Saturday, November 14, 2009

Top 10 Movies: 2000

In many ways, the Best Picture winner for 2000, Gladiator, represents the balance I'm trying to convey in this blog between artistic/aesthetic principles and good old-fashioned entertainment value. Gladiator combines slick, visceral action with (admittedly, somewhat obtuse) social commentary and a liberal helping of drama. Pre-"Fightin' 'Round the World" Russell Crowe's Maximus sums it up best when he asks (and you knew this quote was coming), "Are you not entertained?!" In a word (or more): Hell yes I am! The audience loved it (to the tune of $450 million worldwide), and the critics loved it (to the tune of five Oscars). A lot of the movies (or albums or books) that I list on here will skew more towards one or the other (audience vs. critics), but Gladiator is the rare beast that managed to please both (and Russell Crowe is nothing if not a BEAST in that movie).

But enough about Gladiator. It's not even [SPOILERS] my favorite movie of the decade. And, no, it's no How the Grinch Stole Christmas (the year's domestic box office champ). I'm not that much of a populist. Anyway, here's my top ten, in descending order:

Honorable mentions: Quills (naked Geoffrey Rush is always good); Remember the Titans (loves me some Will Patton); Requiem for a Dream (Shooter McGavin sighting!); Wonder Boys (RDJ FTW).

10) Traffic
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Written by: Stephen Gaghan
Starring: Benicio Del Toro, Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones

Soderbergh is the new Spielberg in that he is the new master of the "One for you, one for me" school of filmmaking. That is to say, he'll do one for the studios (think the Ocean's movies) and then one for himself (i.e. Che). His drug trafficking ensemble piece Traffic is firmly in the "One for me" category. It is also the first (well, one of the first) of the ensemble cast-social issue kind of film of which Crash (Haggis not Cronenberg) is the most offensive example.

But Crash Traffic is not (yeah, there was probably a better way to say that). The characters are less caricature (with the possible exception of Zeta-Jones' and Topher "Don't Call Me Foreman" Grace's characters), the social issue is less esoteric, and the direction is infinitely more restrained. Oh, and the script is far less contrived. Moving on.

Traffic did well on Oscar night, netting four golden men (including wins for Soderbergh, Gaghan, and Del Toro). All were worthy enough, although the competition wasn't exactly stiff -- I think 2000 was a fairly weak year for Oscar-type pictures (Erin Brockovich? Chocolat? whatever...). Although I guess I'd rather have seen Scott or Lee win for director. Traffic remains enduring to me, almost ten years later, for its elegant cinematography (I happen to love the tonal shifts from storyline to storyline... some do not), solid performances and script, and the fact that we got to watch Eric Foreman smoke heroin.

9) O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Directed by: Joel and Ethan Coen
Written by: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson

The Coens are another couple of guys who know a thing or two about straddling the line between entertainment and art. The first of a few appearances by them on this blog is O Brother, Where Art Thou? With a heavy assist from both Homer (think ancient Greece, not Springfield) and T-Bone Burnett, the Coens' tale of escaped convicts and bluegrass music collected tons of awards. Unfortunately, most of them were Grammys (the most asinine of all the major awards -- although the music was *fantastic*). At the Oscars, the Coens got their usual screenplay nom and cinematographer extraordinaire Roger Deakins (henceforth referred to as, simply, Deakins) was nominated as well (someone PLEASE tell me how he hasn't won a freaking statue yet).

Aside from kicking off an impressive decade for George "Dreamboat" Clooney, O Brother also featured standout supporting turns by Coen favorite John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson (the "Corruption is why we wiiiiiin!" guy from Syriana -- dunno why, but I always think of that line when I think of TBN), and John Goodman before he became Goodman the Hutt. Overall, O Brother might be the Coens' most enduring comedy (non-Big Lebowski division), combining Clooney's trademark charm/smarm, The Odyssey parallels, T-Bone Burnett's standout music direction, and Deakins' delightful cinematography. And that Roderick Jaynes guy sure can edit a motion picture. Wink.

8) Memento
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Written by: Christopher and Jonathan Nolan
Starring: Guy Pierce (note: NOT Val Kilmer), Joe Pantoliano

True story: The first time I watched Memento in its entirety, I thought I was watching a Val Kilmer movie. You can see where I'm coming from, right? There's a resemblance. I'm not crazy.

Anyway, Memento marked the arrival of American auteur Christopher Nolan as a major filmmaker (SPOILERS: You will be seeing some of his other films on this blog. Not Insomnia though. Just saying.). The Academy recognized this, awarding the film with noms for Editing and Original Screenplay. It probably should have won the latter -- Gosford ****ing Park (and yes, I had to look that up)? Seriously? I mean, I enjoyed the film, but come on. Yeah yeah, murder mystery, sexual tension, class issues, etc. All you need is some amnesia and it's basically a soap opera.  Oh wait...

