Friday, August 27, 2010

My Top 10 Films of the Decade (Part Two: 5-1)

Click Here for Part One

5. Donnie Darko
(2001, dir. Richard Kelly)

"I'm voting for Dukakis." Those are the first words dryly spoken at the Darko dinner table in October 1988, in the cult classic of the decade, Donnie Darko. Writer/director Richard Kelly's debut film, a time travel quagmire that's Back to the Future meets The Catcher in the Rye on acid is one of the many films on this list with an ill-timed release, far enough ahead of audiences that they had to catch up with it. It's understandable that on the week of September 11, 2001 the public wouldn't feel like warmly embracing a sci-fi mood piece that features a jet engine crashing through troubled teen Donnie Darko's (Jake Gyllenhaal) bedroom, nor favorably respond to his hallucinatory visions of giant rabbit anointing him savior of the world.

In the months and years following it would deservedly earn its cult status, yet it still feels somehow under-appreciated both as an ingenious genre bender and an angsty coming-of-age drama. At first, I didn't "get it," not realizing that full enjoyment of the experience has nothing to do with that at all. You could see the film as many times as you wish, immerse yourself in the details of the fictional "Philosophy of Time Travel" book, defer to the director's cut for more concrete answers (I've opted not to), but while the plot remains a brilliant, mulit-layered construct, it's actually the characters and performances that stay with you and demand revisiting. Donnie's relationship with Gretchen (Jena Malone) and the hypocrisy of the adults in the movie vividly brought to life by Beth Grant as the school's religious zealot and Patrick Swayze (in the edgiest role of his career) as motivational speaker Jim Cunningham. And of all the closing shots this decade, I have trouble coming up with anything more memorable than the one that ends this film. It's just perfect.

What's most shocking about Donnie Darko for me is that after a six year wait that was well worth it, Kelly would go on to write and direct a movie I believe is even better (see below). And although many would probably disagree with me on this next point, all the promise he showed in his debut feature would be fulfilled in the next two, creating a wholly original sci-fi trilogy and in the process making this film play even better in retrospect. It's just a shame even many of Darko's supporters don't see it that way, seemingly unaware of the risk-taking weirdness they signed up for nine years ago.

4. Southland Tales
(2007, dir. Richard Kelly)

Defending Richard Kelly's messy, apocalyptic pop culture disasterpiece Southland Tales on the basis of creative perfection would be foolish (though it's perfect to me), but rallying behind its creative genius and far-reaching ambition isn't. Sure, there may have never been a Southland Tales without Dr. Strangelove, Brazil, The Book of Revelation, reality television, Fox News, Phillip K. Dick, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Pulp Fiction, Mulholland Drive, Donnie Darko, Kurt Vonnegut, The Big Lebowski, MTV, Kiss Me Deadly, Saturday Night Live, Repo Man and Andy Warhol but where I differ with dissenters of the film is that this somehow makes it unoriginal or lacking an original voice. To me, the fact that a filmmaker incorporated so many influences that he obviously loves into a movie in such a unique way makes it MORE ORIGINAL to the point that the filmmaker's DNA is spread all over the entire picture, challenging whether the term "self-indulgent" should carry the negative baggage it does. It just doesn't work in a way we're accustomed to movies "working" and it couldn't possibly when the filmmaker has so much to say. Should Kelly have been reined in? Is it too sloppy? Maybe, but if that happened there's no way this would have been as much fun.

There's more going on in a single scene in this movie than many contain in their entire running times, and no matter what you think of what's going on, it's tough to turn away. Yet, it breaks every rule in the book. There isn't a single character you can actually relate to as a human being. The person who should be the main character isn't. It's jammed with sub-plots that seem to go nowhere and everywhere at the same time. And it's filled with enough voice-over narration to fill an entirely separate film. And I don't even know how to explain away the cruel irony that my favorite scene of the decade is a musical number. The thrilling scene in question (Justin Timberlake's hallucinatory lip synch to The Killers' "All These Things That I've Done" surrounded by Marilyn Monroe looking women in scantily clad nurses uniforms) does little from a narrative perspective to advance the actual story in any way, yet somehow the film feels like it couldn't exist without out. The plot isn't complicated there's just A LOT going on and things are moving so fast and bursting with all this energy that at times it's tough to keep up. What's really required is an open mind and repeated viewings. Story-wise all the pieces fit together perfectly, it's the underlying meanings and symbolism that require extrapolation.

