Third verse, same as the first, Jackie is a punk, Judy is a runt. Entries 15-11, let’s go:
15. Up: The aughts have been pretty good years for Pixar– the studio has put out seven films in ten years, and of those films only one has displayed a poverty of creativity and wit (Cars), while the rest have been both commercial and critical smashes. Undoubtedly, they have contributed a great number of films for consideration on lists such as these, but for my money the best of their efforts hails from 2009: Up, simply put, is the finest film Pixar has produced to date, proof of the company’s continued evolution from the days of Toy Story leading up to the release of Wall-E. Ostensibly a children’s movie, Up finds plenty of time to be silly and yet it’s far too mature to simply be pegged as entertainment for kids; the opening sequence alone, a montage that tells the story of the life protagonist Carl shares with his wife Ellie, is far too real, and far too bittersweet, to be intended specifically for an audience of children. This is typical for Pixar, who never write their films for a single audience demographic, but Up perhaps best exemplifies their particular approach to filmmaking and shows how much they have improved their craft over the years.
14. Grizzly Man: In October, 2003, Timothy Treadwell’s passion caught up with him after 13 years and killed him: Having spent more than a decade of living in the presence of fearsome grizzly bears, Timothy found himself in the wrong place and exactly the wrong time, staring down a starving bear in a season where food was more scarce than usual. An outside glance at Treadwell’s story suggests a severely disturbed young man whose fascination with ursus arctos horribilis led him (along with his girlfriend) to a tragic and sudden end, and maybe in the hands of another filmmaker Grizzly Man would have come to exactly such a conclusion. Werner Herzog, however, believes that Treadwell had a deathwish; when we see footage shot by Treadwell himself, wherein the obviously unhinged environmentalist states, “I’d die for these animals”, we start to see what the director is talking about. While we will never know for sure if Treadwell truly desired death at the claws of the grizzly bears he so desperately worked to document and, theoretically, protect, we can certainly appreciate the beauty of the footage he captured in his many years in the Alaskan wilds– and take heed of the cautionary tale Herzog weaves about obsession.
13. American Splendor: Is this, perhaps, the best comic book movie of the 2000’s? It’s no superhero movie– and for the best of the best of that genre, look no further than Spider-Man 2 or Hellboy 2— but this 2003 biopic about the life and times of curmudgeonly comic book everyman Harvey Pekar best captures the intended spirit of both its creator and his work, examining his life and art with a blend of fiction and reality as it weaves footage of the real Pekar within the narrative told by the film and, of course, Paul Giamatti’s transformative performance. While he lacks his subject’s liveliness, he fully encapsulates the cynical, humanist attitudes of the common man hero– and there is no doubt that Giamatti put on extra shlubb for the role as well. The film reconstructs the details of Harvey’s life, from his separate friendships with Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak) and Toby Radloff (Judah Friedlander) to his relationship with Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis), additionally covering major moments in his career– notably, his volatile late night and on-air confrontations with David Letterman. The film is frequently hysterical and often touching; much like the comic, American Splendor achieves both by drawing on the experiences of the mundane and the ordinary. Ultimately, as much as directors Berman and Pulcini make us laugh, their film most pointedly enlightens us with the harsh truth that most of us will lead lives that are overwhelmingly routine. If that epiphany is depressing to you, at least give American Splendor credit for being so boldly perceptive.
12. In the Mood For Love: Unapologetic romantic Wong Kar-wai’s finest film and most vividly told love story, In the Mood For Love is a period piece that transpires in 1960’s Hong Kong; Wong reflects his setting by eschewing more pointedly sexual imagery for the suggestive. Rather than show explicit love-making, he draws restrained body language from his actors instead, calling for use of innocuous gestures over more overt signifiers to build mounting sexual tension between his characters. The short story? It works. Films are rarely as sensual as this without getting into the specifics of sex, but the sexual chemistry between Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung boils over into every frame without ever getting more explicit than what can be relayed through what their eyes say. In the Mood For Love tells the story of two strangers, both committed in their own marriages, who walk into each other’s lives by mere chance. Over time, they develop a platonic relationship as they deal with their separate realizations that their spouses have been unfaithful to them. Seeking a way to assuage the emotional impact of the betrayals, they take solace in each other, kick-starting their own affair. Everyone is at their best here; Tony and Maggie are a natural pairing, and while they have both been excellent in films since, they have never been better. Most of all, Wong is at the height of his romantic powers, and Christopher Doyle’s beautiful photography immerses the viewer in the world in a way few cinematographers working today can.
11. Lord of the Rings: Not much is left to say about Peter Jackson’s triumphant adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterwork of fantasy literature; by producing even half-competent film renditions of the novels, Jackson would still have been successful, but each entry in the series is faithful and true to the books without ever chaining itself to the source to its own detriment. This is undoubtedly Tolkien’s work, but injected with Jackson’s ideas and sensibilities. It is also an extraordinary exercise in world-building. The Middle Earth of the novels is brought to life in stunning detail; even if the films aren’t your cup of tea, the amount of effort that went into creating the creatures, locations, and cultures of Tolkien’s fantasy universe goes above and beyond what other directors may have offered. Middle Earth is just so palatable here that you want to live in it yourself, or at least take extended visits– so long as it’s not entrenched in world war. With its sweeping overhead shots and wide angles capturing large-scale battles and fantastical vistas, the trilogy could easily have been empty spectacle. Jackson’s cast provides that ever-so-important human element that completes the effect and fully brings the world to life. The characters and actors are innumerable, from Elijah Wood as Middle Earth hobbit savior Frodo to the incomparable Ian McKellen as the archetype-defining wizened mentor and advisor Gandalf; to give appropriate praise to each would require another thousand words at least, but suffice to say that uniformly excellent acting from the cast is the last hook needed to fully pull audiences into the film’s world. Immersive, inventive, imaginative, and bold, The Lord of the Rings is an epic masterpiece and undoubtedly one of the greatest cinematic achievements of this decade.
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