Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Love & Squalor's 100 Most Influential of the Decade pt. 10, 93-100

A Serious Man (2009) : After years of snowballing up through bigger and better classes of celebrity, the Coen Brothers backtrack towards something that feels like a return to their earlier work. A more mature return to their earlier work. A Serious Man is the Coen Brothers at their best. It blends dark comedy with a stark intellect and a touch of the mysterious. Yet, where the Coen Brothers stand-by formula has been to toss in an exclamation point of brutal, sudden, cynical violence, A Serious Man plays with a different variety of cruelty and takes its existential blows in stride. The Coens have already released so many films with staying power (Fargo, Big Lebowski, No Country For Old Men) that it seems almost absurd to suggest that A Serious Man is the film that finally gets it right, but oddly, it is. This is the Coen Bros at their absolute best; it's sardonic calamity that never ceases to entertain even as it makes you feel the crushing claustrophobia of Larry's (Michael Stuhlbarg) predicaments. (WD)
Star Trek (2009) : Revamps, remakes, reboots, whatever your term, often turn out to be disappointing. Either the source material wasn't strong to begin with, or the new version just doesn't do the real thing any justice. But somehow, J.J. Abrams and his team of super nerds were up to the task, taking on one of the most beloved franchises and hitting all the right nostalgia points while creating something new. His Star Trek is great on a multitude of levels, the first and most obvious being that it's a beautifully, impeccably made film done by someone who knows how to milk tension, drama, and action while looking pretty and cinematically stunning. Shockingly, Abrams was able to credibly and cleverly give his characters some breathing room by changing the timeline (his favorite ace up the sleeve) and for the first time in memory, the hardcore fans don't feel cheated but excited. But what really makes the reboot work is Abrams ability to resuscitate the emotion and interest in the characters, arguably in a way only seen in the films that Leonard Nimoy directed (Wrath of Khan and the Search for Spock), and even then not to the same degree. At it's heart, Star Trek captures generation after generation because its about the people on the ship, characters you get to know and love, who have had decades to develop in our imaginations, even if the writers never gave them the same amount of depth. By letting Spock have his heart, J.J. gave the franchise one too. (M)

Thirst (2009) : At the twilight of the decade (I know...groan), the vampire was the gender neutral ruler of all media. Young adult fiction, television, and cinemas the world round have cashed in on the romanticized carnage of the vamp. Yet, for whatever reason, American vampires are a weak breed. They're uninspired representations of human lust and passion used to shill eroticism to teenage girls. Luckily, overseas, the vampire mythos has not been so thoroughly corrupted. In 2008, Let the Right One In proved that there was still interesting work to be done with the monsters, in 2009, Park Chan-Wook glamored us with the vamp parable Thirst. The Korean director drags the bloodsucker back to its roots; giving us violence and sensuality framed within a push pull crisis of faith and an inability to control one's own compulsions. The film is dazzling, a hypnotic, deftly navigated narrative that successfully melds our expectations with Park's predilections for blood and dark humor. (WD)

Watchmen (2009) : Everyone seems to hate this film. The hardcore Alan Moore fans cry foul over the exclusions of various things including the cutting of the giant squid (aided in their argument by Moore's own unwillingness to be attached to the project), while outsiders like to say that the film is a cold, overly correct rendering of the source work, too close to make it original (the New Yorker even had the audacity to call it "boring!"). THEY ARE ALL WRONG. First things first. Zack Synder's film is gorgeous to watch, a perfect rendering of the graphic novel that reflects Moore's world with a depth that can be noted as one of the best, most creative visual experiences out there. Secondly, using the work itself as the storyboards doesn't take the originality away from Synder. Any person that's read the novel knows that Watchmen is not to be meddled with. It's not something like Batman or Spider-man that can be made darker or lighter, or purple, or spotted, or anything else you'd like to interpret it as. It just is, and doing any less would have been like making a film version of Slaughterhouse Five and setting it during an alien invasion, taking away the specific experiences that make the characters who they are. But Synder doesn't entirely abandon himself to Moore's original. Instead he slims it down and makes it more accessible, and no, that's not a bad thing. As much as I love the novel, there are certain things that just don't work outside the imagination, or just don't need to be included. And while some might appreciate a 7 hour movie, it's just not feasible. I admit it; It's not for snooty fanboys who hate just to hate, and it's also not for the people looking for an easily digestible movie. It's for the thinking movie goer, who understands subtle satire, philosophy, science, love, politics, and history and how a story about war and superheroes can fully examine all of those subjects and remain artistically innovative. Despite the critical disinterest in this film, after a few years, when the world's had time to sit down and concentrate on Snyder's love letter to Alan Moore, you can bet it's suddenly going to pop up on everyone's list. (M)

Moore vs. Moore

You might be wondering why we didn't include the Wachowski's more critically acclaimed go at Alan Moore, V for Vendetta. Both Wilde.Dash and I appreciate this film while we're watching it. You sit there as Hugo Weaving expertly tortures Natalie Portman and think, "wow, this is exactly like the graphic novel, this captures something interesting and great!" But then the movie ends, and you forget about it, and therein lies the rub. Alan Moore's work tends to be cold and runs the risk of disconnecting the audience, a danger that any filmmaker must walk a fine line with. And while Zack Synder expertly pulls the different and subtle emotions from his characters in Watchmen, aided by his remarkable visuals, director James McTeigue can't quite manage to make V or Evey resonate when all is said and done. So while it may be a solid, enjoyable retelling of Moore, it's not on the level of Synder's groundbreaking epic in it's ability to work with the difficult source material. (M)

