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Probably multiple idiosyncracies lurk through this list, but the most obvious is that a pretty girl makes any film more pleasant to me.
A fun action movie with high production values, some beautiful choreography, and sweet little Zhang Ziyi.
You Can Count on Me (2000)
The brilliant, attractive Laura Linney here plays off two worthy actors in Matthew Broderick and Mark Ruffalo. A subtle, well-written drama.
Requiem for a Dream (2000)
Aronofsky's directing is spectacular and Ellen Burstyn's performance devastates. In watching I kept crossing and recrossing the line between believing it real and surreal--an impression no doubt related to the characters' experiences in and out of sobriety, in and out of sanity. Requiem weaves narrative threads like Pulp Fiction, but each intersecting story is an intimately shot nightmare. One of the most affecting films I've ever seen, especially the lonely descent of the old lady into madness.
Waking the Dead (2000)
An introspective meditation on love and death, and whether anything in life offers comparable significance--with the irresistable Jennifer Connelly the ambiguous symbol of both sides of the question.
This is a one man show: Tom Hanks as a modern Robinson Crusoe trapped on a far smaller island. Solid acting, great screenplay. It doesn't hurt that Robinson Crusoe is one of my favorite novels.
One of Soderbergh's best directorial efforts, solid screenplay, and good acting: Michael Douglas and Benicio del Toro nail their parts. Also, our director evades the high temptation to tendentiousness, especially prevalent on the drug issue--and thuswise preserves his art. The loosely connected story strands offer up various perspectives on the impact of illegal drugs in America and Mexico, though many other perspectives are necessarily scanted.
The best of the series. The second was CGI'd to death and the third, trapped in a swamp of sentimentality and self-indulgence, gave each character his own separate ending, an endless series of endings, tedious and nauseating. But The Fellowship was magnificent fantasy with fantastic casting (too many stand-outs to name), shrewd pacing, a suitably variegated score, a perfect tone in the acting style, great directing, and a screenplay careful not to break the spell.
Black Hawk Down (2002)
A shockingly visceral and realistic portrayal of the Battle of Mogadishu. Ridley Scott created great battle footage, portraying the chaos of combat, the courage, the madness of it--and the suffering it produces. Of course, it helps that Scott had great stories to work with. The two Delta commandoes who volunteered in face of near certain death to try to rescue the crew of the downed chopper--that's just an incredible story. They received posthumous Medals of Honor.
The Others (2001)
A tale similar to the great Henry James tale "A Turn of the Screw", a clever and frightening horror-fantasy, directed by Amenabar. The atmosphere, as of an ambiguous dream--possibly just unpleasant, possibly a nightmare--was one of the strong points. Also, Nicole Kidman's performance never misses the mark.
Monsters, Inc. (2001)
Fun and visually creative, a humorous film that nimbly dodges the frequent cliche-traps that threaten it.
The very French strangeness of Jeunet's directorial sensibility is here married to the immense, whimsical charm that blooms in Audrey Tautou's actions, gestures, words, but most of all in her highly expressive face, lit up and enspirited with those beautiful dark delightful eyes. A bright, imaginative, optimistic comedy that still manages to encompass both fleet malice and unsentimental humaneness.
This movie is pure fun, mostly a comedy, with some romance and a bit of action. The cast is likeable, attractive, talented--and the movie works so well in large part because it's not overambitious, merely entertainment without ulterior motives.
Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2002)
I remember the film created a powerful sense of the strange arctic environment of the Inuit and of their traditional lifeways. I believe a great deal of human nature, mental and physical, may be learned from pre-agricultural peoples. So I have an underlying curiosity about the human and natural environment in which the film is shot. And there seems to be an emphasis on realism in this drama, at least until the most memorable sequence plays out near the end, the little legend of the ice run. Part of the pull was this mixture, at once subtle and bold, of realism and mythology.
A meta-movie that brilliantly and crucially manages to avoid the prime defect of its genre: an enervating avisceral, abstraction-obsessed tone. Of course, it's conceptually ambitious, but the meditative elements are enmeshed in life, action, emotion, convincing context. Charlie Kaufman's script is one of the best I know. It provides an imaginative, entertaining illustration of artistic creation. Director Jonze knows how to run with this idea. And the acting could theoretically have swept the awards that year: Nicolas Cage playing twins, Meryl Streep, Tilda Swinton, and Chris Cooper (who stole every scene he was in).
Paul Thomas Anderson wrote and directed this very strange, but beguiling film. It's an alternate universe lacking any normal characters, challenging one to appreciate the different types and degrees of madness on display. Adam Sandler achieves his pinnacle of lunacy here--also his deepest revelation of humanity. Emily Watson plays his love interest, plays her strangely, of course. The most surprising triumph of this film, which hits such a wide range of emotional registers, is that somehow all the madness is believable.
