(5) There Will Be Blood (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)—2007
Numerology aficionados, take note: number five on this list is the fifth feature directed by P.T. Anderson, “P.T. Anderson” has five syllables, “Daniel Day-Lewis” also has five syllables, it’s 158 minutes long (if you divide 158 by 31.6, you get . . . five!), it won five awards from the Austin Film Critics’ Association . . . oh, shit, wait, I forgot I wasn’t writing about Magnolia. Sorry.
I’ve personally gone back and forth on P.T. Anderson several times. I saw Boogie Nights, thought it was a masterpiece (still do), I saw Magnolia, thought it was a masterpiece, then watched it again and realized I was high when I watched it the previous time and thought it was a bit of a mess, talked to someone who swore to me that Magnolia was the best American film since Citizen Kane, watched it again, was swayed by their opinion, told someone else Magnolia was the new gold standard in auteur cinema, was told by them that I was a pretentious asshole and that Magnolia sucked, replied “fuck you,” let a couple years go by, watched Magnolia again, realized that it had its moments but was about an hour too long; saw Punch-Drunk Love, wondered why; finally Netflixed Hard Eight, aka Sydney, got very excited about the possibilities of cinema . . . and then came time to see There Will Be Blood.
There Will Be Blood is a legitimate epic. “Epic” is one of those words like “awesome” or “diva” (or “fact”) that has a different use now than it used to, and gets tossed around so much that it’s easy to lose sight that it once carried a grandeur implying something beyond the ordinary. One of the puzzling contradictions of modern-day Hollywood is that, in spite of the emphasis on commercialism (i.e. maximizing the number of screenings per day a picture can have) and the perceived dwindling attention span of the modern moviegoer, two-and-a-half hour movies are relatively common, but most of those movies are the result of the Gore Verbinskis of the world losing the keys to the editing room rather than there being a preponderance of actual epics. This, though, is an epic in a very American tradition.
It looks and feels like a Western, but is set sometime after the “Old West” period, at the dawn of the 20th century. The fact of its being a Western in form gives a sense of inevitability to the story of oilman Daniel Plainview, that this is where the Old West was always heading. There Will Be Blood is not a polemic, nor is it even overtly political; the best choice it makes from the very beginning is that, although Daniel Plainview does bad things, he is not a villain. He’s just a guy. This has always been P.T. Anderson’s greatest strength as a writer, not judging his characters, but scrupulously showing them as they are and letting the audience make up its own mind.
No discussion of this movie is complete without mentioning Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance in the lead. It is, without exaggeration, one of the defining performances in the history of cinema. It’s so good that even talking about it is almost pointless. One understands immediately watching him on the screen, radiating intensity to the terrifying degree he does, why Mr. Day-Lewis retires after every movie and goes off to make shoes for a couple years. If he tried to sustain one of those Samuel L. Jackson four-or-five movie a year careers, his head would explode. (Actually, it’s this quality of DDL’s process that makes me like him less as an actor; being an actor myself I can’t help but think what a monumental fucking pain in the ass it must be to work with a guy who walks around set in character all the time, insisting on being addressed as his character . . . I still think he’s about as good at that kind of acting as anyone ever has or ever will be, I just really don’t want him to spawn any imitators).
Ultimately, even though There Will Be Blood is one of those movies it’s easier to admire than love, the admiration it demands is supreme. Any movie about which it can be said, “Okay, here are my top five favorite shots . . . wait, shit, that’s seven . . .” is a force to be reckoned with (take a bow, Robert Elswit). That necessary admiration is what jumps this movie to the top 5, but the emotional chilliness and deliberate (not slow, just deliberate) pace keep it from rising higher.
(4) Children of Men (dir. Alfonso Cuaron)—2006
Warning: spoilers ahead, so watch the movie first. You’re welcome.
When I was first compiling this list—as a joke, while Gchatting with my good friend James Comtois about his top 50—I forgot to include Children of Men. Some might say that this means “how memorable could it be?” That ain’t it, though. The real reason I forgot about this movie is because HBO has been showing it so often, and always when I’m flipping channels in the middle of the night (insomnia’s a bitch, folks), that I keep thinking it’s been around for longer, because at this point I’ve seen it so many times that I think it must be older.
(What’s that you say? You worry for me, since my idea of a good time is closing the shades, listening to gloomy Brit guitar music, watching dystopian science fiction movies, and contemplating man’s place in a near-infinite cosmos? You’re really too kind for worrying.)
