Miranda July's whimsical fairy tale about fractured romance and oddity being sexy is probably the most memorable Sundance darling to be released this decade. It's just quirky enough to be interesting without being grating, and it's just dark enough to delve into some humorous situations that are only funny because they're handled without vulgarity. The film's opening, a father (the great John Hawkes...why doesn't he get more film roles?) trying to get the attention of his kids by lighting his hand on fire as some kind of parlor trick (only he uses gasoline, not alcohol), is one of the weirdest and most jarring openings to any film this past decade. There's also a great moment when a character played by writer/director July walks down a street with Hawkes. The two converse and as they continue their walk July pretends that they are married, and that the street is their timeline of events as a married couple. As they stop to consider this half way through their walk she quips that their life is half over. It doesn't do any kind of justice to explain the scene, but if you've seen it then you know why it works. It's moments like that stand out and make this oddball film so memorable.
I just wrote about this film...you can find my take on it here. A sample:
Much is made of Punch-Drunk Love because of the Houdini-like feat of Anderson pulling a good performance out of Sandler; however, that's only part of the film's charm. I think people who solely look at the film from that perspective are missing some of the filmmaker's most interesting themes. This is a film about Barry's escape from the isolated, dark and drab existence into a more fulfilling and exhilarating one. The film is quite cerebral for the 90 minute comedy Anderson claimed it to be as Anderson uses music and color brilliantly to study more deeply the psyche of one his most interesting characters. The release of the 2007 film There Will Be Blood kind of erased this film from the memory of those who were so quick to call Anderson's 2007 film his masterpiece. I love There Will Be Blood and think it's one of the 30 best films of the decade, but it doesn't come close to Punch-Drunk Love, as complete and utterly beautiful and brilliant a film that Anderson has made. Where Blood overstayed its welcome by about 20 minutes Punch-Drunk Love stays just long enough on screen – balancing beautifully the idiosyncratic and the poignant – but lingers long after, creating one of the very best, and most aesthetically pleasing, films of the past decade.
Martin McDonagh's debut film In Bruges is a masterpiece. After seeing it three times now I am convinced that it not just one of the best surprises of the decade, but one of the most superbly written, too. It has all of the bite of a Coen brothers film, or hilarious vulgarity of a Tarantino script, but it has a heart and some poignancy that is rarely found in films of its ilk. Collin Farrel is simply amazing here, comfortable in his own language, it seems to me that he hasn't turned in a better performance since Minority Report or even his first real role in Tigerland. Brenden Gleeson is the wiser, older hitman Ken who is ordered to take Ray (Farrel) to the medieval city of Bruges (who is the real star of the film) so that they may lay low after a horrible occurrence of collateral damage shakes Ferrel to the point where he can't do his job anymore. The film is almost completely derailed by a drug induced rant by an actor they meet while in Bruges (his diatribe on little people and other races is less and less irritating the more I watch the movie), but multiple viewings have lessened my disdain for the scene. The film comes to an amazing climax when Ken and Ray's boss, Harry (the always great Ralph Fiennes), shows up to finish the job Gleeson couldn't do. The final conversation at a cafe outdoors near a clock tower (one of the film's most important, and beautiful, set pieces) between the two is brilliant. When I initially saw the trailer for the film I thought it was going to be awful, another Things To Do In Denver While You're Dead type hip-hitman genre film. I love being wrong. Obviously the studio didn't know how to market the film, and the fact the film is gaining more and more of an audience -- and the fact that it doesn't fall back on the cliches of the genre -- is a tribute to the smart dialogue and non-contrived dramatic moments found within In Bruges.
After the dirty secret of his past has come out, small town everyman Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is revealed to be somebody different than the person his wife (Maria Bello) married and is raising a family with. This is the basic premise for David Cronenberg's violent look at identity (not to mention his twisted take on the gangster film). The film is violent, yes, but it seems more appropriate because of the vested interest we have in Tom and his family. Cronenberg slow burns the "big moment" so that when it happens where jarred by the loud gun bursts and extreme violence. I love the question he raises at the end of the film, too, as Tom -- having just returned from settling some past "business" -- and his wife stare at each other at the dinner table…an understood silence that tells us they both know, despite its difficulties, they must continue to live the lie. Cronenberg’s film is a masterpiece, and it’s one of the best endings he’s ever pulled off.
