Wednesday, June 02, 2010

J.L. Carrozza's Top 21 Films of the 21st Century's First Decade: Part One
With the 2000s now done and over with an all that, I don't know why I never made a list of my favorite films from that decade. Perhaps I've just been so busy editing or have been hesitant to get too deep into film criticism again or whatever, but either way, here we it comes...

As far as the 2000s are concerned, cinematically speaking, things have been sort of at the nadir opposite the Hollywood zenith that Jaws, Star Wars and the studios' ensuing obsession with "big budget event movies" in the 80s reached. Ideas and creativity have run shockingly low and the studios have been much more content with funding hundred million dollar blockbuster comic book movies and remakes of ever film that ever made a decent gross in the past than riskier, more artistic ventures. In Asia, things were even gloomier, everything I once loved about Japanese cinema is all but relegated to low budget films now. The situation is even worse with the Hong Kong stuff since the mainland handover and anime has turned into a vapid, computer colored mess made for the consumption of (now predominately American) teenage girls.

Yet at the same time, we have seen some of the most socially relevant and earnest movies in history made this decade as well, people just haven't paid as much to see them. Creativity has also flourished in different and unexpected ways. A New Zealand director known prior for three gory cult flicks and one respectable art house crime thriller released one of the profitable film trilogies ever produced and the Batman franchise was redone in a respectful and earnest manner few could have ever imagined. While some filmmakers who once upon a time made highly entertaining works produced works so insipid its almost unbelievable, others held their integrity closer and continued to more ardently toil on their creations. It was really just another decade of typical moviemaking with fads that ebbed and flowed, as they always do, though we can't deny it, things have certainly been little bit duller and more commercial than usual.

So here come the first round of my picks, in ascending order:

21. Gangs of New York (2002)
Yes, this movie is NOT among Martin Scorsese's finest. It's not Taxi Driver. It ain't Raging Bull or Goodfellas. It isn't even The Last Temptation of Christ, Mean Streets or Casino. And yes, Scorsese's films have been mostly downhill in the last ten years. And no, it's not as good as it would have been had Marty made it in 1981 with Bobby DeNiro instead of 2001 with Leo DiCaprio. Yet I still love it. It's a flawed, occasionally messy, runny and disjointed but also sumptuous, gruesome and stunning period epic that plays like a grotesque, lurid combination of Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America. Scorsese channels Leone and David Lean touched up with the gore of a bloody kung fu flick, Daniel Day Lewis as Bill the Butcher is a prime cut of acting chop and Leonardo is serviceable as a piss and vinegar filled young Irishman. Only Cameron Diaz, who looks like she wandered out of the Farrelly Brothers comedy they were shooting next door before having a period dress slapped on her, really distracts too much. I personally much prefer this film over the entertaining yet dry and unremarkable The Departed.

20. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
Though we still have the two part finale to go, the Harry Potter series, a very fun and readable (but NOT masterful) piece of fantasy fiction, has overall not been well translated to the screen. Christopher Columbus' first two films are boring CGI soap operas, Mike Newell's Goblet of Fire is an utter mess with some entertaining stretches and the David Yates films so far are good, but hardly remarkable. The only person to pass the test of adapting J.K. Rowling's aesthetically and narratively complex yet thematically simple fantasy novels to the screen with honors has been Alfonso Cuaron. Like Peter Jackson, he is a figure whose prior work (explicit Mexi-sex comedies like Solo Con Tu Pareja and Y Tu Mama Tambien) is almost shocking in its contrast. But he's also a highly talented visual filmmaker with an obsession with realism, tangibility and intricate aesthetic detail (taken to full hilt in his next, finest Children of Men) so like Jackson he ended up a perfect fit for the material. Some of the more hardcore fans have badmouthed this entry because Cuaron chose to adapt Rowling's sprawling cliche-collection of a fantasy world through his own mind instead of utterly pander to his audience. In my case, for that I am grateful. If I wanted J.K. Rowling's vision of Harry Potter I'd go run to the library. Cuaron presents us with a sumptuously beautiful, heart-soaringly thrilling children's fantasy adventure on par with the finest of Hayao Miyazaki's work. Prisoner of Azkaban is also likely the only one of the films that will weather the fickle storms of pop culture time well.

19. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazahkstan (2006)
The finest comedy film of the new century in my eyes and to my sensibility: Sacha Baron Cohen is sheer, utter, comedic genius. He's a walking subversive performance art show and his art is cruel, intelligent and funny. His routine is like the work of Jacopetti and Prosperi (Mondo Cane) mixed with a good Saturday Night Live skit. Like the two Italian mondo maestros he sojourns across the land provoking, mocking and exposing the dark side of humanity and the hidden nastiness of so-called civilized Western society but does so with the larger than life, iconic persona, ear for meme and talent to play his audience of a John Candy or Dana Carvey. Top this off with the self-aware utter lack of restraint and slapstick soaking-wetness of John Waters and we have the ingenious mockumentary/comedy that is Borat. While disguised as his alter-ego, he mocks the backwards ways of the lower world while simultaneously turning one grotesque funhouse mirror upon America: decimating antisemitism, political correctness, racism, feminism, religious fundamentalism, our shallow obsession with pop stars; no stone is left unturned, no party is spared Cohen's hysterical all-out assault. This film, along with the finest segments in Cohen's Ali G Show, speaks more without trying about modern Western society than all the books and essays published in the last ten years put together. Sadly, the film's follow-up, Bruno, is an utter mess. It is a work that, though having some amusingly biting moments of cruel satire, is utterly "crushed" (in Borat's words) by its trying far too hard to outdo its predecessor in grotesquery and yuckiness.

18. House of Flying Daggers (2004)
I haven't been very interested in most contemporary Hong Kong or Chinese films; they've kind of lost what I adored about these films in the past. The mainland's perennially annoying PRC government has never been particularly encouraging of filmmaking in general, especially creative, socially relevant movies. Hong Kong's handover to the mainland (fuck you, Maggie Thatcher), as well as the world's increasing demand for slick imagery, non-stop entertainment and flawless-faced film stars has changed a lot of things in Sino cinema. Nonetheless, a few films, as always, have strongly stood out like shining stars as the filmmakers who really like to make movies just do anyways no matter what assholes run the government. Especially captivating are Zhang Yimou's Hero and House of Flying Daggers. While Hero is perhaps the more viscerally pleasing and immediately gratifying, I find House of Flying Daggers more deep, rewarding and fulfilling. It feels the closest to maverick King Hu's classic films of any of the relatively recent Chinese wuxia (sword play) films, perhaps even more so than Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It's images: of stunningly photographed woods, bamboo forests, sword swinging maidens and eyepopping duels strongly bring Hu's A Touch of Zen to mind. The love triangle between Kaneshiro, Lau and Zhang is well handled by the filmmakers and actors and the jerking plot twists, though a wuxia cliche, are engaging.

17. There Will Be Blood (2007)
There Will Be Blood refers to the inevitability of the film's character dynamic and ego clash in oddball P.T. Anderson's disconcerting discourse. It's an eccentric, off-putting and not always pleasant to behold yet artistically magnificent work that succeeds at many levels like a truly great work of art should. It's an intricate, personal character study and story of two mens' psychological war on its surface yet, given its oil industry setting, has deeper social implications and a bigger picture. As beautiful glaciers melt like ice cream on a summer day and oil gushes in metric tons into the Gulf of Mexico, director Anderson, perhaps even unintentionally, takes us back to where it all began and shows us the kind of unhealthy minds who started it all and self-destructively continue it. In one corner of the film's expansive boxing ring stands Daniel Plainview, an extreme psychopath and greedy oil-magistrate who is tipped off by a mysterious young man as to the location of some very plentiful oil wells. When he arrives in the small town with his young "son" H.W., he meets his challenger, the young man's twin brother Eli, a lisping fundamentalist pastor who sees Plainview's threat to his "dominion" and does his damnedest to stop him at the gates. In the end, only the more ruthless will triumph. Visually, the film is stupendous, looking like The Wild Bunch directed by Stanley Kubrick. Everything that everyone has said about Daniel Day-Lewis in this film is true. He is a roaring lion of thespian who plays the role with all the subtlety of a vicious five minute beating with an aluminum baseball bat, yet also with a realistic complexity that makes him so truly frightening. Paul Dano as Eli is also amazing and holds up to Lewis' furious fire-branding shockingly well and the film's subplot with Plainview's "son" H.W. (actually an orphan he scooped up to aid his image for business ventures) is chilling and heartbreaking.

