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Television Killed The Film Star

The past few months I have been watching television shows to no end. I used to prefer film to television but I think it’s the other way around now. Films tend to get more money for production which consequentially results in higher quality productions. They also don’t take as much dedication as television shows: you can watch a film in one to two hours whereas shows consist of entire seasons (which are usually 12 + hours long).

Those are the reasons for why I used to prefer films. But now I find the dedication that shows demand to be exceedingly rewarding. Character development and plot lines can be so much more thoroughly developed in shows than in films. I love “getting to know” the characters over a long period of time. It makes for a more enjoyable experience. The production quality of shows has also went way up in the past number of years. This is especially true of shows produced by the likes of Showtime and Starz. Most of the shows I enjoy come from those companies. Television shows on cable and the major networks suffer from content restrictions. Showtime and Starz (and others like HBO) do not. I like my shows to include some blood, profanity, and sex jokes. Not because they are preferable in and of themselves necessarily (although that may be the case with sex jokes) but because they make for a more adult-oriented experience (darker and more complex themes and characters and so on). The only current show that I regularly watch that is produced by a major network is The Office (US). Interestingly enough, it may be my favorite show ever made, although I admit that shows of different colors and stripes can be difficult to compare. My other favorites are not for the faint of heart:

Dexter: a show about a serial killer who hunts other serial kills and murderers.

Spartacus: historical epic about the trials and tribulations of, well, Spartacus and company and the events leading to the Third Servile War.

Californication: a sex comedy about a man whose romantic troubles lead him to drown himself in alcohol and sex.

Shameless: a comedy-drama about a poor Chicago suburban family that tries to survive without parental guidance or parental help of any kind.

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Films of the Decade: 5-1

02/05/2010 5 comments

5. Superbad (2007): Superbad wins the award for the funniest film of the decade. Although perhaps too vulgar and overly raunchy for some, I found the tale of three soon-to-be-high-school-graduate-virgins to be full of laughs from beginning to end. Part of the delight comes in the actors’ ability to make us really believe that this is the way they talk and think. The constant cursing and sex lingo rolls off their tongue so smoothly and without restraint that one believes every word that they say. None of it feels forced or over-the-top. In fact, the entire film is like that. It serves as a surprisingly authentic look at adolescence. Equally refreshing are two cops who—instead of chasing down troublesome teenagers—are themselves rebellious adolescents at heart who have no qualms about drinking on the job, shooting stop signs to kill time, or pretending to arrest a young man just so he can look like a bad-ass in front of his peers.

4. V for Vendetta (2006): If it qualifies, V for Vendetta is my favorite comic book film ever made. It features a rare perfect blend of stylistic action and intellectual themes. This is a revenge tale. It is also a mystery tale. It is an ideas tale. And, of course, it is a political tale. This film blurs the lines between right and wrong, between governments and their people, and between terrorists and saviors. And it embodies the Lockean ideal that people have the right to overthrow their rulers and their governments when they are no longer working in their best interest. Far from being a commentary on the virtues of totalitarianism, V for Vendetta reminds us that it is the people—and not the governments that represent them—who ultimately have the power. And it also reminds us that such ideas are, well, bulletproof.

3. Inglourious Basterds (2009): Quentin Tarantino may very well be my favorite director (with the possible exception of Christopher Nolan) and Inglourious Basterds is a major reason why. It is my pick for the best film of 2009 and justice would not be absent from the Oscars if Tarantino and the film itself are both given top awards. Christoph Waltz is equally deserving for his role as the brilliant and menacing “Jew-Hunting” Nazi, SS Colonel Hans Landa. Characteristic of Tarantino, the film is split up into multiple chapters that each serve as short films in and of themselves; contains very graphic and stylized violence; is highly unpredictable; evades categorization (what type of film is this, really?); and features some of the best, well-written, clever, entertaining dialogue that the film medium has to offer. Not meant to be an historically accurate reenactment but an act of filmmaking creativity, it succeeds wonderfully.

2. The Prestige (2006): The Prestige is Christopher Nolan’s much-overlooked masterpiece. It never quite garnered the critical praise and cult following of Memento and never came close to becoming as popular as the monster known as The Dark Knight. Yet I think it is, even if only slightly, my favorite Nolan film to date. I found The Prestige to be so complex and so ingenious that it was the film I choose to do a six-page analysis on for my intro to film class a few years back. Its complexity and ingenuity are derived from its editing, its unorthodox time structure, its characters, its psychology, and ultimately from its excellent blending of form and content. As is usual for Nolan, the lead characters are less-than-admirable: they are obsessively ambitious, sometimes boarding on the psychotic. And it is the editing that allows Nolan to confuse his audience by messing with time and by throwing them into all sorts of blind alleys. This is as much of a film about deceiving the audience as it is about characters that deceive for a living. The question is: “Are you watching closely?”

