I Am DB

December 26, 2009

The Decade in Film, Part II: 2004-2008

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 2:52 pm

Still here? To quote Princess Leia, you’re braver than I thought.

Alright, let the madness continue…

2004

ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY
Far and away the best entry in the Will Ferrell Man-Child subgenre, all the elements came together in Anchorman. It features one of Ferrell’s best pieces of character acting, and he’s matched by Paul Rudd, David Koechner and Steve Carell as his newscasting team, all alpha-male boneheads, each one dimmer than the last. Into the testosterone-dominated news station (the movie is set in 1970’s San Diego) comes Christina Applegate’s ambitious reporter Veronica Corningstone. As she fights to overcome Burgundy and Co.’s chauvinistic dismissals, Applegate proves a worthy match for Ferrell and the boys.

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COLLATERAL
On paper, the premise seemed silly to me. This kind of high-concept story – a hitman forces an L.A. cab driver to ferry him around the city over the course of one night as he executes a series of targets – seemed the stuff of flavorless action movies. Luckily, Stuart Beattie’s script emphasizes character development over action and provides a great playground for director Michael Mann, who can wring tension and excitement out of talky sequences as skillfully as he can from more physical setpieces. Here he gets to do both, from a quiet, riveting sitdown with a jazz musician to a thrilling collision of opposing forces in a packed nightclub. Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx, as hitman and cabbie respectively, create a great yin-yang rapport as each character psychologically impacts the other in ways neither expected. Mark Ruffalo and Jada Pinkett Smith excel in supporting roles, and Mann fans get to see the director firmly in his comfort zone: telling stories about Los Angeles nights and the complex characters who populate them.

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ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND
After Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, a movie written by Charlie Kaufman carries with it the expectation of something highly original, funny and even touching. But who knew Eternal Sunshine would also turn out to be the love story of the decade? Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey (giving what remains to date his best performance) might seem unlikely co-stars, but then their characters Clementine and Joel seem unlikely lovers. As the movie explores the highs and lows of their relationship through a Kaufmanesque prism, a perfect onscreen romance emerges, marrying the artifice of the science-fictiony set-up with the naturalism of a relationship that feels so beautifully believable. With inspired direction by Michel Gondry that employs low-tech visual effects to depict the race against time unfolding in Joel’s head, the movie delves into the joy and the hurt of knowing someone intimately, and the risks of even trying to.

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FINDING NEVERLAND
A tender movie depicting playwright James Barrie and his friendship with a widow and her four sons who inspired him to create Peter Pan. Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet are wonderful, as are Dustin Hoffman, Julie Christie and Radha Mitchell. Depp forms an honest rapport with his young co-stars Nick Roud, Joe Prospero, Luke Spill and in perhaps the most impressive performance in the film, Freddie Highmore. Not much older than 10, Highmore plays Peter, a serious child who is the most outwardly affected by the death of his father. He resists the games of imagination that his siblings and Barrie engage in – games in which Depp hardly seems to be acting, but simply having a ball playing make-believe with a bunch of kids. While there is joy to be found, the movie is also deeply moving, as Barrie’s involvement in staging Peter Pan is complicated by his troubled marriage and the health problems of the  boys’ mother, Sylvia (Winslet). Marc Forster’s direction is understated, yet marked by flourishes of magic that illuminate how Barrie’s creativity and his relationship with the Llewelyn-Davies family led to a timeless classic.

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GARDEN STATE
I know there are plenty of people who find this movie overly precious, falsely quirky and generally insufferable. I also know it’s beloved by many, and I count myself in the latter school of thought. Zach Braff impressed me tremendously as both writer and director, bringing an inventive visual design to a movie that is primarily character and dialogue driven, and creating situations that feel slightly heightened but still believable. The film is full of great stories and character details, woven in seamlessly by Braff such that, as offbeat as they often are, they cohere to serve the whole. There’s an episodic quality that works in nice harmony with the main story of a young man who has spent most of his life medicated and begins to come out of that haze for the first time in years. I love the performances by Natalie Portman and Peter Sarsgaard – she as the eccentric girl Braff’s Andrew Largeman falls for, and he as Largeman’s high school friend. Additionally, the movie is full of great character turns from people like Ian Holm, Ron Liebman, Jean Smart, Jim Parsons, Ann Dowd, Michael Weston and more.

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HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN
In a way, all the Harry Potter movies could earn a place on my list, given my love of the franchise in general. But this one remains the best film of the series to date. After two fine adaptations directed by Chris Columbus, the third film follows the trajectory of the books by getting darker and moodier, with a new director coming onboard to take it where it needs to go. Alfonso Cuaron brought a fresh touch of danger and mischief to the film, which found young leads Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson coming into their own as actors. It doesn’t hurt that some of the series’ best and most beloved supporting characters first enter the story here, embodied by actors as good as Gary Oldman, David Thewlis and Emma Thompson. The movie is also the funniest of the series (at least until this year’s sixth installment, which gives it a run for its galleons), features some particularly impressive visual effects (the Dementors and Buckbeak) and contains composer John Williams’ best full score since Schindler’s List.

