Friday, February 26, 2010

Top 101 Movies of the Decade (50-46)

50. Gangs of New York (Martin Scorsese, 2002)

Gangs of New York is Martin Scorsese's moderately insane tale of New York City in the 1800s. Opening in 1846, the tale begins with a battle between a nativist gang, led by Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis), and the Irish street gant, led by Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson). The initial battle is beautifully structured and is a wonderful vignette to open film. Neeson is compelling here, his character treating the preparation for battle with a near religious significance. Of course, the battle ends with Bill the Butcher killing Vallon, in view of Vallon's son.

Jump to 1863, with the threat of the Civil War draft hanging in the air, Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) seeks revenge against the man who killed his father. Scorsese's vision of New York is sprawling and epic - the locations were all built from scratch to completion on Italian soundstages. The sets, and use of extras, are so effective and compelling that they very nearly become distracting.

Both lead actors are magnificent. DiCaprio, who might have had the finest decade of any actor, brings surprising intensity and weight to the role. This performance was part of DiCaprio's transition from great child actor to one of the best in the business. Daniel Day-Lewis gives one of the most effectively over-the-top performances of the decade. Bill the Butcher is a fascinating and menacing figure, it's impossible to turn away when he is on screen. Day-Lewis would give a markedly similar performance late in the decade in Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood. There the performance devolves into scenery chewing by the end - it was too much for the material - here it fits perfectly into Scorsese's vision.

49. (500) Days of Summer (Marc Webb, 2009)

(500) Days of Summer is the truest romantic comedy on the modern male perspective on relationships and dating I've seen. It's also my favorite romantic comedy of the decade. Starring a perfectly cast tandem of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel, the film is a romantic comedy with a twist. The film is told out of order, bouncing around the relationship between Tom (Gordon-Levitt) and Summer (Deschanel). The careful editing creates a number of great juxtapositions and, in a way, it captures how memory works. When you think back on a relationship with someone, it's never chronological - the memories come in waves, each building off the predecessor and leading to the next. (500) Days of Summer captures this wonderfully.

In another twist on genre (and gender) convention, Tom is the hopeless romantic and Summer simply doesn't believe in true love. Both actors are wonderful. Their performances are honest and genuine - it helps that the two seem to have a great natural chemistry together. The film also has two of my favorite scenes of 2009: one an unexpected, and hilarious, musical number and the other a fascinating and quite literal examination of expectations and hopes versus reality.

Director Marc Webb has a wonderful sense of creativity, style and emotion - I can only hope he brings those sensibilities to the set when he takes over the reboot of the Spider-Man series in the coming years.

48. Catch Me If You Can (Steven Spielberg, 2002)

In a decade so centered on looking at the dark underbelly of 50s and 60s Americana (Far From Heaven, Revolutionary Road, TV's Mad Men, among many others), one of the aughts' most likable movies embraced the myth. Filmed with a bright, cheery, almost reverent air, Catch Me If You Can tells the true story of Frank Abagnale, Jr., a teenager who realizes he has a gift at lying and conning and proceeds to use his skills to finagle millions of dollars. The film is perfectly cast, starting with the stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks. Tom Hanks brings to life what should be the second banana role as the investigator after Abagnale. Christopher Walken and Martin Sheen are both memorable in smaller roles. It speaks to the quality of the casting that so many of the women cast in relatively small roles for Abagnale to pursue have gone on to great things: Jennifer Garner, Amy Adams, Elizabeth Banks, Ellen Pompeo.

In a way, this is the perfect role for Leonardo DiCaprio. As an actor, DiCaprio is blessed with a the gift of likability. He is effortlessly charming and, seemingly, has to consciously tone it down at times in his roles. Here he puts his charm to full effect. Frank Abagnale is a con man, but not the over-prepared Danny Ocean-type. He flies by the seat of his pants, often creating and selling elaborate fictions with an effortless confidence. One example: having transferred to a new high school, Abagnale walks into his classroom. Realizing the class is expecting a substitute, the charm kicks in. He walks to the board and writes his name down, then instructs the class, in no uncertain terms, exactly how his last name is to be pronounced. It's a great scene to watch - utterly amazing but completely believable.

Steven Spielberg is the master of high quality, mass appeal movies. He is the perfect director for this material and it shows, each scene is brought to life with a sense of wonder and joy. This is one of the most fun movies of the decade.

47. 3:10 to Yuma (James Mangold, 2007)

For whatever reason, the Western has never really captured my imagination. But the combination of stars Russell Crowe and Christian Bale and Walk the Line director James Mangold drew me to the theater regardless. And what a great experience it was. The plot is simple: gang leader Ben Wade (Crowe) is captured and Dan Evans (Bale) is part of the crew who must escort Wade to the 3:10 train to Yuma and prison.

James Mangold has a gift for getting the best out of his actors (see: Walk the Line, Cop Land, Girl, Interrupted) and Yuma is no exception. When properly motivated, Russell Crowe is as fine an actor as there is today. Here he is motivated. He brings the Wade character to life in a way that is impressive and menacing, without ever resorting to histrionic scenery chewing. Perhaps more impressive is Christian Bale's work. Playing the quiet noble hero is often a thankless role, but Bale does stellar work often with just a simple facial expression. This is the Bale whose work I love, not the impostor chewing the scenery in The Dark Knight and Terminator Salvation. The movie's greatest scene occurs when Crowe and Bale are together in a hotel prior to the film's inevitable final shootout. Each plays the scene perfectly, giving it great wit and impact. If only they made more Westerns like this...

46. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Alfonso Cuaron, 2004)

The Harry Potter series might be one of the most impressive accomplishments of the decade in film. Not just because the entire series is actually going to get made (this never happens, just ask the Narnia producers), but because the series has actually grown in quality since its inception. The series began with two doggedly faithful adaptations to J.K. Rowling's original work from director Christopher Columbus. Neither film is particularly compelling, but their genius is in the casting that shines through in the later films. Every single actor in the series is perfectly cast, without exception. The third film deals specifically with the escape of a deadly wizard named Sirius Black (Gary Oldman). The story is far more menacing than the first two as Black represents a tangible and frightening threat to our heroes.

It isn't until this story that the core trio of Daniel Radcliffe (Harry), Rupert Grint (Ron) and Emma Watson (Hermione) really get a chance to shine. Gone is the mugging for the camera seen in the first film, replaced with legitimate performances. Radcliffe in particular begins to show himself as a soulful and effective actor. Alan Rickman is incredibly amusing as the hated Professor Snape. Michael Gambon, replacing the deceased Richard Harris, manages to improve on the performance of a cinema legend. Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane and Jason Isaacs are also effective. David Thewlis joins the cast as a professor who had known Harry's now-deceased parents. He brings a tender nurturing quality to the role that's incredibly effective. Gary Oldman is one of the most versatile actors around and he's at his best here. There's a sense throughout the whole film that all the actors really believe in this material and embrace it.

Now what distinguishes Prisoner of Azkaban from the other Potter movies? The spectacular direction of Alfonso Cuaron. Cuaron's glimpse into the world of Harry Potter is so effective because the magic takes a backseat, it becomes a natural part of the world the characters inhabit. The film is beautiful to look at, everything from the set designs to the special effects (the Dementors are a frightening visual creation) to color palette of each scene all work to enhance the mood. Cuaron, as well, captures the loneliness and longing that underlies the Potter character in a way that has eluded the other directors. There is a sadness in Harry - he grew up friendless with an aunt and uncle who never wanted him after his parents were murdered - and Cuaron embraces that aspect of the character to great effect. While the first two films, Sorcerer's Stone and Chamber of Secrets, are full of wonder at the world of wizards, Azkaban, to its benefit, acts as a more focused character study. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is one of the finest fantasy films of the decade.

I should mention that the series has gone on strong since Cuaron's film. The fourth movie, Mike Newell's Goblet of Fire, is, while a step down from Cuaron's work, an improvement on the first two. For the fifth film director David Yates took over to great effect. He returned for the sixth film and is currently putting the finishing touches on the seventh and eighth films (the final book is being produced as two films). His dark and spectacularly well made take on the series in Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince was a very near miss for my Top 101.

Runner-Up: Blood Diamond (Zwick, 2006)
Runner-Up: Open Water (Kentis, 2004)
Runner-Up: Cinderella Man (Howard, 2005)
Runner-Up: Tigerland (Schumacher, 2000)
Runner-Up: Best in Show (Guest, 2000)
Runner-Up: Letters from Iwo Jima (Eastwood, 2006)
Runner-Up: Saw (Wan, 2004)
101: Big Fish (Burton, 2003)
100: State of Play (Macdonald, 2009)
99: Marley & Me (Frankel, 2008)
98: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Fincher, 2008)
97: Sunshine (Boyle, 2007)
96: 8 Mile (Hanson, 2002)
95: 21 Grams (Iñárritu, 2003)
94: The Hurt Locker (Bigelow, 2009)
93: Y tu mamá también (Cuaron, 2001)
92: Breach (Ray, 2007)
91: Away from Her (Polley, 2007)
90: Stranger Than Fiction (Forster, 2006)
89: Old School (Phillips, 2003)
88: The Queen (Frears, 2006)
87: Garden State (Braff, 2004)
86: Miracle (O'Connor, 2004)
85: Banlieue 13 (Morel, 2004)
84: The Fall (Singh, 2008)
83: Spider-Man/Spider-Man 2.1 (Raimi, 2002/2004)
82: The Last King of Scotland (Macdonald, 2006)
81: Pineapple Express (Green, 2008)
80: Into the Wild (Penn, 2007)
79: Juno (Reitman, 2007)
78: Cast Away (Zemeckis, 2000)
77: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Burton, 2007)
76: The 40 Year Old Virgin (Apatow, 2005)
75: Michael Clayton (Gilroy, 2007)
74: Friday Night Lights (Berg, 2004)
73: The Descent (Marshall, 2006)
72: In the Loop (Iannucci, 2009)
71: In the Shadow of the Moon (Sington, 2007)
70: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Black, 2005)
69: No Country for Old Men (Coen/Coen, 2007)
68: Superbad (Mottola, 2007)
67: Insomnia (Nolan, 2002)
66: The Road (Hillcoat, 2009)
65: Defiance (Zwick, 2008)
64: Up in the Air (Reitman, 2009)
63: Eastern Promises (Cronenberg, 2007)
62: Finding Nemo (Stanton, 2003)
61: Låt den rätte komma in (Alfredson, 2008)
60: Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (Verbinski, 2003)
59: Forgetting Sarah Marshall (Stoller, 2008)
58: Hot Fuzz (Wright, 2007)
57: Moon (Jones, 20009)
56: Collateral (Mann, 2004)
55: Munich (Spielberg, 2005)
54: The Visitor (McCarthy, 2008)
53: El orfanato (Bayona, 2007)
52: Hellboy II: The Golden Army (del Toro, 2008)
51: Adaptation. (Jonze, 2002)
50: Gangs of New York (Scorsese, 2002)
49: (500) Days of Summer (Webb, 2009)
48: Catch Me If You Can (Spielberg, 2002)
47: 3:10 to Yuma (Mangold, 2007)
46: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Cuaron, 2004)


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