My Top 50 Favorite Films of the Decade – #45-41

Continuing my list of favorite films to come out in the 2000s. Wishing I had seen Where the Wild Things Are and The Road before 2010, have a feeling they would have been on this list.


45) In the Bedroom (2001, directed Todd Phillips)
Starring Sissy Spacek, Tom Wilkinson, Marisa Tomei, Nick Stahl

Based on the short story, “Killings” by Andre Dubus, this film shows the first time director’s natural aptitude when it comes to subverting audience expectations. About twice during the film, what the audience assumes it is about switches tracks and by the end we come to the realization that it is about something much deeper and darker than we thought. The story, set in Maine, follows Frank Fowler (Stahl) who is dating recent divorcee Natalie (Tomei). Their relationship is plagued by the presence of Natalie’s obsessive ex, whom Frank’s parents, Matt and Ruth (Wilkinson and Spacek) continuously warm their son about. Tragic events begin to unfold, and they force Matt and Ruth into traveling down some dark paths, which uncovers a lot of deep-seeded animosity in their marriage that has festered for decades.


44) George Washington (2000, dir. David Gordon Green)
Starring Paul Schneider

One of the great film debuts of a future master filmmaker. Director Green (All the Real Girls, Undertow, Pineapple Express) emerged from the American South as an artist with a profound visual and storytelling sense. Though his work may not suit every film goer’s palette, he is unarguably a distinct voice in the film world. This debut picture chronicles, in a lazy dream-like fashion, 12-year old Nasia, a girl growing up in a destitute North Carolina town. Her friend, the eponymous boy of the title, never had his skull fully harden as a baby and lives life being obsessively careful. Events transpire and one of their group of friends is killed by accident, forcing the children into a pact of silence. George responds by styling himself as a superhero and attempting to save lives to make up for the one he is partly responsible for taking. If ever you could film a poem, that would be this film.


43) Spirited Away (2001, 2003, dir. Hayao Miyazaki)

Though released in Japan in 2001, this animated masterpiece didn’t reach general American audiences until 2003. John Lasseter, the driving force behind Pixar, has been the most vocal Miyazaki fan and is responsible for that director’s exposure in the States this decade. Miyazaki possess that rare talent to create contemporary fairy tales, something Disney seems to have lost of the magic of in the late 1990s. This particular film takes the Alice in Wonderland archetype and gives it a twist thanks to Japanese culture. In the same way that Akira Kurosawa took MacBeth and made Ran, so too does Miyazaki make the story his own. Young Chihiro and her parents are moving to a new town when they are sidetracked by a mysterious tunnel. They emerge on the other side in a mysterious spirit world, where Chihiro must work for a witch whom runs a spa for ghosts. A beautiful work of art that will have you gasping about the impossibility of such a gorgeous film being able to exist.


42) A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001, dir. Steven Spielberg)
Starring Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law, William Hurt

This is a film that I assume will not end up on most critics top of the decade lists. However, it affected me in an incredible strong, emotional way for multiple viewings. Though it was directed by Spielberg, it was originally in development under the late Stanley Kubrick, and its still possible to see his faint brushstrokes show through the more fantastical and superficially allegorical nature of Spielberg’s aesthetics. The story, adapted from Brian Aldiss’ short “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long”, is derived more from the Pinocchio tale. Some time at an undisclosed point in the future, a young couple adopts a robot boy (Osment) as a replacement for their comatose son. Once the son is cured, David, the robot, is tossed aside and begins an odyssey to become a real boy which he believes will make his “mother” love him. The film was a box office disaster but I like to think that was because of the expectations movie goers have for summer pics and in particular Spielberg movies. This film contains such a profound sadness to it, it is not meant to provide escape but rather reflection.


41) Primer (2004, dir. Shane Carruth)

Probably the cheapest budget of any film on this list, Primer was made for an astonishing $7,000. Written, directed, and starring a group of friends in Dallas, Texas, Primer is the most realistic time travel story I have ever seen. Director Carruth proudly explained in interviews at the time that an effort was made not to dumb things down for the audience but present a system of time travel that was as close of scientifically sound as possible. The film can be mind boggling during the first viewing, but after successive viewings all of the time jumping becomes a lot easier to understand. The look of the film is more akin to a documentary than a big budget film and the story is as well. If you are looking for a challenging picture that doesn’t feel the need to spoon feed you story then you would love this film.

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My Top 50 Favorite Films of the Decade – #50 – 46

As we wind down the first 10 years of the century, I decided, like many other blogs, to generate a list of my top films. This decade was truly my time of becoming a true film fan. I watched around a 1000 films and basically gave myself an education on film essentials. Over the next few weeks I will be posting pieces of this list, looking back on those films that I remember with fondness and why.


