Thursday Ten - The Best Movies Released Since I Was Born

I initially began writing this column before my vacation. Well, that came and went. And while my procrastination on getting this up may suggest otherwise, this is a pretty important column to understand what I look for in films. What this Thursday Ten reflects are the best films released since 1988 – the year I was born. I’m 24 now and things, least of all my cinematic taste, have changed. I keep all ten of the listed films close to the heart. Selecting ten films and arranging them in order ended up being more than I bargained for though, so as an addendum to my formal list, I have also selected ten other films that could’ve easily made an appearance on a different day.

10.

Margaret (2011)

Being the newest and most recent film on the list prompted me to hesitate – perhaps my one viewing of Margaret was deceiving. But it’s a picture that shook me and continues to call upon my attention months after viewing it. My initial critique on the film noted the problematic pacing of its final act, which undoubtedly reflects director Kenneth Lonergan’s problematic production issues. The scarring and misjudged pacing almost works for Margaret’s benefit, as the complex emotional terrain has been given added affect. The way in which the narrative contracts and expands, all the while balancing everything it takes in, is some kind of marvel. With a Blu-ray release coming in early July, which will include both the theatrical and Lonergan’s cut of the picture, I might have a clearer grasp of how I feel about the picture’s eccentricities. As far as I’m concerned though, Margaret’s the most impressive and ambitious film I’ve seen in years.

9.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Only one Stanley Kubrick film was released during my lifetime, and I didn’t even get to see it until almost a decade after its release. While I may have been too young to have seen Eyes Wide Shut on its opening day, I doubt I would have enjoyed it much. It’s a labyrinth of a picture, one so dense in its construction and so oblique in its treatment of human emotions. Shrouded by a sense of mystery, it’s a film that moves at a daydream’s leisure yet carries the anxiety of a nightmare. As Tom Cruise wanders the streets of New York City, succumbing to the sexual insecurities of being a cuckold, we’re transported to a dark yet culturally exquisite underworld that instills fear into its viewer. There’s a mystery in Eyes Wide Shut, but it’s not the one involving Tom Cruise and his exploration of that shady underworld – it’s the mystery of where the lines of reality and dream are drawn.

8.

The Lovers on the Bridge (1991)

Recalling classic films like Jean Vigo’s L’Atlante and Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, Leos Carax’s The Lovers on the Bridge possesses the poeticism and goofiness associated with films of the 30s. It’s a lovely throwback that essentially believes in the more confounding and boisterous aspects of love. It’s both rich in sentimentality and melodrama, as its plot delves into the idea of homelessness being an afterthought - especially if you can just dance along an abandoned bridge while fireworks go off in the background. The Lovers on the Bridge is a film rooted in a reality outside our own, yet attains a certain level of grounded resolve – its intentions are noble in the sense that it makes no grandiose statements on love and its uncertainties. It’s simply tells a simple story of people falling in love.

7.

Dead Man (1995)

I saw Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man during my sophomore year of college. Taking a literature and religion course, I was reviewing Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, particularly the Inferno. Watching Dead Man was not part of the course nor did I have any previous expectations that my viewing of the film would correspond to what I was reading. I simply decided to watch the film based on its critically diffusive reputation. What I saw was a film that lingered in its imagery with deft awareness. Richly composed yet formally idiosyncratic, Dead Man not only subverted genre expectations, but also tested formal storytelling techniques. I corresponded this viewing to what I was learning, viewing the odyssey in which Johnny Depp embarked upon as similar to Dante’s descent into the various circles of Hell. When you watch a film at just that right moment, it can certainly leave a last impression – watching Dead Man essentially rocked my impressionable worldview of how films can tell a story.

6.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has the benefit of being viewed at two very distinct times in my life. One part of me admired the film while I was in high school, where I viewed the picture as a serendipitous and supernatural take on the pangs of relationships and love.  As I distanced myself from the picture, only to rewatch it again during my late college years, the film’s density really shined through. The insight on relationships and the difficulty of extended courtship were still there from my previous viewing, but obviously my ability to relate grew as I got older. Unlike similar films that inspire profundity while a youth only to seem immature as I go back to them (Garden State, for example), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind acknowledges that some moments in life, no matter how many times it happens,  will always hurt.

