Tuesday, September 24, 2013

After Last Season (2009)

When Carman invited me to write reviews for this blog, I knew that my first review had to be for a truly phenomenal movie. And so, I saw the White Ribbon. And then, I saw A Prophet. And then, I saw After Last Season, and I knew that I had found my first review.

There is a reason that W. Carlson, Amazon Customer Reviewer, said "After Last Season may be the best movie ever made." I'm just not quite sure what it is.

Mark Region's After Last Season is the filmic equivalent of the awkward conversations so pressed for material that you begin to make sounds, hoping that these sounds will come together as words, that the words might form a sentence, and that this sentence might be remotely interesting. Usually, they are not. Usually, they trail off until you close the statement with some arbitrary "yeah, so..." And this is exactly how After Last Season finds its end. This being said, the adventure that takes place in this unguided piece of cinematic glory was well worth free admission and seven free beers I put myself through during the secret "non-screening" of the film I participated in last night. Supposedly, the film is not allowed any screenings, previous theatres had to destroy their copies, and the special effects on the film cost five million dollars. This is a context that really needs to be considered while watching this film. Five million dollars.

Essentially plotless, After Last Season contains a handful of unremarkable characters struggling towards some sort of narrative structure, but never quite getting there. A few half-developed murders are carried out by a Henry-Rollins-looking killer that is eventually stopped by a chair-throwing phantom during a psychological experiment involving chicklet-like microchips. Most of the film's screen time, however, is devoted to shots of furniture, exteriors of a paper-covered house, and arbitrary conversations between characters that only appear once. One gathers that these characters are medical students, that they are ambiguously located between "the city" and its suburbs, and that an FBI agent has early-onset Parkinson's. These details require a high level of attentiveness - and possibly repeat viewings - to catch. And it does not stop - unnecessary characters and arbitrary conversations are consistently introduced until the last frame. Region more or less gives a big "fuck you" to plot consistencies and any passable narrative.

The film exists in that space between conscious and unconscious, where silences last too long, images of essentially nothing are arbitrarily cut into nearly plotless scenes, and intentions are unclear - if there at all. After surviving all 93 minutes of After Last Season (we actually shook hands with strangers and congratulated eachother on not being one of the weak few that left early), I cannot confidently say anything about its intentions. Is it a joke? I really don't think so. Is it (intentionally) high art? I really don't think so. I cannot say why, but I do know that it is a masterpiece. All of its half-cocked twists and turns, trailing, monotonous dialogue, and slow-death floating images create a beautifully surreal, nauseating, skull-crushing, confusing, angering, sleepy cocktail of a film. After Last Season is horrible, but reaches a knee-cap breaking level of extraordinary. And so, Amazon Customer Reviewer W. Carlson, I'm going to have to agree with you on this one.

Monday, February 28, 2011

2011: So far.

Wow, it's been a while since I've been here. After I dust off a few things and get the lights back on, I'll get started. I hope my writing has improved since I last posted here a year ago. Reading old stuff is so awkward.

To start off the new year, here are the new releases I've watched so far. In the interest of space and brevity, plot details and descriptions will be light:

Cold Weather [Aaron Katz]
Being very unfamiliar with the whole 'mumblecore' movement, my slate of expectations was pretty bare going into this. Would it be about the State of the Slacker in a post-recession world? Relationships between young 20somethings caught in a state of ennui? Doug (Cris Lankenau), a college dropout studying forensic science and an admiration of Sherlock Holmes, moves in with his sister Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn) in where else but Portland and gets a menial job working the night shift at an ice factory where he befriends Carlos (Raúl Castillo). Their lives become wrapped up in a mystery and Doug, literally, puts on his Sherlock Holmes pipe and Cold Weather becomes the most playful movie of 2011 I've seen so far. Doug and Gail become the sister and brother of their childhood and play detectives, using a trick straight out of North By Northwest and putting on disguises, coming only short of using a decoder ring from a cereal box. Like any good mystery movie (see: Fincher's recent Zodiac or even going back to Citizen Kane), it's less about the ultimate answer to the question but the ride you take along the way. [A-]

