I’m finally cracking down and getting this done. I’m still not entirely set in the rankings, and I’m having second thoughts about putting certain films on the “runners-up” list as opposed to my top 30 list, but as Carole King once said, “it’s too late, baby, now it’s too late.”
An intense, chilling fairy tale, laid out beautifully by the very imaginative Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, Pan’s Labyrinth is eerie and dark, the way most fairy tales were before Disney laid claim to them. Even the Faun, one of the “good guys,” is slightly terrifying, but he pales in comparison to some of the vicious baddies here, like the Pale Man and our heroine’s unusually cruel stepfather. Unlike the candy-coated Princess tales of late, Pan’s Labyrinth doesn’t end on a decidedly happy note. But then, it has a strong tether to reality, much more so than faries and fauns and mandrakes would first lead us to believe.
Mean Girls harkens back to the (actually good) teen films of the 80s, like a slightly less vicious Heathers. It’s also, arguably, Lindsay Lohan’s best work, although that’s not saying much. What makes it particularly memorable is Tina Fey’s zinger of a script, which is endlessly quotable. Finally, a comedy for girls and women (who had once been girls) that didn’t pander to them or insult them. Rather, it exposed the convoluted, hate-filled kind of relationships that girls have with one another, illuminating it for people who were unaware, and highlighting exactly why this sort of treatment is unhealthy. It’s over-the-top, at times, but it’s also enduringly original, honest, very funny. There’s even a bit of “Feminism 101” in there. When Fey’s character Ms. Norbury says, “You all have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores. It just makes it okay for guys to call you sluts and whores,” I wanted to cheer.
28. Forgetting Sarah Marshall (Stoller, 2008)
While this film was technically lumped in with the other Judd Apatow directed/written/produced films, the real mastermind behind Forgetting Sarah Marshall would be author and leading man Jason Segel. I find it to be a much more sensitive, subdued film than Apatowian man-child fun rides like Superbad and Knocked Up, and perhaps that’s because it’s supposedly based on the true story of Segel’s break-up with Freaks and Geeks costar Linda Cardellini. Though slightly unmotivated, Segel’s Peter Bretter isn’t really a “man-child.” He’s just broken-hearted, which most everyone can relate to, and he finds himself in one of the worst possible situations. The film also puts a spin on the traditional romantic comedy characters. Peter is the leading man, but he’s not overly handsome or charming. Sarah (Kristen Bell) is the cheating ex-girlfriend, but the audience is led to understand why she and Peter were once compatible, and why she became frustrated in the relationship. Her new boyfriend, the sexed-up rockstar Aldous Snow (Russell Brand), is funny and even Peter thinks that he’s “cool.” Overall, this is an immensely likable, endlessly watchable film that at least gives a good attempt at breaking the romantic comedy mold.
27. Hamlet 2 (Fleming, 2008)
True, this comedy can venture into “stupid” territory. But, more often than not, I found it to be an inventive and fun look at a world that’s not often visited in fiction: high school theatre departments. Hamlet 2 is a spoof of the “inspirational teacher” movie, the anti-High School Musical, and a sort of precursor to Glee. It hilariously ponders some interesting, universal questions like, “What does a person do when they have no talent for the one thing that they love doing?” and, “At what price are we slashing arts funding in public schools all across the country?” It even touches on censorship, sacredness of certain subjects, and the nature of artistic expression. Sure, I might be looking too much into it, but few people give Hamlet 2, the credit I think it deserves. Even if you don’t feel like putting that much effort into your viewing experience, at least pick this up for Steve Coogan’s masterfully comedic performance as teacher Dana Marschz, a passionate guy who describes his life as, “a parody of a tragedy.” An apt description, to be sure.
26. (500) Days of Summer (Webb, 2009)
(500) Days of Summer insists that it’s not a romance, and that’s very true. For me, it was more like a horror movie. If this is what relationships are like for sensitive twentysomethings, then I want no part of it. But the honest and realistic approach to romance that (500) Days presents is refreshing, funny, cute, and infuriating. Zooey Deschanel gives a great performance as the titular Summer, a manic-pixie-dream-girl gone awry (interesting that she plays a stereotypically male character, the emotionally distant heartbreaker; with this and All the Real Girls, it could become a trend for her). The real star here, though, is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who seems to connect with his character, Tom, on a very personal level. A lesser actor might play the role as “whiney” or “clingy,” but Gordon-Levitt’s Tom is likable, if not extremely naive. I wouldn’t be surprised if (500) Days of Summer spawned a string of similar, anti-romantic comedy films.
