Tag Archives: In the Loop

Best movies by decade: The 2000s (11-16)

7 Aug

A rich, exquisitely terrifying experience.

11. Tale of Two Sisters/Tristram Shandy—So. Fucking. Scary. South Korea became an enormous hot bed of cinema in the 2000s. Dozens of great movies and interesting directors emerged from what now seems like a movement in the French New Wave paradigm: J.S.E., Memories of Murder, Oldboy, 3-Iron, Chaser, Mother, I saw the Devil, Treeless Mountain, and Antarctic Journal, among others. South Korea had a hell of a decade. A Tale of Two Sisters is the most perversely gothic of the bunch, a claustrophobic scarefest that follows two sisters and their distant father, removed to the countryside, dealing with some unnamed tragedy while terrifying weirdness unfolds. Spooky things occur: weird visions, poltergeist, hauntings. The film is gorgeous, the colors rich and bold like a Renaissance painting. The frights rival the scariest of the J-horror movies infecting the world from Japan. Unnerving horror tinged with regret.

Inspired meta-comedy madness with life imitating art imitating life.

Tristam Shandy—My vote for the best comedy of the 2000s, a wry, very funny movie about the pitfalls of attempting to adapt an unfilmable novel, in this case Lawrence Sterne’s bizarre postmodern novel from the late 1700s. Steve Coogan is excellent—and wouldn’t be again until he made a sequel of sorts with The Trip—as himself, playing a vain, self-involved narcissus with a penchant for self-sabotage. Just as the novel is essentially Shandy failing in his attempts to explain his life in any sort of simple manner, so does Coogan’s navigation of his own life become more and more incomprehensible as the audience witnesses his self-destruction. As the filming becomes more and more difficult, Coogan’s personal life also begins to unravel. The movie makes its point; life, even simulated life, is so much bigger and more complicated than art.

Three young people navigate the immense changes to Italian life in the sixties, seventies, and eighties.

12. Best of Youth/Adaptation/In the Loop—A five-hour Italian television event released theatrically, and a kind of condensed period piece precursor to Mad Men. Best of Youth follows two brothers, Matteo and Nicola, through three decades of Italian life. They begin as young university students in the 1960s, backpacking through Europe, drinking too much, falling in and out of love. The catalyst to the plot is their attempt to save a mentally ill woman named Giorgia from a mental asylum. The fallout from this haunts them both for the remainder of their lives. Nicola becomes a doctor. Matteo joins the army. Physical distance becomes emotional distance. Political differences widen. The movie follows their lives into middle age. The tone is nostalgic, warm, and humane, but the movie’s approach is that of a mortician, examining the corpse of Italian society, one layer at a time. Sharp writing, good acting, solid direction, and an obsessive devotion to period details.

The performance of Cage’s career holds this postmodern farce together.

Adaptation—Writing as a form of madness. This, the best of the Spike Jonze-Charlie Kaufman films, offers an incredible performance from Nicolas Cage. He plays twin brothers, Donald and Charlie Kaufman, living in Hollywood. In the late 1990s, Charlie was hired to adapt a short non-fiction article called “The Orchid Thief.” But a severe writer’s block took hold, and Kaufman, at a loss, wrote himself, and his writerly struggles, into the screenplay. Adaptation is the result. This meta-comedy is a sophisticated information system, funny and complex, but at its core, the movie feels like an exercise in solipsism. The movie begins feeding on itself, and by the end the audience seems secondary to Kaufman’s own neurotic desire to be recognized. Funny, twisty, and complex, yes, but this type of movie can only be made once . . . and Kaufman has written a version of it three times. I loved it the first time, liked it the second, felt hoodwinked the third. The ending seems by design to invalidate the film, erase its good qualities. Still, Cage is very good, offering a more refined version of his amped up sardonic hero, every bit the star. (Strangely, soon after, Cage would give up his acting ambitions altogether, squandering the rest of the decade in trifle.)

Scabrous, barbarous wit at play in the corridors of power.

