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Movie decade list-o-rama

For people whose taste in film are exactly like mine. And yes, I’m saying the past decade ended in 2009. You could tell me why this is wrong, but really, I could care less.

Five great therapy substitutes

One of my favorite movie-going feelings is that of being put through some sort of emotional wringer and then being given a glimmer of hope at the end that, in spite of the fact that we’re all fundamentally broken and needy creatures, it’s really gonna be okay. I don’t take Kleenex to movie theatres but maybe I should.

Away From Her

Movies starring people who are older than 40 tend to be absurdly well-acted, because there’s so much underutilized acting talent in these age ranges. Case in point: the tender Away From Her, in which Julie Christie stars as a woman who has to be put into a home because of her deepening dementia, and Gordon Pinsent plays her loyal, flawed, suffering husband. These actors were once young and wrinkle-free, but now all they’ve got is the fact that they kick ass at their jobs. Tough, that.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Neither Kaufman nor Gondry have matched this film since.

I Am a Sex Addict

This movie is about exactly what you think it’s about. Writer/director/star Caveh Zahedi talks straight to the camera about his struggle with sex addiction, interspersed with reenacted footage from his own life. As portrayed in the film, Zahedi was just smart enough to delude himself into thinking that he wasn’t an addict, and he indulges in the same self-destructive behavior again and again, each time armed with a different justification. You get dragged through his addiction with him, and the resulting experience is sort of like being friends with an addict: Repetitive, infuriating, with occasional glimmers of insight that are too often snuffed out in an instant. Not everybody’s bound to find that a pleasurable aesthetic experience, but then I again I also liked Cronenberg’s Crash (the non-shitty one that is), so that’s some hint of where my tastes lie. One nitpick I have with the film is that the actresses he chose to play his girlfriends seem way more conventionally attractive than is believable, and footage of his real-life girlfriends would appear to confirm the point. On the other hand, he balances out that self-aggrandizement with a series of orgasm faces so ludicrous and unflattering that it makes you wonder how any woman can ever be straight.

Rachel Getting Married

Rachel Getting Married is sort of two great movies that keep elbowing for position: One of a rambunctious, multiracial wedding packed to the gills with performers and musicians (including Beau Sia and Robyn Hitchcock), and another of the bride’s sister, a caustic addict in recovery who’s been let out of a treatment center for the weekend. Jonathan Demme deftly handles the movie’s tonal shifts as it swings from backyard musical improvisation to dead-serious twelve-step session to conga lines to family recrimination. And Bill Irwin is pretty great as the slightly wussy dad.

Where the Wild Things Are

This isn’t really a movie that makes you want to yawp from the hilltops: It’s way more emo than that. It takes a darker and more honest view of childhood than is typical—as a state not just of inspiration and delight, but of inexplicable feelings and, well, really bad conflict resolution skills. Incidentally, I’m not sure if I’d take a kid to see this film.

Top ten date-killers

Apparently there’s this thing called a “date movie”, wherein two people who are getting to know each other romantically go see a film together that’s supposed to be entertaining but also not too offensive or bleak. Because apparently getting bummed out by great cinema isn’t a very sexy experience? I don’t know. It’s sort of a foreign idea to me. Anyway, if that means anything to you, you should only see these films with 1) somebody you’re married to or 2) when you’re utterly alone and want to wallow even deeper in that feeling for two hours or so.

13 Tzameti

There’s not much story to this black-and-white thriller. A poor Georgian immigrant in France stumbles upon some mysterious way to make a lot of money, and he assumes a dead man’s identity to unearth the macabre secret in a house deep in the woods. I won’t say much more about the plot in case you’re the kind of person who really hates to be spoilerized, but what happens next is an intense character study in anxiety. And although there’s violence in this film, it isn’t particularly lingered on—it’s the waiting that’s really painful.

Downfall

A.K.A. the movie that launched a thousand YouTube clips—of Hitler screaming in a bunker about Xbox Live, Brett Favre, Burger King, whatever. But if you watch with the real subtitles, there aren’t many laughs to be had, unless you get a kick out of watching high-ranking Nazis cowering in bunkers earnestly discussing suicide methods. A few characters garner sympathy with small acts of moral courage, but by and large this film is about the Nazi leadership as a pack of cornered animals, slowly being enveloped by the machinery of war that they themselves set into motion.

Goodbye Solo

In North Carolina, an elderly white man named William steps into a cab driven by an African immigrant, and he offers him $1000 for a one-way trip to the top of a mountain in a national park, in exactly ten days. The driver, a gregarious man named Solo who keeps calling William “big dog”, chats up his fare and tries to figure out why he’s buying a one-way trip, but it becomes apparent what the old man’s plans are. Over the next ten days Solo insinuates himself into William’s life, their lives intertwining with a rapidity that is both surprising and entirely believable given the sort of pushy compassion that Souleymane Sy Savane brings to Solo’s character. But they barely talk about the reason they know each other, and the day only gets closer.

