Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Top 50 Films of the 00's, Part 6 (20-16)

20. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000)

This movie seems like it happened so long ago, in a different era. It really seems more like a 90's movie, and since the 90's had barely ended at the time, I guess it could be considered part of the wave of interest in Asian cinema that spread through America in that decade, as Americans discovered the films of Jackie Chan, John Woo, Jet Li and Tsui Hark, as those films were being championed by young hotshots like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, and as riffs on the action in those films were incorporated into movies like The Matrix. CTHD was the crest of that wave, a pure, period, Chinese-language film that became a huge hit in the States. Some fans of Hong Kong cinema found the popularity of CTHD annoying, claiming that it wasn't really different from the films that had been coming out of HK for decades. At the time I argued that this wasn't quite true, although I should add that I'm hardly a scholar on the subject, and certainly not an expert on the Wuxia subgenre from which CTHD springs. But the high production values, the gorgeous photography, and the great performances, particularly of the two female leads, Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Zhiyi, make it unlike any martial arts movie I've ever seen. Even the battle choreography is graceful and beautiful in a way that's unlike anything else. At the time I called it Merchant-Ivory Fu, which seems like a terribly dated joke now. But really, it's those wonderful performances that Ang Lee was able to get from his actors that makes this movie more than a classed-up action flick. I've puzzled over its ambiguous ending for years: when Jen Lu jumps off the mountain, is she committing suicide or merely flying away? Jumping off a mountain seems like an inefficient method of suicide for someone who can fly.

Suggested Double Feature: House of Flying Daggers (Zhang Yimou, 2004). Like CTHD, HoFD is a Wuxia film directed by an director previously known for artsy dramas (Mainland director Zhang Yimou, director of films like Raise the Red Lantern and To Live--he had previously made the martial arts film Hero, but I prefer HoFD). I don't think HoFD has quite the emotional resonance of CTHD, but god damn is it a beautiful film, and the action choreography is every bit the equal of its competitor.

19. Spider-Man/Spider-Man 2 (Sam Raimi, 2002/2004)

I always felt like superhero stories were better suited to animation than live-action, like you would need that level of removal from reality for the stories to work. I reckon the wave of superhero movies that began with The X-Men in '99 (or, really, Blade in '98) and is still going on now (currently building toward the Avengers movie and the final chapter of the Dark Knight trilogy this summer, but for the purposes of this post as part of a 00's list, let's cut it off at the 2009 Watchmen adaptation) proved me wrong, or changed my mind, but only marginally. For a superhero movie to be successful, to my mind, it needs a sense of cartoonish unreality. It should be bigger than anything in a standard Hollywood action or science fiction movie. Only in their own context can they not seem silly.

Unless you count The Incredibles, Sam Raimi's first two Spider-Man movies are the only ones that I see as unqualified successes. The X-Men movies are good, but they're not really that cinematic. They almost feel like they could be Joss Whedon TV shows, strong on character and story but not really able to make that leap to take you into comic book reality. They feel like comic books being cut with standard action cinema to stretch them out. Guillermo Del Toro's Hellboy movies do a great job of immersing the viewer in their fantasy world, but they seemed to both be moving toward climaxes that never came, or at least left the audience a little unsatisfied. Fantastic Four got the characters right, but like X-Men, felt too small, everything reduced to fit on the screen (besides, it just had a Michael Bay-ish sensibility that put me off). Iron Man worked almost entirely due to Robert Downey Jr. Other than that, it was an OK mech suit movie. As for Daredevil, Ghostrider, Watchmen and especially League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the less said the better. Oh, I did like Constantine quite a lot.

The Batman movies deserve their own paragraph, so here it is. I really do admire these two films. There are elements to both of them that I just love. Possibly my single favorite superhero scene of the decade is the scene in Batman Begins where Batman is picking off henchmen one by one on the docks that is just EXACTLY what I always wanted a Batman movie to look like! I don't think I need to enumerate what's great about The Dark Knight, but I like the way it deals with the War on Terror and the state of post-9/11 America. It has, of course, a far-right wing view of the world, but that's because it's a Batman movie, and Batman is a far-right wing character. No getting around that. But both movies end up losing their coherence as they get toward the end. This is especially true of Batman Begins (the climax of which makes no sense at all), but is also arguably true for the Two-Face storyline in TDK. It's something that would probably make sense in comic books, but again, putting these characters in live action makes you have to consider them in real world standards of motivation.