5.

There Will Be Blood (2007)

2007 was a pivotal year in shaping my movie palette. It was an impressive year that highlighted an incredible amount of talent. So much of that year’s output has essentially shaped my expectations and readings of contemporary films. The landmark viewing came in 2007 at a midnight prescreening for Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. The picture, which was considered a bit of a dark horse Oscar contender, was on my radar for most the year as I was going through Anderson’s filmography for the first time. Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and Punch-Drunk Love. With a sold-out crowd in attendance on a snowy Chicago night, I remarked on the contribution that a group collective can have on watching a film. Stunned awe for most of the opening runtime, as not a single character speaks over composer Johnny Greenwood’s score. It’s followed by one of the most bombastic performances in contemporary cinema, as Daniel Day-Lewis embodies Daniel Plainview, a ruthless oilman whose ambitions sustain a film with such unshakable intensity. Eerie in tone and at times absolutely confounding, There Will Be Blood abides by Anderson’s incredible formal elegance while subverting narrative expectations throughout. It’s a much more formal and immaculately crafted film than any of his other films, but at the same time, it’s less human, more rigid and ambiguous in its categorization. That, in itself, sets it apart.

4.

Zodiac (2007)

The finer qualities of David Fincher’s Zodiac aren’t just in its precise direction, dense script, or elaborate set design. What Zodiac accomplishes so effectively is its capturing of a universal feeling. Through the obsessive glares of its many characters, the audience navigates through a horrific world. Jake Gyllenhaal embodies the role of an everyman whose festering complacency motivates him to solve a series of gruesome murders. The picture begins and ends with his role in the investigation, but as the everyman, he doesn’t linger on the procedural middle portion. It’s here where our appointed heroes attempt to piece together the various pieces of the puzzle. It’s only with the everyman’s help are they able to get the wheel moving again.

Zodiac, like so many other films that I hold close to the chest, is the sort of film that requires multiple viewings to wholly embrace. Its procedural elements only get more and more interesting with subsequent viewings. And the decade-spanning narrative isn’t immediately appreciated until you understand how time and place play such a significant role to the character’s psyche. Few films capture the obsessive anxiety of a single character – Zodiac achieves this through a macro perspective by empathizing with the boiling anxiety of a city.

3.

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

When you’re exposed to so many American animated films with their hyperactive lunacy and recycled plots, it comes to a shock to see an animated film that subverts virtually all those qualities. My Neighbor Totoro was my first exposure to Studio Ghibli and remains a pivotal viewing in my life. It’s a film so quiet in actions and careful to the touch. It’s not about obnoxious characters or saving the princess. It takes place in a grounded world, where two girls live on the countryside with their father. The children’s mother is sick and resting in a nursing home. What I just outlined are three distinct aspects foreign to American animation; father’s are not absent figures, parental role models can have ailing health, and two girls can be lead characters. The fantasy elements of the picture are a consequence of the girl’s imagination – they’re not used to motivate the plot in one direction or another, instead, the giant Totoro is utilized as an observer as opposed to a plot point.

Not every film on this list needs to speak to a larger universal truth. Some of these pictures, in particular My Neighbor Totoro, works for being a film that just makes me happy. There’s joy to appreciate in the craft, no doubt, but its simple narrative and visual sights make for an experience of pure delight and enjoyment.

2.

The Double Life of Véronique (1991) 

Several films over the past decade have embraced a stream of consciousness approach, where the audience falls for the surreal and poetic qualities of a picture as opposed to a conventional framework. But few films effectively compromise their dreamy qualities with a narrative framework. That’s a quality that is solely accomplished in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Véronique. It’s a film that implicitly tells its story through images, allowing the audience to immerse themselves in a quasi-dreamscape.