Kaboom [Gregg Araki]
My only exposure to Araki before this was Mysterious Skin whose eerie calm struck me as far too stoic to enjoy, so when I saw the trailer for this day-glo mashup of MTV's "Undressed"-meets-"Twin Peaks" I was intrigued. There's not much substance here, but you can't help but find pure carnal pleasure out of watching beautiful co-eds fuck each others' brains out while unraveling the threads of a conspiracy theory somehow involved with a doomsday cult. Cerebrally, however, it doesn't do much to rise above nods to junk culture such as the aforementioned "Undressed" and Donnie Darko. But Araki is aware of this, and as quickly as there is the chance your brain might start to ponder something, the extremely silly camera wipes that not even George Lucas would dare use washes it away for us. [B-]

The Housemaid [Im Sang-soo]
The ultimate bait and switch: come for the supposed remake of the Korean classic from 1960, get hit with a trainwreck. Shot with the eroticism of a really bad pay-cable softcore movie and the empty opulence of "Cribs" (wow, that's my second reference to an MTV show), The Housemaid is just simply stupid and its biggest crime is how absolutely unsexy it is despite its beautiful women and its multiple sex scenes. Its epilogue hints at a strangeness lurking within, but none of that was ever apparent and it never comes anywhere near earning that ending. Just watch the original on MUBI.com. [D]

The Green Hornet 3D [Michel Gondry]
What exactly did people find to be wrong with this? No, it's not the cerebral whimsy you come to expect from previous Gondry works, but by God it's an action movie. What Gondry succeeds at where lesser movie have failed is to not foolheartedly tackle heavier issues that often weigh down these lesser movies, instead merely grazing them with a light touch and letting the silliness and the not-too-retro cool look of the movie take center stage. And for a movie whose 3D was only added in post-production (like most 3D disasters have been), the movie looks terrific with the glasses. The fight scenes liberally take cues from slapstick comedies and Hong Kong shoot 'em ups, and sprinkled with a colorful Gondry touch they are a delight to behold. My favorite moment among these might be when Britt Reid (Seth Rogen) gets into fisticuffs with Kato (Jay Chou, who isn't terrible) and Kato repeatedly punches Reid's head into a trashed HDTV, providing colorful flashes reminiscent of comic books flashing "BANG" and "POW" with each hit. [B]

Unknown [Jaume Collet-Serra]
It's a movie of cheap thrills, and it delivers. After all, as Manohla Dargis pointed out in her review, these kinds of movies were made for us to watch car chases on icy German streets. Yes, it's a scenario lifted straight from the Bourne trilogy, but it benefits from its lack of phony gravitas and the irritating Paul Greengrass-patented shakey cam. And while it's not really worth harping much longer on the merits of lack thereof in a movie like Unknown, what I did think was worth pondering were the confused politics of the movie. On one hand, you're made to empathize with a charming old man who happens to be an ex-Stasi officer who "proudly" served (Bruno Ganz), but ultimately the triumph of the movie is that the rescued party is a humanitarian whose work would not have been possible without Liam Neeson to save the day. Not quite at odds but also not quite aligning. Weird. [C+]

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Police, Adjective (2009)

For some reason, our cultural history is filled with books, films, and TV shows that are focused on procedure and the process of data analysis. Who doesn't like reading a good mystery novel? Everyone loves a good hardboiled film noir. CSI and it's various incarnations and imitators are among the most popular shows on television. Police, Adjective, Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu's second film, is about procedure and analysis, but it doesn't fit quite nicely in with this history of mysteries and crime dramas.

Instead, Police, Adjective is an analysis of the words and terminology that we use to define and make sense of these mysteries and the ultimate power that they hold. In fact, the crime in the movie is no mystery. In the very first scene we are shown our protagonist, a policeman named Cristi (Dragoş Bucur), following his suspect as he smokes hash. He is expected by his superiors to arrest the teenager for the intent to distribute, but Cristi second thoughts. The crime that the teenager will be put to jail for is an outdated law that has since become abolished everywhere else in Europe, and Cristi doesn't want to have the thought of ruining this kid's life on his conscience.