Steven Soderbergh's interpolated tale about drugs and what we think we know about the war on drugs. It's impressive that Soderbergh and writer Stephen Gaghan (Syriana) are able to keep these different narratives on the screen just long enough so that we become invested in the characters, but also pulling us away from one narrative arc and throwing us right int he middle of another so that we remain in the dark about what's going. Soderbergh (shooting the film using his pseudonym Peter Andrews) uses different filters to evoke the feel of a certain area: Washington DC gets blue (for the blue-blooded children we see use on the weekends and after school, and for the iciness of politics); Mexico is awash in a dusty, almost sepia, look (things are murky there...we're never quite sure who is good and who is bad); and in San Diego the aesthetic is a lot clearer and more classical (this is also the easiest story thread to follow). Much like Gaghan did with his great Syriana he purposely keeps the viewer confused and in the dark here, because that's how the characters feel. The performances are all great with Michael Douglas turning in his second great performance of the decade (the other being the great Wonder Boys), Topher Grace as the snotty, know-it-all prep school kid who thinks he can out debate the US Drug Czar (Douglas), Luis Guzman and Don Cheadle have tremendous chemistry together as the two DEA agents in the San Diego stoyline; however, the film belongs to Benicio Del Toro as Javier Rodriguez, the on-the-fence Mexican cop who must decide which side of the fight of the war on the drugs he wants to be on, and what can he do to get what he wants out of that fight (knowing full well that the government is going to try and screw him). The ending is a beautiful moment where we see Javier getting what he wants, and we see how much joy it brings him: not because the war on drugs is over (the film's main point is that it'll never be over) but because he did something immediately that helped the kids in the city he grew up. It's a rare film that tackles a big issue without grandstanding or shoving an agenda down our throat.
My favorite Wes Anderson film. It's probably the one film where Anderson's idiosyncratic tendencies don't overwhelm the story making for an enriching cinematic experience rather than just a film whose parts are better than the whole. The film is Gene Hackman's, playing the estranged father Royal who looks to reunite his broken family of former child prodigies by lying to them, telling them that he doesn't have long to live. If Hackman truly is content with just doing Lowe's commercials for the rest of his career, then this was one helluva a way to go out (I refuse to believe that the dreadful Welcome to Mooseport was his last film). His portrayal of Royal is one of the funniest and crassest (without being vulgar) of the decade, and Anderson's other actors (Ben Stiller, Owen and Luke Wilson, Gwyneth Paltorw, Danny Glover, and Anjelica Houston) are all beyond great here as Anderson dabbles in Wodehousian antics with his eccentric family (Stiller's character is always afraid that their apartment is going to burn down and Luke Wilson's character has an odd friendship with an owl). As is the case with any Anderson film it is rich with allusion, and aside from the aforementioned Wodehouse there also seems to be a pretty clear debt owed to J.D. Salinger and Orson Welles' The Magnificent Amberson's (both are about the decline of a once great family). Also, the music selection by Anderson -- one of his best traits as a director -- is spot-on here as he employs tracks by Nico (who Gwyneth Paltrow looks like), Van Morrison, John Lennon, and just a flat-out brilliant use of Elliot Smith's "Needle in the Hay" (used during the film's most powerful scene). A lot of people prefer Rushmore or The Life Aquatic to Tenenbaums, but ever since I saw the film in theater I have stuck with my initial reaction (it's only grown with subsequent viewings) that this is quite possibly the best movie Wes Anderson will ever make. In my eyes the film is perfect.
The greatest love story of the decade breaks my heart every time I watch it. It's also one of the most beautiful westerns of the modern era. Jake Gyllanhaal and Heath Ledger's acting abilities were stretched further than they ever had been prior Ang Lee's 2005 film, and it's arguably their two greatest performances. Enis and Jack are two character ingrained in pop culture now, and it's amazing to think that a film that takes two gay character so seriously, without a hint of condescension, was able to reach so many viewers. I don't know, perhaps it's just where I'm from (although I'm only 40 minutes from Portland...one of the most liberal cities int he country), but it seemed to me that the consensus with Brokeback Mountain from those who left the theater was: "wow, I didn't expect to care for those characters the way I did." It's a film with a theme gets straight to the heart and touches the very universal nerve of falling in love, that love being forbidden, and then losing that love forever out of fear. Not to be forgotten is Michelle Williams as Enis' wife, a woman who bears the brunt of Enis' shame and fear which emits as neglect and contempt (although he does love his children). What struck me revisiting the film recently is that aesthetically the film is more complicated than I first thought. Lee utilizes weather and shadow well as his primary symbols -- a kind of external dialogue for a lot of the terse dialogue and internal acting that is on display -- and almost every seen seems to hit just the right emotional note. Nothing seem too hammy or sentimental. It's a rare love story that doesn't come off as contrite. And man does that ending (with it's beautiful score) get me every single time.