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I ♥ HUCKABEES
Where to begin with this one? Jason Schwartzman plays Albert, an environmental activist trying to save a marshland from developers while grappling with big questions about life, the universe and his place in it all. Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman play Vivian and Bernard Jaffe, existential detectives Albert hires to help him answer these questions. Factoring into Albert’s “crisis” are a shallow corporate exec (Jude Law), the exec’s chipper, spokesmodel girlfriend (Naomi Watts), a petroleum-averse firefighter who’s also exploring life’s deep questions (Mark Wahlberg) and the Jaffe’s one-time student who now endorses a contrasting viewpoint (Isabelle Huppert). The intellectually ambitious script by director David O. Russell and  Jeff Baena combines heady philosophical themes with broad comedy both verbal and physical. Whenever I watch the movie, I marvel at the writers’ ability to explore such challenging material while maintaining a tight narrative and making it all connect in the end, such that even a dummy like me can kind of understand what was going on. Kind of. All the actors throw themselves into the movie with gleeful abandon, and out of the chaos emerges one clear truth: this is some funny shit.

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IN GOOD COMPANY
This movie is one of those small, simple gems that got lost in the shuffle. It’s got a great script and easy-going direction from Paul Weitz, a wonderfully natural and honest performance by Dennis Quaid and a depiction of nuclear family that is refreshingly real and warm as opposed to cynically dysfunctional. It’s also a humorous but realistic examination of the contemporary corporate atmosphere, in which companies are multinational conglomerates with global interests that often complicate the operation of day-to-day business. But the social commentary is organically woven into the story about a successful 51 year-old advertising executive who finds himself reporting to a 26 year-old go-getter (Topher Grace, also excellent) who happens to catch the eye of his college-age daughter (Scarlett Johansson). This is an underrated charmer.

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THE INCREDIBLES
Whether toys, bugs, monsters or fish, the characters in Pixar’s movies always deal with very human emotions. Yet it was considered fairly envelope-pushing when Brad Bird, director of the great 1999 animated film The Iron Giant, put humans front and center in his story of a family of superheroes living incognito after “supers” were banned for causing too much damage in the course of their derring-do. The result remains, to my mind, the crown jewel of Pixar’s esteemed oeuvre. And I don’t say that lightly. (Indeed, it feels like a betrayal of their other movies that I love so much. But there it is.) Mr. Incredible and his wife Elastigirl are now Bob and Helen Parr, and while she has taken happily to suburban life and raising their kids Dash (gifted with super speed) and Violet (invisibility and forcefields), Bob is a miserable insurance company drone pining for the glory days. When a mysterious woman shows up requiring the services of Mr. Incredible, he leaps back into action, resulting in the eventual involvement of the whole family. It’s group therapy through collaborative heroics.

Because Pixar has never condescended or boxed animation into mere children’s fare, The Incredibles dares to portray Bob’s domestic malaise and the negative effect his attitude has on his home life. The details of the family and marriage are as honest as in any live action portrait. But animation sets Bird’s imagination free, resulting in a rousing adventure and a triumph of visual storytelling. Bird conceives of setpieces to rival the best of James Bond, and in fact the whole film is infused with a playful spirit of Bond meets Superman. Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Jason Lee, Samuel L. Jackson, Sarah Vowell, Elizabeth Peña and Bird himself deliver rich vocal performances, and though the movie won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature and earned a screenplay nomination as well, in a just world it would have been cited for its art direction, costume design and jazzy score by Michael Giacchino. When a movie calls itself The Incredibles, it needs to live up to the name. As it turns out, “incredible” barely does this one justice.

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THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU
I wasn’t as initially taken with this film as I was with Wes Anderson’s prior two efforts The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore, but it quickly grew on me and further displayed Anderson’s unique gifts. Like all of the director’s films, this one is fanciful, funny and sad as it introduces us to the mercurial underwater explorer and filmmaker Steve Zissou (Bill Murray at his low-key best) and the people in his orbit, including his faithful crew (a very funny Willem Dafoe among them), his caustic ex-wife (Anjelica Huston), a frustrated journalist (Cate Banchett) and a young man who might be his long-lost son (Owen Wilson). Their journey to find the rare shark responsible for the death of Zissou’s dear friend and colleague finds loyalties tested, new relationships forged and danger lurking at sea. Anderson’s offbeat brand of comedy never fails to charm me. He packs each frame with incredible details that sell his one-of-a-kind vision and reward multiple viewings, and the way he stages action on the open-faced set for Zissou’s ship requires perfect timing and choreography of movement.

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MEAN GIRLS
Before Lindsay Lohan became a tabloid fixture and another sad example of a child star gone to seed, there were a few years where she was actually pretty, plucky and full of potential. And in that long ago era, she anchored a terrific teenage comedy straight out of the John Hughes playbook. Lohan’s Cady Heron, raised in Africa and home-schooled by her anthropologist parents, returns to the states and undergoes the shock of enrolling in a normal suburban high school. Before long, she’s involved with some outcast new friends in a plot to take down the school’s most popular girls. The sharp screenplay by Tina Fey (based in part on a nonfiction book aimed at helping parents understand the realities facing their teenage daughters) keeps the laughs coming, aided by a cast boasting a number of SNL players (Fey, Amy Poehler, Tim Meadows and Ana Gastayer) as well as some fine younger talent (Rachel McAdams, Lacey Chabert, Amanda Seyfried, Lizzy Caplan).