But Pierce's amnesia allows for one of the most interesting film structures of all time -- it makes the oft-cited Pulp Fiction seem as easy to parse as a grade school reader. Nolan's film broke free from the rigid structure endorsed by screenwriting professors everywhere (or did it?) by allowing the film to unfold as Pierce tries to piece together what happened to him. Complex, compelling, confounding, and other c-words, Memento established Nolan's cinematic sleight-of-hand approach that he later perfected in The Prestige.

7) Snatch
Directed by: Guy Ritchie
Written by:  Guy Ritchie
Starring: Jason Statham, Brad Pitt, Denis Farina, Vinnie Jones

First off, you have to love anything with Jason Statham. If you don't, you're just not American (yes, I know he's British, and yes, I have a few non-American friends who might read this). And second... well, that was really my main point. Jason Statham (aka Frank Martin and/or Chev Chelios) is the man. The Man. The sooner you come to accept that, the better.

Moving on... yes, Brad Pitt is in this movie, and yes, he talks funny. It's a great comedic performance, but he's no Statham. He's NO Statham. Got it? Good. The rest of the cast -- from a skittish Stephen Graham to a frenetic Denis Farina to Bullet Tooth Tony (Vinnie Jones should just legally change his name at this point) -- is top-notch. That's something British people say a lot, right? Top-notch? Regardless, Guy Ritchie is a top-notch director -- a one-trick pony, yes, but it's a pretty good trick (see: Anderson, Wes) -- and this is a top-notch film. One of the better crime films (always a favorite genre) of the decade. Almost as good as RockNRolla. And yes, I'm deadly serious.

6) Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Directed by: Ang Lee
Written by: Hui-Ling Wang, James Schamus, and Kuo Jung Tsai
Starring: Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi

Who knew a story about a stolen comb could be so awesome? Okay, okay, it's not really about a stolen comb (it's about a stolen sword), but it is indeed awesome. Awesome, as in "inspiring awe." I was 17 when this came out, and definitely watched with mouth agape as Yun-Fat, Yeoh, and Ziyi, et al. jumped all around the screen, all the while fighting with all manner of weapons. This was my first real encounter with martial arts cinema/wire fu (unless you count The Matrix), and I loved it.

Although Zhang Yimou's Hero is probably better, CT, HD fared better, both at the box office and with the critics (and it didn't even have Quentin Tarantino's artificially attached to it!), as it racked up over $200 million worldwide and 10 Oscar noms (winning four but losing out in most of the major categories). At the time, I thought it deserved to win Best Picture over Gladiator... and maybe I still do, just because there are so many deserving foreign movies every year that get shafted by AMPAS. Lee later got his due though -- no, not for the undeservingly-derided Hulk, but for Brokeback Mountain, which just really goes to show that he's up for anything, source material-wise (did anyone actually see Taking Woodstock?). Anyway, this one had it all -- amazing fight scenes, a good love story, incredible set design, and one of the classic WTF? endings of all time.

5) Pitch Black
Directed by: David Twohy
Written by: Jim and Ken Wheat, David Twohy
Starring: Vin Diesel, Radha Mitchell, Keith David, Cole Hauser

Perhaps the first curveball on the list, Pitch Black is easily in the running for best sci-fi picture of the decade and (obviously) one of my favorite films of 2000. It's high concept at its best: Flesh-eating creatures only come out at night... world has two suns... OH NO! Solar eclipse! You then get to watch a supremely badass Riddick (Diesel... but you knew that... or should have) and always excellent (and hot) Radha Mitchell scurry around for ninety minutes or so. And did I mention KEITH ****ing DAVID? Seriously, if you don't know who Keith David is, get out now. Literally. Or watch this and come back:

Back? Good. Keith David is probably in a dozen movies you like and has one of the most distinct screen presences of all time. He even manages to out-badass Vin Diesel. And I'm talking about *before* he did The Pacifier.

Anyway, Pitch Black is memorable for its awesome concept and amazing visuals. Tons of lens flares and heat distortion and shadowplay in the first part of the film, and ever-encroaching darkness for the second part. It's all spare and minimalistic; Twohy uses his limited palette masterfully. Netflix it now if you haven't seen it.

4) High Fidelity
Directed by: Stephen Frears
Written by: Nick Hornby (novel); D.V. DeVincentis, Steve Pink
Starring: John Cusack, Iben Hjejle, Jack Black

High Fidelity, the answer to the (unasked) Rob Gordon/Fleming trivia question of the previous post, is the rare example of the film being better than the book. Many times, characters' rich and complex interior lives are lost in the book-to-film translation.  Not the case here, as the film uses the controversial Ferris Bueller/Zack Morris "talking directly to the camera" technique to great effect. John Cusack is, for all intents and purposes, a first-person narrator in the movie, and none of Rob's idiosyncrasies are lost in the bargain. A masterstroke by the underrated Stephen Frears.

But this is really Cusack's show (he even has a screenwriting credit on this) -- Lloyd Dobler's all grown up and he's in the middle of an existential (read: girl) crisis. Music is either to blame for it, or is the only panacea -- or is it both? Love the soundtrack, love the random "top five" lists, love Jack Black's coming out party, and I really love Iben Hjejle's (how in god's name do you pronounce that?) performance -- too bad she never really did much else that anyone's seen. A must-see movie (and must-read book) for anyone that's ever been in the dumps about relationships. And who hasn't?