Gangs of New York (2002)
A powerful, brutal Scorsese film, one of his stronger claims. Who could forget the vision of New York here summoned? The miracle is Daniel Day-Lewis playing Bill the Butcher--an astonishing metamorphosis. The lesson seems to be: high immigration rates work better where there is plenty of land to absorb the newcomers--where the natives and immigrants don't develop the sense that life is a zero-sum game of us against them.
This movie is intensely alive. It manifests through its characters, and not only through its characters, the passion and energy of youth, even such youth as find themselves confined to a violent ghetto ruled by drug gangs. See how the child's mind invents romance and adventure in the grimmest circumstances and envisions grand realms of freedom where only anarchy abides. Yet the vicarious sense of youth has always its appeal and the characters presented, though their possible depth and complexity is much truncated by brutality and spiritual vacancy, are markedly individuated life-seizers.
Alexander Sokurov shot this beautiful, almost hypnotic film--and he did it in one continuous take with 2,000 actors, a tour de force of coordination, commitment, brilliance. The film shows a series of scenes over the course of 300 years of Russian history, all shot in the Hermitage Museum. This film is the dream Russia would dream if nations dreamt in beauty. The continuity of the film renders it dreamlike in tone, and so does the lack of discernable plot. If you know something of Russian history, the contrast between Russia's life and its dream adds emotional content to the experience.
25th Hour (2002)
After 30 years, the hugely overrated Spike Lee has generated 2 good films, the other being He Got Game. And the quality here proceeds mainly from the actors, secondarily from the script, and only quite diffusely from the director. The single possible flaw is that Edward Norton does not look the part--but, to be fair, not everyone looks their part in life--have you ever seen Shakespeare's memorial bust? He looks like an overfed merchant.
I'm not sure how hard it is to pull off understated acting roles (or for that matter understated writing or directing), but Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson find authenticity in this alien atmosphere (ie., Tokyo for unenthusiastic tourists). And Sofia Coppola creates this sustained and unusual atmosphere, familiar in some ways to most travelers. It's a quiet, bemused film about two wondering wanderers who seem to be alone in an afterlife, until they encounter each other.
Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003)
Again Scarlett Johansson, who could tempt any man, tempts an older man, Colin Firth as Vermeer. And again, she is the only one around who understands him, and vice versa. Clashes of art and commerce, family and character form the dramatic action around these two central characters. A fine cast and script to match ensoul the beautifully filmed historical atmosphere.
Hitler in the final throws of his Goetterdaemmerung: he holds absolute sway until the end and he ends his own way--savoring the destruction, lathering himself in his sense of the tragedy of his fall, exulting in the grandeur of being consumed in his own fire. I think Hitler derived more emotional satisfaction from defeat than he did or could have done from victory. Bruno Ganz manages the only persuasive cinematized Hitler I have yet seen, utterly dominant, so certain of his convictions that he could afford emotional excess and vicious mistreatment of subordinates with little risk to his power. The hopeless bustle of the bunker and the pathetic submission of the Reich's highest officers are aspects of vast failure and all-encompassing despair. Hitler held them all in contempt--not only were they primary co-actors in a losing war, but, insofar as he was responsible for defeat and the catalyst of egregious evils, they ought to have overthrown him, but did not. They certainly deserve our additional contempt for failing to unseat him. It is well to remember that such men as Hitler and Stalin have millions of accomplices, all of whom merit some part of the guilt, since neither cowardice, nor stupidity, nor yet ignorance suffice to excuse the cogs in a machine that systematizes murder.
Before Sunset (2004)
The gorgeous Julie Delpy matched with the somewhat unlikely Ethan Hawke in the second part of their (hopefully ongoing) romantic meanderings and communicable contemplations. This not quite impossible pairing does a great job of naturalism in acting and conversing, despite barriers of geography, culture, language. It's an intimate piece of filmmaking set in Paris.
Dear Frankie (2005)
Unlikely circumstances molded by the talent involved into a convincing drama. Lovely Emily Mortimer leads the cast through cold Glasgow and warms it up a little. The plot is basic, but the subtleties save it, the rethinking of each character's situation and thoughts.
Another great Charlie Kaufman script given a proper incarnation: sci-fi, psycho drama, comedy, adventure, romance intermingled in virtuoso fashion. Also, Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet add their quotient of massive talent to the mix.
Million Dollar Baby (2005)
A classic tragedy, the purest filmmaking possible. The directing makes this movie: Clint Eastwood enters another work into the cinematic canon. Hilary Swank plays her part to the bone and marrow, and Clint and Morgan Freeman give excellent supporting performances. The script, though understated, does its work.
Pride and Prejudice (2005)
I should say this constitutes a most luxurious viewing experience, one wherein reasonable justice prevails, in all relevant regards, in its relation to the classic work from which it draws inspiration. This is how I prefer to conceive of the relation, as an inspiration merely, not a translation to the screen. In terms of cinematography, it's a beautiful film, and the acting brings characters to life without overmuch anachronism. Keira Knightley in particular was a favorable surprise--though she does not match my imagining of Elizabeth Bennett's appearance, which more nearly approaches a slightly plainer version of the young Jennifer Connelly.