We're so used to actors being chosen on the basis of whether they "fit the part" but here the game completely changes as everyone is cast ironically. The parts seems to be tailored to who's playing them in an intentional attempt to go against type in a way that spoofs their celebrity and pushes them as actors to go places we never thought they would. Justin Timberlake as a Robert Frost-quoting scarred war veteran and Old Testament prophet. Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as an amnesiac movie star with ties to the Republican Party who co-wrote a screenplay foretelling the end of the world. Mandy Moore as his wife. Sarah Michelle Gellar as a porn star and aspiring reality TV hostess. American Pie's Seann William Scott as, um, I can't even begin to describe it. Kelly's decision to basically throw a party on screen and invite all of his favorite actors and celebrities (a who's who of former Saturday Night Live players like Sheri O'Teri, Jon Lovitz, Norah Dunn, Amy Poehler and '80's cult favorites like Wallace Shawn, Zelda Rubenstein and Christopher Lambert) inexpicably drew really strong criticism. He wanted to give comic actors he's a fan of a chance to show audiences that they're capable of more, which they all did. It's just about the best reason there is to cast someone.

There are plenty of movies to return to repeatedly but this feels like a completely different one each time out. A dark political satire, A science fiction romp, a laugh-out-loud comedy, an action adventure, a social commentary, a film noir, a thriller, a musical and a mystery. I don't need ten films this decade when they're all in here. And each time it ends I just want to go back to the beginning and start all over again, hoping I'll understand everything, but knowing that I don't really want to. That's where most of the fun lies. It would be nice if eventually the movie gets the respect it deserves but that's inconsequential. Just that it was made and somehow released is proof that even the craziest ideas deserve a canvas for expression.

3. Almost Famous-Untitled: The Bootleg Cut
(2000, dir. Cameron Crowe)

I remember reading an online article a few years back criticizing Almost Famous for essentially being over 2 hours of Cameron Crowe declaring himself the greatest music journalist in Rolling Stone history. Of course, the real irony of that criticism is that the film works so well because he did just the opposite in declaring himself the LUCKIEST journalist in Rolling Stone history and the film he made reads as a thank you note. It would be fun to imagine Kate Hudson retired from acting after being nominated then robbed of a Supporting Actress Oscar for her transcendent role as "band-aid" groupie, Penny Lane, and also pretend her career hasn't been an ice pick slowly chipping away at the film, but I can't. Any more than I can pretend that being a journalist for Rolling Stone magazine would mean much of anything these days. So the reasons the film didn't play quite as powerfully for me as it had in the past (and admittedly felt a little more scripted and fantasy feeling) are the very same reasons we still need it. Watching the FAR SUPERIOR 165 minute untitled directors cut again recently it was surprising just how little of its power was lost considering the circumstances. Despite its surprising third place finish here, this is still a mostly perfect film.

It's difficult to find anyone who can't in some way relate to the protagonist or doesn't love the music. Or anyone who didn't feel as if they already knew (or desperately wanted to know) Penny the second she appeared on screen.
We're as beguiled by her as Crowe's onscreen alter-ego William Miller (a pitch-perfect Patrick Fugit), the 15-year-old aspiring rock journalist covering the fictional band Stillwater in 1973 and discovering himself in the process, much to his overprotective mother's (Frances McDormand) horror. Billy Crudup's performance as guitarist Russell Hammond is an underrated turn if there ever was one, still sold short to this day. It's not easy playing the guy that crushes this kid's (and the audience's) dreams while somehow managing to escape as a pretty cool guy. That Philip Seymour Hoffman is most associated with his turn as rock critic Lester Bangs amidst a career of more substantial leading and supporting roles says everything about how memorably he played it. Bangs' advice to William on writing and criticism is hysterical, but made more hysterical by the fact that most of it's true.

It shouldn't come as a surprise the biggest worry revisiting this is Hudson, who's spent the better part of the decade attempting to completely erase this iconic role from our memories. Nice try, but not a chance.
If you could win an Oscar for delivering a single line, she'd deserve it for the way she asks "What kind of beer?" showing a vulnerability and depth in this part we'd never glimpse from her again. She wasn't just "playing herself," as the results of her later work would unfortunately confirm. Unlike some other films on this list, I can't say this is a film where you necessarily discover something new on each viewing, but it does provide music and memories that don't easily fade away.

2. Wonder Boys
(2000, dir. Curtis Hanson)

I realize the selection of Curtis Hanson's Wonder Boys as the second best film of the decade will seem perplexing to many. That maybe the dramedy, based on Michael Chabon's 1995 novel, appears on the surface too small or insignificant to be occupying such an exclusive spot. But to me it looms larger than anything and might be the only movie on the list that feels as if it's completely mine. When it was released ten years ago I was excited that my favorite actors were all appearing together in a single film and revisiting recently it shocked me to discover that enthusiasm has not only grown, but I was far enough removed to grasp subtle nuances I couldn't have possibly appreciated then. When it opened I may have related to the situation and setting, but it's really the theme of failure that plays the most important role in shaping the decade's deepest, most insightful comedy. And in exploring this heavy issue with such a deft, light touch it does something rare by actually choosing to celebrate the good in people rather than bask in the dreary, hopeless depression that's sabotaged so many other promising films in this genre. Every single moment of this movie succeeds in capturing LIFE in all its sloppiness and absurdity.

