Friday, March 26, 2010

Top 50 Films of the Decade: # 1 - 10

10.) Undertow (2004)
Directed by David Gordon Green

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.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Top 50 Films of the Decade: # 11 - 20

20.) Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005)
Directed by Miranda July

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. 

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Top 50 Films of the Decade: #21 - 30

30.) Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (2000)
Directed by Jim Jarmusch

As he did with his oddball western Dead Man, Jim Jarmusch mashes up another genre and produces an esoteric look at the gangster film as seen through the eyes of a hitman who lives by the ancient code of the samurai. It's a bizarre film (especially the moments of dialogue between our protagonist and a French ice-cream salesman) that I think is meant to be seen as more a cartoon than something super serious (characters are frequently seen throughout watching cartoons); Jarmusch even has one of the gangsters die in such a cartoonish way that he seems to call a spade a spade and just cop to it as the same thing happens in a cartoon a character is watching prior to the gangster's death.  This is Forrest Whitaker's best performance, and it's one of Jarmusch's masterpieces as he satirizes the gangster genre while simultaneously paying homage to it.  That's what makes Ghost Dog work so well is the serious matter in which Jarmusch treats his main character...this isn't some kind of eccentricity, this is a way of like for our hitman, and Jarmusch never condescends; rather, his film is a contemplative genre picture (again, much like Dead Man) as a lot of the film is sans dialogue as The Rza's fantastic soundtrack guides us through the action.

Steve McQueen Blog-a-thon: Junior Bonner

The Steve McQueen blog-a-thon begins today over at Jason Bellamy's place, The Cooler.  Make sure to keep checking in as it runs through Friday, and there are sure to be a lot of great entries submitted throughout the blog-a-thon's run.  The full review of the 1972 western Junior Bonner can be found at the western blog I contribute to, Decisions at Sundown.

"I'm workin on my first million. You're still workin on 8 seconds."

This line spoken by Curly (Joe Don Baker) Bonner to his brother Junior (Steve McQueen) gets to the heart of Sam Peckinpah's elegiac western.  This bit of harsh insight comes after Junior, an aging rodeo star, says he can't accept Curly's, an opportunistic entrepreneur looking to exploit the nostalgic charms of the Old west in an emerging culture, job offer because he has to walk down his own road. But what does that road look like for an aging rodeo star in a world that is clearly passing him by?  That is the central question surrounding Junior Bonner, Peckinpah's misunderstood western.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Top 50 Films of the Decade: #31 - 40

40.) Eastern Promises (2007)
Directed by David Cronenberg

David Cronenberg re-teams with Viggo Mortensen to create one of the darkest, most bleak, and yes, interesting movies about the criminal underworld (I will refrain from the term organized crime, because these Russian mobsters don't seem all that organized). Family members kill important people without consulting their father (the head of the family) and alliances are made behind peoples back. Booze is not stolen, but purchased cheap, but possibly it could have been purchased even cheaper, and when they get the booze they don't sell it for profit they drink it. These quirks and undercutting of the traditional mobster film make this one of the better films on the subject to come along since Miller's Crossing. The film has the appropriate cold aesthetic to it, and when we become privy to a key plot point that turns the entire film on its ear, we stop to think about what might happen to these characters after the film cuts to black. The film doesn't contain the family oriented scenes of the Corleone family of The Godfather, it doesn't contain the appealing mobsters from a film like Goodfellas; however, the film is spot on in recognizing that for these mobsters – who inhabit a world extremely different than the Italian mobsters we're used to seeing in film – their bodies belong to someone else (there's a great scene where Mortensen's character must strip before the heads of the Russian mob and prove, based on his tattoos, that he is fully committed), and that's what makes the film so fascinating: Yes it has all of the typical themes of a Cronenberg film (the decaying of body/soul, the mixture of extreme violence and sex, and the idea that the choices made by these characters have dire circumstances), but it feels fresh for its genre, it's appropriately ambiguous, and it's certainly proof of one of the best director/actor collaborations of the last decade. Oh, and that knife fight in the shower room is something to behold.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Top 50 Films of the Decade: #41 - 50

