Best of the Decade: Films (Part One)

Because I’m doing a top 30 of the decade (and perhaps a top 50 when I’m done with my purging of the decade’s worthy titles over the course of the next few months), I decided to pop them off in 10s. So there’ll be three parts with brief reasons/reviews as to why they make this list. So today you’re getting numbers 30 to 21. Thursday or Friday 20 – 11 and Sunday (as always) the top ten with lengthier reviews. Oh and other superfluous lists like “top directors of the decade”. OK, lets begin!

After having seen this in April of 2008, I immediately understood that this was the key war film of the decade. While there are other great features that have been omitted here (one that placed 31 was Israel’s Lebanon which sports a similar thematic element), Radu Muntean’s The Paper Will Be Blue (Hirtia va fi albastra) mixes not only the feverish and exhausting components of Romanian New Wave, but is also the first of the European boom to embark on the soldier’s mentality. Not only does this work beautifully in capturing mindset of your average soldier during the Romanian Revolution in the late 80s, but it extends its reach into more topical wars such as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Muntean’s collaboration with his actors — Paul Ipate in the lead as Costi to Costi’s best friend Dragos in Dragos Bucur and their fermenting lieutenant established naturally by Adi Carauleanu — mesh this into a controlled situation of fragmentation that both tiptoes amidst the animosity in frantic war and touches hearts with its implied conclusion.

Oh no you didn’t! Oh yes, I just did — back to back Romanian New Wave! Cristi Puiu’s inception into cinema, Stuff and Dough (Marfa si banii) is a typical crime story told with the utmost patience, stripping away conspiracy and speculation – a genius fabrication considering the heart of the story is a concealed box that must be driven across the country. This also marks Dragos Bucur’s second consecutive appearance on this list as best friend of the protagonist, Vali. After Ovidiu (portrayed by a half-bored, half-invested Alexandru Papadopol as the film’s prime detriment) is told by Doncea (Doru Ana in a subtly intense performance) that if he delivers an ordinary box of “stuff” from their humble village to Bucharest he’ll pay him, Ovidiu takes the opportunity in hopes of becoming a sort of crime prodigy to Doncea, though that is never as explicitly stated. Even though he’s told to travel alone, his pal Vali tags along because his girlfriend Bety (the always lovely Ioana Flora) needs a trip. So the trio — together in an unstable automobile with a peculiar box that Vali sporadically wants to open — sets off on a most peculiar of road trips. It isn’t all quiet as events occur that make you more suspicious of the box, as the activity it generates is quite worrisome. Permeated with great dialogue that speaks of little stories that defines each of these characters without any pressure to, Mr. Puiu’s debut explains why he’s one of the filmmakers to keep an eye on (even if you aren’t too fond of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu like I am).

Being fortunate to catch this before Melanie Laurent’s name became a synonym for greatness, Philippe Lioret’s Don’t Worry, I’m Fine (Je vais bien, ne t’en fais pas) excels as much in projecting Melanie Laurent’s habitual talent as it does initiate one of the most questionable and morally speculative mysteries of the decade. The best of it all? It doesn’t lunge at the opportunity to exploit its viewers curiosity as a Zodiac would, but rather allows the feature to breathe as its audience does. A simple tale told delicately, Mr. Lioret’s adaptation of Olivier Adam’s first novel of the same name speaks of austere truths within the human condition. Back from a holiday, Lili (Melanie Laurent) comes home to understand that her twin brother Loic — the only member of her family that she’s ever been open with — has gone missing. Her father Paul (remarkable expose of guilt by Kad Merad) fuming that Loic had abandoned his job as a son in the family, her mother Isabelle (Isabelle Renauld) with an peculiar disposition and the world wondering where the sensitive Loic is. Lili faces personally established trials — refusing to eat, manipulating her jovial demeanor to be lethargic — in fret for her brother’s well-being. When a letter comes that inspires a new conquest, Lili takes on the mystery of her brother’s whereabouts to extremes. Like a “who-dun-it” caper without an abrasive score and roughneck tactics, Don’t Worry I’m Fine takes the finest qualities from successful mysteries; molding them together to create an a chillingly demure tale of passion that holds no boundaries. Perennially beautiful and expertly affecting — most of which stems from Ms. Laurent’s leading portrayal.

A review I wrote for this feature in early 2009 can be found here. It’s a tad weary, but it was during my initial growth as a reviewer.

Back to back films where I can just redirect you to reviews written? Nice. It’s the first review written: Jesper Gandlandt’s The Ape (Apan)

OK, this is getting a little ridiculous. Three in a row. I’ll prompt a small snippet for this one because I feel my fingers getting bored. Overly delightful, chipper than dog chasing cars and more energized than that pink bunny, contemporary Japanese genius Nobuhiro Yamashita’s tale about an all girls punk-pop band preparations before they play a track list before they disband and head off to colleges is a story so potent with its theme that it’ll be found a better experience and leave you with a larger smile than any concert can provide. Full review here.

