Looking over this list of The Fien Print’s Top Movies of the Decade, I’m already liking it less today than when I started yesterday. I’ve pushed some things up, pushing some things down and I’m wishing I could start over. Lousy list fatigue.
Anyway, glance over No. 31-21 if you haven’t yet. That post also includes my explanation for just how definitive this list is NOT. It is, as I said yesterday, a lark. And even if I don’t necessarily buy the order anymore, I still love these movies…
20) “Lord of the Rings” Trilogy (dir. Peter Jackson) – Peter Jackson sunk hundreds of millions and years of production into 9+ hours of J.R.R. Tolkien adaptation and what’d he get out of it? Billions in worldwide box office, a boatload of Oscars and a lifetime free pass from certain segments of the fanboy community. For three years, the “Lord of the Rings” films were something to look forward to every winter, as Jackson kept raising and raising the ante on scope and visual effects. And all three films sit on my DVD shelf in their bulky four-disc sets. So why is it that I’d still prefer to watch “The Frighteners,” “Dead Alive” or “Meet the Feebles” any day of the week? Oh and any objections to the three movies being listed as one should be measured against the reality that none of them would have made the list alone.
19) “Brick” (dir. Rian Johnson) – I love the audacity of the whole endeavor. A high school drama in which everybody talks like an outcast from a film noir mystery? It’s a cheap movie and it isn’t covering up its cheapness. Sometimes the lighting is off. The ADRed dialogue sometimes can’t match room tone from shot to shot. A few of the supporting performances are, to put it kindly, slightly-less-than-professional. But Joseph Gordon-Levitt is absolutely terrific in the midst of a decade of career-making work in admirable indies (“Manic,” “Mysterious Skin”) and semi-indies (“The Lookout,” “(500) Days of Summer”). This is one of those movies where I’m so amazed that it works as well as it does, that I ignore the places where it falls a little flat.
18) “The Squid and the Whale” (dir. Noah Baumbach) – Sometimes good movies hurt. Sometimes comedies hurt. My parents have been married for 39 years, so it’s not like “The Squid and the Whale” hit home for me personally, with its depiction of a family in the midst of divorce, but it’s so searing that it felt honest and real at every turn, grounded by the performances by Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline and even William Baldwin. You spend so much time cringing and smarting from the emotional beating that you don’t realize that between the dark moments, Noah Baumbach has made a tremendously funny movie.
17) “Gosford Park” (dir. Robert Altman) – A consummately crafted parlour (gotta include the “u”) mystery. Julian Fellowes gets a Robert Altman twist as one of the decade’s great casts — including Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Kristin Scott Thomas, Tom Hollander, Jeremy Northam, Kelly Macdonald, Helen Mirren, Alan Bates, Emily Watson, Derek Jacobi, Richard E. Grant and Clive Owen — get their “Upstairs/Downstairs” on for two hours of twists, turns, overlapping dialogue and period artistry. Oscar voters, though, decided that was the year for a Ron Howard coronation. As a result, the Academy had to give Altman an honorary Oscar five years later when he really deserved this one in competition.
16) “Collateral” (dir. Michael Mann) – Much respect for genre filmmaking done right, at least in this camp. A great hitman movie. An even better Los Angeles movie. Heck, even a good Tom Cruise movie, though he was outshined by Jamie Foxx (better here than in his showier Oscar-winning role for “Ray” that same year). Not only is it breathlessly exciting, philosophically intriguing and just plain fun, but “Collateral” is one of the best examples of how to play to the strengths of digital photography without ever for a second pretending it’s film (except for the parts of the movie that are film, mind you). The movie’s most impressive trick: Creating the illusion that anybody in Los Angeles rides the subway.
15) “The Prestige” (dir. Christopher Nolan) – High on the list of Movies That Get Better Every Time You Watch Them. Christopher Nolan’s “placeholder” movie between “The Dark Knight” and “Batman Begins” makes it this high on my list despite a last shot that bungles what ought to be the movie’s most powerful and revealing moment. It’s a complex and rigorous tribute to magic, both fabricated and inexplicable and it features what may be Hugh Jackman’s one true piece of superior big screen acting and one of the savviest pieces of Scarlett Johansson As Glorified Prop casting. It’s also beautifully shot and the editing pulls off its own sleight of hand.
14) “Zodiac” (dir. David Fincher) – There’s something stealthy about “Zodiac” that almost requires an immediate second viewing. There was some initial ambiguity from audiences regarding what “Zodiac” was trying to be, especially since the studio pitched it as a serial killer thriller from the director of “Seven.” Well, it obviously wasn’t that. What “Zodiac” is is a multi-tiered procedural about a trio of professionals obsessed with a crime that astute viewers already knew would never be adequately solved. Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr. are all great, as are Anthony Edwards and John Carroll Lynch. Like “Collateral,” “Zodiac” is another example of making the most of digital and the extras on the DVD showing exactly how much effects work went into the movie only added to my appreciation. Speaking of the DVD, definitely watch Fincher’s directors’ cut, which takes an already meaty movie and expands it by 18 minutes without it feeling any longer.
13) “Oldboy” (dir. Chan-wook Park) – This Korean favorite works is effective as a revenge thriller, as an existential mystery or as a tortured drama with an amazing performance by Choi Min-Sik at the center. Over two hours, “Oldboy” is exciting, disturbing and finally just plain shocking. And that’s not “shocking” in your cheap, Shyamalan-ian version of the word. That’s like “whack you in the stomach with a baseball bat” shocking.
12) “Wonder Boys” (dir. Curtis Hanson) – My favorite Michael Chabon book gets a light-on-its-feet adaptation courtesy of writer Steve Kloves and Curtis Hanson. “Wonder Boys” is one of the purest articulations of the frustrations that I’d imagine must come from being a creative person. It’s all built around what may be the best performance of Michael Douglas’ career, an ego-less piece of slovenly wisdom and comedy. Tobey Maguire, Frances McDormand and Robert Downey Jr. are top-notch and Katie Holmes gave the sort of sparkling, scene-stealingly sexy performance that you might have thought carried the portent of greater stardom. Also, much love to “Wonder Boys” for getting Bob Dylan a well-deserved Oscar for “Things Have Changed.”
11) “Children of Men” (dir. Alfonso Cuaron) – Hey, that’s two Clive Owen films in this group! And he appeared in at least one movie in my Top 10. Who knew Clive Owen had such a good decade? Alfonso Cuaron’s sci-fi allegory is the decade’s second most Kubrickian film, with its contrast of chilly visuals and high emotional stakes, plus the prodigious tracking shots which dominate the film’s intentionally chaotic second half. It’s a film of such ridiculously and over-the-top directorial skill (aided and abetted by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki) that I’m able to forgive its overreaching and its tendency to spell out its themes. I mean, it’s a dark fairy tale. That’s what it’s supposed to do, right? [Hmmm… The previous three films go “Oldboy,” “Boys” and “Men.” Seems like the Riddle of the Sphinx mandates that the order should have been “Wonder Boys,” “Children of Men” and “Oldboy.” Blew that one.]
Coming up in the next group of 10? Another trilogy, another Christopher Nolan film and several films that moviegoers hated…