentions behind that third act. Spielberg has never recorded a DVD commentary, and doesn't tell the audience what he thinks they should get out of the movie.

But audiences know what they think they should get out of a Spielberg movie, and that leads to the biggest misconception of them all: that "A.I." has a sappy, happy ending. John Williams' score -- which until the end is ominous and mechanical, not unlike something Philip Glass might write -- certainly does nothing to discourage such an idea. But I find the ending of "A.I.," in which the future mecha resurrect Monica for one perfect day of happiness with David before both go to sleep forever, to be as emotionally, psychologically and existentially devastating as any I've seen.

And here's why.

Monica never loved David. Most of the time she feared David. Upon first viewing, it's easy to identify with Monica and her husband, Henry (Sam Robards), because we are more than a little afraid of David ourselves. But none of David's actions come from a place of malice -- his intentions are pure, and direct: he wants Monica to love him. Any accidents along the way are just that.

Would a mother who loved her son abandon him in the woods? Monica cries when she does just that to David, but one gets the sense she's more horrified with the idea of what she's doing than with the consequences. After all, he's just a robot. A toy. (And a toy who emptied her last bottle of Chanel No. 5, at that.) The crowd at the Flesh Fair, where robots are destroyed for entertainment, is more forgiving than David's mother.

When the future mechas discover David, the de facto leader (voiced by Ben Kingsley) explicitly tells his counterparts to "give him what he wants." And so David is given a fantasy in which the animated statue of the blue fairy (voiced by Meryl Streep) grants him his day with Monica, who is no longer the self-absorbed, materialistic person we saw in the first act. The mechas have created a Monica that is every bit as fictional as the blue fairy, a pipe dream that provides David with closure and happiness just before his "death." The suggestion is that it doesn't matter if David's happiness was false; at least he "died" happy.

There is a parallel here that should be obvious to an atheist -- the blue fairy and the resurrected Monica are fictions, just as God is fiction. We are fed the lie that there is a benevolent being who loves us despite all our faults, and who will protect us as long as we return that love. If that is indeed a lie, it is perhaps the most cruel, and it is the same lie that David believed. And perhaps that is what ultimately humanizes him, what ultimately forces the tear from his robotic eye in the final scene. David has finally abandoned his last scrap of rationality and become just as irrational and stupid as any human.

That's pretty grim stuff. While Spielberg's sometimes-horrifying war films offer hope and belief in the human spirit, "A.I." offers tragedy, and posits that even humanity's capacity for love can be used for evil. It has far more in common with "A Clockwork Orange" than "E.T."

Aside from the film's existential ruminations, "A.I." is of course a technically perfect movie, with seamless visuals and a CGI character that has few equals. (I'm referring, of course, to David's companion Teddy, who may be even creepier than David.) The second act, in which David learns about the outside world from the sexbot Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), draws us deeper into David's personal mystery. For a while, we actually believe in the blue fairy, which I suppose is entirely the point. The "Pinocchio" parallel is pushed to the limit in the Rouge City sequence, where David the puppet visits Dr. Know (voiced by Robin Williams), a holographic search engine that looks and sounds like a cross between Einstein and Geppetto, and seems to have been plucked from Epcot Center.

The seeds of "A.I." can be seen in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," my favorite of Spielberg's films, which was released in 1977. Steven's fascination with "Pinocchio" is all over that film, from Roy Neary's (Richard Dreyfuss) enthusiasm for it in the beginning of the film, to John Williams' repurposing of "When You Wish Upon a Star" at the end. "Close Encounters" is all about a man abandoning everything to follow his dream, and he achieves it; by the time Spielberg made "A.I.," perhaps he realized that the dream doesn't exist.

If you fall into the "'A.I.' sucks" camp, which I suspect most of you do, I implore you to watch it again, and to truly see it through David's eyes, not through the eyes of a filmgoer who expects Steven Spielberg to give you another happy ending.

I truly believe "A.I." is the best film of this past decade, a criticism of the human condition disguised as a feel-good, special effects extravaganza. I seriously doubt that the Steven Spielberg who last gave us "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" will ever top it.

• • •

Did you miss the rest of the 10 Years, 100 Movies series? Start here and work backward. Thanks to all for reading, and I really hope this list, while full of popular films, leads you to reconsider, rewatch and re-enjoy some of the great movies of the past 10 years.

10 Years, 100 Movies: Part 5 (10-2)

Click here for Part 1
Click here for Part 2
Click here for Part 3
Click here for Part 4

• • •

We're in the home stretch now. I'm planning to write a full essay on the winner, which will probably require another viewing and a lot of hemming and hawing, so you can expect the final entry by next Saturday (I hope).

This list, I must admit, hasn't offered a great deal of variety; there are multiple entries from both Andersons, Ridley Scott, Peter Jackson, Sam Mendes, Pixar and of course Steven Spielberg. But it is an honest list, albeit one that would probably be laughable to the likes of Walter Chaw and Jeffrey Wells. (Not to mention Kyle Thiessen, who will probably give me a punchin' next time I see him.)

