Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Cake Man's List for the Top 10 Movies of the Decade

Inspired by Backer, I've decided to include my picks for the Top Ten Films of the Decade. This isn't my list for what I think are the ten most technically successful films, but rather my favorite ones, the ones I've watched the most or enjoyed my most. It's an odd list; some of the choices even surprised me. Anyway, without further delay, here are choices 10 through 6 (5 though 1 coming on Thursday).

10.  THEY CAME BACK (2004) French, a.k.a. Les Revenants. Even I was a bit surprised when this made it onto my list, but I knew it belonged because I just couldn’t feel comfortable with it being relegated to the runner up section. A little seen film (to my knowledge), it tells the story of a small French town that suddenly has to deal with the unexplained return of all its recent dead. A zombie movie in the least conventional sense, the dead in They Came Back are thinking beings that retain a number of the memories of their past life. They recognize their loved ones and do their best to return to daily life, even going so far as to taking up their old jobs. Nearly a fifth the town’s population is made up of the returned deceased, and while all seems right on the surface, just the slightest bit of observation shows that it’s not.  The dead aren’t nearly as smart or capable of independent living as they were when they were alive, but their defects don’t stop the flood of painful emotions that their loved ones experience upon suddenly having their wives, husbands, parents, and children back from the grave. Before the shock of having deceased family members back has subsided, it becomes obvious that the dead have their own agenda, though what it is is unclear.

Every time I rewatch They Came Back, I’m reminded of how slow portions of it are. Its 103 minute runtime definitely drags in places. However, I can’t stop it from popping into my mind every now and then. Though I think the film could have done more to explore the “what if” scenario of having your loved ones return (semi-amicably) from the dead, I think that They Came Back does a great job at least probing the question, and it gets me thinking enough to earn a spot at number ten.

9. Stranger Than Fiction & Wristcutters: A Love Story (both 2006). Ok, I cheated a bit, but I had too hard a time choosing between these two to bump either rout of the running. Stranger Than Fiction is probably the smartest film I’ve seen Will Ferrell star in. It was also one of the most refreshingly clever films I saw while in school. Will Ferrell plays an IRS agent who suddenly begins hearing a voice (Emma Thompson), which narrates his life and informs him that he’s unaware that he’s going to die soon. It turns out that the voice he hears belongs to a novelist who has invented a character that is Ferrell – from his name and job down to his every move.  With the notice of his impending death looming over his head, Ferrell casts off his rigid, IRS agent lifestyle, and makes time for life, excitement, and love.

It’s hard for me to put my finger on Stranger Than Fiction’s appeal to me, but the voiceover and Ferrell’s response to it, the unfolding love story between an IRS agent and a hippie baker delinquent on her taxes (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal), and the literary references and intelligence from writer Zach Helm all come together beautifully. Will this go down as a classic? No, probably not. It’s more likely to be forgotten. But the strong performances, excellent comedic timing (Dustin Hoffman is hilarious as a literary professor who Ferrell turns to for help and guidance – his advice is to go ahead and die, since Ferrell is living the author’s masterpiece), and the smart, smart writing earn Stranger Than Fiction a (shared) ninth spot.

Wristcutters: A Love Story is another off-beat comedy with somewhat dark subject matter. Patrick Fugit plays Zia, a young man whose disappointments and boredom in life have driven him to suicide. After killing himself (during the opening credits), Zia winds up in a purgatory of sorts populated only by suicide victims in an afterlife that is “like life, only worse.” The suicides wind up in a New Mexico-esque desert that’s unending in every direction. Soon, Zia – who is stuck working a crappy job at Kamikaze Pizza – befriends Eugene, an Eastern European failed rocker who lives with his entire immediate family. When Zia finds out that his girlfriend (a large factor in his suicide) has also offed herself, he and Eugene hit the road to find her.

Wristcutter’s charm is in its off-beat humor and the close, real connections that develop between its characters. At its core, this is a road buddy movie mixed with a romantic comedy. Of course, there’s another girl and that leads to the inevitable realization that what we once had might not be what’s best for us now. While nothing groundbreaking there, perhaps, Wristcutter’s real strength is the new approach it takes in creating worlds and embedding an element of the paranormal and the offbeat. Eugene’s car has a giant void under the passenger’s seat, which transports anything dropped on the floor to a different dimension (a gag that remarkably doesn’t get old). Most characters Zia meets along the way are accompanied by a flashback showing how they got to the suicide world. This is a smart, fun, and certainly rewatchable film. And, perhaps surprisingly, it generates enough discussion and deeper thinking about the “what ifs” associated with it to keep it alive after the final credits role.

8. Sunshine (2007). The sun is dying. This is true. Of course, none of us will be alive to experience the effects that will have on the Earth. In Sunshine, though, the sun’s life is rapidly fading, and with it, goes any hope of survival. Cillian Murphy plays Capa, part of a team of scientists charged with taking a year and a half long flight across the solar system on a mission to reignite the sun. They’re actually the second team to embark on this perilous quest, as the first one mysteriously went off the grid a couple years ago. Stranded in space, millions and millions of miles from earth, they have nowhere to turn if things begin to go wrong.  And, because they’re millions and millions of miles from earth on a mission that determines the fate of all life on the planet, things inevitably begin to go wrong.