16. The Host (2006)
The Host, though one of the few Korean kaiju (giant monster) flicks made since the infamous trio of shame that was Yongary, Wangmagwi and Pulgasari (the latter being made by North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il and a kidnapped South Korean filmmaker), is, quite ironically, oceans better than almost anything the Japanese have put out in the last ten years. Director Bong Joon-ho, one of modern Korea's most talented directors, crafts a film with similar punch to Ishiro Honda's original Godzilla, but dealing with modern themes. It is rabidly critical of America's self-involved military policy and careless economical subjugation of the rest of the world and just as Godzilla was spawned by an American nuclear test, the titular beast is spawned by an American army base's utterly thoughtless dumping of chemicals into the Han river. Also like Honda's film, the film is a very humanistic work but is far more character-driven than any Godzilla film, with a touching, beautifully handled family dynamic with character whom you genuinely care about and the film's vicious criticism of American culture is amusing to me. The Host makes jabs at Bush America's hedonistic corporate industry, invasive "schoolyard bully" international policy and collective hysteria as the monster is found to be carrying a virus and the U.S. army officials become desperate to destroy it, creating a tragic finale for all involved.

15. A Snake of June (2002)
Shinya Tsukamoto is a guy people either adore or utterly despise and as I think John Stanley in a volume of his horror encyclopedia Creature Features said of Tetsuo, his work either "turns you on or sickens you". Some call him a masturbatory hack, but as a lover of works of excess, dubious taste and social transgression, I think he's one of the grandest cult directors of all time, when he's good at least. He's like John Waters, pre-Dead Alive-era Peter Jackson, Sam Raimi, David Lynch and David Cronenberg all merged into a Japanese man filtered through the utter lack of political correctness, fetishism and ero-guro sensibility inherent in his culture. The problem with Tsukamoto is that he's very inconsistent, his work either tends to work or doesn't. However, A Snake of June is, in my opinion, his finest film since Tetsuo. It's a fiercely original masterpiece of subversion, a superb, surprisingly similar companion piece to Tsukamoto's landmark Tetsuo. Like Tetsuo, it is a multi-layered work that has some social context beneath its Dali-like surrealist surface, whereas Tetsuo is something of a twisted metaphor for the dehumanizing effects of man's relationship with technology, A Snake of June is about the sexual and social repression especially inherent within modern Japanese society. In Tetsuo, a Japanese everyman is consumed by the machinery he lives in such close proximity with, in A Snake of June, a Japanese everywoman is consumed by her socially repressed libido. The film, like Tetsuo, is shot in black and white, though this time tinted blue to capture the aesthetic flavor of the Kanto region's notorious June-era rainfalls. A repressed young woman burning with sexual frustration lives a mundane existence with a dullard of a husband nearly twice her age working at a suicide hotline, a very busy job in Japan, aka the suicide capitol of the world. One of her particular clients, however, a strange man (played by Tsukamoto), who is dying of terminal cancer, begins to blackmail her and lead her down a road of passions as wet and heavy as the rain outside.

14. Gran Torino (2008)
It is far from unheard of for actors to start directing films: many an actor, working behind a talented filmmaker, has fallen prey to the "the grass is greener in my director's yard" mentality. Some have failed epically in their attempts to helm films while others have succeeded. Few to none, however, have succeeded like Clint Eastwood has. While we will always remember him most in his iconic roles as the Man With No Name and Dirty Harry, we will most certainly not forget films like Play Misty for Me, Unforgiven, Mystic River, Letters From Iwo Jima and especially Gran Torino. On a shallow, superficial level, Gran Torino is sort of Dirty Harry: Retirement Village Shakedown, but below that lies a film with all the depth of a ghetto Americana version of Ikiru or Bergman's Wild Strawberries. It's about a bitter, wounded old man's coming to terms with the sins of his past like Victor Sjöström and then like Takashi Shimura is facing the end of this mortal coil. There were aspects of the film that enraged and annoyed me, like a scene where Eastwood's character Kowalski gives Thao "Toad" (Bee Vang) the film's other protagonist, an impoverished Asian teenager he begrudgingly befriends by circumstance lessons on "being a good asshole". However, a lot of this was simply earnestness on the part of Eastwood and for that I give him great credit. The film respectfully yet honestly depicts and dissects a still terrible social problem in America: the injustice, misery and poverty that lower class minorities face on a daily basis. It's powerful, multi-layered food for thought and concludes, unlike other films on the subject, with maturity, redemption and hope as its solution.

13. Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All Out Attack (2001)
I think it almost goes without saying that the newest "cycle" of Toho's iconic Godzilla series hasn't been all that hot. At best, like with Godzilla 2000 (1999), they've been acceptable but dull and formulaic, at worst, like with Ryuhei Kitamura's color filter-drenched film school kid wet dream Godzilla: Final Wars (2004), so atrociously awful as to be unintentionally hilarious. Only one of the films stands out, both in box office quantity and cinematic quality (for once) and that film is Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All Out Attack (2001), directed by Shusuke Kaneko who made the 1990s series of Gamera films, kaiju epics that were almost revolutionary at the time. Years later, his Gamera films, ironically, are remembered now far more fondly and vividly than Toho's own Godzilla product of the time period. Likewise GMK (the most popular abbreviation) also shines brightly above its dim fellow entries. Kaneko takes us back to where Honda started it all in spirit. He makes a film that like Honda's original is politically conscious, criticizing Japan's inability to cope with its past and role in World War II. Kaneko, fairly bravely as Japan socially is less than open about the subject, creates Godzilla as a physical manifestation of Japan's World War II past. He is powered physically with the atomic energy that scarred the Japanese but spiritually driven by the mournful souls of everyone killed in the Pacific War which includes many victims of Japan's self-forgotten aggression which drives him to attack Japan. Whereas the original was simply a wounded, mutated animal, Kaneko's Godzilla (played by Mizuho Yoshida best known prior as the rogue alien Zeiram) is a hulking, demonic juggernaut of destruction blinded by his own rage (literally in this case as he has no pupils). Ala Peter Jackson's relationship with King Kong, Kaneko inserts a lot of loving homages to the Honda and Tsuburaya days but whilst filtering it through his own sensibility. His well known obsessions with pretty female protagonists and Eastern mysticism are not unused here. He turns the classic character of Baragon, Mothra and King Ghidorah into Shinto spirits who battle against Godzilla to protect Japan. The film's only flaws come out of Toho's pesky interference. Kaneko created the concept with lesser creatures Anguirus and Varan in mind but Toho forced him to change the script to use the more lucrative Mothra and Ghidorah and it is obvious that the parts were written for the former characters. The special effects work, while impressive for a film of this genre and budget, was also rushed because Toho insisted on rushing the film out for winter release. At the end of the day, however, GMK is an optimally fun entry in the otherwise tired series that intelligently updates the original 1954 film's iconic mythology.

12. Pan's Labyrinth (2006)
Pan's Labyrinth
(or El Labirnto del Fauno: The Labyrinth of the Fawn) by Guillermo Del Toro is a stunningly visceral lurid modern day fable that makes for one of the more entertaining and creatively impressive achievements yet produced this decade. It and Terry Gilliam's Tideland are extremely similar films, though Pan's Labyrinth is superior. Both are twisted Alice in Wonderland-type stories about young girls who escape a harsh world of grim reality through a more whimsical world of fantasy, though the fantasies of Pan's Ophelia are brought more into the first person realm so we can experience them as she does. Del Toro directs the film with meticulous attention to detail and texture with minimal CGI work, creating a world that seems so real and believable you could prick it with a pin. The images abounding in Pan's Labyrinth are stunning and painterly and its story never lets you go as the film alternates between harsh Spanish Civil War-era brutality and astounding sequences of richly ethereal yet grotesque visuals which look like a Brothers Grimm story via Francisco Goya via Mario Bava. It's a shame about the breaking news regarding Del Toro and The Hobbit, as he would have done a marvelous job with Tolkien's world. At least in Peter Jackson's now likely hands though the films will be chronologically airtight. Such would not have been the case with Del Toro at the helm and now Guillermo Del Toro is free to make, hopefully, more amazingly original films like this one.

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