But laws are laws no matter how we dice it, and as a policeman it is supposed to be his duty to uphold the letter of the law. Right? Well, yes if we're going by the strictest definition of "police." But through the film the integrity of these words are picked apart. After a hard day of following around a hash smoking teenager, Cristi comes home to his wife
listening to a Romanian pop ballad on the Internet over and over again. Over his dinner and after a few beers, Cristi begins to pick apart the banality of the schmaltzy lyrics: "What is a field without a flower? / What is the sea without the sun?" To Cristi, it's completely nonsensical, all of these things are still what they are without their accessory!

That scene, along with many others in the film, is all done within the confines of a long, continuous shot that conjures up a sense of surveillance, as if the audience is patiently waiting and watching Cristi while he does the same. Certainly a sentiment that holds some resonance for the native Romanian audience as they lived within their own real-life police state just over 20 years ago under Nicolae
Ceauşescu; one that certainly established and asserted it's authority not only with brute force but also with the power of words via the law.

In the film's most remarkable scene, Cristi stands up to his superior as he refuses to go through with the arrest. In response, his superior belittles him by having him look up the definitions of words such as "law" and "police" in order to destroy his argument in the very same manner that he had earlier done to the pop song. It does nothing to clear his conscience, and in the end he must choose between what he feels is right or bow to the power of language.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Tony's Twenty Favorite Films of the Decade (Part 3)

The finale. In a way, there was very little suspense because if you know me at all, you already knew my favorite a long time ago.


10. Dave Chappelle's Block Party
2005 - dir. Michel Gondry
The best review I’ve ever read for this film was just six words: “feel-good movie of the decade.” That one line would sum it up, but I’d like to add another: “Dave, we miss you.”

For two years from 2003 to 2004, Dave Chappelle was the most quoted man on American college campuses. But instead of diminishing since then, his perspective has stayed fresh with me longer than anyone else’s; he had a way of criticizing American society without ever insulting his audience’s intelligence. Then came $50 million dollars, Africa, and the best episode of Inside the Actors Studio I’ve ever seen.

Block Party is the bridge between all the early phases of Chappelle’s career: it’s got Dave the young goofball (Half-Baked), Dave the social critic (Season 2), Dave the purely funny guy (Killing Them Softly) and Dave the introspective human (Actors Studio). But most of all, this is Dave the community organizer, and what makes the movie work is that he’s trying to get everyone together while pointing out how often we don’t get along. His energy is truly infectious, and we sense how much the whole thing means to him – not only does he pay for the party himself, but he also invites the Ohio guests personally and takes time at the show to hang out with them. And he shows us, the audience, the same affection: we get to watch rehearsals, location scouting, prop selection and little interviews on the side.

One of the best moments is something so small and yet so significant: Dave is onstage telling a joke to the crowd and right as he gets to the punch line, the movie cuts to him rehearsing the same joke with just the band. Everybody cracks up and Dave starts improvising new set-ups, all the while beaming and saying “Man this is gonna kill ‘em.” And in that moment – when he invites us to share his love of performance, when he invites us to imagine how great the party will be – he makes us part of the community too. Goddamn Dave, we miss you.

9. 一一 Yi Yi
2000 - dir. Edward Yang
This great Taiwanese movie is so beautiful in its simplicity: it follows a nuclear family (the father, the wife, the daughter, the son, and the father’s brother) during the course of a year, starting with a wedding and ending with a funeral. In between lies all the routine and messiness of life. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that so perfectly evokes what it feels like to live in an Asian city. I’ve never been to Taipei, but I have walked home under the same overpass day after day, taken the same right turn out of my elevator, stared out the window at night and seen myself reflected on the whole city (or maybe it’s the other way around). The movie also contains two wonderful characters: a Japanese game designer and a little boy, both of whom seem so much more attuned to their surroundings than those around them. The final speech by the boy, Yang Yang, is perhaps the most appropriate ending to any film this decade, and an absolutely fitting end to the career of the director, Edward Yang.

8. El laberinto del fauno // Pan's Labyrinth
2006 - dir. Guillermo del Toro
This film evokes that feeling I had when I was 4 years old, watching Bambi and terrified of the forest fire that might kill all the characters. It presents two worlds, each a complex reflection of the other, and the little girl who moves between them. Like Bambi, it builds its story out of the most primal, mythical images of our childhoods: a mother dying, a brother crying, a banquet waiting to be eaten, a man stitching his own face, a little girl all by herself. For me, the key to the movie is the way we follow that girl. She doesn’t comprehend the larger political struggle, but her overwhelming desire to help others is what shines through. And Guillermo Del Toro is willing to follow that impulse all the way to the bitter end, when the movie bypasses tragedy and fantasy and becomes some kind of magnificent fable.