Michael Douglas isn't usually a performer associated with projecting warmth and humanity, but as Grady Tripp, a pot-smoking, bathroom robe-wearing, creative writing professor in the midst of a mid-life meltdown, he reveals a hidden dimension to himself as an actor, stretching far out of what we've perceived is his comfort zone. During a chaotic rainy weekend at a Pittsburgh university he's clearing page 2,000 on the follow-up to his first hugely successful novel, "The Arsonist's Daughter" while dealing with his loony editor (Robert Downey, Jr.), an eccentric student (Tobey Maguire), another star student (Katie Holmes) with a crush staying under his roof and his frustrated mistress (Frances McDormand). Who knew Douglas could be so funny? Watching his exasperated, deadpan reactions to all the craziness surrounding him is priceless. Almost as priceless as the actual craziness. "Wordfest," Vernon, Marilyn Monroe's jacket, the Hollywood suicide list, the tranvestite, Rip Torn's silly lecture, the red cowboy boots, the Chancellor's dog. Every scene. Every joke. It all clicks. Comedy is hard but the actors (working from Steve Kloves' Oscar nominated script) make it look effortless and each hilarious moment is peppered with with small treasures and chestnuts intended for re-discovery. It's almost indescribable to anyone who hasn't seen the film how Hanson creates such a warmly inviting atmosphere you want to live inside and the city of Pittsburgh becomes as much a character as anyone else in the story.

While most movies about inspiring mentors almost always ring false and contrived, but when Maguire's James Leer is being hauled away by the cops and tells Professor Tripp he's the best teacher he ever had, considering the events that put him in that car to say it, you realize this is only film to actually earn the line. It's difficult to even pinpoint exactly what James, Grady or anyone else was going through but we still completely relate to them and understand, which is the mark of truly exceptional a story that's all about unexceptional writing. The trajectories Maguire and Holmes' careers have since taken should taint the picture, but it instead seems perfectly fitting for a story all about failing to meet expectations. That neither went on to the kind of success we anticipated adds a poignancy to the performances that weren't there a decade ago, making it almost impossible for me to be too disappointed in them. And that Robert Downey, Jr. did go on to that success, allows us to see one of his most enjoyable, underrated performances in a whole new light, while wondering how much of his personal demons he summoned up at the time to deliver it. It goes without saying Douglas was robbed at the Oscars but it's hard to get upset when the one statue the film did win belongs to Bob Dylan, whose music is so fully ingrained into the fabric of the picture he feels more like an honorary member of the cast than a soundtrack contributor. And by invoking the same mood and spirit his songs do it captures his music better than any story actually focused on the singer could.

Released in the shadow of my other favorite film about writing, Almost Famous, neither cleaned up at the box office, but it was Wonder Boys that actually flopped TWICE when re-released for awards consideration. Ironically now, this is the film that feels to me the more authentic and lived-in of the two, ten years aging it in ways I couldn't expect. You'd have to assume director Curtis Hanson was drawn to the material because he also felt the pressure of having to follow up on the enormous success he had with 1997's L.A. Confidential, a movie that has nothing on this. It knows that writers' are unusually in touch with quirky details and the humor does in a strange way seem directly aimed at them, which would explain its failure to strike a universal chord. Just more proof that great films can bring you close to a certain time, situation, characters or state of mind, but it's only the really great ones like this that actually bring you closer to you.

1. Into the Wild
(2007, dir. Sean Penn)

For me, the defining moment in Sean Penn's criminally overlooked and underrated masterpiece Into the Wild occurs toward the end. It's when Walt McCandliss (played by William Hurt) wanders the streets in a daze, suddenly overcome with the enormity of everything that's happened---what his son did and what he has to bare the burden for partially causing. With everything hitting him all at once, he collapses to the ground in exactly the same position we saw him in during the earlier home movie footage, only years later and under very different circumstances. The moment doesn't last long, but tells us everything we need to know and serves as a reminder of how a single, powerful image can carry more impact than any line of dialogue could.

Detractors claiming that the film glorified its protagonist or didn't truly explore the negative consequences of Chris McCandliss' (Emile Hirsch) actions when in 1990 the Emory University grad burned all his cash and credit cards, donated his entire savings, and rechristened as "Alexander Supertramp," embarked on the journey of his life that that would eventually lead to his death. It's there on the street where we as viewers are forced to admit that no matter what his parents did or didn't do, he went too far, and regardless of how tempting it is to support his anti-materialistic philosophy, crossed the point of no return. His sister, Carine (Jena Malone) is now a victim and the people whose lives he impacted on the way to his final destination are officially casualties.

