Crazy Heart

MECHANICALCrazy Heart, directed by Scott Cooper, and adapted from the novel by Thomas Cobb follows a pretty stereotypical plot.  Jeff Bridges stars as country music singer Bad Blake, a performer who has seen better days.  He is overweight, always drunk, and looks like he could use a good shower with a shave.  Bad travels the country, performing his old tunes in bowling alleys and bars.  He sleeps in motels that don’t look a whole lot better than the cab of his truck, and argues with his manager about future gigs.  All in all, there is not a whole lot going for him but his past because he refuses to work on new material.

When he plays in Santa Fe he is introduced to a young, inexperienced journalist named Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal).  Soon, the two find themselves inexplicably attracted.  Well, inexplicably for Jean’s character anyway.  Bad is known to surrender to the ladies, has had a number of marriages, and is no stranger to groupies.  Jean does not resist the connection between them for long and soon introduces him to her son, Buddy.  She smiles as the long-haired singer and Buddy make biscuits before Bad begins another road trip.
Bad’s scenes with Buddy are really what bring out the personality of the musician.  Before these scenes, Bad is not easy to get attached to, or very lovable.  He is just easy to feel sorry for.  But, placed in a warm-lit kitchen and covered in flour while teaching a tiny boy how to bake, he seems more real.  Jean’s observation of this scene also builds an attachment that is more identifiable: he is good with Buddy, he is gentle… he must be a good man after all.  Jean is in search of a man who does not take advantage of her, or Buddy.
Despite his new relationship, Bad cannot seem to shed his bad habits.  He is soon placed in a position where he needs Jean’s help, and ends up testing the limits of their love.  Once he reaches the breaking point, he can no longer deny that he needs to beat his addiction to alcohol.  It is here that Jeff Bridges reveals the core of Bad Blake as he fights to recover with the aid of his friend Wayne (Robert Duvall).  The film is lifted from its cookie cutter plot by its actors.  Each one seems to get right at the true nature of their characters.  Each one reveals such frailty that it is impossible to deny the depth of the story.
Jeff Bridges is flawless as he struggles to find his artistry and to begin with a clean slate again.  He seeks inspiration and finds it in Jean.  By the end of the film, Bad becomes someone to fight for and hope for, and it is easier to see why Jean fell for him after all.
-Kelly Smart

Directed by Scott Cooper; written by Mr. Cooper, based on the novel by Thomas Cobb; director of photography, Barry Markowitz; edited by John Axelrad; music by Stephen Bruton and T Bone Burnett; production designer, Waldemar Kalinowski; produced by Mr. Cooper, Robert Duvall, Rob Carliner, Judy Cairo and Mr. Burnett; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 51 minutes.

WITH: Jeff Bridges (Bad Blake), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Jean Craddock), Robert Duvall (Wayne), Tom Bower (Bill Wilson), James Keane (Manager), Colin Farrell (Tommy Sweet), William Marquez (Doctor), Ryan Bingham (Tony) and Paul Herman (Jack Greene).

The Book of Eli

book_of_eli_ver6_xlgI’m no sociologist, but it would appear that the current socio-economic climate has finally caught up with Hollywood, and they have reacted pretty much as expected: with lots of explosions. The apocalypse has become a major feature in American film, spurred by a fear of the coming end of our time as the dominant country, the collapse of the economy and the imminent ruin of our environment. Whether the apocalypse is caused by the Earth itself (2012), the same vampires who have invaded our pop-culture (last week’s Daybreakers), angels from above (next week’s Legion), causes unknown (The Road) or good old fashioned nuclear war, like this week’s Book Of Eli, humanity’s struggle to survive in the face of doom has become fashionable again despite a brief post-9/11 dip in which it may have been considered tasteless by some. I think this sub-genre can lead to great art in most forms (I haven’t seen the film version of The Road, but the book won the Pulitzer for a reason), but, in film, more often than not, it leads to silly Mad Max rip-offs, as is the case with The Book Of Eli. You should never expect much out of a January action picture, and I’ve certainly seen worse over the years, but The Book Of Eli is just so over-stylized, so self important and so embarrassing for the pretty good actors involved that it crosses the level of normal bad film to pure unintentional hilarity.

The first shot of the film is a pan across a torched field that ends with a slow motion shot of Denzel Washington shooting a cat with an arrow. I know I wasn’t the only one in the theater who cracked up at how over the top the whole thing seemed, and the film never lets up. The Hughes brothers, who directed the film, made their names with the gritty realism of Menace II Society, but have now gone in the complete opposite direction. The Book Of Eli is basically 300 with western iconography. Not only does it have the same gratuitous slow motion violence as the 2007 hit, but it even has the same yellow-tinted color scheme. On the other hand, while 300 had little concern beyond being an ode to the male body, The Book Of Eli tries to stuff its inflated runtime with a series of vacant discussions on the role of religion in society. The first part of the film is basically just Eli (Denzel Washington) wandering around the post-apocalyptic wasteland of the American west before going into a town ruled by Carnegie (Gary Oldman). During his wanderings, he is ambushed by a group of cannibals living on the side of the road, whom he promptly kills in a slow-motion swordfight held under a bridge so that it can be silhouetted against the yellow sky. He gets into the town and kills some henchmen in another fight before being brought to Carnegie, who, in an early scene, is shown reading The Prince, which tells you pretty much everything you need to know about him. It turns out that the book-obsessed Carnegie has been searching for a copy of the bible, most of which were burned after the war that caused the devastation. Eli happens to have the last copy on Earth and has to flee the next morning, but not before picking up a follower in Solara (Mila Kunis), Carnegie’s step-daughter and taking part in one more gun battle.

The rest of the film is a chase across the desert because Carnegie wants to use religion to control the masses while Eli just wants faith, but he eventually realizes that the meaning is more important than the words, which is the film’s entire moral lesson. In fact, I believe he actually says that at some point in the film. At the very least, even though it is a Christian bible at the center of the chase, the film does little to moralize in favor of any particular religion. However, if everything your film wants to say is summed up in one sentence by one character, it’s probably too simple to need exposition. The whole thing is just so self-important, so “look at us! Look at us! We have the answer,” that, like most films that are far too simple to get across a major message (not necessarily a bad thing, as simplicity can be desirable, but not in this situation) it almost becomes self-parodic. It fully crosses the line into parody when that message is combined with the film’s stylization.