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)
Directed by Michael Winterbottom

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.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Halloween II (2009)

Rob Zombie's sequel to his 2007 re-imagining of John Carpenter's classic Halloween is like all other Zombie pictures: maddening. Not because of the content, but because of Zombie's lack of consistent style. Here's a horror film that feels fresh and scary and ruthless and brutal for all the right reasons one moment, and then the next moment it feels gratuitously ruthless and brutal with laughable acting. Halloween II picks up right after Laurie has shot bogeyman Michael Myers on Halloween night…you know, the night he came home. What's interesting about what Zombie tries to do with the sequel is take it away from the usual hack and slash sequels – where the viewer is treated to a relentless onslaught of violence and terror by the killer all in the name of revenge – and takes it to a more psychological place. That's impressive for a horror film I thought was going to be nothing more than highly stylized violence filtered through Zombie's demented lens. The film doesn't hold up to Zombie's lofty narrative aspirations, though, and Zombie is the only one to blame for this because of his inconsistent aesthetic and reluctance to truly move the genre into new realms. But I'd be lying if I said it was all bad as it contains some of the more impressive horror sequences I've seen in years.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Top 50 Films of the Decade: Introduction (and the other 50)

In what I hope will be something that I can complete before I go back to school and work here is the first entry in my 'best of the decade' series. I'll unveil a new top ten with each entry. Here are my initial thoughts and 50 other films that make the back-end of a top 100. Remember, these exercises are entirely arbitrary, and I could probably find a good enough reason to reposition a lot of these choices. Feel free to discuss in the comments. Enjoy.

I don't feel like I can put some of my favorite films of the last ten years in here that were released during an entirely different decade. I'm speaking specifically here to Apocalypse Now Redux and Army of Shadows, both of which got theatrical releases the last ten years; also, I can't seem to find a place for Russian Ark or Grindhouse. Two very different films, sure, but they both qualify more as experiences than anything else, and they both have very distinct and different feels to them than all of the other 50 films on this list. Russian Ark with its single take is definitely more than a gimmick, and Grindhouse was one of the most surreal experiences for this fan of grindhouse cinema. Certainly the two films within Grndhouse Planet Terror and Death Proof – can be separated and reviewed as singular films, but I think doing that is to miss the point of what Tarantino and Rodriguez were going for here, and the only way I can certainly review the film is as the experience in the theater – fake trailers and all – that it was meant to be. So, these four films (I'm sure there are others, but I wanted to single these out) deserve special mention as I unveil my list.

This list was a lot of fun to compile. I hope it sparks some debate. This was a good decade for American film, and you're going to see a lot of it on here, but I also have to admit that I was extremely out of the loop of world cinema for the early part of this decade. If you don't see a film on this list there's a good chance that I haven't seen it…or I just didn't like it. Discuss…

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Box

Richard Kelly's attempt at an enigmatic morality play with The Box is about as frustrating a masterpiece as you're bound to come across. Here's a film that feels like it's easily one of the best films of the year as you're watching it, but when you go back to think about what it was you just watched you tend to be more amazed that the story didn't collapse under all of the weight Kelly puts on it by dipping his toes into so many deep themes that range from the sociological to the political and theological to existential. Even though it seems Kelly has bitten off more than he can chew here (what else is new) I still admire him for what is on the screen: a sleek thriller that evokes a creepy, ethereal mood that is more interested in slow-building dread than making you jump put of your seat with false scares. There's something masterful – and dare I say Hitchcockian – about the way Kelly can elicit suspense out of the most banal moments in The Box.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Punch-Drunk Love