3) In the Mood for Love
Directed by: Wong Kar-wai
Written by: Wong Kar-wai
Starring: Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung

After another couple viewings, this might even move to #1 on this list -- I've still only seen it the once. But I was sufficiently floored and knew I had to include it in the top five. It landed solidly at #3 behind the two movies that anyone talks about when they talk about movies released in 2000 (maybe I am that much of a populist, after all).

The key word here is "mood," and all the major players here (Wong, Leung, Cheung, and cinematographer Christopher Doyle) are masters at setting it. Wong is a subtle eroticist (I think I just invented a word) and a master of the melancholy; Leung and Cheung are two of the finest actors on the planet (they should both have multiple Oscar noms by now... hell, take Julia Roberts' statue for Brockovich away and give it to Cheung); and Doyle manipulates light and shadow to frame the characters and uses a soft palette to heighten the mood. In the Mood for Love is as close to virtuoso filmmaking as anything released this decade. It'd make you stand up and applaud if it wasn't so damn sad. Check out Wong Kar-wei's films if you aren't familiar. Filmmaking at its finest.

2) Gladiator
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Written by: David Franzoni, John Logan
Starring: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen

You knew this was coming, and while it's not a particularly inspired choice, I still think it deserves its ranking. The first (and really, only actually good) collaboration between Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe (not the last you'll be seeing of either of them), Gladiator is the little action movie that could. While it's not your typical Hollywood actioner, it still wasn't expected to make the critical impact it did. For that, you can credit its two main players: Scott and Crowe.

How Ridley Scott hasn't won an Oscar yet is beyond me. I'm sure AMPAS already has an honorary statue earmarked for him in 2025. Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, Kingdom of Heaven (yep, I said it)... the man will take on anything and will make it epic and poignant. I love epic movies and Ridley Scott does 'em better than anyone. He, more so than any director this side of Spielberg, understands the inherent grandeur of cinema and makes pictures that reflect that.

Say what you will of Russell Crowe a person (just watch out for flying telephones), but you can't deny his abilities as an actor. He has an undeniable presence, and for someone who is usually billed as the macho man, action hero type, he has a surprisingly versatile emotional palette (okay, that's like the third time I've used that word... no more). He just makes what he's in better. Hell, even Proof of Life and A Good Year were decent (Body of Lies though... not so much). I still think his portrayal of Bud White in L.A. Confidential is one of the best acting performances of the last 25 years. And, come on, one more time: "Are you not entertained?!"

1) Almost Famous
Directed by: Cameron Crowe
Written by: Cameron Crowe
Starring: Patrick Fugit, Billy Crudup, Kate Hudson, Frances McDormand

I'll just come out and say it: I'm ripping off Bill Simmons (sports writer extraordinaire and one of my writing idols). He wrote a column a few months back espousing Almost Famous as the best movie of the decade. It was already in the running, but the column (and subsequent re-viewing of the film) pushed it over the top. And I think, at the end of the day, any film that somehow manages to get Kate Hudson an Oscar nomination has to be the best of its particular year. I mean, did you see You, Me and Dupree? Then you know what I'm saying.

Cameron Crowe might only be my second-favorite Crowe, but I love his saccharine schtick. I just enjoy watching his movies -- even (or perhaps especially -- and we'll address my Orlando Bloom fetish in future posts) Elizabethtown. (The obvious exception to this is Vanilla Sky. That movie sucks.) That said, Almost Famous is easily his best work -- his least clich├ęd (and that is a problem with his films), most fulfilling work yet. It's just got so many good, memorable scenes -- the Lester Bangs scene(s), the "Golden God" scene, the "Tiny Dancer" scene, the plane scene -- that still immediately come to mind, almost ten years later.

And then there's the cast -- just brilliant. The underrated (and that's probably how he likes it) Billy Crudup absolutely steals the movie as Russell Hammond, lead guitarist and songwriter of the fictional (actually all the music is by Nancy Wilson and Peter Frampton) band Stillwater. He's jaded and egotistical and supremely talented -- and he's even got a great mustache. Fugit (read: Crowe stand-in) is gangly and awkward and rises to the challenge of acting alongside his more experienced castmates. Hudson is *actually* good as Penny Lane, the self-professed "fucked-up girl" that winds up in the heart of Fugit's character and in the bed of Crudup's. Even better is Frances McDormand (when is she not good?) as Fugit's mettling yet loving mother. Oh, and Zooey Deschanel is his sister, Jason Lee is Stillwater's lead singer and Philip Seymour Hoffman is Bangs, Fugit's rock critic idol. Do I even need to say anything else? Read Simmons' column if you're still not convinced.

Wow. That took a lot longer than I thought it would. Anyway, thanks for reading. Direct any disagreements, omissions, praise, etc. to the comments area. Until next time.

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