If there was ever a film destined to strike the critical and commercial jackpot it was Into The Wild but somehow it flew under the radar of audiences when it was released in 2007 with many unfairly accusing Penn of pushing some kind of an agenda. As if an endorsement of the picture would mean an endorsement of the actions or a left-leaning view in line with the director's politics. But the evidence points the opposite direction, with every character attempting to break through McCandliss' self-imposed emotional wall (you know it's a bad idea when Vince Vaughn is the voice of reason). From hippies Jan (Catherine Keener) and Rainey (Brian H. Dierker) to free spirit Tracy Tatro (Kristen Stewart) each chapter provides a chance for redemption that never comes because his trek to the "magic bus" in Alaska is just as much a misguided suicide mission as it is a life-affirming adventure.

Emile Hirsch never shies away from those harsher truths in his performance, which go beyond merely conveying pent up resentment or bitterness, but subtly hinting McCandliss might actually know just how misguided this whole thing is and still can't stop it. And neither can elderly leather maker Ron Franz, who Hal Holbrook justifiably won high praise and an Academy Award nomination for embodying in his brief, but unforgettable appearance. He's the supporting standout but each time I watch can't help but think that the most overlooked performance belongs to Jena Malone, who's our sensitive entrance way to the film at its start while also delivering invaluable voiceover work that acts as our guidepost through the story. It shoots a hole right through the popular theory that any use of voiceover narration is lazy.

Like others, I'm guilty of at first classifying the film as a purely emotional experience that wouldn't likely hold up to close critical scrutiny or repeated viewings. You'd figure a story that ends so tragically couldn't carry an urgent pull beckoning you back for more, but it does because from a technical standpoint it's unmatched. Every shot (lensed by cinematographer Eric Gautier) could be framed and mounted and Eddie Vedder's music is such a part of the journey it's difficult even envisioning the movie without it. How much the film editorializes or exaggerates the content of John Krakauer's book or even the real-life events doesn't interest me. But I do think the movie would have more fans if it were actually released during the early 90's period the events took place, when we would have been less cynical and more grateful Sean Penn even dared to ask the big questions, instead of arguing whether we agree on the answers to them. This film isn't just the most complete moviegoing experience of the decade, but the only one that feels monumentally important.

1. Into The Wild

2. Wonder Boys

3. Almost Famous (Untitled: The Bootleg Cut)

4. Southland Tales

5. Donnie Darko

6. Zodiac

7. There Will be Blood

8. Punch-Drunk Love
9. The Squid and the Whale

10. Adaptation

Year-By-Year Breakdown:








Actors/Actresses Appearing in Multiple Films:

Brian Cox (2)
Robert Downey, Jr. (2)
Jake Gyllenhaal (2)
Jena Malone (2)
Frances McDormand (2)

Monday, August 23, 2010

My Top 10 Films of the Decade (Part One: 10-6)

So....too late? Here's what happened: Around December of last year when all the decade-end lists were popping up all over the place the plan was to begin re-watching and evaluating films for one of my own. Unfortunately, due to time constraints and other issues I realized it just wasn't happening anytime soon. Even though I had my top five selected and written on and had seen most of what I wanted to I was forced to shelve the project...for MONTHS. I kept it's revival on the down low because I didn't want to promise it again and not deliver. In a crazy way, the wait worked out for the best since the movies I saw could settle in my mind for a while and I could reflect back being far removed or influenced by the tidal wave of lists that hit at the end of last year. Despite telling myself I'd watch everything, that's impossible, so you just do the best you can, looking at everything with fresh eyes as year-end lists become irrelevant and you discover which films pass the ultimate test. Before I started this I thought the decade was weak, but now that I'm done I realize it was actually much weaker than I originally thought. Not to sound overly negative, but so many films had lackluster viewings that I actually had serious problems coming up with ten deserving entries.

There's a big drop-off in quality after my top 5 and while it's extreme to say I was "filling" the remaining slots with the least flawed films, that is kind of the case. Discovering that a film can carry all the necessary technical qualifications to be considered one of the decade's best, yet still manage to fall short, tells me that it not only comes down to how well all those elements merge, but an indistinguishable "It" factor that's very subjective and personal. It's also a harsh reminder why my DVD collection is so small and how few movies hold up, but don't take that as a knock the films that made it. Just the opposite: These exclusive ten were left standing and somehow survived the test of time and repeated viewings.

The results were shocking, especially at the top where the film I've long considered the decade's best (Almost Famous) was dethroned, by not just one, but TWO deserving titles. The list is all about them since they were the only two pictures to really effect me in a huge way, substantially improving upon the high regard I already held them in. Everything else either held steady or dropped. There was also a re-match of sorts between two of my favorite films from early in the decade, this time with a different outcome. Five years out of the decade compose the ten slots with one year making the most impressive showing (congrats 'o7) and two directors making it twice, one of whom has two films in the top 5. That's fair since I'm rewarding the best films, regardless of who directed them, and every other filmmaker had their shot at beating them. I also unofficially excluded films from 2009 on the basis that they just didn't log enough time in and it's too soon for me to feel comfortable counting them in the mix.

