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Archive for October 12th, 2009

At the end of the year there will be lots of lists of best films floating around. Therefore I have decided to stick my neck out early and produce a top ten movies of the decade. If anything comes out later in the year I can always amend my list!  This is the hardest list I have ever compiled as there are so many great films that I had to leave out. Amazingly there is no Tarantino or Scorsese. There are four foreign language films, one that started life as an unaired TV pilot and one by a first time director. The biggest surprise is Christopher Nolan, a director I had never heard of ten years ago has made five films in the last ten years two of them make my top ten.

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1Oldboy (2003): Often you need to see a film a few times for everything to sink in and for you to say this is one of my all time favourite films. Other times you love a film but it doesn’t live up to repeated viewings. Once in a while you know whist watching a film it is one of your all time favourites. Oldboy and Fight Club belong in that list for me. I didn’t go into the film expecting anything amazing. Directed by Park Chan-wook the film is the middle part of his vengeance trilogy. I had already seen the first part Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and enjoyed but Oldboy was so much better. The premise is brilliant: It tells the story of Oh Dae-Su, a man who is imprisoned in a hotel room for 15 years. He has no knowledge of who his captors are or what their motives are. He is then released without warning or explanation. As he seeks answers and vengeance we are taken on a bizarre ride as the viewer learns the secrets at the same time as Oh Dae-Su. What people often overlook is just how well made the film is. It is perfectly paced, well acted and the attention to detail and the photography are amazing. Not the easiest film to watch it is often described as sick and horrible but if you have an open mind and a strong stomach you may just love like I do!

 Oldboy

2Pan’s Labyrinth (2006): Visionary is a word that is over used when describing directors but in the case of Guillermo del Toro it is completely justified. After making Blade II and Hellboy he returned to Spain the setting of his 2001 film The Devil’s Backbone. The Devil’s Backbone was set towards the end of the civil war in a hot and dusty landscape. Pan’s Labyrinth takes us to a far darker period in history just five years later when the fascists were in power. The setting is fittingly much darker with a dark winter woodland replacing the hot dusty plane. The film starts with a young girl Ofelia who along with her pregnant mother go to live with her new stepfather, the sadistic and cruel Captain Vidal. It is shortly after this that Ofelia enters a fair-tale world. After seeing the trailer I expected to see a film set in a fairy-tale world where del Toro’s visual fair can run riot. What we actually get is a film set mainly in the real word thanks to Captain Vidal and at times it is a grim real world. The visuals are truly beautiful at times; this provides the perfect contrast to the often horrific images. Without giving anything away the ending is purely sublime giving the perfect balance of closure and ambiguity.

 Pans Labyrinth

3City of God (2002): Directed by Fenando Meirelles and Kátia Lund. Set in Cidade de Deus (City of God) in Rio de Jeneiro over approximately ten years culminating in the early 80’s. Using a non linear narrative to tell the story of the City of God, the one constant Rocket, a boy who has grown up in the area but chooses a different path from the drug dealers and thieves he grew up with. Predating Slumdog Millionaire by six years the film was shot in the area it is set and uses first time actors from the area. And it is these kids that give the film real heart. Chronicling the gang controlled drug trade in the most violent neighbourhood in Rio the film was marketed as the Brazilian Goodfellas. Like Goodfellas it is based on true events but this is a more basic and visceral experience than Scorseese’s gangster classic.

 City of God

4Million Dollar Baby (2004): Very different from the top three on my list that I loved the moment I saw them. Million Dollar Baby crept up on me. I went to see it at the cinema being a huge fan of Clint Eastwood as both an actor and a director. I accepted it as a good film but couldn’t say I liked it, I found it really disturbing and had no desire to see it again. Then about a year ago turned the TV on and it was about an hour into the film. I hate watching a film after missing the start so turned it off. I was kind of haunted by it. I Went out and purchased the DVD and have watched it about ten times in the last year. I went into the film expecting a sort of fealgood sports move, tryumpjng against the odds. A sort of female Rocky. And that’s what you get to begin with. Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) owns a boxing gym. He also acts as a trainer. Having recently lost his top fighter to a more ambitious manager, Frankie reluctantly agrees to train Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank in her second Oscar willing role). The reason for his reluctance is that as he says (repeatedly) “I don’t train girls” and because he thinks she is too old. After she achieves great success she eventually has a title fight against welterweight champion, Billie “the Blue Bear” (played by real life boxer Lucia Rijker). Following this fight there is a huge shift in narrative making the second half of the film completely different. A testament to how good the film is, is the way it holds the interest after such a dramatic change of pace and theme. Love it or hate it, it is a film you will never forget.