50) The Orphanage (2007, dir. Juan Antonio Bayona)

In the latter half of the decade, I developed a strong appreciation of Spanish language cinema. This film, produced by Guillermo del Toro (who will appear later on the list), is an excellent entry into the horror genre. The plot borrows elements from some classic haunted house stories, particularly The Turn of the Screw. Bayona, an unknown in the States, presents a finely crafted, slow burning picture. Laura moves her family into the orphanage where she was raised with plans to re-open it. Instead, her young son vanishes on the day of the open house and she begins to see a mysterious child wearing a burlap sack over their head appearing all over the estate. Bayona knows how to restrain himself and when to let loose to create maximum fright in his audience.


49) Anchorman (2004, dir. Adam McKay)
Starring Will Ferrell, Christina Applegate, Paul Rudd, Steve Carrell, David Koechner

These days, Will Ferrell feels that he has worn out his welcome, his comedy seems to be one note and it seems to be restrained as his career continues. But back in 2004, this was a fresh, absurd style that I ate up and still do. The insanely pompous Ron Burgundy (Ferrell) anchors the Channel 4 News in San Diego and is threatened by the addition of female co-anchor, Veronica Corningstone (Applegate). Burgundy and his fellow newsmen embark on a campaign to force Corningstone out which typically ends in their utter comeuppance. The film has a very loose narrative and that is completely fine with me, as the best moments of humor come from the more improvisational work of Ferrell and his co-stars. Also, check out the straight to DVD sequel, Wake Up Ron Burgundy, cobbled together from extra footage and actually containing an entirely original plot of its own.


48) Paradise Now (2005, dir. Hany Abu-Assad)

Paradise Now is a quiet but affecting film. It was an ambitious project to film in Palestine and the filmmakers had to deal with land mines going off a few yards from the set and an attack by Israeli helicopter gunships launching missiles at neighborhoods where filming was going on. Despite this, the film came out as one of the major cinematic achievements in foreign language film of the decade. The plot follows Said and Khaled, two young men who have volunteered to be suicide bombers in Tel Aviv. Before they embark on their mission, Said befriends and falls in love with Suha, a woman who tries to argue him out of what she sees as insanity. The picture is very quiet and contemplative, much in the same way the young men who perform these tasks must be in the moments leading up to the climax. The final shot of the film in particular is one of the most powerful I have viewed.


47) Zodiac (2007, dir. David Fincher)
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., Chloe Sevigny

My expectations of this film were non-existent. I had found the majority of David Fincher’s films to lose their luster with the passage of time (Alien 3, The Game, Fight Club) and so Zodiac never even registered on my radar until six months after its release. Of his filmography, this feels like the strongest entry that will be watched decades from now. Character development is not necessarily the most important element thought. The focus seems to be on simple, quality storytelling and the best moments of the film are the meticulous recreations of the Zodiac Killer’s murders which are infused with an epic creepiness. Fincher also uses computer-generated effects in one of the best ways I have ever seen. Unlike the overblown pomposity of CG in the Star Wars prequel or comparable films, Fincher is so subtle with the technology many times you don’t realize it is being used.


46) The Grey Zone (2001, dir. Tim Blake Nelson)
Starring David Arquette, Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi

This Holocaust film was completely invisible to me until my friend Chris Ewing (who was working at the Regal Green Hills 16 at the time) suggested we go see it. This true story concerns a group of Jews planning a rebellion in Auschwitz, specifically to blow up one of the gas chambers and crematoria. These Jews have also been put in charge of giving orders to their fellow people that eventually sends them into these chambers. Needless to say, they are devoured by a level of guilt unimaginable to the majority of us. The arrival of a group of Hungarian Jews brings with it a mute adolescent girl, whom one of the Jewish men develops a protectiveness over. She was meant to die in the gas chamber but survived at a the bottom of a pile of the dead. For the rest of film, the young Jewish convinces his comrades to hide the girl but the Nazis become more and more suspicious culminating in a final scene that is one of the most devastating pieces of cinema I have ever seen.

Hypothetical Film Festival #2 – Offbeat Science Fiction

When you drop the term “science fiction” to a non-initiated non-geek there are a lot of cliched, stereotypical things that come to their mind. They think of the behemoth Star Wars franchise, the obsession of the Star Trek fan, and a myriad of other negatives things that in actuality not truly representative of sci-fi. So you want to bait your non-sci-fi friend into warming up to the genre? Here is a hypothetical film festival meant to show some of the breadth of what science fiction can be.

