(2008) Darren Aronofsky - USA
When the film opens, director Darren Aronofsky opts an interesting approach to introducing you to his film’s protagonist, Randy “The Ram” Robinson. It begins in the ring, and follows him through the drab corridors of the third-rate arena in which the fight took place, all the while focused on the back of The Ram’s head and the mane of long, wavy, dyed blonde hair that cascades down his back. It’s a good five minutes before you see The Ram’s face. But, when you finally see The Ram’s face, it tells a story, and you see what the years of abusing his body has done to him.
And while the opening credit sequence suggests what The Ram once was, you see the man as he is now. Long gone are the days of superstardom, and now he lives out of a trailer park, or at least when he can afford to pay the rent. Other nights are spent sleeping in his van during the chilly New Jersey winters. And the man you see now, is a washed up shell of a man who has few real skills who has nothing left to offer the world. He toils away as a stocker at a grocery store (and endures the constant mockery from his boss) while spending his weekends on the wrestling circuit desperately trying to hold on to the only thing he knows. And rather than focusing on priorities like rent, much of his time and money is spent on keeping up appearances with tanning sessions, salon appointments, and a regimen of performance enhancing drugs.
The Ram is a fascinatingly flawed character, but at the same time, incredibly human. And once you see Mickey Rourke in this role, it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the part (especially since Nicholas Cage was the rumored replacement). And while it may be tempting to think that Rourke is simply playing a variation of himself, it’s more that Rourke has a history where he can bring something to this character that someone lacking that life experience could never hope to bring. In my opinion, everything you’ve heard about Rourke is true, and then some. For me, I found this to be a perfect marriage between an actor and a role that I’ve not seen since Hillary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry or Emily Watson in Breaking The Waves.
I also found Marisa Tomei's character to be just as fascinating, and I think her stripper Cassidy is essential to the film's success. While she's resistant to be close, in her The Ram finds a kindred spirit who is also in the business of selling her body under a stage persona. The characters are both what society might describe as losers, but you can't help but to root for these two incredibly endearing losers the whole time.
9. Bad Education
(2004) Pedro Almodóvar - Spain
Kind of amusing, and probably only to me, but I've started writing about this movie a few times, deleted it, started over, and deleted it again. So, I figured I'd try to see what Roger Ebert wrote. I don't always agree with his opinions, but I like how he writes. And, here's how he opened his review:
I've just thrown out the first 500 words of my review and am starting again with a sense of joy and release. I was attempting to describe the plot of "Bad Education." It was quicksand, and I was sinking fast. You and I have less than 1,000 words to spend together discussing this fascinating film, and not only would the plot take up half of that, but if I were by some miracle to succeed in making it clear, that would only diminish your pleasure. (You can click on the title for Ebert's far more expertly written piece)
So, it seems I'm not alone in feeling that trying to explain the plot would be a largely fruitless endeavor. But I'll try to give you the vaguest of outlines, Almodóvar goes Hitchcock here in a story about two men who once had the beginnings of a young relationship as children, but were driven apart by a child-molesting priest. Years later, they're reunited in attempting to retell their childhood story. But there's some interesting secrets about what happened in the years between. There's a story within a story that causes a third one to unravel and all sorts of secrets come spewing out.
Trying to juggle dueling storylines in a thriller like this one seems to be more than some directors can manage (and hell, some can barely manage one), but to pull off three different stories in a labyrinth like this one turns out to be seems to come with ease for Almodóvar. And in pulling off three different roles, Gael García Bernal proves to be the real deal.
(2000) Darren Aronofsky - USA
While the title makes reference to dreams, what goes down in this one can only be equated to nightmares. But nightmares have never looked as stylish as they do here. A compelling look at addiction, the film follows four characters in their descent into hell. Harry, his best friend and his girlfriend slowly sink into the throes of heroin addiction until they're unable to escape its grasp.
Meanwhile, Harry's mother becomes addicted to diet pills, and her descent may be even more heartbreaking. While she has dreams of being on television, she disintegrates by subjecting herself to the extremes of what her body and her psyche can handle by ingesting a steady mix of uppers and downers.
The film is an assault on the senses - the visuals are hallucinogenic, the sound, thanks to a score by the Kronos Quartet is foreboding and crushing, and it's a completely devastating overload on the brain.
7. The Lives of Others
(2006) Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck - Germany
Appropriately set in 1984, the cultural elite of East Germany are, unbeknownst to them, subject to constant surveillance, with the government looking to seek out those who are deemed disloyal to the government.
And a playwright, Dreyman, and his girlfriend, Christa-Marie, are no different. Their home is bugged and their wires are tapped. The man listening in on them is a head investigator who is so well regarded at what he does that he's also an instructor on interrogation techniques. But there is a danger in getting too close to the subjects you're investigating.
Back in 2006, I saw this one down at the film festival I attend each year in Sarasota. Based on what was available, it looked like a pretty disappointing lineup, but not long before the tickets went on sale, the Oscars released the list of films that each country had submitted as their official selection for the foreign film Oscar, and I noticed there were quite a few playing at the festival, so I pretty much based my schedule around that, since there weren't a great number of films I was excited about in advance. I saw quite a few and they were okay, but it was shaping up to be a rather lackluster festival for me, and then this blew me away. I had no expectations going into it, and immediately after seeing it, I knew it would win the Oscar. It just felt like a film that had to (even though most prognostications were saying it would go to Pan's Labyrinth).