In the Loop—Hilarious, scathing, disturbing, unsettling and revealing. A group of low-level bureaucrats, with slight data manipulation, push two countries into war. In England, an under-the-radar secretary of state (played by the very talented Tom Hollander) slips up in a radio interview; he calls the looming war unforeseen. The director of communications, a bully named Malcolm, begins his damage control, while also working with a mid-level bureaucrat in the U.S. to facilitate the war. Characters exchange pithy and not-so-witty cutdowns as various factions stumble through meetings, press conferences, and hotel rooms. The whole thing watches like an updated Marx brothers movie, rapid-fire verbosity delivered in deadpan style. Some critics found the movie’s cynicism off-putting. Probably the best movie about the Iraq war.

Love is a dog from hell in this bleak, gripping drama of crime and canines.

13. Amores Perros/Master and Commander/The Lord of the Rings—A muscular new Mexican cinema. Following the Pulp Fiction format—three stories told out of order, but interlocking in a variety of ways—this film details three people and their relationships to dogs. The first is a tough teenager who falls into dog fighting; the second is a troubled married couple who lose their dog into the crawl space of their house; and the third is a lonely old man who looks after stray dogs as a way to find meaning and comfort in his solitude. The first and best collaboration between director Alejandro Unarritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga, Amores Perros is a visceral and thrilling movie that uses the characters’ relationships to their dogs as a method of scrutinizing contemporary Mexican society. Tragic and harrowing, but also (unlike their other films) compulsively watchable. Lean and sinewy as a junkyard dog.

Rousing high seas adventure from Aussie wonder Peter Weir.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World—I’ve always loved Peter Weir. Starting with Picnic at Hanging Rock, one of the creepiest movies ever made, to The Mosquito Coast and The Truman Show, he’s consistent, making beautiful, thought-provoking movies. Here he delivers a rousing sea adventure, with Russell Crowe as Captain Jack Aubrey, pursued and pursuing a clever French captain on the open seas. Aubrey’s best friend, Maturin (played by Paul Bettany) is also his foil, as the two debate and argue over ever aspect of the ship. The backdrop is the Napoleonic Wars, but the two ships soon find themselves in a cat and mouse game around the island of Galapagos. And it is here, where Darwin would make his big discoveries, that Aubrey and Maturin have their biggest debate. The details of the innerworkings of a ship are minute and carefully observed. The creak of the ship, the make of the muskets, the cut of the costumes—it is an exercise in perfecting the small things. Perhaps not a lasting work of art, but superior entertainment.

Hobbits everywhere and the film would be lost without them.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy—An epic, teeth-rattling exercise. Underground horror comedy director Peter Jackson adapts the great Tolkein trilogy into nine hours of (mostly) rich, buttery, exciting confection. Jackson understands the material, and has the (very difficult) skill of balancing the characters against the epic sweep. New Zealand helps, binding the three movies with a gorgeous, and at times forbidding, set of panoramic backdrops. The cast is very strong, making some of the sillier lines believable. The Two Towers is the strongest of the three, in large part due to Brad Dourif’s astonishing performance as Wormtongue, the human turncoat who realizes he has betrayed his human race too late. But the storyline opens up in Towers, full of a cosmic majesty, and the Battle at Helm’s Deep is a landmark sequence in film history, a grueling 30 plus minutes of sword and sorcery action. The third film is too long, with some aspects that should have been cut (especially the army of the dead). But Towers feels just right. The films are linked by a sweeping, grand look. A financial juggernaut, yes, but also a great set of movies.

The cult movie of the decade, scary and touching study of disaffected youth. And time travel. And the possible end of the world.

14. Donnie Darko/Sugar/The Squid and the Whale—The best cult film of the 2000s, a failure upon its release and now a roaring giant that outshines its creator. Donnie Darko is a disaffected teenager in the 1980s, a somnambulist who scares his teachers with his intellect and mystifies his family with his strangeness. He dreams of a giant silver rabbit that tells him when the world is going to end, and the rest of the movie lurches towards this peculiar apocalypse. A great cast and a superior soundtrack help, but the film is ambiguous to what is actually happening; it teases you into extrapolation, but resists interpretation. I’ve watched it a number of times and I’m left with the impression that Darko is being manipulated by the adults, but it isn’t clear why. Director Richard Kelly, after Darko, would lose his way, falling into decadent and incoherent trash.

The story of what happens after you fail.

