Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Top 101 Movies of the Decade (40-36)

40. The Aviator (Martin Scorsese, 2004)

Throughout his career, Scorsese has always been interested in the rise and fall of his characters: Raging Bull, GoodFellas, Casino. The Aviator, based on the life of Howard Hughes, falls nicely into that tradition. Focusing principally on Hughes' better years, Scorsese crafts an epic and tragic tale of a man crippled by his own flaws. What makes the film effective, however, is Scorsese's choice to focus on the good portion of Hughes' life - merely alluding to his tragic end (living as a recluse in a single room for most of his last two decades).

Leonardo DiCaprio is phenomenal. The role calls for an epic performance and DiCaprio is completely game. Howard Hughes was a man who courted Hollywood starlets, made epic movies and designed - and crashed - airplanes before succumbing to crippling obsessive behaviors. DiCaprio is one of the only actors alive capable of not just taking on such a role but owning it and making it successful. While DiCaprio 'grew up' with the 2002 releases of Gangs of New York and Catch Me If You Can, it was with The Aviator that he truly established himself as one of the finest actors working today.

The film's investigation of Hughes' career is utterly compelling, even as his flaws begin to shine through. When filming the aviation epic Hell's Angels, Hughes needs not 24 cameras, but 26, borrowing two cameras from a Hollywood mogul to make sure the scene is just right. His plane designs MUST meet certain specifications, consequences be damned (even if those consequences involve crashing through Beverly Hills in an airplane). The film's supporting cast plays wonderfully off of DiCaprio's Hughes. Alan Alda and Alec Baldwin act as great rivals for Hughes. Cate Blanchett and Kate Beckinsale, playing Katherine Hepburn and Ava Gardner, respectively, both make lasting impressions. In the film's funniest scene Hughes has a meteorological professor (Ian Holm) scientifically analyze Jane Russell's breasts in the movie The Outlaw before the film censorship board to 'prove' that she showed no more cleavage than other starlets. With The Aviator, the world's greatest living director found a biopic perfectly suited to his skills.

39. Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan, 2005)

IMDB users have rated The Dark Knight the 10th greatest movie of all time. This perturbs me not just because The Dark Knight is the most overrated movie in film history, but because somehow the movie has come to completely overshadow its far superior predecessor: Batman Begins. [This write-up will have spoilers for both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.] I should preface the rest of this by saying I actually like The Dark Knight.

First, let's talk about the acting. In Batman Begins, Christian Bale is the perfect casting choice to bring something new to the role. Bale always brings intensity to his films and this role is no exception. But in Begins, Bruce Wayne/Batman has an actual character arc to follow: he grows from an immature young man to a believable hero. Wayne's training to become Batman, and his failures and struggles when starting out as the hero, are simply more compelling plots. The limitations of The Dark Knight script only allow Bale to do three things: smug Bruce Wayne, mopey and quiet Bruce Wayne and, worst of all, his Batman performance. As Batman, Bale gives the character a gravelly voice but in Dark Knight it feels like a spoof of the character - his growling is so over-the-top and embarrassing that it loses the believability found in Begins. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman both have actual character development in Begins, whereas in Dark Knight they, and most of the rest of the supporting cast, simply appear and disappear from the film with no purpose, just because the script calls for it. Certainly, Heath Ledger gives one of the most compelling villain performances I've ever seen. But the villainous crew of Liam Neeson, Cillian Murphy and Ken Watanabe in Begins work better than the Ledger/Aaron Eckhart combination in Dark Knight as effective adversaries for Batman. The end of The Dark Knight careens wildly out-of-control as the motivations of Two-Face simply make no sense - there is literally no explanation (other than the plot 'needing' it) for why Harvey Dent would choose to go after Gordon and Batman instead of the Joker. Compare that to Liam Neeson's return in Batman Begins: the realization of Neeson's deception carries more emotional weight than anything in the second half of The Dark Knight, including Rachel's death. Also, and I'm not claiming she's a better actress overall, Katie Holmes is simply better in the Batman's girlfriend role than Maggie Gyllenhaal.

