Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Top 101 Movies of the Decade (30-26)

30. Good Night, and Good Luck (George Clooney, 2005)

As a society we have a tendency to look back at the 1950s as an ideal time in American history. We had just defeated the evil of the Nazis and had become the heroes in the battle of wills with the godless communist menace. A lot of our imagery of the era comes from film and television programming like Leave it to Beaver: the perfect family pursuing the American dream of the suburbs and a white picket fence. It goes further: we think of greasers and preppies, quaint television sets, Elvis, and children (humorously) undergoing nuclear bomb drills in schools. The early parts of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, regardless of the issues in the later section of the film, really tap into these sort of memories.

But there's another side of the 1950s: McCarthy, racism, women's suffrage, House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), the growth of drug use and post-war alcoholism. The more interesting movies about the 50s reside in these areas, those that attack and deconstruct the mythos of the 50s. No film of the last decade more effectively played with the ideas of the 50s than Good Night, and Good Luck.

Set in the core era of the fear-mongering of Joseph McCarthy, George Clooney's film deals with the efforts of broadcaster Edward R. Murrow to bring honest political debate about the efficacy and legitimacy of McCarthy's tactics. First Murrow defends, on the air, an Air Force lieutenant named Milo Radulovich. McCarthy accuses the serviceman of being a closet communist because his sister is liberal and his father still receives a newspaper from his homeland of Serbia - Morrow takes McCarthy to task for the absurdity of his accusations and creates a public battle that helps lead to McCarthy's political downfall.

Dealing with such a delicate topic, one that could easily devolve into pedantic politicized histrionics, George Clooney shows a sure hand. His direction is restrained, professional and designed to get the best out of his actors. The screenplay, by Clooney and Grant Heslov, is fantastically constructed. Clooney draws top shelf performances out of Robert Downey, Jr., Jeff Daniels and Patricia Clarkson. But, perhaps, the greatest gem of the movie is the lead performance of David Straithairn. To most film goers Straithairn is a 'that guy' actor: someone a viewer recognizes and appreciates but can't quite place where they know him from - perhaps as the head of the prostitution service in L.A. Confidential or as Theseus in A Midsummer Night's Dream. His roles were predominantly small, but effective, bits of film and television. Clooney, however, had the wisdom to see Straithairn's talent and reward him with the lead role here. And Straithairn delivered one of the best performances of the decade; a performance which was rightfully nominated for the best actor Academy Award. To anyone that has seen Good Night, and Good Luck David Straithairn has made the transition from 'that guy' to one of the best character actors of his time.

29. The Bourne Trilogy: The Bourne Identity/The Bourne Supremacy/The Bourne Ultimatum (Doug Liman, 2002/Paul Greengrass, 2004/2007)

Granted, I'm fudging the rules a little bit by combining the Bourne Trilogy into one film. This spot is, most of all, for Paul Greengrass' superlative Bourne Ultimatum but I felt the whole series deserves recognition as the finest action trilogy since Indiana Jones. The Bourne Identity crafted a fantastic character and mythology. It establishes Matt Damon as a bona fide action star and made for one of the most enjoyable thrill ride movies of the decade. Sadly, Doug Liman's direction is adequate but unspectacular. It isn't until Paul Greengrass took over in 2004 that the series made the transition from enjoyable action movie to legitimate work of art. It's in The Bourne Ultimatum that the series reaches its greatest heights.

One of the very worst trends of the 2000s has been the growth of handheld 'shaky' camera work and spastic editing that makes modern action scenes indecipherable mysteries. In car chases, for example, there's no sense of the spatial relationship between vehicles: you see a driver, then a trail, then a gun, then a squealing tire, then a car careen around a turn, then the rival driver - and all of that in just a few seconds. The human brain can barely process the first image before it's been bombarded by three more. Sadly, this is a result of the later Bourne movies. Paul Greengrass' masterful editing used this style in a manner no other action director has been able to replicate. Each cut creates a new point of emphasis in the action while never losing sight of the big picture of a scene. It gives the action a sort of immediacy, brutality and potency that most films can only dream of. Greengrass even crafted one of the most remarkable little shots of the decade in The Bourne Ultimatum: the camera follows Bourne as he runs across a roof, he gets to the edge and jumps off towards a window across an alleyway. Only the camera follows right behind Bourne across the jump through the window and into the neighboring apartment. I can remember the exact moment while I was watching the film for the first time, you could feel the entire theater gasp. It's since been duplicated many times, but that initial shot was a little piece of movie magic.