1. The Lord of the Rings (2001) (2002) (2003): The Star Wars of my generation, The Lord of the Rings trilogy goes down in my book as the greatest filmmaking achievement of the decade. I can still claim to this day that watching the Fellowship of the Ring for the first time in December of 2001 is the single greatest movie experience of my life. It was unexpected, it was unprecedented, it changed my life.

Thanks to the genius of Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh, Howard Shore, Weta Workshop, Weta Digital, and many others, nearly every aspect of LOTR was top tier. The acting was solid through and through; the musical score was one of the best ever; the special effects—CGI as well as the use of models—were ahead of its time; the writing was inspiring; the cinematography was grand; and the story (much thanks to the author) was epic.

Having never read the LOTR books prior to viewing the film, in a matter of three hours I had been converted into a LOTR nerd. I would soon come to read the books, learn about a man named Tolkien, study the mythology behind his world, and kiss his grave while studying abroad in Oxford, England. Although in many ways my film tastes have changed since that time—now favoring more psychologically and philosophically driven films over grand epics—no film has affected my life more than LOTR. And there is no film that I am looking forward to more than The Hobbit, set to release in the Winter of 2011, a full decade after its predecessor. One can only hope that it will be half as great.

Honorable Mention:

The Bourne Trilogy

School of Rock

Napoleon Dynamite

Catch Me If You Can

Signs

No Country For Old Men

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Films of the Decade: 10-6

10. Gladiator (2000): My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next. Few lines make the hair on the back of my neck stand up as much as this one. Gladiator actually succeeds at doing that quite frequently. This is an exceedingly powerful revenge tale that takes place at the end of the Golden Age of Rome, an age that was, according to Edward Gibbon, unparalleled. As far as historical epics go, Gladiator is unparalleled. Though try as they might in the upcoming Robin Hood, it will be immensely difficult for Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe to match the beauty and grandeur of their first masterpiece.

9. Memento (2000): This is the film where Christopher Nolan has so eloquently decided to diagnose his audience with Anterograde Amnesia, the very disease that the lead character suffers from. Although plenty of directors had messed around with time before, I am not aware of anything quite like this prior to the release of Memento. The reason for this, I would guess, is not because it had never been thought of before, but because no one thought it could work. The idea seems absurd: Nolan has quite literally taken a sequence of chronological scenes and played them in reverse order. But what sort of story could merit such a jarring form? How about a story about someone with a memory disorder? Brilliant. Content beautifully blended with form equals winner.

8. Kill Bill (2003) (2004): I would want to kill Bill too if he did to me what he does to the lead character, __________ (Uma Thurman), in this Quentin Tarantino homage-to-the-70’s kung-fu extravaganza. Once you meet him, however, Bill doesn’t seem like such a bad guy. He is actually quite likeable and the more you get to know him, the more you become surprised (as surprised as __________) that Bill would be capable of such an evil act. That is what I have come to expect from Tarantino: characters that are as unpredictable as the plot itself. Another thing I have come to expect from a Tarantino film is style. And let’s just say he delivers. Featuring an atom bombs worth of style—whether in its violence, its colors, its writing, or in its characters—Kill Bill is a gourmet feast for the eyes and for the ears.

7. The Dark Knight (2008): The Dark Knight is a comic book movie, right? Then how come it doesn’t feel like one? Probably because Christopher Nolan has done such a remarkable job at meshing comic book content with the classic crime-drama formula. His dedication to creating a gritty, nasty, brutally real world pays off wonderfully, delivering one excellent film that just so happens to be about Batman. It also contains one of the greatest opening sequences I have ever seen on film. And, of course, I don’t think I need to comment too extensively on Heath Ledger’s performance. Much has already been said about it. But I will say this: when AFI releases an updated version of their top 100 heroes and villains list, they would do well to place Ledger’s Joker toward the top. He gets my vote for the greatest performance of the decade.

6. The Departed (2006): A fast paced crime-drama, The Departed gives us an entangled web of complex relationships that sets us up for one hell of a ride. A grungy kid from the back streets of Boston is hired to work undercover for the cops by infiltrating the Irish Mob while the Mob sends one of their own—a well-groomed, trustworthy, officer—into cop land. Both sides know there’s a rat. Both attempt to weed him out. But how? Blood. Sweat. And laughs. Yes, laughs. All of it taking place in Irish Catholic Boston, accents and all. This is Scorsese at his best.

