Tuesday, December 29, 2009

My Decade in Movies [Zombie's Top Ten, Part I]

When 'Backer posed the challenge to the League of listing and explaining our top movies of the decade, I immediately spent the next several weeks listing every movie I'd absolutely loved in the last ten years. I was left with a list of a few dozen movies that I found very memorable - and absolutely no way to narrowing that list down. What criteria am I supposed to apply? Do I go for the movies I had the most fun watching, or the ones I felt had the best screenplays? Which ones I've re-watched the most times? None of these choices seemed to fit, so I decided to try something a bit different.

This last decade was a very transformative one for me - as both a person and as a writer. I started the aughts in high school - over the next ten years, I'd go through four years of screenwriting training at NYU, meet lots of inspirational, like-minded writers, graduate and eventually start pre-production on my own film. I'm in a far, far different place going into 2010 than I was in 2000.What does that mean in terms of films, though?

For this prompt, I'll explore the ten movies over the last decade that I feel impacted me the most on a writer. When I look back on my (hopefully long, hopefully successful) screenwriting career many years from now, I feel like my writing will still show some trace of these movies that just hit me at the right place at the right time.

So, without further ado...

2001 - Mulholland Drive

Sometime just before seeing Mulholland Drive was when I decided I was going to pursue a career as a screenwriter. I'd always toyed with the idea growing up, writing plays and short movies for my friends and family, but the summer of 2001 was when the idea cemented in my brain. I am going to be a writer even if it takes me my whole damn life.

I had first seen Blue Velvet sometime a few months earlier and it quickly became one of my favorite movie (and still is, to this day). The concept of auteur filmmaking was still pretty foreign to me. (I understood that Dario Argento and Quentin Tarantino had styles they carried from film to film, but that was as deep as my knowledge went.) David Lynch was one of the first directors whose body of work I specifically hunted down and barreled through. Mulholland Drive was the first Lynch movie that was new at the time I saw it.

Mulholland Drive begins as one thing, but by the time the movie hits its three-quarter mark you're not sure what it is at all anymore. The surreal fever dream that breaks out for the last half hour of the movie was one of the most unsettling, horrific, haunting pieces of film that I'd been exposed to. (Seriously - the film goes batshit crazy.) I remember coming to the end of the movie, calling a friend while the credits were still rolling and urging him to drive over, and then watching it all again that same night.

We debated the meaning of Mulholland Drive's ending until the wee hours of the morning, coming up with several different theories but none that seemed to fit exactly. This process repeated again and again - I'd watch and rewatch the movie with different friends, family members and other acquaintances, hoping that someone would catch something that I'd missed each time and crack the Mulholland Drive code. What the hell did it mean?

After I learned that the movie started as an aborted ABC TV series and that the last half hour probably didn't have any meaning at all - I at first felt let down, but after a while I embraced it more than ever. Some films tell a story. Some tell a story with a message. And some - like this one - don't really have a story or a message; but, they create a unique experience. Despite my search for the answers to Mulholland Drive proved to be frustrating and futile, watching the movie was an experience I enjoyed, the first time I watched it through the tenth time. And that has to be a sign of asuccess, right?

2000 - Battle Royale

I came across Battle Royale in a very roundabout way - which makes sense, as growing up a teenager in rural Ohio you just don't discover foreign film on your own. (I didn't see a video store that stocked any until I moved to NYC and was spoiled by the recently-deceased Kim's Video.)

I caught the Flaming Lips touring with Beck when their tour stopped in Cleveland in '02. During the Lips' vibrant and glitter-fueled stage show a large screen hung where scenes of exploding Japanese schoolgirls were projected behind the band. Naturally, this violent, bloody imagery stuck in my brain - when I got home from the concert I immediately jumped on the internet to find out just what the hell Wayne Coyne & Co. had exposed me to. It didn't take long for someone to point me to Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale.