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SIDEWAYS
An impeccable script by director Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor meets the unlikely yet sublime acting quartet of Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh to create either one of the decade’s funniest dramas or saddest comedies, depending on how you see it. Giamatti’s Miles is a divorced, failed novelist who sees one last shot at hope with Maya (Madsen), a fellow wine connoisseur trying to get her life on track. Their connection comes over a week-long trip in Santa Barabara’s wine country where Miles has taken his best friend Jack for one last hurrah of bachelorhood before his wedding. To Miles, that means golf, food and wine. To Jack (Church) it means getting laid, and he sets his sights on saucy winery employee Stephanie (Oh). Along with the previous year’s American Splendor, the movie showcased Giamatti as a character actor with the depth and talent to play leading men. Church’s performance is hilarious, yet actuely tuned into the fears that trap so many men in arrested development. Madsen is radiant, seizing her role and its wonderful dialogue with warmth and grace. Payne and Taylor – the team behind Election and About Schmidt – once again show themselves to be masters of bittersweet human comedy.

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TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE
The funniest movie of the decade. Hands down, no contest, the end. Fuck yeah. Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s mockery of America’s bombastic, post-9/11 foreign policy, brought to life with marionettes, achieves brilliance on multiple levels. It’s a razor-sharp political satire, a spot-on parody of Bruckheimer-esque action movies, a superbly clever musical…and then there are the puppets. The marionettes are impressively constructed and manipulated, but they do have certain limitations…of which Parker and Stone take full comedic advantage. No movie over the last ten years has made me laugh so hard so often. Start to finish, it’s an ingenious and stupendously underrated piece of American comedy. Seek out the unrated DVD for maximum marionette depravity.

2005

THE 40 YEAR-OLD VIRGIN
Judd Apatow was already such a comedy fixture when this movie came out that it’s hard to believe it was his feature directorial debut. The wonderful thing about Apatow is that he’s down to earth and roots his comedy and his characters in real emotion. Just look at Freaks and Geeks, The Larry Sanders Show and Undeclared to see the evidence. It’s a trait that Steve Carell possesses as an actor as well, and seeing as the two collaborated on this screenplay, it’s no wonder that such humanity shines through the comedy. Rather than making pure sport of Carell’s Andy for being what he is, they take the time to explain how and why, and they make sure that scene is real. When Andy takes his girlfriend’s teenage daughter to a sex-ed class and becomes a little too openly curious himself, the movie allows for a scene between the two on the car ride home in which they talk about Andy’s embarrassing but obvious secret. Most movies probably wouldn’t have bothered with it, but it’s scenes like that which elevate the whole. Without this depth, well…it still would have been pretty awesome. Romany Malco, Paul Rudd and Seth Rogen form a tight circle with Carell, while Jane Lynch, Elizabeth Banks and Leslie Mann make their mark in small roles. Catherine Keener is onboard as well, and she brings authenticity to everything she does. A great comedy, a great movie.

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BATMAN BEGINS
The Dark Knight gets all the Batman love these days, but that movie obviously couldn’t exist without Christopher Nolan’s initial reboot, and it’s a strong film in its own right that shouldn’t be overlooked. It retells Batman’s origin story by showing not only why Bruce Wayne created his alter-ego, but how: how he learns to fight, how he develops his gadgets, how he masters his own fear to become someone to be feared. There’s nothing supernatural or superhuman about Batman, and so Nolan smartly grounds the movie in realism, preferring a Gotham as recognizable as any major city rather than the stylized look favored by Tim Burton (which suited his vision perfectly well). With a kick-ass cast led by Christian Bale, Nolan breathed new life into an enduring franchise and reminded us that first-class dramatic filmmaking and populist entertainment need not be mutually exclusive.

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BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN
The movie that could have been an eternal punchline proved instead to be a movie for the ages, thanks to a concise, sensitive script by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, graceful direction from Ang Lee and deeply-felt performances by Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Williams (Anne Hathaway is great too, though has less to do). Tracking Ledger’s Ennis Del Mar and Gyllenhaal’s Jack Twist for 20 years after a summer spent herding sheep together in Wyoming – both trying to live normal lives while grappling with the complications of their relationship – yields a character study both epic and intimate, and profoundly moving. Ledger will simply bowl you over with his amazing work. Only those without the courage to even see it could ever dismiss it as “the gay cowboy movie.”

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CAPOTE
Despite the title that suggests a full portrait of a man’s life, Capote is not a biopic. This is an examination of a seminal moment in an artist’s career, picking up with Truman Capote in full-on raconteur mode and following him through the devastating experience of writing In Cold Blood. It’s a quiet, restrained movie, directed by Bennett Miller with the precision of a surgeon. Philip Seymour Hoffman astounds as the conflicted writer, and Catherine Keener brings dignity and elegance as his friend, To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee. Both actors were justly Oscar nominated (with Hoffman winning), but sadly overlooked was Clifton Collins Jr., tender and captivating as killer Perry Smith. This is exquisite filmmaking.