So here are the nine runners-up to the crown, each with extended commentary:

• • •

10. "WALL•E" (Andrew Stanton, 2008)

I've gone on and on about this movie since it came out last June, and a recent viewing proves it hasn't lost any of its power or surprise. "WALL•E" is so many things we think an animated film cannot be, but it also excels at the things Disney is known for; the Axiom, the giant spaceship where the second half of the film is set, feels like the Imagineers' wildest dream of a Disneyland attraction.

The only downside to "WALL•E" is how high the bar is now set. "Up" was a very good film, yes, but descended into cliche in the third act. Next year's "Toy Story 3" will undoubtedly be an entertaining visit with some old friends, but it's not likely to be about anything. And "Cars 2"? Please. But science-fiction may be Pixar's best friend: I am eagerly awaiting Stanton's upcoming adaptation of "John Carter of Mars," which will reportedly incorporate live-action footage.

• • •

9. "The Lord of the Rings:
The Return of the King"

(Peter Jackson, 2003)

The longest third act in movie history gives "Rings" fans one emotional payoff after another. My mom and my sisters tear up when Aragorn tells the hobbits, "You bow to no one." My dad gets caught up in the Annie Lennox song that plays over the illustrated end credits. I lose it when Sam finds the strength that Frodo cannot: "I can't carry it for you, but I can carry you!"

But for all of its visual splendor, no battle, no digital landscape, no grotesque character can match the spectacle of the short sequence in which the beacons between Rohan and Minas Tirith are lit. Watch it here.

• • •

8. "Atonement" (Joe Wright, 2007)

I stayed far, far away from this movie for as long as I could. Wright's adaptation of "Pride & Prejudice" nearly put me to sleep when I saw it on an airplane, Keira Knightley is interminable when she's not in a pirate movie, and it just looked like "The English Patient" all over again. (A good movie, but would you ever watch it again?)

The day after the Oscars, where "Atonement" was awarded the prize for Dario Marianelli's score, Jackie and I saw Knightley's co-star, James McAvoy, at Santa Monica Pier. Perhaps taking this as a sign, we went to see the film that night.

It begins with the sound of a typewriter. As young Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) finishes composing her first play, the typewriter continues, becoming an instrument in Marianelli's orchestra. Briony bounces about the house, looking for her sister Cecilia (Knightley), accompanied by a whirling, portentous melody on piano and cello. When we find Cecilia, she is in the midst of an uncomfortable confrontation with the groundskeeper (McAvoy), seething with tension. The scene is shown twice, once from Briony's perspective, and again from a neutral one, and it quickly becomes clear that it is Briony, not the young lovers, who this film is really about. In ten minutes, the film subverted every expectation I had for it, and had my full attention from then on.

The most unexpected thing about "Atonement" is how rewarding it is on repeat viewings; how much of what happened was real, and how much was Briony's invention? I haven't read Ian McEwen's book, and perhaps it is more clear, but I almost don't want to read it because part of the film's power lies in that uncertainty. As someone with mounting regret and an increasing desire to do it all over again, I am fascinated by Briony and her situation.

As I'm writing this, my iPod has shuffled its way to Marianelli's score. He deserved that Oscar.

• • •

7. "Inglourious Basterds"
(Quentin Tarantino, 2009)

Too soon? Probably. But it feels so right. I don't have much to add to my original review, except to say that Christoph Waltz shouldn't be the only actor winning acclaim for his work here. How about Dennis Menochet, who plays the doomed Monsieur La Padite? Or Diane Kruger, whose roles in the "National Treasure" films couldn't have prepared us for her subtle work as the German movie star in the tavern standoff? Or Michael Fassbender, whose scene with Mike Myers might actually be the funniest in the entire film?

• • •

6. "Dancer in the Dark"
(Lars Von Trier, 2000)

Here we have a film conceived by a notoriously arrogant avant-garde filmmaker, starring someone who had never acted in a film before, telling the most melodramatic story possible, and shot on washed-out video by camera operators who can't seem to stand still. And it works.

"Dancer in the Dark" follows a Czech immigrant (Bjork) in 1950s Washington state who continues to work in a factory even though she's going blind; she needs the money, you see, for her son, who can have surgery that will ensure he won't suffer his mother's fate. But the tragic story gets even worse when the next-door neighbor (David Morse) steals the money. When Selma catches him in the act, he asks her to kill him with his gun. She does, and prison awaits.

But Selma takes solace in her fantasies, depicted as bright, colorful musical sequences (with original songs by Bjork) that Von Trier shot with 100 fixed cameras all rolling simultaneously.

This film is divisive. Some think it's a subversive work of genius. Others find it to be pointless, manipulative, and/or anti-American. I think it's experimental cinema of the best kind, marrying a time-tested genre to a completely different school of thought. And no matter your opinion, you have to admire the once-in-a-lifetime performance from Bjork, who never once seems to be acting while making the most of her child-like beauty.

And you certainly won't forget the ending.

• • •

5. "Gladiator" (Ridley Scott, 2000)

Lars Von Trier probably joined many others in laughing when this film won the best picture Oscar. A hoary sword and sandal epic? A bloated, bloody blockbuster? A mere entertainment? But entertained we were, by a director who had fallen out of the cinematic conscious for a while.

In 2000, I did not name this the best film of the year; Von Trier's film and the Coens' "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" were ahead of it on my list. But I keep coming back to "Gladiator," not only because it is extremely entertaining, but because it is an incredibly rich experience, with all departments performing at the highest level.

