Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Best of the Decade: 70-61

70. L’Enfant (d. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne; 2005)

The Dardennes, whose films are already such fragile social realist dramas, take an obvious page from Robert Bresson in their study of lovers undone by the child that’s supposed to complete their family. One decision only leads to a worse decision in this tricky tale of redemption. With lots of virtuoso shooting and acting that creates as astounding level of invisibility, the French brothers successfully keep alive cinema’s deep tradition of social consciousness and complexity without for one frame dunking into TV-movie terrain. Their skill is making their camera devastatingly selective; one gets the feeling that they’re showing exactly what needs to be shown at any given moment, moving in and following at the perfect pace.

69. Million Dollar Baby (d. Clint Eastwood; 2004)

Eastwood’s economy as a filmmaker helps his boxing drama cut straight to its emotional center. Matches in the ring are obvious allegories for the continued matches in real life, where a white-trash woman and a washed-up manager seek a mutual redemption until their success goes horribly awry. With sharp contrast in lighting and some of Eastwood’s simplest (and most effective) direction, the film rises from its melodramatic plot into a complex consideration of life’s victories and losses.

68. (500) Days of Summer (d. Marc Webb; 2009)

Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy and girl ultimately fall in love. Webb’s premiere film breaks down and rebuilds the classic romantic comedy formula for a new decade and new generation. With seeming unlimited bounds of visual invention, it utilizes color psychology, dream scenes, musical numbers, testimonials, and many more in its deep scrutiny of the mediated idea of love.

67. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (d. Steven Spielberg; 2001)

“AI” might be the most beautiful mess of a movie this decade produced. It might be a once-in-a-lifetime collision of two of the world’s most gargantuan talents: the cold, deliberate, cynical, and provocative intelligence of Stanley Kubrick meshing up against the heartwarming, superficial, flashy hopefulness of Steven Spielberg, who filmed the project based on treatments and pre-production work Kubrick did before his death. With wild changes in tone, style, and character, and stunningly diverse special effects, “AI” is an absolute wonder, a truly ambitious film.

66. Sideways (d. Alexander Payne; 2004)

It’s been said that the reason so many critics loved “Sideways” in 2004 is because it was about critics. Not only that, but a failed writer wallowing in the wake of his latest abomination. Several years down the road, it’s one of Payne’s best, a biting character study that perfectly rides that rail between indie and studio comedy. The writing and acting is spot-on, idiosyncratic even, with each scene doing more and more to peel back the grotesque layers of its two male leads. Payne’s skill is in how he lights and frames each scene to catch and complement those moments of personal self-doubt and self-loathing.

65. Capturing the Friedmans (d. Andrew Jarecki; 2003)

Relying on family videos and testimonials shot decades apart to pry into the public events that tore one family apart, Jarecki’s documentary is painfully focused in its procedural tone, but as it tries to wade through complex contradictions between family members, it becomes more about the disparity between fact and memory. Home videos have allowed us to preserve our deepest memories, but to what end? This doc deftly asks how video informs our memories, how our memories defeat the facts of video, and how families will turn tragedy into war.

64. Elephant (d. Gus Van Sant; 2003)

Turning Columbine into a tightly woven and interlocking film only four years after it rocked a nation to its core may have been edgy and controversial, but it’s hard to imagine a more respectful and contemplative treatment. The school itself is never named, and the film floats mostly on a series of extended tracking shots that follows various students around during the course of the day, continuously backing up and starting over as if to delay the inevitable. When the violence does hit, Van Sant doesn’t pull any artsy punches, and when the dust settles it’s clear he’s made a film that carefully addresses the problem of violence in youth while paying tribute (to the victims) with how alive and fleeting it feels to be young.

63. The Queen (d. Stephen Frears; 2006)

It would take Peter Morgan to write such an expose about how the Royal Family carefully dealt with the political fall-out of Princess Di’s death, but it would also necessarily require Stephen Frears to balance the political drama with a comedy of manners. With Helen Mirren and Michael Sheen in the pivotal roles, Di’s death is wedged between two very different idealists with their own concerns for Britain. Regardless of how much of the “behind closed doors” stuff is actually true, the film’s frantic build through several days deconstructs and reconstructs the mythic status of royal leadership with just enough sympathy.

62. The Piano Teacher (d. Michael Haneke; 2002)

Haneke’s exploration of repressed feminine sexuality is a kind of terrifying horror movie, though it has minimal blood-letting and suspense. Rather, its force emerges from the cold face of Isabelle Huppert, so captivating as a woman trying to awaken and control her spiraling sexual urges. Haneke shows things bluntly. They occur so much as they are filmed, and his control of the frame is so intense, his response to maternal fiction and domestic thrillers so unique, it warrants him the highest praise.

61. No End in Sight (Charles Ferguson; 2007)

Lots of people tried their best to make an incisive documentary about US’s war with Iraq – perhaps most notably Michael Moore, whose “Fahrenheit 9/11” was as scattershot as anything he’s ever made. The best is unquestionably “No End in Sight,” a devastating and detailed look into the invasion up to early 2007, complete with statistical analysis, archival footage, and exclusive interviews with higher-ups. Instead of castrating the Bush administration, Ferguson plays it cool, asking, how did this get so messed up, instead of asking, who’s to blame.

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