Friday, December 25, 2009

YMD and Friends Film Bonanza part 6

Charles has provided his own intro and his list is hella long so I won't say much. Dammit, I just said "much" didn't I? Take it away, Chuckles!

I will make no pretenses about this: I have seen every single film made in the past 10 years. Also, at the beginning of the decade I was the smartest 14 year-old who ever lived, and so all of my judgments dating back to 2000 are not only valid, but gospel. The following list is not the half thought out opinion of some Rotten Tomatoes surfing nincompoop; there’s real genius and science in these 10 picks! This is not one man’s opinion, but the empirical facts based on the Formula of Excellence I developed during my time at Fordham where I majored in Communications and cemented my status as “Expert”:

Formula of Excellence:
(Laffs x Tears)Memorable Quotes – input from George Lucas = Greatness 
Remember your PEMDAS kids, enjoy. 

1. Ratatouille dir. Brad Bird and Jan Pinkava (2007)
No filmmaker, or group of filmmakers, had a better decade in the aughts than the wizards at Pixar did. In the past ten years, their films have become more sophisticated both in terms of technical achievement, visual approach, theme and narrative, all while maintaining Pixar’s status as a commercial juggernaut. While Finding Nemo was more lucrative, and WALL-E and Up were more ambitious, Ratatouille remains both their most charming and daring film. Creator Jan Pinkava’s bizarre but brilliant combination of Gallic gourmet and traditional anthropomorphic kid’s flick proved to create a story fit for the most discerning of cinema gormandizers as well as the milquetoast millions in America’s heartland. And that’s not even mentioning the beauty of the finely rendered animation, which saw Pixar again, setting the gold standard for everyone else to gawk at.

2. Man Push Cart dir. Ramin Bahrani (2006)
With Roger Ebert soundly in his corner, director-writer-producer Ramin Bahrani should be the next-big-thing in American independent cinema. Man Push Cart, Bahrani’s remarkable debut delves head-first into straight-up tough luck neorealism. The movie tells the simple and heartbreaking story of Ahmad, the titular Pakistani coffee cart owner’s, daily trials and tribulations in New York. Throughout the film, Bahrani utilizes both acting non-actors and hidden camera work on the streets of Manhattan to capture Ahmad’s Sisyphean daily work with maximum authenticity, and the results are nothing short of heartbreaking. While the prestige-film market has been flooded with similar bleeding heart poverty adventures (see Crash, Slumdog Millionaire, and Precious), this film’s lack of any sentimentality or contrived poetic overtones makes this movie uniquely radical in the aughts, even if historically it’s been done. Not to mention the fact that in the decade of Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist and Whatever Works, this movie is the best and most honest “New York” film of the past ten years. 

3. The 40 Year Old Virgin dir. Judd Apatow (2005)
This film is Judd Apatow’s directorial debut and the first installment in the “sensitive dick joke movie” genre he practically invented. Apatow’s fingerprints have been all over mainstream film comedy in the second half of the decade, and we, the moviegoers, have been all the better off for it. Unafraid to scrape the lowest depths of crass humor and come up with skuzzy nuggets of laffs, The 40 Year Old Virgin, gives itself 117 minutes (133 mins un-cut) to tell the relatively simple story about how a loser gets laid late in life. Going wherever it pleases, the film feels so natural and so improvised that it’s hard not to get caught up in the easy going good times that the cast itself seems to be having with the material. This freewheeling spirit makes the movie’s awesome two-hour cocktail of poop ‘n’ jizz jokes go down easy (gross), and the movie’s big soft heart makes it worth remembering at the end of the decade.

4. Inglourious Basterds dir. Quentin Tarantino (2009)
There are many, many reasons why this should absolutely not be on this list. That being said, it’s on here because of my perverse hope that Tarantino’s gleefully debauched epic will be the final word on WWII movies forever. Basterds' gruesome combination of Holocaust drama, classic exploitation film, and war flick begs the viewer a single, unavoidable question: what’s the difference between this movie’s awesome and unrepentant anti-Nazi savagery, and Saving Private Ryan’s awards show ploy? Both exploit historical feelings we have about Nazis and the war and both use that dark period for equally crass ends. The difference between this movie and, say, The Reader, The Boy In the Striped Pyjamas, or Flags of our Fathers is that Basterds is honest and upfront about its intentions. While studios will most likely still turn to the war and the Holocaust as fodder to be glossed over and dramatized for award show prestige, Inglourious Basterds offers up hope that maybe we’ve come full circle when it comes to the first half of the 1940s. Simply put, WWII movies (and big name prestige movies in general) are the cinema du papa of our generation, and the cinema is lucky enough to have Tarantino wake up from his lame Grindhouse coke binge long enough to be an iconoclast again. 

5. The Royal Tenenbaums dir. Wes Anderson (2001)
I wasn’t going to put this on my list, only because I thought it was made in the 90s, then stupid MetaCritic had to bring me back to reality (whoops there goes gravity! Sorry, 00s). Wes Anderson’s epic ode to family dysfunction and self-absorption is handsomely shot, smartly written and brilliantly acted (as you all know), and this film represents the height of Anderson’s style, which over the course of his next two films (The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited) fell into self-parody. I still think of Anderson as an important filmmaker, even if his bookish twee style has been hijacked by lesser minds in this decade (I’m looking at you Dave Eggers). But the novel like sprawl of Anderson’s miniaturist vision and the overwhelming number of memorable and well defined characters (not to mention a really top notch performance from Gene Hackman) keep the quirks engaging throughout the entire film. And did I mention this helped inspire Arrested Development? I rest my case.