Films of the Decade: 15-11

02/03/2010 4 comments

15. A Knight’s Tale (2001): A Knight’s Tale is one of a kind. It’s a highly romanticized medieval (fairy) tale that is charming, comical, and just plain silly. It never takes itself too seriously (coughsoundtrackcoughcough) and it certainly never pretends to be historically plausible. And yet it still manages to create a world that is, visually speaking, quite believable (although a medieval scholar would probably tell me otherwise). The film also introduced me to two of my current favorite actors—Paul Bettany and Heath Ledger—who are predictably excellent as Geoffrey Chaucer and a young peasant striving to change his stars.

14. The Hangover (2009): What a great idea for a film. Take a group of guys to Vegas, get them extremely drunk, but only film the aftereffects. This leaves the audience as unaware of what transpired during the wild and wacky night as the characters themselves. Then reveal, piece by hilarious piece, what happened via the visible consequences of those actions. Great premise, great delivery. This film made by stomach hurt. One of the best laugh-out-loud comedies of the decade.

13. Blood Diamond (2006): Blood Diamond does two things well: it entertains and it informs. Hopefully this film will at least make individuals who are planning on purchasing diamonds a little more self-aware of their financial transactions. Personally, I would hope it does more. I hope it makes people cynical of the entire Western glamour façade. Not likely. With that aside, this film qua film is great. Its pacing is excellent, its actions scenes are thrilling, and its characters are passionate. Some may be put-off by Leonardo DiCaprio’s African accent, but I would suggest that that’s only because they aren’t use to that sort of sound coming from his mouth. And Djimon Hounsou’s performance is so powerful and intense that you quite literally believe that the veins on his head are going to burst.

12. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004): Charlie Kaufman, the writer and auteur of Eternal Sunshine, is a mastermind who doesn’t shy away from using the impossible in order to explore—in completely novel ways—some of the most important, complex, and thought provoking questions that humans have thought to ask. Is it better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all? That is the central question of Eternal Sunshine. More broadly, however, it raises questions about the good life and what constitutes it. Is a life in which we have no heartaches a desirable one? Is the erasing of one’s particular memories ever the best possible route one can take? The arguments pull both ways. Furthermore, does the act of erasing our particular memories ever completely erase the overall affect that such experiences had on us? Or will such experiences shine eternally on us, forever shaping who we are, no matter how much we strive to forget, no matter how great our desire is to be someone else? And did I mention that the cinematography and acting is top notch? Well, it is.

11. Little Miss Sunshine (2006): I think the above picture explains the essence of this film more than words can. Little Miss Sunshine is funny, dark, cute, intelligent, cynical, sweet, absurd, and wholly original all at the same time. And when a film embodies so many diverse and seemingly contradictory adjectives, language and description come to an end…

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Films of the Decade: 20-16

02/02/2010 3 comments

20. The Incredibles (2004): The Incredibles is not only my favorite animation of the decade—and my favorite of all the Pixar films—I also think it is one of the greatest (and one of the most overlooked) superhero flicks ever made. For me, this film is a breath of fresh air. One of the most ignored aspects of this new and illustrious generation of superhero films is the fact that sometimes animation is preferable to live action. Animation is virtually unlimited in its creative potential because it isn’t held back by the limitations of the camera or by the need to look realistic. The possibilities thus become endless; and if you have the right team for the job (which Pixar always seems to have), live action will not be missed. More films need to follow suit. Oh and did I mention that this is the only Pixar film to date (with the possible exception of Up) to focus its story entirely around humans (albeit super)? Also a plus.

19. Stranger Than Fiction (2006): Is your life a comedy or a tragedy? That’s the question that Stranger Than Fiction continually asks us as we watch Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) struggle to make sense of the voice in his head that has recently begun narrating his life and that has just informed him that he will soon kick the bucket. A second question that the film raises is equally self-reflective: what makes our lives worth living in the first place? What gives our lives meaning, if anything? Crick is an IRS agent whose life is dull, mundane, and fill-in-the-blank with similar cognates. He reminds one of Sisyphus, the ancient king condemned to push a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down, for eternity. The only difference is that Crick is mortal. And it is not until he finds out about his imminent death that his life seems to acquire meaning. The film features an excellent cast—including one of Ferrell’s greatest performances—and a story that is as unique as it is thoughtful.

