Thursday, December 10, 2009

Cake Man's List for the Top 10 Movies of the Decade - part 2

As promised, here are my choices for Top Ten of the Decade numbers 5 through 1.

5. THE WRESTLER (2008). The Wrestler caught me completely by surprise. I had an opportunity to attend an advance screening, which was followed by a Q&A with director Darren Aronofsky. As a major fan of Requiem for a Dream  (coughNumberThreecough), I went mostly for the chance to hear him talk. What I got from the viewing by itself was more value from the experience than I had hoped to get from the night.

It’s not often that I feel as though a drama has just hit me in the gut. Most dramas that don’t easily fall prey to obvious melodrama (and those are few and far between) tend to get weighed down by their characters’ obstacles, emotions, or the director and/or screenwriter’s goals. As a viewer, it’s easy to guess what’s coming around the corner or to feel let down by events that you know will happen. The Wrestler surprised me on multiple occasions. When Mickey Rourke’s The Ram – his professional wrestler alias – suffers a heart attack and is told he has to get out of the ring, that’s immediately what he does. I’ve been so accustomed to characters always acting in their own worst interest in dramas that I was taken aback by his health-conscious decision. But that did more than surprise me; it got me on board with the protagonist. Here’s a guy who is just trying to keep himself going (physically, emotionally, mentally) that we want to see him succeed. When he fails and is upset, we’re upset. When he’s happy, we’re right there with him. The Wrestler culminates in one of the most poignant, touching, and memorable scenes I’ve seen in years, and probably longer than that if you only consider movies I’ve seen in theatres. It was a punch to the gut that floored me – in a good way – and instantly cemented itself on this list the moment the credits rolled.

4. MAN ON FIRE (2004). Man on Fire, starring Denzel Washington and directed by Tony Scott, is not only a revenge thriller, to me, it is one of the definitive revenge thrillers. Set in Mexico City, a city rampant with kidnappings, the film stars Washington as ex-mercenary John Creasy, an alcoholic former warrior who is deeply haunted by the ghosts of his past. When a business man (Marc Anthony) hires Creasy in what promises to be an easy job protecting his daughter, Pita, Creasy finds himself growing unexpectedly attached to the girl in his care. Therefore, when Pita is kidnapped and apparently killed in a kidnapping gone awry (one that leads Creasy to multiple injuries), war is on.

Man on Fire had to be on this list, because it’s something that I can watch almost any time of day. If I’m sitting at home channel surfing, and this happens to come across the screen, I’ll stop and watch – at least for twenty minutes. This movie is more than just a good revenge flick, though. (That said, anyone looking to make a Punisher or Taken or The Brave One should watch Man on Fire. A lot.) The acting is incredibly solid. The relationship between Creasy and Pita feels natural with very little of the almost requisite cheese. Of course, the action and “I’m gonna kill them all” attitude is explosive (sometimes literally). On top if it all, the soundtrack, which includes the ever beautiful vocal work by Lisa Gerrard, is stirring. At almost two and a half hours, Man on Fire isn’t short, yet the running time never once deters me from throwing this into the DVD player. At the end of the day, I think that it’s the mix of incredibly strong action with at times quite moving emotion that earns Man on Fire a high spot on my list.

3. REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000). Talk about a difficult watch. Darren Aronofsky’s second film on this list (hmmm… a pattern, perhaps?) is perhaps the most visually stunning films about drug addiction that’s ever been made. It’s also one of the least compromising. So filled with imagery and stories about the horrors that drug addiction can lead to is Requiem for a Dream that I honestly believe it should be shown in high school health classes. If ever there was a movie that turned me off to drugs, this was it.

Jennifer Connelly and Jared Leto play Marion and Harry, a young couple deeply in love and enjoying their life together. Their friend Tyrone (an amazing job by Marlon Wayans – one of the only things I’ve liked a Wayans brother in) and Harry’s mother Sara (Ellen Burstyn), round out their happy little family. Over the course of the 102 minute runtime, all four key characters go from happy go luck to deeply troubled (and in trouble), all because of drugs. Harry and Tyrone’s pot use leads to dealing and to heroine addiction. Marion’s demons drive her to whoring herself out for toxins, and Sara’s addiction to medication (which have been overprescribed to her) land her mentally crippled in a hospital. What’s most amazing to me is how much I feel for all of these characters every time I watch the film and how beautiful the finished product is. Requiem is unquestionable evidence that Aronofsky knows how to set up a shot and tell a compelling story. This choice, along with The Wrestler (not surprisingly) is one of the most dramatic films on my top 10 list, and it never fails to move me. While not one that I can watch over and over due to the incredibly heavy content, Requiem for a Dream in infinitely rewarding each time I do decide to embark upon it again.

