Before I get started with this I just wanted to point you all towards a great review by Tony Dayoub of Cinema Viewfinder. He reviews Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar, one of my favorite cult westerns, over at our western blog Decisions at Sundown. Check it out. Onto the countdown...
50.) The Claim (2000)
Michael Winterbottom's western is completely indebted to its great cinematography by Alwin H. Kuchler which evokes the greatness of the film's most obvious influence, Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller. The narrative is similar to the Altman film, too, as Winterbottom metes out the information on a need-to-know basis. He often drops the viewer in the middle of conversations and keeps a lot of the information between the characters. It's another Altman trope that Winterbottom employs, but he does so brilliantly. Winterbottom was one of the most prolific filmmakers of the last decade, and despite The Claim's troubled production and bloated budget (mirroring another film it owes something to, Heaven's Gate) it's Winterbottom's magnum opus. It's a beautiful and elegiac western that any fan of McCabe & Mrs. Miller should see.
One of David Mamet's most simplistic films – and that's not an insult – is easily his most enjoyable since Homicide and Glengarry Glenn Ross. The film seems like a tougher, rougher version of a Jack Ryan novel with Val Kilmer more than up to the weighty task of spewing out the Mametisms; and even those little profane and vulgar quips are vastly more muted compared to something like Homicide, and the fun of Spartan, for once, isn't in Mamet's dialogue but in the mystery he fashions. It's also the better and more interesting version of the popular Taken that came out last year. One of my favorite moments of the film is one of Mamet's typically esoteric bits of dialogue when Kilmer's character Scott is showing the young pup, Curtis (Derek Luke) the ropes and telling him the ins and outs of being inconspicuous…and the following exchange happens:
Scott: In the city always a reflection, in the woods always a sound.
Curtis: What about the desert?
Scott: You don't wanna go in the desert.
Now just imagine Kilmer delivering that bit of Mamet vernacular in his usual stilted style and you might have an inkling of why I find that exchange so wonderful.
Billy Ray made two great procedurals the past decade, Shattered Glass being the first (the other being Breach). Ray wisely sidesteps the pitfalls of following the film's protagonist Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen in his only non-fingernails-on-the-chalkboard role) too closely, not giving the viewer a reason to empathize with the so-called journalist who famously fabricated an article for The New Republic; rather, he keeps his camera at an objective distance with a fierce focus that resembles the investigative work that Glass so obviously skirted. By simply focusing on the issue at hand, Ray avoids having his film feel like a stale biopic where liberties have to be taken for dramatic effect; instead he fashions a masterful drama about journalism (with great supporting performances by Hank Azaria, Peter Sarsgaard, and Chloe Sevigny) that deserves mention along side Alan J. Pakula's classic All the President's Men.
It's impossible for me to champion Faith Akin's film enough, but thanks have to go to my friend Brandon for making me aware of this beautiful, poignant film. The Edge of Heaven is certainly one of the best films of 2008. It's so much more fulfilling than the slew of hyper-link films that came out during the post-Crash era. I never felt like these coincidental occurrences or happenstance moments were me being jerked around by a filmmaker who was just trying to use smoke and mirrors to mask a flimsy parable about humanity and forgiveness. Akin is wise to not for the grandiose and to let some of the simplest moments and facial expressions speak for the multitude of emotional currents running through the film. That last image is as poetic as it gets. Just the sound of the waves was enough to bring tears to my eyes, and the image of the son waiting for his father was enough to make me smile wider than I've smiled in a long, long time at the movies.
Certainly one of the most impressive debuts of the last decade, David Gordon Green awed everyone as he and his troupe out of North Carolina created one of the best and most unassuming films about coming of age and poverty. It also introduced us to Green's singular writing style where people say things that are all at once jarring and appropriate…as if we would expect these characters to say just those things in real life; alongside his contemporaries that broke free in the late 90's (Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze, David O. Russell) American cinema was now privy to a truly original voice and visionary. His subtle, rustic aesthetic evokes thoughts of his master Terence Malick. What's most refreshing about George Washington is that the film looks professional, and by that I mean it puts the kind of sheen on poverty that Malick did with Days of Heaven. In addition to the look of the film Gordon wisely creates a film that isn't condescending towards children, nor condescending about their plight. Green would take everything that was great about this film and spin it into absolute gold with his Undertow, released later in the decade.
Winner of the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, Old Boy is surely one of the most interesting – and ambiguous – horror/revenge pictures of recent memory. There's a lot more, though, to the story about a man locked in a hotel for 15 years, not knowing why his captors have locked him in the room. The film's violence actually means something here…you actually feel the violence because of what the protagonist goes through. It's not merely a revenge picture, it's a film that follows someone to unprecedented depths for the kinds of thrillers and horror films American audiences are accustomed to. There's a moment with a photo album where some truths are realized, and it's surprisingly poignant…there's also one of the most gruesome revenge scenes I can remember seeing in a film – not because of lots of blood or gore, but because the pain and urgency, the idea that he needs to take this revenge to put to bed some demons, is palpable. I'm checking my teeth right now just to make sure they're okay.
