As I've said plenty of times I was born in 1989, which makes me 25 years old if you're keeping count.When the aughts (a fancy word for 2000's) began in the year 2000, I was eleven years old. I never really thought about film in critical terms, I sort of just took whatever was on screen at it's word. Around the age of 13-14, I started to discover film criticism, and film studies through the internet. Well, to be exact, I discovered film criticism one late night when I was flipping around and the program Ebert & Roeper was on. I had never seen a television program before where two people would sit down and debate or agree on films currently out in theaters. It was there that I discovered, online mostly, film critic Roger Ebert.
Now I know Ebert & Roeper was originally Siskel & Ebert until Gene Siskel unfortunately passed away in 1999, but thankfully many up-loaders on YouTube and siskelandebert.org have preserved a lot of their reviews.
Sadly, Disney, who owned Siskel & Ebert/Ebert & Roeper (collectively titled At the Movies) from 1987-2010 do not readily have these clips available, but thanks to a strong and dedicated fan base, their reviews survive. Just about any time I watch a film between the years of 1987-2010, I always go online and look to see if there's a review available from the dueling film critics.
Back when I was younger in a more primitive internet age, I would always search Roger's opinion on a particular review. Then, with sites like Movies.com and Rotten Tomatoes emerging, I was opened up to a whole new world of varying film criticism. One critic who I've extremely admired actually lives around me in the Philadelphia area, and was the first to really bring online film criticism to respectability, James Berardinelli of ReelViews.
Funny, in the age of the internet, with a clearly cynical attitude towards the rise of online film criticism, I embraced it and therefore my love of film and my aspirations to hopefully be a filmmaker/writer one day was born from film criticism. That's not to say the films themselves were highly influential to me, but through reading film critics and studying film in college, I came to learn what the language of cinema is, the vocabulary of film, etc.
So, therefore, when I was thinking of the potential decade top ten lists to do, I figured I was the most qualified for this decade. Since 2011, when I first made my top ten list for this decade, many films have been interchangeable, but on my top 3, specifically, have never changed. I wanted to let a few years go by before I made my top ten list for this decade, so I could have enough time to make sure I've seen EVERY notable film from 2000-2009. I'll admit I probably have 10-25 films I missed that I probably need to see, but I believe I've seen more than enough films from '00-'09 to make a well thought out, well researched list.
First of all, let me indulge in a mini best of list of the years in the decade ranked 1-10 in terms of quality, overall great films, most memorable films, etc.
You're probably asking, why only five films? Honestly, it was too hard to come up with anything more for me. I just know that these five films from 2000-2009 I unequivocally love. Also, yes, the films are in order 1-5.
**PS: With me, best = favorite, these are only five films. So don't get too hung up on "Aww man, how could you not include this" or anything like that. This is meant to provoke conversation and discussion.
What do these lists say about the person making them? Are movies we love and admire a direct reflection of one's self? **
My Top Five Films of the Decade
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford - 2007 - Andrew Dominik
Director Andrew Dominik’s masterful 2007 Western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is one of the most criminally under seen films of the past decade, and is a work of the most supreme audacity. When the books documenting the history of 21st century film are written, Andrew Dominik's magical feature will surely feature as one of the most wrongly neglected masterpieces of its era. Visually rich, dramatically mournful, and thematically existential, this was quite the best film of the decade.
Making James was a long and arduous process. There was a well-publicized tug-of-war between director Andrew Dominik, who caught Hollywood's attention with indie title Chopper (2000) and Warners over the editing of the film. Warners' wasn't entirely in sync with the pacing of the movie, or the length. Dominik was thinking more like 'Terence Malick' in examining the relationship between the famous outlaw and his eventual assassin, Robert Ford, played by Casey Affleck. Warners were in favor of having at least a bit more action. Ultimately, Warners went with Dominik's version, even though Dominik didn't have final cut as part of his contract. Part of the reason was that Pitt, who produced the movie through his Plan B shingle, backed Dominik. At one point along the way, Pitt and exec producer Ridley Scott had put together their own cut. When it tested to only so-so results, they went back to Dominik's. The original cut of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was nearly four hours long. It was edited down to two hours and forty minutes, its current runtime, at the studio's request. However, it did play at least once at its original 4-hour length, most notably at the Venice Film Festival, where Brad Pitt picked up the Best Actor Award. After the viewing, critics at the festival called the film "majestic."
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was originally slated for a September 15, 2006 release. The release date was postponed to February 2007 at first, but ultimately set for a September 21, 2007 release, almost two years after filming was completed, to little recognition.
The film opened in limited release on September 21, 2007, in 5 theaters and grossed $147,812 in its opening weekend, an average of $29,256 per theater. The film has a total gross of less than $4 million domestically, with it's foreign grossing bring the total made $15,001,776 on a $30 million dollar budget.
