Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Top 101 Movies of the Decade (55-51)

55. Munich (Steven Spielberg, 2005)

Munich is one of the most interesting projects in Steven Spielberg's varied resume. Munich tells the story of a team of Israeli assassins assigned to eliminate various individuals associated with the attack at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Eric Bana gives the best performance of his career as the former Mossad agent tasked with leading the team. Bana, always a soulful and contemplative actor, puts his skill set to powerful effect here. Particularly effective are Bana's handful of scenes with Mathieu Amalric (great in El scaphandre et le papillon and as the villain in Quantum of Solace), who plays the informant that helps the team acquire their targets. Daniel Craig's powerful gravitas stands out as the team's wheelman. Each assassination stands out as uniquely compelling thanks to the emphasis on both the preparation for and aftermath of the attack on each target. Spielberg's direction is, as always, a thing of beauty: particularly memorable is his staggering depictions of the actual Munich massacre.

54. The Visitor (Thomas McCarthy, 2008)

Sometimes one of the best things to happen to a movie is to give a career character actor a chance to star in a role that suits his strengths. Richard Jenkins has roughly eighty credits on his resume over the past 25 years, hardly any of them in a leading roll. From junky action movies like The Core to goofy comedies like Step Brothers to more serious dramas like Snow Falling on Cedars, Jenkins often got just a scant few moments to make an impression. Thomas McCarthy made the very wise decision to give Jenkins an opportunity to lead in The Visitor. Jenkins plays a college professor, emotionally detached and disinterested since the passing of his wife. It isn't until returning to his New York City apartment and finding a couple living there that he begins to come to life. Feeling sympathy for the difficulties of the couple, illegal immigrants who had been scammed into staying at his apartment, he invites them to stay with him and gradually forms a connection with the couple based around music. Jenkins' wife had been a pianist and his new ward, Syrian immigrant Tarek, is a virtuoso on the drum. Jenkins as well forms a bond with Tarek's mother, played with great depth by Hiam Abbass. The scenes between them, each character damaged by loss in their life, have a wonderful delicacy and depth to them. Abbass gives one of the most subtly devastating performances of the decade. The film also deals effectively with issues of illegal immigration and deportation in a personal and effective manner, never falling into the preachy and didactic nonsense of films like Crash and Crossing Over. Often character actors are recognized by the viewer with a sense of deja vu ("Where do I know that guy from...?"); after seeing his performance in The Visitor I'm confident you'll know who Richard Jenkins is.

53. El orfanato (Juan Antonio Bayona, 2007)

I first saw The Orphanage - as it's known in the U.S. - at one of its first screening in the United States at a midnight showing (reserved for horror movies) at the New York Film Festival. In attendance were the star, Belén Rueda, and the director, first time movie director Juan Antonio Bayona. Prior to the film's start both spoke about what drew them to the project and it was clear that each had a real passion for the movie - also clear was that Bayona was incredibly nervous to see how the movie would play for an American audience. Turns out he had absolutely nothing to worry about, The Orphanage was one of the most enjoyable theatrical experiences I've ever had. The entire audience bought into the movie from the opening moments and each scare was met with shouts and nervous laughter after the fact - it's one of the most remarkable collective experience I've ever seen during a movie.

The Orphanage is about a woman who, with the help of her husband, purchases the orphanage she grew up in so that she can re-open it and help disabled children. Of course, not all is as it seems. Soon the couple's adopted son begins to tell his parents about the friend he has made: a boy named Tomás that only he can see and happens to wear a sack mask. Gradually the mystery of the home is pulled back. Belén Rueda is great in the lead role; she brings a great brooding focus to her performance. Bayona does a magnificent job playing upon the tension a good horror movie creates, delivering genuinely frightening moments and haunting imagery. The Orphanage is the best ghost story of the decade and is definitely worth watching with all the lights turned off late at night.