7. 빈집 3-Iron
2004 - dir. Kim Ki-Duk
I’ve often wondered how Kim Ki-Duk dreamt up this movie, which he wrote, shot, and edited in about a month. Like Chungking Express, it’s a miracle of sudden inspiration. It follows two characters who never speak to each other: the man is an aimless drifter who breaks into people’s houses; the woman is a battered housewife. There is a third character: her husband, who separates them, takes her back, and throws the drifter into jail. And it’s here, in the jail cell, that the movie shifts into something totally unexpected – something I wouldn’t dream of revealing even if I knew how to describe it. The last twenty minutes are at once illogical, weightless, magical and yes, totally sublime.

6. The New World
2005 - dir. Terrence Malick
Christopher Doyle says that genius in cinema is when someone shows you something you’ve always felt but have never been able to explain. Terrence Malick’s poem captures that feeling perfectly. It depicts 1600’s America as a beautiful, terrifying, and awe-inspiring land – one whose secrets unfold reluctantly. I think the slow cadence of the film is just perfect: any faster and it wouldn't have the right rhythm. Malick hits the sweet spot, cutting his shots at a pace that feels foreign yet absolutely correct, letting his music drop out as natural sounds emerge. The movie is a visual and aural sensation, one that allows us to experience a profound sense of discovery. A work of genius.

5. 千と千尋の神隠し Spirited Away
2001 - dir. Hayao Miyazaki
Is this the greatest of the master’s films? It’s certainly my favorite. From first frame to last it’s an utterly beautiful experience. Like Pan’s Labyrinth, it taps into the subterranean fears we all have, and then weaves out of them an amazingly original world populated with things I’ve never seen before. Watching it now, I’m struck by how dense the world of the bathhouse is: not only are there floors and floors of guests but also sleeping quarters, boiler rooms, gardens, pig sties, offices, and even a baby’s room – each with its own unique space and design. The bathhouse itself acts as a brilliant metaphor: run like a Western capitalist enterprise, it nonetheless comes from a distinctly Eastern tradition. And while the people inside can be intensely greedy, discriminatory, and vindictive, they are also capable of deep kindness and selflessness. Like modern Japan, like any Asian nation, it’s a complex place that its creator can neither fully approve of nor fully denounce. His only duty is to represent it as beautifully as possible, and for that I am eternally grateful.

4. Children of Men
2006 - dir. Alfonso Cuarón
The thing I like most about this movie is how much of it takes place in medium shot or medium-long shot. There are almost no close-ups; everything is seen the way you or I would experience the world, as opposed to the way every other movie presents its world. That subtle choice is what helps me accept the setting of this movie, which takes place in 2027, and is about people who have no hope because there are no children.

I love the way that Clive Owen plays the hero in this film. He’s a cynical and heartbroken man; desperate but not despairing, lucky but not invincible. He flinches in fear but soldiers on. Oh and he has no shoes, just like Bruce Willis in Die Hard. The single-take action sequences are justly famous, but I think my favorite shot is the one where he tries to light a cigarette and has an emotional breakdown, then picks himself up, not because it’s the action hero thing to do, but because, what else can he do in this crazy world?

3. Into the Wild
2007 - dir. Sean Penn
Few films have had such an emotional impact on me after one viewing. Christopher McCandless is a fool, I know, but that just makes his story feel sadder and more predetermined. He’s not a traveler, he’s a writer: his book is his life and he rewrites the story by changing his name and embarking on a journey. It’s not until the end that he realizes his folly: we just don’t have the convenience of rewriting our selves so easily. For me, the last half-hour of this film is utterly heartbreaking. After he misreads a book on edible plants, he finds himself about to die; only then does he scribble a note and finish it with the two most important words, the ones he’d never given enough respect, the only ones that he needed to accept: Christopher McCandless.

