Something Seasonal: Contemporary Films I’m Thankful For

November is a time of year to ruminate on all the things that we’re thankful for, and as we close in on the end of 2009, I find myself with a list containing innumerable pieces of my life that I’m grateful of. I have a wonderful fiancée with whom I have a fulfilling relationship; I have a good home which I share with her and our two mischievous cats. I’ve got friends who care about me and family that loves me. And in our uncertain job market, I have a solid and stable job, which in turn lends me the financial stability that so many people in our country have been bereft of. In short, I’m happy and comfortable and secure; if that’s not reason enough to be thankful, I don’t know what is.

But of course, you don’t read this blog because you’re terribly interested in how great my life is; this is a blog about movies, and that’s ostensibly what you’re here for. You see, while thinking about those personal elements of my life, I got to thinking about my passion for the cinema, which in turn got me reflecting on the films that I’m thankful for, the movies that have influenced or affected my love for all things cinematic directly or in more clandestine ways. And so, keeping with the theme of this month’s holiday, I wound up putting together a list of ten such films for your reading pleasure.

As a note, this is not supplementary reading for my top ten list; it’s also not a generic “top X most influential films” list, though in some cases it is precisely the influence of the film in question that I appreciate. That appreciation will only be examined on a personal level– as much as some of these movies have had broad and far-reaching impact on cinema as a whole, here I’m only interested in how they have effected films that have specific significance to me. These aren’t necessarily the movies that I could watch from start to finish any day of the week, any time of day, but rather the movies that helped shape and change my perception of cinema. So with that in mind, please enjoy!

Shiri/SwiriShiri (spelled Swiri inside Korea) is often credited as Shiri_Posterbeing the film that jump-started the Korean New Wave back in 1999. While under even distant examination this isn’t totally the case, Shiri‘s success did much to cause a resurgence in interest toward Korean cinema; as the film became an instant smash, local companies became more willing to risk their money on genre films with larger budgets, and the sales of Korean films overseas increased. On its own it’s a tight and energetic espionage thriller about a North Korean terrorist plot to target and destroy South Korean landmarks, but in the broader context of South Korean cinema, Shiri‘s existence may largely be responsible for the boom the SK film industry has enjoyed since its release– and therefore, films like Oldboy might never have been made without it.

Watchmen— I wasn’t one hundred percent enthused by Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Alan Moore’s classic graphic novel (read my review here), but it’s hard for me not to crack an appreciative smile when I sit back and think about it in retrospect. Watchmen is a crackling, pulsing, watchmen-final-posterliving and breathing piece of glorious pop-art, flawed for certain but also filled with crackling performances and eye-popping attention to detail. It’s also a challenge to other super hero movies to attempt to achieve similar faithfulness to their source material. Watchmen is also the kind of against-the-mainstream property that one would never expect a major studio to back, and yet that’s precisely what Warner Brothers did. It wasn’t a box office winner, but it also hasn’t added up to a total failure for the studio just yet (thanks to the ancillary market), and if anything its existence should give the movie geeks faith in the studios; if Watchmen can get made, anything can get made. But most of all, even if the end result wasn’t as good as it should have been, I’m just happy that someone had the chutzpah to even attempt to translate this “unadaptable” story to the big screen.

The 40 Year Old Virgin— The Judd Apatow train got its start with the TV series Freaks and Geeks, but it picked up the most steam upon the release of this 2005 hit comedy. Since then, it’s helped shape the face offorty_year_old_virgin American comedy, leading films to place greater emphasis on character and plot development instead of leaving those elements to the wayside in favor of more fart jokes; it’s this focus on heart and story in addition to belly laughs (which leads to more robust and fulfilling comedies) that makes Virgin‘s existence so richly deserving of our gratitude. Of course, no one does it better than the master himself; the best comedies of the last half a decade have come out of the Apatow camp, and no imitators have come close to replicating what makes those films great. (Though amusingly enough, many of those seeming imitators are actually part of the Apatow family, as Judd’s arm has grown so long that he has his hands in untold numbers of contemporary comedies.) And aside from being a comedy game-changer, Virgin is responsible for helping establish Steve Carell’s presence as a leading man, as well as introducing actors like Romany Malco and Seth Rogen to wider audiences; if that’s not enough reason to tip your hat to it, then I don’t know what is.