Wedding Crashers (2005)
Unapologetic good times, very funny, and two highly appealing starlets who offer the comic duo a most tempting retirement package for their post-wedding crasher years. And, impressively, Rachel McAdams and Isla Fisher make it credible that they could pull these two off the lust circuit--testifying to their powers of seduction.
United 93 (2006)
This is an attempt at a post-mortem documentary-style reenactment of the hijacked plane that crashed in Pennsylvania on 9/11. Shot in real time, it lasts the duration of the flight, and encompasses all the characters involved from the hijackers to the passengers to the American officials trying to contain the damage. Spare and moving, I take no exception to any element of this film. 'Tis nobly done.
Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)
A realistic war film centered around the charismatic Japanese leader in the battle of Iwo Jima and his soldiers; it illustrates much that is timeless about the experience of war. The tragedy, madness, humanity, horror, fear, stupidity, courage, politics all tumble and tear through the weeks of battle. And men at war seem the playthings of fate. Prior exposure to the context of the battle adds to the viewer's appreciation.
Stranger Than Fiction (2006)
A fantastical dramedy with a great script, Will Ferrell and Emma Thompson turn in the performances the script deserves. A bureaucrat (Ferrell) is seduced into becoming human by a woman he's been ordered to do bureaucracy upon--then he is forced again to question his humanity and confront a challenge that's way outside the bureaucratic box he'd lived in, even rather outside the human box he'd just discovered.
The Lives of Others (2006)
Set in East Germany a few years before the Fall, it centers on the moral dilemmas imposed on the rulers and the ruled in such an Orwellian state. A Stasi agent spies on a successful, seemingly loyal playwright. But, even intensive surveillance turns up nothing. Between his high intellect and the humanity of which his art seems the ultimate proof, the Stasi man wonders how this playwright can place his faith in a political system rotten with subterfuge and corruption, sustained by coercion? A major irony is that the guardians of the system, the Stasi, may well be the most cynical about it--they know what its guts look like. We are shown with painful realism the harsh human consequences produced by even a relatively mild totalitarian system.
Casino Royale (2006)
Surely this must be the most kinetic of the Bond films. At least it's the most entertaining action of the Bonds, and Mr. Craig crashes through his scenes with an intensity forbidding doubt. He is Bond. Perhaps he appears less civilized? But, geopolitical tendencies appear increasingly centrifugal, and the smaller the organization the more vicious it must be to succeed. So, professionally, Bond adapts--but personally another direction may beckon.
There is only one reason to include this film amongst these other distinguished cinematic reachings and graspings: Amy Adams as the singing and dancing faery princess. The first act in particular is irradiated with her charm.
No Country for Old Men (2007)
Anton Chigurh is one of cinema's most impressive depictions of evil, perfectly enacted by Javier Bardem. Chigurh simply cannot believe the common notion that human life has value in itself--if it had such value, then why do people die randomly and painfully all the time? Why does fate appear arbitrary? His suspicious relations with fate are symbolized in his coin flipping fetish. Adrift from common human moral perspective, Chigurh invented his own code, one suited to his taste. His taste was formed by his lack of empathy and what he sees as a universe of death. The Coen brothers situate him in a brilliant cinematic vehicle, surrounded by excellence in characterization, acting, directing, minimalist score, cinematography, realistic action sequences, script (largely verbatim Cormac McCarthy), humor, location in time and place. But, Chigurh is the black hole at the center of this piece.
There Will Be Blood (2008)
An intense portrayal of ambition transformed into megalomania, then into a dissolute madness. Daniel Day Lewis achieves a frightening embodiment of this character and Paul Thomas Anderson creates the turn-of-the-century California in which he operates.
A realistic look at 2 orphans, brother and sister, scratching out an existence in contemporary NYC, out of range of the tentacles of the government. Independent, uneducated minors face especially tough prospects and will also make unwise decisions, exacerbating exigencies. The directing and acting hold fast to the realist style, marking memory.
The Dark Knight (2008)
Heath Ledger flings the Joker down into spiraling depths of nihilism, whilst imbuing him with a pure and vigorous anarchism in action. The CGI and directing are excellent, with only the director's flaw of failing to modulate the film's intensities to further dramatic ends--almost as though the Joker's anarchy bled into the very structure of the film.
A film that struggles into the complications of evidence, proof, guilt, human power relations, circumstantial difficulties, institutional blindness associated with the endless pedophilia scandals of the Catholic Church. The acting transcends the script.
Bright Star (2009)
Care is taken in the portrayal of genius, and not only in the portrayal of love. We can be grateful that Ms. Campion has delicate senses in such matters. Keats in quest of Fanny, and she in quest of him, suffice to warm the film with youthful yearnings unfulfilled. The delightful cinematography surveys period conditions, and a commendable stab at period language reaches its pinnacle, perhaps, with Ben Whishaw's recitations of several of the poems.
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