2. Before Sunset
2004 - dir. Richard Linklater
I’ve never seen a movie that so perfectly captures the awkward, tentative, probing steps of conversation between two people. I return to it every year like a favorite song. Like any favorite song, I have my favorite passages, the bits that I can recite by memory. But mostly I just like to watch it and savor the experience, which culminates in a dance Julie Delpy performs to Nina Simone, an image I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

1. 花样年华 In the Mood for Love
2000 - dir. Wong Kar-Wai
Wong Kar-Wai’s movie about romantic yearning in 1960’s Hong Kong is like a daydream from a lost civilization. In two apartments that sit next to each other, a husband and a wife have an affair. But instead of watching the adulterers, Wong focuses on their spouses, who begin to see each other and develop a relationship of their own – except they cannot consummate it without betraying their integrity or their discretion. Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung are perfect in their restraint, letting their body language, their eyes, and their surroundings convey the emotions. But the prize belongs to Wong, my favorite filmmaker and a true visionary, who understands that lost opportunities have a way of staying with you – that waiting for the right time and place means nothing can ever be the right time or place. Seen together with 2046 (which I consider a continuation and a deepening of the same feelings), this is my favorite experience of the decade.

Avatar (2009)

Boy lemme tell you how excited I was when the movie opened with a sequence that had a ship coasting silently through the depths of space as it approached a gas giant that bore a strong resemblance to our solar system's very own Jupiter. At first I thought I accidentally bought a ticket to 2001: A Space Odyssey: An IMAX 3D Experience and walked right in to the part of the movie where the Discovery One approaches the Jovian moon and Dave goes through the Star Gate. That tunnel of colorful light was going to be a real trip in IMAX 3D! Unfortunately it wasn't to be and instead we're introduced to our protagonist, a paraplegic Marine named Jake Sully who's really morose because he's the main character and we're supposed to empathize with him.

After a whole bunch of really uninteresting exposition that I won't get into here because fucking everyone knows the plot of the movie at this point, we're introduced to our two main bad guys. The first played by that Scientologist guy that was Phoebe's brother on Friends. He's a corporate bigwig and we know this because he wears nicer shirts than anyone else in the movie and he also putts golf balls into a coffee mug just like every other CEO in TV movies and commercials. And just like every other evil corporate dude, he's only after money. The other is a colonel that we know is a huge badass because he's introduced to us when we see him pumping iron and seems to love delivering lines of dialogue with his lips curled to emulate a growl. Both of them endlessly call the natives of Pandora "savages," thus making them making them irredeemably xenophobic and so comically one-dimensional that I was hoping that Clint Eastwood would show up from the set of Gran Torino and tell those aliens to get off his lawn.

Which of course leads us to the Na'vi, the big and blue inhabitants of Pandora that the majority of the film centers itself around. Here's where you probably expected I was going to rehash all the same arguments that joyless assholes like Armond White all decry the movie for being racist and basically the Smurfs version of Dances With Wolves. They're right though; the Na'vi are a race that exist in an extremely romanticized, sci-fi'd harmony with nature that we once believed every New World race existed in even though history and evidence shows otherwise. None of this really reaches a boiling point of absurdity except for a ceremony later on in the movie where they all sit around a tree arm-in-arm and sway back and forth and appear to be singing some Pandoran version of "Kumbaya," but that was more unintentionally hilarious than anything.

Oh right, and Jake (remember him?) is able to remotely control a genetically engineered Na'vi body, which then allows him assimilate with their tribe and catch the jungle fever with a bodacious blue babe whose breasts are obscured by a few convenient ornamental leaves even though there don't appear to be any nipples to hide. Somehow the film is able to captivate me for an hour and a half riding a flimsy plot and sometimes-impressive graphics. Much like James Cameron's previous film, Titanic, we're expected an enormous payoff in the final act when everything just goes absolutely bonkers. Unlike Titanic though, Avatar completely falls off the track and makes a turn for the worse when it needed it most.

Apparently three months have passed now, where the Jake was supposed to get the Na'vi to move off of the gigantic mineral deposit they are living on top of even though he never once mentions it to them until the bulldozers are at their doorstep. It's too late for negotiations and Disney songs to save everyone and it sets up for a really big battle where we watch the forces of peace and harmony confront a psychotic, military-industrial hivemind that would be just fine if it weren't for the fact that the characters are so poorly underwritten that I have mentally checked out at this point. In a big hoo-rah, rally the troops briefing, we see the colonel give a pep talk to a crowd of a few hundred ragtag soldiers of fortune that are too entranced by the boss' plan of, I shit you not, "shock and awe" (I wish Cameron had the dignity to not have used that phrase) to wipe the smirks off their faces. One-dimensional villains only work when they're robots sent from the future.

