Thursday, January 7, 2010

Love & Squalor's 100 Most Influential of the Decade pt. 5, 43-53

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) The first two film installments of the Harry Potter series directed by Christopher Columbus were your typical kids movies. With dull, one dimensional sets, they resembled a stage retelling of Harry's world instead of the dense magical one of the books. But Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón, whose previous films included the visually stunning A Little Princess and Great Expectations, was the perfect successor and changed the look and focus of the entire franchise away from the stereotypical and into the fantastic. His art production is alive, the perfect foil to the darkness and detail that make the books classic unique works, finally doing J.K. Rowling's beautiful, artfully crafted world some justice. (M)

I Heart Huckabees (2004) For all the dribble that Hollywood releases, they occasionally give us a gem that you're surprised was even allowed to exist. Speaking of existence...Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman) is experiencing an existential life crisis as he loses credibility at the "Open Spaces" council he runs, and continues to meet-up with the same African man in the most unlikely of places. He seeks help from the positive philosophical and existential detectives Bernard and Vivian (Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman), before falling into the arms of Russian Nihilist Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert, again, worth the price of admission alone) and meets a variety of characters along the way, especially as things heat up between his "Open Spaces" ideals and the Huckabees corporation. The ensemble cast in this film seems like a combo just waiting to fail, including Mark Wahlberg (proving he's a fantastic actor and can handle complex comedy), Naomi Watts, and Jude Law, but each performance is hilarious, moving, and fits perfectly. Flawlessly funny, the film is something entirely new and refreshing, fun if you're not into philosophy and a great inside joke if you are. (M)

Mean Girls (2004) Leave it to Tina Fey to write a movie about the popular girls that plays up the cliquey stereotypes of high school for laughs, without losing realism and depth in each character that makes them worth something more. Lindsey Lohan, before her starlet break down, is sweet, lovable, but also strong, with then unknowns Rachel McAdams and Amanda Seyfried rounding out "the plastics" with Daria like charm that makes you simultaneously love and hate them. But the best thing about Fey's comedy that stands above even the best of teen movies like Clueless, is its ability to tell it like it is without patronizing the audience. Near the end, when all the girls are ushered into a gym to "fight out their differences," including Tina Fey herself as the slandered math teacher, I had immediate flashbacks to my senior year of school, when suddenly the walls had come down, and people were starting to just accept each other, suddenly aware that it didn't really matter with college looming in the distance. And despite the zany antics and overabundance of pink fuzzy pens, the girls in this movie are real. They all have real insecurities (and not the oft played stereotypical ones like boy troubles and eating disorders, although those are represented) from the goth that acts tough but just wants to be acknowledged to the new girl that falls prey to the seduction of power. Tina Fey has given us something even better and more significant than her Sarah Palin impression; a teen movie made for girls, that also happens to be real and damn funny enough to get the boys and adults involved too. (M)

Mysterious Skin (2004) Before Mysterious Skin, the Joseph Gordon-Levitt we love and respect today was just that girly looking funny kid on 3rd Rock From the Sun. But taking a cue from the book on how to transition from child actor to grown-up, he went for a role that was controversial and disturbing. But unlike the B-movie topless fare common for the likes of Jessica Biel, Gordon-Levitt's role was affecting and genuine, within a heartbreaking, beautifully photographed work of cinema that few actually saw. The film is based on Scott Heim's novel, in which two boys are sexually assaulted as children and meet-up later in life with two drastically different takes on the experience; one a gay hustler struggling to survive in a world of drugs, desperate to share and bury the pain, the other convinced he was abducted by aliens. Content like this hard to portray in a meaningful way without venturing into the trite or the impossibly heavy, but with such realistic, full performances, the characters become real people, with real emotions, effortlessly balanced between despair and hope. (M)

Napoleon Dynamite (2004) Think about what comedy was like before every Hot Topic started selling "Vote for Pedro" shirts and your friends ended sentences with an emphatic "Gosh!"It used to be straight forward, and usually went by a formula. But the surprise hit influenced by Wes Anderson's timeless styling, broke the rules. It was totally weird, somewhat plot-less, and didn't really have anything remotely straight forward in its jokes, and yet was absolutely hysterical, with lines that were instantly memorable and characters that bordered a safe zone between the nearly mentally challenged and the freakish, allowing nerds and jocks to laugh side by side. Dynamite fundamentally changed comedy, taking it fully into the postmodern in a way that you now see influencing everything from the sketches on SNL to paving the way for mainstream consumption of films like Borat. (M)