There is a twist at the end of the film, and I won’t give it away now, but it’s not particularly interesting, and there are some far more surprising moments earlier. For example, Eli still has a working iPod. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one last more than 18 months, so to see one still working after 30 years of wandering through the desert just seemed wrong. Late in the film, Malcolm McDowell shows up for an extended cameo and what should have been a more serious moment is interrupted by the surprised laughter of the audience (of course, I saw it in a theater full of film critics who also immediately recognized McDowell, I guess there’d be less laughter during a normal showing). In one of the film’s stranger sequences, Eli and Solara meet an old couple on the road who first try to capture them, then act nice, then try to eat them and then try to save them. It just shows that the film’s tone is all over the place, which makes all the heavy style seem messy and lazy. There’s also the question as to what this pretty good group of actors is doing here. Washington and Oldman have both made their share of bad films, but they had to get better offers than this at some point. Eli is barely defined past “earnest guy with a raspy voice” and Carnegie is just “manipulative leader.” Tom Waits plays a local man who helps Eli and, in what may be a first for me, the simple joy of seeing him on screen just wasn’t enough to make me like the film. Maybe he should have done the score, which was completely unmemorable without him.

There’s a part of me that really wants to believe that the film was self-aware, that Hollywood can laugh at its own absurd, over the top antics, but I can’t. It’s just too much. The film contains dozens of beautiful long shots of the burnt out west, but these are intercut with oddly framed close-ups, far too serious violence and simplistic color choices. As a comedy, it somehow manages to be the perfect combination of two of Hollywood’s worst standby genres: the too-simple-for-its-own-good message movie and the needlessly stylized action film. It doesn’t just combine these things, it exaggerates them. It is pure silly and empty style mixed with pure brainless moralizing. The film doesn’t have anywhere near enough plot to fill its two-hour runtime and drags a lot in the middle but if you want an amusing example of Hollywood excess gone wrong, then The Book Of Eli may be for you.

-Adam Burnstine

The Book Of Eli is rated R for some brutal violence and language

It opens everywhere on January 15, 2009

Directed by the Hughes Brothers; written by Gary Whitta; director of photography, Don Burgess; edited by Cindy Mollo; original music by Atticus Ross; production designer, Gae Buckley; produced by Joel Silver, Denzel Washington, David Valdes, Broderick Johnson and Andrew Kosove; released by Warner Bros. Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 58 minutes.

With: Denzel Washington (Eli), Gary Oldman (Carnegie), Mila Kunis (Solara), Ray Stevenson (Redridge), Jennifer Beals (Claudia), Tom Waits (Engineer), Michael Gambon (George), Frances De La Tour (Martha) and Malcolm McDowell (Lombardi).

The Man from London

man_from_londonBela Tarr is my favorite filmmaker, and The Man From London, coming soon to the MFA, is only his third film in the last twenty years. The last two, 1994’s Satantango and 2000’s The Werckmeister Harmonies are my favorite films of their respective decades, and the later is also simply my favorite film. Unless some kind soul decides to do a much-needed retrospective of his work, this will, in all likelihood be the only review of one of his films I write for this site. He has another film in production at the moment called The Turin Horse, but considering the fact that this is the Boston premier of The Man From London, nearly three years after its Hungarian premier, I’m not sure when we’ll actually see it. He’s claimed that The Turin Horse, which is rumored to be in consideration for Cannes this year, will be his last film. If this is true, then to simply call it a tragic loss for cinema would not be enough. The comparison has probably been made enough, but Tarr is the Andrei Tarkovsky of his generation. Not so much in an ideological sense, or even an aesthetic one, beyond their shared affinity for slower, more contemplative cinema, but in their greater shared mastery of cinema as an art. If that comparison must go on, then this is Tarr’s Nostalghia or his Sacrifice. For the first time in his career, Tarr’s film is not explicitly set in his native Hungary and does not concern itself with the problems of that nation, but rather society as a whole. Of course, rather than Tarkovsky’s forced exile, this was a choice afforded to him by the greater success of his last two films. This is the natural progression of his work, and while the film may not achieve the beautiful perfection of his last two, it is still a great film and a vital work in understanding the art of one of film’s greatest minds.

The film’s first shot will tell you all you need to know about Tarr. It is a point-of-view shot from Maolin, the protagonist, as he sits in his guard tower at the local docks. He sees a ship come in and stop, the passengers get off, except for a couple who are involved in some shady dealings with a brief case, then he looks at the other passengers as they board a train. This shot takes twelve minutes. It’s not his best opening shot, that prize would certainly go to Werckmeister Harmonies, but the slow pace and brilliant composition mark the shot as something that only he could create. There’s some background chatter in the beginning, but there is no dialogue until the film hits the thirty minute mark, only incidental noise and a brilliant ambient score by his regular collaborator, Mihaly Vig. There’s one thing I did notice in the minimal dialogue that I found to be extremely disturbing: when I first saw this film a year ago, it was in Tarr’s native Hungarian. The screener I watched was in French. I really hope that this was just the screener and not the print that MFA will be screening, but shame on whoever did this.  I’m sure it was just a misguided attempt to make the film more accessible, but it’s just unacceptable to dub it like that. Anyway, among other things, the film is a homage to classic film noir. Consider a shot about a third of the way through the film: Maolin wakes up, goes to his window and looks at the street below. At first, the only light comes from his bed-side lamp, and the outside is pitch-black, but then the camera pans down to reveal the titular man from London standing next to a street lamp, staring back up at Maolin. Their bodies are basked in light, but everything else is an exaggerated dark. This shot, held on its own, is pure noir. The high contrast lighting and menacing situation clearly place it in the genre, but instead of cutting away like a traditional noir shot, this lingers, and the ominous music, combined with a very slow zoom onto the man below, creates a sense of dread beyond anything classic Hollywood could have ever produced.