Most other end-of-decade lists have Children of Men somewhere in the teens or twenties. I can see that, especially if you only saw it once or maybe twice. The first time I saw it a couple things really jumped out at me—Clive Owen’s performance is terrific, as is the vividly real, cinema-verite vision of the future—as well as the same thing that everyone was talking about: those now-famous uninterrupted takes. There are the most famous two—the one in the car and the one fucking incredible one at Bexhill—but upon repeated viewings, you notice even the first shot of the movie, where Clive Owen goes in, gets his morning coffee, sees on the TV that the youngest person in the world has died (an 18 year old in Argentina), goes out, puts his sugar in and BOOM the coffee shop explodes is all in one take. That the one where Clive Owen’s trying to jumpstart the car and push it through the mud, all in one take. That the one where the baby is born, all one take.
There isn’t a ton of exposition here. Alfonso Cuaron seems more concerned with the audience’s visceral experience of this world than in their understanding just why no babies have been born in 18 years. Exactly that kind of overexplanation was what stopped V for Vendetta dead in its tracks and made you go “wait, hold up” when you were supposed to be getting excited about Natalie Portman blowing up Parliament. Cuaron, with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s help, keeps us focused on the task at hand: getting Clive Owen, Kee, and Kee’s baby, the fuck out of England. No subplots, none of that crap, just an hour and forty-five minutes of focused intensity and a couple of eight-minute single-shot action scenes that will give you a boner. Or the nearest local equivalent.
(3) The Lives of Others (dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck)—2006
I wrote this back in December ‘07: First things first, the director has a whole lot of name, but if you plan on seeing movies for the next 30-50 years, learn how to spell it. This cat’s here to stay.
While this technically came out in 2006 justintime for the Oscar eligibility—and had all those Pan’s Labyrinth fans going “huh?” when it won—it went wide(ish) in ‘07, and in any case I just saw it. All justifications for its presence here are null and void, though. This movie is goddamn extraordinary.
Europeans are the only people who can pull of a character study/thriller that’s equally great as both, and The Lives of Others is everything great about European movies: a serious movie by a serious (first-time!) director about a serious theme that is not only entertaining, it’s immensely powerful emotionally. The cast is sensational. You can get lost in this movie like few others ever made. It’s up there with Citizen Kane and The 400 Blows as the best first features ever. And yes, it is that good. Pan’s Labyrinth did not get snubbed. Seriously.
Now: I keep meaning to go back and watch The Lives of Others, but I haven’t been able to. Watching it the first time was a little overwhelming. I cried. I cry at the movies from time to time, but I was sobbing at the end of this one. (Top 5 all-time surprising “I’m crying at this?” movies: this, WALL-E, P.S. I Love You—don’t ask—Pulp Fiction, and The Remains of the Day. In retrospect, Lives of Others and WALL-E kinda make sense, but refer any questions about the other three to my attorney). Partly because I knew Ulrich Mühe died before the movie came out, and he was incredible as the Stasi agent. Mostly because it’s a large movie about something important—the horrible effect totalitarian regimes have on people—that’s as well done as this movie is.
Part of the PR problem this movie had at first was that the people plugging it were German: “You VILL sink zis ist vun of ze greatest feelms uv all times!” (Actually, that’s me being a shithead; von Donnersmarck spent part of his childhood in the Upper East Side of NYC and speaks perfect mid-Atlantic American English; he’s not that far behind Tony Leung Chiu-Wai in the “foreigners speaking our language better than we do” list. Tony Leung speaking English is beautiful to listen to. Maybe we can bring him and von Donnersmarck over to the States and have them make a picture together . . .) Most of it was the above-mentioned Pan’s Labyrinth business. People loved them some Pan’s Labyrinth. And I mean, it’s a good movie, but comparing it to The Lives of Others is stupid. They both have repressive political regimes looming large over everything, but they diverge slightly from there. Suffice it to say there are no Stasi or KGB guys with eyeballs in their palms in The Lives of Others. But still, the friends I was watching the Oscars with stood up when they announced the Best Foreign Film winner and said, “THAT WAS FUCKING BULLSHIT” when the winner wasn’t Pan’s Labyrinth. Some things you just can’t help.
I only want to back off on my Citizen Kane/400 Blows rhetoric a little bit. The fact that all the heat around it has died down, and I’m just about the only person I know still talking about it, indicates that it may not be remembered on that level. Still, it’s a good fuckin’ movie. RIP Ulrich Mühe.
(2) City of God (dir. Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund)—2002
“Benny was the coolest hood in the City of God.”
