(Yes, yes, first post in eons, you’re not a real blogger, etc.)

Lists of the finest films of the decade have started popping up all over the tubes, and I felt compelled to join in.  I love lists such as these, despite their relative meaninglessness.  How can anyone accurately catalogue the most important films in such a recent period, let alone the ‘best’?

I’ve compromised and created a list of ten movies from 2000-present that were revelations for me as a movie lover.  This is the decade I fell in love with the movies, and while several older movies have impacted me at least as much, I am happy to celebrate these contemporary films.

10)  Requiem For A Dream (2000)

Buzz around high school said this was ‘the most depressing movie ever.’  A friend loaned it to me at the end of the school day, and throughout that afternoon’s play practice I excitedly said ‘I can’t wait to get depressed!’  I sneaked the DVD into the computer room at home, and was amazed from the very start.  This was the first time I noticed the power of camerawork in storytelling and tone.  Someday I may call it self-indulgent instead of expressionistic, but for a few years this was my favorite movie.  It is still a powerful story of self-destruction and depravity.  That evening I went back to the well, turned the speakers on low, and was fortunately interrupted during a quiet, tame scene by my mother–’What are you watching in here?  What is this?  UN-Rated!?’

9) Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Several friends berated this movie as silly.  Tired jokes were made about flying in trees.  I was enchanted.  Here was an action movie with the fighting done in character.  Its mysticism and appreciation for silence were eye-opening.  In a mere two hours this movie opened the gates for me to foreign film.

8 ) Billy Elliot (2000)

Where Requiem enlightened me to the many possible types of shots, Billy Elliot was my teacher in composition and staging.  Its use of color is also commendable.  Right after watching it the first time, I spoke with my theater director, bubbling over with delight for the film.  In cinematic terms I didn’t know yet, I tried to explain the scene in which Billy dances before his father, energetically daring to approach a yellow line on the gymnasium floor.  For a cherry on top, the film introduced me to the great, infectious glam rock band T. Rex.

7) Kung Fu Hustle (2004)

This ridiculous and carefree comedy didn’t broaden any horizons for me, but it played a special role in my life.  During my first bout of serious depression the docs prescribed Prozac and comedies.  I suffered through several duds that distracted me well enough, but Kung Fu Hustle was the miracle drug.  In one rental period I watched this movie nearly a dozen times, especially repeating the absurd fight scenes.  Everything about the movie is silly, but it’s also produced and choreographed better than most of its serious peers.  And the world would be an emptier place to live in without a dance interlude led by axe-wielding gangsters in formal attire.

6) Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004)

I will only revisit most of these movies every couple years, but this one?  I could rewatch this sexy pulp every week.  First movie I ever saw alone in the theaters; went probably four times total.  Nearly all my favorite cinematic genre types are here: the Spaghetti Western, the revenge (justice?) mission, the deadly and broken romance now haunting and tense, and the pseudo-philosophizing of pop culture.  Throw in some babes, swords, cars, a poisonous snake, and some badass villains–you got yourself a movie.

5) L’Enfant (2005)

Movies that create tension and build suspense frighten and interest me a great deal more than those that shock and horrify.  This movie tunnels into a moral darkness that passes beyond bleakness.  Surrounded by a barren post-industrial world, the protagonists steadily fall into ruin in despairing scenes filled with dread.  The directors are not sadistic with their characters however, and the viewer slowly sympathizes with the man who has sold his infant child.  Indeed, it was the unexpected combination of Marxism and spirituality that affected me the most.  Such a pairing is virtually unthinkable in American discourse.

4) The Incredibles (2004) and Ratatouille (2007)

Yes, I believe that everything Brad Bird touches turns to gold.  Both of these movies sport the Pixar premium for animation, story, and character.  And while I love almost all of the studio’s movies, these two put the wind in my sail.  The Incredibles is a better deconstructionist superhero story than any adaptation of Watchmen will ever be, and it’s a thrilling ride to boot.  What other ‘children’s’ movie can you name that makes a homage to Boogie Nights?  Ratatouille tells a rich story with relatively complex morality, and its thematic subject is one of my absolute favorites–the development and value of aesthetics.  The scene of Anton Ego’s dinner critique made me cry.  Don’t judge me.  /geekout

3) The Wire (2002-2008)

Watching a season of this series is akin to reading an epic novel.  The detailed development of its characters and the scope of its vision are together unparalleled.  Plus, its insight into the intertwining of public institutions is more usually found in a history text–but don’t let that make you think it’s dry.  Each season has a different style and tone, delving into neo-realism and satire, buddy movie and picaresque.  All this is envisioned with a critical eye, and rests on Classical Greek tragedies.  David Simon loves this city, and word of mouth says that its real residents love the show–but they’re both fully aware of Bodymore, Murdaland’s corrupt condition.  No other story in movie or television has gripped me with such power for so long, and it is a superior witness to contemporary urban life in America.

2) Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Growing up, my strongest love for movies was via fanboyism–infatuations, really.  I could identify every alien and tech device in the Star Wars trilogy, and rejoiced in the Lord of the Rings films.  Nowadays I still enjoy those movies, but their faults are visible.  I never regretted being a geek, but it took Pan’s Labyrinth to vindicate my fascination with those fantasy films.  Juxtaposing a rebellion against brutal fascists with a young girl’s development as a fairy tale heroine sounded like an odd pairing at first, but now no other story could make sense.  The fantasy world here is hidden, oppressed.  In this story the more fully realized world is the cold and violent one of the revolutionaries.  Some characters appear simplistic, especially the ruthless Captain–but could we believe his evil deeds without such a vile nature?  The mythos is pagan in characterization and design, but its absolutism and esteem of myths’ revolutionary power are reminiscent of del Toro’s old Catholicism.  Finally, it must be said that the movie is beautiful.  I will watch any movie del Toro directs for its visuals, even if every other element stinks to high heaven.

1) No Country For Old Men (2007)

I hereby pronounce this film the most important American movie since The Godfather.  Really.  Where the Godfather was anthropological (and great for every other reason), NCfOM is literary.  It doesn’t quite deconstruct the Western genre so much as disassemble it, finding that the old tropes and form don’t match or fit.  Death stalks through this wasteland, and his victims do not find a heroic end.  This is a cop-out, but rather than try to explain the movie’s quality (two other posts on this blog pertain to it), I’ll direct you to one of its greatest defenders, Jim Emerson

Honorable Mentions, in no particular order:

The Pianist (existential survival), Finding Nemo (cried in first five minutes, awesome visuals, super cute & fun), WALL-E (apocalypse for kids, agrarian, silent film), Black Hawk Down (real soldier movie, stuck in front row seats opening night), Cache (sustained suspense ex nihilo), Spirited Away (re: CT, HD experience but animated, character development), Amelie (happy-go-lucky romance, colors + camera), Goodnight & Good Luck (polemical vs. television trends, period quality), Donnie Darko (possible explanations from any critical lens), Zodiac (unseen terror, due process), American Splendor (4th-wall breaking, underground culture), Iron Man (popcorn fun), A Prairie Home Companion (intro to good Altman, folk music)

Final thoughts–There are several movies from this decade that I have yet to see and expect to be great.  Bahrani’s work immediately comes to mind.  There are plenty of other great movies that didn’t make the list, only because of the list’s nature.

Mayhaps I became more judgmental in tone as the list came closer to my favorites, but they are dear to my heart.  After around eight years of actively pursuing great movies, I’m glad to say that I still enjoy them immensely. 

Did you have any similar experiences at the movies this decade?

“People think of animation only doing things where people are dancing around and doing a lot of histrionics, but animation is not a genre. And people keep saying, “The animation genre.” It’s not a genre! A Western is a genre! Animation is an art form, and it can do any genre. You know, it can do a detective film, a cowboy film, a horror film, an R-rated film or a kids’ fairy tale. But it doesn’t do one thing. And, next time I hear, “What’s it like working in the animation genre?” I’m going to punch that person!”

* * *

The American Film Institute’s 100 Years series, now in its eleventh year, has indulged in some silly categories (100 Best Movie Songs?  And only a sub-list the next year for 25 Movie Scores?  Not movies’, nor America’s, strongest suit.)  The AFI’s nomination lists and final rankings usually offend in small ways, as they should; the rankings provoke discussion and promote great American movies for the general public’s edification and enjoyment.  The latest category, however, offends in its very nature.

The AFI has nominated fifty movies in ten categories, asking its members to vote for the ten best movies in ten ‘genres.’  (Hence, “10 Top 10,” or ten different Top 10 lists.)  The genres are all quite American, notably Sports, Westerns, and the Courtroom Drama.  Their final rankings should include some interesting selections, in spite of the lists’ shortness.  However, one of the genres chosen by the AFI displays an offensive irresponsibility on their part because animation is not a genre.

An animated movie can be a Western, a Romantic Comedy, an Action flick, a Mystery, or a Biopic–the possibilities are endless.  Animation is a medium, not a genre.  Calling animation a genre is just as helpful as calling silent movies a genre.  Both mediums can tell stories in any genre.  This distinction is important because the paradigm of ‘genre’ is more artistically limiting than ‘medium.’  So long as artists and the public think of animation as a genre instead of a medium, animated movies will be creatively limited. 

I will not go so far as to claim that this misunderstanding has ruined the medium of animation; several artists have created lovely exceptions to the predominant aesthetic rule of the medium (and some standout successes within that aesthetic).  The history of mainstream animation has, however, been limited primarily to comedy and fantasy because of their appeal to children and families, and various producers’ adept exploitation of that market.  The longterm consequences have included the mainstream audience’s misguided presupposition that animated movies are for children, and mainstream artists’ shyness towards creating animated movies in other genres. 

Since the AFI has an important role in the stewardship of American culture and the public’s understanding of movies as entertainment and art, this high-profile error is especially offensive.  The AFI would do well to publicly correct their language concerning animated movies.

Why babies?