Unlike Tarr’s last two films, The Man From London was not based on a book by his friend and co-writer Laszlo Krasznahorkai, but rather one by Georges Simenon, a prolific Belgian writer whose work has previously been adapted by filmmakers ranging from Renoir and Clouzot to Melville and Chabrol (twice). That wasn’t the only change for his first international coproduction, as the hassles expected with that level of work followed him to this project, starting with the death of the film’s producer/financer just days before production began, which led to various delays totaling nearly two years. Of course, there are certain advantages to an international production. Maolin’s wife is played by Tilda Swinton, which is particularly interesting, as I’m fairly sure she cannot speak Hungarian (apparently it’s an extraordinarily difficult language), so she took a (presumably) low-paying role that wouldn’t even allow her voice to be heard simply to work with Tarr, which is why she is awesome. Unfortunately, the voice acting in the French dub is subpar all around. It’s nowhere near as important in this film as it would be from most other directors, but it is an annoyance.

Critics have universally praised the film’s formal aesthetic, but they have been sharply divided on the work as a whole. A few have correctly pointed out its worthwhile place in Tarr’s body of work. Most mainstream reviewers have complained about its lack of narrative depth, unlikeable characters and alienating effects on the audience. The same group of critics once had the exact same complaints about L’avventura. That film is still beloved. Those critics aren’t. They complain that it’s less lyrical and more formal than his last two, ignoring the fact that it should be seen as more of a companion piece to his 1988 film Damnation than as an ideological sequel to Satantango and Werckmeister. Of course, they are perfectly right to praise the film’s look. It is absolutely beautiful. The camera moves much less than in his other works, and is instead focused on creating pristine symmetry and capturing the details of the lighting and mise-en-scene. Instead of flowing across the action, the camera stays in place and constantly zooms in and out. The high contrast and intense shadows help with the noir aesthetic and create a different (not better or worse, simply different) type of beauty than Tarr has achieved before.

You’ll notice that I’ve avoided plot description. There is more of a concrete plot than in Tarr’s last two films, but it’s still unimportant. This is a series of images, each as beautiful as the last. Whatever it is that ties them together exists for the sake of the image and not the other way around. The film is an incisive study of capitalist Europe, but the images alone do enough to get that across. Dialogue and character are only perfunctory details. People who complain about the film’s lack of either don’t understand the power of the image. In the film, people talk, drink, dance (all of his films feature a dance sequence bordering on absurdity), steal and kill. None of these things matter. Nothing any of the characters do in their lives has any actual meaning. The audience is alienated from these actions because the characters have been alienated by selfish greed and the general meaninglessness of their existence. Tarr isn’t a communist. When Hungary was a communist country, he was just as critical of that system. He simply sees that the system is broken. It always has been and always will be.

When your last film is the peak of the medium as an art form (of course, this is just my opinion, which should never be taken that seriously), there’s bound to be something of a letdown. I knew that coming in, and I just accepted it. This is a great film in its own right. It may be one of the best of the last decade. I’m assuming that most people have never seen a film by Tarr (and for those who have, congratulations, leave comments, what’s your favorite?), so you won’t even have that possible disappointment to worry about. Because of that, I’m begging you to see this film when it is in town. It won’t be here long, but if you love cinema, then you must take this rare opportunity to experience the work of one its true masters on the big screen, as it was meant to be seen.

-Adam Burnstine

The Man From London is unrated and in Hungarian (or French, I guess, depending on the print) and English with English subtitles

The film will begin a week-long run at the Boston Museum Of Fine Arts On January 20th

Directed By Bela Tarr; written by Bela Tarr and Laszlo Krasznahorkai; based on the novel L’Homme de Londres by Georges Simenon; director of photography, Fred Kelemen, edited and co-directed by Agnes Hranitzky; original music by Mihaly Vig;  production designers, Jean-Pascal Chalard, Agnes Hranitzky and Laszlo Rajik; produced by Humbert Balsan, Christoph Hahnheiser, Paul Saadoun, Bela Tarr, Gabor Teni and Joachim von Vietinghoff; released by IFC Films. Running time: 2 hours 19 minutes.

With: Miroslav Krobot (Maolin), Tilda Swinton (Camelia), Istvan Lenart (Morrison), Agi Szirtes (Mrs. Brown), Erika Bok (Henriette) and Janos Derzsi (Brown).

Downhill Racer

downhill_racerWhen I saw that Criterion was releasing Downhill Racer I was surprised to say the least. I knew little about the film, but I did know it starred Robert Redford and that it was about skiing. Hollywood stars and sports did not seem in line with Criterion’s general release of foreign flicks, lost classics from the first half of the century, and art-house films. More than anything I was confused. That surprise and shock however slowly evolved into delight watching this minor masterpiece unfold.

Although a sports film, Downhill Racer is really not about sports. Despite the energetic and thrilling scenes of skiing and the obligatory pump-up team speeches, more than anything, director Michael Ritchie has made a character study. Ritchie explores that so often used, but so untrue claim in sports that it doesn’t matter if you win or lose, its how you play the game.

David Chappellet (Robert Redford) is an arrogant American skier who gets lucky enough to make the U.S. Ski Team when another member goes down. Screenwriter James Salter characterizes him in an interview as quite simply being “a prick.” But as with many figures in sports films, the hotshot lead actually has some talent and he Chappellet quickly becomes a member of the Olympic team, but of course that isn’t enough for him. He wants to be seen as one of the best members of the team. He knows he can win.

Downhill Racer becomes just as much about the inner workings of the reticent Chappellet, as it does about skiing. It evolves into a film about desire and above all else insecurity. Through all of the egotism there lies something universal in Redford’s performance. Chappellet exists in a hypocritical world where judgments of value seem to have no stability. When the seemingly cocky athlete returns to his rural hometown to visit his cantankerous father, he is met with disapproval. The father asks his son, “Where’s the money” to which Chappellet responds, “Well, I’ll be famous. I’ll be a champion.” His father coldly replies, “The world’s full of ‘em.”

Like so many outsiders of literature, Chappellet is unfit for the world. Complicating his pursuit of winning is Coach Eugene Claire (in an equally quiet, but masterful performance from Gene Hackman), who has to reconcile that his best player has a cockiness that seems to ruin the purity of the sport.