Documentarian Philip Gröning wrote the subject of the film he wanted to make, a documentary about the monks secluded deep within the French Alps, in 1984 to see if he could make a documentary about them. It took sixteen years for them to get back to him. It only seems appropriate that they would take their time. For 2 hours and 43 minutes, Into Great Silence offers images of an existence that is appropriate for the subject matter. You are speechless watching the film. You sit in silence (at one point, you can hear the snow fall) and simply observe these monks in the French Alps as they live their daily lives with their morning recesses and recitals, their daily walks where conversation is allowed, but few take part in. Throughout the film all I could think of was one of the great writers and radicals of our time Thomas Merton. I have read almost all of his books and have respect for someone who can remove themselves entirely from the world and live a totally devoted life to God. The film is a different religious experience than say an Ingmar Bergman film (silence meant God was not there, here it is a way of communing with the divine) but it is an experience that transcends film and will leave its mark long after you have endured the 2 hours and 43 minutes. There is no artificial lighting, no interviews, Gröning wisely removes himself and any form of voice over (there is no need for narration or explanation) from the project even though he lived with the monks for six months. The film embodies the monastery rather than simply observing it. It touches the deep spirit and the deeply spiritual and all of the credit goes to the director.
One of Charlie Kaufman's most heartbreaking mind-benders is also the only good thing with Gondry's name attached to it. The film is actually the perfect vessel for Gondry's eccentricity and overblown – and sometimes headache inducing – imagery. The film is the perfect example of indie hipster philosophies, and the Debbie Downer acting by Jim Carrey is pitch perfect for the type of somber reflection that Kaufman's script calls for. Sometimes the film lingers a little too long in Joel's mind, but damn that seems like such a minor blip – an insignificant quibble – on the film's extremely innovative and moving radar. The film is at its best when it slows down and Kaufman's words take precedence over Gondry's showy aesthetic. The best example of that is at the end when Joel is having one of his last memories of Clementine – the location is aa beach house where they first met – erased, and the two discuss their past relationship in a painfully bittersweet tone as the tide sweeps in and destroys the final remnants of Clementine. Whenever I think of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind I think of that moment, something so simple and blissfully non-arcane – in a film filled with indie hipster whimsy and insanely esoteric, creative moments – that I don't think it's any shock that the softer, gentler parts of the film stand out.
Perhaps one of the more shocking entries on this list, but allow me to defend Gore Verbinski's surprisingly bleak and dark comedy. The Weather Man is a film filled with odd little moments that come out of nowhere to surprise you with the way they're able to elicit emotion and laughs. The film, written by Stephen Conrad, was in limbo for years as the studio was never quite sure how to promote it: is this a quirky comedy about a lost man in his 40's with a fractured family life ala American Beauty? Is it an eccentric comedy about a 40-something who takes up archery (and carries a bow and arrow around New York) as a hobby to give him meaning amidst his sea of confusion? Or is this something deeper, more postmodern? And will people even want to venture out to the theater to see something vulgar, adult, and so bleak from the director of the Pirates films? I imagine the studio execs asking themselves these questions, and it's a shame that the film lingered so long in no mans land because it, along with Harold Ramis' The Ice Harvest, is one of the most grossly misunderstood films of the past decade. Nicolas Cage gives his best performance of the decade (yes, better than Bad Lieutenant) as a man struggling to function in a normal familial setting; that's because his family is anything but normal. But this isn't your typical "wacky family" comedy, this is a well-observed, and hilariously dark tale about a man who is so helpless at doing things for others that whenever he tries to do the right thing he invariably messes things up. His good intentions are often mixed with profane failed attempts at humor and connecting with his distant children, and when he tries to find the words to a song that describes his dying father (Michael Cain in a great and surprisingly non-Cainey performance) he picks Bob Seiger's "Like a Rock"…and appropriately when his father hears the song he mentions to his son that he fails to see what the hell the song even means. It's moments like that in which The Weather Man succeeds more than other films of its ilk. It's truly one of the hidden gems of the past decade.
Sofia Coppola's impressive debut is an eerie, ethereal masterpiece in the vein of Peter Weir's even more ethereal Picnic at Hanging Rock. The film is about an affluent community where the tragedy that befalls the five Lisbon girls still haunts the neighborhood. The film is narrated by one of the Lisbon's neighbors as the film breezily guides us through the boys' rumination of their pursuit of the Lisbon girls that tragic year. The film is filled with great 70's music by Styx, ELO, and Heart that perfectly evokes the era; Coppola also employs the services of ambient rock band Air which adds to the otherworldly feel appropriate for how the Lisbon sisters are portrayed, the contemplative tone of the film, and the creepy feel of those haunting final moments. However, apart from the film's charming period aesthetic Coppola's film is most impressive for being her debut. Now surely she had an amazingly advantaged tutelage, but you never feel her father's presence bearing down on the film…this feels like a fresh voice, not simply a daughter acting as a marionette for her famous father. The acting is tremendous here as Kirsten Dunst has never been cast more appropriately as the elusive, seductive, and most prominently Siren-esque Lisbon sister, Lux. Her curiosities are what ultimately bring down the family as they are relegated to being prisoners in their home. Their parents, who grow stricter after the loss of their youngest daughter, are wonderfully played by Kathleen Turner – playing that kind of mother who believes everything laconic is evil (there's a great scene where she makes Lux burn her LP's) – and James Woods who so poignantly embodies the grieving father (there's an extremely sad scene, brilliantly acted by Woods, where his character is talking to a plant on a window sill inside the school he works at…clearly this guy, having lost a daughter, is detached from reality). It's a film that reminded me of Atom Egoyan's masterful The Sweet Hereafter – another film about a tragedy and the effect it has on a small community – as both films contain that kind of palpable sadness that stays with you long after watching the film.