However, the film is often considered one of the most unsung masterpieces of all time. It received quite a lot of recognition, though not as much as I would have liked to have seen, back in 2007.
The cinematography by brilliant DP Roger Deakins is perhaps the best I've ever seen in a motion picture. One of the most well-known sequences of the film is the scene of a train robbery at night time. Cinematographer Roger Deakins used various cinematographic techniques to give the train more of a presence when it was in pitch darkness. The idea was to generate a heavy sense of atmosphere using only the lanterns held up by the outlaws and the 5K PAR light mounted on the front of the train.
One of the most breathtaking sequences in film history
People talk about the demything of the west in Clint Eastwood's brilliant 1992 film Unforgiven. Well by comparison Jesse James totally demyths the west in every frame, every performance, it's atmosphere, it's title (!), it's sense of history and the importance of the subject matter they're dealing with. The film doesn't just merely demyth the Old West and the Old Confederacy, but America itself.
“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” was a famous quote from John Ford's revisionist Western classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. That legend appealed to our hearts, our very emotional cores, and by dispensing with unpleasant facts, contradictions, and complexities, it re-fought old battles, settled old scores, and helped re-fashion the eternal lie of American exceptionalism.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was identified by the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures as one of the top 10 films of 2007. The board also named Casey Affleck as Best Supporting Actor in the film. The San Francisco Film Critics Circle named The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford as the Best Picture of 2007. The circle also awarded Affleck as best supporting actor for the film. Affleck was nominated for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture for the 65th Golden Globe Awards.
The film received two Academy Award nominations for the 80th Academy Awards. Affleck was nominated for Best Supporting Actor and Roger Deakins was nominated for Best Cinematography. Earlier in the year, Brad Pitt won the prestigious Volpi Cup for Best Actor when the film premiered at the annual Venice Film Festival. Several other awards circles also awarded composers Nick Cave and Warren Ellis for their brilliant music in the film.
The film's ultimate theme is about the obsession we as a country have with not only famous people, but the people who become famous and celebrities by murdering one. This film knowingly foretells of the Mark David Chapman's, the John Hinckley, Jr.'s, who was inspired by another film dealing with a similar subject, Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, etc. Even before the period set in the film (mid to late 1880's) we've seen people driven to murder simply to become famous.
Ford had every acumen to accept that he would be acclaimed for years on end for his deed, parlaying the annihilation into traveling shows, books, and conceivably a political career. For a time, Ford performed on stage, reenacting the killing afresh and afresh for arranging housing. It was a living, admitting not yet the big time, and it kept Ford’s name in lights above reasonable expectations. And yet, Americans, arbitrary to their marrow, angry at poor Ford, slapping at him the affliction accessible characterization for anyone gluttonous college glory: he was, at bottom, a coward. Not alone did Ford shoot James in the back, but he acquainted accountable to shoot him at all, a absolutely abhorrent act if one considers the two men as civic creations. And actually began the revisionism, which itself congenital aloft the allegory that had not yet achromatic during James’ life: the charisma, the charm, the devilish rake that never bootless to accumulate us on the bend of our seats.
The ending of the film a sequence of the film called "No Eulogies for Bob" extremely well made.
In the years since the 2007 release of Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, an even longer, deeper-realized cut of the 160-minute western has been a sort of holy grail for the film's acolytes. Mostly that's because of how within reach the possibility seems.
This film is seriously an artistic triumph on every level. It's not only the best film of 2007, the year I picked as the best movie year of the decade, but it's also the best film of the decade in my estimation. The central performances by Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck are both phenomenal. Probably the best performance of Brad Pitt's long and prosperous career as a leading man. He has never played someone like Jesse James before, someone who has literally gone psychotic and insane. His performance of Jesse James in his final months are at times scary, over the top, menacing, deranged, etc. In other words, this is more than just a leading gig for Pitt, this film was not made with commerce in mind.
As a matter of fact, it was Brad Pitt, who carries enormous weight in Hollywood, whose company Plan B helped co-produce the film, that demanded in his contract that the title of the film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which is always a mouthful, but really the most appropriate, ironic title ever.
The reason why Pitt's performance is so great is because Casey Affleck is every bit his equal, portraying the uncomfortable, awkward, naive, Robert Ford. When Pitt's James believes that Charley and Robert Ford are up to no good, the tension that results is almost too much to bear. Like other great filmmakers Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese, Dominik really immerses you in his world so that you feel what the characters fractured emotions are during what is essentially a game of death between Ford and James.
The cult fan hood for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is there. I only hope the film get's a prominent Blu-Ray release because the only two available right now are quite poor in terms of extras and other goodies. This film deserves a Criterion Collection type release on Blu-Ray.
Mulholland Drive - 2001 - David Lynch
Of course I won't admit to "getting" right away, though I feel like people who approach movies as detectives generally get too hung up on whether they "understand" what a film is going for.