I’m not an overwhelmingly huge sci-fi fan, but Sunshine is hands down one of my favorite recent films. The allure of the planets, stars, sun, and solar system that my pre-K teachers instilled in me still hasn’t worn off, so Sunshine instantly gets bonus points for placing me in the middle of it all. (There is actually only one, very short scene that takes place on earth. The rest of the movie is either set on the ship, just outside the ship, or in very close proximity to the ship.  It’s dark. It’s space. It’s a giant void. And it works perfectly.) The movie also begins to shift from pure sci-fi (think 2001 but more active) to a bit more comic-booky at the end. Granted, those two are not often unrelated, but that’s the feeling I get when watching Sunshine. It’s also a great example of post-apocalyptic or other heightened disaster scenario films (one I’ve actually used with my producer and manager). The audience is never told why the sun is about to burn out in 2050; we’re simply told that it is going to happen and we’re on board from there. Sunshine is fun, smart, and engaging. Director Danny Boyle recently made a major splash with Slumdog Millionaire (and he was unquestionably a big presence before that, too), but I wonder if even he has forgotten about this one. Having earned just barely $32 million worldwide (not even 3.7 domestic), Sunshine was by no means a hit. Except, of course, with me that is.

7. The Dark Knight (2008)
. Since everyone in the world saw this movie three times (in theaters), I think I can bypass the quick synopsis. For me, The Dark Knight has an instant, undeniable bias that propels it toward the top of my favorites list – full disclosure: I am a HUGE Batman fan. By that, I mean that I have over 150 Batman trades (most of which I got for free… I promise). I love Batman like Onyx loves Predator, UFOs, and ninjas combined. So, when Chris Nolan – whose Batman Begins was hard not to include on this list – made one of the darkest, most chaotic Batman anythings last year, I was hooked. The heart of The Dark Knight, of course, is Heath Ledger’s creepy and devilishly, successfully heinous Joker. Every minute mannerism, tick, and blink conveyed an infinitely deep, disturbed persona belonging to someone who had no end to the joy that he derived from generating chaos and fear. The Joker was brilliant as an antagonist, driving the protagonist so close to the breaking point that not only the audience, but the protagonist himself begins to doubt that victory is possible. Heath Ledger’s performance and the Nolan brother’s script instantly places the Joker among the ranks of the best on-screen villains ever, and the sense of overwhelming chaos and futility that the film exudes is almost palpable.

As much as I love The Dark Knight, I should admit that my first reaction to it was split. On the one hand, I had found a new favorite villain and dreamed of the day that a character I write can stand up next to the Joker and attain the same levels of cinematic infamy. On the other hand, there were certain elements that just didn’t work for me. Gordon’s “death” for example never seemed to fit in as anything other than a red herring for the audience. I didn’t and still don’t feel that was earned in the movie. It didn’t seem natural or to work, technically. The more I think about The Dark Knight, though, and the more times I rewatch it, the less those unsuccessful elements matter. In the end, when the fat is boiled away, what’s left is a thrilling, fast, gripping action film that’s smart and has one of the best villains of the past decade, and many might say, of movie history.

6. Brokeback Mountain (2005)
. When Ang Lee’s multi-Oscar winning Brokeback Mountain first came out, it earned a lot of buzz as one of the first (and certainly more successful) mainstream Hollywood films about an openly gay couple. Lee didn’t shy from his subject matter, and he didn’t expect the audience to, either. With beautiful, heart-breaking performances by Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger, the film embraced its subject matter with fully formed, believable characters. Add to it Gustavo Santaolalla’s score, the supporting performances, desolate setting, and deliberate pacing, the nuances and often subtle gestures throughout the film make for an amazing final product.

Of course, the first reaction to Brokeback was often that it’s the “gay cowboy movie.” I remember being annoyed by the audience I saw it with, an audience that seemed to have no appreciation for the depths of the film, but was rather there to giggle uncomfortably at the sight of two grown men kissing passionately. It doesn’t take much, though, to recognize what Brokeback Mountain really is. Sure, the love story is between two men. But, at its core, that’s what it is. A love story. Universal in the emotions and complications that come with loving another human being, Jack and Ennis experience a love so rife with obstacles that it becomes impossible. The times they live in, the people in their world, their jobs and lifestyles, and even their own stubbornness all conspire to keep these two soul mates apart.  Ledger’s performance as the softspoken Ennis Del Mar is one of the most moving I’ve seen on the screen. He yearns for nothing more than to take a chance on the life that Gyllenhaal’s Jack proposes they share, but he cannot allow himself to do so. At the end, when he holds the late Jack’s bloodied shirt to himself and utters those three simple words, “Jack, I swear,” we know that he’s aware his only chance for happiness is gone forever. One of the most devastating and honest love stories, Brokeback Mountain is sure to live past this decade and survive the test of time.

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