Shaun of the Dead (2004) Zombie movies tend to be satirical allegories about the wastes of modern capitalist life, and while Simon Pegg's big screen spoof is a another well done version, the ending of the film, in which even the zombies become commercialized pets, turns the concept uniquely on its head. Shaun isn't a sober gore fest, but full of slapstick hilarity throughout. Pegg and writing pal Edgar Wright have modernized the off the wall Python-esque British comedy of the past, special in its ability to mix the low brow zaniness of a spoof, with clever referential nods to its source material, giving it solid footing and a few more meaningful layers. (M)

Spider-Man 2 (2004): The first Spider-Man film was a Hollywood game changer. After a decade loaded with lame attempts at comic book cinema and a strange mismatch between effects and concept, Peter Parker managed to win over critics and audiences alike with a film that was actually high quality, solid movie making. When Spider-Man 2's inevitable release came around, it was hard to imagine that the winning streak of the first film could continue into another blockbuster sequel, but Sam Raimi did just that, pulling a George Lucas (ala The Empire Strikes Back) and creating an even better film. It's not that Peter is uber dark like Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins (we know how well that turned out in Spider-Man 3) or even that complex here, but Raimi wins by concentrating on the storytelling instead of the effects or the villains, exposing the real, lasting appeal of comic characters to the world at large. (M)

Brick (2005) I've already lauded the wonderful acting transformation that Joseph Gordon-Levitt made in the mid-aughts above, but Brick was the second role that sealed his fate as a quality actor. Regardless of Gordon-Levitt's perfectly pitched performance, the film itself is artistic excellence. Director Rian Johnson's first noteworthy film is a straight noir story...in high school, with drug dealing, high school gangsters, and a Bogart-esque hero. But Brick isn't a Disney channel spin on the classic genre, but instead a dark, sincere, perfect realization and rejuvenation of it. (M)

Caché (Hidden) (2005): I've been trying to sort out a simile for Michael Haneke's work. Minefield? Spring loaded trap? Slow water torture device? None of them are quite right. The best way to say it is that Haneke's films make their viewers uncomfortable. You know something is going to happen. You can feel it. You can even expect it. Yet, you're never actually ready. At first glance, Cache is innocuous. It reads like a simple horror film. Intellectual French couple begins receiving mysterious videotapes from an unknown sender. Creepy. What follows, however, is no strange serial killer plot. It is instead a slow unraveling, a paranoid exploration into a life under surveillance. Cache's take on society, the parallels it draws between world events and the depths of our personal lives, is eerie. It's a stark slow-release thriller that holds you in its clutches until the credits roll. (WD)
The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005) A mere five years later, comedies existed without Seth Rogen and the predominance of the buzz word "bromance." Judd Apatow's first real, honest to god directorial hit on the big screen was really hilarious, hilarious enough to invent a new comedy genre, launch a whole group of man-children (Steve Carell, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Jonah Hill) into instant stardom, and start a million philosophical discussions about just what said man-children represent within society, and whether or not, that's a bad thing. Despite the immaturity and low brow humor of Apatow's characters, the core of his films contain an authentic sweetness that's hard to hate and makes his stories hit on a deeper level than most. Regardless of what you really think about the moral implications of Apatow's comedy, it's clear things have changed, at least for Apatow whose strong streak just recently seemed to be slowing down with the lackluster Funny People. Even if his luck has ended, Apatow will be remembered as the comedic face of the decade. (M)

Good Night and Good Luck (2005) George Clooney's second directorial effort is much like his acting style, classic, sleek, and full of hidden meaning. I've had the lucky job of digitizing original Edward R. Murrow/CBS recordings from the early 40's and Clooney's biopic captures the man and the time period with grace, never minimizing the tension between he and McCarthy or losing the power of Murrow's broadcasts. The film rests on David Strathairn's performance, who inhabits his character with the same sort of power audible in Murrow's broadcasts. Clooney's choice to shoot in black and white not only lends the proper ambiance to the film, but also helps to blend his creative use of documentary footage (particularly of McCarthy as he's not played by an actor, but seen only through these clips) into the fabric of the story. The film is Oscar bait of the best kind, all strength and little superficial sentimentality. (M)

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