18. Harry Potter (2001-2009): I should note that I am primarily talking about the heart of the series: films three, four, and five. These are the films that began exploring darker and more mature themes. The first two films are more children-oriented by comparison and the sixth film felt like a filler for the finale. With that out of the way, I think the Harry Potter films are an excellent artistic achievement: although forced to cut out large portions of the books to conserve time, these films nonetheless succeed in recreating J.K. Rowling’s bizarre wizarding world. The films were also able to draw upon the deep and vast reservoir of British actors, the sort of quality crop that are necessary to make a fantasy genre film believable. Names such as Gary Oldman, Emma Thompson, and Alan Rickman, make for an outstanding cast that add character to the films. Oh, and did I mention that Emma Watson is one of the most gorgeous beings in the universe Oh, I didn’t? Oh, that’s irrelevant to the films’ quality? Sorry.

17. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006): Guillermo del Toro’s El Laberinto del Fauno (the original title did not reference Pan and del Toro himself apparently stated that the faun is not the Greek god of shepherds) is an artistic masterpiece of the highest order. The film is exceedingly dark—featuring one of the most gruesome death scenes I have ever seen on film—but also remarkably beautiful. Del Toro purposely blends real-world scenes with Ofelia’s fantasy-world scenes, forcing his audience to question the lines between the two. Are Ofelia’s fantasies merely the result of a little girls wandering imagination? Or is there more to the world than meets the eye? Or perhaps both are true. Perhaps this is del Toro’s way of showing us that fantasies (myths) don’t have to be literal in order to be real, in order to be true. This film would have been in my top 10 if it had played out a bit differently to the satisfaction of my personal desires (more on that below). But it nevertheless remains a brilliant piece of filmmaking that should not be missed.

SPOILER ALERT!!! After watching the film through twice, I have to admit that I would have preferred that the faun come to life at the end and kill the Captain in the labyrinth. He didn’t need to save Ofelia. It could have been after her death. But I suppose I was really hoping, deep down, that in some way, shape, or form, the fantasy world literally connected with our world. That may have downplayed certain powerful aspects of the film, but as the film progresses, one becomes increasingly convinced that these fantasies really are just the fantasies of a little girl. Del Toro really had the opportunity to throw us for a loop, one that I wish he would have taken. He could have even presented it in such a way that made us question the lines between the two worlds even more. In any event, the thought of the faun ripping the Captain to shreds is a pleasant one.

16. Pineapple Express (2008): For all the taboo that surrounds marijuana in our society, there is something unmistakably funny about the drug culture, especially when it involves Seth Rogen and a very impressive performance by James Franco. The film plays out like a good cat-and-mouse adventure thriller—including some unexpectedly terrific car-chase and shootout scenes—that also finds plenty of time to slow down for some hilarious raunchy and drug-related dialogue. This is just one more film to add to Judd Apatow’s never-ending-greatest-hits catalog.

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Films of the decade: 25-21

02/01/2010 2 comments

Over the next five days I will be documenting my 25 favorite films from the years 2000-2009. All of these films were released during the decade that will come to represent my generation. This was the decade in which I grew through my teen years into adulthood. Based on interaction with older adults, these are the most influential years in a person’s life. This is the time when all of one’s psychological traits (character, tastes, desires, etc.) become solidified. It’s no accident that those of the baby boomer generation reminisce about the golden age of music when The Beatles and Bob Dylan reigned supreme and equally dismiss modern pop-stars such as Taylor Swift and Jay-Z. Oh wait, bad example (anyone, in any age, should prefer the former to the latter because, as a matter of objective fact, they are better). The point is that people have a tendency to latch onto the time and culture in which they became of age. And the decade of 2000 is that time and culture for me.

Let me make a few qualifiers before I get started:

Qualifier 1: Any entry on the list that is made up of multiple films will count simply as one entry. Thus, if Star Wars was included on the list, it would only take up one slot even though all three films would be included in that slot. If I feel the need to make further qualifications, they will be noted in the comments below each entry.

Qualifier 2: I am not a professional film critic. Therefore, the number of films that I have watched in the last ten years will be comparatively limited. It is highly likely that there are some exceptional films that I have not seen that would have been a contender for making this list, had I seen them. So while I have probably seen the majority of wide-release films in the decade that merit consideration—and thus many of the films that ordinary filmgoers care about—there are undoubtedly many independent and foreign films (and a few obscure wide-release films) that went under my radar. The downside of this is that there won’t be many unique movie suggestions. The upside is that readers will actually have seen many of the movies on the list and thus will be able to relate by agreeing or disagreeing. All too often I come across a professional critic’s top-movie list in which I haven’t even heard of half of the listed films, let alone seen them.