I've gabbed on and on about Hans Zimmer's score for "Gladiator," so I won't bore you with that again. Perhaps the most surprising thing about "Gladiator" is its script, which is credited to David Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson, but was actually forged by Scott, his producers, and seemingly everyone else who worked in a major capacity on the film. Producer Walter Parkes, who earlier co-wrote the screenplay for 1983's "WarGames," explains the arduous re-writing on the extended edition DVD with unusual candor, and it's amazing to think that such a script would be coherent, let alone a classic.

The words wouldn't work without Scott's vision, which is gorgeous as always, or the career-defining performances by Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen and Oliver Reed. If we are to believe the bearded, bonkers Phoenix when he says he'll never act again, his portrayal of Emperor Commodus will be his legacy: quietly menacing, though severely wounded, with the threat (or is it the residue?) of an incestual relationship with Lucilla (Nielsen) lying under the surface.

Of course, it's all secondary to the music.

• • •

4. "The Lord of the Rings:
The Fellowship of the Ring"

(Peter Jackson, 2001)

I didn't like this film the first time I saw it. It might even be fair to say I hated it. I thought I was getting an action spectacular, not three hours of running and crying in a sweltering hot theater.

But then I saw it again, under better circumstances, and with the right frame of mind. And I liked it a lot more. And then I saw it again. And again. And again.

I saw "Fellowship of the Ring" seven times at various theaters, loving it more and more with each viewing. And though "Two Towers" is more exciting, and "Return of the King" provides the considerable emotional payoff, "Fellowship" is the one film of the trilogy that could (almost) stand alone. After the fellowship breaks at Amon Hen, and Sam and Frodo begin their march toward Mount Doom, you are left with such hope that you just know all of your new friends will succeed.

For all the trilogy's technological, mechanical and stylistic triumphs, nothing is more important to its success than Ian McKellen's performance in "Fellowship." It's so effortless that it's easily forgotten; we aren't looking at Ian McKellen, the great Shakespearean actor, we are looking at Gandalf the Grey. The character evolves into a warrior in the subsequent chapters, but in "Fellowship" he is a warm mentor, more of a grandfather figure than a leader. We can't imagine making the journey without him, and it is tragic indeed when he "dies" in the depths of Moria.

Thank you, Peter Jackson, for giving us three motion pictures worthy of being called "The Trilogy." George Lucas certainly didn't. (Well, not in this decade.)

• • •

3. "There Will Be Blood"
(Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)

It's one of the greatest performances ever, isn't it? You could pretty much tell that from the trailer. Daniel Day-Lewis is definitely the main attraction of "There Will Be Blood," but not even a performance that large, that dominating can wrestle the movie away from a director like P.T. Anderson, whose earlier triumphs ("Magnolia," "Boogie Nights," "Punch-Drunk Love") gave us no hint he would make a film like this.

Most choose to call Daniel Plainview a villain: he manipulates the people of Little Boston; torments the local preacher, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano); kills a man in cold blood; shuns his deaf son, H.W.; and seems to spin totally out of control. But it's possible that Plainview is Anderson's satirical American hero, a singularly selfish man who values money over everything else, and who even manages to, in a sense, kill God, in spectacular fashion. (It occurs to me that "Capitalism: A Love Story" could have been a great alternate title.)

There has been a lot of argument over whether the final scene is supposed to be funny. The IMDB message boards exploded when the film came out, with the faux-snobs bashing anyone who dared laugh. It's not supposed to be funny! This is a serious, serious movie! HURRRRR! Well, I'm one of those faux-snobs, and let me tell you: I think the last scene of the movie is hilarious, and anyone who doubts that must not know a whole lot about Paul Thomas Anderson. You mean to tell me we're not supposed to laugh at the milkshake exchange? (A similar argument is to be had about Sam Mendes' "Revolutionary Road," which I found to be darkly funny, and one of the best films of 2008. But many don't understand how anybody could laugh at that film. But I digress.)

Here's another argument we could have: Which iconic performance from the '00s is best, Daniel Day-Lewis in "There Will Be Blood," or Johnny Depp in "Pirates of the Caribbean"? Discuss.

• • •

2. "Zodiac" (David Fincher, 2007)

Robert Graysmith's entire life was consumed by needing to know the identity of California's notorious Zodiac Killer. His pursuit of the truth damaged his relationships, lost him his job, and may have even come close to killing him. His obsession with finding a man that may be unfindable -- knowing a truth that is unknowable -- is the real subject of "Zodiac," Fincher's best and most engrossing film.

When I got the film on DVD, I watched it pretty much every night for two weeks. Fincher and his actors got me so caught up in the obsession that I started to take it on. I wanted to solve this thing, dammit! Never mind how impossible that is, given the "facts" presented in the film. (And the facts are, apparently, shaky throughout.)

While the crimes were horrible, there have been far more insidious, deadly serial killers; what makes the Zodiac stand out is the all-encompassing dread he inspired, and that comes through in the film, especially in that scene where Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) finds himself alone in a dark basement with a man (Charles Fleischer) who just might be the killer ... and then footsteps are heard from the kitchen above.

