Best of the Decade: 'Gladiator,' Adam Sandler, Russell Crowe, and Spike Lee
For a full description of the purpose and the parameters of this list, read the introduction.
#40 / "Gladiator"
I was indeed entertained. Ridley Scott has made better films than "Gladiator," but he's rarely made more entertaining ones. This film is a confident, well-armored machine, cutting down each and every potential objection to it with sheer brute charisma and visual panache, and the script's big mechanics click into place with precision, paying off every set-up just right. This is not a film with the same sort of expansive soul as "Lawrence of Arabia," and I wouldn't say it's a truly deep epic. It's an action film with just enough angst to make it count, and it proves that if Scott had just decided to be a mainstream action movie guy, he would have been one of the all-time greats. Rewatching this one, removed from all the inevitable backlash and cynicism, I'm suddenly reminded of why I should care that Ridley Scott's making "Robin Hood" with Russell Crowe this summer.
#39 / "Tsotsi"
Before Gavin Hood became the director of the entirely style-less and corporate "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," he was the director of this gut-churning South African film about a tough street kid who steals a car and finds a baby in the back seat. How he cares for the child is pretty much the entire narrative arc of the film, but on that simple thread is hung some amazingly powerful material about the meaning of caring for someone else, the responsibility of caring for a child, and the very nature of love. "Tsotsi" is one of those films I can't explain on an intellectual level, because its power is as one of the great emotional sledgehammers of the decade. I think more than anything, that's what will get a film a place on this list... connecting with me in a real way, making me feel something. So many films are just product, no matter how professional, and what I find I value as I get older is identifying something in a film that strikes me as genuine. That feeling is the drug I chase from film to film now, and "Tsotsi" delivers it, pure and uncut.
#38 / "The 25th Hour"
Spike Lee has made films I adore ("Do The Right Thing") and he has made films that I loathe ("Summer Of Sam"), and what's amazing is that most of the time, they're only separated by a matter of degrees. It's that tightrope over catastrophe that Spike Lee walks that makes his great work so electric, I think, and "The 25th Hour" is a film that is sprawling, belligerent, angry, and constantly on the verge of dissolution, which is a perfect reflection of the emotional state of Monty Brogan (Edward Norton in an astonishing performance, even considering his already impressive resume) as he faces his last night as a free man. David Benioff set his own personal bar pretty high with this script, and so far, he has yet to match it. The ending is a bold conceit that pays off, powerful, provocative, the sort of moment a director like Lee spends his whole career chasing.
#37 / "Inglorious Basterds"
I just wrote about this one the other day on my list of the top ten films of 2009, but I'll just add that this is one of the most visually lush films ever shot by the great Robert Richardson, and that's saying something. When he finally pulls off the image of Melanie Laurent's face projected like a ghost on the smoke of the burning theater, it's pure sculpture with light, and instead of just being an indulgence between a movie-mad director and a superb cinematographer, it's an affirmation of the movie's theme that film is a weapon in the right hands, more powerful than life or death. When they talk of Quentin Tarantino's career in the far future of film study... and they will... "Inglourious Basterds" will be offered up as one of the key pieces of evidence for both his sense of taste and his incredible control of mise-en-scene.
#36 / "Memories Of Murder"
Because bad people do bad things, and they go unpunished. And the world rolls on.
#35 / "Superbad"
Based on how much time and energy I've spent writing about the various films written and directed and produced by Judd Apatow over the last decade, I was shocked when I looked at my finished list and realized that I'd only placed one film he's connected to on the list, and it's not one of the movies he directed. I like each and every one of those films. A lot. But if we're talking about the 50 films that I'd bring with me from this decade if I had to boil it down, there's just one that really hits me dead center, and that's "Superbad." Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's script is simplicity in motion, but Greg Mottola wrings every bit of juice from it. Michael Cera, Jonah Hill, and Chris Mintz-Plasse are magic together, filthy and real and awkward and nothing like what you would expect of anyone starring in actual movies. That's the charm of it... these are not the guys who you cast as leads. These are not the heroes of the cool teen movies. These guys aren't even the guys who star in wacky nerd high school movies. These are just real kids, insecure, frustrated, desperate for a buzz, acutely aware of their place in the social universe. So many kids have that one night that they tell stories about for the rest of their lives, but Seth and Evan turned theirs into a movie that is as touching in its depiction of the central friendship as it is hilarious.
