It’s no surprise Terrence Malick produced David Gordon Green's mythological road picture, about two brothers on the run from a greed-obsessed uncle (who may be their father, too), Undertow. His influences are just as evident here as the influence of Night of the Hunter, and it’s refreshing to see another filmmaker, who like Malick, doesn’t just film something beautiful for beauty’s sake. There is a purpose to cinematographer Tim Orr’s shots, and even though they are beautifully framed and conceived, they aren’t showy, blow-away shots that exist only to draw attention to how good the filmmakers are. These are shots that are designed to evoke mood – visually-poetic conceits that conjure up the danger and horrors found in the original Brothers Grimm stories – shots that always tell us something about the narrative, and help move the story along. Undertow is a refreshing thriller that embraces the ethereal qualities found in myths or fables, giving the viewer great locations (the opening six minuets of the film, the junkyard where Chris (Jaime Bell) and his brothers seek refuge) that are feasts for the eyes, and scenes of surprising warmth (the scene where Chris finds out that two waifish girls have tried to steal his coins, and instead of lunging at them in anger, he looks upon them with empathy as if to say: “we come from the same place”.) that showcase Green’s narrative skills in addition to his extremely creative and poetic eye. Undertow is David Gordon Green’s masterpiece.
What is it to dream? It's frustrating and elusive...it's frustrating because it's elusive, and yet somehow David Lynch was able to make tangible the intangible, to make thinkable the unthinkable with his dreamy, intertextual, and multi-layered neo-noir Mulholland Drive. Much has been discussed about the film in the blogosphere, and nary a soul exists anymore that doesn't know the clues to unlocking the film's secret; however, for the sake of brevity (I could write pages about this film, that's how much is packed into it) I will simply say this: to make a film that confuses and baffles, but thrills the hell out of you -- both aesthetically and narratively -- enough to make you want to go and devour a second and third helping of the film is a fete to not to be dismissed. I think the film is Lynch's masterpiece as intricately weaves together elements of old Hollywood, filmmaking, Jungian theory, and a good old fashioned noir story about jealousy. It's a special film because I still vividly remember my initial experience with this film in the theater, and how shaken and warped my mind felt. And I remember popping the DVD in on my third or fourth viewing to look for the clues and I remember being thrilled to see Lynch not give the film DVD chapters, which seemed appropriate since our dreams don't have chapters to them to help make our remembering of things convenient.
This film is real. Painfully real, and as intense as any detective story or conventional thriller. The film, about two roommates during the final years of a Communist regime in Romania who must deal with the horrifying ramifications of an illegal abortion, is so much more than its uber real aesthetic would lead you to believe. One scene really stands out: the dinner scene . The scene involves Otilia -- one of the main characters who is helping her friend Gabriela get the abortion -- visiting her family for her mom's birthday and gathering around the table with them for dinner. During the dinner Otilia is disengaged because of what she has just helped Gabriela "accomplish", and as her family engages in frivolous banter the scene takes on an added weight because we know what Otilia is feeling. The scene is shot in your basic medium shot, but Mungiu crams as much of her family into the frame as possible to give the viewer the sense of Otilia's being swallowed up by the absurdity of their conversation. The film is masterful in its use of minimalist aesthetics, especially towards the end where the sound of a light switch being turned on and the sound of a light in the bathroom flickering is as frightening and intense as anything from a horror film. The restraint throughout the film to use natural sound and not rely on a soundtrack to ratchet up emotions and tell the viewer how to feel makes for a much more intense experience. There is no manipulating of emotions here with music cues or camera trickery. And the power of the final moments are something that I won't be able to shake for a long while. As the two friends sit at a dinner table the sad irony of the final moments, and the dreadful quiet they sit in, engulfs the viewer and the filmmakers ask us to contemplate the events we just witnessed...and as Otilia looks to the camera we can't but think that Mungiu and co. are asking us: "Well, what you do?" An ambiguous ending to a morally ambiguous film that offers up a difficult scenario without any easy resolutions. This is the bravest kind of filmmaking, and the premier example of why Romanian churned out some of the most interesting films of the decade. I can't wait to see what comes out of Romania in the next 10 years.
Reminiscent of Federico Fellini's brilliant blend of reality and dream, Guillermo Del Toro's fantasy/war film is one of the best meldings of the fantastical and the horrifyingly real. Del Toro's highly innovative and imaginative tale about young Ofilia being forced to move with her mother to the "general's" house during post Civil War Spain in 1944 is both a tragic tale of growing out of your imagination and realizing the horrors of the real world, and an atmospheric fantasy/horror film where Ofilia tries to unlike the mystery of Pan's (a faun she meets who tells her that she is the princess of the underworld) labyrinth; a hedge maze outside of the general's mansion. The film brilliantly cuts back and forth between the very real narrative of radicals in the war fighting the fascists, and Ofilia's adventures in the labyrinth; both come to a tragic conclusion inside the maze as Ofilia learns that her game that has distracted her from the horrors of her real life has become all too real. Del Toro names Fellini's 8 1/2 as a major influence on one of the DVD specials to the film, and the otherworldly fantasy sequences are clear examples of a young director standing on the shoulders of giants and taking their influence and creating something that is wholly original and theirs. The beautiful cinematography and the haunting score add to the experience of a film that blindsides you with its power because you think you're getting one kind of film, but it turns out to be something completely unexpected.
