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

Thursday Ten - Best Judd Apatow Productions

With The Five-Year Engagement coming to theaters tomorrow, I thought that this would be an opportune chance to look back at some of Judd Apatow’s filmography. I was first introduced to his work via television, with Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared constructing virtually everything I knew about high school and college life. While his television work never really caught on beyond its cult following, the man has had a sizable influence in several of Hollywood’s contemporary comedies. Along with being a successful producer, he has proven to be quite a directorial presence. Apatow’s greatest talents remain in his excellent comedic writing, wherein he excels in his ability to bridge emotional conflict with various forms of comedy, whether it’s straightforward slapstick or something with a dash of wit. The films selected for this Thursday Ten span the gamut of his talents, whether they’re penned, directed, or exclusively produced by Apatow, they all share a common thread; they’re all very, very funny.

10.

Superbad (2007)  

Directed by Greg Mottola and written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, Superbad seemed to have taken a lot of people off guard upon its release. Here’s a film that took the high school arena and presented it under some explicit and raunchy terms.  While the American Pie franchise illustrated this concept, the novelty with Superbad is in how it embraces its overblown masculine bravado with a sense of sincerity. Reportedly written during both Rogen and Goldberg’s formative years, the picture registers as particularly true to how teenagers simply want to be accepted. While Superbad is a bit self-absorbed and obsessed with the male anatomy, it works on the strengths of its comedic material. The Apatow formula of meshing comedic elements with periods of emotional heavy-handedness doesn’t work here quite as well as some of his other films, as the immature, gross-out humor can be overwhelming at times. But it remains a critical work in Apatow’s canon, if not for introducing actors like Michael Cera, Jonah Hill, and Emma Stone to a wider audience.

9.

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007)

Co-written by Judd Apatow, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story essentially mocks every music biopic convention. Dewey Cox (John C. Reilly) is a character comprised of virtually every stereotype associated with musicians and their downfalls. But what elevates the basic premise of a parody on music biopics is Apatow’s comedic sensibilities and Reilly’s conviction to the character. For one, the use of Reilly to play both his teenage and elderly self with little more than minor dialogue indicators to differentiate between them is just good comedy. While this may be the sort of role that befits Will Farrell, I found Reilly’s performance to be surprisingly stirring – through the comedic facade are glimpses of sincerity that only Reilly could’ve accomplished.

8.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)

Like with a majority of Apatow’s productions, the farfetched comedic nature of Forgetting Sarah Marshall is given universal appeal through its ability to relate with the common man. With this film, Jason Segel stars (and writes) in a narrative about coping with a breakup. Segal, who is a staple of many of Apatow’s films, dating back to Freaks and Geeks, gives a grounded performance so as to allow the supporting cast, which includes Russell Brand, Jonah Hill, and Paul Rudd, to run amok with some of the film’s more audacious material. Forgetting Sarah Marshall subscribes to Apatow’s template almost to a fault, but through Segel’s sharp writing he’s able to take fairly pedestrian material and enliven it with sharp comedic appeal.

7.

Funny People (2009)

Judd Apatow’s third directorial feature is not his best work, but it is an interesting film that attempts to subvert some of the expectations that come out of utilizing the comedic template that he popularized. For one, the casting of Adam Sandler in the title role is of particular interest given the sort of comedian Sandler has evolved (or devolved) into. The narrative also unfolds in an atypical fashion, as it’s halved by two divergent narrative threads. Some of the problems associated with Apatow’s films (feminine subversion, poorly constructed final act, bromance relationships) persist.  But this film diverts from expectations in how Apatow has essentially taken Adam Sandler, the man, and deconstructed his career into a cohesive and entertaining narrative. While Paul Thomas Anderson had a markedly more successful film doing essentially the same thing in 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love, Funny People registers as particularly insightful given the expectations that people had of Apatow.

6.

Knocked Up (2007)

An ideal contemporary romantic-comedy, whereupon the balancing act between masculine and feminine perspectives are at their best, Knocked Up strikes me as Apatow’s finest example of sharp writing. It’s the one film that he has written that I feel doesn’t necessarily need to be cut down. Its masculine perspective is thankfully diluted by a more vocal and persistent female perspective. And its ensemble cast, which includes a triad of stoners hoping to catch Spider Man and a sharp married pair in Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann, is perhaps the finest cast ensemble in any of Apatow’s productions. The direction isn’t much to flaunt, but Knocked Up works in its ability to be consistently funny without jeopardizing its universal perspective.

5.

Bridesmaids (2011)

The most recent film on the list remains Apatow’s wholly feminine picture. While its release and marketing treated the picture as little more than The Hangover for girls, Bridesmaids exploits the preconceived notion to great effect. The gender dynamic shift gives the Apatow formula a great deal of freshness, as the arena for crassness is now occupied by women. And for that, it works wonderfully. Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, and Rose Byrne give effectively diverse performances while tinkering with the archetypes developed by films like The Hangover and Apatow productions like Knocked Up or Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Given the masculine perspective of almost every film on this list, it was a welcome reprieve to have a film from a wholly feminine comedic perspective.

