I think this second entry features a strong batch of films, for me at least. I even have two documentaries listed! Let’s hear it for me being all kinds of diverse. The more time I spend writing this list, the more certain I feel that I need to watch a greater number of films. Now, onto the best of what I have seen.
19. Grizzly Man (Herzog, 2005)
Iconically steely director Werner Herzog – who once got shot during a filmed interview and simply kept answering questions – pieced together this documentary from his own footage and hours and hours worth of Timothy “Grizzly Man” Treadwell’s own tapes and video diaries. Timothy made it his mission to protect the grizzly bears, and spent thirteen summers living amongst them, with very little human contact, at Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska. In 2003, he and supposed girlfriend Amie Huguenard were attacked and killed by one of the bears (audio tape remains from the attack, as Timothy’s camera was still on, and Herzog is one of the few people who have heard the recording). In Grizzly Man, Herzog pieces together interviews with Timothy’s family and friends, and clips of Timothy’s own recordings, and paints a portrait of the Man as a confused (and confusing) man.
It’s a difficult film to watch, and only part of that difficulty comes from knowing that Timothy’s journey results in his death. The most difficult part comes from Herzog’s own shaky opinion about Timothy. He portrays him as neither a hero nor a complete nutjob. Rather, he seems to think that he’s a bit of both. From his family and friends, we learn that Timothy was once an alcoholic and struggling actor, and Herzog seems to flirt with the idea that Timothy allied himself with the bears out of a need for attention (although this may be my own pessimism coming through). However, Herzog also seems to have a lot of respect for his subject. He lets us see that the Grizzly Man actually had a great love for his bears and the other animals in the reserve. But there’s also the sense that Timothy poured so much passion and attention into the wrong outlet. His presence in the reserve did very little other than continuously put his own well-being in danger. During one memorable scene, Timothy hides in the bushes and films some intruders in the reserve throwing rocks at the bears. Though he becomes very irate and emotional while watching these men hurt his family, he does nothing to stop them (and this is the only time he is offered such an explicit opportunity to help the bears throughout the entire film). Herzog fashions such a rounded, complex character out of Timothy Treadwell, that it’s mind-boggling to remember that he never actually met the man.
19. In Bruges (McDonagh, 2008)
Renowned playwright Martin McDonagh made his feature length film directorial debut with In Bruges, starring Irish actors Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as two Irish hitmen hiding out in Bruges, Belgium. In many ways, In Bruges does seem like a play, with its sharp dialogue, complex characters, small cast, and fairly simple concept. Having a firm foundation grounded in the dialogue and characters allows the film to stretch its wings, experiment, and play in several genres without going off the rails. It’s reminiscent of the Coen Brothers dark comedies in that it perfectly mixes humor with blood and guts and guns. There are a lot of action sequences, but it’s never really an action film. It’s hilarious, but it’s never actually a comedy. In fact, there are a lot of conflicting ideas in the film, and that’s what makes it work. The hitmen, Ken (Gleeson) and Ray (Farrell) are sent to Bruges by their boss, Harry (a scary, unpredictable Ralph Fiennes), to take a breather after a job goes awry. Ray puts on a face of annoyance at first, moaning and complaining that he’d rather be anywhere but Bruges (as he says, “If I grew up on a farm, and was retarded, Bruges might impress me, but I didn’t, so it doesn’t”). As the film progresses, and Ray opens up to Ken, we discover exactly why they’ve been sent to Bruges and just how much it’s hurting Ray. Allegiances shift and change, as do our perceptions of the characters, and their relationships. Nothing is certain, or predictable. If you’re still not intrigued, try this quote on for size: “You can’t sell horse tranquilizers to a midget!”
18. Dancer in the Dark (von Trier, 2000)
Some people accuse Dancer in the Dark of being emotionally manipulative, and it probably is. It’s like sadness porn. But that doesn’t negate the fact that it’s a very beautiful film. I’m not entire sure what the theme of the film is (although some read it as a commentary on the death penalty, and others have called it just another anti-feminist film from Lars von Trier who, admittedly, does like to film women suffering), but I like it mostly based on its merit as a musical. There are musical numbers, courtesy of Bjork (for the most part), and they are some of the strangest musical numbers I’ve ever seen. In other words, they’re completely in line with the rest of Bjork’s oeuvre.