Kikujiro—  From my experience, filmmakers like Japanese auteur Takeshi Kitano get an unfair rap in the US for working in very narrow and specific genres of cinema. Here, Kitano is popularly thought of as a director of crime thrillers, and while I can understand why– much of his creative output that has reached the States consists of gangster films like Brother, Sonatine, and Hana-bi– the reputation is grossly unjust kikujiro_sony_picturesgiven his comedic roots and surprising penchant for the poignant. During my years in college, I found myself defending Kitano against just such accusations from my friend; the argument ended when I popped Kitano’s 1999 film Kikujiro in my DVD player. I’ll always be grateful  for this film’s existence as a counter-point against the idea that Kitano, as a filmmaker, knows only violence; here, he tells a story that’s artful and moving and entirely relatable despite examining its themes through a specific cultural lens. The movie follows the journey of a young boy as he travels across Japan to find his mother; Kitano plays the gruff, curmudgeonly eponymous character who accompanies the child on his quest. It’s a colorful and beautifully shot movie that’s perhaps more touching than Kitano’s better-known gangster films are violent, a road movie that closely explores isolation and alienation in Japanese society.

Shaun of the Dead— As a foreign property, Shaun of the Dead introduced me (and many, many others) to a bevy of English talent: Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, Jessica Hynes and Nick Frost. Wright, Hynes, and Pegg had worked together prior to Shaun on the wonderful TV series, Spaced, while Frost had starred on his program Danger! 5000 Volts! (wherein he advised his audience on how to best handle volcanic eruptions and hippo attacks). For this alone, I’m indebted to shaun-of-the-dead1the film; the fact that it not only schooled me on these fantastic talents but also surprised me by turning out to be one of the best zombie movies of all time was icing on the cake. Or perhaps it’s the other way around? Either way, Shaun of the Dead makes up for decades of terrible imitations and blatant rip-offs of the films of Romero and Fulci and also stands up to them in sheer quality (I honestly believe that Shaun‘s script might be one of the best scripts written in the last decade). The film’s secret to success? Shaun can be described as a zombie parody or an homage to the films of the greats, but the truth is that it eschews the chance to be cute, coy, and tongue-in-cheek and instead chooses to stand on its own as an honest-to-God zombie movie filled with laughter, fantastic effects and make-up, and a whole lot of heart. Like Virgin (both films are, after all, tastemakers in their respective genres), many films have tried to imitate what makes Shaun work, and none have succeeded; it’s a wholly unique film, something that can’t be replicated, and that makes it truly special and worthy of adulation.

***

What films are you thankful for? What are the movies that you appreciate in a broader context outside of their individual quality? Feel free to share your thoughts here. Enjoy the season, everyone!

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4 thoughts on “Something Seasonal: Contemporary Films I’m Thankful For

  1. I’m actually more thankful for The Dark Knight than for Watchmen. I think that The Dark Knight demonstrated that the success of a comic book adaptaion (or any adaptation) should not be measured by literal fidelity to its source, but by a less tangible thematic fidelity – it was true to the characters and the themes and the stories rather than to the dialogue, or the events, or the shots. Watchmen was more true to the spirit of the book than most give it credit for, but it’s straightforward transcription of the novel (rather than adaptation) really hampered it, I think.

    But that’s just me.

    • Oh, I absolutely agree that Watchmen’s slavish devotion, while admirable, wound up hamstringing it for certain; as much as I enjoyed seeing the story come to life and breathe there was nothing of substance in it that I couldn’t get from the book. Then again, the ways he deviated from the source (e.g. upping the levels of needless graphic violence for the sake of the cool) brought it down, so I’m not sure how much more successful the film would have been had he injected more of himself into it.

      I’m not sure how much we can really compare The Dark Knight to Watchmen; innumerable stories have been told about Batman, while Watchmen remains a single collection of comics brought together in one graphic novel. Watchmen was bound to be more literal. Batman on the other hand was much more open. You are absolutely correct that the thematic is more important than the literal but for a story like Watchmen, the literal is all but a requirement (whereas Batman is much more about the thematic essence that makes him unique and special). I think Watchmen’s weakness on film is that Snyder never really put a stamp on it to make the story his own; there’s no doubt that it’s a Zack Snyder movie, but it’s Zack Snyder presenting Alan Moore’s Watchmen instead of Zack Snyder’s Watchmen. Whereas Nolan really mined Batman’s character and brought all of what he found to bear, and as a result it’s faithfully Batman while also being distinctly Nolan.

      I am definitely thankful for The Dark Knight, though for a different reason; it gave the world Heath Ledger’s definitive portrayal of the supervillain on film.

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