House of Sand and Fog

For my money this might be the film that best encapsulates the experience of being in an immigrant family. Though not, I suppose, the completely horrifying things that happen at the end. The America in this film is a lonely and unforgiving place, both to newcomers, and to some who’ve been here a while.

L.I.E.

In which a very young Paul Dano gets nearly molested by a very old Brian Cox, in the most heartfelt, sympathetic way possible. Dano hints at his future promise in this performance as a precocious teenager struggling with an absent father and his emerging homosexuality (I even forgive him for being in Little Miss Sunshine). But it’s Cox who’s the film’s star. As an ex-intelligence officer who dotes on his mother, lives with a 20-something hustler, and is struggling against his desire to take advantage of the terrifyingly vulnerable Dano, Cox breathes a surprising life into a man who should be execrable but ends up being merely human instead

Nobody Knows

A reckless single mother abandons her four young children in a Tokyo apartment. When two burglars try to break in, the resulting hijinks will have the whole family laughing out loud. Kidding. There are no burglars, just a portrait of grinding fear and desperation told from the point of view of children who are quietly going feral in one of the wealthiest cities in the world. The morning after seeing this film, I was on the subway and saw a young girl riding with her mother, which reminded me of this film—and as the thought “Oh my God, those children” flashed through my head, I was filled with a sense of outrage as palpable and real as if I’d just read the story in the newspaper.

Time of the Wolf

Alternate title: “The Breakdown of Society would Actually be Fucking Awful, so Stop Talking About Going Galt and Get the Fuck Back to Work.” A family wanders through rural France in the aftermath of some unnamed social breakdown. No direct cause is given, no zombies or swine flu or peak oil is cited, but the countryside is full of people, and food and potable water are hard to come by. In the absence of law or stability, people prey on each other, rape and murder go unpunished, and there is no hope in sight. (In a similar vein, I’m told by reliable sources that The Road is all sorts of bleak-awesome.)

United 93

Some people said this was too soon, but I’m sorry, that’s ludicrous. First of all, if you don’t want to see a movie re-enacting September 11th in terrifying detail, you could watch any of a million other movies, unless you had the bad luck of living in September-11th-ville, U.S.A. that year and that was the only movie playing in town. Second of all, by the time United 93 came out, we’d launched two wars on the back of this tragedy, so the argument that the event is private or that it somehow belongs to the families of the survivors in some sort of proprietary way is pretty historically blinkered.

As for the film itself: It’s an even-handed, jittery portrait of an extremely bad day. A large part of the movie is a case study in technocratic crossed wires, as military commanders and air-traffic controllers piece the attack together through LCD displays and radio transmissions, trying to communicate with one another quickly enough to avert disaster. But the most intense footage is set on United 93, the plane that would crash in a field outside Pittsburgh. Naturalistic acting and a lack of typical Hollywood backstories underline the feeling of being a passenger on the plane: Terrified, confused, too hurried to ask the other passenger’s names or backgrounds. Some of these strangers bicker, some are panicked into submission, and no act of defiance comes without a hint of terror. In a genius touch, the line “Let’s roll” is spoken in film almost sotto voce, and it would be easy to miss it. It’s not a slogan of triumphant denial: It’s nervous chatter from a man who’s never been so scared in his life.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley

Brothers and compatriots turn on one another as the successful fight for Irish independence degenerates into civil war. To a large extent this is a story of innocence lost, as farm-boys who only wanted political self-determination find themselves surrounding by finger-pointing, betrayal, and partisan battle-lines. Also, Cillian Murphy gets hurt a lot in this movie, which I know is probably distressing to a number of my female friends.

The Wrestler

On one hand you’ve got some fairly dense symbolic schemata, with Randy explicitly compared to Jesus both in the dialogue and in a number of shots, and the male performance of professional wrestling paralleling the female performance of striptease. But The Wrestler is far less metaphorical than The Fountain (which I also loved, see below), balanced out as it is by the gray setting of wintertime New Jersey and naturalistic performances from Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei. The one major flaw is that the subplot involving Randy’s daughter is way too rushed to have the impact it deserves, but other than that this film is a bracing portrait of a man who lives for the ring, and just might die for it.

Twenty-two best overall

Because getting the list down to twenty, or God help me, to ten, was getting to be damned near impossible. First, as previously mentioned:

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Goodbye Solo

I Am a Sex Addict

L.I.E.

