Saturday, July 24, 2010

Top 50 Films of the 00's, Part 3 (40-36)

40. Moulin Rouge (Baz Luhrman, 2001)

Beginning sometime between 1980 and 1984 (depending on how far out in the sticks you lived), and continuing until sometime in the late 90's (it was a gradual ending), MTV played music videos. They were garish, colorful, overly busy interpretations of nonsensical fantasies set to pop songs. At the twilight of this era (MTV was still airing videos in the ghetto of Total Request Live), Baz Luhrman produced this film, a tribute to the MTV era reinterpreted as an impossibly opulent musical extravaganza somewhere between The Red Shoes and Lola Montes. In the process, he revived the Hollywood musical, allowing godawful adaptations of Hairspray, Dream Girls and Chicago to be brought into existence, but credit where due. The mix of glittery pomp, pop song romance and a two hour mashup of dozens of pop hits, sometimes being mixed like a club DJ mixes records (the "Can Can Can"/"Smells Like Teen Spirit"/"Lady Marmalade" mix), is enough to leave you dizzy. Unfortunately, at some point (right after the showstopper "Tango de Roxanne"), there seems to be a sudden realization that the story needs a plot, and a rush to add one, at which point I find myself fidgeting a bit through the last 20 minutes.

39. The Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson, 2009)/The Royal Tennenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001)

The Fantastic Mr. Fox depicts the part of Bugs Bunny's life that you don't see in the cartoons: his family life, his midlife crises, his existential angst. Brought to life by the most charming stop-motion animation I've ever seen, Wes Anderson took Road Dahl's children's story (I remember our first grade teacher reading the story to us one day, although the only part I can really recall is the rhyme about the three farmers, "one fat, one short, one lean") and makes it into something that is at once a children's story and a Wes Anderson movie. This is no small feat--the many attempts to make children's entertainment palatable to adults (most notably the godawful Shrek franchise) have been misterable failures (although not necessarily commercial failures, which I suppose is what really counts). Is it the best Wes Anderson movie of the decade? I think so. While I don't like it as much as his looser, late 90's films Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, it does feel more lively and entertaining than the three other films he made this decade. But I still can't resist squeezing the gorgeous Royal Tennenbaums onto this list. I don't feel much emotional connection to the characters in that film, maybe you do, but it's blend of music and images shows an undeniable artistry. The image of Bucky Tennenbaum's falcon circling the city skyline to the Velvet Underground's "Stephanie Sez" may not hold any deep meaning to me, but who can deny that it's a beautiful image? So, not his best movie, but possibly the best long-form music video ever made.

38. Dave Chappelle's Block Party (Michel Gondry, 2005)

Dave Chappelle might be one of the most fascinating figures of the 00's. After creating one of the funniest seasons of television of the decade, Chappelle walked off the set of his show and diasppeared from the cultural landscape. He surfaces occassionally at the Laugh Factory in Hollywood, where he takes over the stage to do four hours of rambling (but by all eyewitness accounts, fully entertaining) standup. Somewhere in between, he managed to produce this documentary/concert/comedy film. Chappelle, a laid back stoner with a deep love for hip hop and jazz, may be the human embodiment of Native Tongues hip hop, and this movie, more than anything else he's been involved in, feels like the embodiment of Chappelle's personality.

DCBP progresses at a leisurely, spontaneous pace, like everything else in Dave's life. Dave acts on impulse. He gets the idea that he's going to produce the perfect concert, featuring the cream of the second generation Native Tongues crew, on a block in Brooklyn. He gets it in his head that he will bring a busload of random people from his Ohio hometown. At one point, he passes by a high school marching band, and gets the idea that he will bring them out to Brooklyn to perform. And when his headliner, Lauryn Hill, can't perform (her record company doesn't want the songs from her upcoming album appearing in the film--did the album ever come out?), he just casually brings up the idea of reuniting her old crew, The Fugees (one of the most interesting things about the movie is how small this major coup is played).

The concert itself is fantastic. Kanye West, pre-superstardom, plays a short opening set (in the months between the filming and release, Kanye would become one of the biggest stars in music). The Roots play a ferocious set, then lay down the beats for everyone else (a prelude to their future as a late night talk show band). Mos Def, Talib Kwali and Common rap in various combinations. Dead Prez, backed by The Roots, deliver one of the most devastating rap performances I've ever heard. Erykah Badu is the goddamn queen of cool when she comes on stage sporting a huge afro. Jill Scott, whom I'd honestly never heard of when I first saw the movie, delivers her own idiosynchratic fusion of poetry slam and soul diva. The Fugees might be the one disapointment of the show--the movie only records their opening number ("Nappy Heads," not a very good example of the group) and their big hit cover of "Killing Me Softly" (which I don't think is one of their best tunes either). Is there more of this set? When will an expanded DVD featuring the whole concert on multiple discs be released?

The vibe is similar to my favorite concert film, Wattstax: a sunny day, relaxing with some good tunes. It's a great disc to slip in on a lazy summer day. But the most fascinating stuff here is not the performances, but little moments of Dave and the various musicians discussing the arts of music and comedy. "I'm mediocre at both," Chappelle quips, "but I've managed to talk myself into a fortune."

37. United 93 (Paul Greengrass, 2006)

In those scary, depressing days after 9/11, we looked to the heroes. There were firefighters and policemen who had given their lives to save their fellow men, but there was also the story of United 93. Nobody knows for sure what happened on that plane, but it seems that the plane was set to be another kamikaze, and when the passengers learned about the fates of the other planes, realized they weren't getting out of this alive, overpowered the hijackers and crashed the plane into a field.

Paul Greengrass' film follows the passengers and the air traffic control crew in real time verite through the hours leading up to 93's crash, and what you come away with is a scene of ordinary people dealing with extraordinary circumstances. That sounds too low-key, but everything sounds too low-key to describe the events of that day. To call the film "powerful" or even "harrowing" seems like a major understatement. It's a proper tribute to both the horror and the heroism of that day.

United 93 came out between Greengrass' two sequels to The Bourne Identity, and while I obviously can't count them as on the same level as U93, they are remarkable films in themselves, and would have to be counted among the key action films of the decade. People seem to remember the "shaky cam" that adds urgency to every action scene, but the real artistry is in the editing, that makes action scenes that would be confusing in the hands of most directors and make them clean and clear to the viewer.

36. The Saddest Music in the World (Guy Maddin, 2003)

Guy Maddin's movies feel like dreams you might have if you fell asleep watching Turner Classic Movies late at night. There's a strangeness to them that often reminds me of The Forbiden Zone if that film had been attempting serious drama. That's the closest I can come to a real comparison. When I started watching TSMITW, his best feature film, I thought it was the most amazing and beautiful thing I had ever seen. After about an hour, I built up a tolerance to it, and it didn't seem quite so intoxicating anymore. Maybe his aesthetic is better suited to short films like The Eye Like a Strange Balloon and The Heart of the World. Regardless, this story of a glass-legged beer barroness who, in the heart of winter and depression, holds a contest to find the most heartbreaking of music, is a unique and fascinating gem.

[EDIT: you can probably tell that I really should have gone back and watched Saddest Music again before writing this, but I was getting sick of having it in the queue. Time to get busy on the next batch!]


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