Monday, March 14, 2011

Top 50 Films of the 00's, Part 5 (30-26) (With Special Guest Andrew Clarke!)

30. Superbad (Greg Mottola, 2007)/The Pineapple Express (David Gordon Green, 2008)

The Judd Apatow machine pretty much defined mainstream comedy throughout the decade, but it may be helpful to narrow down exactly what we mean by "a Judd Apatow movie," and to seperate the wild, wacky comedies he produced, like Anchorman and Walk Hard, and forgettable duds like Year One (and to remind oneself that stuff like Old School and The Wedding Crashers didn't really involve Apatow at all), from the movies that I think of as more specifically Apatowian in style. To me, this means some combination of the off-the-wall comedy found in movies like Anchorman with the more grounded, character-based sense of humor Apatow developed on his TV shows Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared. The core, of course, would be the three features that Apatow directed, of which Knocked Up is my favorite (the characters in The 30 Year Old Virgin feel a little too cartoonish to me, and Funny People feels as though Apatow got lost somewhere in the middle of it and never found his way home). Knocked Up is rather shaggy, but I feel like that's as much a strength as a weakness, a quality it shares with real life. But to me, the movies that really nail this style are the two that were written by Seth Rogen and his writing partner, Evan Goldberg. These have all the hallmarks of great Apatow movies: they're hilarious, yet there's something real going on there, and they find a true emotional core in their focus on male bonding. But neither film meanders around like Apatow's own films. They both follow a tight structure (based on the Dazed and Confused model of everything happening in one roughly 24-hour period).

Superbad feels like the movie that the American Pie crew had set out to make: an update of the pre-John Hughes teen comedy (think Porky's or Fast Times at Ridgemont High) that succeeds in building its raunchy, adolescent gags around a true emotional core. Another way to look at it is that it takes all the best elements of the three "real" Apatow movies and streamlines them, focusing on a tight storyline. The script is sharp, the direction yields brilliant comedy timing, but it really succeeds because the two lead actors are so damn funny. Michael Cera had not yet become overexposed, and his deadpan delivery of lines like "Yeah, they said that would happen in health class" kills me, while Jonah Hill complements Cera's style by taking his character to the opposite extreme, presenting himself as a ball of obnoxious neuroses. I also like Bill Hader and Seth Rogen in what I imagine is one of the more accurate portrayals of cops in the history of cinema.

As for Pineapple Express, this is just a goddamn funny movie. Freaks and Geeks vets Seth Rogen and James Franco reunited, with an assist from the amazing Danny McBride, in a stoner comedy that turns into a Tarantino gangster movie and eventually a Michael Bay action extravaganza. I love the black and white prelude with Bill Hader, even though it seems like part of a completely different movie, because it so accurately represents the self-flattering mythology all stoners believe: that pot is illegal because stoned people are harder for the government/corporate pigs/illuminati/whatever to control. Yeah, sure they are.

29. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar Wai, 2000)

After several failed attempts, I decided that I'm just not up to the task of writing about this movie. Everything I tried to write came out as a series of cliches like "achingly beautiful" and "longingly gorgeous." So I asked Andrew Clarke to write about it instead, because he's British, and they're good at this repressed beauty stuff. Follow that link and buy his music!

Be it from the faux verite feel of low budget indies, the jittery camera-work of the Bourne thrillers and all that copied them, or the meaningless hyper-detail that CGI and ballooning budgets gave to the blockbusters, American movies seemed to lose something aesthetically during the 00's. That something was a care for the image and the edit, which are the enduring strengths of 2000's In The Mood For Love.

Kar Wai Wong's film tells a fairly simple tale of repressed love in 1960's Hong Kong, but it is the exquisite detail of the shots, the richness of the colours, and the flow of the scenes that constantly remind the audience of the passion burning away beneath the surfaces of awkward silences, polite exchanges and longing, melancholy looks. It is useful to compare the richness of the atmosphere of this movie to the increasingly dry English dramas that nominally explored the same subject matter.

Watched in a cinema, or at least in a dark quiet room, the mood is intoxicating. His sort-of sequel, 2046, unfortunately turned the mood narcotic in ditching most of the narrative, and indeed longing, for longeurs and rumination, leaving the even richer visual palatte little to speak to other than itself.

In The Mood For Love, however, remains one of the most evocative love stories of the modern era.

28. Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, 2001)