Many of these films had a really rough time when they were released, especially when you enter the top five. Some succeeded critically, but failed commercially while others found an audience but never received the critical recognition or awards notice they deserved. In the worst case scenario they achieved neither, going completely overlooked. Ironically, my top film went underrated even by me, as I failed to name it the best film of its particular year. It definitely wasn't my intention to shine a spotlight on overlooked, under-appreciated films but I'd be lying if I told you I'm not thrilled that happened. I was also surprised how mostly character-driven stories ruled the day and that more than few titles on the list featured a writer as the central character or was about writing in some way. It's nice to find out that a topic often unfairly frowned upon as too mundane and introspective provided so many exciting cinematic moments this decade (at least for me).

I tried my best to go light on plot details talking more about exactly WHY I feel these were the deserving selections. Of course, these are the results of a single round and if you asked me in a week, month or year the results might be completely different. This is how it stands now. Hopefully, it was worth the wait.

10. Adaptation
2002, dir. Spike Jonze)

No better or more hilariously is the curse of creativity and frustration behind art explored than in Spike Jonze's Adaptation. Under normal circumstances, the very idea of a screenwriter writing themselves as the main character of their movie, as well as the movie WITHIN that movie, would be considered self-indulgent, if not flat-out insane. But these aren't normal circumstances and Charlie Kaufman isn't your normal screenwriter. In actuality this is one of the least self-indulgent films anyone could make when you consider Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) paints himself as a self-loathing, socially phobic basket case who leans on his talentless, overconfident twin brother (Cage again) for creative support. Never has an autobiographical screenplay been written where its author is so unrelentingly hard on himself. Just witness that brutal rejection scene with the waitress.

Had Kaufman (real or movie version) actually written a direct, faithful adaptation of Susan Orlean's (Meryl Streep) The Orchid Thief the result would have likely been a giant bore. What we get instead is the screenwriter exposing himself in the most humiliatingly honest way possible and in the process revealing how a lot of writers feel when they try to write ANYTHING. In doing it he constructs the movie everyone secretly wishes to see and maybe even wants to write if they could only bring themselves to. It also contains my favorite single scene performance of the decade as the great Brian Cox (playing a fictional version of real-life screenwriting guru Robert McKee) goes over the edge at a story seminar, rallying against the evils of voice-over narration (in a movie deliberately packed with it) and taking hilarious exception to Kaufman's suggestion that "nothing happens" in life. I could probably watch that rant 7,000 times and never tire of it.

Cage, in this dual role, delivers arguably his career best performance, and Streep is comic gold as Orlean, the author who realizes she's never been passionate about anything in her life until meeting her odd subject, backwoods redneck John Laroche (an Oscar winning Chris Cooper). All the real-life players deserve a lot of credit for being such sports by allowing themselves to be lampooned like this, no matter how much of it is complete fabrication. The story flies off the rails in the best way possible in the third act, which puzzled many viewers altogether unprepared for Jonze and Kaufman to actually follow their amazing premise right through to its insane end. Anything less would be unfaithful to the creative spirit the film does such a masterful job celebrating.

9. The Squid and the Whale (2005, dir. Noah Baumbach)

The Squid and the Whale holds the dubious honor of not only being the least viewed, least known film on here, but also the one where I can actually try to guess what the main character in it would think of this list. My ten through six is probably just snobby enough to satisfy pompous blowhard Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels), though he'd likely rip me a new one for having the nerve to exclude Mulholland Drive. That I can even begin to speculate on the reaction of a fictional character is a testament to just how sharply he's drawn by writer/director Noah Baumbach in his autobiographical film about two young boys (Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Klein--both brilliant) painfully caught in the middle of their parent's bitter divorce in 1980's Brooklyn. The New Yorker's David Denby asked an interesting question in his 2005 review of the film:

Is this what we're like at our most fatuous? Ranking every person and book so we won't be associated with anything suspected of being second-rate?

Is it wrong that I find the arrogant, deplorable behavior of washed-up author Bernard Berkman hilarious, despite the fact it's ripping his marriage apart and psychologically crippling his children? I'm in the clear because we watch and laugh out of relief that we're not him and his actions make us too uncomfortable to do anything else. Despite playing such a terminally unlikable prick, Daniels (robbed of an Oscar) makes Bernard impossible to hate, yet forbids us from ever pitying him. His wife, Joan (underplayed perfectly by Laura Linney) isn't the saintly innocent victim and you'd see why the kids are forced to take sides. The movie is one uncomfortable, cringe-worthy situation after another where we're not sure whether to laugh or cry at the family's suffering and neither are they. Some may find the movie too artsy or indie but, as Denby's above quote implies, this movie is actually a spoof of those stuffy films and the people who enjoy watching them for the wrong reasons. Ironically, it's intended to mock the very audience likely to find the most enjoyment in it.

