Thursday, December 31, 2009

You Aughta See . . .

While I wrote about music back in the days before blogs, I never really did the same with movies. It wasn't due to lack of interest. A lot of lonely weekends in law school led to my development into a film fanatic. Thanks to Netflix, I've got a treasure trove of great cinema, new and old, to work through these days.

As with the tunes, I do not claim to be any kind of an expert. Hell, I can at least make music, but I've never made a film! I won't argue that the ten movies below were the "best" of the decade (although some probably are), they're just the ones that stuck with me in a particularly ferocious way.

A word about the method to my madness - I took every flick that made my Year in Film & Video posts as well as things that got a 4 (out of 5) star rating or better at Netflix and threw them in the hopper. The plan was to narrow the list down to my top ten, but I had to include at least one more. Even that was a challenge.

Think of these as personal recommendations - if you haven't seen these flicks, you really ought to check them out.

Films of the Decade

Murder on a Sunday Morning (2001)

This has the double benefit of being a gripping, well made documentary (it won an Academy Award in 2001) that also happens to have public defenders as the heroes. Brenton Butler was a 15 year old kid swooped up by police in the wake of a brutal murder in Florida. Police coerced a confession out of Butler, who was rescued by a collection of lawyers and investigators from the local PD office. Not only did they clear an innocent man, they tipped police to the two real killers who were subsequently convicted. This story is the shot of courage I need when I get in one of those "why am I doing this kind of work?" funks.

Ararat (2002)

Director Atom Egoyan could have made a straight forward Schindler's List type movie about the Armenian Genocide. But that wouldn't be Egoyan's style. Instead, he uses the device of a movie about the making of that kind of movie to do something much more interesting. The result is a story that is about the power of the stories we tell, to ourselves and to others. It's a brilliant meditation on history and memory as well.

25th Hour (2002)

I've been pleasantly surprised to see this Spike Lee joint on several lists of the decade's best films. Most folks pick up on the fact that this was one of the first (if not the first) films shot in post-9/11 New York City that makes reference to the fall of the Twin Towers. Yeah, that's part of it, but it's not what resonated with me. Given my line of work, this story of Monty, a drug dealer, wrapping up his life before going to prison for seven years says a lot about the collateral damage of the "War on Drugs." Monty's a bastard, but you feel for him, maybe because he finally realizes how much of a bastard he's been all his life.

Shattered Glass (2003)

I'm drawn back to this movie again and again for largely the same reason I was fascinated by Forbidden Lie$, as it's a finely detailed examination of a fraud flailing about trying to dig himself out from underneath his artifice while actually digging himself deeper in. Stephen Glass was a hot shot writer for The New Republic back in the Clinton years when it still meant something. Turns out that Glass's reputation was built on the back of stories that were largely, and in some instances completely, works of fiction. When the bubble was pricked by a rival online magazine, it popped in spectacular fashion. The pop and the fallout are fascinating to watch. Oh, and it turns out young Anakin can actually act!

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

If it's true that we are all the sum of our experiences, then that must include the bad ones, right? Painful memories are just as important to who we are as good ones. That's the essential truth at the heart of one of the best sci-fi flicks of recent memory. "Wait a tic," you say, "there's no lasers or aliens or spaceships here - is it really sci-fi?" Absolutely. The plot is driven by a device that allows the targeted destruction of memories, a means to eliminate the nasty bits of your past. But the mechanics of the tech aren't as important as what its effects tell us about humanity. That's good sci-fi. It's also funny, inventive, sweet, and scathing in turn. That's just a good flick.

Pan's Labyrinth (2006)

Speaking of inventive, but in a much darker vein. It's hard to believe that a movie set during the days of fascist Spain in which the main character, a young girl, dies (after a fashion) can be so enjoyable. That's largely down to Guillermo del Toro's amazing visual style, but that doesn't really mean anything without a story and compelling characters to back it up. I'm very glad I actually got to see this in the theater, in addition to repeated viewings on DVD.

The Prestige (2006)

I won't argue that The Prestige is especially profound, like Eternal Sunshine . . ., or a unique visual treat, like Pan's . . ., but, damn, it was the most entertaining thing I saw in a theater this decade. A tale of deadly oneupsmanship between a pair of Victorian magicians, it really did keep you guessing up until the end. Or it kept me guessing, at any rate. One of the few DVDs I've purchased that's devoid of any real bonus material - it's that good.

United 93 (2006)

9/11 was the defining event of the decades, to be sure, and will be the "where were you when" moment for my generation. It was inevitable that movies would be made about the event and the people involved, but it was far from certain that they would be any good. Paul Greengrass succeeded in this flick by keeping it completely straight, simply telling the story of the "fourth plane", which crashed in Pennsylvania after passengers, alerted to what was going on by loved ones, stormed the cockpit. The moments before that occurs, when those on the plan make last calls to their friends and families is one of the most moving things I've ever seen. United 93 hurts so much because it's not been pumped up with Hollywood gimmicks. Sadly, there was simply no need.

The Lives of Others (2006)

Eavesdroppers, by definition, are a sleazy bunch. Those who hang around to catch bits of gossip are bad enough. Those who do it systematically for the government are on whole other level, though. Which is why a movie about one of them, working for one of the most oppressive states ever, is so fascinating. As much evil as Gerd does for the Stasi, he is not, deep down inside, a bad person. If he was, his job would be easier and wouldn't bleed over into the rest of his life. That's the story - how the listening impacts the listener. Made a great double bill with The Conversation when I saw them a couple of years ago.

4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (2007)

Black markets exist because the law can never really keep human beings from acting on their desires and needs. We have a robust black market for drugs in this country. The fact that it's illegal to sell or possess them doesn't make it go away. So to with abortion, in the pre-Roe days. That truth lurked in my mind all the way through this flick, about a woman who helps her friend obtain a black market abortion in Ceausescu's Romania. The plot make the film interesting, intellectually. What makes it excellent and emotionally robust is the attention to detail and the finely worked performances of all involved.

Man on Wire (2008)

Before the Twin Towers were symbols of horrific crime, they were symbols of progress, innovation, and wonder. It's those earlier impressions that caught the eye of Phillipe Petit, a French acrobat who saw a picture of the rising towers in a magazine in his dentist's office in 1968. He hatched deviously simple idea that required a complex scheme to pull off - stretch a high wire between the two towers and walk it. Man on Wire is the story of that scheme - the "artistic crime of the century" according to some - told with lots of enthusiasm by Petit himself. A great documentary in its own right, but also a wonderful reminder that the WTC will always be more than the sight of the nation's greatest crime.

There you have it. Update your Netflix queues as warranted!


aa said...


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Those were really fabulous movies. I have watched one of those and they are entertaining. In fact one of the featured movies there was watched for how many times. And indeed the characters acted so well.

Marie Smith said...

Those were really fabulous movies.

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