Only rarely has a movie interfered with my thoughts and my existence as a human being to such an extent. The combination of profound, complicated and intriguing storytelling, a brilliant visual style and themes that rarely touch the surface of mainstream Hollywood cinema have inspired me in many ways. Lynch’s examinations of the dark and multi-layered character traits and the illumination of the hidden decay of contemporary American society, which course through his cinematic and artistic work, fascinate me.
David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive is a haunting movie and affects its viewer with a disturbing and mystical experience in both images and storyline. It destroys the conventions of Hollywood cinema in its style, themes, narrative structure, story and music. However, at the same time, Lynch creates a pulsating, disturbing and deeply affecting film experience that depicts the subjective process of movie production in an ambiguous industry, as well as identity crises and the exceeding forces of composing hope and destruction as its themes.
Originally conceived as a television series, Mulholland Drive began as a 90-minute pilot produced for Touchstone Television and intended for the ABC television network. David Lynch sold the idea to ABC executives based only on the story of Rita emerging from the car accident with her purse containing $125,000 in cash and the blue key, and Betty tries to help her figure out who she is. An ABC executive recalled, "I remember the creepiness of this woman in this horrible, horrible crash, and David teases us with the notion that people are chasing her. She's not just 'in' trouble—she is trouble. Obviously, we asked, 'What happens next?' And David said, 'You have to buy the pitch for me to tell you.'"
Lynch described the attractiveness of the idea of a pilot, despite the knowledge that the medium of television would be constricting: "I'm a sucker for a continuing story [...] Theoretically, you can get a very deep story and you can go so deep and open the world so beautifully, but it takes time to do that." The story included normal and surreal elements, much like Lynch's earlier series Twin Peaks. Groundwork was laid for story arcs, such as the mystery of Rita's identity, Betty's career and Adam Kesher's film project.
Filming for the television pilot began on location in Los Angeles in February 1999 and took six weeks. Ultimately, the network was unhappy with the pilot and decided not to place it on its schedule. Objections included the nonlinear storyline, the ages of Harring and Watts (whom they considered too old), Ann Miller's character cigarette smoking and a close-frame shot of dog feces in one scene. Lynch remembered, "All I know is, I loved making it, ABC hated it, and I don't like the cut I turned in. I agreed with ABC that the longer cut was too slow, but I was forced to butcher it because we had a deadline, and there wasn't time to finesse anything. It lost texture, big scenes and storylines, and there are 300 tape copies of the bad version circulating around. Lots of people have seen it, which is embarrassing, because they're bad-quality tapes, too. I don't want to think about it."
The script was later rewritten and expanded when Lynch decided to transform it into a feature film. Describing the transition from an open-ended pilot to a feature film with a resolution of sorts, Lynch said, "One night, I sat down, the ideas came in, and it was a most beautiful experience. Everything was seen from a different angle [...] Now, looking back, I see that [the film] always wanted to be this way. It just took this strange beginning to cause it to be what it is." The result was an extra eighteen pages of material that included the romantic relationship between Rita and Betty and the events that occurred after the blue box was opened. Watts was relieved that the pilot was dropped by ABC. She found Betty too one-dimensional without the darker portion of the film that was put together afterward. Most of the new scenes were filmed in October 2000, funded with $7 million from French production company StudioCanal.
Themes and Interpretations (**Spoilers**)
Giving the film only the tagline, "A love story in the city of dreams", David Lynch has refused to comment on Mulholland Drive 's meaning or symbolism, leading to much discussion and multiple interpretations. The Christian Science Monitor film critic David Sterritt spoke with Lynch after the film screened at Cannes and wrote that the director "insisted that Mulholland Drive does tell a coherent, comprehensible story", unlike some of Lynch's earlier films. On the other hand, Justin Theroux said of Lynch's feelings about the multiple meaning people perceive in the film, "I think he's genuinely happy for it to mean anything you want. He loves it when people come up with really bizarre interpretations. David works from his subconscious."
An early interpretation of the film uses dream analysis to explain that the first part is a dream of the real Diane Selwyn, who has cast her dream-self as the innocent and hopeful "Betty Elms", reconstructing her history and persona into something like an old Hollywood movie. In the dream, Betty is successful, charming, and lives the fantasy life of a soon-to-be-famous actress. The last one-fifth of the film presents Diane's bleak real life, in which she has failed both personally and professionally. She arranges for Camilla, a cold ex-lover, to be killed, and unable to cope with the guilt, re-imagines her as the dependent, pliable amnesiac named Rita. Clues to her inevitable demise, however, continue to appear throughout her dream.