Part of the magic of The Double Life of Véronique is that it really doesn’t demand clear cut answers. It’s something that one watches for the feelings it evokes as opposed to a narrative – this framework has no bearing on how compelling the picture is as a whole. Having seen the picture half a dozen times, there are still moments that surprise me. I can recall certain scenes accurately, but I still find myself surprised by the inclusion of particular scenes whenever I return to the film. Like a good dream, you forget crucial details almost immediately after waking up. For a film to accomplish the same through its mysterious elegance is no small feat.

1.

Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

When the idea came up to make this Thursday Ten, what was going to be number one was never up for debate. This just might be my favorite movie ever. For anyone’s favorite films, one can’t help but find a little bit of themselves in what they’re watching. This is kind of an embarrassing admission, provided that Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) is an introverted and socially inept person in Punch-Drunk Love. But there are certain traits in Egan that I can’t help but relate to in his quest for love, acceptance, and happiness. These are the sort of traits that most people obviously strive for. But in Punch-Drunk Love, these qualities carry human heft. Despite the weirdness of some aspects of the picture, it still feels incredibly grounded in its observations on people. People get embarrassed, they lash out, and they get scared.

It took a bit for me to fully embrace the film. Like many who go through Paul Thomas Anderson’s filmography, I embraced his more explosive films, such as Boogie Nights and Magnolia before Punch-Drunk Love. But as I’m drifting away from my teen years, I’ve found renewed admiration for this work. It’s all in the confrontation between Sandler and Philip Seymour Hoffman – the line “I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine” struck me as particularly insightful in my teen years. At least I can attest to that line now.

Addendum

On Another Day: An Angel at My Table, Everything Will Be Ok, Fargo, Fish Tank, In the Mood for Love, Jackie Brown, King of the Hill, Lost in Translation, Rushmore, The Social Network

Home Movies #4

Following a vacation to Los Angeles for my birthday, I’m back in front of my computer writing about movies. And it’ll be a busy next few weeks, as I’m working on tweaking the site a bit with new Oscar predictions, a new addition of the Thursday Ten, and a new in-depth film analysis for the Essential Series.

Until then, here’s an update to my Home Movies column. It’s a particularly jam-packed write-up, as I’m deviating from my self-imposed rule of only including home viewings. And with this, I mean I caught a few revival films over the past few weeks, as part of the Music Box’s Billy Wilder series and the Gene Siskel Film Center’s Studio Ghibli tribute. While the summer months have been a wasteland for mainstream theaters (more so than usual, really), it’s the local independent theaters that have really made a hell of a save.

Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990) Directed by Pedro Almodóvar

I’ve been sporadically going through Pedro Almodóvar’s filmography over the past few months as a result of my admiration for The Skin I Live In and a much needed second screening of Volver. Since then, I’ve seen a mix of his earlier and later works, including Bad Education, Law of Desire, and Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (covered in Home Movies #2). Each film exemplifies his impressive knack for design and bombastic narrative tendencies.

With Tie Me Up! Time Me Down! Almodóvar puts the audience in yet another uncomfortable position as he creates a situation where we begin to sympathize with a kidnapper. The picture doesn’t make any particularly novel statements on the concept of Stockholm syndrome, but Almodóvar’s stylistically brash tendencies present the material with a pulpy and comedic aura. Almodóvar’s thesis lacks dimension beyond the possibility that women actually might embrace subversion if the source comes from a place of love. But Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! tends to cushion any potential debate with Almodóvar’s comedic instincts. It works more as an absurdist comic piece than anything else, but I have to speculate on some missed potential here.

Rating: 6/10

Some Kind of Wonderful (1987) Directed by Howard Deutch

I’ve never been much of a fan of John Hughes. With the dated nature of his writing and direction, I’ve never found him capable of illustrating a genuine sense of what it means to be a youth. Instead, all of his writing tends to come from a place where heteronormative white males dominate the narrative landscape. And most problematic of all, most of his observations on socioeconomic disparities are confined within white culture.

A lot of those complaints can be applied to Some Kind of Wonderful, a film that Hughes wrote. But what makes this picture work is the sincere romance found between its lead characters. The confusion and disorientation associated with a crush registers as true. And unlike films like The Breakfast Club or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the picture maintains a methodical trajectory. The emotional crescendos crash appropriately – right as the characters begin to converge.  Some Kind of Wonderful may lack a strong directorial voice, but Hughes really comes off the page, illustrating that maybe my first impressions of him were off the mark.