I think Roger Ebert said it best when he reviewed The Son upon its 2003 theatrical release: “All a critic can bring to it is admiration. It needs no insight or explanation.” So, what else is there to say then? If I say the film is brilliant, then how is it brilliant? That’s the thing about the films of the Dardenne Brothers, it’s not so much how it is brilliant – the aesthetics are your typical (seemingly) simple minimalist tactics: over the shoulder, voyeuristic tight shots, and long takes with no musical score to tap us on the shoulder and tell us it’s time to feel something – it’s the why that makes it different. The Dardenne’s make films about something. They rely on the audiences expectations that something has to happen, and then revel in letting things just play out with a total disregard for how popular film and television have trained us to see a scene. The Dardenne’s look at their subjects with the precision of an expert artisan; they measure, assay, and then proudly display to us their findings. And Ebert’s right, all one can do is show their admiration, because really, what filmmakers trust their audiences enough to understand that it is in the small, quiet moments of the banality of everyday life where the most profound truths can be discovered. I've used this expression a lot in this countdown (and I'll use it again a few spots down the list), but this is the perfect example of the type of film that can elevate your soul to a new place and truly change the way you look at life.
Quentin Tarantino's exhaustive epic is a love song to the genre he loved most growing up. The film is not just a revenge film; not is it merely a pastiche of Tarantino's favorite kung-fu and gridnhouse films; rather, Kill Bill is an amazing example of the genius and ability of Tarantino to take such a niche genre and make it universally appealing. That's the talent (and the charm) of Tarantino. Uma Thurman's portrayal of The Bride -- a woman hellbent on revenge after her old hit squad buddies left her for dead on her wedding day -- is one of the best of the decade. The first volume of the series is pure action. A wonderfully entertaining action experience that has great set pieces, interesting aesthetics (his switch to anime for one sequence is inspired), and buckets of blood. It's also great in establishing the Spaghetti Western motifs that Tarantino is indebted to here. The second volume is where this epic film really shines. Every chapter of volume two is some of Tarantino's greatest moments: The opening flashback to the wedding (in beautiful black and white), the burial scene (and the detail to sound during that scene; the way he briefly switches to 16mm to give the scene the appropriate claustrophobic feel), Pai Mai training Bee, Bud getting bit by a snake with "gargantuan" results, Elle getting her eye plucked, Bee finding out her daughter is still alive, Bill's monologue about the mythology of Superman (one of Tarantino's best bits of writing, and David Carradine's best bit of acting), and the final showdown. But the scene that stands out the most to me -- and the moment where you can see the maturation of Tarantino as a filmmaker -- is the very end with Bee on the bathroom floor weeping and laughing in a state of disbelief (disbelief that Bill is dead, that her daughter is back, that she's a mother now) that it's all over. Tarantino films the scene high-up with a bird's eye showing Bee clutching a stuffed animal in laughing/crying in the fetal position. She won. Her arduous journey is over, and after having experienced it with her the audience can exhale for the first time, too. Volume 2 is the only film to get me to see it twice in the same day upon its theatrical release...so sure each volume can be watched separately and enjoyed for all the brilliant moments I mentioned above; however, for the film to truly be appreciated for the Leone-type epic that it is it needs to be seen as a whole.
Zodiac is a dark and nihilistic film that offers no simple resolution, answers, or reason for death. It excels on a frustrating and ambiguous narrative idea: not knowing who the Zodiac killer is, and never being able to find out. Or rather the broader, more overarching, theme that death is not only prevalent, but also constant, nonnegotiable, and impervious to our desire to understand it (or in the case of Zodiac decoding it.)...much like another 2007 film No Country for Old Men. It is one of the most frustrating unsolved mysteries of all time, the Zodiac killer who went on a killing spree in San Francisco was never caught, and the film does a great job of capturing a city who wants to believe he has so they can go on living their lives (Don Siegal's Dirty Harry was essentially made to put the people of the Bay Area at ease). It is a film that doesn’t rely on the clichés of the thriller genre, jolting you with false scares and convenient clues; rather, it invites the audience to join the process of the investigation through every excruciating detail and bits of minutiae.With Zodiac David Fincher, in his most (thankfully) subdued film, gets across one key theme that may biot sound like it makes for a great cinematic experience: frustration. This is not an action packed, fast paced thriller; rather, it is a slow procedural that is authentic in its sets, costumes, and Harry Savides' cinematography perfectly captures and evokes the feel of a 1970’s crime drama (and shockingly all of those fantastic elements were created with green screens). It is Fincher's excruciating attention to detail that turned some off to the film, but I was thankful that Fincher went this route. With a case that spans almost two decades, with a killer who has never been caught, you cannot speed up the process. The film had to be slow, methodical, and accurate in its portrayal of the facts and the real life characters that poured their lives into this case, but that doesn’t mean the viewer watching Zodiac is ever bored or unengaged.It is that seemingly eternal frustration that haunts every frame of the film. I still get chills thinking about the way Fincher shoots the film's most gruesome murder against the beauty of the Bay Area. The scene isn't gruesome because of gore, but because of the eerie juxtaposition of the violence and beautiful backdrop, and the horrifying irony of such a horrible act happening on such a beautiful day. Zodiac ranks up there with the best procedurals: All the President's Men, JFK, and The Insider. It's certainly David Fincher's masterpiece.
