Friday, January 8, 2010

Love & Squalor's 100 Most Influential of the Decade pt. 7, 64-73

Little Children (2006) Wilde.Dash and I debated about this film for a long time. While she sees it as a solid, but unoriginal rip off of your typical American Beauty suburb dystopia, I consider it something else entirely. While American Beauty and its copycats explored the desolation and disconnection of suburban life, Todd Field's film version of Tom Perrotta's acclaimed novel focuses more on the intricate connections in the community. The suburban backdrop isn't the point here, but the bond between lovers, parents, and unlikely friends is (even if it's failing). The multi-layered narrative is expertly woven with the help of the performances. Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson do a fantastic job of subtly switching between selfish and lonely into something more, while the moping Jackie Earle Haley as a pedophile trying to survive his return to civilization instantly leaves you torn between repulsion and love. The relationships are heartbreaking but never heavy, sure to leave you with bit of a fuzzy feeling despite all the mess and madness, the same sort of breath of fresh air the characters feel as equally cathartic to the audience. (M)

Little Miss Sunshine (2006) The first part of this century was full of quirky characters with odd mannerisms who also spoke in clever dialog, in unpredictable situations. But few match the awesomeness that is the uncharacteristically real Steve Carell, the sweet Paul Dano, the brave, mature Abigail Breslin, and the devastating Alan Arkin as they take a trip to the Little Miss Sunshine competition in a decrepit VW bus despite death, angst, and stereotypes. In addition to being hilarious, it's a gorgeously sweet movie in which embracing family and self confidence, no matter what the haters say, wins the day. You've never rooted so hard for a team, or a movie, in your life. (M)

Marie Antoinette (2006) All 3 of Sofia Coppola's mainstream films make our list due to her uncanny ability to both inhabit the heart of a space with cinematic elegance (like Japan, the 70's, or here the French court) and make it her own. There isn't a real plot or much acting to be done in this film, but that's not a bad thing. Coppola lets the viewer eat cake, experiencing what it was like in the decadent French court where days ran into each other, punctuated only by dress fittings, the births of princes, and champagne. The actors float through the brilliant sets, just as the French court drifted through the halls of Versailles, the casting of Kristen Dunst and Jason Schwartzman wonderfully awkward and distant, both hiding an undercurrent of exasperation well. Marie Antoinette's subtle unraveling is done in an affecting way, the organic scenes with her children near the end utterly priceless. (M)

Pan's Labyrinth (2006) Prior to Pan's Labyrinth, only the film and comic geeks were attuned to the twisted creatures Guillermo del Toro was capable of making, his more mainstream films still holding back. But this fractured fairy tale took his visions to new levels of darkness that make the demons of Hell Boy look like they belong on Sesame Street (if you encounter the baby eater above, just remember, don't eat his damn food, no matter how tempting). Pan and the other creatures that heroine Ofelia meets are pure enchantment in a way that few adults seem capable of, capturing the blended shades of good and evil with the open mind of a child. Part of a trilogy of sorts that includes The Devil's Backbone (also on this list), the film is disturbing and upsetting to the endmost degree, a tragedy of youth made all the more engrossing by the astonishing, groundbreaking visuals. Although the film loses some of its impact after repeat viewings, it's undeniably one of film's most visually influential stunners, even popping up in the wardrobe of Lady Gaga. (M)

The Queen (2006): You might be surprised to find a film as straight shooting as The Queen on a list that has done its fair share of biopic neglecting. Yet, here it is. In part, the Stephen Frears directed vehicle makes it onto our list because of its ingenious casting. Helen Mirren embodies Queen Elizabeth II not merely physically (which is something of a feat), but becomes our collective vision of her royal highness. Yet, the film goes even further. It becomes an ultimately persuasive and deeply sympathetic portrait of a life spent following decorum and living half-heartedly under public pressures. She is a strong woman, almost alarmingly so, who holds onto her convictions even as a nation questions her judgment. Mirren's queen is bewitching to watch, and she permits the film to transcend mere biopic and to become instead a portrait. The film winds through global events with a point of view so personal its hard to call it fiction, the story becomes anything but boring. (WD)

