Monday, March 22, 2010

Top 100 Films Of The Decade: 20-11

20. An Education
(2009) Lone Sherfig - UK

This is one of those films where the beauty is in the details. The story itself isn't particularly new, but it's the way it's told that matters. It's about Jenny, a young British girl who, for the most part, is a model student and preparing to go on to Oxford. Along the way though, she meets a man who seduces her by showing her the world outside of what she's learned about in textbooks.

As Jenny, Carey Mulligan is absolutely charming and effortlessly believable in the role.She exudes such a natural charisma and likability, and in her hands, Jenny is an easy character to relate to. And as her suitor, Peter Sarsgaard nails a deceptively tricky role, and the rest of the ensemble cast is pretty damn terrific too. And much credit also goes to Nick Hornsby (who wrote About A Boy and High Fidelity) for taking a story that might have seemed run-of-the-mill and making it feel fresh through incredible wit (the film is unexpectedly quite funny at times). Though I though 2009 was a fairly disappointing year for film, this one was the one I kept thinking back to the most and was a pretty easy choice for my favorite film of the year.

19. Persepolis
(2007) Marjane Satrapi - France

Based on her graphic novels, Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical tale about her childhood in Iran during the fall of the Shah, her school years in Europe and subsequent return to Iran is funny and stylish while not shying away from the horrors of what took place during those years.

While you may see more impressive animation from a technical standpoint, the simple hand drawn black and white animation employed here is no less striking. The film is incredibly faithful to the novels, retelling key moments in her formative years, which can be awfully disturbing at times while proving remarkably relatable at others. It's animation that's aimed squarely at adults and it was probably the most fulfilling animated film of the decade. And of special note for the subtitle averse... on the DVD, you can watch it either in French with English subtitles or you can watch it with English dubbing. While I'm not typically a fan of dubbing, it works just fine for this film.

18. Dear Zachary: A Letter To A Son About His Father
(2008) Kurt Kuenne - USA

I mentioned earlier how some of the decade's best documentaries weren't exactly the most well-made films and that would certainly apply here. Kuenne is a novice filmmaker and it shows. It felt as though he didn't trust his audience enough to recall earlier details of the story, and he goes back time and time again as if to say "See! I used foreshadowing there!" and these amateurish tricks are the sole reason this one doesn't rank higher for me.

However, few films tell a story as genuinely affecting as Dear Zachary. Kuenne's childhood best friend, Andrew Bagby, is found dead in a county park as the result of multiple gunshot wounds and all fingers point to the woman he recently left, Dr. Shirley Turner. She flees to Canada but is eventually charged with the crime and it comes out that Shirley is pregnant with Andrew's child.

So, Kuenne begins the film as a tribute to his friend, interviewing Andrew's friends and family, so that when Zachary is older he has some way of getting to know the father he never met. The focus of the film changes though as circumstances with the case evolve. I hate to say much more than that, as I think you really need to see it for yourself. But by the time the credits rolled, I was so seething with rage I couldn't see straight. As far as I'm concerned, Mr. and Mrs. Bagby, Andrew's parents, are worthy of sainthood. As for Shirley Turner... think of all the horrible words you could use to describe a woman and finding that none of them adequately reflect the hatred you feel. It almost begs you to invent a new word. You might find that harsh, but once you see the film.... trust me, you'll understand.

(2002) Paul Greengrass - UK

While I think many of us grew up seeing the violence in Northern Ireland on television and singing along with U2 ("broken bottles under children's feet, bodies strewn across the dead end streets"), I don't know how many of us were acquainted with the events of January 30, 1972, when the English military opened fire on a peaceful rights protest, leaving 14 unarmed protesters dead, and drastically changing the atmosphere in Northern Ireland for decades to come.

While the Irish Republican Army was certainly in existence beforehand, the event served as a catalyst for the bloodshed that would later occur, driving many to enlist since a peaceful resolution seemed impossible. Greengrass films the story in a way that almost makes it feel like it was a documentary, and his interest in depicting momentous historical turning points without a heavy hand has made him one of the more fascinating filmmakers of the decade.

(2003-2004) Quentin Tarantino - USA

I think this one, for me, is hands down the coolest film of the decade )they might have been separated out into Volume 1 and Volume 2 for theatrical release, but I consider it all one movie). Tarantino's love of 70's schlock has never been incorporated into one of his films more effectively and his ability to pair music to images works perfectly here.
From the knife fight at Vernita's house to the showdown with O-Ren Ishii and the Crazy 88's in Japan all the way through to the Daryl Hannah beatdown in Budd's trailer, this one's three and a half hours of pure joy from beginning to end, complete with memorable villains and over-the-top violence. A very, very bloody good time.