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THE FAMILY STONE
I’d guess that to most people familiar with The Family Stone, it’s nothing more than a light and entertaining Christmas-time comedy of no particular significance. To me, it’s now a holiday perennial. Dermot Mulroney plays the eldest son in a close-knit family who brings his tightly-wound fiancée (Sarah Jessica Parker) home for the holidays to meet the clan. Familiar enough. But I’m in love with the film’s cast and how believable a sense of family history they create together. Craig T. Nelson and Diane Keaton are the liberal parents, while Rachel McAdams, Luke Wilson, Elisabeth Reaser (all particularly great) and Ty Giordano play Mulroney’s siblings. Together they create bonds so comfortable and relaxed that I absolutely believed they all grew up together in that house. The little details, both in the art direction and the performances, suggest a lifetime of memories and shared experiences. There are some plot devices that may seem forced to some people, but the movie achieves a mood that allowed me to accept them without issue. Writer/director Thomas Bezucha maintains a tone that accomodates the story’s more serious elements (handled with finesse and restraint) as well as its occasional slapstick, a balance that might have eluded a less-assured storyteller.

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MATCH POINT
Who would have thought that one the decade’s sexiest films, and one of its most nailbiting, would come courtesy of 70 year-old New York-neurotic Woody Allen? Essentially expanding the Crimes half of 1989’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, Allen’s intense drama takes him away from his usual New York setting and into London’s upper crust for the story of a middle-class tennis instructor (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who is befriended by a wealthy young man (Matthew Goode) and winds up romantically involved with not only this new friend’s sister (Emily Mortimer), but his American fiancée (Scarlett Johansson). While not the first time Allen has done straight drama, we don’t tend to think of him as being so serious, and certainly not of generating such heat. But there’s a lot of smolder between Rhys Meyers and Johansson, particularly during a rain-soaked love scene in an open field. Johannson is often presented as a sex symbol in the media, but no filmmaker has ever tapped into that quality like Allen does here. The actress glows in the light cast by cinematographer Remi Adefarison, and under Allen’s direction, she creates an utterly alluring femme fatale.

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SIN CITY
In adapting a selection of stories from graphic novel icon Frank Miller’s Sin City series, director Robert Rodriguez went to the man himself, bringing Miller in as a co-director to faithfully translate the author’s creation for the big screen. Mission accomplished. The film, like some kind of dark and disturbing cousin to Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, is a true comic-book-come-to-life, replicating Miller’s pages to striking effect with dynamic splashes of color highlighting an otherwise black and white canvas. It’s a fitting look for a film full of characters drawn in shades of gray. Some are pure and some are truly evil, but most are somewhere in between, spouting deliciously hard-boiled dialogue as they do what they have to do to survive in a rotted metropolis. Clive Owen, Benicio del Toro, Rosario Dawson, Mickey Rourke and Elijah Wood (silent but deadly) are standouts amongst the big-name cast.

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THE SQUID AND THE WHALE
Writer/director Noah Baumbach’s story of an intellectual Brooklyn couple’s divorce is sharply observed and impeccably acted, with Jeff Daniels hitting a career high as a writer dealing with his own recent failures while his wife’s literary career begins to take off. Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline (son of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates) shine as the couple’s sons, each reacting to the crumbling marriage with confusion and anger that manifests itself in painfully real and funny ways.

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WEDDING CRASHERS
It’s formulaic and predictable, with such tired clichés as the foul-mouthed old lady and the boyfriend who everybody except for his sweet girlfriend can see is an asshole. It’s also side-splittingly funny, with Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson at their comedic peaks as two Washington D.C.-based conflict negotiators and longtime friends who are practiced at the art of crashing weddings and bedding bridesmaids. At the wedding of an influential U.S. Senator’s daughter, both meet their match in the bride’s sisters – one an obsessive nymphomaniac, the other a do-gooder with a sly sense of humor. The cast is key to the movie’s success. Vaughn’s manic energy and fast-talking style has never been better utilized, and Wilson’s bright-eyed enthusiasm serves him well as the unexpectedly lovestruck schemer. Christopher Walken, Isla Fisher, Bradley Cooper, Keir O’Donnell and Jane Seymour all have some great moments, but most impressive is Rachel McAdams as the object of Wilson’s affection. She brings an emotional honesty and depth to the character that’s way beyond what a movie like this requires. The story may be a familiar one, but the players make the game worthwhile.

2006

BRICK
Rian Johnson’s debut feature as writer and director takes the conventions of a 1940’s detective story and sets them in a modern California high school. But Clue Jr. this is not. It’s a dark and moody neo-noir with a dash of David Lynch-like mystique. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Brandon, the loner student trying to figure out what happened to his ex-girlfriend, who called him in a panic less than 24 hours before turning up dead in a gutter. His search takes him into the school’s drug culture and ultimately to a local dealer and his thuggish, wifebeater-clad cohort. Johnson’s movie has a language all its own, as Brandon, his enemies and his allies communicate with terms and phrases that are often difficult to decipher, but which make the movie feel like the odd yet satisfying lovechild of The Maltese Falcon and A Clockwork Orange.

