Top 50 Films of the 00's, Part 9 (6-3)
Everyone I know who saw Battle Royale had the same reaction, including me. We didn't go into it expecting to be impressed. The general impression one got reading the description was that this was a movie that existed for shock value, an attempt to be outrageous and violent. And maybe that set us up to be blown away all the more by one of the best examples of genre filmmaking of the last decade.
The basic plot: an entire high school class is taken to an island, given weapons and told to kill each other. (Yes, it's remarkably similar to the plot of a recent young adult bestseller/blockbuster film.) Some of them take to it reluctantly. For others, it seems like the purpose they've been waiting for. As the action unfolds, it's as tightly paced and harrowing as any action film you can think of. But there's something more to it, that little touch that turns it to a masterpiece: regardless of their situation, the kids never stop acting like teenagers. They confess their crushes, act out their aggressions, and deal with their situations as if they were in The Breakfast Club. As satisfying as the action and violence is, it can be touching, too.
At one point near the beginning, one of the students asks why they have been given this fate. Their teacher, played by Takeshi Kitano as the sort of teacher that's just sick of these damn kids, tells them it's because they are a disrespectful and ungrateful generation. I love that. It's so Old Testament, and yet somehow uniquely Japanese at the same time. After seeing it, I was excited to find out more about this hotshot young director. I looked him up, only to discover that he was 70 years old when he directed Battle Royale (which would be his last film), and already had 65 films under his belt, including The Green Slime, The Black Lizard and the brutal Yakuza saga that began with Battles Without Honor or Humanity.
One of the most interesting trends of the 00's is the rise of the zombie. When I was a snot-nosed adolescent in the 80's, I was obsessed with the few zombie movies that existed: Romero's trilogy, Return of the Living Dead, the few Lucio Fulci films that might turn up at the video store, and (my favorite) the Evil Dead movies (of which there was only one for a good chunk of this time). I was maybe a little naive about their popularity. Pre-internet, I kinda thought that I and my little group of friends were the only people that knew about the greatness of Raimi's Evil Dead films. The cult turned out to be much larger than I would have guessed, but still well below the mainstream. Now, of course, you have zombie movies all over the place. You even have a zombie T.V. show, and it's a huge hit! When I look at a movie like Zombieland, if that movie had come out in the 90's, I would have thought it was the greatest movie ever made! Now? I think it's pretty good.
Zombies have become the generic for "undead." They've replaced vampires in that sense. For instance, going back to the 80's again, I never thought of Re-Animator as a zombie movie. It always seemed more like a riff on Frankenstein. Now, it's taken for granted that Re-Animator is a zombie film, but it's possible that some people would even identify Frankenstein's monster as a zombie. I do have a reference book called The Book of the Vampire, that includes an entry on Frankenstein. Consider this news story from last year, about the discovery of burial rituals in ancient Ireland that suggest a fear of corpses coming back to life to cause trouble. In all the coverage of this story, the word "zombie" is used. But if this story had come out in the mid-90's, who doubts that they would have been referred to as "vampires?"
I'm not sure what caused this sea change. My guess is that it had to do with video games, where zombies make convenient targets for first-person shooters (See, mom? We're not shooting PEOPLE, just zombies!), but since I know jack fuck about video games, I'll leave that to someone else to expand on. When I moved to L.A. in the late 90's, I met a lot of people who were "working on a script about zombies." It was just sort of a default mode for geek culture. And, in the early 00's, a few of those scrips were making it to completed films. Most of them were aiming to be cult movies, discovered on the racks of video stores. That's surely the level that Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and their crew were aiming for. They couldn't have known what would happen between that first "Action!" and the film hitting screens. In that period, there were TWO zombie films that came out from big studios and became mainstream hits. First, another English film, Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later (not technically a zombie film, because the "monsters" aren't actually undead, but in structure it's unmistakeably of the Romero lineage), then Zach Schneider's remake of Dawn of the Dead. So Shaun of the Dead emerged into the world as a parody of a mainstream genre/hot trend. It even had a joke about 28 Days Later buried in it!
So, OK, let's talk about the actual movie for a minute. I just described it as a "parody," but I don't think that's exactly right. I mean, it is a parody in the sense that it's a comedy based on an established genre, featuring many gags riffing on the conventions of said genre, but I feel like that's not really the point of the movie. It's more of a buddy comedy, like the "bromances" that the Apatow factory cranked out through the decade, and I feel like this is the aspect of the film that has really helped it endure and resonate more than many of the lesser zombie comedies of the 00's. It's also a spectacularly cinematic film. Edgar Wright has a style that is so visually dynamic that even a scene of a character crossing the street looks exciting, and I can think of few scenes in film history that are as joyously choreographed as the melee set to Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now." Jokes and references are buried in the script and the shots so densely that you can still be discovering things on the 10th viewing.