This may seem to be the making of a formulaic sports drama but Downhill Racer challenges many of the tropes that often bog down the genre. Rather than staging triumphant moments with orchestral music, Ritchie relies on a minimalist score by Kenyon Hopkins that seems as though it were made in the cold lonely mountains on which Chappellet skis.

Redford’s portrayal is perhaps one of the greatest performances of his career, carefully balancing the contradictions of Chappellet. While he desperately seeks some form of love, Chappellet refuses to give any himself. He visits his hometown and quickly meets with an old fling, but then he forgets about her. Touring Europe he gets involved with one woman, but she is his parallel and drops him aside just as he threw aside his hometown sweetheart. It is Redford’s complicated display of quiet arrogance that makes him remotely relatable.

What is perhaps most gratifying is how well Downhill Racer holds up 40 years later. While the film doesn’t eschew convention, little seems cliché. There is a subplot of big business trying to win the individual athlete over, but it’s played with such restraint that it’s not obtrusive. The love story tells more about the fractured personality of Chappellet than it does about intimacy, but that is because this movie is about one person: David Chappellet. Downhill Racer is an apt title because it is about one man: a racer who can only define himself through sport.

Although I have been arguing that Downhill Racer is entirely not a sports film, I’d be remiss not to point out how thrilling the skiing is in the movie. Without a doubt, it is one of the most visceral films involving a sport to be released. With almost perfect rhythm between long shots, close-ups and point of view shots during the races, Ritchie and his editor (Richard Harris) weave together frames creating a tension that parallels that from any thriller. Relying solely on the sound of snow crunching, the whistle of the wind and the skier’s breath, Downhill Racer echoes the bank heist from Riffi.

Downhill Racer is a restrained investigation of an inarticulate man living the absolutist world of sports. There are winners and losers. Thankfully for us, Downhill Racer is a winner.

Special Features:

For such a visceral film it is important that transfer looks good, and as always Criterion delivers a clear picture; the contrast of colors on the pure white snow looks amazing. The extras on the DVD seem to fall more in line with quantity being better than quality. There is a fantastic interview with Robert Redford and James Salter that is hands down the best extra on the disc. It’s interesting to see Redford, who in the film is cold and silent, be so garrulous. Redford seems to be able to make even the most mundane story interesting and the interview is a phenomenal thirty minutes. The essay from Todd McCarthy, which is included, seems to rearticulate what Redford states in the interview.  Also included is an interview segment with Walter Coblenz (production manager), Richard Harris (editor) and Joe Jay Jalbert (technical advisor who also appears in the film). These interviews aren’t edited together in any specifically engaging way, and the interviewees themselves are not always the most interesting, but the pieces are nice. Also included is an hour of Michael Ritchie’s 1977 AFI seminar in audio form. Ritchie’s approach to cinema is different and occasionally fascinating, but it would have been nice if the audio could have been matched with production stills or photos. Finally there is also a trailer and a featurette on skiing titled, “How Fast?” which is narrated by Redford. The featurette almost feels like a blueprint to show to distributors in the hopes of releasing the film. It is entertaining but not especially exciting. Downhill Racer is one of the biggest surprises I’ve seen to hit DVDs recently, and Criterion does the film more than justice.

-Nicholas Forster

Directed by Michael Ritchie; written by James Slater; based on a novel by Oakley Hall; director of photography, Brian Probyn; edited by Richard A. Harris; produced by Richard Gregson; released by Criterion. Running time: 1 hour 41 minutes.

WITH: Robert Redford (David Chappellet), Gene Hackman (Eugene Claire); Camillla Sparv (Carole Stahl)

Adam Burnstine’s Top Ten of the Decade List

  1. Werckmeister Harmonies (Bela Tarr, 2000)

I’m going to state it plain and simple: this is my favorite film. Not just of the 2000s, but my favorite film. Period. Bela Tarr’s brooding, draining masterpiece tells the tale of a small Hungarian town on the brink of a revolution. Not an explicitly political or spiritual one, but a revolution none the less. Order is collapsing and there is no longer anyone there to hold it up. The one decent person left is too lost in his own dreams and in the manipulations of others to speak up. Humanity may attempt to control things, but this only leads to the end. It is a companion piece to 1994’s Satantango, my pick for the best film of the 90s. Both show the difficulties of post-Communist Hungary in the realm of the spiritual, and they are both shot with the extreme long takes that have come to define Tarr to the cinematic world. Werckmeister only has 39 shots in its 135 minute run time, but oh, what shots they are!

  1. Millennium Mambo (Hsiao-hsien Hou, 2001)

It has been a pretty spectacular two-decade run for Taiwanese cinema, but of what I’ve seen (which is certainly not enough), there is one film that stands above the rest: Millennium Mambo. From the stunning opening shot on, Hou’s masterpiece of post-millennial anxiety draws you in and never lets go. Hou’s roaming camera creates a visual poetry out of Taipei’s endless clubs and dingy apartments, interspaced with two journeys to a picturesque Japan. The urban isolation in this film is as complete as anything Antonioni ever did and it may be even more relevant to our time. Taipei’s neon-lit landscape could easily be most of the world’s major cities and it’s safe to say that Vicky, the protagonist, is not the only city-dweller facing a crisis of loneliness.

  1. A Serious Man (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2009)

It would be no stretch to call the Coen brothers my favorite working American filmmakers, but even I was shocked when they released their masterpiece earlier this year. They managed to combine the ideas of their most recent films with those of their mid-90s heyday in this story of a Jewish man going through a Job-like crisis of faith in suburban Minnesota (incidentally, the town featured here is pretty similar to my own, and the Hebrew school his son goes to is almost exactly like my own). It may initially feel smaller than the lofty No Country and Burn After Reading, but it is their most ideologically complex film to date, combining elements of the bible and Kafka’s The Trial into one of cinema’s great existential crises.