Regardless of the proliferation of theories, movie reviewers note that no explanation satisfies all of the loose ends and questions that arise from the film. Stephen Holden of The New York Times writes, "Mulholland Drive has little to do with any single character's love life or professional ambition. The movie is an ever-deepening reflection on the allure of Hollywood and on the multiple role-playing and self-invention that the movie-going experience promises [...] What greater power is there than the power to enter and to program the dream life of the culture?" J. Hoberman from The Village Voice echoes this sentiment by calling it a "poisonous valentine to Hollywood".
Mulholland Drive has been compared with Billy Wilder's film noir classic Sunset Boulevard (1950), another tale about broken dreams in Hollywood, and earlier in the film our attention is drawn to the Rita character's crossing the nighttime Sunset Boulevard. Apart from both titles referring to iconic Los Angeles streets, Mulholland Drive is "Lynch's unique account of what held Wilder's attention to: human putrefaction (a term Lynch used several times during his press conference at the New York Film Festival 2001) in a city of lethal illusions". The title of the film is a reference to iconic Hollywood culture. David Lynch lives near Mulholland Drive, and stated in an interview, "At night, you ride on the top of the world. In the daytime you ride on top of the world, too, but it's mysterious, and there's a hair of fear because it goes into remote areas. You feel the history of Hollywood in that road." Watts also had experience with the road before her career was established: "I remember driving along the street many times sobbing my heart out in my car, going, 'What am I doing here?'"
Treatment of the relationships between Betty and Rita and Diane and Camilla varied between those who were honestly touched by their sincerity and those who were titillated (count me in both corners!). A review of the film by Premiere states that the relationship between Betty and Rita is "possibly the healthiest, most positive amorous relationship ever depicted in a Lynch movie", while Thierry Jousse, in his review for Cahiers du cinéma, notes that the love between these two women is "of lyricism practically without equal in contemporary cinema". Another points out that the pivotal romantic interlude between Betty and Rita is so poignant and tender by Betty's "understanding for the first time, with self-surprise, that all her helpfulness and curiosity about the other woman had a point: desire [...] It is a beautiful moment, made all the more miraculous by its earned tenderness, and its distances from anything lurid." Another review states the scene's "eroticism is so potent it blankets the whole movie, coloring every scene that came before and every one that follows". Betty and Rita were chosen by the Independent Film Channel as the emblematic romantic couple of the 2000s. Writer Charles Taylor states, "Betty and Rita are often framed against darkness so soft and velvety, it's like a hovering nimbus, ready to swallow them if they awake from the film's dream. And when they are swallowed, when smoke fills the frame as if the sulfur of hell itself were obscuring our vision, we feel as if not just a romance has been broken, but the beauty of the world has been cursed."
The majority of the music was composed by Angelo Badalamenti.
A music critic describes his deep experience with Badalamenti’s orchestral score as follows: “the music veers from nearly motionless string dread to noir jazz and audio feedback, the rhythms building to an explosion of infinite darkness.”40 Most of his score is only used in scenes with Betty and Rita. In fact, Lynch uses Badalamenti’s music in emotional, dramatic and suspense moments of the movie as a dramaturgical effect and to reflect many of the narrative and visual themes (isolation, identity crisis, darkness) with a sweetly apocalyptic atmosphere.
Reviewers note that Badalamenti's ominous score, described as his "darkest yet", contributes to the sense of mystery as the film opens in the dark-haired woman's limousine, that contrasts with the bright, hopeful tones of Betty's first arrival in Los Angeles, with the score "acting as an emotional guide for the viewer". Film music journalist Daniel Schweiger remarks that Badalamenti's contribution to the score alternates from the "nearly motionless string dread to noir jazz and audio feedback", with "the rhythms building to an explosion of infinite darkness." Badalamenti described a particular technique of sound design applied to the film, by which he would provide Lynch with multiple ten- to twelve-minute tracks at slow tempo, that they called "firewood", from which Lynch "would take fragments and experiment with them resulting in a lot of film's eerie soundscapes."
Mulholland Drive premiered at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival in May to major critical acclaim. Lynch was awarded the Best Director prize at the festival, sharing it with co-winner Joel Coen for The Man Who Wasn't There. It drew positive reviews from many critics and some of the strongest audience reactions of Lynch's career. Universal Pictures released Mulholland Drive theatrically in 66 theaters in the United States on October 12, 2001, grossing $587,591 over its opening weekend. It eventually expanded to its widest release of 247 theaters, ultimately grossing $7,220,243 at the U.S. box office. TVA Films released the film theatrically in Canada on October 26, 2001. In other territories outside the United States, the film grossed $12,892,096 for a worldwide total of $20,112,339. Lynch was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director for the film. From the Hollywood Foreign Press, the film received four Golden Globe nominations, including Best Picture (Drama), Best Director and Best Screenplay. It was named Best Picture by the New York Film Critics Circle at the 2001 New York Film Critics Circle Awards and Online Film Critics Society.