The Science of Sleep (2006) : Michel Gondry shows us what happens when a Peter Pan type character is forced to grow up in The Science of Sleep. Stephen (Gael Garcia Bernal) lives a life in which he can no longer differentiate between reality and dreams. His whole life is a mixed bag of consciousness. He lives in a dichotomy between adult and child, love and loss, sleeping and waking that is reflected in the films rapid shifts between French, English, and Spanish and into and out of fantasy sequences that become so twisted in the fabric of reality we reach a point at which differentiation is impossible. Gondry's vision is enchanting, a magical hodgepodge of everyday objects made extraordinary. It carries you into a world hosted by a restless, petulant man-child. Yet, such worlds cannot exist, and the film sits heavy with its own necessary baggage. Stephen cannot be happy, though he tries, because he is so divided. The film then, divides its audience as well, though its very existence leaves an impression and a glimmer of cinematic hope. (WD)
Volver (2006) If Penelope Cruz has become Pedro Almodóvar's main muse, then Volver is their combined masterwork, 100% pure Spanish film gold. The tale of three generations of women, weaves fantasy and reality like only Almodóvar can, his stage the center where the two meet. With a fiery script rattled off of by Cruz with rollicking effectiveness, it's a serious comedic thriller with a unique girl power message that will warm even the most refrigerated of hearts (even if that message comes at moral price). Drama has never been such a fun ride. (M)

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) Most of the films that stick with me are experience films, the ones I feel, not necessarily the ones that contain what the Academy looks for, whether its a twisting action-packed plot, or intense biopic performances. But Jesse James, a drastically underrated, overlooked film directed by Andrew Dominik who also shot parts of Terence Malick's The New World (clearly an influence on this film), is one that contains it all. The film wanders a path slowly across the Mid-West landscape with great effect and ambiance, capturing the same rides and environmental emotions that the James' gang would have felt (as a native Missourian, I can tell you it does a fine job of exposing the little known beauty of our state, despite being filmed in Canada). Beauty aside, the film also packs major brains. The script is dead on, as are the incredible performances. It's hard to find a Brad Pitt movie in which he's someone other than Brad Pitt (as much as I love Fight Club, Tyler's still another form of Brad Pitt), but here he goes so deep into character you forget he's there. The same goes for Casey Affleck who didn't really standout before, but shines with real, complex strength in his role as the title named assassin. Another rare and beautiful meditation on America and hero worship, this film will have influence for years to come. (M)

Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007) : Here's a true story: Jean-Dominique Bauby (here portrayed by Mathieu Amalric) was an editor for French Elle. He was a playboy until the day he suffered a massive stroke and slipped into a condition called locked-in syndrome. Bauby was trapped in his body; conscious but only able to communicate with the world by blinking his left eye. His life story was recorded via the repetition of the alphabet while Bauby blinked at the appropriate letter. The process was long and arduous, the implications of the entire situation, unspeakably bleak. Yet, in spite of the fact that the story is primarily about being locked-in, the film soars. The cinematography and past passions of Bauby free the film from its incredible challenges and make it something beautiful, at times even truly sweeping. It's powerful on multiple levels, so powerful, I can't say I'd willingly commit to watching it again. (WD)

Eastern Promises (2007) It's easy to ignore David Cronenberg when he does a "straight-up" story that doesn't possess any outwardly surreal elements, and Wilde.Dash and I almost did. But his latest film which stars his man-crush Viggo Mortensen can't be overlooked. The film is raw in a brutal way that few directors can make sincere, especially terrifying as we watch Mortensen straddle the sides of good and evil as part of a Russian crime syndicate in London. Although Lord of the Rings got the world to take notice of Mortensen, this showed he could conquer dark and demented roles that seem close to what an earlier, edgier Christian Bale would have sought out (although Bale couldn't have done this one with as much grace). He's electric here, drawing you to his presence despite the layers of film artifice and screen in front of you. Naomi Watts, who can occasionally end up more on the annoying than the extraordinary side is just as perfectly cast, her blond hair a stark contrast against the smoggy gray backdrop giving her the feel of a lamb about to go to slaughter. The cries of foul over the violent nature of this film are simply greater testaments to its power. There are very few scenes of violence, but when they do happen, they are gritty and graphic in an emotive way that's impossible not to feel. It's horrifying and hopeful in violent package that only the devoted likes of Cronenberg and Mortensen could conjure up. (M)

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