Personal Best II: The Top Ten



"We made Jeff's top 10!" "Group hug, everyone!"



(Sorry for the delay.  Mandatory H1N1 vaccines and the following symptoms don’t give a damn about deadlines.)

10. The Incredibles (2004): It was this or Kill Bill Vol. 1, with the animated superheroes edging  out the blond ninja in a blood-splattered tracksuit (Sorry Uma and Quentin!) .   Pixar only singlehandely reinvented how animated films should be done and this one continues their winning streak.  I wasn’t as charmed by Cars and Ratatouille and I haven’t seen Up!, so maybe I’m wrong about the winning streak, but everything works with The Incredibles.   It’s not solely a kid’s flick as there is more violence and death than one would expect.  But it’s all handled gracefully and works within the content of the story and what a story it is!  There’s still a few hold-outs who haven’t see The Incredibles, but have seen the two awful Fantastic Four flicks which makes no damn sense to me.  This is the movie the Fantastic Four wishes it was.   And remember: NO CAPES!

9. The Prestige (2006) The initial word-of-mouth when it was learned Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale were cast as two rival magicians was this was the closest we would ever get to Wolverine vs. Batman.   That lasted right up until the time you sat down to watch The Prestige, then you realized Christopher Nolan’s tale of two adepts with decidedly different approaches to making magic required your full attention.   After all, magic only works if you believe it and misdirection is a central tenet of the Art.   One of those rare films that not only doesn’t insult your intelligence, it rewards it.

8.  Sicko (2007) : This decade was a very good one for Michael Moore.   Bowling for Columbine won the Academy Award for Best Documentary and Fahrenheit 9/11 should have.  But while Moore always makes me think while he’s entertaining me, Sicko made me both depressed and mad as the shit-disturbing director took on the healthcare in the U.S. and depicted in heartbreaking detail how good people get ground up like greasy hamburger by a broken system that serves to maximize profits, not wellness,   Only a insurance company or a Republican Senator could watch Sicko and not be moved by it.  This is Moore’s best movie and I think it’s underrated and unappreciated.

7. Spider-Man 2 (2004): What, another comic book movie.  When it’s as good as Spider-Man 2 ,  why not?  Sam Raimi, unlike so many other directors of these type of films, doesn’t feel like he has to “improve” on the original source material it.  He not only respects what Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created with a nerdy loser who gets super-powers, he admires it and expands  upon it.  S-M2 proves my belief that sequels can be better than originals because the need to spend time establishing how the hero got that way is gone and you can get right to the meat and potatoes–ACTION! Raimi gets almost everything right here and Albert Molina’s Dr. Octopus is both tragic and terrifying (the scene where he slaughters the operating room team reminds you Raimi started out making the Evil Dead movies).  I say, “almost” because Raimi likes the miscast Kirsten Dunst a helluva lot more than I do and he’d take that to extremes in the mess that was Spider-Man 3, but I’ve convinced myself that movie never happened.  Spider-Man 2 is the only superhero film to see when you want the same rush that comes from a good issue of the comic book.

6. The Bourne Trilogy (The Bourne Identity/The Bourne Supremacy/The Bourne Ultimatium) 2002, 2004, 2007: This trilogy of thrillers featuring Robert Ludlum’s amenisac spy, Jason Bourne started a new film franchise and jump-started a second.   Bourne, as played by Matt Damon, is a man of few words and a lot of action as he drives faster, kicks more ass and blows up stuff in ways that increasingly creaky other spy with the same initials hadn’t done in decades.   The kinetic style of the three Bourne films satisfied audiences  that James Bond had left bored by his cliched gimmicks, villians and bed partners.  Bourne rarely stands still long enough to kiss a woman let alone have sex.   Bourne’s success forced the Bond producers to fire Pierce Brosnan, hire the rougher-around-the edges Daniel Craig and pump up the action in Casino Royale.    Bourne’s only flaw is he is such a one-dimensional character he’s more like an action figure  come to life instead of a fully fleshed our hero that can carry a franchise.  There might not be a fourth Bourne and that  might not be all bad.   Better for Bourne to burn out than start squeezing into tuxedos and driving around in invisible cars.

5.  Children of Men (2006): You want a dystopian future?  I got your dystopian future right here.  The future’s so dark there’s no need for sunglasses in Alfonso Curaon’s bleak, depressing and brilliant film about a world sliding into anarchy and oblivion after humans can no longer procreate and the world’s  youngest person has been assassinated.    Clive Owen is the reluctant bodyguard of a woman whom is miraculously eight months pregnant and he tries to get her to a group of scientists before the government or other malevolent forces can seize her.   A tremendously powerful and moving experience, Children of Men is one of the best movies of the past ten years many people have never seen despite the presence of Owen, Julianne Moore, Chiwetel Ejiorfor and Michael Caine.   This relentlessly downbeat film was released three days before Christmas Day  in the U.S. and a staggered opening to make it eligible for the  Academy Awards, but was only nominated in two technical categories.  But nevermind, this isn’t a list of the Best Oscar-winning films or The Departed would be on my list and it isn’t.   I firmly believe  Children of Men is one of the few films of the decade that will hold up over the passage of time and now I want to watch it again.