Mulholland Drive was named the best film of the decade by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Cahiers du cinéma, IndieWire, Slant Magazine, Reverse Shot, The Village Voice and Time Out New York, who asked rhetorically in a reference to the September 11 attacks, "Can there be another movie that speaks as resonantly — if unwittingly — to the awful moment that marked our decade? [...] Mulholland Drive is the monster behind the diner; it's the self-delusional dream turned into nightmare." It was also voted best of the decade in a Film Comment poll of international "critics, programmers, academics, filmmakers and others", and by the magazine's readers. It appeared on lists among the top ten best films of the decade, coming in third, according to The Guardian, Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers, the Canadian Press, Access Hollywood critic Scott Mantz, and eighth on critic Michael Phillips' list. In 2010 it was named the second best Arthouse film ever by The Guardian. The film was voted as the 11th best film set in Los Angeles in the last 25 years by a group of Los Angeles Times writers and editors with the primary criterion of communicating an inherent truth about the L.A. experience. Empire magazine placed Mulholland Drive at number 391 on their list of the five-hundred greatest films ever. It has also been ranked number 38 on the Channel 4 program 50 Films to See Before You Die. In 2011, online magazine Slate named Mulholland Drive in its piece on "New Classics" as the most enduring films since 2000.
Sight & Sound ranked Mulholland Drive 28th on their list of the fifty greatest films ever on August 2, 2012. It is one of only two films of the 21st century to be included in the list, along with 2000's In the Mood for Love.
Gangs of New York - 2002 - Martin Scorsese
Yes, Martin Scrosese's masterpiece of the 2000's is NOT The Departed (2006), not that I don't like that film, but 2002's Gangs of New York.
Scorsese's Life Passion Took Over 20 Years to Get to the Screen; and Even When the Film was Finally a Go, Further Problems Occurred...
In 1970, Scorsese came across Herbert Asbury's The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld (1928), about the city's nineteenth-century criminal underworld, and found it to be a revelation. Scorsese saw the potential for an American epic about the battle for the modern American democracy. At the time, Scorsese was a young director without money or clout; by the end of the decade, with the success of crime films such as Mean Streets (1973), about his old neighborhood, and Taxi Driver (1976), he was a rising star.
In 1979, he acquired screen rights to Asbury's book, but it took twenty years to get the production moving forward. Difficulties arose with reproducing the monumental city scape of 19th-century New York with the style and detail Scorsese wanted; almost nothing in New York City looked as it did in that time, and filming elsewhere was not an option. Eventually, in 1999, Scorsese was able to find a partnership with Harvey Weinstein, noted producer and co-chairman of Miramax Films.
Harvey Weinstein has been an influential yet controversial figure in the world of cinema. I think he's basically responsible for the 90's Independent Cinema Movement. However, Harvey is known for being very shroud as well.
Due to the strong personalities and clashing visions of director and producer, the three year production became a story in and of itself. Scorsese strongly defended his artistic vision on issues of taste and length, while Weinstein fought for a streamlined, more commercial version. During the delays, noted actors such as Robert De Niro and Willem Dafoe had to leave the production due to conflicts with their other productions. Costs overshot the original budget by 25 percent, bringing the total cost over $100 million. The increased budget made the film's success vital to Miramax. After post-production was nearly completed in 2001, the film was delayed for over a year. The official justification was, after the September 11, 2001 attacks certain elements of the picture may have made audiences uncomfortable; the film's closing shot is a view of modern-day New York City, complete with the World Trade Center Towers, despite their having been leveled by the attacks over a year before the film's release. However, this explanation was refuted in Scorsese's own contemporary statements, where he noted that the production was still filming pick-up seven in October 2002.
Weinstein kept demanding cuts to the film's length, and some of those cuts were eventually made. In December 2001, Jeffrey Wells (then of Kevin Smith's website) reviewed a purported workprint of the film as it existed in the fall of 2001. Wells reported the work print lacked narration, was about 20 minutes longer, and although it was "different than the [theatrical] version... scene after scene after scene play[s] exactly the same in both." Despite the similarities, Wells found the work print to be richer and more satisfying than the theatrical version. While Scorsese has stated the theatrical version is his final cut, he reportedly "passed along [the] three-hour-plus [work print] version of Gangs on tape [to friends] and confided, 'Putting aside my contractual obligation to deliver a shorter, two-hour-and-forty-minute version to Miramax, this is the version I'm happiest with,' or words to that effect."
A Farewell to the American Epic:
Back in what I like to call "The True Golden Age of Cinema" (1967-1980), film critics were just as important to the success or failure of a film as much as the makers themselves. It began with the French New Wave reappraisal of forgotten American films of the 30s, 40s, and 50s and also with film critic Andrew Sarris, who coined the term "Auteur Theory". According to Sarris in order to be an "auteur", a director must accomplish technical competence in their technique, personal style in terms of how the movie looks and feels, and interior meaning (although many of Sarris's auterist criteria were left vague).