Another of "Zodiac's" achievements is the seamless use of CGI to turn 21st century California into 1970s California. The effects are truly in service to the story, and most of them are completely unnoticeable. Early on, when Det. Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) investigates the scene of a cab driver's murder, digital landscapes are used in every direction, augmenting the period work of the production and costume designers. Fincher also uses a few of his trademark impossible camera moves, such as a shot that follows the taxi from above.

"Zodiac" transcends the genres it appears to be a part of. It is not a by-the-numbers police procedural, a killer thriller, a biopic or a period piece. It feels like it is happening to you -- the threat is real, and it's destroying lives in so many ways. It's not the stylistic kaleidoscope that "Fight Club" was, and it lacks the gothic elegance of "Seven." But I'd say it's certainly Fincher's best, most epic film, and one of the most engrossing I've ever seen.

• • •

Coming soon (hopefully): The Movie of the Decade
(post your guesses below)

10 Years, 100 Movies: Part 4 (25-11)

Click here for Part 1
Click here for Part 2
Click here for Part 3

• • •

25. "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" (Michel Gondry, 2004)
There are moments of true genius in this twisted romance that suggests you can't kill love, even if you erase it from memory. I saw this film twice when it played in theaters, and those are the only two times I've been able to watch it -- it has proven to be too emotional, too painful an experience for many reasons, but no less wonderful.

24. "The Incredibles" (Brad Bird, 2004)
An animated film ostensibly made for children dares to suggest that not all kids are special little snowflakes? And Disney released it? That's just one reason to love what is almost certainly the best superhero movie ever, not to mention the best James Bond movie ever. (Hey, it features a jazzy, horn-laden score, a villain who lives in a volcano, and tons of gadgets. If this isn't a James Bond movie, then my name ain't Nathan Arizona.)

23. "Donnie Darko" (Richard Kelly, 2001)
22. "In Bruges" (Martin McDonagh, 2008)

21. "Catch Me If You Can" (Steven Spielberg, 2002)
This is Spielberg's most entertaining effort from a decade in which most of his films were serious and/or grim (even his "light comedy" invoked the spectre of 9/11). One has to wonder how much credit he can actually take; how hard is it to make a movie when you've got a great script (courtesy of Jeff Nathanson) performed by Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, Amy Adams and Martin Sheen? My sister likes to call this "as close to a perfect movie as I've seen," and though I have issues with the rather anti-climactic ending, I share her enthusiasm.

20. "Kill Bill, Vol. 2" (Quentin Tarantino, 2004)
19. "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" (Joel Coen, 2000)
18. "The Departed" (Martin Scorsese, 2006)

17. "Ocean's Eleven" (Steven Soderbergh, 2001)
Why? The dialogue:
• "I owe you from the thing with the guy in the place." / "It was our pleasure." / "I had never been to Belize!"
• "Off the top of my head, I'd say you're looking at a Boeski, a Jim Brown, a Miss Daisy, two Jethros and a Leon Spinks, not to mention the biggest Ella Fitzgerald ... ever."
• "They might as well call it 'whitejack'!"
• "He'll kill ya, then he'll go to work on ya."
• "You have lovely hands. Do you moisturize?"
• "Check it out ... all reds!"
• "You could ask him." / "Hey, I could ask him."
• "Ted Nugent called, he wants his shirt back."

16. "The Fountain" (Darren Aronofsky, 2006)
A misunderstood, mini-masterpiece that stretches across three timelines and owes more than a little debt to "2001: A Space Odyssey." The closing moments can best be described as orgasmic, as death, birth and rebirth collide in reality, fiction, and dream. Originally conceived as a big-budget tentpole starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, "The Fountain" was scaled back by the studio, but Aronofsky's imagination was not; he even achieved the film's stunning visuals on a shoestring without the benefit of CGI. Clint Mansell's hypnotic score is as vital to the movie's success as anything else.

15. "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" (Peter Weir, 2003)
Released in the same season as the final chapter of the "Lord of the Rings" saga (and the same year as the first "Pirates of the Caribbean" flick), "Master and Commander" seems to have fallen off the map. Such a shame, for such a meticulously detailed, beautifully constructed sea adventure. It doesn't have Johnny Depp mugging for the camera, but it does have another of Russell Crowe's great performances, particularly in his stirring speech to the young crew near the end: "England is under threat of invasion, and though we be on the far side of the world, this ship is our home. This ship is England."

14. "The Aviator" (Martin Scorsese, 2004)
13. "Revolutionary Road" (Sam Mendes, 2008)

12. "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" (Peter Jackson, 2002)
With the constant barrage of CGI, we are rarely honestly amazed by something on screen -- Gollum was truly amazing. So are the Ents, marching on Isengard. And so, for that matter, is the rest of the second part of the "Rings" trilogy, which introduces us to Rohan and its king, Theoden (Bernard Hill). The battles lack the emotional punches of those in the first and last installments, but "Two Towers" is the darkest, creepiest of the three, a harbinger of the horrors to come for Frodo and Sam, and Aragorn's band of warriors. The extended version, available on DVD, is a richer experience, but not essential.