I don't want to go on-and-on forever about this so I'll focus on just a few more things about the movies. First of all, the action scenes, already poorly edited in Batman Begins, careen wildly out of control in The Dark Knight. It is literally impossible to follow some of the scenes as they are arranged: the flow of the action doesn't make sense and the viewer is required to guess what they're looking at and what is actually happening. The climax of Batman Begins is chaotic, exciting and relevant to the Batman character. The Dark Knights sees a putrid action scene with ridiculous Bat-sonar and a criminals versus citizens stare down to the death. That boat scene - will the normal people kill criminals to save themselves before the criminals kill them?!? - is the sort of scenario best left where it belongs: in the Saw series. The action in Begins is also grounded in reality - Bruce Wayne has to redesign his mask to protect his head more. In The Dark Knight it devolves into absurdity: somehow Bruce Wayne has access to a magical cell phone reading device that allows access to every cell phone conversation in Gotham but also to use the locations of the phones as a sort of sonar. Not only does this make no sense - why not use this technology to find the Joker sooner? - but the sonar is a vast deviation from the more believable technology in the first movie.

Clearly, I've turned this write-up into an assault on The Dark Knight. I guess I'm just annoyed that the decade's finest comic book adaptation has been sadly overlooked by its inferior successor.

38. Serenity (Joss Whedon, 2005)

In 2002, Fox aired a series called Firefly about a crew of, basically, cowboys in space from Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. On paper it's an absurd concept and Fox ran only 11 out of the 14 completed episodes (and ran them out of order too) before cancelling the show. But a funny thing happened on the way to obscurity: people started buying the show on DVD. And buying it. And buying it. And buying it. The buzz surrounding the deceased show spread. So successful were the sales of the DVD that Universal picked up the rights and decided to make a movie out of the series.

Serenity, the name derived from the crew's ship, is basically a Western in space, no aliens to be found here. As he does to all of his projects, Joss Whedon brings a unique vision. One area Whedon particularly excels in is dialogue. His characters all speak with a distinct lingo and humor that makes simple conversation a joy to watch. It helps as well that Whedon is a gifted director with a stellar sense of pace and a great understanding of where to put the camera. The show has the benefit of being perfectly cast as well. Each of the supporting players brings great life and humor to their roles, especially Alan Tudyk and Adam Baldwin. Nathan Fillion (now starring on TV's Castle) has the perfect wit and charm as the ship's smarmy, but lovable, captain.

Serenity is a great movie all by itself, but it is a more complete experience after watching Firefly. I highly recommend both.

NB: I feel I'd be remiss if I didn't mention one of Joss Whedon's other great creations this decade: Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog starring Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Fillion and Felicia Day. Dr. Horrible is a series of three musical 'webisodes' each running less than fifteen minutes. Created during the writer's strike on a shoestring budget out of Whedon's pocket, Dr. Horrible is one of the funniest and most charming achievements of the decade (and it can be found on

37. Star Trek (J.J. Abrams, 2009)

I think Star Trek is one of the most surprisingly successful gambles in film history. Prior to Star Trek's release, the 'brand' had almost no appeal outside of its core fanbase and even that group had wained over the years (2002's Star Trek: Nemesis is considered a financial and artistic failure). The series had little-to-no success outside of the United States. The studio then decided to 'reboot' the franchise, recasting all the characters who had grown to the point of cultural assimilation. Even without having seen an episode of the old Star Trek show, everyone knows who Kirk and Spock are. Then they decided to hire a director whose only previous big budget movie, Mission: Impossible III, was a gigantic disappointment at the box office. And they decided to give that director, J.J. Abrams, $160 million dollars to make the movie. And the studio was forced to delay the movie's release from Christmas 2008 to the summer of 2009 (right in the middle of the heavily anticipated trio of Wolverine, Angels & Demons and Terminator: Salvation) because it simply wasn't ready to be released. All the signs pointed to disaster, but somehow Abrams has crafted one of the most enjoyable blockbusters of the decade.