  1. Love Exposure (Sion Sono, 2008)

I’m not sure what exactly I’m supposed to say about this film. It is among the strangest, most wholly unique films I’ve ever had the privilege to witness. A four hour Japanese black comedy on religion, cults, sex, lust, love, perversion, violence and the art of up-skirt voyeurism that is as madcap and brilliant as it could possibly be. Maybe this is a film that was bound to happen eventually. The stranger, fetishist aspects of Japanese culture, combined with the creeping influence of western religion are an inherently interesting issue, and all it took was one filmmaker strange enough to go that extra step, add in some Beethoven and combine them into one constantly entertaining, always strange and somewhat perverse masterpiece.

  1. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006)

Film’s can build their reputations for many reasons, but Children Of Men is one of the few I can think of that developed a cult following originally based mainly on its camera-work and that camera-work certainly must be commended. The film’s two famous tracking shots are among the most acclaimed in film because Cuaron has a knack for building tension and excitement while keeping the full image clear and in focus, even during the heat of battle, but they are not the film’s only strength. The brilliant mise-en-scene makes this the most fully realized vision of the future since Blade Runner, Clive Owen gives the best performance of his career, and, maybe most importantly, it completely sucks you into the story. This is one of the most emotionally gripping films that I have ever seen because it leaves so much of its back-story ambiguous and the audience is forced to watch closely and try to understand.

  1. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)

It pains me to think that David Lynch’s masterpiece almost wound up as an ABC pilot. This may be the greatest film about Hollywood, and to see it go down as yet another failed TV project would have been too much. Naomi Watts gave the decade’s finest female performance in her breakthrough role and Lynch finally found the perfect blend between his skills as a natural story-teller and his sense of surrealism. This belongs alongside 8 ½ and Contempt (both of which it heavily references) in any discussion of the greatest films about the process of filmmaking, even if nobody is quite sure exactly what it’s actually about. Of course, simply experiencing it is far more important than any actual understanding.

  1. Lord of the Rings (Peter Jackson, 2001-03)

If there’s one thing that makes my love of these films even more impressive, it’s that I can’t stand the books they were based on. Jackson takes Tolkien’s overblown prose and crafts one of the grandest epics ever made. Sure there are flaws in each of the films, but this is a nostalgia pick more than anything else. These are the films that first made me love film, and no matter how many times I see them, I will always be entertained.

  1. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)

Remember how I said that I’d only be doing one film per director? Well, this is where I would put No Country For Old Men, in a virtual tie with There Will Be Blood. The fact that these two films, both so similar in their setting, brilliance and, in a way, their portrayal of America, came out just weeks apart is probably some sort of cinematic miracle. Ultimately, I think history will look on Anderson’s film a bit more kindly because of just how incredibly epic it is in scope and how essential its ideas are to this country. Plus, the fact that it features what may be the single greatest performance in the history of American film and the best score of the decade probably helps.

  1. Adaptation. (Spike Jonze, 2002)

I’m nothing if not a Charlie Kaufman fanboy, and it was between this and the equally brilliant Synecdoche, New York for this spot (I know they only share a writer, but Kaufman is such a distinctive writer that I counted him in the no repeat directors category), but I went with Adaptation based simply on aesthetics—Synecdoche is clearly Kaufman’s first film behind the camera, and it can be a bit cluttered at times. While Adaptation may not be a wildly original as Being John Malkovich, this is a look at the creative process in film rivaled in depth and complexity maybe only by 8 ½. Characters based on real people interact with the people they’re based on who interact with fictional characters who interact with Kaufman, both as a character, brilliantly played by Nicolas Cage, and as a writer, controlling them all with the proficiency of a true genius.

10.  2046 (Wong Kar Wai, 2004)

In this loose sequel to the deservedly universally acclaimed In The Mood For Love (which is number one on the “They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They” list of the decade’s most acclaimed films), our protagonist has moved on from his unconsummated affair and gets involved in a series of relationships with a series of beautiful women. For the first time, Wong adds elements of science fiction into his story-telling, and this becomes a completely new canvas on which Wong and the great cinematographer Christoper Doyle (whose contribution cannot be underestimated) can paint their images. The romances and characters themselves are all pretty interesting in their own right, but don’t get confused, this film is all about the visuals. It features some of the most stunningly beautiful, detailed and elegant sets, costumes and camera work in the history of film. To put it simply, you do not need subtitles to fully appreciate this film.

Tyler Remmert’s Top Ten of the Decade List

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

There is an element to memory that really sucks. Every pleasant memory about our friends or loved ones is offset by the painful remembrance of a lost lover. Eternal Sunshine is about the pain of memory, but it reminds us of an all too cliché musing—regardless of the pain memory may cause, it still is memory, and we would rather remember the good and the bad than forget it all. Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman combined to create a weirdly beautiful masterpiece, and one that stands as the best movie of the aughts.

2. Almost Famous

Every time I mention this movie, I get sneers. People hate this movie. And why not? It’s got Kate Hudson, Jimmy Fallon, and it talks about some fictional band in the lame rock decade of the 1970s. But you know what? I don’t care; Almost Famous is a beautiful coming of age tale in an era in which rock lost it’s way. Everything from the effortless soundtrack to the perennially underrated ‘plane crash’ scene reminds us that, even if rock n’ roll is an idealized world, we would never want to live in it.


For me, the biggest strength of Wall-E isn’t the strikingly poignant first act, in which there is no dialogue, only the development of our garbage-compacting protagonist. No, the beautiful highlight of Pixar’s masterpiece is instead the most beautiful love story told of this decade. Like Charlie Chaplin in City Lights, both Wall-E and Eve work past their mechanical limitations to reach a refreshingly unique take on a dystopian world—robots have feelings too.

4. The Royal Tenenbaums

A lot of critics point to JD Salinger’s work as a forebear of Wes Anderson’s strongest work. But the fact remains that while Salinger may have created individual social tragedy-come triumph, Anderson weaves together a beautiful story about an entire family searching for their purpose in a world that has left them behind. With pitch-perfect set design and terrific performances from Gwyneth Paltrow and Luke Wilson, Anderson’s film stands as the pinnacle of family drama.

5. There Will Be Blood

Two people make this movie what it is: Daniel Day Lewis and Jonny Greenwood. Day Lewis, standing as the most talented and versatile actor of his generation, manages to make a watchable movie out of the paradigm of American greed and evil. Daniel Plainview is the evil we all want to avoid about America, but somehow Day Lewis enthralled us. And Greenwood, the Radiohead guitarist, composed a harrowing score that only heightened the epic performance of the movie’s leading man.

