Monday, October 5, 2009

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

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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:

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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)

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