Thursday, December 31, 2009

Best of the Decade: 90-81

90. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (d. Wes Anderson; 2004)

Wes Anderson’s tribute to Jacques Cousteau and the expanding possibilities of dioramic film (in many ways the animation serves as a precursor to his later “Fantastic Mr. Fox”) is a wide-eyed view of exploration and community, a film that is both tightly contained and daringly free-form. It bounces through styles and ideas, emotional highs and lows, all led by a tight-faced Bill Murray. Anderson’s faith in the family shines through the plot, whose threads of brotherly revenge and searches for father/son acceptance resonate with his larger themes.

89. In the Loop (d. Armando Ianucci; 2009)

Strangelovean satire meets profane verbal stew in Ianucci’s sublime and terrifying political comedy, where delegates from Washington and Britain engage in a war of words for control over pulling the trigger on a Middle-Eastern War. It flies hard and fast, readily exposing every character as intellectually devoid and reducing global leaders to the wit and control of teenagers vying for position on a sports team. Though its humor and verbal skirmishes are almost unparalleled, the most frightening part is that it seems far too close t a documentary for comfort.

88. Collateral (d. Michael Mann; 2004)

Michael Mann is definitely one of the boldest directors lucky enough to be financed by a major Hollywood studio. While the question of HD film and video is still an open-ended and hotly debated question, Mann took the medium to task with at least three films – “Collateral,” “Miami Vice,” and “Public Enemies” – that deftly (or bluntly) combined film and HD video to stunning effect. “Collateral” is the best of those efforts, a propulsive thriller whose grit and broken aesthetic go superbly against the A-to-Z flow of Stuart Beattie’s script. Not to mention Tom Cruise played up his crazy side, giving one of his best performances.

87. The Descent (d. Neil Marshall; 2006; Brit.)

Yes, Neil Marshall’s claustrophobic gorefest is occasionally a very silly and redundant film. But by using widescreen frames in inventive ways – putting light in one quarter of a frame and drowning out the rest in pitch black, he creates a glorious balancing act: the first half gets darker and darker, the second more and more chaotic until the emergence back into light (depending on the version you’re watching). Not only that, but it’s one of the only horror films with a nearly all-female cast (and all STRONG females, how’s that for an inversion), plus one of the few of the genre that doesn’t cave to CG. It’s an orgy of great makeup effects.

86. Hunger (d. Steve McQueen; 2008)

Visual artist Steve McQueen’s detailing of real-life prison strikes is like a mish-mash of grueling document and profound visual imagery. In many passages, it’s a solemn poem. In others, it’s a gritty and difficult prison drama; an impassioned cry against human injustices. The filmmaking is as bold as the subject, the focus as laser-sharp and intense as any, the overall muted effect of the film is harrowing and necessary for its stunning emotional impact.

85. Best in Show (d. Christopher Guest; 2000)

I’d be tempted to say this is Guest’s best mockumentary, or at least his zaniest. With his regular stable of actors in play, the divided ensemble gives the film plenty of storylines to create distinct characters whose over-zealous emotions ultimately do them in. The loose improvisations are gold, and the film’s willingness to venture into subtle, awkward exchanges and bold non-sequitors only add to the zest. Not to mention its skewering of dog shows is spot-on; I haven’t watched one the same since.

84. Volver (d. Pedro Almodovar; 2006)

Almodovar is one of the darlings of international, a beautiful and endearing voice from Spain whose projects burst with color saturation and strange plots that balance comedy and drama in unique ways. With “Volver,” he devises one of his best characters for Penelope Cruz, truly virtuous in this film about community and family, about hidden scars and unrealized desires. It’s wacky and strange, but rings with such a unique voice. Not to mention he’s one of the few filmmakers who can really write multiple strong and challenging parts for women.

83. Far From Heaven (d. Todd Haynes; 2002; US)

Regardless of the actual quality of Haynes’s most controlled film – and I could easily make the argument that it is a suffocating work of aesthetic constraints – it is nevertheless unbelievably fascinating for the way he seems to seamlessly channel Douglas Sirk to put all the tendencies of 1950s melodrama on display, particularly “All That Heaven Allows.” By perfectly recreating Sirk’s flamboyant camera positions, his surreal lighting, and his editing patterns crafted through emotion instead of narrative logic, Haynes has uprooted and dug himself into a veritable cinematic time capsule. That he’s still able to expose the genre’s contradictions and question its preoccupations with race relations, feminism, classism, and homosexuality with the force and balance of a film scholar is all the more credit to Haynes’ skill.

82. Burn After Reading (d. Joel & Ethan Coen; 2008; US)

The Coens continue to more radically subvert generic systems in their loopy ensemble comedy, meshing screwball comedy with espionage thrillers to bloody and cynical effect. A collision of two distinctly different systems of structure and purpose is an undoubtedly jarring and comedic experience, but with their sharply written character observations and flowing dialogue, the Coens pull it off. Theirs is a study of human stupidity and cultural woes, where greed, sex, and superficiality are crucified as some of our deepest vices. The real joke is still on the audience, as their perfect anti-ending makes all too clear.

81. Under the Sand (d. Francois Ozon; 2000)

I have to wonder in the back of my head what David Lynch would make of Ozon’s “woman in trouble film,” for it’s one of the best Lynch films he never made – boldly surrealist, unflinchingly ambiguous and cerebral while orchestrated around a magnificent lead performance. “Under the Sand” is a psychological exploration of denial through explicitly cinematic means; it’s easily one of the most intelligent films about a fragile mental condition this past decade (even in the face of a multitude of movies that would cheapen or sweeten other’s suffering for our own enlightenment – “A Beautiful Mind,” I’m looking at you!)

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