A curious question.  Several of the best movies over the last two years have featured infants.  Babies.  Not just children, but the real deal–snotty, wailing babies.  And in every movie they are essential to the plot and thematic sensibilities.  Usually the infant represents hope for the future.  I am reminded of David Patterson’s idea in When Learned Men Murder, that seeing and knowing a child’s face may prevent evil or unlock compassion.

Here are the movies I’ve recognized this recent pattern in:

Children of Men, Eastern Promises, L’Enfant, Juno, Knocked Up, Pan’s Labyrinth, Tsotsi.

Are there any others?  Is this pattern really recent, or have I missed a longstanding tradition?  And why (or why not) does it exist?

P.S.  I heartily recommend all the listed movies, except: Tsotsi and Eastern Promises are rather uneven and only half-good.  And Knocked Up is rather depressing.

Carol Reed and Graham Greene would do The Third Man next, which you may have heard of.  I actually enjoyed The Fallen Idol more.  With melodrama thicker than molasses, shadows darker than noir, and surprise farcical touches to match the harrowing suspense, this is a movie of Style.  And the story of a child losing his innocence–through betrayals and knotted questions of moral responsibility–is full of both symbolic force and dramatic immediacy.  Superior in its formal craftsmanship and literary in its thematic pursuits, The Fallen Idol is a great movie.

Or maybe I just liked hearing my (French) name shouted over and over again; the child is Philippe. 

Last night’s experience at the Dryden Theatre in Rochester consisted of two polar extremes: the communal joy of seeing a great movie with an appreciative audience, and the backstabbing torment of suffering through a filthy print.  And these two extremes did not at some paradoxical time coalesce into a magical “Meh.  It’s Lawrence of Arabia!”  No, my reaction was consistently: “If not for the lady in the balcony with the hearty laugh who has encouraged all of us to enjoy this movie, I would ask for my money back.” 

There were several times when I wished the projectionist had some way to swap in the DVD.  No, I didn’t mind that the cut shown was not final; I only noticed a couple shots missing from the beginning, which actually benefited the movie.  Scratches, dirt, drained color–these were the primary offenders.  Roughly half of the film print appeared to have been used as a fan belt for an SUV.  It was not quaint; it was distracting and ugly, like seeing a Michelangelo fresco in desperate need of restoration.  Yes, there were moments of pristine clarity that a home theater cannot provide, and I am ever grateful for them.  But before I darken the Dryden’s doors again, I will call the office and ask about the quality of the print. 

Would I have gone if I had known all this beforehand?  Probably.  I did not realize until last night just how much humor is in the movie.  It was awesome and fascinating to watch a classic with lots of well-cultured people, several of whom saw Lawrence of Arabia for the first time last night.  Indeed, the courtesy of the patrons and staff was first-rate.  Next time I might even step outside my discomfort and talk to someone, if only to be a humbug about the dirty print.

Another thing.  To the kind lady at the Canandaigua exit toll booth: you owe me a nickel.  Edit: Sorry, I was wrong!  The toll increased five cents last night at midnight.  I was in Rochester while it changed.  Spooky. 

…for Lawrence of Arabia!  8 PM, at the Dryden Theatre (Eastman House) in Rochester, I will be watching Peter O’Toole scream “No prisoners!” on the big screen.

I first watched Lawrence on a junky 18″ TV.  It was a cinematic revelation for me.  I’ve seen it several times since then, but never in a theater.  This is going to be incredible.

Here begins a semi-regular posting of movies that I have seen recently and recommend.  I will only post thoughts/opinions on movies that I believe are worth seeing.  Consider it my gift to your Netflix queue.  I intend to never arouse your interests through hype.

Babette’s Feast (1987) was greatly admired for its craft and use of food (supposedly, an entire genre of foodies owes its name to this movie–Chocolat, Ratatouille, Sideways, etc.)  And rightly so: the literary story-telling, well-developed characters, poetically simple camera work, attentive sound design, and, oh yes, the food, all deserve praise.  However, the reason for the movie’s greatness is not these parts, or the sum of them.  Babette’s Feast is a superior movie because of its generosity of spirit, charity, and steadfast love.  It is the most Christian movie I have ever seen.

The story concerns a devout village of Puritans on the coast of Denmark who have preserved the 17th century into the 19th.  Fortunately, the movie does not condescend to the Puritans in the same way as The Crucible or even The Scarlet Letter, instead respecting their religion and their priest.  And no, the movie does not glorify or glamorize their society; there are a few good (and quite funny) jabs at the Puritans’ antiquated lifestyle, and a student of theology could fairly criticize their physically/spiritually isolated idea of missions.  Discerning viewers will find, however, beautiful stories of grace and redemption in all the characters.  These stories are told with a corresponding grace and respect for humanity, the kind that transcends the viewer’s experience instead of sentimentally inspiring it.  Watching this movie was, for me, comparable to the three-odd years I have spent living, working, and worshipping with Mennonites in the Adirondacks.  It was a sacramental experience. 

I’d be interested to hear what you think about Babette’s Feast, especially if you are not a Christian.  

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