To highlight just how eccentric the musical numbers are, Bjork’s character Selma also briefly stars in a community theater production of The Sound of Music. “My Favorite Things” never looked or sounded so mundane as it does here, up against Bjork singing songs on a train overpass, in a factory, and in a prison. There’s also a lot to be sad for the performances. Bjork shines in what is basically her only film acting role to date (she hated von Trier so much, she swore off films afterwards). Catherine Deneuve is also wonderful, playing one of the more loyal friends I’ve seen on film. Again, it’s a beautiful film, all colorful and bright and full of close-ups. That doesn’t really diminish the fact that it’s emotionally gutting, but at least your eyes will have a good time while your soul is weeping.
17. Le scaphandre et le papillon [The Diving Bell and the Butterfly] (Schnabel, 2007)
Like Dancer in the Dark, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly could be called an emotionally gutting, yet beautiful film. It’s the true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the editor of France’s Elle magazine, who suffers a stroke and is left fully paralyzed, save for his left eye. He uses that eye to communicate, and using an assistant, writes his memoirs (upon which the film is based). Mathieu Amalric gives a tremendous performance as Bauby, fully inhabiting the character, whether in flashbacks detailing Bauby’s healthy days as a philandering fashion editor or in the “present day” hospital scenes, where he is only allowed the one eyelid and some voice-over narration to portray the character. Bauby lives almost solely in his memory and imagination, and the film plays in these dreamworlds with the vibrant colors that one might paint their best memories with.
It’s also one of the rare films that can use potentially overbearing techniques, like narration or filming in the first person point-of-view (through Bauby’s eyes), and get away with it completely. It never feels like an unnecessary flourish or self-indulgent garnish on an otherwise simple film. Perhaps that’s because it’s almost unavoidable (there wouldn’t be much story or character if Bauby didn’t have some way to convey himself to us, the viewers). I think a lot of it can be credited to artist-turned-director Julian Schnabel’s careful creative attentiveness. He never overdoes it, or makes it overbearing (not once did I think, “Oh, another voice over. Here we go again…”). The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was particularly endearing to me because it was such a shock. I expected that it would be just another boring biopic, but even more boring because its subject was almost completely paralyzed. But I was terribly wrong. Rather, it’s a beautiful and quiet character study that looks and feels like a live-action watercolor painting. While more exciting films have been made, there aren’t many films that are more beautiful.
16. Inglourious Basterds (Tarantino, 2009)
One thing that I totally love about Quentin Tarantino is that he’s constantly looking backwards for inspiration, and not forwards. He prefers to honor the films that have come before his by being inspired by them, and by referencing them in his films (not overtly, just in tints and shades). I tend to be a member of the “older films are better” camp. I don’t think that better technology necessarily means that we are seeing an output of better quality films. Prettier films, perhaps, but as stories and pieces of art, they had it right long ago. Tarantino also has taken it upon himself to bring the underground into the mainstream, in a way. He’s not a part of that seemingly endless movement to remake every film that’s ever been a minor success. Again, he just paints his films with references and hues of inspiration. The idea is that there’s something comforting to his films, no matter how bloody they may get, because they embody this love of the underground, of vintage art, of classic story-telling with a twist.
Inglourious Basterds is no different. It takes a topic that has been visited countless times in film and storytelling in general – World War II – and it puts a crucial spin on it. What if there were a gang of Jewish (mostly American) soldiers enacting their brutal revenge on the Nazis? What if the end of Hitler and his cronies was brought about by a young Jewish woman, in her own movie theater? And what if he glued the whole thing together using one crucial character, a self-proclaimed “Jew hunter,” who you can’t help but kind of root for? I appreciate Tarantino’s often glowing depictions of strong women, and he doesn’t disappoint here. The “alternate history” aspect really appeals to me as well. It’s not a wonderful, really thematic film, I don’t think, but for this particular decade, it’s one of the most well-rounded pieces of cinema. Great acting, good dialogue, an easy pace which allows Tarantino to fully introduce us to his characters, and just genuinely good filmmaking really distinguish Inglourious Basterds as one of my (current) favorite films of the past decade.
15. Jesus Camp (Ewing and Grady, 2006)
This documentary is something of a time capsule now. Not only is the camp it depicts out of business now, but so is the President who the camp’s director, Becky Fischer, spends a good amount of time praising. While she and her evangelical cohorts were happier than pigs in mud during those eight long years that supposed “man of God” George W. Bush was our president, those same people have radically changed their tune now. It’s a testament to the film that we can so clearly see how things have changed. The way that directors Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing so subtly highlight the presence of “serious adult politics” at a church camp that’s seemingly meant to give these kids a fun, wholesome week away from home is admirable, and shocking. At times the images in the film can be disturbing; I think even the most conservative of Christians would be disturbed at a few of the things Fischer says (she mentions more than once how she would love to create an army of children for Christ – not a metaphorical army, but an actual group of children willing to lay their life on the line like Jihadist suicide bombers).