Sugar—Sports films tend to be stories of redemption. They highlight the superior skills of the athlete in question, usually juxtaposed with personal shortcomings. But what of the athletes who are merely good and not great? Sugar follows a young Dominican Republic baseball player trying to break into the major leagues. He begins pitching for a farm league team in Iowa, and as a stranger in a strange land, slowly realizes that he is not good enough to make it in the pros. What follows is a beautiful, taut little movie that feels both epic and personal. The power of failure is palpable, and can transform a no-future athlete into something else. )Co-directors Boden and Fleck also made Half-Nelson, the movie that inspired me to become a teacher. They’re superb realists, throwbacks to Hal Ashby and Bob Rafaelson.) The best sports movie ever made.

Filmmaking as a method of exorcising family demons, and funny as hell.

The Squid and the Whale—Noah Baumbach, after making the interesting if dated Kicking and Screaming, lost some years to the Hollywood machine. He co-wrote The Life Aquatic with Wes Anderson, and then made this, a scathing portrait of bad parenting in New York City. Baumbach uses his own life story, following a few months in the life of a troubled, pretentious teenager’s parents break up. His younger brother chooses his mom, played by Laura Linney, while he opts for his father, played by Jeff Daniels. The scenes are short and the script is laced with strychnine. Jesse Eisenberg is excellent as Baumbach’s stand-in, awkward and smarmy and full of self-loathing. Alongside Adventureland. C.R.A.Z.Y. and Rocket Science, this is the finest coming of age movie of the decade.

A sterling coming out and coming of age film.

15. C.R.A.Z.Y./Barbarian Invasions/Soul Kitchen—A great film. From Canada. It can happen. A repressed, closeted gay boy in French speaking Canada and his relationship with his cool, macho dad. The movie has style to spare, a great soundtrack and head-scratching touches of French-Canadian culture. But there’s an underlying mysticism at the heart of the movie, that provides this coming of age and coming out tale that special something that so many great movies have. What could have been a middlebrow melodrama becomes something powerful and strange. Truly excellent.

The decline of western civilization through the eyes of a dying history professor.

Barbarian Invasions—This sequel to the very fine (if a touch dated) The Decline of the American Empire picks up 15 or so years later with the same group of characters. This time, Remy, the history professor, is dying of cancer. The film follows Remy’s son attempting to make his father’s death as painless and meaningful as possible. His attempts to do so force him to navigate the entire spectrum of contemporary Canadian society—the buckling socialized hospitals; the underground drug trade; the empty churches; the meandering lack of a common goal or purpose. A brilliant movie about confronting death with courage and resolve, as well as facing the hard banalities of a secular society unsure of its own values.

A great feel-good comedy, of food and finding your way through the world.

Soul Kitchen—Those Germans, god they’ve been making great films. Directed by Fatih Akin, one of the rising stars of German cinema, Soul Kitchen follows Zinos, a struggling owner of a rundown diner in Hamburg. He is the cook, the accountant and the promoter, and he is horrible at all three. The movie follows his misadventures in the restaurant trade, as he tries to reinvent both himself and his little diner into something he can be proud of. A very funny, touching comedy, made with absolute control. One of those movies you can watch over and over again.

Von Trier’s damning, and damned good, indictment of these United States.

16. Dogville/The Boss of It All—Lars Von Trier’s antics have resulted in a bad reputation. It’s a shame, because his films are on the whole intriguing, even fun to watch, and even his misfires (I speak of Antichrist, which is just miserable and Manderlay, which is just bad) are worthwhile. Dogville is his first stab at the heart of America. The film is set in the old South; the whole thing is filmed on a clear sound stage with no houses or doors, just tapelines signifying where things rest. A strange woman wanders into a small town. She’s fleeing men who mean her harm. The townspeople help her at first, but soon begin extracting larger and larger payments from her. Superior, but disturbing.

A hilarious comedy by the bleakest Scandinavian on the block.

The Boss of it AllThe Boss of It All is a comedy, and it’s funny as hell. A cowardly business owner manages his employees with a fake boss to avoid confrontation. But when his business is confronted with an acquisition by an Icelandic company, he hires a pretentious actor to play the boss. The actor, so dedicated to the role, begins to destroy the company’s morale in a series of hilariously awkward scenes. I cannot recommend this little movie enough.