This was highly controversial, and still is to this day. I happen to be a believer in the Auteur Theory despite the collaborative nature of film. Ultimately, in regards to some directors, it's their personal signature and vision that always comes across. It is the job of his collaborators to make that vision come true. The term auteur can even apply to Producers (Jerry Bruckheimer, Harvey Weinstein) and Screenwriters (Aaron Sorkin, who received top billing ahead of director David Fincher, an auteur himself, on "The Social Network" poster).
Scorsese definitely fits into the auteur category. Most of his work has similar styles, themes, motifs, and symbols. The same could be applied to directors Alfred Hitchcock, Oliver Stone, Brian De Palma, Lars Von Trier etc.
During the late sixties to early eighties, directors were given an extraordinary amount of power, influence, and money to make big films that fit their personal vision. Many great filmmakers were born out of the 70's (De Palma, Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola, Scorsese).
That all ended in 1980 with the release of a film by Academy Award winning director Michael Cimino, "Heaven's Gate". Cimino had an expansive and ambitious vision for the film and pushed it about four times over its planned budget. The movie's financial problems and United Artists' consequent demise led to a move away from director-driven film production in the American film industry and a shift toward greater studio control of films.
The Idea That a Flawed Film Can Still Be Great:
When heralding Alan Parker's Shoot the Moon as an emotional landmark in 1981, Pauline Kael (the greatest, most influential film critic of all time) expressed a pang of hesitation as to how good she felt the film was; she didn't want to overshadow her feelings (and the resultant expectations of her readers) with needless hyperbole. I feel the same way about "Gangs of New York". The film is in many ways a complete mess, narratively and structurally. However, what rises from the sloppiness is a Martin Scorsese picture that has more emotion than anything he has put on film before or since.
Chuck Rudolph, Slant Magazine: "Bulky and overstuffed with characters, details and episodes, Gangs of New York will divide those who accept its flaws as integral to its greatness and those who find Scorsese reaching for effects he doesn't know how to construct. Gangs of New York could be considered a breakthrough or a breakdown—the latter offered up as an observation by a colleague of mine in conversation about the film. It would be foolish not to acknowledge that the film is, on some level, one of Scorsese's most unsettled works. In attempting to pack enough material for a ten-part miniseries into a 168-minute feature, the film shows stretch marks rare to a career that has been built on fastidiousness. Parallel editing speeds up the doling of information that might have been more valuable if explained with leisure, dialogue is overlapped and mis-matched with the mouths of the actors speaking it, and much of the film's magnificent period milieu flashes by so rapidly that multiple viewings will be required to soak it all in. But could this so-called breakdown have produced Scorsese's breakthrough as an artist? It's easy to see that at some point during filming he let go of his need to get everything right and allowed his innermost passions as a filmmaker to guide the picture's direction. He's never made a film as willful, as ardent, as vulnerable in its emotions as Gangs of New York, and if exactitude was the price to pay for a film of such potency and resolve, so be it. The film loses little, but gains so much more."
This review by Chuck Rudolph has become my battle cry for the passionate defense, I have for this film and I thought that's where I differ with most critics in terms of Gangs of New York. Every time I debate the greatness of Gangs of New York with people, they rattle through all the common criticisms (it's long, overblown, narrative is a mess, unfocused etc.) and I kind of just sit there and say, yeah you're right. However, what I hope to accomplish by praising the film, is to think of it more than just film school points, but to look at the overall impact.
Where Gangs of New York breaks new ground is that no Scorsese film before it has been so willing to let the director's naked enthusiasm, his love not only for the history within the film and its characters but also the purity of cinema, reveal itself in all of its unabashed glory.
History manipulates us all: it forgets about its accomplices; it's cruel to its survivors; and it's in turn contrived by those who must catalog and record it. These people will not do justice to Gangs of New York; it is likely to be remembered more for its lengthy and problematic production history than it is in its actuality. But Scorsese seems aware of this, and is remarkably at peace with his film's fate. In his final tableaux, one of the most forcible and eloquent ever committed to celluloid, Scorsese anticipates his future, and the future of the medium, so dear to his heart, just as another hostage of the same vacuum that has consumed Amsterdam Vallon, Bill the Butcher, and the countless other members of the draft riots in 1863.
The early battle sequence in the film I found quite astounding, unlike anything Scorsese has ever put on film from a violence standpoint. I think it's his best representation of violence he's had in his entire career. The amazing song used in this clip is Signal to the Noise by Peter Gabriel.
The ending of this film is perhaps the best ending sequence in any film, ever. When I revisited this film last year for the first time in a while, I nearly was driven to tears (it sounds stupid I know). There's not another sequence I can think of that connects a director, a city, past, present and future like Scorsese does at the end of this film. I know you'll say that's only like a minute of the film, but it's reach goes far beyond that. It's the birth, death, and rebirth of America, of Hollywood, and of Scorsese. Marty goes out with a bang, not a whimper. The New York Draft Riots were one of the darkest days in American history and Scorsese never shy about showing our country's dark underbelly.