It’s clear that the three or so kids who get profiled here are sweet kids who are willing to please, so willing in fact that they end up becoming little parrots of their parents and religious leaders. I can’t buy that an 8 year old who loves to dance would actually feel the need to “be careful to praise the Lord with my dancing, and not the flesh” (paraphrasing here). In trying to preserve their children’s innocence and naivete, these parents have made their kids tiny adults who are aware of things far beyond their experience. Seeing these children bawling their eyes out and giving testaments about how they can’t live up to what God expects from them hits me particularly hard, as I too grew up in church and attended church camps much like this (perhaps a little less intense), and guilt was something I struggled with constantly. Much more guilt than any kid under the age of 16 should ever experience. You could take this as an anti-religious documentary, but I really think that’s a severe misinterpretation. Rather, it’s a cautionary tale about the problems we encounter when we mix politics and religion, the dangers of militant, pushy Christianity, and the good and bad ways parents influence the lives of their children. I do think it’s a film that has many things to say about religion, parenting, America, and so on and so forth, but “Christianity is evil” is one thing that it never says.
14. The Squid and the Whale (Baumbach, 2005)
Indie darling director Noah Baumbach here provides an amusing, yet emotional, exploration of what happens when very smart people decide to get married, pop out a couple of smart kids, and then proceed to make some very stupid decisions. Well, it’s actually more of an autobiographical tale for Baumbach, but I can’t help but feel that some of the insecurities and neuroses these academics display, and the ego-trips they go on, are characteristic of many “smart” people. Not only that, but I feel like the portrayal of divorce is very genuine here. When Joan and Bernard Berkman (Laura Linney and Jeff Daniels) divorce, they divide up the allegiance of their children. Oldest son Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) becomes swept up in his professor father’s new bachelor life, while younger son Frank (Owen Kline) remains loyal to their mother. There’s tension between every member of the family, and I think this is an accurate for any family dealing with a divorce. Not only is the relationship between the parents strained, to say the least, but the kids are tugged in every direction, and by forming individual opinions about each parent and the situation at hand, tension can easily spring up between siblings (and at a time when they need one another the most).
The Squid and the Whale touches on many themes (most revolving around divorce, academia, infidelity, and coming-of-age), but it never overloads its plate. Everything is given its due time, and each character is fleshed out very, very well (with characteristically wonderful performances from Linney and Daniels). In terms of my own life, it was a very timely film. The first time I saw it wasn’t long after my parents divorced, and the Berkman’s situation is similar to the one that played out in my own family, in many ways. I went to live with my dad after the divorce, while my sister stayed with my mom. At times it got a little messy, and there were moments when I wasn’t proud of either of my parents’ behavior (and there were also times when I wasn’t proud of my own). I particularly related to the oldest son, Walt, who is a bit of a sensitive guy, an introspective thinker, and who perhaps takes on more of an “adult” role than he should during this family upheaval. It’s cliche, but to say that The Squid and the Whale is a “warts and all” depiction of divorce would be accurate. But it’s also funny, very human, and touching, and a very personal addition to this list, for me.
13. Into the Wild (Penn, 2007)
Into the Wild is special to me because it is the second movie I’ve ever cried during (I’m an emotionless robot, basically; sad movies make me slack-jawed, but they rarely make me tear up). The first was Waitress, so there’s really no pattern to it. I’ve heard a lot of people speak out quite passionately about why they didn’t like this film, and usually one of their biggest beefs is that they didn’t really think that Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) deserved to be portrayed as heroically as director Sean Penn (yes, that Sean Penn) did in the film. The film is based on the book of the same title by Jon Krakauer, which in turn was inspired by a true story. It’s true that McCandless, inspired by his favorite writers and transcendentalists to head off to Alaska after his college graduation, intending to live alone in the wild. He dumps his car, gives away his savings, and hitchhikes cross country without so much as a “see you later” to his parents (he does, however, let his sister know his plans). He was an idealistic and smart young man who was scarred by his parent’s marital problems and their treatment of him and his sister. It’s easy to dismiss him as “idiotic” or “naive,” even though he is supposed to be the tragic hero of the story. However, I think Sean Penn realizes this, and the criticisms of his direction as being overly flattering or worshipful are mostly unfounded.