One of my quirks is a love for random movie lines that, out of context, don’t always have the same resonance, or even have any resonance out of context, or aren’t even that important in context. But the line “Benny was the coolest hood in the City of God,” for some reason, made me feel just how cool Benny was, how much everyone else loved him, and so on. And it fit with the tone of the movie for me: it felt like I was listening to Homer singing the epic tale of legendary Cidade de Deus, the most dangerous slum in Rio de Janeiro.
At the same time as it feels legendary, it also feels vividly real. Trying to describe City of God to a friend once—in one of my frequent glib, reductive moods—I said “it’s season 4 of The Wire in Portuguese.” Not my most precise analogy, admittedly. But one quality City of God and The Wire have in common is a feeling, whether true or not, of reality. (A lot of Brazilians on imdb and other internet fora make the counterclaim that City of God is a bullshit MTV version of the real favelas, and I’ve admittedly never been there, so maybe they’re right). But where The Wire always avoided building anyone up to legendary status (or in Omar’s case, letting him retain it), there are epic figures in City of God. No one is crazier than Lil’ Ze. No one is cooler than Benny. No one is more bent on revenge than Knockout Ned. And, naturally, no one is hotter than Angelica (Alice Braga, niece of Sonia, possessor of the same knee-weakening hotness), and no one is more in love with Angelica than the protagonist, Rocket.
So, maybe a better framework in which to discuss City of God than realism is intensity. It’s almost too intense in places. Some of the things the characters do are a little hard to watch (especially if you find it hard to watch 8 year olds waving guns). When the closing credits role, you exhale. For the first time in over two hours.
(1) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (dir. Michel Gondry)--2004
And at long last, number one. This, in many ways is a Bowes no-brainer:
French director? Check
Run-of-the-mill civilians been known to call it depressing? Check
Great lead performance by an actor about whom that has to be prefaced by “now, I know what you thinking . . .?” Check
Kate Winslet? Check
Best Original Screenplay winner at the Oscars? Check
That last might seem arbitrary and overly reliant on the notoriously unreliable Oscars, but the kind of movie that wins Best Original Screenplay more often than not is the kind of thing I’d rather see than a Best Picture winner. A brief selected (non-chronological) list: Citizen Kane, Pulp Fiction, Annie Hall, Eternal Sunshine, Lost in Translation, Network, Sunset Boulevard, The Producers, Chinatown, The Usual Suspects, The Crying Game. Every last one an all-time favorite. None of them a Best Picture winner except Annie Hall. As an award, I always felt like Best Original Screenplay was the “ok, you’re too weird to give the big trophy to, but even though we’re a conservative institution with an unspoken yet distinct set of voting criteria, we still know a good movie when we see it” award. And ever since I was 16, I’ve thought that I if ever win an Oscar, the one I really want is Best Original Screenplay.
Eternal Sunshine has a very original screenplay indeed. Conceived by artist Pierre Bismuth, director Gondry, and the inimitable Charlie Kaufman, it tells the story of an artist named Joel (Jim Carrey) and his troubled relationship with a colorful-haired, hard drinking girl named Clementine (Kate Winslet). It opens with Joel and Clementine meeting as strangers, little knowing that they have been a couple for two years. They have each decided, with Clementine’s decision preceding Joel’s, to erase the other from their memory. Joel, though, in the middle of the process, begins to resist, as he can’t let the memory of the girl he once loved so dearly go.
And there you have it, a very basic and true idea: as much as love hurts when it goes bad, it’s still the best thing there is. A lot of what keeps a relationship going, after the initial bloom of romance fades into the comfort of familiarity, is the memory of the first romance. Some blossoms fade faster than others. Some, upon fading, reveal that the first romance was based on false pretenses. Some reveal that, although you love each other very much, certain compromises are necessary to keep one or two things from avalanching into relationship-enders. Whatever way the particular relationship evolves, there was always a point at which it was perfect, and the memory of that time is something to never let go.
The most impressive thing about Eternal Sunshine is that when the protagonist has that realization, Jim fucking Carrey is having that realization. A real emotion? From Jim fucking Carrey? Balderdash, you say? That’s what I said—with a couple “fuck”s randomly thrown in, of course—until I realized, no, it’s true. Jim Carrey really is giving a spectacularly effective lead performance, but even more amazingly, Jim Carrey is giving an understated performance. Maybe Charlie Kaufman, intellectual that he is, stopped by Carrey’s trailer and showed him the definition of “subtle” in Webster’s. Whatever the hell happened, whoever was responsible for reeling that motherfucker in deserves a Nobel Prize, fuck an Oscar and furthermore fuck a Palme D’Or.
So there you have it. Eternal Sunshine is my best of the decade. It ranks up there with Michel Gondry’s music videos, which will warrant their own entry at some point in this blog’s future. Happy New Year, everyone!