I guess in a way GoodFellas ruined Scorsese's career because he's had to put up with nearly 25 years of every single film being compared to it. Let me ask you this though, how many films IN GENERAL are as great as GoodFellas. I'm a fan of director's, of artists, of looking at someones entire career as one huge body of work and with that I say Gangs of New York is a masterpiece.
"In the end, they put candles on the bodies so's their friends, if they had any, could know them in the dark. The city did this free of charge. Shang, Jimmy Spoils, Hell-cat, McGloin, and more. Friend or foe, didn't make no difference now. It was four days and nights before the worst of the mob was finally put down. We never knew how many New Yorkers died that week before the city was finally delivered. My father told me we was all born of blood and tribulation, and so then too was our great city. But for those of us what lived and died in them furious days, it was like everything we knew was mightily swept away. And no matter what they did to build this city up again...for the rest of time...it would be like no one ever knew we was ever here." - Leo's Final Narration
Femme Fatale - 2002 - Brian De Palma
It's no secret that I am a HUGE Brian De Palma fan, he is one of my favorite filmmakers. De Palma has his haters and his big time fans, for the past 10 years I was mostly a De Palma defender who would admit to the occasional common criticisms levied against the director; he's all style over substance, he rips off Hitchcock, etc. However, it wasn't until I read a brilliant piece by Slant Magazine called Auteur Fatale: The Films of Brian De Palma, that I became an ardent "defender" of Brian De Palma's films.
Brian De Palma came to prominence in the 1970's and was one of the founding "rat pack" of 70's New Hollywood filmmaking. De Palma is credited with fostering the careers of or outrightly discovering Robert De Niro, Jill Clayburgh, John C. Reilly, John Leguizamo, Andy Garcia and Margot Kidder. He was the first of the bunch experience major success, with films like Sisters (1973) and the massive hit, Carrie (1976).
His contemporaries include Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, John Milius, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, John Carpenter, and Ridley Scott. His artistry in directing and use of cinematography and suspense in several of his films has often been compared to the work of Alfred Hitchcock. Psychologists have been intrigued by De Palma's fascination with pathology, by the aberrant behavior aroused in characters who find themselves manipulated by others.
De Palma has encouraged and fostered the filmmaking careers of directors such as Quentin Tarantino, Mark Romanek and Keith Gordon. Tarantino said, during an interview with De Palma, that Blow Out is one of his all time favorite films, and that after watching Scarface he knew how to make his own film. Terrence Malick credits seeing De Palma's early films on college campus tours as a validation of independent film, and subsequently switched his attention from philosophy to filmmaking.
Critics who frequently admire De Palma's work include Pauline Kael, Roger Ebert, and Armond White, among others. Kael wrote in her review of Blow Out, "At forty, Brian De Palma has more than twenty years of movie making behind him, and he has been growing better and better. Each time a new film of his opens, everything he has done before seems to have been prepared for it."
The most talked about scene of the film is probably the opening sequence at Cannes, which sets the tone perfectly, because it makes the audience acutely aware that it’s watching a movie, and that De Palma is interested in exploring the mechanics that make a noir thriller work. I think it also happens to be one of the finest set pieces in motion picture history. To the strains of Ravel’s “Bolero," De Palma lays out an audacious jewel heist as only he could conceive it. $10 million in diamonds is at stake, but they aren’t locked away in some vault or piled into a black velvet sack; instead, they’re encrusted on the serpentine brassiere of the gorgeous brunette serving as the arm candy of (real-life director) Régis Wargnier for the première of his (really forgettable) movie East/West. Posing as an aggressive paparazzo, Laure Ash (Romijn) pulls off the heist by seducing the woman and liberating her of the jewels in a translucent bathroom stall. When the dust settles, Laure walks away with the diamonds after double-crossing her partner (Eriq Ebouaney), leaving him with a bullet wound and a seven-year prison sentence in southern France.
It is a patently ridiculous scheme, even knowing as we do later that the jewel-bearer was in cahoots, but De Palma plays the trashy conceit to the hilt. Just like the Langley sequence in Mission: Impossible, he has the patience to create tension by showing every element that goes into the heist: Laure makes her move, one man rappelling down an air duct, a different one assuming the role of a security guard, and still another lifting a key for the escape route. The timing has to be perfect, and there's that same degree of precision to De Palma's choreography; if he wasn't a filmmaker, his sense of timing and logistics might have made him an ace professional thief. Along with that, he updates the “femme fatale” archetype from the Stanwyck model for the brazenly sexual likes of Romijn, much as he did with Melanie Griffith in his underrated 1984 thriller Body Double.
