Saturday, March 13, 2010

Top 50 Films of the 00's, Part 1 (50-46)

This is taking a bit longer than I expected, because I'm really trying to say something signifigant about each of these films (I'm not sure how good my success rate has been...). But here's the first installment. EDIT: I've decided to add another feature to some of these reviews and suggest another film from the decade to double feature with them.

50. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

The Coen Bros. had this great quote about what makes a good comedy team: you need two or three dumb guys, one of whom thinks he's a smart guy. Think about Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello, The Three Stooges. Think about the trio from O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the bowling team from The Big Lebowski, or the two jailbreakers from Raising Arizona. The important thing is, you have to have the dumb guy who thinks (and has convinced his partners) that he's a smart guy, not only because that sort of unjustified arrogance is funny, but because he's the engine that moves the plot by getting the gang involved in his hairbrained schemes. Now, I ask you, could there be any better description of George W. Bush than A Dumb Guy Who Thinks He's a Smart Guy?

Will Ferrell's Bush impression was the most famous, his over-the-top approach fitting for the almost unsatirable president. He jolts that impression up a few notches in Ricky Bobby, untethering it from the source, but it remains a portrait of 43: an aggressive dim bulb, forever spouting meaningless hominems about victory, consumed by father issues (although, contrary to Bush, the guy actually has the goods on the track). There are many such portraits of Bush-in-all-but-name. The character of Jason Stackhouse in HBO's True Blood, for instance, seems pretty clearly to be based on Bush. GOB on Arrested Development is given parallels to W throughout the series. I don't mean to imply any intent to make a political statement in any of these. Bush is just a fascinating character. Even Oliver Stone's "W" seems more interested in examining Bush as a Shakespearian tragic hero than indicting the Bush administration (in the same way that I don't think Shakespeare was trying to write a scathing expose of the Richard III administration). Which is why Ricky Bobby is a funnier piece of entertainment than You're Welcome, America!

Will Farrell is the sort of over-the-top comic actor who, like Jim Carey, Adam Sandler or Robin Williams, can be brutally hilarious, or intolerably irritating, depending on the strength of their material (and whether they have a strong director to reel them in). In this sense, he's very lucky to have Adam McKay, his collaborator going back to the SNL days, who has assisted Farrell in developing material that makes the best use of his particular silliness, and I'd give McKay a lot of the credit for Farrell's career being so much more consistent than those I've just mentioned. But he's also lucky to have launched his film career during a period of time that called for his particular lunacy. You could make a good argument that Farrell and McKay's first feature, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy is a better film: it makes better use of its ensemble cast, the plot is more coherent (there are specific plot points in Talladega Nights that I honestly can't did the whole storyline with Sacha Baron Cohen resolve itself again?), and it maybe even makes a more interesting statement about the psycho-political landscape of Bush-era America. But Ricky Bobby feels like the embodiment of so much that went on in America in this decade that I have to choose it.

Suggested Double Feature: The Foot Fist Way (Jody Hill, 2006) - Jody Hill and his star Danny McBride mine a lot of the same territory of America's masculinity anxiety in their independent feature, althought they put a darker spin on it. A more perfect match would be the same duo's HBO series East Bound and Down, which matches the insanity of Talladega Nights, but being that it's a TV series, it doesn't really work well as a double feature.

49. Jandek on Corwood (Chad Friedrichs, 2003)

Documentaries about cult bands and musicians became their own prominent sub-genre throughout the 00's, with results ranging from Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns, a very fun and entertaining film about They Might Be Giants with slick production values and smooth editing, to We Jam Econo, a recount of the Minutemen's career that adds little insight and feels more like something included in a promo pack than a creative feature (but being a huge Minutemen fan, I found it nearly as fun to watch as Gigantic). You're Gonna Miss Me: A Film About Roky Erickson and The Devil and Daniel Johnston make a great double bill--both Texas-based musicians dealing with severe schizophrenia and mother issues (Roky is an incredible singer, a consistently brilliant songwriter and a competent guitarist, while Johnston is an occassionally brilliant songwriter who can't sing or play at all, but both are fascinating stories). The free-associative nature of The Fearless Freaks, a documentary on The Flaming Lips, fits the anarchic tone of its subject.

One that made an especially deep impression on me was Transatlantic Feedback, a documentary on The Monks. The Monks were a group of U.S. GI's stationed in Germany in the mid-60's whose excellent records have had a slowly growing cult following over the years. I'd been a fan of their one album for several years, but I always thought of them as just an exceptionally aggressive garage rock band. Watching this doc, and getting some context on their music, I came away thinking of them in much more singular terms. Like The Velvet Underground or The Mothers of Invention, The Monks were totally their own thing. In fact, if you were an archeoligist, and were trying to reconstruct the history of rock based only on listening to the records (ie, not having interviews with the members of first-wave punk bands to tell you what they were listening to), you would probably attribute to The Monks the signifigance that is regularly attributed to VU. The Monks sound more like the source of punk than the Velvets do, despite the fact that very few if any Americans and Brits had heard of them in the mid-70's. You can also draw a very clear line from The Monks through Faust, Can, Kraftwerk and NEU!.