At a brief, but emotionally impactful 85 minutes, the film gets done what it needs to and gets out without wasting a minute or overstaying its welcome, unlike so many clumsily edited efforts this decade. Eisenberg proves here he's no Michael Cera clone, Anna Paquin captivates in her small role and even Billy Baldwin (yes, THAT Billy Baldwin), manages to give an entertaining supporting performance. If that's not proof of the movie's greatness I don't know what is. You're never completely sure what Baumbach's up to until the incredible final sequence (featuring the best use of a Lou Reed song ever) where one of the characters has his eureka moment and catches up to us finally, seeing their previously infallible parent for what he actually is and reassuring us that somehow the possibility exists that these kids could actually survive this and turn out okay.

8. Punch-Drunk Love
(2002, dir. P.T. Anderson)

When the Adam Sandler art-house romantic comedy/drama Punch-Drunk Love was released in 2002 someone whose opinion I didn't hold in very high regard told me it was the only movie they ever walked out of. After hearing that, I knew I had to see it. And when I eventually did, my opinion was curiously indifferent, as the reaction to tends to be after anyone's first viewing this film, which is as maladjusted and uniquely bizarre as the protagonist it centers on. Why couldn't anyone see then what seems so plainly obvious now? How does this hold up so well and just seem to get better each time with each new viewing? You'd think the simple story doesn't seem like much and wouldn't be enough to sustain even a meager running time of barely over an hour and a half, but that only makes the accomplishment all the more staggering.

Anderson doesn't tell us but instead shows everything and make us FEEL and EXPERIENCE it through his eyes, an unheard of approach for a romantic comedy, if this could even be considered that. With the aid of a harmonium musical score and trippy, psychedelic visuals, we share in an uncomfortable but ultimately uplifting journey of a closed-off man's world opening for the first time after meeting an interested stranger, played superbly by Emma Watson. It's surreal watching Adam Sandler as Barry Egan, a socially repressed novelty plunger salesman hen-pecked by his seven sisters, because the fits of passive-aggressive rage he explodes in aren't much different from the behavior he's demonstrated in all his frat boy comedies. But somehow in writer/director PTA's hands these outbursts become sadly terrifying. It's all about context. Sandler definitely has his haters but even they'd have to admit this is his finest hour and Anderson somehow pulled something out of him we've never seen and probably won't again.

I'd be quicker to use this than There Will Be Blood as an example of PTA's full capabilities as a filmmaker just simply because here he took what amounts to peanuts from a story standpoint to craft an epic mood piece you can return to again and again no matter what mood you happen to be in. There are few scenes more inspiring in all of movies than when Barry gains the confidence to confront and defeat the "Mattress Man" (an explosive Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Sandler makes us believe every word he's saying because his character does. What more can be said for a film that uses Shelly Duvall's song, "He Needs Me" from the equally underrated Popeye for its finale? Even though I still say Punch-Drunk Love is a goofy title, I've yet come up with a viable alternative, making me think that maybe even that strangely fits. Regardless, the film manages to tap into everyone's secret belief that no matter how messed up we think ourselves to be, there's that outside chance someone's out there who's just as messed up, or if not, at least crazy enough to take a huge chance. Possibly a total fantasy, but for 95 minutes this movie had me convinced that it wasn't.

7. There Will Be Blood (2007, dir. P.T. Anderson)

There is that tendency to resist piling more praise on a film that doesn't need it and is universally considered the best film of the decade anyway, regardless of its placement here. Even if that film happens to be There Will Be Blood. So while it's hard to get too excited about its inclusion, everyone's right. As much as PTA challenged the conventions of the romantic comedy with Punch-Drunk Love, he does the same here with the historical epic, but on a much larger scale. Given the material he was working with (Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel Oil!) it stands to reason the film should have come off as a slow, plodding history lesson; a homework assignment you don't feel motivated to complete. And in the hands of a lesser filmmaker it may have been.

Somehow though, this movie is actually FUN. Every minute is exciting, and that includes the first twenty of which there's no dialogue. Lost amidst all the hype of how technically perfect it is, from the production and costume design to Robert Elswit's cinematography to the sound to Jonny Greenwood's haunting score, is just how well it works as pure entertainment and the brave, crazy choices made so it would. Daniel Day-Lewis' performance as obsessed oil man Daniel Plainview just grows more berserk and brilliant each time you watch, so entertaining at times it's almost as comical as it is dramatic.