Barry Egan is an isolated man who sits alone at a desk, dwarfed by the interiors of a giant warehouse he works at selling novelty toiletries, wearing a blue suit that seems out of place for his business setting. We are introduced to Barry in long shot as he is talking to someone on the phone about a loophole in a frequent flyer mileage promotion. After hanging up the phone we follow Barry out of the blasé warehouse and into shadows before we hear the sound of a steel door opening, and we're left wincing – like Barry – at the initial harshness of the daylight. Barry squints and reluctantly makes his way to the street where he finds a harmonium. After this weird discovery there is a car crash that sends Barry running back to the safety of his cold, empty and dark interior. Barry is a complex, socially inept person whose social skills seem completely utilitarian (he's not a bad salesman when he wants to be, and he can channel his inner rage at opportune times); he's also deeply disturbed and alien in a world that is inhabited by seven sisters that constantly nag him –needling him about remembering embarrassing past stories until his rage boils over – and wonder why he always wears the same blue suit. This is a tricky character, always on the verge of exploding yet delicate and in desperate need of some reciprocated love. So, who does writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson get to play such a character? Why, Adam Sandler, of course! In one of the most ingenious bits of casting in the past decade Anderson creates one of the most idiosyncratic and engrossing oddball love stories I've ever seen.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Other People’s Money

Other People's Money on the surface seems like another throwaway early 90's comedy (it even has a musical score that is eerily reminiscent of comedies like Trading Places and films of that ilk); however, here is a film with two performances that standout as highlights in pretty established careers, and a satire that seems spot-on for the economic situation we find ourselves in today. The film is a mix of ideals: it's part Oliver Stone's Wall Street and part Frank Capra film. Both sides getting their say and both philosophies – thanks to the acting – sounding reasonable. Here's a film that surprised me mostly because I totally forgot about it. It's a film that has gone forgotten by most, but deserves a new audience in this decade of Capitalism run amok.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Three Films by Woody Allen (and Ingmar Bergman)

My HD Starz and MGM channels offered up numerous Woody Allen choices a few months back. I just got to them on the DVR, and of the three films I decided to record – Interiors, Husbands and Wives, and Deconstructing HarryInteriors was the only one I had seen. I was excited to fill in some gaps of my list of Allen films I have yet to see (there's still probably 10-15 on the list), and even though I didn't love all of the films, I was certainly glad that I experienced them. Coincidentally I recorded three films that share one thing in common: they're three examples of Allen paying homage to his master Ingmar Bergman (I swear I didn't plan this). One of these films is a brilliant tribute, the other a mediocre homage, and the third an uneven misfire that hangs loosely by a thread connecting it to Bergman.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

DVD Review: Not Quite Hollywood

As an unabashed fan of exploitation cinema I have to say I feel pretty ashamed to admit that I had no idea there was an Australian subgenre out there that is like my favorite subgenre Italian horror. The documentary Not Quite Hollywood paints an interesting portrait of "ozploitation", and for fans of this particularly polarizing subgenre this documentary is a treat: a plethora of rental ideas of forgotten (or maybe never discovered) grindhouse cinema from down under. Quentin Tarantino is interviewed the most throughout the doc and his (usual) unbridled enthusiasm is infectious as he talks about how certain film like Patrick crossed over into pop culture (the Italians ripped it off, of course, and made one of their unofficial sequels to the film) and also influenced his films like Kill Bill. Various filmmakers from the Australian New Wave movement are interviewed (most prominently is Brian Trenchard-Smith of The Man from Hong Kong and Dead-End Drive-In "fame") and discuss the ways they made films that people wanted to see, influenced their respective genres with new, innovative ways to film the scenes, and began to affect a whole Australian subculture and industry where the only kinds of films being made were art films like Picnic at Hanging Rock. I found the history of Australian filmmaking to be fascinating, not to mention the various clips from from films that look surprisingly good (and innovative) for the budgets they had. Of course this should surprise no one if you're a fan of exploitation cinema as these types of films were sometimes the breeding ground for young filmmakers with ideas. 

One of the best moments of the doc comes when Quentin Tarantino is describing a scene from one of the films discussed when he says something to the extent of: (paraphrased) "the best thing about exploitation cinema is that initial reaction as your watching something and you're thinking, 'is this really happening…wait…it is…oh my God! How did they do that? What were they thinking? Why would the actors agree to that?' That uncertainty is what makes exploitation cinema so great." Because it's a pretty good bet that the clips from the movies profiled in this doc are the best parts of those movies (for as "fun" as these types of movies are...they're really boring if you aren't watching them with friends) this is a must see doc for fans of exploitation cinema. 

A question for exploitation fans after the jump...