25. I Capture the Castle (Fywell, 2003)
A faithful adaptation of Dodie Smith’s minor classic novel of the same name, I Capture the Castle tells the story of a once-successful British author and his family. The author, James Mortmain (Bill Nighy), is experiencing a severe case of writers’ block, and as a result, the family has fallen on hard times; they struggle to save money for food, clothing, and repairs to the old castle they call home. The story is told from the point-of-view of youngest daughter Cassandra (Romola Garai), and is essentially a coming-of-age drama, hinging on a love pentagon featuring her, her ambitious older sister Rose (Rose Byrne), two wealthy American brothers (Henry Thomas and Marc Blucas), and Stephen (Henry Cavill), the Mortmain family’s groundskeeper. The book itself is one of my favorites (and also one of J.K. Rowling’s favorites), and the film is beautifully filmed and perfectly cast. Truly, what makes the film is the characters – each fully realized and acted, complex yet sympathetic. It’s also an achievement on screenwriter Heidi Thomas’s part that she took a decidedly first-person POV narrative and filled in the holes so seamlessly. Film adaptations often pale in comparison to the source material, especially for fans of the original. Speaking as a fan of the original novel, I think that this particular adaptation is a tremendous success.
The first James Bond film I’ve ever seen is also one of the few action films I’d consider a favorite. A new Bond (Daniel Craig) starring in something of an “origins story” for the classic spy was a great opportunity to reinvent Bond, since the character’s outings had gotten increasingly ridiculous (case in point: Denise Richards played a scientist named Dr. Christmas Jones in The World is Not Enough. Wrap your mind around that one). A darker, grittier 007 was just what the doctor ordered, and Casino Royale was a hit that drew in legions of new fans for the iconic secret agent, including myself. I was pleased to see the uncharacteristically real relationship between the new Bond and his “Bond girl,” Vesper Lynde (Eva Green); she was genuinely smart and more complex than I perceived the majority of his past bimbos to be. Craig brought an unhinged quality to Bond – he’s a talented rookie, a loose cannon. He breaks the rules, but you want him to break the rules because he’s charismatic and smarmy and clever, and you root for him. The action is creative and intense (the opening parkour-inspired scene in particular), but not confusing or nauseating, which are my two main complaints with most movie action sequences (I’m looking at you, The Dark Knight). Honestly, the biggest reason that I chose this film initially was because I felt that I should have a “favorite” action film on the list. But, the more I write about it, the more I’ve convinced myself that it actually is one of my favorite films of the past decade, regardless of genre.
This is a German film about three idealistic young friends who kidnap a wealthy older man after he discovers them in his house (how and why they’re in his house is too complicated to explain here). They whisk him off to some cabin in the woods, where the three activists, Jan, Jule, and Peter (Daniel Bruhl, Julia Jentsch, and Stipe Erceg), play out the love triangle that has formed between them. It’s a very political film because the three main characters are very opinionated on such matters (they’re essentially anarchists, I think), but the viewer is never completely led to see their beliefs as “perfect.” Their captive, Hardenberg (Burghart Klaussner), is given plenty of time to explain his own beliefs via conversations with his young guards. He’s almost painted as a vision of what these three could become in the future. It’s definitely a brain-poker that had me analyzing my own beliefs.
Saved! is an interesting movie. Rarely does American entertainment (outside of non-fiction) approach the topic of Christianity in such a critical way, and even more rarely does it still manage to be likable and fun. Quite honestly, I’m surprised that the producers managed to find funding and distribution for it, and I’m even more surprised that it featured a not entirely unknown array of actors (the cast includes Macaulay Culkin, Jena Malone, Patrick Fugit, Mary-Louise Parker, and Mandy Moore). At first blush, the film seems anti-Christian. The least likable characters, Hilary Faye and Pastor Skip, are seemingly the most pious. Our heroine, Mary, has a crisis of faith and doesn’t necessarily come out of it as a Christian. It casts homosexuality and even pre-marital sex as things that are natural and not to be feared. One could interpret its message as, “We would all have it a lot easier without Christianity.” I don’t think this is the case, though. There are plenty of good, admirable Christian characters, especially Patrick and Lillian (Mary’s mom). I think the real message of the film is that hypocrisy and hatred won’t win Jesus any fans, that it’s okay to be confused about religion and what God’s will is, and that no one can decide what’s right for someone else. That’s a great message, in my opinion, and that is what makes Saved! a great movie instead of just a good movie.
Jane Lynch is in this. Do I really need to say more? I do? Okay. This is a classic Christopher Guest mockumentary, which means that it’s hilarious and that most of the humor is a result of putting funny people together, in front of a camera, and then letting things unfold from there. Best in Show had the added bonus of throwing dogs into the mix (and yes, the actors even drag the animals into their improvisation at times). The “plot” of the film is simple: dogs and their owners/trainers/handlers convene at the biggest dog show in America, and a camera crew is there to film it all. We get to know them via talking-head segments (which is what’s going on in the screencap above), and a plethora of delightfully awkward peeks into their personal lives. Secrets are uncovered, relationships unravel, and tantrums are thrown. The point is that, in a film about dogs, the humans distinguish themselves as the most wild and uncouth, and that is beyond funny.