But if I had to choose just one entry in this genre, it would be Jandek on Corwood. Jandek has been putting out albums steadily since 1978 with no clue to his identity other than a P.O. Box in Texas under the name of Corwood Industries. Most of these records consist of his voice and a spare acoutsic guitar singing strange, lonely songs. There are some photos of him on his early records, and a single phone interview, but he otherwise remains shrouded in mystery. The experts interviewed can barely agree on how to pronounce his name. (He has actually become a bit more public since this documentary was released, even giving a few live performances starting in 2004.)

I may have a slight bias toward this doc over the other entries in this genre, because it's so new to me. I was aware of Jandek, and had heard a couple of his songs over the years, but had never really delved into him. But more than that, there's the mystery. There is (was) no footage of Jandek, so the filmmakers were forced to work around it, which they do with long, evocative shots of a sparse apartment, acoustic guitar laying on a bed, or other images that fit the tone of the subject. The various rock critics interviewed all have their theories, romanticized ideas of a solitary weirdo artist, but they all ultimately admit that these could be completely off. Maybe Jandek is a successful, well-adjusted accountant with a wife and kids in the suburbs. Nobody knows.

You can watch the whole thing on YouTube, if that's how you like to do this stuff.

48. Burn After Reading (The Coen Bros., 2008)

At this point, the Coens are like Michael Jordan or Jimi Hendrix: there's just nobody performing at their level. And as great as their 80's/90's run was, they actually got BETTER in the 00's. Despite blowing a year unsuccessfully developing To the White Sea, then making the middling screwball comedy Intolerable Cruelty and a poorly-received remake of The Lady Killers (which I still haven't seen), they still managed to put out five masterpieces in the course of the decade. A Serious Man, while it's not my favorite of their films, is an incredibly dense piece of work that I know is going to reward repeat viewings over the years to come. I had to literally restrain myself from including their pitch-perfect film noir The Man Who Wasn't There. And I tried to convince myself not to include Burn After Reading, but fuck it, this nasty little screwball noir is just too damn good to leave off.

First of all, if you haven't seen Burn After Reading, you should know that it's not at all the movie that the trailers--basically montages of all the funny faces Brad Pitt and George Clooney make in the movie--portray. I'm not sure whether those trailers contributed to my confusion, but following in the wake of the vicious No Country For Old Men, it seemed like a minor, oddball film. But you gotta watch them Coenses, because that's pretty much how I felt about The Big Lebowski (following the triumph of Fargo) on first viewing, and that one eventually settled near the top of my Coen Bros. pantheon.

In Lebowski, an oddball character is insterted into a film noir storyline, and wackiness ensues. A similar thing happens in Burn, with a group of goofy gym employees finding themselves in an espinoage thriller, but it's not quite the same. The Dude's personality defined the tone of his film, from the meandering story to the 70's rock soundtrack to the hallucinatory dream sequences, but in Burn, the world is unconcerned with the characters that have found their way into it.

In order to talk further about this film, I have to get the characters straight in my head, and delve into some spoilers, so be warned. Two worlds interact in Burn, the world of low-level intelligence workers and that of employees at a gym. The latter group includes Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), a shallow woman pushing 40 and convinced that her happiness depends on preserving her youthful good looks, Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), basically a dumb guy (Linda is the dumb guy who thinks she's a smart guy here), and Ted Treffon (Richard Jenkins), a soft-hearted guy with a crush on Linda. On the other side, there's Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) and Harry Pfarer (George Clooney). There are a few others, but these are the characters I'm going to focus on.

When we meet Osbourne Cox, he's being informed by higher-ups that he is being transferred to a new job. This seems to be an act of kindness. All the evidence we are shown indicates that Cox is an incompetent drunk, and probably should have been fired, but Cox refuses to acknowledge this reality, and quits on the spot in an effort to cling to some bit of dignity. After quitting, he doubles down further on his delusions. He is convinced that he can make some money "consulting," and he begins working on his memoirs. When Linda and Chad begin blackmailing him, instead of blowing it off (after all, he must know that they have nothing of value), he commits even further to this delusion, perhaps delighted to have a more interesting reality to live in. He seems to have convinced himself that he was some kind of important intelligence agent, but from what we can see, his job was that of a low-level beuraucrat. In his final confrontation with Ted, he lets loose with a paranoid tirade against the morons who have held him down all his life.