1) Tremors (1990, dir. Ron Underwood)
Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward, Reba McEntire, Michael Gross

An excellent starter film. If you haven’t seen Tremors (and why haven’t you?!) it is an incredibly irreverent, farcical pic in the vein of Roger Corman’s B-monster movies. The plot concerns two handymen (Bacon and Ward) in a rundown former mining town that is on life support. A series of mysterious deaths occur at the same time a young student seismologist discovers a serious of strange quakes happening in the region. The handymen discover that a brood of prehistoric gigantic worms are burrowing their way under the town and popping up to swallow the citizenry. What follows is a mix of slapstick comedy and bizarre sci-fi tropes that make for a fun, light flick. Beware of the follow up films in this series though. They lack the humor and budget of this film.

2) A Scanner Darkly (2006, dir. Richard Linklater)
Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Robert Downey, Jr, Woody Harrelson

Philip K. Dick is considered to be a master of re-defining the science fiction literary genre and creating his own branch of more philosophical literature that incorporated science fiction elements into the story structure. Sadly, the majority of attempts to adapt his stories and novels to the screen have failed to live up to their source material (Total Recall, Minority Report) or good films but definitely not what Dick intended (Blade Runner). A Scanner Darkly, an animated film, has been the first adaptation that seems to understand the intent of Dick’s work. The plot concerns Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), an undercover police agent in the near future who has been assigned to track down the production of the dangerously addictive drug, Substance D. He ends up posing as a dealer and shacking up with two brain fried addicts (Downey Jr and Harrelson) and dating fellow dealer (Ryder). The catch is that Arctor’s identity must be kept secret to everyone up to his superiors by wearing a scramble suit (a suit that obscures a person’s face and body by shifting through a mosaic of indexed images of people). Arctor’s suffers a crisis of identity as a result and the film focuses a lot of its time on his meditation on figuring out who he really is. Director Linklater is sure to keep this feeling like a not-to distant future by playing the tech side very low. A very nice transition into a branch of sci-fi Hollywood seems to ignore.

3) Happy Accidents (2001, dir. Brad Anderson)
Starring Marisa Tomei, Vincent D’Onofrio

While director Brad Anderson has become known more for his horror film work (Session 9, The Machinist), he made his start with relationship focused films. Happy Accidents works as a perfect date movie but also presents a contemporary science fiction plot that is inventive and clever and has no need for big budgets special effects. Ruby (Tomei) has had horrendous luck with men and had all but given up till she meets Sam Deed (D’Onofrio). Sam is a charismatic, quirky Midwesterner who charms Ruby right away and things move much faster than she planned. Then, Sam reveals something about himself that sends Ruby running; he claims to be from the year 2470. What follows is a clever play on the typical romantic comedy that will keep you guessing whether Sam is yet another nut-job or the real deal. A perfect example of what science fiction can be but is usually presented as.

4) Delicatessen (1991, dir. Marc Caro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet)
Starring Dominique Pinon, Jean-Claude Dreyfus

The minds behind Amelie and The City of Lost Children present this surreal slapstick post-apocalyptic flick. At an undisclosed time in the future, the world is in ashes and one apartment building in the ruins is attempting to keep life going on as usual. A new maintenance man has shown up (Pinon), who tries to figure out how the original maintenance man vanished. This leads him to discover that the landlord (Dreyfus) is butchering passersby and selling the meat to his voracious tenants. Add in a literal underground rebellion of sewer men and you have a very strange, very funny black comedy. A movie that proves even the end of the world can be hilarious.

5) Fantastic Planet (1973, dir. Rene Laloux)

This amazing French/Czech animated film exemplifies what pre-Star Wars science fiction was about: huge, transcendental ideas and the exploration of surreal worlds. On the title planet, the gigantic blue-skinned Draag employs minute, humanoid Oms as household slaves and pets. A small clan of Om have broken away and formed a civilization in the wilderness with plans to overthrow the Draag. This film contains some amazing psychedelic imagery and is a great science fiction picture for people who are more in the Philip K. Dick vein of the genre.

Film 2009 #141 – Antichrist

Antichrist (2009)
Directed by Lars von Trier
Starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, Willem Dafoe

Director von Trier wants you to not simply be unsettled, but he wants you to be in a place where you are completely uncomfortable. Once he has you in that place he can begin to burrow under your skin and really get to work. The opening sequence of his latest opus, Antichrist is designed to do just that. The soundtrack is blaring, the images are stark and…um, yes that is actual penetration you’re seeing. And that heavily jarring scene is key to understanding what von Trier is trying to do in this film.