Rachel Getting Married

United 93

Where the Wild Things Are

The Wrestler

And some new ones:

American Psycho

Christian Bale is perfectly cast as Patrick Bateman, less of a man than a bewildering stew of homicidal rage, status obsession, and—buried deep under the surface—some sort of frustrated need for an external moral authority. This film is an exemplary adaptation: It trims the novel’s plotlines and hides away much of the horrific violence, but stays true to its themes of social satire and the alienating effects of the never-ending hunt for rank among your peers.

Caché

I’ve read plenty of novels with an unreliable narrator, but before Caché I don’t think I’d ever seen a film with an unreliable camera.

Finding Nemo

First, there’s the truly wondrous spectacle of the voyage from the reef to the city to Sydney. Has the color pink ever been so threatening as in the jellyfish scene? Has any other film ever portrayed a whale’s mouth as its own body of water? Then, there’s the father-son dynamic, strong enough to force a character (voiced by Albert Brooks!) into acts of outrageous heroism. Pixar is truly great at portraying families: This is clearest here, and in The Incredibles. It’s a good way to add weight to stories that star children, as opposed to the works of Disney, a man who dreamed endlessly of uncles and nephews but could never deal with parents and children.

The Fountain

Let me just put this out there: I don’t really know what the word “pretentious” means any more. Does it mean a movie tries to be too interesting or smart? That it doesn’t involve vampires or transforming robots? Anyway, if there’s some way to Google what’s the movie most likely to be called “pretentious”, I’m sure The Fountain is right at the top of the list. Personally, I adored this film’s ambition and its lush, non-CGI special effects. I love that it’s less a story about love and more of a story about death in the face of human will. I love that Darren Aronofsky decided to exercise an insane control of every frame, to the extent that light itself becomes symbolic. He’s like Stanley Kubrick, if Kubrick thought human emotions were worth filming.

I Heart Huckabees

If I ever taught a philosophy course for undergrads I’m pretty sure we’d watch this in class.

Humpday

A touching character study wrapped in a ludicrous premise. Two straight male friends, one married and gainfully employed, the other a self-proclaimed artist living a bohemian, itinerant life, drunkenly dare each other to enter an amateur porn contest with videotape of them fucking each other. They soon sober up, but that doesn’t mean they’re willing to back down, and as their date with a hotel room and a camera approaches, a lot of the underlying dynamics of their long friendship get dredged up in the ensuing discussion. And the movie’s actually laugh-out-loud funny, assuming the basic premise doesn’t make you squirm too much.

The Hurt Locker

In which Kathryn Bigelow continues to out-macho every male action director out there.

Let the Right One In

A fairy tale as dark as anything out of Grimm, a Swedish vampire story with touches of Ingmar Bergman, and a haunting story of gender-bending infatuation between the living and the undead.

Man on Wire

A documentary recounting of Philippe Petit and friends breaking the law so he can walk a tightrope between the Twin Towers in 1974. Never before has the ending of a film been so completely obvious and so soaringly inspirational at the same time.

Memento

Nolan would go on to direct The Dark Knight and The Prestige, but I think Memento is probably his best work. The economy of his amnesiac noir means that the deeper themes of identity, memory, and grieving can rise to the surface without being pushed there too much.

Michael Clayton

A subtle movie full of stellar performances and savvy corporate intrigue. I’d watch this movie for Sydney Pollack’s performance alone—he’s a man who’s shed his illusions about his work years ago, and he’s made a certain heartless peace with it. George Clooney might have better judgement about choosing his films than any other top actor.

Mulholland Dr.

Sure, you can ask what really happens in this film, but that’s like standing in front of a Mondrian and asking if it’s a painting of a bowl of fruit. I’m not a big Lynch fan, but I think this film’s unusual provenance—it was a TV pilot before it was converted to a film last-minute—gives Lynch the useful constraint of being forced to hue to some sort of conventional narrative momentum before blowing everything to smithereens in the last half-hour. The resulting miasma of desire, ambition, and jealousy is haunting and persistent, like Matthew Barney at his best. And if you ever had doubts about how good of an actor Naomi Watts is, you obviously haven’t seen this.

There Will Be Blood

Robbed at the Oscars, but that’s what the Oscars are for, really. At least it lost to the still-quite-good No Country for Old Men and not some lousy indie-lite.

Up

Seriously, what other film can make you teary-eyed in the first ten minutes? After masterfully zipping through the heights of love and the depths of grief, the film then wows with a collection of psychedelic images: A house floating under a cloud of helium balloons; a massive, riotously plumaged tropical bird; a seemingly bottomless waterfall in the middle of nowhere. Nobody else can combine delirious fantasy with rock-solid emotions the way Pixar can.

Honorable mentions: Bad Education, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring, Half Nelson, Morvern Callar, Murderball, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Seraphim Falls, and Priceless. That’s right: Priceless.

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