Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Top 50 Films of the 00's, Part 4 (35-31)

I've fallen behind on this, not only because of my schedule, but because I've hit a difficult patch in this list. See, the top 25 or so movies are the ones that I really fell in love with and live with in my mind and think about all the time. And the bottom 10 or 15 are the movies that I love so much that I had to come up with justifications for including them on the list even if they're not that great. But here we are, at this middle ground, where sit the movies that I haven't spent that much time with, but that are obviously great films that deserve to be on the list. After the shoddy paragraph I wrote about The Saddest Music in the World last time, I was determined to do better here, and went back and watched some of these films again to try to get more of a grip on them. Also worth noting: when I looked up the dates for these films, I found that I had guessed wrong on every single one of them. What does that mean?

35. Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)

Audiences most likely went into Zodiac expecting a serial killer movie, which it most definitely is not. It appears at first to be more of a police procedural, but this proves to be not quite right either. It's a sprawling epic that stretches over decades, but leaves the mystery of the Zodiac Killer tantalizingly unresolved. What we are left with, then, is a portrait of Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a cartoonist who enjoys solving puzzles, and is confronted with a puzzle that can't be solved. It's about that frustration you get when you're just one word away from solving a crossword, and you can't possibly think about anything else until you figure out that last word, but this guy spends DECADES trying to solve his puzzle. Thus, it's a lot like JFK, without a bunch of looney talk and overacting. Oh yeah, acting, let's talk about that! Because Fincher's best move was casting this whole thing, down to the smallest roles of local police, with great character actors who are interesting to watch even when they're just talking bureaucratic monotony. And in the bigger roles, you have Robert Downey Jr., the decade's best movie star, lighting up the screen with his flashy cool as crime reporter Paul Avery, and Mark Ruffalo doing the classic, rumpled detective bit as Inspector David Toschi. Watching the frustration on Graysmith as he realizes that both Avery and Toschi have sensibly given up this case (which, Toschi points out, is not even a particularly significant serial killer case), you can feel that frustration that the puzzle may never be solved.

(Honestly, going back and watching it again, I'm not sure it really deserves a place on this list, but it's a good film, and fuck it, I'm not going to go back and change things in the middle of writing this.)

34. Lost in Translation (Sophia Coppola, 2003)

Why was Lost in Translation an arthouse hit, and why has Sophia Coppola been unable to duplicate this success before or since? LiT, with its minimal plot and languid pace, isn't exactly a recipe for appealing to the American public. Is it just a matter of Bill Murray being awesome? Well, Bill Murray is certainly awesome, and probably elevates the film quite a bit, but it's also a very warm, human film that lets the audience in rather than pushing them away. Coppola's films are always cryptically autobiographical, and her life story is not exactly the stuff of universal shared experience, but I think this story of two lonely people stuck in a hotel in a foreign country making a connection with each other really touched people. Of course, it can't hurt that the movie begins with a close up of Scarlett Johansen's butt.

33. The 25th Hour (Spike Lee, 2002)

In Spike Lee's breakthrough film, Do the Right Thing, there is a scene in which different characters face the camera and let loose with a string of ethnic slurs. It's ugly, but also funny. It's meant to reflect the hot tempers flaring up on a hot day in a crowded, racially charged city. The whole thing lasts about one minute, and when it's over, the omniscient narrator steps in to tell everyone to "cool that shit out."

Early in The 25th Hour, in a scene that seems meant to be an echo of the scene from DTRT, Edward Norton delivers a soliloquy where he first curses and degrades every ethnic group in the city, then goes on to curse cops, the church, God, every person in his life, and finally himself. There's no wink or smile behind the curse. He fucking means it. The monologue/montage takes up a full 5 minutes of screentime. And ultimately, the motivation isn't anger, it's fear.

Every moment of the film is filled with a sense of dread, of impending doom, of a fear that can only be resolved through an act of violence. Terrence Blanchard's score spends most of the movie rumbling in the background like distant thunder (aside from the extended nightclub scene set mostly to Cymanide's epic funk jam "Bra"), and everywhere you look you see a reminder of the scar left on the city by the 9/11 attacks, reflected in the wounds on that dog in the beginning, on Norton's face in the end, and the invisible scars on each character's life. This is storytelling as exorcism, an attempt to both express something nearly inexpressable and to come to some kind of understanding of one's condition. On second viewing, I think I may have ranked it far too low.

32. Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006)

Casino Royale is so deceptively good, that I didn't recognize its greatness on first viewing. There's a lot of fan service going on here, little bells worked into the script to make fans of the franchise respond with Pavlovian applause. "Hey, it's the Astin Martin! Yay! We love the Astin Martin!" And hey, lifelong Bond fan that I am, I enjoyed this stuff as much as anyone, especially the way they built to the "Bond. James Bond." and the introduction of the Bond theme at the very end. But put all that stuff aside, and look at all you're left with. Look at the dialogue between Bond and Vesper on the train, worthy of a Howard Hawks movie. Look at the brutal fight on the stairway, the rare movie fight where you can feel the desperation of the protagonist to stay alive. And most of all, you have Daniel Craig, a genuine movie star, somehow managing to convey a thuggish beefiness and a sophisticated charm at the same time. The fourth act, a necessary mechanism to restart the franchise, is unfortunate (especially as it now seems this franchise would never quite take off), but this is just the way it is. This is Hollywood product at it's best.

31. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)

America was carved out of the wilderness by men like Daniel Plainview, obsessive characters who seem to have forged entire industries through the sheer power of their will. To Ayn Rand, these men are saints. To Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, they are despots. To Paul Thomas Anderson, they're sort of both right. So we have Daniel Plainview, a man of insatiable lust for conquest. Faced with an endeavor, his tenacious strenth can move mountains. Absent such goals, he is consumed by his vicious impulses. He's a dishonest bully who nonetheless is an admirable achiever. Really, isn't everyone with the ambition to accomplish something a bit of an asshole? (In the present moment, all the people I see doing something significant in the world, from Julian Assange to Michelle Rhee to Kanye West, are huge, megalomaniac assholes.) This is the story of America, the light and the dark sharing the same space in equal measure, just as they do in the bodies of Charles Foster Kane and Don Corleone.

Daniel Day Lewis, in what so many consider the performance of the decade, inhabits this juicy role, and makes it burn from the inside out with a ferocious flame. I like this film, but I've noticed that other people seem to like it much more than I do, and I think I understand what the variable is. I have a great relationship with my father, a mellow guy and probably the best dad in the world. If you grew up fearing your father, Lewis' performance probably resonates much more. You probably wake up in the middle of the night with his face burning under your eyelids.

But I also have to mention the amazing visual style that P.T. Anderson and cinematographer Robert Elswit create for the film. Anderson is in full show off mode (when is he not?), not only on the two striking sceens that open the film and the looney scene that closes it, but on a smaller scale in the way every scene is lit, shot and composed. I can't say that the film entirely holds my interest in those smaller moments, but I do feel that there is a significance in every moment of the film. Like the Bible or Moby Dick, you can find something in each of those scenes, and what you find may be entirely dependent on what you bring to it.


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