The plot concerns an unnamed couple (Gainsbourg and Dafoe) who are in the midst of orgasm when their toddler son falls out the window of their apartment to his death. Off screen, the wife spends time in a mental hospital and her husband wants to help her work through her grief. His motives are a bit suspect; does he truly want to help her or does he simply not want to be reminded of his own guilt? His desperate need to heal her leads them to their secluded cabin in the woods, nicknamed Eden.

Von Trier is playing his traditional game of taking a genre and twisting it around into something that suits his own aesthetics. The horror in the film is slow burning and abstract and, when the gore does occur, it is much harsher than American audiences are used to. I was reminded of Michael Haenke’s Funny Games (especially the American remake)in how it was intentional designed to play out slowly and then completely exceed the expectations of violence in the audience. Von Trier is setting out not only to antagonize an audience wanting to be spoon fed horror tropes but also to offend the film “elite” he see saws back and forth with as “darling” and “dismissed”.

The core of the film is less supernatural and more metaphorical. It’s intentional that the couple are never named and end up in a Grimm-like forest complete with talking animals. While superficially it is about one husband’s total lack of respect for his wife as an adult individual. On a larger stage it saying a lot about sexuality, guilt we associate with our children, and humanity’s relation to the world around it. Definitely not a film for the faint of heart but containing much more beyond the fervor surrounding it.

Film 2009 #180 – Ballast

Ballast (2008)
Directed by Lance Hammer
Starring Micheal Smith, Jr., JimMyron Ross, Tarra Riggs

It begins with the discovery of a man who killed himself with pills. His body is found in his home during the winter in a Mississippi Delta township and has a life-changing effect on the last three members of his family.

In the hands of a Hollywood studio this film would have felt the need to be over-emotive in its themes. Instead, first time feature director, Lance Hammer shows considerable restraint. Reactions are subdued and brooding, a truer reflection of how people deal with tragedy in their families. The landscape of rural Mississippi during the bitter winter adds to the tone of grief felt by the three main characters of the film. It’s interesting to note that the landscape is so wide open yet the characters all seem to be constrained and locked up in how they interact.

The plot follows Darius (Smith, Jr), Marlee (Riggs), and James (Ross). Darius is the deceased brother who attempts suicide on himself after discovering his brother. After recovering from the attempt, he delivers his brother’s will to the ex-wife and estranged son. Their various problems in life come to the surface and through their tense relationships with one another they come to an understanding.

The film presents an angle of the African-American experience rarely seen on film. Typically, we see only urban black youth in our theaters and Ballast focuses on the rural experience of the culture. The economic struggle appears more desolate and hopeless mainly because of the void-like expanse of nothingness surrounding them. Hammer chose to use local non-professional actors in the film and the choice results in amazing performances. The sadness and anger is so natural and real and truly displays the after effects of a suicide on the people left behind. The most revelatory aspect of the film is its abruptness. Throughout the film, jump cuts are used but most importantly the beginning and conclusion of the film are sudden. There’s a lot about the past we can assume from passing pieces of dialogue. As for the future, there are lot of plot points left unanswered but it fits with the cinéma vérité like tone of the picture. At the end, Ballast exists as a slice of life depiction of people dealing with tragedy across all fronts of their lives.

Film 2009 #177 – The House of the Devil

The House of the Devil (2009)
Directed by Ti West
Starring Jocelin Donahue, Tom Noonan, Greta Gerwig

Horror has become ironic, much to its detriment. The slasher films of the 1980s began to peel away at the true horrific atmosphere of horror, with characters such as Jason and Freddy becoming cartoon characters. Wes Craven’s Scream franchise pushed horror further away from the realm of providing actual scares and the torture porn borne out of the Saw series put the nail in the coffin. Young director Ti West makes a push to return to the slow burning tension of pre-ironic horror by composing this retro scare flick.

The film focuses on Samantha (Donahue), a college sophomore just signing a lease for an apartment she can’t afford. The landlady is played by veteran actress Dee Wallace, best known for her roles in ET and the classic horror flicks The Howling and Cujo. Samantha, desperate for money, answers a flier on campus asking for a babysitter. She’s driven to house in the woods on the outskirts of town by her friend (Gerwig) who becomes suspicious when the owner (Noonan) reveals that the babysitting gig was not what it seems. Samantha will be in charge of watching the family’s elderly grandmother while they are out. Samantha agrees to the change in terms and so begins the slow boil of the picture, ending in a macabre satanic denouement.