Qualifier 3: These are my favorite films of the decade. They are not necessarily the greatest films of the decade. The greatest films are usually those that break new ground by uprooting our expectations as to what a film can and should do (Pulp Fiction, Star Wars). They can also be films that perfect old formulas (Saving Private Ryan, Princess Bride). While I do think some of the films on my list certainly qualify as the greatest of the decade, I have to admit that some of them certainly do not. These films made the list only because they are personal favorites of mine. That is, I recognize that these films do not meet a certain set of objective criteria for greatness even though they do satisfy my subjective tastes. Ultimately, there are very few hard and fast lines between objective standards and subjective tastes: the weight we place on certain objective standards is itself going to be subjective. But I don’t think wholesale relativism is the correct answer either. But I’ll stop with the philosophy and get on to the list.

25. The Count of Monte Cristo (2002): When done right, revenge tales can be extremely satisfying. To say the least, Kevin Reynolds’ The Count of Monte Cristo is done right. We are given a likeable, innocent, uneducated protagonist, Edmund Dantes (James Caviezel), who is on top of the world: he has just recently been promoted to first mate of his ship and as a result has enough financial security to marry his girlfriend. Unfortunately for Dantes, his world is soon turned upside down through no fault of his own. He was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, becoming the victim of political conflict. From prison he plots his revenge and is finally given the opportunity from an unexpected and unlikely source. Monte Cristo gives us a gripping story, intriguing characters, a satisfying reversal of power, and the promise of oh-so-sweet revenge.

24. Dan In Real Life (2007): Dan In Real Life is the sole representative of the romantic comedy on this list. Boasting a beautiful soundtrack by Sondre Lerche and an unexpectedly down-to-earth performance by Steve Carell, this is one of the sweetest, homeliest, feel-good films of the decade. Dan is a widower struggling to raise three girls: the youngest never had a chance to know her mother, the middle child is an adolescent passionately in love with her first boyfriend, and the oldest is desperately seeking her driver’s license. Dan is overprotective of his daughters and it is not until he meets Marie, an attractive French woman, that he learns a few lessons about his own shortcomings and how love can make you feel and act like a teenager.

23. Moon (2009): I actually just found this gem a few weeks back and hope that its recentness isn’t the only reason why it made the list. Regardless, this is a great indie sci-fi flick about a man (Sam Rockwell) who has been given the sole task of controlling and maintaining a station on the Moon that provides the earth with vast amounts of energy. He is all alone but is kept sane by a talking robot and by videos that are occasionally sent to him of his wife and child. The film begins with his three-year mission almost at an end. Only two weeks remain before he returns home. I’m an ideas-man and this is a film about ideas. It’s a film that raises my favorite sorts of questions: metaphysical, epistemological, and moral ones. And that’s really all I can ask for.

22. The Last Samurai (2003): Is it historically accurate? Not exactly. Is it highly romanticized? Most definitely. But is it exceedingly beautiful? Without question. While The Last Samurai has some excellent action sequences, what really makes Edward Zwick’s epic so exceptional is its depiction of nineteenth-century samurai culture. The film features some of the most breathtakingly gorgeous, serene landscapes, and a musical score that will transfer you into that world. This is a world of stillness, of peace, of bliss, of tranquility, and of honor. The Japanese samurai are as beautiful as the environment: their way of life mirrors the world around them. Like the lead character, Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), I cannot help but feel envious of them. Western society looks barbaric and unworthy of life in comparison. Although this world is an idealization—it would likely never be that beautiful in the real world—I suspect that if heaven exists, it looks a bit like the one depicted in this film.

21. Pirates of the Caribbean (2003) (2006) (2007): I love pirates (not the Somali variety) and I love skeleton pirates even more. Most of all, I love wobbly, drunken, Keith-Richards inspired pirates who tie their back hair to the backs of sea turtles in order to escape from deserted islands. That sentence sums up the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy in a nutshell: it is an exciting adventure on the high seas that is both hilarious and dominated by Johnny Depp’s performance. I don’t think that there is any question that Captain Jack Sparrow is one of the most original and enjoyable characters of the decade. It’s not all about Depp, however. The world itself is a wonder to behold and the navy battles are among the best I have seen on film. Best of all, Pirates is just fun, fun, and more fun. One might say it is fun incarnate.

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