4.

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)

From a film with an eclectic female cast to one dominated by white men who fear the presence of authoritative women, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy isn’t a particularly good film, per se. But within the silliness of its plot and writing is an actor who is a capable of illustrating an unwavering conviction to the material. Will Farrell’s performance in Anchorman isn’t typically cited as a breakthrough performance – few comedic performances garner such praise. But it’s an impressive performance given the utter absurdity of the situations the actor places himself in. Uttering lines like “I'm in a glass case of emotion” while trapped in a phone booth or “Discovered by the Germans in 1904, they named it San Diego, which of course in German means a whale's vagina”, Will Farrell validates his character by making it seem like he really believes it too. Sometimes absurdity can work when the material is funneled through someone who actually has faith in the comic material.

3.

The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)

A crucial film within the Apatow canon, The 40-Year-Old Virgin essentially codified and developed the foundation for contemporary American comedies. It brought Apatow to the forefront as a director and writer, while cementing Steve Carrell, who has largely been known as a television personality prior to this film’s release, as a significant Hollywood movie star. It also propelled the careers of secondary actors such as Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd into leading roles. The script’s lewdness is complemented by an essentially wholesome perspective on marriage and yearning love that brings the whole picture together. The comic notes were particularly novel at the time, as Apatow’s formula elicited both humor and sympathy for a good-hearted nerd who fumbled on every potential sexual conquest.

2. 

The Cable Guy (1996)

The critical dismissal of The Cable Guy is really an issue of time and place. Had the film been released now, wherein bromance comedies have reached a saturation point, I suspect that the picture may take on greater value as a critique on the sort of industry that Apatow had helped create. Central to The Cable Guy’s worldview is an analysis on isolation and yearning for camaraderie amongst men. This acceptance among men is a thematic element in most of Apatow’s features that carries homoerotic undertones – but here, these undertones have far more dangerous implications. Key to the film’s success is a lead performance by Jim Carrey. Following Dumb and Dumber and Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls with a film like this, Carrey’s buffoonery is exchanged for something far darker and human. The picture has an incredible ability to ramp tension by utilizing Carrey’s elastic features, as he can range from sincere to insane with a glance. The Cable Guy is by far the most different of Apatow’s features and a clear departure to the formula he’s utilized for the past decade, but the complexities involved here are really impressive.

1.

Pineapple Express (2008)

Pineapple Express is really the epitome of Apatow’s formula, wherein the writing, performances, and direction registers as the most effective. Whereas The Cable Guy complicates bromance films, Pineapple Express embraces the homoerotic undertones with bravado. It’s an interesting conceit that pays off because the individuals handling the material treat it with admiration.  David Gordon Green, who up to this point had directed excellent features like George Washington, All the Real Girls, and Undertow, applied his sensibilities to a genre that requires a bit of depth. Green’s emphasis on the mundane aspects of life work exceedingly well with the stoner script, wherein the two organically coalesce into something funny, poignant, and visually refined.

As much fun as I have with Apatow’s features, there’s a lack of true emotional depth to the pictures that hinder my ability to embrace them on all levels. With The Cable Guy and Pineapple Express, there are efforts to expand and question the superficial qualities of a solid formula.

Dawn of the Dead (Zack Snyder, 2004)

This remake of Romero’s film plays a rather integral part of my admiration for cinema. Yes, it’s awful (I’ll get into that in a bit), but when I saw this at the tender age of fifteen, I was more receptive to this sort of stylized form of cinema. I mean, at this point, I was beginning to become aware of IMDB and began to take notice on new films that weren’t traditional Hollywood blockbusters. And like most teenagers, I had a certain affinity for horror films, particularly zombie movies. And even now, there are certain unique aspects to Snyder’s debut film that does work well. But at this point, those aspects look tired and lazy, and are no longer the sort of things I look forward to in films.

I will say the film’s prologue and opening credits work exceedingly well in immersing the viewer in a modernized take of the zombie genre. The concept of the “running zombie” is commonplace at this point, but there’s something remarkably fresh about how we see it done in this film. Unfortunately, that’s the closest this film gets to receiving a compliment.

Snyder’s ADHD direction is so incredibly dated that it makes the whole feature nearly unwatchable. Not only are we exposed to a plethora of slow-motion sequences, but the film’s visual sense is utterly ridiculous – it’s a stylishly ugly mess. Film stock is exposed to such a degree that it appears that a thin layer of sweat covers each character. The screenplay is terribly problematic as well – characters are introduced in one scene only to be killed off in another. The problem is, Snyder attempts to derive some sort of emotional resonance from these moments – why should I care when they’ve just been introduced? The characters are flat, ultimately one can describe them through the simplest of terms – man, woman, cop, nurse, black, white. To reduce the film to one word, it’d probably be… bad.

3/10