The most jarring feature of the film is its aesthetics. West purposefully shot the film on 16mm to make it resemble the low budget horror films of his childhood. In addition, the plot capitalizes on the “satanic panic” that many of us 80s babies remember parents developing a paranoiac fear of. It doesn’t hurt that the acting is kept subtle, never going over the top until the final 10 minutes. West is definitely a student of this genre showing his expertise all the way down to the design of the opening and ending credits. A great film that shows its love for the old school horror film without having to drench itself in irony.

Hypothetical Film Festival #1 – Evolution of the Western

From time to time, I come up with ideas for film festivals. The themes can be as varied as a focus on a single director or genre and even antecedent film festivals, which feature films that inform about a certain director’s aesthetic. The parameter I set for myself with these festivals is that they can contain up to only 7 films.

This particular film festival programming was inspired by watching a Mad Max marathon on AMC and realizing that the plots were all archetypal western plots. The Road Warrior in particular felt like a post-apocalyptic Shane or one of Eastwood’s Man With No Name films. Without further ado, the list:

1) Shane (1953)
Directed by George Stevens
Starring Alan Ladd, Jack Palance

This film contains the most recurring Western plot of a mysterious stranger arriving to come to the aid of citizens being terrorized. Not much to add, other than the 1960s Batman series featured a cowboy villain named Shane that was a directed reference to this film.

2) The Searchers (1956)
Directed by John Ford
Starring John Wayne, Natalie Wood

Not Ford or Wayne’s first Western but arguably their greatest. The film has all the wonderful scenery of Monument Valley on display but also present Wayne in an atypical light. While, he is the hero of the picture, Wayne’s character is also a staunch racist and ends up alienated from his family because of this.

3) Once Upon a Time in the West (1969)

Directed by Sergio Leone
Starring Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, Henry Fonda

Leone was a student of the American Western, John Ford’s work in particular. To make this “ultimate” western, Leone and co-writer Dario Argento watched dozens and dozens of Westerns. They were able to film on location in Monument Valley as well and Leone’s awe is apparent in the film. Not to be stuck making a dull, predictable film it was decided to cast Henry Fonda as the villain. This was such a controversial move that when the film was aired on American television the introduction of Fonda’s Frank killing a child was edited out.

4)Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)
Directed by Sam Peckinpah
Starring James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan

The rise of the anti-hero archetype in the 1970s brought about Westerns with much bleaker protagonists than previously seen. These were men who traditionally had been the black hats in bygone eras. In the same way that Bonnie & Clyde turned the murderous gangsters into heroic figures so did Peckinpah with this portrayal of Billy the Kid. The film is also notable for having a soundtrack written and performed by Bob Dylan, a true sign of the change in this genre.

5) The Road Warrior (1981)

Directed by George Miller
Starring Mel Gibson, Bruce Spence

While at first glance, this film appears to be a punk-aesthetic sci-fi pic it is in actuality a remix of the Shane plot. The mysterious stranger (Gibson) shows up just in time to help a struggling group of survivors combat the maniacal barbarians outside their gates. In this reinvention, the Shane figure is a mercenary, only out for his own self-interest. He is broken eventually, in particular by the admiration of a feral child. A very refreshing take on a worn out plot.

6) Unforgiven (1990)
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Starring Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman

This film is the tombstone (no pun intended) of the traditional Western. Eastwood was trained by the best when it came to the genre, Sergio Leone. As a result, he respects the tropes but also makes sure to emphasize that this film marks an ending of sorts. The protagonist, William Munny (Eastwood) is an old, broken gunslinger who is now living with the psychological fallout of his past exploits. The film also incorporates the anti-hero device with the villain being a corrupt sheriff (Hackman) allowing his men to terrorize his town’s populace. A bleak conclusion is apparent from the beginning and Eastwood delivers what some critics have referred to as “the eulogy of the Western”.

7) The Proposition (2005)
Directed by John Hilcoat
Starring Guy Pearce, Danny Huston, Ray Winstone, Emily Watson

Around the same time the West was being explored in the United States, Australia was undergoing a similar period of lawlessness and expansion. In this film, Charlie Burns (Pearce) is made a deal by the local law (Winstone) to bring in his older, more sociopathic brother (Huston) in exchange for the life of his younger brother. Hilcoat, who just recently opened The Road, presents a Western tone poem. The film moves between harsh brutality and transcendental contemplative nature. The terrain of Australia is given a deeply mystic atmosphere by the aboriginal influence and haunting score by Nick Cave (who also wrote the screenplay).