Now, of course, if the films were only about action they wouldn't be on the list here. The movies are carried by the fantastic work of Matt Damon. He is believably tough as a spy/assassin and brings a stunning credibility to the action work. Bolstered by Greengrass' work (he also edited Bourne Identity), we believe Damon's work in the fight scenes as much as any other action actor in recent years. But he also brings emotional depth to the performance. The series is driven in large part by Bourne's relationship with Marie, a woman he meets and bribes to help him escape Paris. Played superbly by Franka Potente, Marie acts as the series' beating heart. The leads have the benefit of amazing supporting players as well. From Bourne's quasi-allies (Julia Stiles and Joan Allen) to his in-the-field rivals (Clive Owen and Karl Urban) to his 'big picture' enemies in the CIA (Chris Cooper, Brian Cox and David Straithairn), each supporting player brings a memorable and worthy performance to the series. On the whole, the Bourne movies are a fantastic achievement in the action genre. I look forward to seeing what Tony Gilroy (writer of the Bourne trilogy and director of Michael Clayton) does with the Bourne's series 4th installment.

28. United 93 (Paul Greengrass, 2006)

I've really struggled with how to write about this movie. When I saw United 93 back in 2006, the release was covered by a cloud of controversy as to if it should even exist at all. Some argued it was too soon to make a movie about 9/11 - we lacked perspective, and the pain was too immediate. Others that it was particularly offensive to depict the terrorists as praying to God before and during the hijacking of the film. Others still that movies simply shouldn't be made about 9/11, that it disrespects or cheapens the tragedy of what happened that day. I think if all of those naysayers gave United 93 a chance today, they'd recognize what a masterful tribute the film is to the heroic deeds of those on United Flight 93.

The film is entirely apolitical. It happens with a harrowing immediacy. No effort is made to delve into the back stories of any of the victims or terrorists. Rather the film aims to memorialize what happened by crafting as true a picture as possible. No moment is shoehorned in to artificially up the emotional drama. The fact that nearly every actor was an unknown at the time of the movie helps create the cinéma vérité feel towards which director Paul Greengrass aspires. In fact, the actual FAA Operations Manager on 9/11, Ben Sliney, plays himself in the film. Greengrass' fast editing style, so effective at amplifying the action in the Bourne movies, here serves the purpose of heightening the chaos and confusion of September 11th. The film is one of the most difficult sits I've ever experienced. You leave the film drained, sad and frighteningly brought back to wherever you were on September 11th.

Greengrass knows that the story itself told as accurately as possible is the greatest tribute to those that gave everything and saved countless lives on 9/11.

27. Thank You for Smoking (Jason Reitman, 2005)

Director Jason Reitman became something of a household name later in the decade with best picture nominees Juno and Up in the Air. But it was his first, most cynical movie that still remains his best. Thank You for Smoking is about a tobacco lobbyist named Nick Naylor, played with aplomb by Aaron Eckhart. Naylor is the type who hangs out with his friends, an alcohol lobbyist and a firearm lobbyist - the self titled MOD Squad (MOD = Merchants of Death) - and debates the effectiveness of each's products' death dealing abilities. He's the sort of guy who brings his son along on cross country trips to convince movie executives to feature more stars smoking on film. Naylor is called before congress in the debate about a bill to put a skull and crossbones on packs of cigarettes. As a result, he begins receiving death threats.

