Thursday, December 24, 2009

Top 10 Movies: 2001

According to Arthur C. Clarke and Stanlry Kubrick, we were supposed to be sending manned missions to Jupiter and conversing with crazed computers in 2001. Well, no space-odysseying occurred (although that's not to say that artificial intelligence -- or Kubrick himself -- doesn't yet have a role to play). Obviously, 2001 wasn't the year of science fiction. It was, however, the year of fantasy, as the genre produced some of the biggest movies of all time in 2001 -- the first Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Shrek films were all released. I'm not a huge fan of the early Harry Potter films or of Shrek in general, but I can see the appeal. What I cannot see the appeal of, however, is some of the other top-grossing and award-winning movies of 2001. There were some spectacularly shitty movies released -- check out 6-10 of the top 10 grossing films: Pearl Harbor, The Mummy Returns, Jurassic Park III, Planet of the Apes, and Hannibal. Are you ****ing kidding me? Now 9/11 starts to make sense... Moving on, 2001 was also responsible for perhaps the worst Oscars of the decade. A Beautiful Mind? Yawn. Denzel for Training Day? That was a make-up award. And don't even get me started on Halle Berry for Monster's Ball. That, however, doesn't even compare to the shafting Amélie got in Forgein Film. At least Fellowship of the Ring and Black Hawk Down cleaned up in the tech categories.

So, neither the populists nor the critics got much right in 2001. That said, it was actually a pretty strong year overall -- one of the strongest of the decade, truth be told. A lot of under-the-radar gems mixed with some true classics, both cult and otherwise. Here's my top ten:

Honorable mentions: Donnie Darko (R.I.P. Patrick Swayze), Apocalypse Now Redux (would've been in my top ten but I don't count rereleases) Ghost World (under-appreciated), The Man Who Wasn't There (Coens strike again), Wet Hot American Summer (check out the cast -- ridiculous).

10) Ocean's Eleven
Directed by: Stephen Soderbergh
Written by: Ted Griffen
Starring: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts

Another year, another Soderbergh movie at #10. Ocean's Eleven, however, is a markedly different type of film than Traffic. To carry the Steven Spielberg comparison from the last movie entry through, this is The Terminal to Traffic's Munich. Except, you know, this is way better than The Terminal and Traffic is no Munich. So yeah. That was confusing. But either way, two top-ten movies in two years is pretty impressive, especially considering how different they are.

Whereas Traffic was a testament to his filmmaking prowess, in Ocean's Eleven, Soderbergh wisely steps aside and allows his cast to be the center of attention. And what a cast it is -- perhaps the three biggest actors of the decade in Clooney, Pitt, and Damon, as wells as Roberts, Andy Garcia, and a host of talented supporting actors including Don Cheadle, the late Bernie Mac and Casey "Don't Call Me Ben" Affleck. The rapport of the cast combined with Soderbergh's flair behind the camera results in a film that oozes élan, whimsy, and bravura. And other fancy-sounding words. But seriously, look 'em it. Because they fit. Ocean's Eleven is far from the most memorable film of the decade, but it certainly is one of the most unabashedly entertaining -- and that counts for a lot on this list.

9) A.I. Artificial Intelligence
Directed by: Stephen Spielberg
Written by: Stephen Spielberg, Ian Watson
Starring: Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law, Frances O'Connor

If you've been paying attention, you would have known this was coming. If not, this may have come as somewhat of a surprise -- that is, unless you read the New York Times, where critic A.O. Scott has it listed as the number two movie of the decade. I'm definitely not going that far, but I do feel comfortable putting it in the top ten of its year. A.I. is somewhat of an aberration in Spielberg's oeuvre -- it experienced only middling success, both critically and financially -- and a definite anomaly as far as Kubrick (who originally conceived the film) is concerned, what with its undercurrent of sweet sentimentality. Add to that the out of left field last thirty minutes and this is just an odd, odd film.

It's one that has always stuck with me though, for that very combination of oddness and sweetness.  Osment really is perfect in the role of a child android (much in the same way that Keanu Reeves is perfect as Neo -- not really a compliment, by the way) adopted by O'Connor, bringing an eeriness to the role that helps to ramp up the tension. That tension comes to a crux when Osment is abandoned to the wilderness along with a mechanized teddy bear. He eventually encounters Jude Law as pleasure model android. Together, they traverse a landscape of similarly-abandoned machines that culminates in a kind of demolition derby of androids that always reminds me of the Sid's House sequence from the first Toy Story. Creepy stuff. And then that ending... one of the most talked about endings in cinema, both then and now. You can either attempt to understand it or ignore it completely, for if Bad Boys II has taught us anything, it's that you shouldn't judge a movie by its seemingly-tacked-on, out-of-left-field ending.