It’s incredibly easy to see the flaws in Chris McCandless – he seems to think that he’s wiser than the adults around him, he behaves as if he believes himself to be invincible, he can be rather selfish, and his naivete seems to border on ignorance at times. However, his tenacity is admirable, the family dramas that influence his behavior are truly sad, he’s very personable and giving, and in the end, he realizes the error of his ways. Basically, he’s just a layered, human character. For me, especially the second time I watched it, this film seemed to be a cautionary tale about certain behaviors that kids my age can fall prey to. With his selfishness, idealism, supposed invincibility, naivete, and “smarter than you” attitude towards the adults he meets, McCandless could be any other twentysomething college student. What’s more, as a film, Into the Wild is beautifully shot and wonderfully acted. While it may be a bit emotionally manipulative at times, it’s easy to forgive because the emotions are consistently genuine. See it if only for the beautiful wilderness scenes.
12. Un long dimanche de fiancailles [A Very Long Engagement] (Jeunet, 2004)
Although considerably less bright and happy than director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s previous film, Amelie, I would still consider A Very Long Engagement to be something of a fairy tale. It’s a World War I era love story about Mathilde (Audrey Tatou), a young woman who refuses to accept that her childhood sweetheart and fiance, Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), has died in battle. The prevalence of war in the film does little to quell the fantastical whimsy that Jeunet seems fond of, though it doles out its fair share of drama. We see the touching history of Manech and Mathilde’s relationship, as well as a few other romances, including one that involves Jodie Foster – speaking fluent French, no less – as Mme. Gordes, a woman who falls into an interesting relationship at the behest of her soldier husband. With the distinctive Bruce Delbonnel (Amelie, Across the Universe, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) taking on the duties of cinematographer, the film is notably beautiful, cast in hues of greens and yellows and grays, mirroring the soldiers’ uniforms in the trenches and the lush countryside of the more peaceful areas of France. Its simple beauty, depiction of enduring love, and fanciful look at very real events make A Very Long Engagement a modern-day fairy tale in its own right.
11. The Duchess (Dibb, 2008)
One could draw many similarities between Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (Keira Knightley) and Princess Diana. They were both stuck in seemingly loveless marriages which they entered into as a means of upward mobility. They were both married to unfaithful men, and were in turn unfaithful. They were both devoted mothers. They were both prevalent members of society who were absolutely adored among the public, and admired as fashion icons. Appropriately, Diana was most likely a direct descendant of Georgiana. The promotional campaign for the film played up the connection between the two, prompting Keira Knightley to publicly assert that Duchess Georgiana was interesting all on her own. She’s very right. Georgiana was a strong woman who sought to develop her own identity, separate from her husband, which was ambitious for this time period. She became involved in politics, and latched on to fashion as her main outlet of self-expression (the costuming in the film is particularly clever and beautiful, by the way). Surprisingly, for a film directed and written by men (though the source book, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire was written by a woman, Amanda Foreman), The Duchess takes great care to highlight the gender inequality of the time period, which in turn makes one question some of our supposedly “modern” opinions on gender, sexuality, and marriage. Not to say that men can’t create accurate and extremely sympathetic depictions of women, because they certainly can. I was just very surprised that so many men were behind this film in particular, as I consider it to be one of the more overtly feministic “mainstream” films of recent years (that I’ve seen).
Almost every “risky” action that Georgiana takes (and by “risky,” I mean in opposition of their society’s opinions and rigid gender roles) is mirrored by her husband, the Duke of Devonshire (played by a delightfully cold Ralph Fiennes), and the consequences are vastly different for each. For example, the Duke has a love child, and never keeps it a secret. In fact, he expects Georgiana to accept the girl and raise her as their own daughter (which she does, willingly even). When Georgiana becomes pregnant by her lover, Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), she has to bear and deliver the child in secret, and hand the baby over to Grey’s family almost immediately. While many period dramas that center around female characters have addressed these issues, I thought it was handled particularly well in The Duchess – it’s never preachy, but the message is definitely there. Sadly, the film was mostly ignored come awards season (it did win a well-deserved Oscar for Costume Design, though), and though I’ve been able to find a few people who respect it as I do, I think it’s safe to call it very underrated.
Well, that took long enough. Sorry to those (if there are any) who may have been anticipating the next installment of this list. But here it is, finally, and I’ll set to work on the third (er, fourth, kinda) and final part very soon. Let’s just make it an unofficial goal that I’ll have it up by March, as I seem to be posting it in one installment per month increments. Enjoy, and comment! (I try and respond to all comments, if you don’t already know.)