The film opens with one of my favorite scenes of the entire decade. In just the ten minutes of a gorgeously crafted and acted sequence, wherein the father of the movie's hero sacrifices himself to save the crew of his ship including his newborn son, J.J. Abrams does the impossible: he makes Star Trek cool for the first time in 30 years. And, from there, we're off. The story, set in the formative years of the well known Star Trek characters, focuses on the relationship between Kirk and Spock, once played by William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy now by perfectly cast Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto, and how the two grew from rivalry to friendship. All of the other actors are great as well and Abrams and the screenwriters are wise enough to give each character a proper introduction and a moment to stand out during the film.

The production designs are stellar; the new look of everything is clean, modern and impressive. It's almost like the iPod designers gave the Enterprise a once-over. The special effects are well used and the action sequences are exciting. The writers also came up with a cute device to frame the story that allows for a cameo from Leonard Nimoy as the original Spock - his performance, though limited in screen time, is touching and memorable. For my money, Michael Giacchino's theme for the movie, Enterprising Young Men, highlights one of the most distinct and exciting film scores of the decade. Simply put, my two hours at Star Trek were some of the most enjoyable I spent in a theater this entire decade.

36. Walk the Line (James Mangold, 2005)

A man (Joaquin Phoenix) convinces a producer, the same producer that discovered, among others, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison, to give his gospel band an audition. They play a gospel song and clearly the producer is apathetic - the producer cuts them off mid-song and challenges the man to sing the one song he would sing if he was in the gutter dying, the song that would let God know how he felt about his time on Earth. From there, the man begins to play a song he wrote while in the Air Force: Folsom Prison Blues. At the moment he starts the song he's a nobody, one of countless struggling musicians. As he plays something changes. The producer sits up in his chair. The audience leans towards the screen. When the song ends, the man has become Johnny Cash.

That's my favorite scene in James Mangold's (3:10 to Yuma) stellar Johnny Cash biopic. It only works because of how spectacular Phoenix is in the lead role. Not just in his delivery of the song (and he has a great voice), but in his face and in his body language you see the transition. The film takes a broad treatment of Cash's life detailing from his youth through his ascent as a performer to his marital troubles and drug addictions culminating in his famous performance at Folsom Prison. The core that grounds most of the movie, however, is his relationship with June Carter. Carter, played by a never better Reese Witherspoon, brings an emotional heft and romantic core to the story. Their love story, difficult as it may be, remains at the heart of Walk the Line and it elevates the movie. One of the finest biopics of the decade, I'd recommend Walk the Line to anyone.

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)
45: The Cove (Psihoyos, 2009)
44: Iron Man (Favreau, 2008)
43: District 9 (Blomkamp, 2009)
42: Atonement (Wright, 2007)
41: The Incredibles (Bird, 2004)
40: The Aviator (Scorsese, 2004)
39: Batman Begins (Nolan, 2005)
38: Serenity (Whedon, 2005)
37: Star Trek (Abrams, 2009)
36: Walk the Line (Mangold, 2005)



K2 said...

I really enjoyed this batch of write-ups, because you do a great job of both breaking the movies down and telling us why they deserve to be in the top 40.

I agree with your take on Batman Begins vs. Dark Knight. The boat dilemma scene, though, is more sad than unsatisfying; it had great potential. It fit in well with Joker's character, it could've foiled Batman's arc (if there had been a better one). It's got the kernel of a great scene, but, for all the reasons you state (shitty action and unbelievable tech going on simultaneously), it fails.

The resurrection of the Star Trek pedigree is another aspect I think you've nailed. Even the TNG tv series, for all its pedigree, descended into fanbase-only appeal, the type of thing you watch in the kitchen while cooking. The TNG movies, like Nemesis, are barely even movies in the way that, say, Star Trek IV is. They're more like long tv shows, trinkets for nerds in the way that something like the straight-to-dvd Stargate sequels are.

In short, I'm tickled that you point out one of Abrams' best tricks: bringing the Star Trek appeal back from the abyss of TNG movies and Enterprise.

Bernard said...

Allow me to make a half-hearted defense of the TNG movies, and say that I rather liked First Contact. Granted, I haven't seen it in a number of years but I remember it having the most cinematic and mainstream appeal of anything Star Trek made in my lifetime.

Bernard said...

Anything other than Abrams' movie, obviously

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