 Million Dollar Baby

 

5Battle Royale (2000): Staring life as a 1999 Japanese novel written by Koushun Takami, Battle Royale has been adapted into a manga series as well as this film. A sort of Lord of the Flies for a modern more violent age. The film can be viewed in many ways I like to think of it as a satire on the modern age others suggest it is intended to denounce the evil of Reality TV. Whatever the true meaning I don’t think I will ever totally get the subtleties and nuances of the story watching it from my viewpoint as a westerner. I have seen it many times and have read the [English translation of the] novel but have no first hand knowledge of the Japanese culture that created it. The film is filled with the darkest humour and is often brutal and uncompromising. It is a film that could only have come from Japan (or possibly South Korea). A European or American mainstream film industry is rarely brave or original enough to make a film like this. According to legend the film is so controversial it is band in the United States. Although this would add to the mystic of the film it is sadly not true. It simply has never been distributed. It has however been show at film festivals and is readily available on DVD by mail-order and has been sold in some shops. These versions have mainly come from the UK and Hong Kong. For those who haven’t seen it this is what it is all about: Whist on a class trip a group of fifteen year olds is knocked out by gas and transported to an isolated island. They are fitted with explosive electronic collars reminicent of the ones used in the movie The Running Man. They soon discover that helped by their teacher Kitano (Takeshi Kitano) the government is behind their kidnapping. They are told that they have been selected to participate in a game where they must kill each as set out in the Educational Reform Act also know as the Battle Royale Act. Under the rules of the act one class per year is selected and must fight to the death until only one is left alive. The collars monitor the location of the students and are set to explode if they disobay the rules. One of the rules dictates that certain locations on the island are designated “danger zones”. These zones change periodically forcing them to move around and ensuring they come into contact with each other. Each student is provided with a survival pack containing a torch, a map & compass, food, water, and a random weapon. The weapon vary in the usufulness, some aren’t even weapons at all. The range from guns and knives to saucepan. Everyone reacts differently to the game ranging from suicide to killing without remorse in an attempt to win the game. Some form groups for mutual protection. Others operate alone. One group even has a plan to hack the computer system defeat the game. You will have to see the film to see what happens!

 Battle Royale

6Lost in Translation (2004): From a Japanese film to one set in Japan that has been accused of being raciest and disrespectful to Japan. I disagree with it as the American cast and crew make more fun of themselves and their own culture than they do of their Japanese hosts. The film was actually commercially successful in Japan. The Japanese DVD came with a map of filming locations  popular with fans of the movie. For me it is a film that appeals for so many different reasons. The photography and lighting is brilliant capturing a real feel of the locations. I remember being amazed it wasn’t nominated for the cinematography Oscar; then I discovered they actually used minimal lighting. Shooting with high speed film stock allowed them to shoot many scenes with available light. This you would expect lend a documentary fell to the film, it doesn’t the look of the film is beautifall and cinematic. The casting is perfect, Sofia Coppola has said that she would not have made the film with any other actor than Bill Murray, I can see why. Not only does Murray give the performance of his career but I could not imagine any one else in the part. He doesn’t just lend his inexplicable comic presence to the film but also gives it a certain heart and sole. The part of Charlotte must have been much harder to cast but Scarlett Johansson is perfect. She conveys a certain sense of melancholy and despair without being depressing, on top of this she has to make her relationships believable. Not just with Murray’s midlife crisis actor Bob Harris but also with her husband John (an understated but brillient Giovanni Ribisi). The other performance of note is Anna Faris playing an airhead actress parodying every young actress out there including herself. The film is so well constructed it is amazing to think that it was only Sofia Coppola’s second feature (her first The Virgin Suicides is worth seeing as well if you haven’t already). I often criticise films for poor expression of time and space, films that do this can be self conscious and draw your attention away from the narrative. There are no such worries with this film as a viewer you get completely lost in the film and the characters. Ultimately not a great deal happens in the film making it more realistic than a film with complex and contrived scenes just for dramatic effect. This is why the film has to be good in order to keep the viewers interested. The reason it can do this, is that most viewers can relate to either Bob or Charlotte. I suspect a lot of people who don’t like the film don’t relate to either character, therefore may change their opinion of the film in the future.