And while the foreign language branch of the Oscars lets me down time and time again and have proven to pretty much have their heads firmly implanted up their asses, this is the one time this decade that they got the absolute right choice.
6. Dancer In The Dark
(2000) Lars Von Trier - Denmark
I should start out by saying that I'm not particularly fond of musicals. I find them mostly corny and goofy, and utterly lacking in any sense of realism I tend to gravitate toward with my film preferences. So, even if the very notion of watching a musical makes you cringe, keep reading.
You're unlikely to see a musical that's so damn gritty. Icelandic singer Björk stars as Selma Jezkova, an immigrant (I want to say Czech, but I'm not 100% certain about that all these years later) who, because of a genetic disorder, is going blind. She realizes that there is little hope for saving her eyesight, but she's working to save up money to get her son a crucial operation to spare him from the same fate. Unlike me, Selma has a love for musicals, and in her blindness, her daydreams lead her to hear music in the mundane noises around her... the rhythmic noise of factory machinery, the bustling of a nearby train, etc. It's the fantasy world that she escapes to when things get difficult. As a side note, remember the infamous swan dress? That's when she showed up at the Oscars to perform the film's most memorable number, "I've Seen It All."
I don't think I'd be giving anything away here (since it's in the trailer I linked above), that she kills a cop out of mercy and is then put on trial for it. What follows is an absolutely damning condemnation on the justice system, that's absolutely heartwrenching.
One issue I'd also like to address here is about the perception of misogyny with Von Trier's films. His films often feature women as the protagonists who endure great hardship, abuse, and dire circumstances, often painting the women in his stories as victims. I can certainly understand the perception, but I also think that a case can be made for the fact that Von Trier identifies with these women and begs you too as well. I happen to fall on the latter side of that debate, but I think, as is the case with most great filmmaking, that the debate itself is half of what makes films like this so vital.
Even though it's been ten years, I remember everything about seeing this one. My friend Trevor and I saw it at the Tampa Theater, balcony seats,right in the center. We saw it, and sat in stunned silence a the credits rolled and in the car leaving the theater. We went to Bennigan's afterward and just endlessly discussed it. It's a draining film, but how many film experiences in a lifetime can you recall that vividly ten years afterward? That's the sort of film Dancer In the Dark was for me.
5. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
(2007) Cristian Mungiu - Romania
While most reviews or synopses you might read include the basic premise in the description, I'm going to follow the trailer's lead and not reveal what it is that the girls here are up to. I knew going into it, but I think that with the way the film plays out, there would have been an added level of mystery had I not been aware ahead of time. If you want to know ahead of time, a quick Google search on the title will satisfy that itch, but for what it's worth, I think it's a film that's best approached with as little foreknowledge as possible.
At the outset, we learn that in 1987, two Romanian college girls living under Ceauşescu's regime are about to do something dangerous and illegal. We don't know quite what that is, but we do know that it thrusts them into the world of shady characters and potential peril. What ensues is an enthrallingly tense film about these girls and their criminal act.
The tension really kicks off once the two girls have their hotel room with "Mr. Bebe," played with icy brilliance with Vlad Ivanov (Romania is one of the most fascinating outlets for film in the modern era, and he seems to be emerging as the best actor to come out of it). From there, the film is utterly genius in how intense it became and how it escalates with each frame. Even though I know what happens in the film, I've watched it a few times since, and that tension is still very much alive on subsequent viewings. And I've not seen many films be able to pull off that achievement. If you want to see why Romania is at the forefront of world cinema these days, watch this one. It's friggin' amazing.
4. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
(2004) Michel Gondry - USA
A fascinatingly original film. Joel and Clementine have broken up and it's bitter and nasty and then Joel learns that Clementine underwent a procedure to permanently erase Joel from her memory. Out of spite, Joel goes to the clinic to undergo the same procedure and to eliminate any trace of Clementine. And the film takes us backwards through their relationship (the procedure works best, we're told, if the freshest memories are erased first). We see the fighting and the pettiness eventually give way to the times when everything was perfect and Joel decides that he doesn't want to let go of those memories. Physically, he's unconscious and unable to stop the procedure, but subconsciously, Joel fights to keep his memories of Clementine alive.
The best documentary of the decade, without question. And interestingly enough, it started out with the director having an innocuous documentary in mind, focusing on children's birthday clowns in New York City. That is, until he learned of one clown's backstory, and the sweet little film about clowns was out the window.
As I mentioned before, Haneke is an interesting director. I find his films challenging, interesting, and unconventional in the sense that he knows what you, as a moviegoer, have come to expect, and he withholds it. He's the master at taking audience expectations for clean resolutions and disregarding that. If you want your films wrapped up at the end with a pretty little bow, you're barking up the wrong tree with his films.
I'm not always the best at translating my gut feeling about why I like something so strongly into words (and trust me, taking on this project was kind of overwhelming in that regard). I just figured that it would be less interesting if I threw 100 titles out there that were arbitrarily ranked. So, I guess it comes time for me to articulate why this one, more than the other 977 films I saw from the past decade stood out for me the most. So, here is my best attempt.