For that matter, we're not really sure what Harry's situation is either. Wikipedia identifies him as a Treasury Agent, but it's not clear how active he is. He certainly doesn't seem to be that intelligent, but his wisdom about your instinct kicking in during a gunfight proves true enough.

In the end of the film, JK Simmons as a CIA supervisor (no name given for the character in the credits) serves as a sort of Greek chorus, trying to figure out what the hell happened. His scenes here are like a link between the final scenes of No Country and A Serious Man. Unlike A Serious Man, Burn let's the audience know more than the protagonist, but the results are no more satisfying. The joke is that the forces that led to the situation confronting the supervisor are not random, but are so mundane, so unimportant and meaningless, that even if he knew he wouldn't believe. Linda isn't a force of pure evil like Anton Chiggurh, she's just a dumb, selfish and all-too-typical person. The fact that she actually gets what she wants while (unintentionally) destroying the lives of every person around her is a sick irony, and it's difficult to feel much beyond disgust for her, but to have a mind so fucked up that you believe your entire hope for happiness depends on massive cosmetic surgery must deserve some sort of pity.

47. Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009)

I switched District 9 out for this film, despite D9 fitting in a little better with many of the other offbeat genre films on this list. Moon is just a better movie. Probably should be higher on the list (somewhere between 35 and 40, maybe), but I don't want to totally uproot my structure here.

It's pretty much impossible to talk about Moon without revealing the central "twist," although I'm not sure I consider anything that occurs in the first half of a movie to be a true "twist." I don't think knowing this stuff necessarily interferes with enjoying the film, but I'll leave that to you to decide.

In Moon, Sam Rockwell plays an astronaut who discovers that he is a clone, and that the life he thought was waiting for him back on earth does not exist. In fact, he plays two clones, and manages to give each one a distinct personality based on their situations: Sam 1 is a man who has been clinging to hope for 3 years in order to maintain his sanity, and has just discovered that that hope does not exist. Sam 2 hasn't gone through that, so the revelation, while still heartbreaking and disorienting, has hit him somewhat differently. He's trying to maintain a sense of detachment, to avoid fully feeling the emotional blow. He can barely bring himself to look at Sam 1, and wears his sunglasses indoors to avoid eye contact.

It's a remarkable performance(s), one of the best of the decade, and bolstered by the film doing a great job in a very short time of conveying the crushing loneliness of the life of a solitary human on a lunar mining station, with only a HAL-like computer (GERTY, voiced by Kevin Spacey) for company. Some of the images, including the image of Sam 1 in Sam 2's brief dream, are unforgetable. This isn't some kind of "mind fuck" story, where the ideas are designed to blow you away. It's a story of human emotion.

Suggested Double Feature: Sunshine (Danny Boyle, 2007) For some reason, I really love movies about the loneliness of space. Boyle's film is visually stunning and genuinely haunting, and even when it falls into an easy Hollywood formula in its last half hour, it manages to be effective (ie, scary as hell).

A final note: I'm sure Duncan Jones would prefer that every damn writer who reviewed this movie didn't bring up the fact that his dad is David Bowie, but who can resist making comparisons to "Space Oddity?" But then, after reading this, I started thinking that maybe we were all thinking of the wrong Bowie song.

46. Hustle & Flow (Craig Brewer, 2005)

I can tell you that my favorite Oscar moment of all time was 3-6 Mafia winning for "It's Hard Out There For a Pimp." Man, I just jumped out of my seat on that one. It's nice to see a song that actually serves some purpose in a movie win, and I'm always happy to see hip hop getting some recognition, but more importantly, that's just a great goddamn song. Hustle & Flow drips with the atmosphere of a sweaty, grimy Memphis where people still party in juke joints and grease hangs in the air. The bluesy incidental music, coupled with shots of worn-down buildings and spanish moss, makes you feel the heat and humidity of the South.

The themes of H&F are the themes of hip hop: hustlers living dead end lives discover a talent they didn't realize they had (Flow) and reach for the American Dream (Hustle). This may sound corny on paper--after all, didn't we already have a hip hop version of Rocky with 8 Mile?--but the film makes no bones about DJay's life as a low-level pimp and drug dealer, and is pretty clear about what pimps actually do, and his road to success (riding off the hype of shooting another rapper) doesn't exactly make him a role model (but then, neither is Daniel Plainview). It also helps that Terrence Howard, Anthony Anderson, Taraji Henson, DJ Qualls, Ludacris and Taryn Manning breathe life into their characters, making much more of them than exists on the pages of Brewer's script. The cast really make their characters dance. And you get one of the most realistic (if abbreviated) scenes of music (or any collaborative art) being made that I've ever seen on film:

"Naw, he just light skinned."


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