[Spoilers] Throughout the film, you keep waiting for the cop-out. You keep waiting for Naylor to be redeemed. You keep waiting for his 'ah ha!' moment where he realizes cigarettes are bad and his job is nefarious at best. You keep waiting for him to develop a 'normal' relationship with his son. But those moments never come. The ending of the movie sees Naylor not only successfully defend tobacco, but become an even greater advocate of 'evil' corporations. He starts his own lobbying firm, his son starts winning school debates and he adds friends in fast food, hazardous waste and oil drilling to the MOD Squad. It's dark, it's cynical, hilarious and perfectly in line with the character. The genius of Thank You for Smoking is the way it attacks both sides, Big Tobacco and anti-smoking advocates, and comes down on the side of free choice. [End Spoilers]

As Reitman further showed with Juno and Up in the Air, his greatest gift as a director is bringing out the best work in his actors. Though he has only three movies under his belt, numerous actors have chosen to work with Reitman on multiple projects. They recognize he brings out their best. While Eckhart is fantastic here, exhibiting all the smarmy, unctuous charm expected of a lobbyist, a lot of the best parts here go to the supporting players. J.K. Simmons is fantastic and hilarious as Naylor's boss. William H. Macy, Maria Bello, Rob Lowe, Sam Elliot and Robert Duvall are all superb in their supporting roles. With a pitch perfect script, great performances and editing, Thank You for Smoking is one of the best black comedies of the decade.

26. Up (Pete Docter, 2009)

Up opens with one of the most moving and elegiac sequences I've ever seen in a movie - not just animation. The film opens with a young boy named Carl watching newsreel footage of his hero, renowned adventurer Charles Muntz, being accused of fabricating a discovery at Paradise Falls (inspired by Angel Falls in Venezuala). Soon after Carl meets a young girl named Ellie at her clubhouse. Ellie, as it turns out, is a big fan of Muntz as well and the two form a bond immediately and promise to someday move the clubhouse to Paradise Falls. The movie then cuts out all dialogue and allows the Michael Giacchino's amazing "Married Life" score to take over. We're taken on a visual journey through Carl and Ellie's marriage: the good moments and the bad. In a little over 4 minutes, director Pete Docter crafts more genuine emotion than many directors do in a career.

There is, of course, more to the movie than the first ten minutes. Escaping the efforts of an evil faceless corporation to knock down his family home, Carl literally flies his house away with thousands of balloons. He ends up on a grand adventure, quite literally dragging his house along for the ride. Along with a lonely neighborhood boy scout, a talking dog (talking thanks to an electronic collar) and a bird that looks like the bizarro offspring of an ostrich and a blue-footed booby, Carl tries to take his home, his clubhouse, to Paradise Falls. Now, I recognize, that if you haven't seen the movie this entire description sounds absurd. But the genius of Pete Docter, and the other writers, is that we buy into this world and we love it. Everything about the film is beautiful to look at: the colors, the designs, the movements. The dog, Dug, is one of the funniest characters in recent film history. He speaks not in the human manor of most movie dogs, but in a way we recognize as what we believe our actual dogs might be thinking. Carl himself is fascinatingly designed and quite unlike anything else in American animation. He hobbles awkwardly with his walker and always seems to shuffle his feet, like a man accepting that his end is near.

And that's the kicker about Up. Even though it's is guised as a kid's movie, Up is so much more. It's a contemplation on obsession, on loss and on letting go. The best animation, just like the best science fiction, isn't really about the actual plot on the screen - it's a device to give a new perspective on an idea or an emotion. Up is one of the most affecting movies of the decade and I recommend it 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)
35: Half Nelson (Fleck, 2006)
34: Rachel Getting Married (Demme, 2008)
33: Zodiac (Fincher, 2007)
32: A History of Violence (Cronenberg, 2005)
31: The Painted Veil (Curran, 2006)
30: Good Night, and Good Luck (Clooney, 2005)
29: The Bourne Trilogy: The Bourne Identity/The Bourne Supremacy/The Bourne Ultimatum (Liman, 2002/Greengrass, 2004/2007)
28: United 93 (Greengrass, 2006)
27: Thank You for Smoking (Reitman, 2005)
26: Up (Docter, 2009)