4. Collateral (2004): If you’re surprised to see this film in my Top Five, believe me I’m surprised too.  I blow hot and cold on Michael Mann.  When he’s on (Thief, Heat) he’s up there with Spielberg and Scorcese in delivering the goods.   When he’s off (The Last of the Mohicans, Ali), he’s clueless. Then there’s the Mann movies I admire (The Insider, Miami Vice), but are too problematic for me to fully embrace.  The Insider is  good, but goes on longer than needed to tell the story.  Miami Vice has nothing in common with the television show its based on even though you’re supposed to think it does.  Collateral works because Mann tells a fairly straightforward story of two protagonists; a cab driver with plans he never will act upon (Jaime Foxx) and his passenger, a relentless hit man (played by Tom Cruise going against type) with no plans, just targets to eliminate during one long, dark night in L.A.   I’ve never been to Los Angeles, but Mann and cinematographers Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron use high-definition cameras make the City of Angels positively sparkle in the night scenes.  Cruise is exceptional as Vincent, a prematurely graying assassin whom is utterly remorseless and relentless in his mission.   Foxx earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his role that Cuba Gooding Jr., Adam Sandler and Robert DeNiro were considered for and between this and the showier lead role of Ray!, Foxx is better here (though his switch into Rambo mode has a high “Oh, come on!”  factor).   Collateral is a brisk, exciting and fun ride and is Mann’s most complete, compact film.

3.  The Dark Knight (2008): Wikipedia categories this film as a “superhero crime thriller” which is right enough, but doesn’t begin to capture the scope of director Christopher Nolan’s moody masterpiece.    This is a superhero crime thriller that emphasizes characterization over action and a relatively obvious morality play between one very good man (Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent) and one very bad man (Heath Ledger’s Joker).   I give major props to Christian Bale for not melting down when he found out he had top billing, but his role was essentially supporting Ledger and Eckhart.   Ledger’s bravura performance gets all the raves and deservedly so.  Bale and Eckhart are more workmanlike, but hold the film together in the stretches where The Joker isn’t on-screen.   This isn’t superheroes as non-think entertainment.   The Dark Knight proves how damned good a movie with men in rubber suits and capes can be when it plays for keeps.   I’m not certain what the overarching message of  the movie is.  In some ways it’s just as chaotic and bleak as Children of Men as The Joker isn’t a criminal, but an anarchist.   There aren’t enough superlatives for how great The Dark Knight is.  Having grossed over $1 billion worldwide, the vast majority of viewers agree it doesn’t just meet and exceed expectations for the genre,  Nolan has created all-new ones that future films will have to strive to meet.

Requiem For A Dream

2. Requiem For A Dream (2000): I wouldn’t recommend a double feature of this harrowing depiction of drug addiction and Children of Men because it might bring  on terminal depression.   Director Darren Aronofsky and screenwriter/author Hubert Selby Jr., construct a slow ride into hell that drags a mother (Ellen Burtsyn) hooked on diet pills as she tries to fit into her favorite red dress, her son (Jared Leto), his girlfriend (Jennifer Connely) and his friend (Marlon Wayans) whose drug of choice is cocaine and heroin.   Selby Jr., was addicted to heroin himself and is best known for his two books of sordid losers, Requiem For A Dream and Last Exit to Brooklyn, which was also made into a movie.  This is a harrowing journey through the tragic and dismal fates of four people who aren’t bad, just guilty of taking shortcuts and making crappy choices.   All the performances are dead on, but especially Ellen Burtsyn who was nominated for Best Actresss only to lose to Julia Roberts for Erin Brokovich.   Roberts was fine, but she gave a performance.   Burtsyn acts.   There is a big difference between the two and seeing Requiem makes clear what it is.   Aronofsky makes some interesting choices in how he films Selby’s book.  He  employs extensive usage of split-screen,  tight close-ups, time lapse photography, tracking shots and over 2,000 cuts (the average 100-minute film has 600 to 700 cuts) and at times the viewer feels as if they are on a  chemically induced high.   Requiem is equal parts stylish and unsettling.   This is not a film that easily falls under the category of “entertainment” and once you’ve seen it, it may be a while before you feel the urge to see it again.   But this is a rchly rewarding and deeply affecting experience that stays in your mind long after the credits rolls.

1. City of  God (2002):   It occupies a spot on Time magazine’s “ALL-TIME 100 Best Movies” and third on the list of the 50 Films to See Before You Die and you probably don’t know a thing about it because it was made by two Brazilian directors with mostly non-actors and it’s subtitled, you lazy American slob.    Directors Fernando Meirelles and Kaita Lund take a cast of first-timers who learned how to move and react in front of the camera from acting workshops and set them loose depicting the fast times and quick deaths of warring drug gangs in the Rio De Janiero slum of Cidade de Deus (City of God).   The story is familiar, but you’ve never seen it told quite this way.   Back in 2004, I asked about City of God and my friend Bill Wertz, who passed away this year responded.

Jeff: I’m thinking about checking out the Brazilian film, City of God this weekend.  Anybody seen it?

Bill:  I have – and thought it was quite gripping. For me, the black market culture of suburban Rio was startlingly reminiscent of Dublin’s inner city (which I got to know quite well) and the film struck me as being extremely authentic – and more than a little harrowing. I know those kids – hell, I fostered one of them – and I’ve seen few films which give their lives any kind of public airing. For all of its grittiness and stark realism, it also manages to be quite entertaining. It’s pretty well constructed, with some decent acting from the young performers as well. I would definitely recommend it.

My response after viewing the DVD:   It thoroughly shocked, repelled and chilled me. I loved it! It’s easily the best movie I’ve seen and probably will see this year. We Americans seem to think we perfected graphic violence in our films, but we’re just flashy amateurs. The violence of “City of God” is relentless, unrelentingly brutal and just bludgeons you into submission and surrender.  The fact that the story is based on a true story only makes it more disturbing.  “City of God” will not leave you in a warm and fuzzy mood, but it does go a long way in clearing up fuzzy thinking.  Thanks for the recommendation,  Bill. It was everything you said it was and far, far, more.

Bill forgot more about movies than I know and he never recommended crap.  I’m sure his top 20 films of the decade would be very different from mine.   I’m only sorry we can’t debate the issue.