4. Pan's Labyrinth (Guillermo Del Toro, 2006)
When I saw Pan's Labyrinth at the Los Angeles International Film Festival, Guillermo Del Toro was on hand to introduce the film. He talked a lot about fairy tales, and how the stories we tell children have been sanitized and kid-proofed over the years. Did you know that the original ending of Cinderella has the little birds that help her with her chores pecking the eyes out of the wicked stepsisters' heads? His point was that these stories lose a lot of their power as the horrors are swept under the rug. Scary stories fulfill an important function in helping children deal with the horrors of life. Pan's Labyrinth is a pretty gruesome fairy tale. At the same time, it's also a story that demonstrates how fantasy helps children deal with reality. Ofelia, the young protagonist, is in a horrific situation, but the fantasy world she escapes to isn't lollipops and rainbows. It's as hard and brutal as real life, but it also has clear rules and goals that she can navigate.
Suggested Double Feature: Tideland (Terry Gilliam, 2006). OK, almost nobody liked this movie, and I can understand why, but it's really an interesting film that should be watched. Watching it back-to-back with Pan's might be the easiest way in, as the two films overlap quite a bit (see my review of Tideland at the link above).
3. Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino, 2003/2004)
It's as if, after a lifetime of watching exploitation films, Quentin Tarantino hooked a hose up to his head and let the images that had been building up come pouring out until they filled up four hours of celluloid. It's easy to fault Kill Bill for being a shallow piece of stitched-together eye candy (almost as easy as mixing metaphors!), but why would you want to when the movie is this entertaining? I'm not sure what's so different about the way Kill Bill steals dozens of elements from different movies and the way Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark do the same thing. Lucas got to Frankenstein his own mix of Republic serials, B-westerns and Samurai movies, Quentin did the same with Shaw Bros. kung fu, spaghetti westerns, samurai movies, blaxploitation and whatever else you can find in there. I'm not the first to make the comparison, but Kill Bill is the Paul's Boutique of cinema.
But again, making these kind of arguments misses everything that's great about Kill Bill. It's not some film school exercise in homage. It's a goddamn fun time at the movies. I can't for the life of me fathom the mind of a person who DOESN"T like Kill Bill. How can you say no to the combinations of sounds and images it throws at you: Elle's hair whipping in the wind, a reflection of the Firebird painted on her car hood, while Jon Lord-esque organ music swirls around her; the barely-perceptible look of pride on Pei Mei's face when the Bride forces herself to eat with chopsticks; the visible "whimper" escaping from the lips of young O-Ren Ishii as she cowers under the bed; or my favorite moment, the silence that suddenly fills the House of Blue Leaves when the Bride yells out "O-REN ISHII! WE HAVE UNFINISHED BUSINESS," as Morricone's incredibly tense "Death Rides a Horse" theme rises on the soundtrack.
The thing about biting all these elements from other movies is that, when you're done, they all have to look like a unified whole. And I think Kill Bill does that. Even down to the music: notice how the melody of "The Twisted Nerve" (the whistling theme from when Elle is going to kill the Bride in the hospital) is echoed in the 1,2,3,4's performance of "Woo-Hoo." Or how comfortably the Zamfir flute song fits in with the Morricone themes, especially the one that plays when the Bride escapes her coffin.
You understand the world this story takes place in. There's nothing that needs explanation. You understand the characters motivations, because you've seen similar characters in dozens of movies. They are superbeings, just like the Shao Lin monks, wandering Ronin and impossibly accurate gunslingers that populate their respective genres. Superbeings have their own codes and motives. Other non-super beings are unimportant to them (which is why we don't see the Bride hunting down Bud's diminutive accomplice--if he was there when she came back for Bud, she'd kill him, but she's not gonna go to the trouble of hunting down a mortal). But revenge against another super-being who has wronged them is unavoidable and non-negotiable. Bill knows very well that the Bride is eventually going to kill him. He's not going to sit back and let it happen, but he's made peace with it, because he understands the inevitability of it. It's just how it's done.
I could write about Kill Bill for hours. I might, at some point in the future, do a more detailed examination of it here, but it seems inappropriate for this list thing I'm doing now. So this seems like a good place to leave off for now, with the movie that I've probably watched more times than any other over the last decade. The top two films on my list are just as perfect, but they come from further off in the left field.