Those who complain about the movie's unusual time-tripping structure and the fact there's hardly a female character of any relevance in the picture fail to realize the entire film exists through the lens of Plainview's narrow, demented worldview. Paul Dano's supporting turn as preacher Eli Sunday is underrated, with many forgetting he's supposed to be playing the weaker, over-matched opponent. Other strange choices like making that character a twin for seemingly no reason at all other than to screw with us (I think) and closing with what feels like a lost ending to a Clockwork Orange, make less sense. But I don't care, because that's the madness of this movie. I'll go a step further with the Kubrick comparisons and say he doesn't imitate, but practically CHANNELS that legendary filmmaker from the grave, becoming the only film this decade to earn such a comparison not so much for its style, but actual level of accomplishment.

6. Zodiac (2007, dir. David Fincher)

It isn't obvious just how perfect David Fincher's Zodiac is after only a single viewing. What it does is rare and takes some time to settle. I'm a little bias since I'm so fascinated by the subject, but each time I see this I'm captivated for over two and a half hours, holding my breath and hanging on every word of procedural police jargon for an investigation I already know the outcome to. In this era of big payoffs, Fincher denies us one and focuses instead on all the fascinating details. It's a good thing that in this case the little details add up to a true crime masterpiece that's scarier than anything attempting to pass as horror these days. Just that stabbing of the couple in Lake Berryessa ranks among the most suspenseful scenes for its genre and more points gained for transforming one of the 60's goofiest songs (Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man") into a prophetic calling card for death that perfectly bookends Zodiac's reign of terror.

The peculiar casting of Jake Gyllenhaal as San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist turned Zodiac hunter Robert Graysmith seems like a weakness on first viewing but subsequent ones reveal his performance (as he slowly flips the switch into obsessive mode) may be the film's most undervalued aspect. Through him we see the killer, realizing this isn't about the investigation at all, but how everyone's addiction to solving it even eclipses the compulsion of the Zodiac himself, mirroring our own obsession as audience members for closure. Chloe Sevigny is great as the only wife I've seen in a movie given a completely justified reason to nag the hell out of her husband, who's behavior toward her becomes more unconscionable as the case drags on.

Better still is Mark Ruffalo as the detective who just can't escape the case, Robert Downey, Jr. as sleazy, boozy reporter Paul Avery, and John Carroll Lynch, who as prime suspect Arthur Leigh Allen embodies our worst nightmare of who the Zodiac could be in a single, chilling interrogation scene. Having little interest in just going for a nostalgia trip, Fincher recreates what it must have been like to actually live and work in the 1970's with the lighting and set/costume design choices, making a movie that can stack up to All The President's Men. A huge commercial flop when released, those still complaining Fincher got his only director nomination for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button can now brag that time is proving them right.

Note: This is the first of a three part series, with the top 5 on its way, followed by a third part where I reveal the runners-up/honorable mentions.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


Director: Matthew Vaughn
Starring: Aaron Johnson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Chloe Grace Moretz, Nicolas Cage, Mark Strong

Running Time: 114 min.

Rating: R

★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

The superhero, comic book satire Kick-Ass fully succeeds at what it's trying to accomplish just as long as you don't think too hard at what that is. But I didn't care. It's a glorious mess of a movie that's tonally all over the map, playing as both a laugh out loud comedy and a hard R-rated testosterone-fueled action vehicle, making it easy to see why it didn't connect with a mass audience. But it's also easy to see how those very same qualities help make it it work so well as I'm not sure this was intended for large-scale commercial consumption to begin with. During the first hour I was a little confused at the angle from which writer/director Matthew Vaughn was approaching the material and he does jam too much story in, but that's eventually cleared up as it comes together in thrilling ways.

Top to bottom to the casting and performances are rock solid right down to even the smallest, throwaway roles but there's only one that's downright astonishing, and it's all anyone will be talking about. Lost amidst all the controversy surrounding Hit Girl is the hard work it must have taken on the part of this young actress to give us 2010's most polarizing and memorable screen character. The only thing that would have held this adaptation of Mark Millar's 2008 comic book back would be pulling punches. Thankfully, Vaughn refuses to compromise and the result is a movie that will piss off some but entertain many more who can appreciate its dark humor.

The idea that superheroes can just be ordinary people wanting to help but also struggling with their own personal issues has been explored in films like Spider-Man, Iron Man and the Batman movies. Geeky teenager Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) has probably seen all of those multiple times and read the comics and now he's asking himself why no one has ever decided to become a real-life superhero. Barely existing at school and having absolutely no chance with his longtime crush, Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca), he orders a silly superhero costume from the internet and hits the streets, taking the law into his own hands. Unfortunately, he gets his ass kicked. A lot. When he becomes a worldwide You-Tube sensation after trying to save a victim from a gang attack, he adopts the masked identity of "Kick-Ass" and attracts the unwanted attention of mob boss Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong) who sees him as major threat to his organization. But in the process he gains the appreciation and services of Damon and Mindy MacCready (Nicolas Cage and Chloe Moretz), father and daughter gun experts who when in costume transform into the crime fighting duo known as "Big Daddy" and "Hit Girl." Big Daddy harbors a personal grudge against D'Amico and isn't above using his vigilante daughter or Kick-Ass as a means of settling it. A fourth superhero, the goofy Red Mist (Superbad's Christopher Mintz-Plasse) enters the picture as a potential sidekick with sneaky ulterior motives.