Birth (2004) : Here come the out-of-chronological-order stragglers. There were just a couple spots left open as M. and I revisited (or visited for the first time) certain acclaimed works and debated the merits of other considerations. It came down to about 3 options, of them, Anton Corbijn's Ian Curtis biopic Control wound up on the cutting room floor. Control, perfect biopic though it may be, was shirked to make room for the bold, controversial, and oft-debated Birth. Yes. We went there. For those caught unawares, Jonathan Glazer's film deals with the relationship that arises between a widow (Nicole Kidman) and the 10-year old boy who claims to be the reincarnation of her deceased husband. Yet, Birth is not your average supernatural thriller. It doesn't rely on shock tactics or absurd suspension of disbelief, but instead runs through its own checklist of cynicism, questioning its own logic as it moves further and further away from common sense and towards the unthinkable. Birth is an eerie film, but a beautiful one urged on by a swelling score (by Alexandre Desplat), the dreamlike quality of the cinematography, and restrained performances by its actors. As a film that never stops to doubt the intelligence of its audience, we at Love & Squalor predict that it's the sort of movie that will continue to resurface time and time again as a small, atmospheric treasure.(WD)
The Fall (2006, released 2008) : It took 4 years to film The Fall. 4 years in 18 separate countries to complete the visually stunning, CGI-less, epic fantasy of Tarsem Singh's vision. His first film, The Cell, was a remarkable thriller, but The Fall is an indulgent passion project of staggering proportions. It's hard not to suspect that during production every whim Tarsem had was followed by a flurry of costume design and swift execution. Yet, for all its great heights, The Fall is at heart a quiet, story book drama that is served up as a treat to the viewer's imagination that inspires instead of bombards. In a decade of tremendous advancements in cinematic special effects, The Fall is a quiet surprise that relies on old school trompe l'oeil and the beauty of its surprising amalgamation of cultures and colors. If Alejandro Jodorowsky had a baby with Guillermo del Toro, and that baby was a cinema-pumped Scheherazade influenced by Matthew Barney & Melies, The Fall would be the film that child grew up to produce. In short: it's well-crafted story telling that splits its consciousness between childhood and adulthood, and injects the images created by a lifetime of global exposure and cross-cultural fascination. Every student film maker wishes they had the resources to make this movie.(WD)

The Clint Eastwood Films (2003-2009) : M. and I talked this through. For awhile, it seemed decided that the only Eastwood directed film to appear on this list would be last year's Gran Torino. Why? Well, there's no easy reason. Put bluntly, it's simply because we both liked it the most. It's a complex drama that also functions as a brilliant, often quite comedic, character study. Yet, when contrasted against Eastwood's other works this decade, it is perhaps not the best example of the construction and muscular storytelling Eastwood is recognized for. That honor is divided between Million Dollar Baby and Mystic River, and, well, I'll be honest with you...I don't particularly enjoy either of those movies. I like Gran Torino. Yet, it's no fault of the other films. All of the aforementioned films, compounded by The Changeling, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima, and Invictus are near impeccable examples of straightforward American filmmaking. In his 70's, Eastwood has proven to be something of an unexpected auteur. He's been directing films for four decades now, but I would argue that it was in this one he truly turned the rough-edged sensibilities of his background in Westerns away from the high plains and inward to bring us some of the strongest examples of dramatic filmmaking in recent memory. The reason why I don't enjoy Million Dollar Baby or Mystic River is not because they're bad films. No, they're quite well done. Trimmed lean and well-edited to pack the perfect emotional punch. It's that punch that I'd like to dodge. I saw them once, and I'm glad I did, but going back for seconds would be something that I wouldn't want to deal with. So, in a way, this entry is cheating. While M. and I would perhaps prefer to ignore the strength of Eastwood's films, and the impact something like Mystic River had, we realize that while the films lack some of creativity we like to champion, there's no way in hell we can ignore Clint as the backbone for nearly a decade of Academy Awards shows.

The Pixar Oeuvre : Admit it, you were wondering where these movies were. Never fear: we're on the case. We did, however, encounter a problem in the creation of this list. The problem was that in the first and second drafts, five of our spots were dedicated to films coming from Pixar Studios (Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Wall-E, and Up). Admittedly, at first glance, this may not seem like much of a conundrum. Trust me, though, for people obsessively arguing the merits of some of the smaller picks on this ridiculous project, it's a major issue. Don't get us wrong. M. & I believed the films deserved their own places. We were quite ready seal the deal. Yet, as we discussed the movies further it became a conversation based less on the individual works and more on what they represent. We decided, then, that this decade has been Pixar's renaissance and that the animation company deserved recognition as an influential entity in and of itself. From the shorts to the feature length (even Cars is a better kids flick than most), Pixar has essentially revolutionized mainstream animation and demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to quality that's amazingly consistent. Each new film only seems to improve upon the last, and the combination of visual artistry and sophisticated, multi-faceted storylines has brought about a return to family films that don't cater solely to the most juvenile of intellects. Thus, while you may think it's cheating to list a whole oeuvre an a list of the most influential films of the decade, here at Love & Squalor we're pretty sure that it would be absurd to consider doing anything else.

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