The type of film that Sam Peckinpah and John Huston would have made, Tommy Lee Jones' The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is as interesting a take on the western that I've ever seen. The film's main theme of revenge is looked at through a black and white lens as Jones' rancher seeks to properly bury a fallen friend who was mistakenly shot by a bored -- and ignorant -- Border Patrol officer (Barry Pepper in a great role). The film is broken up into three segments -- three burial attempts -- and what's fascinating about the film is that you're drawn in like a good novel (I was thinking of Cormac McCarthy while watching this) with each segment acting as a chapter, and you're not quite sure where the narrative is taking you, and whether or not the protagonist is crazy, but you're so enraptured by what you're seeing on screen that you can't help but be on the edge of your seat waiting to see where this odd piece of filmmaking takes you next. After some odd experiences in Mexico (the "third burial") the search for Melquidas' home starts to come into question, and Jones' character begins, for the first time, thinking that maybe he wasn't told the truth about where Melquiades came from. Revenge gets him through, though, and the need to do what's right for his friend. And in a surprising twist at the end the film goes from an odd, gonzo western to an elegiac (there a lot of flashbacks showing their friendship) and morally ambiguous one as Jones the filmmaker decides to end his film on a note that Bergman would be proud of.
The best Philip K. Dick adaptation since Blade Runner Steven Spielberg's masterful neo-noir is arguably the most entertaining, and most thought provoking big budget film on this list. Rarely has a summer multiplex film been so interesting. It reminded me of the wonder and awe and sheer enjoyment movies instilled in all of us as kids...it's what Spielberg does best and he's never been better. The film's mystery is good, too, as John Anderton (Tom Cruise in one of the best performances of his career) head of the Pre-Cog division (a group of psychics who can predict crimes) is alone at work one day and sees himself being identified as a murderer by the pre-cogs. This acts as the catalyst for a chase movie that is relentless in how it wants to entertain and thrill you. It's also the best example of the blending of CGI and a classic noir aesthetic to create the right feel for the film. Forget things like Avatar, because even eight years ago Spielberg was creating a whole new world with special effects (I love those little spiders and the advertisements that address you personally as you walk by them saying things like "tired of being on the run, you need a vacation John Anderton") and melding it beautifully with the noir tendencies of his story, creating something far more interesting to think about than what James Cameron gave us this past year. The scene-stealing for me is the great moment where Anderton and Agatha (Samantha Morton), the most powerful of the pre-cogs, are on the lam. She knows exactly where the cops are and what they're going to do, so she simply spells out the scene for Anderton who does everything she tells him to. While in the mall there's a great two-shot of Anderton and Agatha that Spielberg makes look like one person as they're both frantically talking to the other. It sounds cliche, but it truly is one of those films that should I ever happen it upon it on TV I will sit through the entire thing because I'm so engrossed. Not since L.A. Confidential had a bending, noirish story been so fun to follow and then find out that it all made sense. Collin Farrel is quite good here, too, as the agent assigned to find and arrest Anderton, and who we think is evil but really isn't...a favorite trope of mine. This film is full of fun tropes and interesting neo-noir elements without having to sacrifice the integrity of the futuristic inquiry and cyberpunk elements of Dick's story for more explosions and special effects. It's rare that you find such a masterful balance in action films.
If I am out of my mind, it's alright with me, thought Moses Herzog. Some people thought he was cracked and for a time he himself had doubted that he was all there. But now, though he still behaved oddly, he felt confident, cheerful, clairvoyant, and strong.
Watching Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) kill himself and go mad over his magnum opus, sitting alone at time in his dilapidated warehouse, I couldn't help but think of this passage. He's gone a little batty, but perhaps he's never seen more clearly what it means to live. As for the title: I remember learning about synecdoche in one of my literature classes as we deconstructed Eliot's The Waste Land. Basically it means: "the parts of a whole". Cotard is a part of the bigger whole that is New York -- which he recreates with his simulacrum in the warehouse -- and the even bigger whole that is life. Seeing the film four times now I'm not even sure if that summation fully gets at everything Kaufman is going for here (who, after Spike Jonze dropped off the project to do Where the Wild Things Are, does a great job for a first time director), but that's part of the fun of this particular enigma. It's a beautiful film.