11. "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" (Judd Apatow, 2005)
Time for more hyperbole: Is this the funniest sex comedy of all time? I'm inclined to say yes, though I realize it has plenty of stiff competition (ho, ho). Apatow will have a tough time matching the laugh quotient of this, his directorial debut, and the film that began Steve Carell's run of multimedia omnipresence. Crude as the film can be, the concept could have lent itself to an even cruder film; casting Catherine Keener as a smart, warm counterpart for Carell was a smart move, and makes the film so much more than it would have been in less capable hands.

• • •

Coming soon:
Part 5 (10-2)
Part 6 (The Movie of the Decade)

10 Years, 100 Movies: Part 3 (50-26)

Click here for Part 1; click here for Part 2.

• • •

50. "Moulin Rouge!" (Baz Luhrmann, 2001)
When it first hit theaters, this film's critical and popular success was a mystery to me; how did a movie this flat-out insane connect with so many people? But in the age of the iPod, where singles and ringtones reign over albums, the popularity of Luhrmann's schizophrenic carnival makes sense, delivering short bursts of musical gratification. Sadly, eight years have passed and we're still waiting for Ewan McGregor to make another good movie.

49. "King Kong" (Peter Jackson, 2005)
The success of "Lord of the Rings" gave Jackson the license to do whatever he wanted, and he wanted to make a three-hour epic about a giant ape. It suffers on the small screen, but "Kong" has few parallels as a big-screen spectacle, thanks to peerless character animation by Weta Digital. The most impressive feat, though, belongs to Naomi Watts -- she actually sells a "romance" between her character and a giant ape. (And it's a giant ape who isn't really there, to boot.) The (in)famous scene of Kong and Watts spinning on the Central Park ice was absurd to some, but pure magic for me.

48. "The Royal Tenenbaums" (Wes Anderson, 2001)
47. "Cast Away" (Robert Zemeckis, 2000)
46. "Finding Nemo" (Andrew Stanton, 2003)
45. "Crash" (Paul Haggis, 2005)
44. "Road to Perdition" (Sam Mendes, 2002)
43. "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" (Tim Burton, 2007)

42. "Oldboy" (Chan-wook Park, 2003)
The most brutal of the decade's many revenge films, "Oldboy" begins as a mystery: Who kidnapped Korean businessman Oh Dae-su, held him prisoner for 15 years in a dingy hotel room, then suddenly let him go? The path to the answer is caked in blood, and the protagonist's discovery leads to another, more horrifying one.

41. "Bowling for Columbine" (Michael Moore, 2002)

40. "Untitled" (Cameron Crowe, 2000; "Almost Famous" director's cut)
When I saw "Almost Famous" in the theater, I found it extremely underwhelming; what was everyone fawning over? And why was that woman from Rolling Stone such a bitch? But the director's cut -- which is apparently no longer available on DVD -- was a revelation. The 30 minutes Crowe put back into the film made it feel shorter, amazingly. The characters, Penny Lane in particular, are more fleshed out, and the story just feels much more complete. There are other films on this list whose extended versions are as good as or better than the theatrical versions ("Zodiac," the "Lord of the Rings" films), but this is the only one where the director's cut is absolutely essential.

39. "Ratatouille" (Brad Bird, 2007)
38. "Juno" (Jason Reitman, 2007)
37. "Letters From Iwo Jima" (Clint Eastwood, 2006)

36. "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy" (Adam McKay, 2004)
I saw this with an absolutely raucous midnight crowd at the Streets of Woodfield, the kind of crowd that can convince you a comedy is far, far funnier than it actually is. But over the years, "Anchorman" has more than proven its worth, as it still makes just about everyone I know laugh. (And it's one of the few films that no one seems tired of quoting ad nauseum.) This movie vaulted Will Ferrell into superstardom, took Steve Carell's career to the next level, cemented Paul Rudd's path and gave Christina Applegate her best chance to shine -- it is her performance, upon repeat viewings, that really stands out.

35. "The Ring" (Gore Verbinski, 2002)
A far scarier and more artful film than its Japanese predecessor, "The Ring" should be laughable on its face: watching a creepy videotape will kill you! But Verbinski ramps up the atmosphere of dread, and the film succeeds within the set of rules it creates, building to that fabulous moment when Samara walks out of the TV set. When "The Ring" ends, we want more -- unfortunately, the sequel violated that set of rules, and was just as silly as the original could (or should?) have been. (One also has to wonder how the film would have played with the original ending intact.)

34. "I Heart Huckabees" (David O. Russell, 2002)
33. "School of Rock" (Richard Linklater, 2003)
32. "Minority Report" (Steven Spielberg, 2002)
31. "The Dark Knight" (Christopher Nolan, 2008)
30. "25th Hour" (Spike Lee, 2002)
29. "Requiem For a Dream" (Darren Aronofsky, 2000)
28. "V for Vendetta" (James McTeigue, 2006)

27. "Dawn of the Dead" (Zack Snyder, 2004)
The remake dreaded by every horror fan in the world turned out to be one hell of a movie, better in many respects than George Romero's subversive, exceedingly gory original. James Gunn's often-ingenious script is the framework for an uncommonly good action movie with uncommonly good dialogue and acting, the latter courtesy of Sarah Polley, Jake Weber and Ty Burrell. The distinct color palette that Snyder brought later to "300" and "Watchmen" is present here, but this film is more active, more alive than those loftier films.