52. Hellboy II: The Golden Army (Guillermo del Toro, 2008)

While the first Hellboy was an enjoyable genre movie, it's with the sequel that the characters and action really come to life. Perhaps it was the move to a new studio, Universal, or Guillermo del Toro's growth as a director over the course of the decade or just a better plot, but whatever the reason Hellboy II has an incredible sense of life to it. Bolstered by the radiant directorial eye of Guillermo del Toro, Hellboy II has some of the most stark and interesting images of the decade.

Hellboy II has a remarkable cast, all of whom completely embrace the eccentric nature of the material. Hellboy himself is a rather absurd hero: a giant red demon with a penchant for beer and cigars with a soft spot for cats. But, Ron Perlman brings the character to life despite acting through a heavy array of make-up and prosthetics. Doug Jones also brings life to the material as Hellboy's sidekick Abe. In his career, Jones has generally only ever played the character under the make-up - he has a remarkable way of moving that imbues his characters with an otherworldly sort of life. In fact, in the first Hellboy actor David Hyde Pierce was hired to do the voice work for Jones' physical acting. Here Guillermo del Toro allows Jones to do his own voice work to spectacular effect. Jones imbues his character with a touching charm that lets his character's love story - a secondary plot - shine through as one of the most touching romances of its year. Obviously it's absurd - a teal man-fish falling in love with a golden princess creature - but del Toro is probably the one director on Earth who can make such a plot vibrant.

Del Toro seems to have grown as a writer. Responsible for writing both Hellboy films, del Toro's words have more life and efficacy to them the second go round. The characters are funnier, more well rounded and more believable. The action is also filmed in a way that, unlike its fellow comic book movie of 2008: The Dark Knight, makes sense from an editing and spatial perspective. One of the worst trends of the past decade was the growth of choppy jump-cut editing techniques in action scenes. The idea is that very short shots strung together can make a scene appear more exciting and can provide more dynamic views of the action, but the reality is that the oft-abused technique tends to make the action incredibly difficult to follow, if not entirely nonsensical (Quantum of Solace was a notably bad offender). Very few directors - one example being Paul Greengrass in the Bourne sequels - can competently manage the technique. Del Toro is wise enough to stage his action is a manner that allows for longer shots and action scenes that have a logical flow. Further, one of del Toro's best traits as a director is his appreciation for great prosthetic and model work. Every single fantastical character in Hellboy II of roughly human proportion is made of stellar costume and make-up work, not the distracting, and often ineffectual, CGI that directors so often rely upon.

I know the concept is silly on paper, but del Toro is the master at bringing this sort of film to life. Hellboy II is one of the best comic book and one of the best fantasy movies of the decade.

NB: I strongly recommend Guillermo del Toro's stellar novel The Strain. It's something of a modern take on the vampire story with a bit of CSI thrown in and is co-written by Chuck Hogan (whose own novel, Prince of Thieves, is being adapted by director Ben Affleck for a 2010 release).

51. Adaptation. (Spike Jonze, 2002)

One of the most fascinatingly bizarre movies of the decade, Adaptation. tells the story of a man's struggle to adapt a non-fiction book about the orchid industry, but also a story about smarmy con men involved in orchid smuggling and thievery. I don't want to say much about the plot because of the film's joy is discovering all of the bizarre and unexpected twists. As an actor, Nicolas Cage is a strange enigma to me. Just this past decade, Cage was so awful and hammy in movies like Next, Windtalkers and The Wicker Man, but, at the same time, so effective in films like Matchstick Men, Lord of War and The Weather Man. Adaptation. is good Nic Cage. Here he plays the struggling writer attempting to adapt the orchid book and also his twin brother who wants to turn the book into a clichéd thriller. Without any difference in make-up or hair, Cage crafts two characters that are instantly recognizable and distinctive. Chris Cooper is great as the orchid thief at the core of the story. Director Spike Jonze, who also directed Being John Malkovich and Where the Wild Things Are, and writer Charlie Kaufman make up one of the most bizarre, creative and compelling production tandems possible in Hollywood.

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)


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