Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Top 10 Films of the Aughts (Part I)

The period between 1990 and 1999 was great for movies. Pulp Fiction, Shawshank, Hoop Dreams – that's 1994 alone. There are times when I think the quality of films (especially domestic films) has degenerated as I’ve grown more familiar with writing and filmmaking. But then I thought about it, and, man, some really great movies came out this decade.

So here are #'s 10 - 6... (#'s 5 - 1 coming soon...)

10. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Charlie Kaufman won a much-deserved Oscar for the most original concept in recent memory. Break-ups hurt because of loss – the loss of a comfort zone, the loss of someone else, the loss of someone else’s feelings. To prevent this feeling of loss, what if a medical procedure could erase that person from your memory?

The premise is ingenious, but the film stands out for depicting a universal relationship between Joel and Clementine (Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet), told from beginning to end. The break up scene is most relatable, as Joel and Clemantine each say hurtful things that can't be unsaid. Whereas most movies capture romance with sparkling jewelry and huge set pieces, the most romantic scenes involve throwing leaves at each other, falling on the ice, or lying on the couch. And of course, the film does a commendable job in showing that pleasure from the good times ultimately outweigh the eventual pain.

Joel wants to procedure to stop, but is powerless as his body is knocked out. In Joel’s final memory, he and Clementine sit on the beach, completely aware that the incident is going to be erased: “This is it, Joel. It’s going to be gone soon.” “I know.” “What do we do?” “Enjoy it.”

9. Inglourious Basterds

Quentin Tarantino might be gimmicky. He might be completely full of himself. He might be a narcissist, a sexist, a thief.

He can be all of those things, but he can still be an expert craftsman.

A farmer stands on his front yard filling buckets of water. In a car in the distance, two guards approach with a Nazi colonel (Christoph Waltz). The farmer looks to his house, to his three teenage daughters. He pours some water over his face.

In the house, the colonel takes off his hat and smiles. “Do you know who I am?” The farmer nods. The colonel motions for his guards – equipped with machine guns – to step outside, but they remain visible through the window. The colonel acknowledges the daughters and their beauty. He asks if they would mind stepping outside. They look to their father, who nods, nervously. They step outside.

In the hands of a lesser writer/director, the subsequent scene between the colonel and farmer would be rushed and expositional; with Tarantino, the talky scene plays secondary to the tension of the guards in the window and the mere fact that we don’t know anything.

To arouse the curiosity of an audience without making it question the logic - that is tough. And, man, he makes it look easy...

8. Brokeback Mountain

It took a while for this film to set in. I think that’s a testament to Heath Ledger, the screenwriters, and Ang Lee, who collectively take a subtle story/protagonist and make it fly.

The premise by nature leads to a reactive story, one that studies a cowboy Ennis (Ledger) who lacks the ability to love. Whether it’s his wife, daughters, or Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal), the one person with whom he connects, he never allows more than five consecutive words to escape his tight-lipped demeanor. When someone notices a hint of transparency, he responds aggressively, like when he attacks Jack and ends up with a bloodied lip. He pushes himself into seclusion.

Jack is killed, and though the cause of death is ambiguous, the film sets up that he was possibly murdered for being homosexual. Through Jack’s ex-wife (Anne Hathaway), Ennis learns that Jack wanted him to scatter his ashes. When going to Jack’s parents for the ashes, he finds intertwined with one of Jack’s shirts is his blood-stained shirt from their fight years earlier. He holds them up to his face.

It’s subtle and fantastic.

7. Match Point

Though elements are borrowed from his Crimes and Misdemeanors and Hannah and Her Sisters, this is the most unique of Woody Allen’s canon. For starters, there is no Woody Allen, meaning neither himself as an actor nor a neurotic character in the cast. Secondly, this was the first of his films to take place outside of New York.

For a writer, the film is an education on economy and precision. Allen equips the hero of the story, an Irishman from a poor family Chris Wilton (Jonathon Rhys Meyers), with two gifts: skill with a tennis racket and good looks. Though he never climbed the ranks in professional tennis, his skill enables him to become an instructor at a country club. There, he befriends club member Tom Hewitt (Matthew Goode) and is able to use his other gift to catch the eye of his sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer). He charms his way into her heart and into the good graces of her wealthy parents, virtually guaranteeing him a fruitful life. But there is one problem: Tom is engaged to an American, Nola Rice (Scarlett Johannson), a failed actress pulling the same stunt as Chris.

Though the outsiders are experts in their roles, their obvious similarities and sexual attraction complicates their didactic plots. An affair is unfeasible, but proves unavoidable. And that’s the first act of a film that manages to explore themes of luck, hard work, and love without seeming implausible and still deliver a twist ending that hits just the right note.

6. Love Actually

How can you think of this film without smiling? Whether it’s the cheery score, that “Christmas is all around me!”, or that even a Hugh Grant or Colin Firth can act like a complete spazz when face-to-face with that flashy-eyed girl, this is one of those movies that will always put you in a good mood.

But how is it that Love Actually avoids being cheesy? It’s because the brilliant writer/director Richard Curtis explores the flip side of the coin. A workaholic (Laura Linney) finally has the chance to romance her crush, but a call from her hospitalized brother prevents it from happening. Daniel (Liam Neeson) is in constant grief after losing his wife to cancer. And, of course, the most heartfelt scene in which Karen (Emma Thompson) realizes her marriage is over after opening a Christmas gift.

The lows also accentuate some wonderful “movie moments”. There’s the porn star “rehearsing” with his female costar while having trouble asking her on a date. There’s Jamie (Colin Firth) and his Portuguese servant in the water saying the same things in different languages. There’s the controversial Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) on television: “Kids: don’t buy drugs. [a sigh of relief from the hosts] Become a pop star and they give ‘em to you for free!” And, my personal favorite, Mark spilling his heart out to Juliet (Keira Knightley) via poster cards though he has nothing to gain.

How did this film not get a screenplay nod?

* * *

(Hm. Noticing a theme, my revised #1 of the decade is now Terminator Salvation.)

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