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THE DEPARTED
The fact that Martin Scorsese should have won a Best Director Oscar or two (or five) earlier in his career doesn’t mean he didn’t deserve it for this one. The director seemed to be having more fun than he had in years with this wickedly enjoyable cops vs. criminals pulse-pounder. William Monahan’s script is as brutal as it is brutally funny, and Scorsese (aided by his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker) rachets up the tension to almost unbearable proportions. As William Costigan, the cop serving undercover in the inner circle of Boston’s most wanted criminal, Leonardo DiCaprio gives one of his absolute best performances, burrowing deep and nailing the desperation and unraveling nerves of a man living in constant danger. Jack Nicholson plays the crime lord with relish and unpredictability, and the rest of the ensemble – including Matt Damon, Alec Baldwin, Vera Farmiga, Ray Winstone, Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg (hilarious) – are in top form.

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THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA
When movie fans get high-minded, there’s a tendency to blanketly label studio movies as safe and bland. But the classics of yesteryear were all born out of the studio system, and it’s easy to overlook how many terrific films are still developed the old fashioned way. The Devil Wears Prada is a prime example of commercial, studio filmmaking at its best. David Frankel’s brisk direction, Aline Brosh McKenna’s classical script and Mark Livolsi’s crisp editing resulted in a slick, smart summer surprise. With her stylized silver hair, acid-tongued soft-spokenness and deadly penetrating stare, Meryl Streep has great fun playing the formidable fashion magazine editor Miranda Priestly. Hard though it is to steal scenes from Streep, Stanley Tucci and Emily Blunt nearly walk off with the movie – Tucci as the magazine’s art director and Blunt as Miranda’s snotty, harried assistant. And even with these three stellar comedic turns, Anne Hathaway more than holds her own as the protagonist, a naive newcomer hired as Miranda’s second assistant. A gold standard for mainstream studio comedies.

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INSIDE MAN
A team of masked men and women stage a bank robbery and take a group of customers hostage. A team of policemen set up operations outside the bank. A mysterious woman with high political connections takes an interest. Working from a dynamite script by Russell Gewirtz, Spike Lee directs his most commercially successful movie without sacrificing his distinctive filmmaking voice. It’s a Dog Day Afternoon for post-9/11 New York. (Okay, it’s not a Dog Day-level masterpiece, but it sure is a satisfying bit of storytelling.) Denzel Washington brings humor and intelligence to the detective in charge of the situation, Clive Owen has an unflappable cool as the head robber and Jodie Foster matches them both move for move as the power broker who inserts herself in the situation.

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PAN’S LABYRINTH
A few years after the Spanish Civil War, as those loyal to the toppled government engage in guerrilla warfare to resist the new fascist regime, a cold and sadistic Spanish general brings his new, pregnant wife and his young step-daughter to a farmhouse in the countryside from which he hunts his enemies. There, the girl seeks shelter from her grim reality by escaping to a place that’s more Grimm – a world of fairies and fauns, where she is identified as the long lost daughter of a king and must complete three dangerous tasks in order to reclaim her place at court. Guillermo del Toro combines the fantastical and the historical in this wrenching fable that fuses all of his talents and fascinations. Among its many notable qualities are a haunting musical score, vivid and beautiful production design, an icy, frightening performance by Sergi López as Captain Vidal and del Toro’s unflinching lack of sentimentality. By mixing deeply rooted fairy tale lore, Spanish history and his own rich imagination, del Toro creates a film of blazing originality that will be enjoyed and studied for years to come.

2007

THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD
Valued by critics but overlooked by audiences, this is easily one of the decade’s most underrated films and contains arguably the best work of Brad Pitt’s career. As James, he gives a wily performance in which his frequent stillness conveys danger and unpredictability. Equally impressive, if not more so, is Casey Affleck as Ford, who has long admired the tales of James’ exploits but finds life in his gang to be more complicated than expected. With his sleepy eyes, goofy grin and gawky energy, Ford often seems vacant and slow-witted, but then at times expresses a boldness that even he seems surprised by. He regards Jesse with fervent adoration, but also fear and bitterness. It’s a fascinating portrayal. The remaining cast is uniformly strong: Sam Rockwell as Ford’s older brother Charlie; Sam Shepard, brief but potent as Jesse’s older brother Frank; and Jeremy Renner, Garret Dillahunt and Paul Schneider as additional members of the James gang. Schneider, especially, is a hoot to watch as the loquacious lothario Dick Liddil, who not only has a lot to say, but in Schneider’s hands, a highly colorful delivery. The movie is ravishingly photographed by gifted cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose mastery of light and shadow is on breathtaking display. Australian filmmaker Andrew Dominik demands the viewer’s patience with a slow and methodical pace that at times calls Terrence Malick to mind, and those who have that patience are rewarded with a beautiful film that feels like a treasure discovered from a bygone era.

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ATONEMENT
I’ve heard that the Ian McEwan novel on which this movie is based is better than the movie. If that’s true than it must be an amazing piece of writing, because the resulting adaptation packs a devastating punch. Saoirse Ronan gives a rich breakthrough performance as a precocious but tragically naive girl who commits an act that has life-altering consequences for herself, her older sister and a servant at their manor house in the English countryside. They’re played by Keira Knightley and James McAvoy, and the romance blooming between them despite their class difference precipitates the fate that all three characters will share. To be less cryptic would ruin many of the film’s pleasures for those who’ve not yet seen it, but I can not praise it highly enough. Brilliantly directed by Joe Wright, who marshals performance, cinematography, music and other crafts on down the line to realize his vision. Perhaps it works so well on the page because it’s a story about the power of words, but filmmaking has a power all its own, and Atonement never feels less than splendidly cinematic.

