Friday, January 8, 2010

Top Twenty Films of the Decade

Recently I read FILMMAKER MAGAZINE put out a list of twenty-five top independent films of the decade. Per their assessment, I do not agree with all of the choices. I do agree; however, that it all depends on memory, at least that much was given aside from the box office results. It also depends on who triggers that memory for others to agree with and from the list of people mentioned as contributors who voted, they were primarily the usual suspects for film reviews.

The past decade involved a monumental amount of changes in my life, both personal (successfully completing my marriage), educational (graduate degree from American University, School of Communications) and professional (moving back to New York area as writer, producer, podcaster Film Festival reViews). So, indie films, attending film festivals and talking to filmmakers became an integral part of my life with many films changing my attitude towards, genres, filmmaking techniques, storytelling in that I cannot go along with FILMMAKER MAGAZINE's suggested film list just because someone else's memory may be tunes in to a most certainly different station, some more violent than others. In any event, the list is chronological, depending on my memory.

1. CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (2000) directed by Ang Lee, this Chinese B-movie genre involved magic, warriors, flying monks, noble swordsmen. Mythically lyrical, it was on my birthday that I saw it at the Avalon Theatre in Chevy Chase, Maryland. The next day the theater closed with plans for renovating it into a CVS or some other retail outlet. The Key and Biograph were already shut down in Washington, DC and the Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, Maryland was still a closed eyesore ready to be razed. It was on the precipice either to be a renovated downtown theater venue or parking lot for the American Dream Mall.

2. O, BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? (2000) by the Coen Brothers, an adventure film integrating a classical epic, Southern politics and American folk music coming away with a soundtrack that won a Grammy. I greatly admire their work (MILLER'S CROSSING as my favorite) and understanding when violence is used to move the story ahead. This one, however, that made the memory list is beyond the need for blatant violence. Amen.

3. ENDURANCE, THE SHACKLETON'S LEGENDARY EXPEDITION (2001) director George Butler's documentary on the big screen, one of the first in the decade making it a respectable box office success. The mix of original and new footage, stills and reenactments turned it into a hybrid docudrama we are so familiar with today especially knowing that Shackleton funded the expedition by selling the rights to Nat Geo before starting out. Most memorable when Shackleton ordered the photographer to burn over 400 pictures they chose not to carry with them, so that they wouldn't be tempted to return for them.

4. MEMENTO (2001) directed by Christopher Nolan, it's on my list as Best Mystery Thriller and has been acclaimed for its nonlinear narrative structure carefully delineated using black and white versus color sequences punctuated with aggravating sounds now used profusely as a mainstay in television. The marketing strategy was similar to BLAIR WITCH in that the website was used to provide clues and hints to the story. I especially liked the use of Polaroids which I found very helpful when supporting my own wandering memory searching for misplaced keys.

5. DONNIE DARKO (2001) directed by Richard Kelly, a science fiction that became a cult classic and one I can follow more readily than any David Lynch film. Timing is everything and a theater audience's cult-like following resurrected this film for another film life.

6. 21 GRAMS (2003) Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's dramatic feature appeared with an ensemble cast and non linear, interlocking story based around a car accident alluding to the afterlife with 21 grams representing the departing soul. While there is no scientific evidence to support this, the notion kept watercooler discussions going.

7. LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003) directed by Sofia Coppola. Lost in long distance loneliness. Not a big Bill Murray follower, but it was a brilliant decision on his part to take on this mid-life crisis role and relationship with a younger woman. One of the only Older Man-Younger Woman films I can appreciate and connect with.

8. THE STATION AGENT (2003) directed by Tom McCarthy won the Sundance Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award and Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay about a man who, looking for solitude at an abandoned train stop in New Jersey, becomes enmeshed in his neighbors' lives and neurosis. Patricia Clarkson is Queen of Indie Films.

9. THE FOG OF WAR: ELEVEN LESSONS FROM THE LIFE OF ROBERT S. MCNAMARA (2003) Errol Morris' brilliant documentary using archival footage and conversation recordings along with octogenarian Robert McNamara, himself. Awarded the Academy Award and Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary Feature, along with the "Lessons", I recognize and support the power of creative direction in a film bringing this from a potentially boring talking heads and audio recordings doc to new heights with conceptual graphics and visual presentation.