You could spend a lot of time trying to figure out what is actually going on in Mulholland Dr. on a narrative level. I think this interpretation is probably pretty accurate, especially if you think of it in the context of Lost Highway, which has a similar structure. But that might all be beside the point, since Mulholland (like most Lynch movies) is based on a sort of dream logic, direct from the subconscious. Think about what you dreamed last night. Chances are, it doesn't really make logical sense as a story, especially if you think about it when you first wake up (sometimes you later fill in details and adjust things so that you have a logical story, your conscious brain trying to make sense of the images your unconscious brain has left it with), but you remember exactly how you felt in each scene. For instance, I woke up in the middle of the night last night having had a dream where I suddenly became aware that the people I was talking to were a clan of serial killers, and that they knew I was on to them and were going to kill me. When I thought back (like that trick in Inception of trying to remember how you got somewhere) I realized that nothing in the dream led me to believe that. It was just something my brain suddenly decided. Yet I can vividly feel the terror that was going through me at that moment. And I think this is true of practically every scene in Mulholland. I can't make too much sense out of that dinner party near the end, but boy, you can feel the feelings of rejection, betrayal and self-hatred that Diane Selwyn is feeling at that moment, right? I mean, you can FEEL it with a capital F, L and a couple E's. Just like you can feel the terror in the guy at the Denny's, who suddenly finds himself in his own recurring nightmare, or the intense emotion of Rita and Betty at Club Silencio. I'm not saying that trying to understand the logic of the story is the wrong way to look at the film, just that it's only one aspect of it. Maybe it's the difference between seeing a film in the theater and watching it on DVD. This movie seems designed equally for both. On DVD, you can watch it over and over, trying to figure out what exactly happened (not that Lynch makes it easy on you, insisting on not breaking the program into chapters like any other DVD). But this film should also be seen in a theater, projected onto a big screen with a good sound system, so that it can be absorbed into one's subconscious, and the beauty of its images and sounds can be fully appreciated.

27. The Incredibles (Brad Bird, 2004)/Ratatouille (Brad Bird, Jan Pinevka, 2007)

Following his great 1999 animated film The Iron Giant, Brad Bird managed to oversee two fantastic films for Pixar in the 00's. As reliable as the Pixar brand was for that decade, Bird's films stand out, almost their own sub-sub-genre, a little darker and more thematically dense than their compatriots.

If we can count The Incredibles among the superhero films of the 00's, it surely ranks at the very top of the list. A mashup of bits taken from X-Men, Fantastic Four, Watchmen and Superman, Incredibles is notable for how many things it excels at: fantastic superhero actions sequences (especially when the whole family starts working as a unit), wholly satisfying family drama, some great comedy (especially with the Edith Head-inspired costume designer), masterful use of Samuel L. Jackson (an important factor!), and a coherent theme about individuality and achievement. Now, I don't 100% follow all of Brad Bird's philosophy here. I find one line particularly irking, where Mrs. Fantastic tells her son that "everyone is special," and he replies "That's the same thing as saying no one is." No, it's not. Or, to put it more specifically, saying that everyone is unique and has value as a human being isn't the same thing as saying that everyone is the fastest runner. But hey, it's Brad Bird's movie, not mine.

Then there's the foody comedy Ratatouille, with Patton Oswalt providing the voice of a food-obsessed rat. The same effort and ingenuity that went into the action set pieces in The Incredibles is here put toward slapstick comedy routines with equally satisfying results. And has food love ever been better represented on film than in the scenes where a hunk of cheese transforms the rat's world into a psychedelic splash of colours? Again, there are some philosophical ideas that don't quite jibe with me, particularly in the handling of the "evil" food critic character Anton Ego, but when a character is drawn and voiced this deliciously, I don't really care what the fucker says.

26. Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2005)/Into the Wild (Sean Penn, 2007)

The stories of Christopher McCandless and Timothy Treadwell are remarkably similar, two people who turned their back on civilization to live in the Alaskan wilderness, where they met their ends. For most people, these are stories worthy of the Darwin Awards, but while there is some difference in how these two filmmakers approach their subjects (Sean Penn, ever sympathetic to wide-eyed nonconformists, perhaps finds more romance in the story than Werner Herzog's acidic cynicism will allow), both films display ambiguous feelings toward their respective subjects. Delusional though they may be, there is more to these characters than stupidity.

It makes sense that Sean Penn would have some interest in the story of McCandless. Penn's reputation for following his own drummer, his rejection of Hollywood lifestyle (for years, he lived in a trailer--maybe he still does?), would seem to attract him to the story, and he films it with the wandering eye of a romantic, focusing the camera on whatever bits of nature catch his eye, scoring it to mellow acoustic guitar plunking from Eddie Vedder. The story frightens me. McCandless was the same age I was, graduated college about the same time (a mere hour's drive away, at Atlanta's Emory University), and within two years was lying dead in the Alaskan woods. That his story so elegantly mixes the romanticism of the American frontier, the restless quest to find oneself in the wilderness that haunts our historical narrative, with a the respect for the deadly power of nature over human lives, makes him feel more like a character out of literature than a real person. But he was very real, and is very dead.

There is perhaps less sympathy to be found in Treadwell's story. The man seems to have been delusional from an early age, making up fictional origin myths about himself, and eventually lapsing into drug addiction, before trading it in for bear addiction. In the woods, he has constructed a new mythical identity, a wild man who communes with and protects the bears, although his protection never seems necessary or desirable. Treadwell survived 13 years in the woods, in contrast to McCandless' 4 months, but he was also old enough to know better. The fact that he got not only himself, but his girlfriend Amie Huguenard killed doesn't engender much sympathy either. But Treadwell seemed happy with the life he had chosen, and perhaps even was happy with his ironic death. Herzog, for his part, seems genuinely fascinated by the story, and impressed by the video footage Treadwell left behind, from which Herzog's film is largely constructed.


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