6. Super Size Me

Morgan Spurlock parlayed the success of this documentary into a TV show that is actually pretty interesting, and you know why? Spurlock throws himself headlong into the problems his documentaries confront. McDonalds may be an easy target, but gorging yourself on the food is not. Plus, who will ever forget Spurlock’s inaugural McD’s meal, which he chows down and then promptly vomits back up? I know I won’t.

7. Mulholland Drive

It is a testament to David Lynch’s weirdo mind that he could turn a satirical TV pilot about a struggling actress into a visceral, metaphysical critique of the entire movie industry. Almost every turn throws a red herring at you, and you are left scouring the message boards trying to interpret the movie the way Lynch wants you to. A movie this mind-bogglingly confusing has never been so captivating.

8. Memento

Chris Nolan arguably had the best decade of any director: Insomnia, Memento, The Prestige, and The Dark Knight all stand as strong candidates for any Aught Best of List. But Memento makes mine simply because of the excellence of its story structure. Sure, it moves backwards, but it also tells a forward moving story. Nolan managed to avoid plot problems and metaphysical issues with a man who lost his memory after a mysteriously brutal incident of family violence, instead turning the confusing plot into a parable that stands at the opposite of Eternal Sunshine—do we really want to know what we can’t remember?

9. Lost in Translation

Another movie on my list that I’ve had numerous arguments about, I think that Lost In Translation cemented Bill Murray’s legacy as a terrific actor, always funny but at the same time poignant. The movie’s tone is luminous and spacious, with Scarlett Johannson and Murray providing the necessary mid-twenties and mid-forties angst that director/writer Sofia Coppola was looking for.

10. The 40-Year Old Virgin

The only non-serious movie on my list, The 40 Year-Old Virgin stands as lowbrow comedy’s official arrival in the spotlight, and it did so as a startlingly resonant story about a man who really just wants to find love. Couple that with breakouts for Paul Rudd, Seth Rogen and Steve Carell, and you too often forget how great jokes about Coldplay were.

Kelly Smart’s Top Ten of the Decade List

Into the Wild (2007) - Beautiful film that reminds you just how difficult preserving meat is.

Old Boy (2003) - Chan-wook Park at his best, before he condescended to make Thirst.

High Fidelity (2000) - Ah, contemporary relationships.

The Last King of Scotland (2006) - A totally deserved Oscar for Forest Whitaker.  Amazing character study.

The Constant Gardener (2005) - I didn't like this movie the first two times I saw it, but it sticks with you like a nightmare.  So, it's on my list.

There Will Be Blood (2007) - A rehash of Citizen Kane that works quite well.

In the Bedroom (2001) - The only thing not that good about this movie is when Sissy Spacek slaps Marisa Tomei, kinda lost me in laughter there.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) - Still as fun to see as it was when it came out.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007) - Julian Schnabel is swell as a director.  But Kaminski as a cinematographer makes the film as good as it is.

Far From Heaven (2002) - The scene where the scarf blows away still makes me sad.

Rob Ribera’s Top Ten of the Decade List

1. There Will Be Blood

2. A Serious Man

3. Into Great Silence

4. Children of Men

5. Man on Wire

6. The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (Extended)

The best of the films, hands down.

7. The New World

8. Adaptation

9. A History of Violence

10. Herzog’s Naught Docs: The White Diamond, Grizzly Man, Wheel of Time, Encounters at the End of the World, (and Wild Blue Yonder, if it were true).

Nicholas Forster’s Top Ten of the Decade

10 Grizzly Man
9 Badasssss!
8 The Fall
7 No Country for Old Men
6 Million Dollar Baby
5 Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
4 Synecdoche NY
3 There Will be Blood
2 City of God
1 Children of Men

Dan Seliber’s Top Ten of the Decade

Robert Warshow said, “A man goes to the movies.  The critic has to be honest enough to admit that he is that man.”  As a man who is not really even a critic, I present my ten favorite movies of the decade.  These are not the ten “best.”  I possess neither the experience, the expertise nor the cajones to claim to know such information.

10.  Memento

It was the gimmick of the year: Take the story of a man with no short-term memory and tell it backwards, so that the audience has no short-term memory, either. The idea was tricky and ingenious, and could have failed spectacularly in any number of ways, not least by being confusing as all heck. Although Roger Ebert argued in his 2001 review that “confusion is the state we are intended to be in,” Memento is actually quite simple to understand after the fact, once we can fit all the pieces together in our minds. Before and during the fact, however, Memento is indeed a challenging experience, even on subsequent viewings, when we are somehow thrown back to square one and made to forget what eventually happens (or rather, has already happened) to the movie’s hero, Leonard Shelby, played by Guy Pearce. Directed by Christopher Nolan, the movie is about Leonard’s journey to avenge his wife’s murder—the assailant’s attack also caused Leonard’s “condition”—and its many twists raise provocative questions about the nature of memory, trust, friendship and happiness. I like a movie that considers the Big Questions and also manages to be inherently fascinating and intellectually stimulating. Memento is that movie.

9.  The Dark Knight

The superhero movie was not invented in the last decade, but in recent years we have seen this once-campy action subgenre evolve into something almost respectable. Not only has the quality of movies based on comic books, or “graphic novels,” dramatically increased—with exceptions—but so has their reach. For every Spider-Man and Ironman there was also Ghost World and American Splendor—stories about ordinary people with ordinary problems that were nevertheless adapted from the pages of comic books. Yet the best of the best—the movie that brought together action, humor and tragedy into a remarkably engrossing whole—was Christopher Nolan’s Batman sequel, in many ways the most traditional of the superhero sagas. The casting proved superlative—from the brooding and charismatic Christian Bale and Aaron Eckhart to the dignified and God-like Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman—capped by the mad stroke of genius in the form of the Joker, played by Heath Ledger. The question that will never be answered is whether the movie would have been so mesmerizing had Ledger not died six months prior to the film’s première, sparking the perfect storm of anticipation and morbid fascination that helped the film become the biggest moneymaker of the decade. When I queried Globe critic Ty Burr in an online chat, he was as mystified as I was.