I bought a horribly-subtitled bootleg DVD from eBay and eagerly dug in. Wow - these crazy kids were just massacre-ing the bajeezus out of each other! I have never seen anything this insane! I wish I knew could tell what the heck was going on! It was love at first sight.

With a new awareness that filmmaking happened outside of the U.S., U.K. and Canada, I then wondered - was all foreign film like this? Are they all this messed up?

2001 - Amelie

Aaaand Amelie proved to be the polar opposite of Battle Royale. As soon as my eyes were opened to foreign film, I eagerly grabbed my Columbia House catalog, flipped to the back and immediately ordered all five non-English movies they had in-stock. Two weeks later my package arrived and I tore in.

Whoooooa, whoa, whoa. This movie didn't have any axe-wielding Asian school girls, but it certainly had a lot of other things to offer. I was instantly enamored with the director, Jeunet, and his adorable, waifish leading lady, Audrey Tautou. To this day, no movie has outright charmed my pants off like this one. It's as twee as can be, but you can't help but just love it to death.

I can probably blame Amelie's influence for turning the female leads of my screenplays into Manic Pixie Dream Girls - a tendency I've been working to break myself of. The next time I write a female character whose sole personality trait is "cute" - I'll look in your direction, Miss Tautou.

In any case, this movie pushed me head-over-heels for foreign cinema. Practically to a fault, actually - for a period I'd convinced myself that Hollywood was morally bankrupt and completely bereft of ideas. I might have been right - but by limiting myself to subtitled flicks for this period caused me to miss out on a lot of really great domestic cinema.

2001 - Spirited Away

Let's go back a little bit. My initial fear of subtitles for some reason didn't apply to anime. I was an an anime nerd from my early teenage years, when my older cousin introduced me to Akira, Project A-Ko and the like. I did not fear subtitles on my animated films; on the contrary, I preferred them. (Yeah, I was THAT guy on the internet forums.)

Spirited Away (and a few choice selections from the rest of Miyazaki's filmography) is the perfect example of what a filmmaker with unlimited imagination can do when they are presented with unlimited means. An entire world is created here, much more 'real' than anything the James Camerons and Peter Jacksons of the world can make with truckloads of studio money. That's the animation advantage - if you can dream something up, it can be realized visually. It's a shame that so few animation studios outside of Ghibli and Pixar seem to be aware of animation's full potential.

The child enters a surreal dreamworld in this film that is mysterious, beautiful and terrifying all at the same time - and absolutely believable. To me, this movie does everything that Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are tried to do earlier this year - only so much better.

2001 - Wet Hot American Summer

Wet Hot American Summer seemed like a rare creature in the early 2000s - a lowbrow comedy that wasn't an American Pie, Scary Movie or Austin Powers sequel - could it be?! And it DOESN'T star Rob Schneider or David Spade? God, what a black hole the late '90s, early '00s were for humor...

Wet Hot American Summer is silly. That's really the best way to describe it. If you can buy that everything that happens in this movie takes place over the course of one day, you're gold. If you've already accepted that the 30-something actors are playing teenagers, this shouldn't be a problem. By the time you get past all of the above, you won't question talking soup cans, telekinetic teens or children averting armageddon from the comfort of their summer camp. This movie is all over the place, but in a good way. Sure, there's crude humor in there, but the film isn't driven purely by dick jokes like way too many comedies are these days.

This movie showed that a script can be silly for silliness' sake and still become a viable movie in the new millenium. Most importantly, Wet Hot American Summer reminded me you don't have to f*ck a pie to get a laugh.

[Check back later for the second half of Zombie's Top Ten of the Decade]


Onyx said...

Love Amelie. I remember watching it and thinking that I would just die if somebody didn't kiss her in the end.

king suckerman said...

Never saw Wet Hot American Summer. I am rectifying that tonight.

Zombie said...

Get right to that!

king suckerman said...

I saw it. AWESOME.