If you've been able to endure those above five paragraphs to have made it this far, you're probably thinking that I can't see the forest for the trees. It's supposed to be a brainless spectacle! Enjoy the show! Look, I don't need an action movie to be smart or clever to find it enjoyable, but I would like have had some half-decently written characters that would have allowed me to empathize with a side so I had some sort of emotional or even just mental attachment to the big battle. The forty minutes of explosions, guns, and knife-fighting robots (I wish I was kidding) were ultimately just all shock and no awe.

I wanted to like Avatar, I really did. I knew going into it how underwritten and brainless it'd be. I was aware of the stupid eco-new age overtones the movie would be having. But all it amounted to was just a big, dumb, loud movie that became unbearably unenjoyable. And I have nothing against big, dumb, loud movies; I really liked Star Trek.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Tony's Twenty Favorite Films of the Decade (Part 2)

Thanks for the shout-out at the top of Part 1, Carman. And without further ado, here is part 2.


20. Mulholland Dr.

2001 - dir. David Lynch
For the last 13 years or so, David Lynch has been making the same film. Each of his four films since 1997 is about a broken mind, and is presented as a dual narrative where one half dreams the other half, or perhaps both halves are dreaming each other. Of the four, Lost Highway is the most obvious, Inland Empire the most subtle and complex, and The Straight Story the most deceptively simple. But Mulholland Dr. stands out as being the most fun; it is the only one I would sit down and watch just for the hell of it. As a film, it plays like a greatest-hits collection of astonishing scenes, from the Man Behind Winky’s to Diane’s audition to the Cowboy’s speech to Club Silencio. And while I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend any of the other Lynch films, this is the one you need to see if you’ve never tried him before. Like all great mysteries, it will occupy your mind for days after you’ve seen it.

19. No Country for Old Men

2007 - dir. Joel & Ethan Coen
I love the Coens. For me their greatest gift is their ability to play with film noir: they treat it not as a style or a genre but as a specific world with specific rules. In their noir worlds (e.g. The Big Lebowski, A Serious Man), it’s as if everyone and everything is turned against the main character. There’s a nagging suspicion that all of the pieces have been arranged in a certain way to maximize the coincidences and close shaves. Sure there’s ineptitude and folly and other human failings, but really fate holds all the cards and occasionally lets you peek.

No Country examines what this world would look like to someone who has the ability to leave it. Ultimately Llewelyn Moss is too dumb to escape it, while Anton Chigurh embodies it completely. But Sheriff Ed Tom Bell can watch it from a distance, and he does not like it one bit. The film is one of the best thrillers I’ve ever seen, but really it’s about how people cope with a world that is arranged against them. As Americans, we’re used to seeing films where the individual changes his environment, or at least gets to redeem himself and escape. This film throws that worldview out the window and presents something far more sinister, more defiant, and unfortunately, more realistic.

18. 色戒 Lust, Caution

2007 - dir. Ang Lee
For me this is the best Ang Lee movie of the decade: better than Brokeback, better than Crouching Tiger. It’s one of the most honest depictions of Asian culture ever put on film, and of the ways people try to escape the obligations of Asian society. The movie is not about espionage but performance: we are all of us acting every day of our lives, but few of us are given the chance to feel real passion – whether it be on stage, at work, or in bed. Tang Wei’s character is, above all else, tired of submerging herself for others, and Ang Lee follows her through years of performance and (ultimately) true emotion.

Each of the film’s three cornerstone scenes makes me pause for a moment in thought: there is a scene where she walks through an empty set, thinking of the night before; there is a scene where she and her friends dismantle their apartment, unaware of a dangerous observer; and there is that final shot of Tony Leung (whom we have believed for hours is a master manipulator) as he touches an empty bed, thinking not only of his previous nights with her but wondering how many observers were watching him. Lee holds on that shot for a long time, letting its implications soak in, before fading to black. I think the greatest compliment I can pay this film is that I will be watching it again ten years from now, and it won’t have waned one bit.

