Friday, August 05, 2011

Top 50 Films of the 00's, Part 5 (25-21)

25. Once (John Carney, 2006)
Two musicians meet in Dublin. They form a friendship, collaborate on some music, maybe fall in love, and in the end, go their separate ways. Not really a typical musical plot, and the music isn't really typical of musicals either, being mostly low-key, folky ballads. In fact, there's really nothing quite like Once, which takes the aesthetic of a small indie film and sets it to beautiful music. It just feels...right. There's something about the chemistry of the two musicians, the process of working together to create a song, the way their voices suddenly meld together in the film's signature song "Falling Slowly," that's beautiful in its own right while still being a nice little metaphor for, you know, doin' the honkity-bonkity.

24. The American Astronaut (Corey McAbee, 2001)

I stopped going to midnight movies around the time I turned 30. Can't stay awake through them anymore. But if I was gonna sit in a cold, damp theater after midnight to watch an oddball movie with a receptive crowd, the movie I'd want to watch is The American Astronaut. Written, directed and starring Cory McAbee, head of the indie band The Bill Nayer Show, who contributed all the music, TAA is an offbeat scifi musical filmed in high-contrast black and white on cheap sets. Like most rock operas, the plot doesn't make a lot of sense, but in this case that's a feature more than a bug, as the story unfolds in a strange dream logic, like something you'd dream after falling asleep while watching an old 50's scifi flick on late night TV. But unlike most rock operas, or for that matter most musicals, the songs are all great: solid, memorable, and extremely catchy. If you did watch this at a midnight movie, you'd remember all the songs the next day.

23. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (Peter Jackson, 2001-2003)
The challenge of filming Lord of the Rings is unusual. Making a movie that the target audience has been picturing in their head for 10, 20, 30 years? Yeah, no pressure there, right? The books themselves aren't all that great as literature. Their strength is in how completely they present an immersive world that young dreamers can lose themselves in. It even has maps! (I personally prefer The Hobbit, the story of this guy who just wants to live a quiet life and eat a lot, suddenly pulled into this world of adventure and dragons and magic rings.)

It was no surprise to me that Peter Jackson could pull it off, despite having done nothing on this scale yet. He had obvious talent, as demonstrated by Heavenly Creatures (one of my favorite films), and the rest of his filmography demonstrated all the requisite traits for carrying out such a project: attention to detail, commitment to concepts (and to taking ideas as far as they could possibly go), and a fascination with practical effects. And the results of Jackson and his team's effort is almost frighteningly satisfying.

The films sometimes even improve on the source material. One example: reading the books, I never liked the fact that Legolas fights exclusively with a bow and arrow, even in close-quarter, hand-to-hand combat. It just seemed silly, like he ought to have a long sword for this stuff. But the choreography in the films convinces me, especially in the scene in Fellowship of the Ring where Legolas fires an arrow at an orc, then grabs another one and, in one fluid motion, stabs another orc in the eye with the arrow, loads it into a bow and shoots down a third orc.

Another fantastic scene is the lighting of the beacons. This scene is in the books, but do you remember it? Well, if you're the type to have read the books 30 times growing up, you probably do. (I never really got through the whole thing when I was a kid, and finally sat down to read them as the movies were getting made. As an adolescent, I always preferred the Conan the Barbarian and Elric of Melnibone series, where they'd get right to the violence and monsters instead of having 20 page descriptions of the woods.) But for most, it's not a scene you'd spend a lot of time thinking about. Seeing it, you are overwhelmed by the scale, the incredible distance represented by the path of the beacons, the idea of soldiers whose sole job it is to sit in a station high atop the Misty Mountains awaiting the sign.

So: Extended cut or theatrical cut? Well, for Fellowship of the Ring, I could go either way. The theatrical cut is probably better for newcomers, and contains as much as you really need of the story. The extended cut is for the fans, who just want to spend a little more time in this world. For The Two Towers, you really need the extended cut. TTT just contains too much story. In the theatrical cut, it feels crowded, jumping from plot point to plot point with no room to breathe: thishappenedandthenthishappenedandthenthishappened... For Return of the King, I'll take the theatrical. You lose that great scene with Saruman and Wormtongue, but the movie is too long to begin with (although probably better paced than the book, which goes on for 100 pages after the climax, with all that shit about The Gray Havens).

22. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Shane Black, 2005)
In Shane Black's reflexive film noir tribute/sendup, Robert Downey Jr. plays Harry Lockhart, a small-time thief (classic film noir character) who suddenly finds himself cast as an actor in a crime thriller, and subsequently finds himself living through his own noir adventure. The funniest bits regard Harry's constant frustration at the world's stubborn refusal to follow the rules of movie cliches. Shane Black, of course, has a good view from which to write such comedy. He got very rich writing lousy blockbuster action movies in the 80's and 90's before going into exile from which he finally emerged to direct his own script, and a lot of the comedy is directed at himself, the Hollywood process and the movies that ended up being made from his scripts. And of course, KKBB has the advantage of having Robert Downey Jr., a brilliant character actor with enough charisma to be a leading man, doing some of his best work with a great foil to bounce off of in Val Kilmer, a once popular but rather dull leading man who has recreated himself as a brilliant character actor.

21. Persepolis (Vincent Paronnaud, Marjane Satrapi, 2007)
Coming of age is always a bit difficult, but coming of age in post-revolution Iran is a whole other story. Marjane Satrapi first published her memoir in the form of a French language comic book in 2000, then adapted it into this French-language animated film in 2007. The story of a sass-mouthed young girl growing up in a repressive society where everyone is constantly watched, and finding escape through Michael Jackson and Iron Maiden, is illustrated with a beautiful combination of Persian art and cartoon motifs. Persian friends have told me that this is as accurate a portrayal of growing up in Iranian society as they have ever seen. What makes it so awesome is that, even in the darkest, most repressive days of Iran's history, Marjane still sees the world as a teenage girl, and tells her story with playful humor even as the bodies are stacking up, in a way that never feels false (compare to the awful attempt at a holocaust comedy in Life is Beautiful, which never feels anything BUT false).


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