8) The Royal Tennenbaums
Directed by: Wes Anderson
Written by: Wes Anderson, Owen Wilson
Starring: Gene Hackman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, Anjelica Huston

You've heard the one about the one-trick pony, right? (And no, I'm not talking about the lyrics to Bruce Springsteen's god-awful title track to The Wrestler.) You know, "Yeah, but it's a pretty good trick." Well, Wes Anderson isn't a pony, but his one trick is pretty good. He'll never eclipse Rushmore, but this film comes pretty close (as does The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which holds up surprisingly well to repeat viewings), with its nutjob characters, distinctive visuals, and charming quirkiness. These things aren't always enough (not the biggest fan of The Darjeeling Limited), but it is in Tennenbaums. Stiller, Paltrow and Wilson the Younger are the ubiquitously oddball siblings to Hackman's powerfully devious patriarch (how he didn't get a Supporting Actor nod is beyond me) Eventually, the whole cast (including supporters Danny Glover and Bill Murray) achieves a kind of Zen contentedness that only makes sense in a Wes Anderson movie. It's not something I want to watch all that often, but when the mood strikes, there's almost nothing that can substitute for it. Except maybe I Heart Huckabees.

7) Super Troopers
Directed by: Jay Chandrasekhar
Written by: Broken Lizard
Starring: Broken Lizard

Ah, Super Troopers. This movie came out of absolutely nowhere to become one of my favorite comedies of the decade. I saw it in a mall theater in a podunk town in northwestern New Mexico (I was staying there for the summer... long story) and it instantly improved my summer. It has everything -- mustaches, quotability, nudity, Brian Cox, mustaches, maple syrup chugging, Rod Farva, a bearfucker, and mustaches. If none of that makes sense to you, and I cannot stress this enough, SEE THIS MOVIE IMMEDIATELY. Catch up with the rest of the world.

Now, Broken Lizard (Chandasekhar, Kevin Heffernen, Steve Lemme, Paul Soter, Erik Stolhanske) has never done anything else even remotely this good. Never saw Puddle Cruiser, Club Dread kinda sucked, and Beerfest was amusing at best. However, there is a sequel in the works, so maybe they can regain some cred. The oft-rumored "PotQuest" sequel to Beerfest would be pretty funny too. But one thing is clear: these guys will never top this film. And, honestly, only a few comedies have this decade.

6) Brotherhood of the Wolf
Directed by: Cristophe Gans
Written by: Cristophe Gans, Stéphane Cabel
Starring: Samuel Le Bihan, Vincent Cassel, Mark Dacascos, Monica Bellucci

Probably the least-seen movie on this years list, Brotherhood of the Wolf is a gangbang of a genre mashup -- is it a horror movie? Martial arts movie? Period drama? Erotic thriller? The answer is, simply, "Yes." It's all of these things and more. And, obviously, it's in French. Le Bihan plays an adventurer/taxidermist who is tasked with with capturing a "beast" that is terrorizing a countryside town prior to the Revolution. Martial arts veteran Dacascos is his Native American sidekick who somehow knows kung fu (and utilizes it to great effect). Bellucci is a local madame who shows him a good time (and, for good measure, her boobs). Finally, the always awesome Cassel is the son of the local count/all-around creeper. There's also a conspiracy plot, a cool twist, stellar action scenes, and jaw-dropping visuals.

Brotherhood of the Wolf also marks the first important film of a guy who should have went on to become one of my favorite directors, Cristophe Gans. I say "should have" because he's only done one film since then (2006's criminally, nay, FELONIOUSLY under-rated, -appreciated, and misunderstood Silent Hill). His visual style is unmistakable -- moody, brooding, with a certain fantastic flair, which is all the cooler given his propensity to use in-camera effects instead of CGI. I'm eagerly awaiting his next film -- supposedly an adaptation of Capcom's Onimusha samurais-and-zombies video game franchise. Sounds about right.