8.  Kill Bill

Because Quentin Tarantino’s four-hour revenge epic is presented as two “volumes”—the first is more Eastern while the second is more Western—the story goes that your personality type can be explained by which volume you like the most. At the moment, I split the difference by liking Vol. 2 more but admiring the first volume’s “Showdown at House of Blue Leaves” more than any sequence in the whole set. In any event, I love Kill Bill as a whole and could watch it from any given point onward. The saga’s supreme feat of cleverness comes from splitting it in half: As advertised, Vol. 1 is pure kung-fu action of a profoundly shallow nature. Because it provides hardly any back story about the Bride (Uma Thurman) and because Bill himself (David Carradine) hardly appears at all, Vol. 1 is essentially a well-made, gory guilty pleasure. Vol. 2, then, sneaks up on us by developing not only the story but also the characters, including the relationship—rudely interrupted by the wedding chapel massacre that got the whole thing started—between the Bride and Bill, which is further complicated by an 11th hour revelation that leaves the Bride thunderstruck. Kill Bill might also represent a kind of weird flowering of contemporary feminism, since most of the major characters (and all the ones who survive) are strong, independent women. Admittedly, when I ran this theory past my mother, she wasn’t the least bit more inclined to see the damn thing.

7.  Spirited Away

Hayao Miyazaki is the most valuable Japanese import to America since the Toyota Corolla. His hand-drawn animated films have seen only modest success in the United States, but around the world and within the film industry he is considered a deity. The reputation is well-deserved. While Pixar has churned out one computer-generated money-maker after another—clever and entertaining, one and all—Miyazaki has spent the last quarter-century producing full-length cartoons that are both high entertainment and high art. Some recent high points have included Princess Mononoke and Howl's Moving Castle, but 2002’s Spirited Away is in a class by itself. It’s as wondrous and inventive as any animated film I’ve seen, and deserves comparison with Disney’s golden age—appropriately, Disney has been Miyazaki’s distributor here in the States. Spirited Away is essentially a more solemn and mature retelling of "Alice in Wonderland," following a 10-year-old girl named Chihiro as she stumbles upon a bathhouse inhabited by creatures of the spirit world, necessarily drifting away from the world of her parents. The movie considers the importance of individualism, courage and determination in its young heroine, who proves herself worthy of the challenge. She is granted many guardian angels along the way, but the ultimate mission of returning home is left up to her. Spirited Away is about a child, but it’s not a “children’s movie” any more than New Moon is a movie for vampires.

6.  Almost Famous

Cameron Crowe’s quasi-autobiographical tale of growing up as a teenaged Rolling Stone reporter during the “death rattle” of rock ‘n’ roll is a pleasure to behold. Not only is Almost Famous one of the great movies about the 1970s American music scene, but it’s also one of the great movies about journalism. I must admit that two big reasons I so love Almost Famous are, first, its glorious soundtrack—featuring The Who, Led Zeppelin, Elton John, The Beach Boys and Simon and Garfunkel, to name a few—and second, its protagonist, William Miller (Patrick Fugit), in whom I undoubtedly saw bits of myself as I was preparing to shove off for college in the hopes of becoming a writer. The movie does not exactly romanticize the writing profession, since William spends most of his time failing to get his subjects to talk to him. But the band he follows—a struggling, fictional outfit named Stillwater—provides him an enlightening and entertaining exposure to sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, as does the band’s groupie-in-chief, Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), who becomes his unofficial guide through the haze of ego, ambition and bullshit that is the American music industry. Two other reasons to see it: Frances McDormand as William’s irrepressible mother, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the rock critic Lester Bangs, who knows a good writer when he sees one.

5.  No Country for Old Men

How ironic that when the Oscar for Best Picture was finally bestowed on Joel and Ethan Coen—two of the most visionary minds in cinema—it would be for an adaptation. Just as it seemed odd for Martin Scorsese, an Italian from Manhattan, to be showered with the ultimate praise for an Irish movie set in Boston, it didn’t feel quite right that the creators of Fargo and The Big Lebowski should be similarly honored for a story that was not their own. And yet No Country for Old Men is a considerable achievement in its own right—a cat-and-mouse game between a relentless killing machine and a crafty but blundering welder who gets in way over his head. The villain, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), is the latest movie bad guy who seems to be on screen more than he actually is; his menacing presence haunts every scene. Last summer I wrote a 3,500 word essay about Chigurh’s pathology (for academic purposes), and I can’t say I’m any closer to understanding what makes him tick. Other stars of the film are the camerawork and the sound mixing, which give the movie an urgency and a crispness that mesh so well with the story and characters. The ending infuriated a lot of people, but I thought it was absolutely on-target in reflecting what the movie was really about.

4.  City of God

Oddly enough, there is no movie on my list directed by Martin Scorsese. This is notable, first, because he is probably the best living filmmaker in America (if not the world) and second, because this ends his streak of making arguably the best movie of three decades in a row: Taxi Driver in the 1970s, Raging Bull in the 1980s and GoodFellas in the 1990s. He made several good movies in the 2000s, but none were of the same caliber as those timeless and visionary works.

Although Scorsese himself is not represented here, my top ten is not without a movie in the classic Scorsese mold—namely, a movie with passion and excitement, teeming with life but also the constant threat of violence and death, following the lives of characters who inhabit a world on the fringes of civilized society and have to deal with the realities of that existence. In this decade, City of God, directed by Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund, filled the void.

Like GoodFellas, City of God follows many years in the fortunes of its protagonist and the assorted lowlifes he encounters. His name is Rocket, and he lives in the lawless slums of Rio de Janeiro that are run by armed gangs of teenagers whose leaders typically live halfway into their 20s before being killed off and replaced, often by their own deputies. The movie is an expose of sorts, and a demonstration—especially in the climactic gang war—that this cycle of violence will continue forever until outside forces intervene. If the cops in this movie are any indication, such a solution is easier said than done.