At first, it appears the primary focus of the film is supposed to be the evolution of this geek into the crime-fighting Kick-Ass, but Vaughn tries to cram a million different things in the first hour with the other two sub-plots before joining them so it seems to take a little bit to get there. Because of this the pacing initially seems sluggis as Vaughn lingers on the detailed origin story while cutting back and forth between the mob stuff and the father/daughter relationship (easily the most compelling story thread of the three). But it's impossible to complain since it all works and so much more is done right. The journey Dave takes isn't much different than Peter Parker's in the Spider-Man movies, only replacing the power and responsibility with bad luck. He's just a kid getting beat up every night in a silly costume who lands on the internet. This opens up an interesting commentary on how people are more than willing to watch and be entertained by real violence than make any any attempt to stop it themselves. That fact that's he's essentially just playing dress-up not only makes the film funnier, but adds suspense because he's always in legitimate danger.

But enough about him. The real reason to see the movie is Hit Girl played by Chloe Grace Moretz, who up until now was best known for playing the bluntly honest, wise-cracking little sister in (500) Days of Summer. This is that part with the volume amped up times two hundred. Nothing can fully prepare you for what she does here as a masked assassin every bit as dangerous and no less believable than Christian Bale in The Dark Knight or Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. It's hilarious, but also invites the question of whether the sight of an 11-year-old foul-mouthed murderer is disturbing even within the confines of satire. Yes it is, but it's supposed to make you uncomfortable and the fact that her father is not only raising a vigilante killer but destroying her childhood to settle a grudge and likely causing her irreversible psychological harm isn't ignored. Despite delivering her shocking dialogue (and beatings) with the poise and confidence of actors double her age as Hit Girl, it's that detail Moretz never ignores in her performance as Mindy.

You can just picture Quentin Tarantino sitting on his couch furiously sketching ideas for Kill Bill Vol. 3 with The Bride vs. Hit Girl, whose fight scenes are probably the most impressively choreographed we've seen on screen since those two films of Tarantino's. John Murphy's adrenaline-pumping score, as well as the other perfectly placed tracks from Joan Jett, Gnarls Barkley and The Prodigy only help to further fuel the energy level. While no one even comes close to matching Moretz, Cage gets second place, giving a performance inspired by Adam West from the 1960's Batman television series. Has there ever been a better inspiration for a part? Crazy Cage dressed as Batman. Playing it like Adam West. And it's just as insane as you'd imagine, earning the actor immunity from me ever writing a negative word about him again, and maybe even forgiveness for Ghost Rider and Next. While a small role, it finally answers that nagging question of how Cage would fare as a superhero, with the result being overwhelmingly favorable. This is him at his absolute best and a reminder just how great he can be when given a well-written character that fully capitalizes on his zaniness.

Relative newcomer Aaron Johnson would have made a likable Peter Parker if Tobey Maguire wasn't available and that's pretty much the role he's playing here. Surprisingly, the screenplay even finds a way to throw a clever, original twist into the usually tired superhero sub-plot of a geek pining after the hot, popular girl. And after this and Hot Tub Time Machine it seems as if Lyndsey Fonseca is now that go-to girlfriend these days in comedy, which is fine by me since she's really good at it. Even David's comic book obsessed friends (played by Clark Duke and Evan Peters) are actually funny, adding levity to the plot when needed without coming off as unnecessary filler. As Red Mist, Mintz-Plasse is basically McLuvin' in a costume and that's exactly what's called for in his part. The movie isn't perfect and at 114 minutes could have probably used an extra trim in the editing room since it feels slightly longer than that, but the performance of Moretz and the character of Hit Girl is the movie and everything else falls into place because of it.

I can't understand anyone getting bent out of shape that this is "morally reprehensible" or "goes too far," especially with an "R" rating clearly slapped on it and in a year where the majority of entertainment has been aimed at the PG crowd, with many options to choose from. No one's forcing anyone to see it. After a cruel bludgeoning of Twilight movies, cash-grabbing remakes, and 3D junk, we've earned at least one hardcore, balls-to-the wall movie that doesn't play it safe and Vaughn deserves his vision being released as it was intended without the morality police throwing a fit. It's a testament to how frighteningly believable Moretz is in the role that it's caused so much controversy. Hit Girl deserves her own movie and Kick-Ass earns its sequel, surpassing in quality many of the superhero films it's satirizing.