 Lost in Translation

7Mulholland Drive (2002): Mullholland Drive came almost out of nowhere, the bulk of the filming had taken place in 1999 and 2000 as the pilot for a TV show that didn’t get picked up (the network chose an American version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire). So Mullholand Drive sat on the shelf for two years and we where denied the chance to see a second David Lynch TV show following Twin Peaks. Then the French company Studio Canal funded extra shooting to turn it into a complete film. And what a complete film it makes. There has been much debate as to if there is a coherent narrative Amongst the strands of the story. The beauty of the it is that it is left open to interpretation. You can take different meanings from it depending on how you read it. Although to his credit director David Lynch has always refused to explain what is happening he did give some vital clues to unlocking what is happening. Following these clues does give a defined story but if you want you can throw them out and draw your own conclusions. However you look at it there is a lot to enjoy in what may well be David Lynch’s best film. It also made a star of Naomi Watts who had been appearing in films for ten years but had never had a breakthrough role therefore it is responsible for some of the great roles she has had in recent years.

Mulholland Drive

8Donnie Darko (2001): Donnie Darko was really badly marketed as a teen movie. Fortunately Empire magazine came to the rescue giving a great review comparing it to a the work of David Lynch. That was enough for me so I was fortunate enough to see the film first time around at the cinema. From the poor box office I must have been in the minority. It is hard to define why the film is so good as it is a combination of things. The casting is great making a star of its leading man Jake Gyllenhaal and his sister Maggie (playing his sister). Using relatively unknown stars is always a risk but this was balanced with the use of the recognisable faces of Mary McDonnell and Holmes Osborne as their parents. Patrick Swayze and Drew Barrymore are both really good in small but significant roles. The music is a great making use of a nostalgic eighties soundtrack but the most notable song is a haunting cover of the Tears for Fears song Mad World. The line “The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had” fits so perfectly it could have been written for the film. Put the music and the acting aside the thing that really makes the film is the story. Set against the backdrop of the 1988 presidential election and filled with the type of ambiguity that David Lynch would be proud off. This is one film where the original theatrical release is better than the directors cut. The directors cut came about as the director didn’t like the idea of people misinterpreting his vision, therefore removing some of the ambiguity that makes the film so good.

Donnie Darko

9The Dark Knight (2008): With Batman Begins director Christopher Nolan dragged Batman into something resembling the real world but left us wanting more. With The Dark Knight we got it and then some. Sometimes a film comes along that transcends all expectations. The Dark Knight is one such film, it isn’t a great comic book film it is a great film. When the film comes up in conversation the first thing people tend to mention is the brilliant performance by Heath Ledger; taking nothing away from him, he fully deserved his Oscar for his part as The Joker but there is so much more to the film than that. Forget the action, the scene that cuts to the heart of the film is when Bruce Wayne is at diner with Harvey and Rachel. After Bruce’s date, Natasha makes a comment about democracy they discuss how when threatened the Romans would suspend democracy and appoint one man to protect the city until Rachel reminds last man who they appointed was Caesar and he never gave up his power. This theme follows through the rest of the film as Bruce holds Harvey up as The White Knight the city needs and that will allow him to give being Batman. But then we have the moral dilemma that does Bruce want to give being Batman because it is the right thing to do or because he knows it’s the only way to win back Rachel who is now in a relationship with Harvey? The story is multilayered and brilliantly played out without losing any of the great action you expect of the genre.  This is a film that can stand proudly along side any great thriller of recent years.

The Dark Knight

10Memento (2000): The second Christopher Nolan film on the list,  an ingenious and original concept elevated this neo noir thriller to near geniuses. Based on a short story by Christopher Nolan’s brother Jonathan and only the second feature directed by Nolan. For those who don’t know the film is told backwards with each scene set before the previous one. This is combined with a scenes shot in black and white to define them from the rest of the film. The black and white scenes form a linear narrative in chronological order. The narrative explores insurance investigator Leonard’s (Guy Pearce) search for the man who killed his wife. His quest is complicated by an injury he sustained at the time his wife was killed, it prevents him from forming new memories. He overcomes this problem by making notes of anything import that happens in his investigation. The most important thing he tattoos on his body ensuing he never forgets them. The reverse narrative means that we are not looking for a conclusion to the story but an explanation for it. The great thing about the narrative is that although there are clues along the way things are never truly explained until the end when the two narratives are revealed. The depiction of anterograde amnesia has been praised by experts in the field as an accurate portray of the condition.

Memento

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