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CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR
I’m not sure why this movie didn’t catch on bigger, but I love it. Maybe people didn’t feel that screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s brand of smart, fast, funny dialogue was the way to go with a story about how the U.S. became involved in the 1980’s struggle between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union, especially given that our involvement helped birth Al-Qaeda. Draw the line to 9/11 and perhaps it didn’t seem so funny? I’m only speculating. All I know is the movie had me rolling and I never tire of watching it. Tom Hanks plays Wilson, a Texas congressman who occupies a surprising position of power and influence given his penchant for whiskey and women. Julia Roberts is the wealthy socialite whose commitment to the Afghan cause – as well as to Charlie’s re-election campaigns – brings the conflict to his attention and spurs him to action. Hanks is in great rapscallion mode, but the movie is stolen – lock, stock and barrel – by Philip Seymour Hoffman as the dry-witted CIA spy Gust Avrokatos, who becomes Charlie’s brother in arms for the covert war.

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HOT FUZZ
The trio of Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost first came to my attention three years earlier in the great zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead, which just missed making this list. But I had to include their follow-up Hot Fuzz, which I enjoy more every time I see it. Directed by Wright and co-written by Wright and Pegg, the film follows humorless, by-the-book, overzealous London police sergeant Nicholas Angel (Pegg), whose record of arrests so dwarfs his colleagues that his supervisors get rid of him for making everyone else look bad. Shipped off to the serene country hamlet of Sandford, better known for its beautiful gardens and friendly citizens than for being a hotbed of crime, Nicholas finds his talents wasted…until a series of shocking murders rocks the village and gives him renewed purpose. Partnered with the affable, eager Danny Butterman (Frost), whose obsession with American action movies has him craving some action of his own, Nicholas sets out to stop Sandford’s mystery murderer. The movie is a total blast, with Pegg and Frost once again playing wonderfully off each other yet creating a different dynamic than the one they shared in Shaun of the Dead. The large cast of supporting characters make indelible contributions, from Sandford’s small police force (constantly mocking Nicholas’ every move) to the town’s uniformly genial older guard (all deeply committed to their neighborhood watch program). Wright’s direction has a driving energy that serves both the comedy and the action, and he stages murder scenes that are equal parts giddy and grisly, the violence and gushing of blood so over-the-top that one can’t help but laugh at the Looney Tunes-meets-Monty Python absurdity of it all.

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INTO THE WILD
Sean Penn wrote and directed this adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s best-selling nonfiction book about Christopher McCandless, a young man who embarks on a soul-searching journey of communion with nature just after graduating from college, departing without a word to his family. With Alaska as his goal, Chris makes his way across the country earning money and connecting with a variety of strangers, allowing Penn to assemble an eclectic, uniformly marvelous cast that includes Catherine Keener, Kristen Stewart, Vince Vaughn, Hal Holbrook and Brian Dierker. Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt play Chris’s parents, and Hurt has a silent but piercing moment late in the film that is forever burned in my brain. As for Chris, he’s played by Emile Hirsch, whose previous films had shown him to be a fine actor, but whose depth was heretofore untapped. Knowing a thing or two about great acting, Penn guides his star to a committed performance that embraces Chris’s selfishness as readily as his open-heartedness. A spirit of wanderlust infuses Penn’s direction, cinematographer Eric Gautier shoots with a nature lover’s eye and Eddie Vedder creates a singular musical voice for the film with a song score that feels wholly organic to the journey.

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KNOCKED UP
Judd Apatow does it again. His follow-up to The 40 Year-Old Virgin is just as smart, just as sweet and just as insanely funny. Seth Rogen takes the lead this time, as a happily unemployed stoner whose lucky one night stand with Katherine Heigl’s career girl leaves her pregnant. They decide to be together and have the baby, discovering along the way how unprepared they are – for the baby and for each other. Once again, Apatow surrounds the leads with a gallery of vivid supporting characters. Freaks and Geeks/Undeclared alums Jason Segal, Martin Starr and Jay Baruchel, along with Jonah Hill, play Rogen’s immature pals, while Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd play Heigl’s sister and brother-in-law. As their worlds collide, everyone learns important lessons and we laugh our asses off.

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LARS AND THE REAL GIRL
Ryan Gosling’s Lars Lindstrom is a painfully shy, socially awkward office worker living in the garage of his brother and sister-in-law’s home. Their repeated efforts to engage him bear little fruit, until he introduces them to Bianca, a foreign missionary he met on the internet. And when I say “met on the internet,” I mean that she’s an anatomically correct sex doll he ordered online and communicates with as if she’s real. Is he crazy, or just desperate for connection that he can’t seem to make otherwise? Bianca proves to be an unorthodox form of therapy for Lars, and one of the movie’s pleasures is how the tight-knit community rallies to uphold the ruse for Lars’ benefit, hard as some of them may find it. It’s unusual to see a film built so squarely around the ideals of kindness, warmth and generosity. Gosling, Paul Schneider, Emily Mortimer and Patricia Clarkson are all excellent in this original and gentle dramedy.