Another brilliant scene, among many, is a striptease Rebecca Romijn's Laure does in an underground bar in Paris. Many have accused De Palma as a misogynist, however, with further analysis, this scene puts to rest any of those allegations. Romijn's Laure is in control of these drooling men the entire time (and indeed the entire film mostly). She baits the men to quarrel, and in a brilliant shot we see Romijn's laughter, our view of the men fighting is through the shadows behind her.
The film received mixed reviews; however, it was praised by several high profile critics, notably Roger Ebert, who gave it a 4 star review and called it one of De Palma's best films. The film has since developed a cult status amongst cinephiles. Femme Fatale currently holds a 48% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 134 reviews.
Ever since his horror masterpiece, Sisters, released in 1973, De Palma has been exploring Hollywood genres, picking them apart, finding out what is so fascinating about them, then exploiting those fascinating elements beyond necessity, in both a celebratory way, as well as a satirical one. His film becomes essays on whatever genre he is navigating us through and perhaps this is why he is often misunderstood in America. The overindulgence of sex and violence in his movies is more of a reflection of the excessive sex and violence in movies in general. People react positively to these types of images so De Palma gives it to them in spades, taking the genre to the umpteenth degree. Ultimately, though, one has to realize there is much humor in his presentation and quite often these scenes are satirical jabs more than anything else.De Palma both loves and laughs at Hollywood movies.
Unfortunately, Femme Fatale has gotten shit DVD releases and no Blu-Ray! Currently the film is not available streaming or on Blu-Ray. Once I found that out I emailed the Criterion Collection suggestions box for a Criterion release of Femme Fatale. I have no idea if it's going to work, but this film needs a proper release and availability. I can't even find quality clips to show in my review!
Zodiac - 2007 - David Fincher
David Fincher's serial-killer epic has been described as a procedural, a "process" movie, a newspaper movie, a thinking-man's serial-killer thriller, and a metaphor for post-9/11 anxiety. Zodiac is all of those things, but, for me, it's a movie about the passage of time and missed opportunities. For newspapermen Robert Graysmith and Paul Avery, and San Francisco homicide detectives Dave Toschi and Bill Armstrong, the need to identify the Zodiac killer consumes their lives, and they realize that it will only be so long before time permanently closes their window of opportunity to get things right.
It's also a film about the process, about failure, about uncertainty, about important questions that never get answered, that is, a movie about the reality of human experience wrapped in a shiny, movie star bow.
Zodiac tells the story of the manhunt for a notorious serial killer who called himself the "Zodiac" who killed in and around the San Francisco Bay Area during the late 1960s and early 1970s, leaving several victims in his wake and taunting police with letters, blood stained clothing, and ciphers mailed to newspapers. The cases remain one of Northern California's most infamous unsolved crimes.
Zodiac is a slow burner, a film that might not wow you immediately, but hours, days, weeks, months, years later, like me, you'll still be thinking about it.
Fincher, screenwriter James Vanderbilt, and producer Brad Fischer spent 18 months conducting their own investigation and research into the Zodiac murders. Fincher employed the digital Thomson Viper Filmstream camera to photograph the film. However, Zodiac was not shot entirely digitally; traditional high-speed film cameras were used for slow-motion murder sequences.
This is the film, at least for me, that David Fincher became an auteur. He developed a signature look and style to his films that are uniquely identifiable as his. Much of that has to do with the amazing shots Fincher captured with digital filmmaking.
The clip above is the chilly opening five minutes of the film. It demonstrates how a film can have realistic qualities, while as the audience, we're also aware this is a film. However, unlike earlier Fincher films where the direction was more in your face stylish (not saying that's a bad thing), Zodiac, is more subtle in its artistry. The attention to detail is incredible, a combination of accurate period retelling not only in reality, but in filmmaking as well.
The opening scene also introduces Donovan's Hurdy Gurdy Man, kind of the theme tune of the film. Outside of any Scorsese or Tarantino films, I can't think of a better use of a song throughout a film. Like the film itself, Donovan's song is a haunting and hypnotic. There's a real sense of dread and life coming to an end throughout the picture, something most serial killer films barely even acknowledge.
Another standout scene I want to highlight ironically takes place during the day, whereas most of these kind of films, and indeed Zodiac as a whole, shoot in the dark. To me, this is one of the most terrifying scenes I have ever seen. Beginning with a college couple just going out for a picnic (based on the Lake Berryessa attack), a woman suddenly spots a strange figure in the distance. Fincher wisely never allows us to leave their POV.
Zodiac breaks down the information and the process of investigation into its natural stages, allowing information to arrive as it really came, in fits and spurts, over long periods of time, all of it cryptic, much of it still unknown. Behind every door could be a killer, every face on the street might be that of the Zodiac, and not to ruin the fun, but we’ll probably never know anyway.