Rating: 7/10

The Lost Weekend (1945) Directed by Billy Wilder

The heavy handedness of addition personified on film makes it difficult for me to ever wholly embrace a given picture. From Leaving Las Vegas to Requiem for a Dream, these pictures certainly drag the audience through the dirt. They’re heavy experiences that don’t exactly put you in the best of spirits. The Lost Weekend predates the aforementioned pictures by a half century and accomplishes a greater sense of audaciousness in its portrayal of addiction. Starring Ray Milland as a man whose failed ambitions caused him to turn to the bottle, The Lost Weekend is an example of virtuoso filmmaking. Its opening sequence, which sees Milland attempting to get his brother and girlfriend out of the apartment in a vain attempt to acknowledge the concealed bottle suspended outside his windowsill, is constructed with such directorial finesse and an unrivaled writing dexterity.

But jeez, is this film a tough one to sit through. Accomplished as it is on a formal and narrative level, its central character evokes such great pity. The Lost Weekend illustrates the capacity that film can have as a medium to illustrate the miseries of humankind. Utilizing Milland as a vessel, the subsequent unhappiness that comes with adulthood and the loss of youthful vigor and promise is realized through this singular character. That in itself is a minor miracle, along with the fact that it was release over sixty years ago through a studio system that simply did not acknowledge such complexities.

Rating: 8/10

Only Yesterday (1991) Directed by Isao Takahata

While Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies is his most prolific work, I’d take Only Yesterday over it by a fair margin. The picture has its share of grating flaws, including a narrative framework that can grow tiresome toward the end of its runtime. But the emotional resonance it conjures through its youthful nostalgia provides the material with a timelessness quality. The framework, which involves a young woman taking a train to the countryside, reflects on her youth. The initial hour delves into the various stories that we can all relate to – the first vacation with the family, a first crush, seeking peer and parental acceptance, and all the random memories that, for one reason or another, just stick with you.

While all the memories that the main character reflects on are wholly her own, they still possesses a universal quality. They possess a flexibility that could be adjusted to your own. Only Yesterday may not have the social relevance that Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies has, or the supernatural majesty of Hayao Miyazaki’s picture. No, it falls more in line with Yoshifumi Kondô’s Whisper of the Heart. Both pictures probe the lives of young women in a realistic way. Simultaneously, the both possess surreal moments in their narrative to elaborate a particular feel for youth. Rich with imagination yet unshakably grounded, Only Yesterday sits with the finest of Studio Ghibli’s output.

Rating: 9/10

The Major and the Minor (1942) Directed by Billy Wilder

I tend to use the word “delightful” sparingly when describing a film. But Billy Wilder’s debut feature, The Major and the Minor, could not be described in any other way. What could have been a film that dawdled on gimmickry becomes something so much more. Both innocent and risqué, The Major and the Minor supplies an endless well of charm. I tend to have reservations for screwball comedies in general, but Wilder’s picture melts any concerns away. Why? That’s a bit hard to pinpoint. It could be Ginger Rogers’ performance, which went against my expectations going in. Having only seen Rogers perform with Fred Astaire, she managed to really resonate on her own. Or it could be Ray Milland’s gleefully obtuse character, whose kindness seems to spawn out of a chivalrous place foreign in contemporary cinema.

My experience watching (and revisiting) The Major and the Minor is similar to my experience with Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights. Both pictures glow in their humanistic qualities. Innocent in their constructions, they touch upon universal themes of love and finding a place in the world without even making a conscious effort of trying. They tell simple stories of universal heft. I’ve always considered Wilder to be a very accomplished director, but the degree in which I’ve appreciated his work has grown tremendously over the past week with my exposure to The Lost Weekend and The Major and the Minor. Both pictures dwell on the systematic disappointment and happiness with life – the range that Wilder displays in the craft of films that were made three years apart immediately draws attentions to his immaculate skill.

Rating: 10/10