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MICHAEL CLAYTON
Tony Gilroy was a well-established, successful screenwriter before making the leap to directing with this unique film that defies normal conventions or easy categorization. It plays by its own rhythms, and the first time I saw it I had a hard time getting a hold of what exactly it was about. Normally, by the time you’re 20 minutes into a movie you probably have a firm grasp of what it is and a general sense of where it’s going. You’re settled in and you see where it takes you. I found Michael Clayton more slippery. George Clooney plays the title character, a fixer at a major law firm who’s already got a lot on his plate when he’s called in to deal with a mentally unstable (or is he?) senior partner (Tom Wilkinson, terrifically frenzied) who has sabotaged the firm’s defense of a major corporation in a class action suit. But the engrossing and sophisticated narrative is not about the case; it’s about Michael and how he deals with the various pressures closing in and suffocating him. And yet…while it’s primarily a slice-of-life character study, it is also a legal thriller. Desperate lawyers, corporate malfeasance, professional hitmen…such Grisham-like elements are here, but presented realistically and without potboiler embellishment. Tilda Swinton is fantastic as the accused company’s head lawyer, and Sydney Pollack makes one of his last onscreen appearances in a nicely shaded performance as Michael’s boss. It’s a challenging movie that offers a rewarding payoff.

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NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
After a couple of amusing but mostly subpar efforts, the Coen Brothers rebounded with this adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel ostensibly about the struggle over $2 million in cash left behind when a drug deal goes bad, but really about the changing landscape of America and the violence at the heart of that transformation. Josh Brolin is the hunter who stumbles upon the money and decides to take it. Javier Bardem is the Angel of Death-like agent seeking to recover it. Tommy Lee Jones is the sheriff trying to put the pieces together. All three are superb, as are supporting players Kelly Macdonald, Garret Dillahunt, Woody Harrelson and the many regional actors who pop up in individual scenes. Almost entirely foregoing the use of a music score, the Coens use sound – and often the absence of it –  to tell the story tersely and tensely.

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THERE WILL BE BLOOD
It doesn’t seem possible that two personalities could tower so prominently over one movie, but There Will Be Blood showcases writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson and star Daniel Day-Lewis in equal and symbiotic measure. Working from Upton Sinclair’s book Oil!, Anderson mounts the story of oil baron Daniel Plainview, whose demons take hold when he sets up his latest operation in a small California town and comes into contact with a quiet young preacher (Paul Dano) whose religious fervor he can’t abide. The way Anderson tracks Plainview’s moral disintegration almost gives the feel of a horror film (the Shining-esque score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood certainly contributes to that mood), with the blackest of comedy woven in as well. As for Day-Lewis, he’s magnificent. Grab a milkshake, sit back and behold the wonder.

2008

THE DARK KNIGHT
After the impressive relaunch of the Batman franchise three years earlier, Christopher Nolan scaled new heights with this follow-up, blowing the roof off audience’s expectations of what a “comic book movie” could be. Beginning with an exceptional screenplay (co-written with his brother Jonathan) full of cracking dialogue and rich plotting, Nolan constructs a sweeping saga of heroes and villains, and the human fallibility that can lead the former to become the latter. As it explores the symbiotic relationship between good and evil, it evokes Michael Mann’s Heat more than it does other comic-inspired films. Heath Ledger brilliantly reinvents The Joker to fit into Nolan’s gritty Gotham City, but never strays from the spirit or tradition of the character. Christian Bale once again makes for a shrewd and enigmatic Bruce Wayne, and the rest of the cast – from the big names like Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Morgan Freeman to less known but no less effective performers like Nestor Carbonell, Richie Coster, Monique Gabriela Curnen, Chin Han and Joshua Harto – all enrich Nolan’s pulsing drama.

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FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL
Jason Segel is a long time member of Judd Apatow’s fold, going all the way back to Freaks and Geeks. As the screenwriter of this excellent comedy, Segel proves that he has learned well from the Jedi Master. The movie is not only hilarious and sincerely heartfelt, but provides the kind of rich, three dimensional characters too many comedies don’t take the time or effort to develop. Segel plays a creatively frustrated musician who goes to pieces when dumped by his TV star girlfriend (Kristen Bell). When he decides to take a vacation and regroup, he ends up at the same Hawaiian resort where she’s staying with her new boyfriend, flamboyant rock star Aldous Snow (Russell Brand). As an actor, Segel is unafraid to appear sensitive, sad and pathetic (or completely naked), which not only provides a lot of laughs, but makes his Peter Bretter an appealing and relatable protagonist. Brand is a fantastic comedic discovery (this was his major introduction to American audiences), and just part of the well-oiled ensemble that includes Mila Kunis, Jonah Hill, Paul Rudd and Bill Hader.