10. ROBOT STORIES (2003) four stories by Greg Pak called "science fiction from the heart" that continue to resonate with me since my Literature of the Fantastic course in college. This is an exemplary film by a first time filmmaker for first time filmmakers. Subtle and sublime presentation of human nature in a technological-worshipping society.

11. MARCH OF THE PENGUINS (2005) Luc Jacquet's doc on the mating rituals of the Emperor penguins in the Antarctic totally surprised me. However, I was angered (along with many parents of small children) by the distribution company's deceptive marketing practice calling this film "family fun". At the NYWiFT program event A Case Study on the Making of a Documentary, producer Emmanuele Priou discussed the tremendous obstacles in a hostile environment both in the Antarctic and stakeholders boardroom, as well as changes made to appeal to an American audience. It was awarded an Oscar for Best Documentary feature and became the highest grossing box office success at the time ($77 million).

12. WILD PARROTS OF TELEGRAPH HILL (2005) directed by Judith Irving based on a book by a man taking care of a population of feral parrots. Maybe it's because growing up, my family was adopted by one such parrot, Lulu, who became such a member of the family that her socializing forever left an imprint on me about most living things' basic needs for social connection. The budget was one million and after its theatrical release, Emerging Pictures digitized the film for its Emerging Cinema Digital Network and the film continues to do well finding new audiences and having a very long tail with it.

13. VOLVER (2006) Pedro Almodovar directed this coming home (literally translated as return to a place) drama/tragicomedy about the rich culture of death and superstition taken from Almodovar's birthplace. Penelope Cruz finally had a role that put her on a best actor level. She reminded me of Sophia Loren in the 1954 Italian comedy THE GOLD OF NAPLES and I hope she finds more roles like this one. I also loved the way Almodovar directed and brought out the essence of his women characters as a tribute to the women in his life and place.

14. THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY (2006) directed by Ken Loach is the only war film I have on the list, not that there aren't great films that should be listed (maybe on the Top Fifty). Set during the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War, the story is about two brothers torn by their beliefs and honor. It's a history that few are familiar with and caused a flurry of protests by rival historic interpretations. The film won the Palme d'Or at Cannes Film Festival in 2006.

15. AWAY FROM HER (2007) directed by Sarah Polley with beautiful, memorable performances by Julie Christie, Gordon Pinsent and Olympia Dukakis. Kudos for the screenplay adapted from a short story into a feature that could have fallen quickly into a quagmire of depression. Instead, it celebrated lives and relationships with reality and optimism.

16. DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY (2007) Julian Schnabel won the Best Director award at Cannes and while the entire film kept me in awe, the scene I found most affecting was Bauby shaving his ailing father and their man-to-man, heart-to-heart. Touching.

17. THE LIVES OF OTHERS (2007) directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck and awarded the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Its details and nuances are what makes the film so captivating and surprising at what it means to recover your personal humanity no matter what the circumstances are or consequences can be.

18. FROZEN RIVER (2008) written and directed by Courtney Hunt, it started as a short story then turning full bloom into a feature with Melissa Leo as one of two desperate women who smuggle illegal immigrants across the frozen St. Lawrence River. Leo was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actress and won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Female Lead. When the Academy Award nominations were announced, gossip editor Courtney Hazlett on MSNBC announced her ignorance live on camera stammering she never heard of FROZEN RIVER and that only films that people know about should be nominated and she wouldn't know where to go to see it. Meanwhile at Sundance, Quentin Tarantino, ready to announce the Grand Jury Prize Winner (Dramatic), described the film as "a vise around your heart that is continuously squeezed until the very end".

19. MAN ON WIRE (2008) directed by James Marsh was another Sundance Grand Jury Prize Winner (Documentary) and Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary. The entire film went off like the planned bank heist that Philippe Petit had envisioned in his 1974 high-wire walk/dance between the Twin Towers. During the decade, doc filmmakers over-used reenactments and other elements to alter their film's characteristics, often unsuccessfully. This film was not only superb technically, but it had the visual and emotional intensity taken to heights that even Alfred Hitchcock would have approved of.

20. DEPARTURES (2009) directed by Yojiro Takita and awarded the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, this film embodies tradition and non traditional families along with a taboo subject of death, encoffinment, ceremonies and bereavement. Nevertheless, the soulful cello score throughout the film and the entire ceremony at the end of the credits become the small gems often missing in mainstream indie films.

NEXT: The Top Twenty Films of the Decade by women filmmakers.

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