17. The Dark Knight

2008 - dir. Christopher Nolan
I wish I’d been able to see this in IMAX. From first frame to last, I loved it – the vulnerability of the characters, the scope of the city, the messiness of the relationships. Most of all I loved how damn iconic it was. Batman is a huge figure of my childhood, so this is not just filmmaking but mythmaking. I’ll be quoting the Joker (sad, I know) for a long time.

16. Brick

2005 - dir. Rian Johnson
This is the movie the Coens didn’t make this decade: an inspired genre mash-up that throws the hard-boiled detective story right into a Southern California high school. For those who say it’s ridiculous: absolutely. It’s also goofy, inspired, quotable, and has Joseph Gordon-Levitt in one of those performances that makes no sense on paper and perfect sense on celluloid. If you’re a fan of Miller’s Crossing, watch this now.

15. Y tu mamá también

2001 - dir. Alfonso Cuarón
Alfonso Cuarón’s great road movie benefits enormously from a comment I heard him make once – that as an expatriate, he is able to see his country from both the inside and the outside. He is part of Mexico, and yet apart from it.

You can see that distance throughout this movie, which is about a journey between two teenage boys and an older woman. Time and time again, the camera seems to stand further back than you’d expect. And time and time again, a narrator emerges who provides background information that you otherwise would not hear. None of these are cheap gimmicks; they fill in the story in ways the main plot cannot. And they are essential to the film, which is not just about Julio and Tenoch and Luisa, but also the country through which they are passing – a country in the midst of its own adolescent discovery. For all the raunchiness and laughter and beauty in this movie (and there’s a lot), Cuarón is really after something much more: chronicling a time when we realized we needed a little more distance in order to grow up.

14. Primer

2004 - dir. Shane Carruth
I love movies like this, because they remind me of how few materials we need to achieve greatness. Shot for $7000 in garages and industrial parks, Primer follows two engineers as they accidentally invent a machine that can send objects backwards in time. They begin to use themselves as test objects, and eventually each man tries to best the other by going back to an earlier event, altering it to suit his needs. The movie’s timeline is extremely confusing but also addictive in its clues and teasing solutions. Unlike all the other science fiction I saw this decade, Primer expands in my imagination rather than diminishes, and for that I’m very grateful.

13. 살인의 추억 Memories of Murder

2003 - dir. Bong Joon-ho
The best police procedural I’ve seen in many years, this South Korean film about the country’s first serial killer follows two detectives with contrasting methods. Both are given chances to apprehend the killer, but departmental incompetence and bad luck get in the way. The movie benefits enormously from its rural setting and low-key aesthetic: there’s a feeling that catching the killer is an afterthought to many of the people involved. But as time goes on, a feeling of utter helplessness begins to creep into the investigation room. While other procedurals end with a solution, this film (like Zodiac four years later) is more interested in the exhausting toll of real police work. The final shot of Song Kang-ho’s face is one of the great close-ups in cinema, as twenty years of acceptance is shattered in a moment of crushing despair.

12. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

2004 - dir. Michel Gondry
Years ago, I said this movie was Annie Hall, and I meant that in the best way possible. Like Woody Allen’s film, it mostly takes place inside the head of a man as he traces his memories of a relationship. And its tone is both fanciful and unbearably sad. But Eternal Sunshine also implies something far more powerful – that the people we love are inextricable in our minds from all the other people we love. Joel’s feelings for Clementine run so deep that she can become other women in his memories: his first babysitter, the girl who takes him away from the bullies, the witness of his humiliation, the partner who shares his simple pleasures. And by wiping his memory, he erases not only her but also the foundations of his other emotions. Gondry’s finale is the correct example of a director throwing out a writer’s idea. He manages to suggest that these two people cannot be perfect together, but that being together gets them closer to that goal than anything else.