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IRON MAN
Summer 2008 was a good time for comic book movies. While The Dark Knight satisfied a desire for complexity and dark drama, Iron Man proved the best kind of popcorn movie: smart, slick and massively fun. That summer was also a good time for Robert Downey, Jr., whose career reformation was completed with the one-two punch of this and Tropic Thunder. Downey found a simpatico alter ego in brilliant industrialist and dashing playboy Tony Stark, infusing the character with his own devilishly charming bravado. Director Jon Favreau keeps the spectacle and visual effects (superb work from ILM) in check, providing the action required for a movie of this type, but not allowing it to overwhelm the story or prevent the movie from maintaining a relaxed vibe with plenty of humor. Downey gets excellent support from Jeff Bridges, Terrence Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow and Shaun Toub.

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KUNG FU PANDA
Perhaps my lifetime affection for the panda bear predisposed me to enjoying this one, but it earns its place on the list thanks to endearing vocal work from Jack Black and Dustin Hoffman, an abundance of cleverness – both in humor and in action (Tai Lung’s prison breakout is pretty ruling) – and some of the most gorgeously colorful animation I’ve ever seen. There are moments in this movie I’d love to freeze, laser print and mount on my wall. The team at Dreamworks Animation, along with Black and Angelina Jolie, reclaim glory after the dreadful Shark Tale, and prove that while Pixar may be the dominant force on the animation landscape today, there’s still a little competish to keep things interesting. I’m hoping the sequel will be titled Kung Fu Panda 2: Tenacious P.

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SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE
One of those movies nobody saw coming, and one of the rare instances where I walked in knowing very little about the plot. Danny Boyle’s film – at times dark but ultimately exuberant – follows Jamal, a poor young man in Mumbai whose unlikely success on India’s version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? is explained through flashbacks that tell his life story and explain how he knows the answers to the questions, as well as what’s at stake for him by playing in the first place. Camerawork, editing and music vibrantly fuse, bringing a taste of Bollywood to a rags-to-riches tale that western audiences could embrace. Jamal, and those closest to him, endure some harrowing hardships, but the movie’s overwhelming tone is one of hopefulness and optimism.

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TROPIC THUNDER
Ben Stiller co-wrote, directed and stars in this bold and inspired comedy about a group of pampered Hollywood actors who find themselves “in the shit” while filming a big budget war film deep in the jungles of southeast Asia. Although much of the attention went to Robert Downey Jr. for his incredible portrayal of a white actor who darkens his skin to play an African-American, the movie leaves room for plenty of actors to shine and steal scenes, including Matthew McConaughey as the agent to Stiller’s action star; Danny McBride as an overenthusiastic demolitions expert; Nick Nolte as a grizzled (of course) Vietnam vet on whose memoir the film-within-the-film is based; Jack Black as the drug-addicted comedian making a bid for dramatic stardom; Steve Coogan as the director unable to contain the out-of-control production (and blessed with the ingenious name Damien Cockburn); and Tom Cruise, donning prosthetics to play the freakishly large-handed, screaming studio mogul financing the movie. Stiller is a fearless comedian and storyteller. As a director, he succeeds in giving the movie the grandeur of the war films it parodies; as a writer, he’s not afraid to push the envelope into controversial territory; and as an actor, he is comfortable playing in an ensemble, generously allowing his fellow actors to frequently overshadow him but still saving some choice moments for himself.

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WALL-E
Pixar added another notch to its impressively notched belt with this irresistably charming story of a robot in love. Long after humans have abandoned Earth because of pollution, and long after an army of identical Wall-E robots tasked with cleaning up the unfathomable amount of trash have stopped operating, one remains functional. Over time it has developed a soul as real as any human being’s. Our Wall-E sees beauty in all manner of objects, and has spent years building a collection that runs the gamut from Christmas lights to Rubik’s cubes, bowling pins to garden gnomes. When a sleek, shiny exploratory robot appears on Earth to seek out signs that the planet is once again habitable, Wall-E becomes instantly smitten and follows his crush – E.V.E. – back to the gargantuan mothership where humans are now living, having evolved into gelatinous blobs incapable of even standing on their feet. For much of its running time, Wall-E is essentially a silent movie, with all communication coming from robotic beeps and from the characters’ expressive eyes and body movements. But who needs words when Wall-E’s actions – his determination to be with E.V.E. no matter what obstacles might deter him – speak so loudly and so universally. The robomance between Wall-E and E.V.E. is as pure as any between two live actors. When we think of great big screen couples over the years, we think of pairings like Bogart and Bacall, Tracy and Hepburn, Leo and Kate. Without a doubt, Wall-E and E.V.E. deserve a place on that list.

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THE WRESTLER
After the visual effects heavy, confounding sci-fi art film The Fountain, director Darren Aronofsky dialed it way, way down with this intimate character portrait that brought Mickey Rourke gloriously back to the spotlight. As aging pro wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson, Rourke is heartbreakingly vulnerable, baring his soul for a character whose life had more than a few parallels to his own. As The Ram struggles with a weakening body that threatens to take away his livelihood, he seeks meaningful connections with the estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) who represents his past, and the stripper and single mom (Marisa Tomei) who could be his future. The story and the filmmaking couldn’t be simpler, and the result couldn’t be more satisfying.

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And there we have it. I’m still struggling with thoughts of a bunch of movies that I left off; that seem so close to belonging here but which I kept off for reasons that only make sense in my head. But since nobody could possibly want to subject themselves to all this anyway, I need to just let it go. A new decade awaits…

 

Link to Part I

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