Monday, March 22, 2010

Top 100 Films Of The Decade: 10-1

10. The Wrestler
(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.

8. Requiem For A Dream
(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.

I actually loved the casting here. Not only were Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet an interesting match, it was interesting to see Carrey cast as someone so serious, while Winslet, who at the time was mostly known for period pieces, playing the free-spirit wild child with blue hair. It was almost as though the traits we associated with each actor were switched for these parts.
The film finds a wildly inventive way to tell a universal story and I can't imagine anyone not adoring the crap out of this movie.

(2003) Andrew Jarecki - USA

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.
The Friedmans were a seemingly average Jewish family living in the suburbs of Long Island and they were a particularly tight-knit group. That is until the image of the perfect family got shattered to pieces when the father and the youngest son are arrested on allegations that they were molesting the children who attended the computer tutoring sessions Mr. Friedman gave in the family basement. And what ensues tears the family apart.

Once we learn of the allegations, we get varying accounts... former students describing what happened and other students contradicting those stories. Investigators who worked the case detailing the evidence they uncovered and accounts that the investigators badgered the students with leading questions and accusing the children of hiding things. And one part of what makes this film interesting is that it doesn't try to lead you in any particular direction. You've quite likely to have an opinion, but then again, apply the standard to which jurors are held.. can you say for certain that Arnold and Jesse Friedman are guilty without a shadow of a doubt? And even if you feel that the father is guilty, is the son guilty by association?
But what makes this film really compelling is that one of the family's hobbies was making home movies, and they recorded practically everything that happened during that time. And when the mother (who's more just hopelessly naive, than anything else) expresses a feeling that she doesn't quite know what to believe, the sons all turn on her for not sticking up for her husband and her son. And the bitter arguments you witness as you slowly watch this family self-implode are so unbearably uncomfortable to watch because they feel like private moments that you shouldn't be watching. Have you ever been at a couple's home and it's just you and them, and then they get into a huge argument, and it's just you standing there, not knowing what to say and wanting to slink away unnoticed? I felt that way when I watched these moments that I shouldn't be watching.

Now, I can understand why people would sit back and wonder why I'd find this to be a good thing. It's because I think cinema, at its most powerful, should provoke you. It should make you question. And it should make you react. I like films that engage me as a viewer, no matter how it manages to do it. And this one managed to provoke me like few others.

(2005) Michael Haneke - France

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.

The story here involves a couple who begin to receive mysterious deliveries. Vieotapes of their house under surveillance. Primitive, cryptic drawings. Any way you slice it, it would just be unnerving to have stuff like this show up at our door without explanation. Paranoia soon sets in, and wreaks havoc. Haneke's films prove difficult to write about when you don't want to say too much, so I'll stop at the basic premise here.
As for why this particular film lands so far up the ladder, I'd say that it's because of all his films, it's the one that seems the most tightly focused, the one that delivers the amongst the biggest jolts I encountered over the past decade, and the one that delivers the most concentrated dread.

(2002) Pedro Almodóvar - Spain

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.

I missed this one back when it opened in early 2003, so I caught it on DVD, and had you told me immediately after watching it that it end up being my favorite movie of the decade, I probably would have thought you were high. Not that I didn't like it, but it wasn't one that necessarily had an immediate impact. I thought it was an interesting story about two men who were both coping with the women in their lives being braindead. I appreciated the fact that the impressions I had of the characters at the beginning were turned on it's head by the end of the film. I was certainly impressed with it.

But, it lingered for me. So, I checked it back out from Netflix again, and I uncovered new layers. I started seeing Benigno and Marco as representing the spectrum of the way in which men cope with tragedy: one extremely emotional, the other putting on the brave face. I ended up buying the DVD, and reading into it in yet a different way: seeing how having faith in miracles and holding onto hope just might make a difference, and it made me think of it in a much more spiritual way. The next time, I focused on how that spectrum of emotion I saw earlier doesn't mean that the emotions men show or hide make them any stronger or weaker.

I've watched it at least a dozen times now, and some new perspective reveals itself each time I've tackled it. The reason why I want to call this the best film of the decade it because now I see all these things. With each time I watched the film, a new layer revealed itself, and with so many layers on display now, I see such a multifacted story that I just can't compare it to anything else I've seen this past decade. I honestly can't recall a film that has compelled me to revisit it so many times, or a film that allowed me to take something new away from it with so many viewings. I can only hope that the decade that lies ahead brings at least one film so fulfilling.

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