11. Cidade de Deus // City of God

2002 - dir. Fernando Meirelles
I must’ve seen this movie 3 times before it ever made it to a theater in the States. Of all the debut films this decade, this was the one that grabbed me the most. While the Paolo Lins novel reads more like a drifting Altman movie, I think Fernando Meirelles’ great instinct was to take the camera and plunge it into the city, dragging us from character to character, decade to decade, and moment to moment. And what moments! Sequence after sequence is burned in my memory: the story of the apartment, a day at the beach, Benny’s goodbye party, Knockout Ned’s one-man army. The movie depicts poverty and crime with a force I’ve rarely seen elsewhere, and it ends with a feeling of exhilaration, exhaustion, and weirdly enough, hope.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Tony's Twenty Favorite Films of the Decade (Part 1)

Editor's note: Please welcome my old roommate Tony Zhou as a contributor to this blog. Tony was, and still is, very instrumental in shaping how I felt about movies and I am obviously happy to have him on board. Starting today he'll be sharing with us his favorite movies of the last decade.

Asked to give my twenty favorite films of the decade, I decided to put together this list, which will be split into three parts (Honorable Mentions, 11-20, and 1-10). And yes, I believe that lists are absolutely absurd but still ridiculously fun to make.

Honorable Mentions (alphabetical)

The Fall
2006 - dir. Tarsem Singh
This is one of the great fantasy films, a work of absolute visual wonder. Tarsem Singh, director of The Cell, spent years accumulating money and then shot the film in bits and pieces across 18 countries. The final result (supposedly) contains no special effects and is so dazzling I couldn’t believe all of it was real locations. No other film this decade (save the works of Wong Kar-Wai) has imprinted so many images in my mind. Watch it in awe.

英雄 Hero
2002 - dir. Zhang Yimou
Nobody is going to believe me, but I think Zhang Yimou’s wuxia film is the most subversive mainstream film in Chinese history. Unlike all of its brethren, it is not a nationalistic film, but a film about nationalism. It retells a story about the unification of the country, and then splits the narrative into Rashomon-like pieces that never coagulate. A fleet of China’s biggest stars shows up to act, but the movie is an intellectual experience more than an emotional one. I can think of no other film this decade that hides its meaning in such plain view. Right in front of all the martial arts and love stories and heroic bloodshed lies a deep disillusionment with how nations use stories to lie to themselves, and a great filmmaker asking how much of his audience can look past that deception.

In the Loop2009 - dir. Armando Iannucci
I’ve never seen the television show this film is based on, but if this is any indication, it’s fucking hysterical. Like A Fish Called Wanda, it uses a British screenplay along with a half-American cast to do something that American comedies frequently cannot do: mock someone viciously and absolutely mean it. Nobody tackles the sins quite like the British, and here we have arrogance, ineptitude, self-preservation, betrayal, brownnosing, and false intelligence for starters. Some of the moments are positively ingenious, as when a general uses a toy calculator for troop numbers, or when a press chief dramatically reveals the code name “Ice Man.” Not only a brilliant satire, this movie is, line by line, the funniest film I’ve seen all decade.

지구를 지켜라! Save the Green Planet!
2003 - dir. Jang Joon-Hwan
Now this is my kind of movie. Directed by a first-time filmmaker from South Korea, Save the Green Planet! follows a paranoid loner who thinks his boss is an alien. In order to save the Earth, he decides to kidnap and torture the superior with the help of his short, chubby girlfriend. From then on, the movie is batshit insane, full of surreal asides and bizarre character motivations. And underneath it all is that implication I find in the best South Korean movies – that there is something about society that doesn’t keep us anchored but actually causes us to go insane. The movie is like a pinball machine of emotions: disgust, shock, melancholy, confusion, utter hilarity, and deep sympathy. And what the hell does the ending mean? Is the guy really an alien? Was this whole thing a fantasy? Is this the bang or the whimper? Ah who gives a shit, this is the work of a mad genius.

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada2005 - dir. Tommy Lee Jones
The first film directed by Tommy Lee Jones may as well be the lost film directed by Sam Peckinpah. Set in West Texas and written by Guillermo Arriaga, the movie features all the touchstones of an idiosyncratic 70’s Western: downtrodden men, barren landscapes, a surreal journey, a strange redemption. Most of all, it finds the perfect match between Jones, the landscape, and the material – which is not just about honoring your friends but about how much your relationship with them is based on what they share with you. Completely overlooked over the last five years, it remains a quiet little marvel – a perfect example of the sort of subtlety that exists in the border country.