15. A Lion In The House
(2006) Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert - USA

In a complete gear shift, A Lion In The House is likely to be among the most grueling experiences you can imagine, but so incredibly rewarding for those who seek it out. It's not easy material: it's a documentary that follows five families coping with pediatric cancer over a six-year period.

While I think we can all imagine how horrible of an experience this would be for a family, The Lion In The House is pretty remarkable for how detailed and expansive the stories are. You learn about the experience from every angle: the children themselves and the pain they endure, the parents who are forced to make incredibly difficult choices about their child's treatment plan, the siblings who are shuffled to the back burner while the parents' attention is devoted to their sick child, the medical providers who come to know these children, bond with them, watch them suffer, and sometimes lose them. It gives you tremendous insight into what these families live through, and while it wasn't be the easiest way to spend four hours, I feel like a much better and more empathic for having learned about these families and their struggles.

(2003) Sofia Coppola - USA

What I think I love about this film and why I identify with it is that it really spoke to those situations in life where I've felt a little bit like the outsider. And in Coppola's film, Charlotte, who's left alone in her Tokyo hotel most of the time while her husband is working very much feels like an outsider. She's immersed in a city she doesn't know, a culture she doesn't belong to, a language she doesn't understand.

And then she meets Bill Murray's character, Bob, and things click. While I've heard some feel it's a romantic spark or about a deep friendship, I think it's more about the kinship you feel when you discover someone else stuck in the same boat. You may not have a lot of things in common, but in that fleeting instant, you finally have someone who can relate to you in some way. I got the sense that Bob and Charlotte wouldn't likely ever meet again or keep in touch after the part ways. But for that brief moment in time, it's just great to have someone. And I don't think I've seen that sort of relationship really portrayed on screen so well. It's not about love, lust, or deep friendship. Sometimes, it's just about the comfort of not being alone.

(2006) Isabel Coixet - Spain

Like the film itself, the main character, Hanna, is very guarded. We know right off the bat that there is a story there, but she's slow to reveal it. We know few details about her outside of the fact that she is an immigrant who wears a hearing aid and she selectively turns it off when she wants to ignore the world around her.
She takes a volunteer nursing job and is flown out to an offshore oil rig where we learn there has been a tragic accident that has essentially stopped the rig from functioning. One man perished and another man, Josef, is severely injured and he is the man Hanna is brought in to care for. The two could not be any more different: he's talkative and borderline obnoxious, while she's very sparing with her words and distrustful. But they both share a painful past and secrets they carry that they're ashamed of.
When we finally learn Hanna's story, it's one of the most devastating monologues I've seen delivered in any decade. And in delivering this 12-minute speech, Sarah Polley is tremendous. In most films when an actress is given a scene like this, it's fodder for screeching and wailing in hopes of getting their Oscar clip. Here though, Polley plays Hanna as a woman who is swearing she's going to keep it together and that she will not let her resolve crumble, and it was a remarkable scene, especially considering how absolutely horrific the details of her story are. And in that scene, Tim Robbins (an actor I've never much cared for) quietly reacts to her story perfectly.
It's not going to be everyone's cup of tea, but I thought it was incredibly moving and thought-provoking.

(2006) Fran├žois Ozon - France

It's interesting that I have a difficult time summing up all the reasons I like this film in just a few short paragraphs despite the fact that it's a fairly simple story with a running time of about 1:25. I think it's in part because it brings a fresh perspective to a film about terminal illness. The main character, Romain is a bit of an ass, and learning of his impending fate doesn't really change that. Instead of finding a heart of gold and finding redemption, he only further isolates himself from those around him, tells no one but his grandmother of his diagnosis, and opts to spend most of his remaining time alone.
It's also partly because I think it's impeccably acted by everyone involved. As Romain, Melvil Poupaud turns in one of my favorite performances of the decade. Jeanne Moreau has always been a treasure in French cinema, and she continues to prove why here. And Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi is one of those actresses who can say more with a quick shift of her eyes than most can say with two pages of script in front of them. The final scene at the beach is one of the most perfect endings of the decade for me. Like the film, it's rather simple, but I thought it was quite brilliant.
(2005) Gregg Araki - USA
I've never been a fan of Araki's films. They've always come off as trashy, amateurish, and just sort of ridiculous to me. So, despite positive reviews, I went into this one expecting very little, and was shocked at how resonant and thoughtful it was.
It focuses on two young men, both severely damaged, but with a shared past: back when they were 8 years old, the two boys were molested by their baseball coach. Now on the brink of adulthood, one of the guys, Neil, can't forget what happened to him; the other, Brian, has blocked the memory but knows that something very, very wrong happened and in time convinces himself that all of these things are the result of an alien abduction. It's a fascinating look at how one horrific shared event can destroy two lives and yet send them on such wildly divergent paths. While Araki's Smiley Face left me with little hope that he'd continue to make great films, I'll take the fluke, since one great film is more than I'm ever likely to make.

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