The third Romanian New Wave on my list, Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (4 luni, 3 saptamani si 2 zile) is one of the more exhausting features… ever. Clocking in at 113 minutes it feels more like 311 as the plot drips away, hitting deeply emotional strings on its way down before eventually finding itself at the center of a repulsive tale with one of the more morbid themes this decade has given light to. The key component of this film that keeps it from becoming a begrudged viewing for myself and most viewers alike is that it has a mellisonant protagonist. Anamaria Marinca plays Otilia, a good friend of an irritating woman seeking a back alley abortion (as they were illegal in the 80s, the era in which this is set) in Gabita. Otilia ‘assists’ — if you can call the hurdles she jumps for her friend merely assistance — her friend in finding a place for the abortion to occur and an abortionist to perform the task. His name is Bebe (Doru Ana) and he fits the part of executioner with more ease than that of a doctor. While attempting to balance her romantic promises with boyfriend Adi, keep prepared for her examinations and help her friend through a cumbersome predicament, Otilia’s foundations slowly begin to crumble thanks to the different weights of stress being applied upon her shoulders. It’s this performance by Anamaria Marinca that is indescribable (there are literally no words for me mush together to explain my adoration for her work here) that both personifies Mungiu’s morbid fixation and embeds a sense of mortality in this tale. Although 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days has its share of issues, Marinca’s performance elevates this feature into a whole new atmosphere, where to be melancholic is to breath and to behold grueling happenstance is to turn your head in a different direction.

Alright, I somewhat cheated. I threw this film on — it was the first on my “to see” list of the aughts — a few weeks ago when I was getting used to the idea of diving into films from the ’00s that I hadn’t seen. So this is formally the first film from that list to crack my decade list. A little seen gem from the Netherlands, The Sea That Thinks (De zee die denkt) is what you get when you blend the fragility of the contemporary mind with French New Wave filmmaking along the lines of Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest. Here the story — if you can call it as such it’s ne’er a narrative — is  an expose on a frustrated novelist Bart Klever (Bart Klever) as he expels his rants pertaining to society through draft after draft of a novel he can’t find a soul in. Gert de Graff’s first (and so far only) feature is composed primarily of narration and peculiar symbolic gestures which cover the screen in an attempt at hitting you on duel levels. It’s a very poetic piece that ruminates heavily upon existentialism and as usual it does cross into pretension now and then, but these flaws are minimal in comparison to the abundance of truth spoken — or rather, pondered — in this film. There’s one piece amongst the ranting that boils down to: people are conditioned to inflict pain upon their existence through a vicious circle of trying to obtain what they want rather than understand who they are; that objects cannot define a person, that people are so blinded by media initiated ostentation that they lose sight of themselves. Films like these are why I keep my DVD rotation at a high level and it’s films like these that allow desolate viewers to know they’re not alone. Lucid abstraction — as paradoxical as this Dutch masterpiece.

Witty, complex, fascinating, identifiable, thrilling — each of these words represents a facet that can be easily found in Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang in an archetypal formula that is entirely palpable, but the cause of ebullition if attempted to be recreated. A one and only and here’s why: First, you’ve got Robert Downey Jr. in his most eager as the protagonist Harry Locke, an inept thief who is thrown into a topsy-turvy world filled with circumstance and people further from criminal abolition than he is himself. This, mind you, all stems from his stumbling into an audition room for a role as a private eye while leading police on a footrace. After the audition, he finds himself at a party where he meets Gay Perry (a never better Val Kilmer), a private eye who suggests Harry tag along with him to get a better feel for the character he’ll be portraying. Toss in the conspicuous death of a struggling actress who Harry takes a shine to followed by 80 minutes of the most hilarious exploitation of happenstance in cinema and you’ve got one of the utmost winning formulas of the decade. Its representation of “neo-noir” puts the easily malign feature with plentiful uncertainty into perspective and hits just about every note along its path to a rather sweet conclusion. Apart from being a tad rushed at the end, Mr. Black’s directorial debut is everything a film fan could want in a film (and more).

Reaching the end of part one is Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City — a film that is as cunning with its color palette as it is cleverly edited and skillfully performed. As this is by far the most accessible film on my list thus far, I feel it less necessary to indulge in the synopsis. Essentially: The Roark Family, while sitting upon a holy throne or a political office, is controlling Basin City. There are four stories that are either directly or indirectly tied into The Roarks: Marv (one helluva performance by Mickey Rourke that singlehandledly revitalized his career) and his vendetta against everyone suspect of killing his one night stand in Goldie; Dwight (Clive Owen) and the Old Towne girls not wanting to be tread upon; Hartigan (Bruce Willis) and his attempt at securing a child he saved from being raped as a kid — now a woman — in Nancy, while fending off That Yellow Bastard, aka Senator Rourke’s son. Each story is composed with Robert Rodriguez wittily mixing both classic film-noir elements with the erratic tendencies that he founded a decade prior in From Dusk Till Dawn. There’s a security in Rodriguez’s brutes that makes such an absurd environment feel safe and nearly friendly. This allows viewers to escape into this demi-realm with more ease and a longer lasting impression. It’s one of my personal favourites to rewatch as the visual design becomes increasingly more compelling with each replay, if for nothing else. It’s not flawless, but beauty seldom is. Give me a round two already.

THE TOP THIRTY OF THE 2000s (thus far)

30. The Paper Will Be Blue (Radu Munteau, 2006)
29. Stuff and Dough (Cristi Puiu, 2001)
28. Don’t Worry, I’m Fine (Philippe Lioret, 2006)
27. The Class (Laurent Cantet, 2008)
26. The Ape (Jesper Ganslandt, 2009)
25. Linda Linda Linda (Nobuhiro Yamashita, 2006)
24. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007)
23. The Sea That Thinks (Gert de Graaff, 2000)
22. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (Shane Black, 2005)
21. Sin City (Robert Rodriguez, 2005)


20. Stay Tuned…
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10. Stay Tuned…
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02. Stay Tuned…
01. Stay Tuned…

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