#34 / "The Royal Tenenbaums"
Wes Anderson doesn't really make comedies. He just likes laughing when people hurt, and he's never mixed the two feelings to quite the same effect as he does in this J.D. Salinger-esque piece about a family in orbit around a big wild sonofabitch dad named Royal, played in sadistic rascal mode by Gene Hackman. If you're looking for the moment that Anderson's style went from fascinating and quirky to permanent signature, this is it. After all, "Bottle Rocket' looked nothing like "Rushmore." Here, though, you can see how Anderson's discovered this one very specific visual vocabulary, and that's what he's sticking to. His cast is great, his soundtrack is impeccable, and the film pays off with a couple of body blows that still make me mist up to think about. Now, more than ever, I empathize with Ben Stiller's ragged "I've had a rough year, dad." Indeed.
#33 / "Before Sunset"
I'm not sure, but I think this might be the only sequel to something made in the '90s that shows up on this list. It's certainly not the standard version of what you think of when you think of sequels. For one thing, this is one of the rare follow up movies that I've really wanted to see. I love "Before Sunrise," the 1995 film in which Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) meet on a train, get off in Vienna, and spend a night walking and talking and generally dazzling one another. I think it's one of Richard Linklater's best films, but when you add "Before Sunset" to it nine years later, it becomes even more impressive. "Before Sunrise" is a young man's film, full of a young man's shallow optimism and surface ideas about love and life. That's what makes it so honest, so genuine. "Before Sunset" is a film that is much more cynical about life and love, much more bruised and disappointed. It's not an old man's film... it's an older man's film. And again, Linklater's been very revealing, as have his stars, because that's the nature of these films. They are x-rays of these two people and how much they dare to allow themselves the things they want at these different points in their lives. Beautifully acted, wise and funny, and yes, even sexy, "Before Sunset" is only one chapter in what I hope is a series that will add more installments in the years to come.
#32 / "The Fountain"
I am not in the right emotional place this year to write about undying, unquestioned love, about happily ever afters and unflagging devotion. I believe in all those things... I'm just not sure they're part of my own personal experience. I watch "The Fountain," Darren Aronofsky's trippy SF parable about sacrifice and generosity, and I believe. I believe that real love is willing to do anything for the other person's health and happiness, willing to go to any length to spend one more day or one more hour with that person. It is a powerful thing, that kind of love, obsessive and single-minded. The more I've rewatched this, the more impressed I am with how bold and formal Aronofsky's storytelling is, and how much he's hidden all his big ideas right in plain view. It's a gorgeous movie, a pleasure to see, and as I said in my original review, not many films can blow your mind and break your heart at the same time. "The Fountain" is a true one-of-a-kind.
#31 / "Punch-Drunk Love"
Paul Thomas Anderson is one of my favorite working filmmakers, and I find thrilling to watch him develop as a voice. This movie is such a strange left turn that some people don't know what to do with it in the context of his career. It's completely different in scale and ambition than something like "Boogie Nights" or "There Will Be Blood." Adam Sandler is one of those actors who several major directors have talked about casting, saying they were convinced they could get the great untapped potential out of him. So far, Anderson's the one guy who has really pulled it off. He understands that Sandler's man-child comedy relies largely on his irrational penchant for rage and violence as one of its parts, and so he's cast Sandler as a man being eaten alive by his anger before he finally meets a woman who could possibly heal him, as long as he doesn't terrify her and run her off first. The way he repurposed the "Popeye" score (a truly underrated and amazing piece of film music) through the Jon Brion filter is both lovely and dead-accurate. Barry sees himself as a superhero, transformed in key moments into something more powerful than his normal self, not by spinach but by love. The way Anderson shares Barry's delusion while also underlining it gives "Punch-Drunk Love" a painful, bitter edge, but it's lovely going down.
I don't think we'll get to the next ten before Christmas, but as soon as the holiday's done, I'll be back with an uplifting documentary, films about children being born, struggling with the meaning of life, dying young, and even after as they contend with whatever's next. There's a wolf and a bat and a man named Mickey, so meet me back here on the 26th to see what's what.
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