5) Black Hawk Down
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Written by: Ken Nolan
Starring: Josh Hartnett, Eric Bana, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore, William Fitchner

Ridley Scott has got to be up there in the running for best director of the decade. His films in the past ten years haven't always been good (Hannibal, Body of Lies) or important (Matchstick Men, A Good Year), but his films always demand attention. In the case of Black Hawk Down, it doesn't so much demand your attention as punch you in the face and scream at you to pay attention, you maggot. It's easily one of the best war movies of the decade, and Scott brings the same epic feel and visceral tone that he brought to Gladiator the previous year -- you can see every bullet, feel every explosion, and feel every piece of shrapnel. Try watching it on Blu-Ray with surround sound on. You can see why it won the Best Sound Oscar. Well, not see, but... you know. Whatever.

Finally, because it has to be said: I'm an unapologetic Josh Hartnett fan. Watch Lucky Number Slevin once or five times and it's almost impossible not to be. Anyway, he, and the rest of the cast, are stellar. Name me a consistently better supporting actor from the last ten years than Billy Fitch (what the cool kids call William Fitchner). You can't do it. A rare Tom Sizemore sober appearance is always appreciated. Even Ewan McGregor (secretly a really bad actor -- no, really, it's true) does a good job. Throw in great cameos from Jason Isaacs (a personal favorite), Jeremy Piven, Orlando Bloom, et al. and you've got the makings of a great ensemble. And I didn't even mention Eric Bana. I'd watch this cast in anything -- except a sequel to Body of Lies.

4) Mulholland Drive
Directed by: David Lynch
Written by: David Lynch
Starring: Naomi Watts, Laura Harring, Justin Theroux, Melissa George

I am honestly at a loss as to where to rank this movie. Maybe it's the seventh best movie of this year (where I originally had it ranked). Maybe it's the seventh best movie of the decade -- hell, maybe it's the best movie of the decade. There's certainly evidence out there to support that theory. I don't really have much to refute that point of view -- Mulholland Drive is certainly a memorable film, a neo-classic that is sure to be one of the first films that comes to mind when thinking of this decade. It's a Great Film -- capitals intentional. So what is it doing at #4 of this year? Good question. Since I'm kind of running the show around here, I might as well answer it:  It's because I *enjoy* the three films ahead of it on this list more. Are they intrinsically better films? Possibly, but not necessarily; again, that's not the point of this list, to determine which are the "best" films. It's merely my ten favorite films of the year -- and Mulholland Drive is my fourth favorite film of 2001. I think.

That said, if you haven't seen any of the top four films on this list (what's the rent like under that ROCK of yours?), I would, without hesitation, urge you to see Mulholland Drive first, and I'd immediately want to talk to you about how you interpreted it. What does it all fucking mean, Mr. Lynch? It's a well-known fact that he's not telling anytime soon, but that doesn't mean we can't try to figure it out ourselves. Was it all a dream? A hallucination? A fantasy? Or was it all real? Does it even matter? Is that the point? It's a goddamn clusterfuck of a puzzlebox of a movie, and only Lynch has the blue key. If you don't get the reference, SEE THE FREAKING MOVIE ALREADY.

Finally, I'll leave you with my favorite scene from the movie, the infamous "Winkie's Dream." Just watch:

3) A Knight's Tale
Directed by: Brian Helgeland
Written by: Brian Helgeland
Starring: Heath Ledger, Shannyn Sossamon, Rufus Sewell, Alan Tudyk, Paul Bettany

R.I.P. Heath Andrew Ledger, 4-4-1979 to 1-22-2008.

I like to talk about entertainment value -- I think it's a very core, very basic element of movies that often gets lost in the shuffle when critics start talking about movies. I know I've been guilty of this in the past, been caught up in the whole "cinema is art" thing a little too much. But then a movie like A Knight's Tale comes along every so often and reminds me why people watch movies in the first place -- to be entertained. And A Knight's Tale has entertainment value in spades -- 2 through Ace to be precise, every damn one of 'em. I cannot think of a movie that is just plain more *enjoyable* than this one. I just can't. I've seen it at least a dozen times since I first saw it in theaters my senior year of high school and I never get tired of it. The gleeful performances (yes, even Sewell's as one of the better villains of the decade), the hilarious anachronisms (that some people hate, for some reason), the heartfelt writing, Paul Bettany as a nudist Chaucer, Alan "Leaf in the Wind" Tudyk -- everything about the film is just so damn likable. I just LOVE this movie, even more than lamp or carpet. Maybe I'm crazy for saying it's the third best movie of 2001, but I have my principles and I'm sticking to them. Yes, Mr. Crowe, I am entertained! Oh wait, wrong movie... but the principle still applies. Entertainment value matters, dammit!