So I come back to these two movies as being the best take on a superhero character so far. Somehow, Sam Raimi has managed to create a world that seems completely believable for Spider-Man to live in. Everything you love about the comic is here, but it's not transported into an action movie. The world looks very much like the world you read in comics. Even the rather goofy Green Goblin costume looks better when you see it in action. You get a sense of fun and exhilaration from watching Peter Parker take his first swings on webs above the city (he even yells "Wheeee!"). Spider-Man captures the spirit of its source material, and of comic books in general, in a way none of the competition does (with the possible exception of last year's Captain America).

Most people I know like Spider-Man 2 better. They're tied in my mind. The first one is possibly a better Spider-Man movie, the second is surely a better Sam Raimi movie, with all the kinetic camera work (POV shots from Doc Oc's tentacles are especially Evil Dead-esque), and a bit of dark horror flick sensibility injected into the story. As the decade closed, I was sitting in my parents' living room, noticing a TV set in the kitchen tuned to Spider-Man 2, the climax of the subway action scene, and even through the corner of my eye, when the bystanders notice that "He's just a kid. Not much older than my boy," I felt my throat start to catch just a little.

18. Les Triplettes de Belville (Sylvain Chomet, 2003)

Back in the 90's, fans of animation would get touchy if you refered to Ghost in the Shell or My Neighbor Totoro as "cartoons." Indeed, much of the animation of recent decades has aimed to avoid that characterization. But not Triplettes. Triplettes is proudly a 90-minute cartoon. Chomet fills the strange, dialogue-free film with wonderfully cartoony images: agents who strike angular figures in their rectangular trench coats, ocean liners that jut impossibly out of the water, the gangly triplets and their strange musical act. I'm not saying Triplettes is necessarily better than your favorite Pixar movie, but it's devotion to actual cartooning silliness simply puts it into a different class.

17. Tsotsi (Gavin Hood, 2005)

Tsotsi is a homeless, teenaged gangster living in the slums of Soweeto. Tsotsi isn't even his name, it means "thug," but that's what everyone calls him. He's young, stupid, and already racking up a body count. Then he carjacks a woman, and later realizes her baby is in the car. This ends up being the moment that changes his life. Over the course of the movie, forced to care for the baby, we watch Tsotsi's stone heart gradually soften. He begins to feel empathy. He begins to become human. it's a tough film, and it doesn't wrap up in a feel-good Hollywood ending, but the fact that it's not bullshitting you makes it all the more life-affirming.

Suggested Double Feature: City of God (Fernando Merielles, 2002). Another great hood movie, City of God takes place in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, following a young man as he grows up and becomes involved with the criminal underworld while trying to get out of the slums and into a journalism career. Like Tsotsi, it doesn't bullshit the audience with easy answers. The protagonist, a young man called Rocket, has to make compromises to reach his happy ending alive. But again, the movie is all the more effective for its honesty.

16. Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonez, 2009)

Since this is a 2009 film, I was still pretty high on it when I put this list together. I had the feeling I was maybe putting it too high, but I went with my gut and kept it there, and now, two years later, I feel like I have it more or less in the right place. When I wrote about this film the day after I saw it, I talked a lot about what a good idea it was to not worry about being faithful to the letter of the text, but at the same time to be faithful to what I imagine is Spike Jonze's very personal experience of the book. WtWTA gives a very truthful account of the internal life of a certain kind of very sensitive child. Max is a wild, and somewhat troubled kid. He gets very excited in play, and sometimes gets too rough, but when things get tough, he bursts into tears. He has all these emotions running through him, and he's not really able to express or deal with them yet. Some of these have to do with being a child of divorce (which isn't presented as the kind of soul-destroying horror it sometimes is in films, but its clear that he feels a little rejected and lonely) and with having a sister who he was once very close to but is now a teenager with her own life that Max isn't a part of. Max is afraid, he's lonely, he's fragile. It's not that his life is horrible--it's rather average--but learning how to deal with life is just never easy.

Max deals with his emotions through storytelling and make-believe, as is demonstrated in an early scene with his mom (Katherine Keener, who really gives a fantastic performance here--I think most filmmakers instinct would have been to cast the mother as a strict disciplinarian, but in Jonze's film, she's a very loving, patient woman dealing with a very difficult son). And that's the key to this whole film. Throughout Max's time on the Island of the Wild Things, his interactions with the various beasts all seem to reflect his emotional state. Each monster has emotions that reflect Max's, or relate to Max or to each other in ways that reflect his real-life relationships.

The more I think about this film, the more I realize how much I identify with Max. You could say that Spike Jonze is doing more than just adapting Maurice Sendak. He's interpreting, explicating, Sendak's book, and what it means to its young readers. There's a quote from Spike where he mentions being approached by a woman who had loved the book as a kid. “When our parents got it for us, they didn’t really know what it meant," she told him. "But we knew what it meant."


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