Saturday, April 14, 2012

Top 50 Films of the 00's, Part 7 (15-11)

15. The Fountain (Darren Aronofsky, 2006)

On paper, The Fountain doesn't sound too good. Izzi (Rachel Weisz) is dying of brain cancer. Her husband, Tommy (Hugh Jackman), is a scientist working on a cure to save her. She wants him to spend her last, precious days with her, but he's determined to spend every second searching for the cure. She is writing a book, but cannot finish it before she dies. She asks him to write the final chapter after she goes. So far, so good. A little maudlin, perhaps, but a nice story.

There is a second narrative, intercut with the first and performed by the same actors. Tomas is a conquistador sent to the new world by Queen Isabella to find the Tree of Life, to bring it back and give eternal life to the queen he loves. This is the story that Izzi is writing in her book. OK, a little heavy-handed, but, depending on the talents of the director and screenwriter, you could have something good here.

In a third story, also intercut, Jackman plays Tom (as in Major Tom?), a Buddhist monk traveling through space in an energy bubble, carrying a tree with him (The Tree of Life? The tree Tommy planted over Izzi's grave?). The best explanation I've read for this narrative is that it's the part of the book that Tommy wrote after Izzzi's death. I don't know about you, but if I was reading about this for the first time on my own blog, this is where I would say "OK, fuck this movie!" (and immediately be amazed that I, the blogger had so perfectly predicted the reaction of I, the reader).

But actually watching this movie, I'm so dazzled by the visual beauty, so smitten by the way the overlapping themes are emphasized by recurring images, that the extended parable doesn't really come off as hokey. It works on an emotional level because the powerful imagery bypasses your left brain and overcomes whatever logical objections you might have. It's just a goddamn beautiful film. It ain't perfect, but hey...neither is 2001: A Space Odyssey (which is the obvious inspiration here).

Suggested Double Feature: Well, how about this next film? After all, in both films, a dead woman leaves her husband an unfinished book with instructions for him to finish it. They work surprisingly well together...

14. Up (Pete Doctor and Bob Peterson, 2009)

Everyone has their favorite Pixar film. And considering the astonishing consistency of their products throughout the decade, it's not surprising. Me, personally, I'd probably go with Up. And if we eliminate the two films Brad Bird made--as I said before, they sort of seem like their own separate sub-genre--then it's definitely my favorite. It barely edges out Toy Story 2 for a few reasons, one of which is what I believe to have been a slight miscalculation in the latter film: when the cowgirl sings her sad song, "When She Loved Me," it ends up being a little too sad, and leaves the audience (or at least me) feeling a bit depressed through the rest of the movie. But also, Up is funny, thanks mostly to the character of Dug the Dog. All the Pixar films have some chuckles in them, but aside from Ratatouille, Up is the only one that really delivers belly laughs. Up also has a sense of high adventure. There's always a hint of this in Pixar films, but none of the others actually climax with a sword fight aboard a zeppelin floating above the Amazon. And, of course, there's the famous opening sequence, a beautiful love story compressed to 10 dialogue-free minutes that sets up the rest of the film.

13. Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki, 2003)

Capturing the Friedmans is a film about the elusiveness of the truth, and the impossibility of knowing anything for certain. In the 1980's, Arnold Friedman was hosting daycare computer classes in his home, when he was picked up in a child porn sting operation. Police began to interview the students, with the suspicion that there may have been instances of sexual abuse going on. The family was caught up in a phenomenon that was spreading across the country, with "recovered memories" of witnesses revealing rings of child molesters and satanic ritual abuse in daycare centers. There is footage of alleged victims claiming, and absolutely believing, that things happened which seem impossible. There is footage of a police officer giving an improbable account of the massive amount of child pornography found in the initial sweep of the house, juxtaposed with footage the police shot during the sweep which directly contradicts the officer's statement. And just as you're convinced that this family has been the victim of some kind of moral panic, you find out that Arnold Friedman really did molest two boys...but not at his computer classes. Can that possibly be a coincidence?

By the end of the film, it's difficult to say that you know more than you knew when it started. All you are left with is the impression of how impossible it is to know anything, and a deep doubt that your most deeply-held convictions are based on much more than self-delusion.

12. Kung Fu Hustle (Stephen Chow, 2004)

It seems deeply uncool to say that Kung Fu Hustle is my favorite martial arts movie. Shouldn't I pick some obscure 70's flick with lots of insane blood and guts and incomprehensible plot? But Stephen Chow was really on to something with this one, the follow up to the equally crazy Shaolin Football. Chow's dazzling camera work and aerial choreography feels like it fills three dimensions. The reason I put a YouTube embed instead of a picture at the top of this review is that there's just no way to do justice to this stuff without seeing it in motion. These fights are wilder than anything in the Matrix movies, or Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, or any of the superhero movies that came out in the last decade. That's not an objective assessment or anything, but to me, Kung Fu Hustle just gets this modern superfight aesthetic right. And Chow's sense of visual choreography lends itself not just to fight scenes, but to slapstick comedy (the knife-throwing bit is one of the funniest set pieces of the decade--reminds me a lot of the dart gag in Shaun of the Dead) and a musical number!

Suggested Double Feature: Ong-Bak (Prachya Pinkaew, 2003)
- Straight outta Thailand, and kicking ass in the Muy Thai boxing style, Ong-Bak is sort of the opposite of Kung Fu Hustle. It's a down-and-dirty martial arts flick where the only special effects are the superhuman feats of the cast, particularly the star, Tony Jaa, who pulls off some stunts that I'm not sure Jackie Chan could have done in his prime (God, when he jumps through that hoop of barbed wire--how the fuck can a human do that?).

11. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Joel Coen, 2000)

The Coens' best comedy is, of course, based on The Odyssey, but instead of encountering beings from Greek mythology, our Ulysses meets figures from the classic American mythos, particularly that of the depression-era South: the blues singer who sells his soul at the crossroads and now has a hellhound on his trail, the traveling salesman, the sinister Klan, the corrupt politician run out of town on a rail. These are jumbled up with images from Hollywood. The two obvious inspirations are John Ford's adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath and Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels (in the latter film, the main character is a Hollywood director who wants to adapt a novel called O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which seems to be a stand-in for The Grapes of Wrath), but there's plenty of other films referenced. So, for instance, when the characters happen upon a Klan rally, they see the Klansmen doing a choreographed dance number that parodies the routines Busby Berkeley put together in the musicals that were hugely popular in the early years of the Depression. And of course, the most important aspect, the music. The Coens clearly have a deep love of the various styles of "folk" music that were recorded in the early 20th century, distributed on independent labels and broadcast throughout the South on high-wattage radio waves, and they let this music (or some modern interpretation of it) soak every frame of the film. All this is superimposed over the chapters of the Odyssey: the Cyclops, the Lotus Eaters, the blind seer, and so on, so it can be difficult to unravel the complex tangle of allusions, but you really don't need to. In fact, everything I just wrote is really beside the point in terms of why O Brother is a great American film.

We're not talking about some artsy film school exercise here. O Brother is as breezy and entertaining as any classic screwball comedy, with George Clooney pumping up his Clark Gable charisma, cracked smile and speedy dialogue, surrounded by an army of character actors that could come straight out of a vintage Frank Capra film (my favorite is Stephen Root as the blind radio man: "Oh mercy yes, we got to beat that competition."). The music soaks everything in a sort of honey dripping glow which Robert Deakins compliments with his warm, golden cinematography. It's simply one of the most entertaining and infinitely rewatchable films ever made, the perfect film for a lazy summer afternoon.


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