I think there is a handful of people who hate this list. Unfortunately for them, a lot of them are losing their homes in a forest fire today. Entries 10-6:
10. Shaun of the Dead: How do you a tell when a movie’s truly great? Forty years ago, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead changed the horror formula, and people have been trying to replicate that movie’s success ever since. Most of the imitations are dreadful; Shaun of the Dead is one exception. More than that, Shaun is now the contemporary zombie film that young directors turn to for inspiration in the way that filmmakers once turned to Night. (And still do. Because let’s face it, people will always try to crib from Romero, no matter the year and no matter the place.) Whether or not they succeed is beside the point, and honestly so is Shaun‘s enviable (or is it?) title as the modern day zombie movie to beat: Shaun is, simply, amazing, the kind of movie Sidney Lumet referred to when he spoke of the unknown magic combination that yields first-rate filmmaking. Supported by easily one of the best-written scripts of the decade, bolstered by delightfully gruesome effects, and capped off with thoroughly sterling performances from Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, Shaun of the Dead succeeds at transcending mere parody and homage by choosing instead to exist as its own zombie movie; after all, what better way to pay tribute to and poke fun at the tropes of the genre than by having those elements occur naturally in your film? Director Edgar Wright understands that it takes more than a witty reference to show your love for a cinematic archetype, and he imbues Shaun of the Dead with an abundance of soul and passion for the genre that elevates the film to heights oft-unattained by ventures put forth by his contemporaries; it’s genre nirvana that those lesser artists will be struggling to reach for decades to come. How’s that for a slice of fried gold?
9. Black Book: Nazis make awesome screen bad guys; just ask Indiana Jones or Hellboy. It’s obvious, really. There’s a ready-made line drawn that separates the good guys from the bad guys. We don’t need to be told about that distinction; we know what “Nazi” means, and what Nazis are capable of, and we know that our heroes would never lower themselves to such levels of depravity. So what would you think of a film that asked you to feel something other than, say, contempt for Nazis, or the cathartic release of watching Nazis get punished for their villainy? Black Book doesn’t sport a cast of sympathetic Nazis, but it certainly wants to earn your empathy on behalf of Sebastian Koch’s German SD Commander while also arguing that in de-humanizing Nazis we lower unwittingly lower ourselves into their own moral sinkhole. It’s challenging; how do we feel emotion other than disdain even for a man like the measured, noble, gentle Müntze? Characters like this must earn our goodwill, and Black Book does so without being cloying or feeling completely manufactured. At the center of the film’s plot is Carice van Houten, turning in a career-best performance as a Dutch Jewish woman whose family is slaughtered by the SS; she joins a Dutch resistance cell and disguises herself in order to perform espionage for them. Along the way she seduces and ultimately falls in love with Müntze, suffers betrayals, and exacts revenge; it’s a more grounded (though still fantastical) version of Inglorious Basterds. van Houten’s performance is one to savor; her portrayal of Rachel is delightful, charming and funny while possessing reserves of spiritual strength that allow her to do extraordinary deeds when most people would simply fail. Could any of us exist in such proximity to people who murdered our families? van Houten makes it look easy but it’s a facade meant to hide Rachel’s inherent fear and vulnerability. As good as she is what we may take away from Black Book most of all is its observations about cycles of violence; the film ends at the start of the Suez Crisis, with our surviving heroes alive to witness its beginnings. It’s a sobering climax to a sobering movie, questioning whether or not people are ever able to escape the bloodshed and war that has shaped so much of their lives and finally find peace for themselves.
8. No Country for Old Men: Personal preference: I liked 2009’s A Serious Man just a little bit more than the Coen brothers’ critically hailed– nay, worshiped— 2007 rendition of Cormac McCarthy’s crime novel. But No Country for Old Men showed us a side of the Coens that we hadn’t seen in years, announcing a sudden renewal of the duo’s artistic sensibilities and talents as well as the return of their bleak and nihilistic personae. It doesn’t get any more hopeless than No Country for Old Men; Josh Brolin accidentally stumbles upon a drug deal gone awry and makes off with a satchel full of dollars, and in doing so calls down the divine fury of Javier Bardem’s death-incarnate hitman. Falling in the center of their cat-and-mouse game is Tommy Lee Jones’ beleaguered local sheriff, a man questioning his ability to enforce law in a world no longer his own. The unfolding story is unrelenting and savage in its austerity and devastating in its genius, and despite No Country‘s penchant for mayhem and violence it’s actually surprisingly quiet, which adds to the building sense of dread as the film commences its slow burn towards oblivion. Boasting fine performances from Brolin and Bardem, but anchored by Jones’ doleful turn as Sheriff Bell, No Country for Old Men is the kind of harrowing masterpiece that for many directors only comes together once. For the Coens, this is their second time to the rodeo after scoring with Fargo, (A Serious Man makes three) and a strong statement that no matter how well we know the sibling directors, they’ll always have the ability to surprise us with something we’ve never seen from them before.
7. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: Would you, if given the chance, erase the painful memory of a bygone relationship from your mind? Split-up couple Joel and Clementine (Jim Carrey, giving the performance of his career, and Kate Winslet providing the precise foil needed for Carrey’s frustratingly likable everyman) both answer “yes” to this question; Joel only does so upon learning that Clementine turned to a New York firm to erase her memories of him. Part way through the procedure, however, Joel decides that he can’t bear to go through with it (because really, who wants to lose the person that they love twice?), and he goes about trying to safeguard slivers of their relationship from Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson). To say more of the plot would be to go into more spoiler-ish territory. The film itself is best thought of as a cinematic ouroboros, the kind of work that constantly loops back on top of itself cyclically and from which constant patterns emerge. “Labyrinthine” might be the best way to describe it technically, dense and winding, but the real meat of Eternal Sunshine is its touching and genuine explorations of love’s power to both divide and unite us, as well as how people connect with one another.
6. Memento: Where is the Christopher Nolan who directed 2000’s Memento? He seems to lost himself in the saga of a disturbed man who dons a bondage suit to fight crime. While his work on that particular series is certainly solid, it’s a far cry from this masterwork of neo-noir mind-screw cinema; Batman asks very little of his audiences (at least by comparison). Memento on the other hand asks for nothing, and instead demands your rapt attention as it unwinds in reverse order. “But that’s just a gimmick!”, I can hear you say. Bull. The memory loss and non-linear storytelling are critical for the force of the film’s impact; this is a movie you must sit through upright and focused from start to finish in order to absorb the innumerable details and clues stowed away in every single frame. Ultimately both devices prevent the film from miring itself in standard tropes of the revenge story, making it about the tragedy of our heroe’s immense lapses in judgment (for which he can almost barely be blamed). Even a decade after its release, Memento feels bold and fresh; we might know how the story ends but it still has the power to haunt and move us.
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