In early 2003, City of God was the subject of one of the most shameful moments in Oscar history, when the Academy failed to nominate the movie in the foreign film category after 60 people reportedly walked out of the official screening for Academy voters. The incident was a scandal that, to its credit, the Academy rectified the following year by nominating the movie in four categories: Direction, editing, cinematography and screenplay. The movie has gained traction in the public eye ever since, and is currently ranked No. 16 on the Internet Movie Database poll of the all-time best films.

3.  Minority Report

Steven Spielberg is the most successful film director in the history of the medium, and so we sometimes forget how good many of his movies are. In the first decade of the new century he was as productive as he’s ever been, directing seven features and producing more than a dozen more. Granted, some of these were throwbacks (Indiana Jones 4, War of the Worlds) and others were good but forgettable (Catch Me if You Can, The Terminal). On the other hand, Munich was a serious and chilling piece of dramatic history and A.I.: Artificial Intelligence was a project of extraordinary ambition and audacity that A.O. Scott was compelled to call “the best fairy tale Mr. Spielberg has made.”

For me, the best of the best in the recent Spielberg canon—as emotionally sober as Munich and as visionary as A.I.—was Minority Report. All but forgotten by a sizable cross-section of 21st century moviegoers, Spielberg’s 2002’s sci-fi thriller was his most artistically successful film of the decade because it combined all the elements that comprise his best work: Dazzling special effects, a compelling story with memorable characters, told in a physical and moral environment that is recognizable but also wholly unique in the world of film.

The plot of Minority Report is not only compelling but also highly political without stepping into outright preachiness. The situation: In Washington, D.C., in 2054, a successful law enforcement program called “Pre-crime” is preparing to expand across America. The program works thanks to three human oracles, or “pre-cogs,” who can predict violent crimes in near-perfect detail, allowing the cops to “catch” the offenders before the crimes actually occur. The trouble starts when the chief officer, played by Tom Cruise, is accused of being a future criminal himself—destined, according to the pre-cogs, to murder someone he doesn’t know in less than 36 hours.

The ensuing chase is superbly entertaining and entirely logical. The same can be said of the film as a whole. The story contains very little of the usual Spielberg manipulation that, for example, prevented A.I. from being a true masterwork. At the same time, Minority Report contains twists so clever that I was delighted by them on my first viewing and have appreciated their ingenuity ever since. Critics of the film have faulted the third act for being too soft, but I think it succeeds in reinforcing the human element of the story, which gives the movie its moral center.

2.  Adaptation

The first question you ask when a friend recommends a movie is, “What’s it about?”  I don’t think I have ever had a more difficult time answering that question than in conversations about Adaptation, made in 2002 by Spike Jonze.

Adaptation is about flowers. About their allure to greedy Florida poachers and their Native American friends who’re allowed to steal them from state-owned lands with impunity. About the obsession of one such poacher, John Laroach, who makes a living from flowers but seems to switch lifestyles every few years, as though obsession itself is his only real calling.

Adaptation is about screenwriting and the enormous difficulty it takes Charlie Kaufman to turn The Orchid Thief, a book about Laroach, into a film script. About Kaufman’s insecurities and self-doubt about his writing abilities, even after penning a big hit. About his self-loathing and sweating and need to impress the right people and get the girl.

Adaptation is about Darwinism, and the ways different flowers seem to be designed to attract different bees into the act of pollination, which is all that keeps the world from falling into darkness. About the need for passion—to be driven by a desire for knowledge, wisdom and transcendence.

Most of all, Adaptation is about the process by which Charlie Kaufman utterly failed to adapt The Orchid Thief into a movie and, in the midst of his failure, ended up with one of the great original screenplays of modern movies.

Adaptation was the first R-rated movie I saw theatrically. The initial experience blew me away to the point of utter mystification. In the intervening years I have watched it as much as any movie of its kind and I never tire of it because it is so damned complicated. I would call the experience “rewarding” if that weren’t such a facile word.  “Exhausting” is probably more accurate, but I know that won’t gain many converts, either.  Adaptation boasts some of the best names in the business—namely Meryl Streep, Nicolas Cage and Chris Cooper—but it is very much a niche movie for a small audience.

What I know for sure is the brilliance of the screenplay, which operates on at least three levels of reality at once but contains no tricks of logic or continuity.  Again, this was a movie whose ending upset a lot of people—mostly critics, in this case—who thought it concluded on a cheap note.  In fact, given the movie up until its final twist, no ending would have possibly made sense except the one we have.  That Charlie Kaufman is one smart cookie.

1.  Lost in Translation

I must admit that I am often a man of contradictions. I just finished explaining that I adore Adaptation for its unparalleled complexity and I am now concluding my list with a film that is a study in unadulterated simplicity.

The story: Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is a fading, tired movie star who is shooting a whiskey commercial in Tokyo. During his first night in the hotel bar he meets Charlotte (Scarlet Johansson), a young American college graduate who is in Tokyo with her photographer husband. Bob has been married for 25 years, Charlotte for two. Over the next few days they follow each other around, check out the fabulous Tokyo nightlife together and engage in idle but thoughtful conversation about the meaning of their lives and marriages.

That’s it. That’s the whole movie. Indeed, with a premise like that, the miracle is that the damned thing got made at all. Lost in Translation was written and directed by Sofia Coppola, who had only made one movie before this one but had the obvious genetic advantage of being Francis Ford Coppola’s daughter. Nepotism is alive and well in Hollywood, but rarely does it result in a movie this remarkable.

It’s one thing to tell a story. To encapsulate a feeling, or a mood, is infinitely more difficult. Lost in Translation is about its characters—about their melancholy, their yearning, their ambivalence about the decisions they’ve made, their happiness and the ordinary ways they express these feelings. It has always been true that the best way to express universal truths is to be as specific as possible. Because this movie is so intensely about Bob and Charlotte—and about nothing else at all—it becomes a movie about everyone and everything.

One of my more literate friends once complained about the teaching of Shakespeare in high school, saying, “Shakespeare cannot be analyzed—he can only be appreciated.”  That is what Lost in Translation means to me. Coppola’s film is not above criticism, it’s not perfect and it’s not Shakespeare. But it affected me in a way that makes any analytical statement beside the point. Like the Disney animated classics that made up the formative years of my childhood, I regard this film as a fact of life—as though it happened to me—and not really as a movie at all.