26. "Man on Fire" (Tony Scott, 2004)
Ugly, brutal and exploitative, it would seem to be hard to make a case for "Man on Fire" as anything but a guilty pleasure. But it has a haunting quality that takes it to another level. Scott's frenetic, borderline-masturbatory camera techniques actually make sense here -- and that's a big part of why the film works so well -- but its success ultimately falls to Denzel Washington and Dakota Fanning, who are able to craft an indelible on-screen duo in a very short time. When Fanning's Pita Ramos is kidnapped about 45 minutes into the film, it hurts. We want Creasy Bear to do whatever it takes to get her back. And so he does, but ultimately at a terrible cost. I think it's safe to assume that Ridley's brother will never make a better film than this.

• • •

Coming soon:
Part 4: 25-11
Part 5: 10-2
Part 6: The Movie of the Decade

10 Years, 100 Movies: Part 2 (75-51)

The countdown of my top 100 movies of the '00s continues. (Read Part 1 by clicking here.)

Part 2 finds me feeling like I have to defend many of my choices; most of the little capsules you'll read here are for films that many of you probably don't like very much. There's a one-two punch here involving Jackie Chan and Tom Cruise that even I find a little embarrassing ... but at least I'm honest.

• • •

75. "Black Hawk Down" (Ridley Scott, 2001)
74. "Memento" (Christopher Nolan, 2000)
73. "Cloverfield" (Matt Reeves, 2008)

72. "Proof" (John Madden, 2005)
Largely written off as a talky bore, I find this adaptation of the David Auburn play fascinating, thanks to its acting ensemble. Gwyneth Paltrow gives perhaps her career-best performance as the daughter of a math genius who may be a misunderstood genius herself. In a bit of casting so perfect you can't believe anyone hadn't thought of it before, Hope Davis plays Gwyneth's controlling sister, and their relationship stirs amid flashbacks to the now-dead genius, played by -- who else? -- Anthony Hopkins.

71. "Grindhouse" (Robert Rodriguez & Quentin Tarantino, 2007)
Separated for DVD, the two features that comprise "Grindhouse" work so much better in their original theatrical form, complete with trailers for phony films by Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright and Eli Roth. So few of us got to experience this in the theater, but man, are we a happy little group. Rodriguez's "Planet Terror" is the goopy, silly crowd-pleaser, and QT's "Death Proof" is more of a slow burn, building to a car-chase finale that is so unexpectedly real in the CGI age. (Take that, "Fast & Furious.")

70. "No Country For Old Men" (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2007)
69. "Shattered Glass" (Billy Ray, 2003)

68. "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" (David Yates, 2007)
I thought "Half-Blood Prince" was better when I first saw it, but "Order of the Phoenix" is the "Harry Potter" film that stays with me. It doesn't have the dark elegance of Alfonso Cuaron's "Prisoner of Azkaban," but it does tell the most cohesive, adult story of the series. The kids really are grown up now, forming Dumbledore's Army to subvert the oppression inflicted by Dolores Umbridge and the Ministry of Magic. The climactic scenes within the ministry's walls are tragic and spectacular, much like the characters themselves.

67. "A Mighty Wind" (Christopher Guest, 2003)
This send-up of folk music was the first of Guest's mockumentaries that didn't seem to hate its "subjects," and the result may not be his funniest film, but certainly his best. Many of the songs, written by Guest and his usual repertory company, are good enough to transcend parody, particularly those performed by Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara as the film's central characters, Mitch and Mickey. Levy and O'Hara have been working together for a long time, and their real affections for each other come through in a film that, despite some biting humor, feels like a warm hug from some of your favorite funny people.

66. "Hot Fuzz" (Edgar Wright, 2007)
65. "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou" (Wes Anderson, 2004)
64. "A Prairie Home Companion" (Robert Altman, 2006)
63. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (Ang Lee, 2000)

62. "Away We Go" (Sam Mendes, 2009)
John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph impress in this dramedy about a couple who are unhappy with their lot in life and travel the country looking for a suitable place to raise their impending child. The conclusion the couple comes to won't surprise anyone in the audience, but the journey will, with its alternating moments of hilarity and honesty. The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent, with small turns from Jim Gaffigan, Allison Janney, Melanie Lynskey, Jeff Daniels and Maggie Gyllenhaal.

61. "Brokeback Mountain" (Ang Lee, 2005)
60. "Notes on a Scandal" (Richard Eyre, 2006)

59. "Shanghai Knights" (David Dobkin, 2003)
Yes, "Shanghai Knights," the sequel to an underwhelming kung-fu Western starring Owen Wilson and Jackie Chan, charts higher than "Brokeback Mountain," "No Country For Old Men" and other bits of Oscar bait. What can I say? It makes me laugh. Hard. And it's probably the only American film aside from Tarantino's "Kill Bill" saga that really gets Chinese martial arts movies. Unlike Brett Ratner's "Rush Hour" flicks, "Shanghai Knights" lets Chan do action scenes his way -- and that means very long sequences that tell little stories of their own, and which sometimes owe more to Gene Kelly than Bruce Lee. (Chan explicity acknowledges as much in a fight involving umbrellas.) The script, by "Smallville" show-runners Miles Millar and Alfred Gough, is gleefully anachronistic, which suits Wilson's surfer-dude mentality just fine.