Like the Dardenne's The Son, Terence Malick's The New World is also a film filled with such poetic beauty that it elevates the soul, only in Malick's case it's through its imagery and ambient music -- its dream like feel -- rather than the kind of stark honesty and minimalism the Dardenne's employ. I remember back in 1999 Martin Scorsese's comment on Ebert's show when they were talking about the best films of the 90's, and Scorsese was talking about Malick's film and how it gets us to ask: what is narrative? He called The Thin Red Line "an endless picture", one that you can come in at on any moment and still appreciate its visual poetry. The same can be said for the hypnotic The New World which centers around a typically poetic love story from Malick with his multiple voice overs that allows the viewer to float above the narrative -- giving us ample time to contemplate the material -- rather than feeling like they're swimming in it. It also contains other Malick staples: ambient music that evokes the feeling of the viewer wafting through the various locations (amazingly photographed by Emmanuel Lubezki), an always moving camera pushing through fields of bending blades of grass and wheat, and a kind of cosmological tragedy that befalls his couple; here being John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher). One of the most powerful things Malick does is juxtapose bother characters' experience in a foreign world: for Smith, his time with the Natives is translucent, and epiphianic dream where all subsequent experiences fall short, never crystallizing into the same moment of reverie; for Pocahontas the experience in Jamestown in nightmarish, the moment where she sees a different John Smith, one that must choose country and community over love. Keith Ulrich rightfully called the film a "tone poem", and it's as hypnotic a film as I can remember ever seeing. It's certainly on a par with Malick's dreamy war film The Thin Red Line, and those final moments chronicling Pocahontas' relenting to her life with John Rolfe (Chrisitan Bale) and leaving Smith behind is a sustained sequence of power and poignancy (I especially like the moment when Smith and Pocahontas are seeing each other one last time and the two walk through a garden and they appear as if they are walking in step with the music...which reminded me of Barry Lyndon) that 99% of filmmakers would fail to make work. Terence Malick is one of two visual poets we have in American cinema (the other being Michael Mann), and his films are rare, visual experiences that should be treasured.
There’s nothing more cliché than an action film about two cops who go undercover and infiltrate a drug cartel; and while undercover, one of the cops will no doubt get in too deep while the other cop can only question his partners commitment to the case. Such clichés are evident in almost all of Michael Mann’s films; however, he always sidesteps the banal inevitability of said clichés by taking a fresh look at the men who lead such lives through an introspective and microscopic lens. 2006 brought Miami Vice, a film popping with beautifully filmed colors, meticulously framed skylines, and, most importantly, the type of scrupulous itemization Mann loves to perform with his crimes films (just watch the way his characters create sing-songy dialogue with insider jargon). For Mann, it isn’t so much about the action, but about the “why” that these people are driven by and how they function in the world they live in. A lot of people find Mann’s brand of “action” films boring – too much exposition and long, lingering takes on unnecessary long shots – with not enough shoot ‘em up; I find them misunderstood, refreshing takes on tired genre tropes, and Miami Vice is one of the most misunderstood of all Mann’s films. Mann reminds me a lot of French New Wave master Jean-Pierre Melville, another director who loved the crime genre, but rarely was interested in the crime itself. Like Melville, Mann loves to create action scenes that are more about the nuances instead of trumped up action clichés. Mann's films have an uncanny ability to be simultaneously grounded in realism (the action scenes in this film), scenes that are palpable in their intimacy (look at the scenes quieter scenes between Sonny and Isabel, especially their "courting" process and specifically their scenes in Havana), but are also poetically striking; ethereal moments that leave you in awe of their visual splendor all while watching something that seems so capital r Real. Miami Vice may have just been released at the wrong time of the year. Mass audiences wanted something more along the lines of Lethal Weapon or Bad Boys mixed with the campy, faux-serious nature of the original television show. They wanted to see the neon blazers, 80’s hair, and flamingos; but instead, Mann delivers one of his best films, and had the film been entitled something different, the populace might agree. It certainly ranks as one of his deepest, and most existential looks into the subject he loves to delve into, and it stands as my favorite film Mann has made.
What else can I say about this that I haven't already expressed elsewhere on the blog? How much fun is this movie? How great is Christoph Waltz' performance? How amazing is it that Tarantino twice this decade has the ability to create simultaneously a visceral entertainment, a 150+ minute film that feels like 90 minutes, and a film rich with cinematic allusion and subtext out of the remnants of dormant exploitation genres? How is it that Inglourious Basterds is the epitome of what movies should be? If I wanted to even try and answer all of those questions I would have never been able to finish this post. It's certainly the most brilliant film of the decade, and yes once it has time to establish itself even more, it may be considered one of the ten greatest American films ever made.