On a sadder note, this film is also the pièce de résistance of our annual Heath Andrew Ledger Memorial Film Festival, held every January 22nd, replete with Heath films and Fosters big cans. I encourage you to join us for this year's festivities (if you're in the Arizona area). Watch Facebook for an invite -- come pour some out for your boy Keith! (And yes, I realize I said Keith... just roll with it.)

2) Amélie
Directed by: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Written by: Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Guillaume Laurant
Starring: Audrey Tautou, Mathieu Kassovitz, Dominique Pinon

My top five directors list looks something like this:
5) Ridley/Tony Scott (hey, the Coens can get away with it)
4) Michael Mann
3) The Coen Brothers
2) Jean-Pierre Jeunet
1) Uwe Boll... kidding!
1) Quentin Tarantino

That's just off the top of my head, but my point is this: Jean-Pierre Jeunet is a world-class badass of cinema. Sure, Amélie is sweet and sometimes cloying, but it's also a visual masterpiece and responsible for an entire generation of male cinephiles falling in love with Audrey Tautou. I mean, Jesse Lacey of Brand New (one of the best bands of this decade... see future music entries) even wrote a song called "Tautou." If you're in your twenties or early thirties and you've even *heard* of Amélie, chances are you're carrying a torch for Ms. Tautou. And you can thank Mr. Jeunet for that, for crafting this whirlwind of whimsy in which to showcase her talent. Jeunet is a master of the fantastical (which would be an awesome line in a freestyle rap), unafraid to be a little weird, a little oddball, whether it be in plot, casting (have you *seen* Dominique Pinon?), or even camera movement. He's always interesting to watch, and I eagerly await the stateside release of his next film.

Incidentally, you should check out his other films if you're uninitiated. Delicatessen is a devilishly stylish dystopian black comedy about cannibalism. City of Lost Children laid the groundwork for The Matrix and features a standout performance by Ron Perlman (and might be Jeunet's best film). Alien Resurrection... well, isn't as bad as people say. Not his finest work, but enjoyable. Amélie, see above. His follow-up, also featuring Tautou, is A Very Long Engagement, and it's almost as good as Amélie. He really is a wizard behind the camera, except he doesn't wear a pointy hat or carry a sweet staff.

1) The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Directed by: Peter Jackson
Written by: Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyens
Starring: Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Viggo Mortensen, Ian McKellan, Sean Bean, Orlando Bloom

Speaking of wizards... there was almost no way this wasn't going to be #1. Let's see... a spot-on adaptation of one of my favorite novels of all time with a great cast, groundbreaking visual effects, an amazing score, and a three hour run time? Sign me up! Easily the strongest film of the most epic, iconic film franchise of our time, Fellowship is really the film that the Academy should have awarded, rather than Return of the King. That way, some excellent 2003 films could have gotten their due and we could have avoided the poo-poo platter that was the 74th Academy Awards. Give it Picture, Director, Supporting Actor for McKellan, and heck, give Big Vig (again, what the cool kids call Viggo Mortensen) an Actor statue as well. Come to think of it, the acting as a whole in the Rings franchise was majorly under-appreciated by AMPAS. Are you telling me Viggo Mortensen didn't deserve a single nomination? Sean Astin? Andy Serkis? I mean, eschewing Liv Tyler (the single worst part of the trilogy), Orlando Bloom, and Elijah Wood I can understand, but don't let all the CGI trickery and stiff dialogue fool you -- there was some damn fine acting going on in these movies.

And as far as just sheer epic and iconic scenes goes, Fellowship has plenty. From the establishing shots of the Shire at the beginning of the film to your first glimpse of Mordor at the end, Peter Jackson manages to recreate a world that took author J.R.R. Tolkien four novels and umpteen THOUSANDS of pages of ersatz history and language and maps and myths to create. Sure, it took him over nine hours at the end of the day, but it's a singular accomplishment in film history. Not even Star Wars or Harry Potter can claim a similar achievement. Honestly, Avatar (which I just saw today) is the only thing that comes close, and James Cameron had to INVENT shit to achieve his goal. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is simply one of the most remarkable achievements in cinema history, and Fellowship is your entry point. From the Mines of Moria ("You shall not pass!") to Boromir's death, this movie is filled with the kinds of moments that people go to the movies for. Hence the number one slot on this list. And it wasn't even close.

So there's another basically unedited ramble. Some very stream of consciousness, Faulkner-esque shit. I'm thinking Benji rather then Quentin though, if you catch my drift. Anyway, thanks again for reading and let me know what you think. Music is up next...

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