58. "War of the Worlds" (Steven Spielberg, 2005)
The first of Uncle Stevie's movies about terrorism is more potent than "Munich," even though it shuns reality in favor of remaking H.G. Wells' famous story about an alien invasion. Moviegoers blinded by their fresh hatred of Tom Cruise only saw what they thought was a total cop-out of an ending; I saw a truly terrifying movie that was the first to capture the feeling I felt on 9/11 -- remember the scene of Cruise looking in the mirror and seeing his face covered in the dusty remains of his neighbors? I get the chills just thinking about it.

57. "Kill Bill, Vol. 1" (Quentin Tarantino, 2003)
56. "Star Trek" (J.J. Abrams, 2009)
55. "Monsters Inc." (Pete Docter, 2001)

54. "Signs" (M. Night Shyamalan, 2002)
Yes, it is silly for an alien race to invade a planet covered in the substance that kills them. Yes, M. Night Shyamalan is more than a little enamored of himself. And yes, Mel Gibson is out of his mind. But none of that changes how effective "Signs" is at entertaining an audience, either by scaring us, making us laugh, or, in one scene around the dinner table that might be Gibson's best ever, making us cry. The facts of the invasion may not hold water, as it were, but this is not really a movie about aliens -- it's a movie about regaining your faith, not only in your religion but also in people. All things considered, this is Shyamalan's best film. (And the intense, Hitchcockian score by Shyamalan's constant collaborator, James Newton Howard, is a big reason why.)

53. "United 93" (Paul Greengrass, 2006)
52. "Punch-Drunk Love" (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2002)
51. "Amelie" (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001)

• • •

Coming soon:
Part 3: 50-26
Part 4: 25-11
Part 5: 10-2
Part 6: The Movie of the Decade

Friday, October 2, 2009

This is not a review of "Zombieland"

Post rated R for foul fucking language

This is not a true review because I don't think I can give an accurate, reasoned opinion of "Zombieland right now because I wasn't totally in the movie. I was far too distracted by the motherfucker sitting to my right.

Look, I'm all for being enthusiastic at the movies. I have clapped before, during and after movies. I laugh loud when warranted (although I often bring my Sox cap with me to the theater to cover my mouth, lest I get a bit too carried away). I sometimes get so caught up in a great movie that I make a quick, quiet comment to the person(s) I'm seeing it with.

But the fucker sitting next to me at the AMC 30 tonight was basically doing play-by-play for his girlfriend and, by my estimation, my row, the row behind me and the entire floor full of seats. "OH LOOK THEY FOUND GUNS!" "OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOH LOOK AT THAT HUMMER!" "AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH IT'S A FUCKING CLOWN!"

And then he started telegraphing jokes. It's bad enough that the entire audience can see an obvious joke coming, buddy, we don't need you to loudly warn us and then laugh at how "smart" you were. Jesus Christ. The only thing I can compare this to is my first viewing of "Good Will Hunting" at the AMC Randhurst, where I first encountered a play-by-play moviegoer. His shining moment came after Matt Damon asked the douche how he liked dem apples: "OH I GET IT! THAT'S FUNNY!"

His reactions were so loud, so over-the-top that I started wondering if he was a studio plant, put in a big theater to help convince the crowd around him how good the movie is. If so, it didn't fucking work for me.

Yes, "Zombieland" has big laughs. The first ten minutes are damn near perfect, as Jesse Eisenberg's loner gives us a zombie survival primer. ("Rule No. 1: Cardio ... the fatties were the first to go.") The opening credits show super-slo-mo scenes from the zombie apocalypse scored to Metallica's "For Whom the Bell Tolls." That got me pretty revved up, as you might imagine.

But the rest of the movie just sort of ambles along, and comes to a dead stop about 35 minutes in -- not a good sign for a movie that only runs 81 minutes. Then, halfway through the film, comes a much-buzzed-about scene that's so funny that I dare not say anything more -- everyone else has already said too much, even Roger Ebert.

But it's all downhill from there, leading to a climactic zombie showdown at an amusement park that, I'm guessing, was actually Disneyland in the script. (There's really no other reason to call the movie "Zombieland," so I'm just assuming ...)

I probably would have enjoyed all of this much more if it weren't for the amateur Joe Buck sitting next to me ... but even without him, I still would have been put off by the film's seemingly endless product placements. The most annoying are for the movie studio itself: In the film, the Graumann's Chinese is showing "2012," coming this fall from Sony Pictures! That's about as shameless as it gets.

But in fairness to "Zombieland" and director Ruben Fleischer, I will hold off final judgment on this zomedy until I see it again in more ideal conditions. I hate to sound like a broken record, but CAN'T YOU FUCKING PEOPLE LEARN HOW TO PROPERLY BEHAVE AT A MOVIE THEATER?!?!?!

OK, I feel better now. Ahhhh.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

10 Years, 100 Movies: Part 1 (100-76)

Yes, I actually attempted to rank the top 100 movies of the decade. It's a little early, I guess, but it will probably take me until at least March 2010 to see all the "important" films of 2009, and would you be interested in reading this list then? I'm omitting films that come out between now and Dec. 31, but I'd want to let those films "breathe," as it were, before I attempted to place them on such a list anyway. (That being said, a few films from 2009 will appear here, and one of them will even crack the top ten.)