2. TSOTSI (2005) South African. Full disclosure: I love South Africa. I’ve been there twice now, and I hope to have a home there some day. That said, I can’t remember how I first heard about the 2005 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film. I think I might have watched it on an airplane to South Africa. Whatever the case might be, I was instantly taken with Tsotsi. “Tsotsi” means “thug” and is the protagonist’s street name in the stirring film about a street tough who carjacks a car, shooting the female passenger in the process, only to discover the woman’s baby in the back seat shortly thereafter. Set in the shantytowns of Johannesburg and directed by Gavin Hood (who would go on to be involved in the problematic Wolverine Origins), Tsotsi is ultimately about redemption.

As a human being, Tsotsi is trouble. Not only does he unflinchingly paralyze a woman while stealing her car, but he beats one of his own friends to a bloody pulp. However, we also get the sense that he’s someone who wants to change; only he doesn’t know how. The baby that winds up in his care becomes that opportunity for him, one that he truly begins to reform for. Like many of the films on this list, Tsotsi has a great soundtrack. South African native singer Zola adds a number of tracks, while Mark Kilian and Paul Hepker contribute the more melodic tracks featuring Vusi Mahlasela. The final scene in the film is also undeniably the most powerful, and the stirring vocal work elevates the last beat to great filmmaking. If you haven’t seen Tsotsi, please do yourself a favor and do so. Though the realistic portrait of life in Johannesburg can be difficult to take at times, the film transcends the culture gap and earns itself a top spot on any list of notable movies. It is touching, moving, and very pretty – both on the eyes and the ears.

1. GLADIATOR (2000). “And the Oscar goes to…” Gladiator blew my mind when I saw it in theaters as a high-schooler. The action not only looked amazing on the big screen, it deserved the big screen. For 2 and a half hours, I sat, jaw open, eyes wide as Maximus fought his way through gladiator after gladiator to the evil emperor. I was riveted, and it is because I’m still riveted every time I watch Gladiator to this day that it’s my favorite movie of the past decade.

As a pretentious film student going to college in New York City, I felt I had to hide my love for this movie. Sure, it won the Academy Award and was frequently referenced in film texts and magazines, but it was a big-budget action movie. It didn’t have subtitles or black and white art shots or unknown actors or achingly dark portrayals of a modern family at the brink of destruction. Therefore, it was wrong to love. One day, though, I realized that none of that mattered. Every time I channel surfed and found Gladiator, my plans were set. If I was staying in on a Friday or Saturday night with nothing to do, I would pop Gladiator in and be good to go. More than that, I studied Gladiator for its structure and dialogue, since it presented itself as the perfect learning tool for a number of scripts I was working on. When I’m not watching it, I still allow it to influence me audibly – I listen to the soundtrack (more Lisa Gerrard) while writing pretty regularly. Ridley Scott knows how to make a movie, that’s not up for debate. When he got a hold of David Franzoni’s script, he turned out one of the best epics in recent decades and reinvigorated Hollywood’s interest in a period long-forgotten by filmmakers. Gladiator is worth studying, worth watching, and worth loving. I’m so glad that Maximus killed that pretentious film student that was afraid to love this movie and freed the writer who was willing to embrace it. Yes, Sir Ridley Scott, to answer Maximus’ question, I am entertained.

So there you have it, my top 10... er 11.  Just a few fun connections to point out:

                1. Heath Ledger – The Dark Knight and Brokeback Mountain
                2. Lisa Gerrard on Soundtrack – Gladiator and Man on Fire
                3. Directed by a Scott Brother – Gladiator and Man on Fire
                4. Directed by Darren Aronofsky – The Wrestler and Requiem for a Dream
                5. Mickey Rourke – The Wrestler and Man on Fire

And finally, here are a few films not in the top 10 (or even top 20 necessarily) that I just wanted to point out for various reasons or elements: HALF NELSON for a great scene; MEMENTO for a really original way to tell a story; WALL-E and TRIPLETS OF BELLVILLE for great (and very dialogue free) animated films; MONGOL for a wonderful and gorgeous epic; HEAD-ON a German Turkish film that's a great look into another culture; UNBREAKABLE for an amazing twist (what can I say, I'm a comic book fan); and LOVE LIZA for great writing and superb performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Kathy Bates. 


Anonymous said...

That's one crazy list you've put together. But thanks for taking the time to put so much thought into it. I haven't seen Tsotsi yet, but have now added it to my Netflix queue.

Cake Man said...

Thanks for the comment - and for so many tips at scriptwrecked! It's definitely an eclectic list, I'll give you that. I hope you enjoy Tsotsi (let me know what you think of it).