6. Persepolis dir. Vincent Paronnaud and Marjan Satrapi
The release of this movie and Ratatouille made 2007 a great year for animated features. Written and directed by Iranian refugee (and all around awesome human being) Marjan Satrapi, this movie is an important telling of one girl’s coming of age in the context of political and social upheaval in late 20th Century Iran. Gloriously rendered in stylish black and white animation (which would strongly influence the animated portions of 2008's excellent Waltz With Bashir), this film is an important reminder of the humanity behind the political and social struggles in the Middle East that have virtually defined this decade. While this film can claim the dubious title of the most epic and blood soaked buildungsroman of the aughts, Persepolis is never less than utterly charming and personal, keeping its lofty commentary on the history of a conflicted region leavened with Satrapi’s unique sense of humor and compelling life story.

7. Mr. Deeds dir. Steven Brill (2002)
Since hyperbole has just run wild all over this list, let me cap you off with this: Mr. Deeds is the finest and most important statement on how Americans view class since Alger Hiss wrote Ragged Dick (or at least since Caddyshack). While all of Adam Sandler’s comedies have the subtext of class conflict (Happy Gilmore’s hockey player running amok in the golf world, or Billy Madison’s doofy slacker in competition with white collar businessmen), Mr. Deeds proves that reducing the rich to puerile caricatures of themselves will still drive the Great Unwashed to the multi-plexes, even in this Ayn Rand sponsored decade of malicious greed. The film, a remake of a Frank Capra’s doe-eyed Americana classic is loaded with insight on how America looks at class. In Mr. Deeds’ world, the moneyed strata of society is a loud and brash group of urban people, who love to stick their noses in the air and go to the opera, simply put: in the world of Longfellow Deeds, Donald Trump is the richest man in America. The villain of the film, played by Peter Gallagher’s eyebrows, is a snickering bag of pretension and dickishness, and a perfect encapsulation of this films 2-D look at that particular strata of society. By the end of the decade, red faced tea baggers and millions of broke and unemployed Americans have reminded us all that class remains a misunderstood and potent issue in America, and a film like Mr. Deeds is a cold reminder as to why the masses so often got it wrong in the aughts.

8. Taxi to the Dark Side dir. Alex Gibney (2008)
More hyperbole: this is the best and most important documentary made in the decade. This harrowing film, written, produced and directed by Alex Gibney, the son of a Navy interrogator, chronicles America’s descent in to pure evil following 9/11. This movie is deeply disturbing on many levels, complete with heart breaking interviews, stomach-souring uncensored photos and well researched and tastefully applied accusations of straight up war crimes, this film qualifies for consideration to be our generation’s Night and Fog. While a lesser film would have taken this material as a jumping off point for a left wing anti-Bush screed, Taxi to the Dark Side lets the images and facts speak for themselves, making the movie’s ultimate argument against the savage neo-cons shameful conduct in the past nine years all the more compelling. Several other excellent documentaries have tried to intellectually tackle the insanity of our country’s response to 9/11 (honorable mention going out to Frontline’s Bush’s War, and Eugene Jarecki’s Why We Fight), but none have the visceral power of this film. Every American ought to sit through this film once in their adult lifetime, as a reminder of what we’ve done and what we continue to do to people abroad.

9. The Man Who Wasn’t There dir. Joel Coen (2001)
The Coen brothers have spent most of the aughts oscillating between deep existential thinkers (No Country for Old Men, A Serious Man, this movie) and screwball comedies (Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers, O Brother Where Art Thou? etc), in other words it’s been brilliant business as usual for these two weirdos. That being said, at no point this decade have they been as brilliant, funny, depressing or aesthetically poignant as 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There. The Coen brother’s strong grasp of irony and quirky screenwriting sensibilities make this bleak film resemble a comedy at points, allowing them to squeeze every bit of existential dread that they can from the conventional film noir plot, while simultaneously entertaining and thrilling their audience. Not since Barton Fink have the Coen brothers created such an endearingly clueless protagonist as the laconic barber Ed Crane (played brilliantly by Billy Bob Thorton). Unlike Fink, however, Thorton’s Crane is a born loser, a man who isn’t all there to begin with, a man whose stony demeanor and deadpan interactions with everyone indicates that despite his desperate and ill-thought out attempts at escaping his dreary existence, he, more so than anyone else in the film, understands how hopeless his situation really is. Beautifully shot (in color and then converted to black and white, though you’d never know), wonderfully acted, and perfectly written, The Man Who Wasn’t There stands as the best work this decade by these two supremely awesome filmmakers.

10. 28 Days Later dir. Danny Boyle (2003)

Danny Boyle virtually rewrote the rules of the low-budget zombie genre in 2002: make the zombies run! Who knew?! Slap on some digital shakey-cam for maximum post-apocalyptic verisimilitude while you’re at it and sure enough, you’ve got yourself a winner. While horror as a genre has wallowed in remake ‘n’ pastiche purgatory this decade, 28 Days Later stands out as a real achievement in a subgenre that’s effectively been dead since Tom Savini gave up on life, and George Romero’s movies got more bone-headed and pretentious than his pony-tail. That being said, the 28 Days-style has suffered from the law of diminishing returns this decade, with lesser talents using the aesthetic for increasingly tired films. Ultimately, this film is the zombie film of the decade (despite George Romero’s best, ugh, efforts), and while super low budget films like Bruce McDonald’s awesomely post-modern Pontypool may point the way to the future of the genre, it’s important to remember the excitement that this fine film once offered us all, you know, when we were like 16.

Honorable mention:

Korean cinema.


Peter Mullin said...

Your honorable mention lacks pretension.

Megan said...

Alger Hiss? Horatio Alger, maybe? In any event, I've just added Mr. Deeds to my Netflix queue. This would never have happened if not for this post. Thanks for the notice.