Friday, January 1, 2010

Best of the Decade: 80-71

80. The Proposition (d. John Hillcoat; 2005)

Australian cinema delivers its most potent and visceral answer to the American Western yet, taking to task its own violent past while having enough brain and brawn to cross over the genre’s inherent concerns with honor, masculinity, race, and civilization. It’s uncompromising in its build and seething in its desaturated cinematography.

79. Traffic (d. Steven Soderbergh; 2000)

It’s been a bit of a troubling decade for one of independent cinema’s first wunderkinds, as he bounced back and forth from stylish studio films (the “Ocean’s” trilogy) to quirky personal projects that rarely went anywhere. To win his Best Director Oscar, he seemed to plow back into Griffithian drama, even down to the color tints of many scenes. His vast, sprawling tapestry examines the drug war from multiple angles and perspectives, both sympathetic and unsympathetic. It may be his most varied and tautly executed film, and certainly the moment where he best straddled his bizarre passion projects and his mainstream sensibilities.

78. Fantastic Mr. Fox (d. Wes Anderson; 2009)

Indeed quote-unquote fantastic as well as one of Anderson’s best films, Mr. Fox is a technological wonder; a major accomplishment for any filmmaker on the simple scale of craft. What makes it so endearing is that Anderson’s aesthetic actually survives in animation – if anything, it comes more to life. The distillation of emotions, the complex emotions of fractured families, the dioramic storytelling, and the centered compositions all work, while the director’s penchant for quirky dialogue and characterization also shine. It’s wildly entertaining.

77. Letters from Iwo Jima (d. Clint Eastwood; 2006)

Definitely the better half of Eastwood’s “Iwo Jima epics,” this look into how the enemy survived in trenches and caves as the US battered the island works for how personal and simple the story is. Eastwood devotes enough time to military balance and troop banter, letting the focus rest on the tragedy of the soldiers and not necessarily the generals. Though the representation of Japanese culture is stereotypical at best, the war scenes are wonderfully photographed. Eastwood doesn’t consider them the enemy, merely the hopeless victims undone by their own strategy.

76. Amores Perros (d. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu; 2000; Mex.)

Inarritu has come to be one of the vanguard of New Mexican cinema with his massive, gritty, interlocking yet dispersed dramas about humans thrown into unexpected circumstances. Centralized in Mexico City and played out in three interlocking stories that zig and zag through a focused chronologies, “Amores Perros” is a violent meditation on the costs of love, a 21st century tragedy about human disaffection and a startling piece of sizzling style.

75. Drag Me to Hell (d. Sam Raimi; 2009)

Sam Raimi goes back to his horror roots and revives the gross-out possession sub-genre in one fell swoop. With better make-up and manic set-pieces than any of the uber-serious torture-horror films of the decade, “Drag Me to Hell” provides both a great heroine (Alison Lohman brilliantly goes from tortured female to butt-kicking revenge seeker), a dazzling tight rope between macabre humor and genuine terror, and a weird commentary on the current economic woes. Raimi’s in control of every trick he plays in the frame.

74. Kings and Queen (d. Arnaud Desplechin; 2004)

Desplechin’s films are big, fat, bulging character portraits. They’re massive and overwhelming, but his level-headedness (even in the face of stylized indulgences) make them work. Here, he focuses on two ex-lovers, a respected introvert and a supposedly crazy extrovert, trying to turn their lives away from crisis point. With sudden shifts and bursts into jagged editing and jaunts into cinematic and literary references, it almost feels like a film bursting at its seams, or like a well-mixed beverage threatening to over-pour from the edges.

73. Reprise (d. Joachim Trier; 2006)

If anyone’s left wondering if the anarchist verve of the French New Wave will ever resurface like one cool zombie, Trier’s “Reprise” provides a comfortable answer – an opening act that shoots in and around with focused and internalized editing, a story about dislocated youth and artistic ambition. Instead of drowning under its dramatics, its touchstones on style, gender, and culture make it a decidedly modern film about artistic struggles.

72. Up in the Air (d. Jason Reitman; 2009)

It’s hard to define a social and cultural moment while still inside of it, but Reitman seems to do just that as he comes of age as a great craftsman. The film nails the bittersweet existence of its central character, a man in a life transition who tries to transition others. Watching it brings to mind films like Wilder’s “The Apartment,” which managed to show the problems of societies through one person while still remaining a whimsical character study.

71. Youth Without Youth (d. Francis Ford Coppola; 2007)

Coppola’s diabolical head-trip of a movie, his first after a decade long absence, has the feel of a master craftsmen pulling at the frays of the medium he loves. “Youth” is a beautiful film with editing and cinematography that feels borderline experimental, with upside down shots, and a murky, convoluted narrative that has something to do with discovering ultimate knowledge. For the film’s protagonist as for Coppola, it’s all about the journey, and though the film as a whole may not entirely work, it’s absolutely exhilarating to watch.

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