These are not what I think are the best films of the past ten years -- I haven't seen nearly enough films to proclaim such a thing. But neither are they necessarily my favorite, as no list of favorites would ever include something as grueling as, say, "Requiem for a Dream."

This list will be some kind of strange hybrid of quality and endearment. That will explain how something like "Shanghai Knights" can appear on the list, not to mention the film that clocks in at No. 100.

So let's get started. Here are the first 25, with commentary on selected titles. Enjoy.

• • •

100. "The Phantom of the Opera" (Joel Schumacher, 2004)
I reserved the last spot on this list for a movie that I know doesn't belong on any best list. Schumacher's "Phantom" was almost universally loathed by critics, and he proves he knows almost nothing about directing a musical or the art of lip-synching, but if you love Andrew Lloyd Webber's songs like I do, then you'll ... accept this movie, which I have. Gerard Butler isn't anyone's ideal Phantom, but he does throw himself into the part; Emmy Rossum's porcelain beauty is the main reason to watch the film, which looks resplendent despite its obvious shortcomings. A guilty pleasure, if ever there was one.

99. "Fantasia/2000" (multiple directors, 2000)
98. "The Terminal" (Steven Spielberg, 2004)
97. "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" (Alfonso Cuaron, 2004)

96. "You Can Count on Me" (Kenneth Lonergan, 2000)
A touching, real family chronicle starring Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo (his breakout performance) as siblings who find themselves living together on the precipice of middle-age. This film has been largely forgotten, and deserves a home in your Netflix queue.

95. "Bandits" (Barry Levinson, 2001)
I'm not gonna lie: Cate Blanchett's beauty has a lot to do with why I like this movie so much. But it's also a criminally underrated caper (yeah, that was a bad pun) with perfect performances from Blanchett and Billy Bob Thornton. We've never really met characters like the two they play, and the scenes where they and fellow ne'er-do-well Bruce Willis politely kidnap their "victims" are uniquely entertaining.

94. "Snatch" (Guy Ritchie, 2000)
93. "Hellboy II: The Golden Army" (Guillermo Del Toro, 2008)
92. "Chicago" (Rob Marshall, 2002)
91. "Whale Rider" (Niki Caro, 2002)
90. "Milk" (Gus Van Sant, 2008)
89. "Love Actually" (Richard Curtis, 2003)

88. "Touching the Void" (Kevin Macdonald, 2003)
Part documentary, part re-enactment, "Touching the Void" tells the harrowing story of two men who attempt to climb all 21,000 feet of Siula Grande. Getting up the mountain is easy; coming down, however, turns into an absolutely grueling experience for both men. One of the pair has to make the wrenching decision to cut the other loose -- and both survive.

87. "Finding Neverland" (Marc Forster, 2004)
86. "Watchmen" (Zack Snyder, 2009)
85. "Lost in Translation" (Sofia Coppola, 2003)
84. "Capturing the Friedmans" (Andrew Jarecki, 2003)

83. "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" (John Cameron Mitchell, 2001)
Mitchell plays the title role in this glam-rock musical about sexual identity that boasts infectious songs by Stephen Trask and a brutally funny script. Mitchell, who in drag looks shockingly similar to Rachel Griffiths, creates a character that feels authentic in a fantastic, over-the-top universe.

82. "Hannibal" (Ridley Scott, 2001)
Regarded as a morbid curiosity upon its release, "Hannibal" has aged very well. Scott takes Thomas Harris's simply ridiculous follow-up to "Silence of the Lambs" and runs with it, crafting a grim opera of gore that is sometimes funny, sometimes repulsive but never, ever boring. As a true sequel to "Lambs," it fails; but it succeeds as self-parody, a concession that the reprehensible villain has the audience's rooting interest.

81. "Zack and Miri Make a Porno" (Kevin Smith, 2008)
80. "Little Children" (Todd Field, 2006)
79. "Traffic" (Steven Soderbergh, 2000)
78. "Shaun of the Dead" (Edgar Wright, 2004)

77. "Dear Zachary: A Letter From a Father to a Son" (Kurt Kuenne, 2008)
Kuenne made this devastating documentary about the death of his best friend, who was destroyed by a mentally unstable girlfriend. It's constructed like a thriller, with Kuenne playing the part of detective and his friend's parents providing the emotional core; some found this manipulative, but the film's structure helps deliver a gut-punch of an ending that will stay with you. This film was partially funded by MSNBC, which runs it from time to time.

76. "The Darjeeling Limited" (Wes Anderson, 2007)
Yes, it's another voyage into Daddy Issues Land, but "Darjeeling" is Wes Anderson's most beautiful film, thanks to the Indian vistas and the ingenious set design (much of the film's action is shot on a real steam train). I'm pretty sure if you turn the color and the brightness all the way up on your HDTV, this film will burn your retinas with its multi-hued goodness.

• • •

Coming soon:
Part 2: 75-51
Part 3: 50-26
Part 4: 25-11
Part 5: 10-2
Part 6: The Movie of the Decade