The top 10 films of the 00’s

Everyone else is doing their top ten films of the decade piece, so why buck the trend? Though I’m not even going to start getting into the whole “Well, technically, the decade runs from 2001-2010…” thing. This is based entirely on movies released in years that start “200”, with Wikipedia being the source of information on the date of a particular film.  You may notice some differences from the year-by-year lists previously published. This is mostly because some films stand the test of time better than others. The year-end lists tend to be based on a single viewing, while all the titles listed below hall gone through multiple viewings [in some case, multiple-multiple viewings], and been found to be just as effective – or even more so – than when initially seen.

Links go to the most appropriate review, either here or on Honorary mentions [in alphabetical order]: The Animatrix, The Booth, Children of Men, Finding Nemo, Gladiator, Kung Fu Hustle, Nine Queens, The Returner, The Ring, Shoot ‘Em Up, Signs, Sin City, Sexy Beast, 300.

  • 10. Sick Girl
    Horror movies should make you uncomfortable. They should make you squirm in your seat. And even the jaded horror fans that Chris and I are were made very uncomfortable by this, more so than any other of the hundreds of genre entries that strayed across our eyeballs in the past decade. Martyrs made a late push to dethrone this, but Leslie Andrews’ performance here is just so disconnected and matter-of-fact, as she carries out the most unspeakable of acts on her victims. Horror – true horror, not torture-porn – is absolute indifference to the suffering of others, and it’s this chilling effect which lies at the heart of Sick Girl and its impact.
  • 9. The Dark Knight
    Would certainly have ranked higher, if we didn’t have a strong urge to clear our throat, every time Bale’s caped crusader spoke. Otherwise, however, this is near perfect, highlighted of course by the stunning performance of Heath Ledger as The Joker. Every time we come across the film on cable, we have to put it on, especially if it’s in time to see the sublime “How about a magic trick?” scene. The scope and scale of Christopher Nolan’s vision is the perfect backdrop for this larger-than-life performance, which succeeds in engaging both brain and heart in a way few “comic-book” movies have ever managed to do.

  • 8. Versus
    At the risk of mixing my metaphors terribly, this fuels up on adrenalin and goes full-throttle straight for the action jugular, Ryuhei Kitamura coming out of nowhere to deliver one of the most purely-entertaining action flicks of all time. Packed with characters who can best be described as “fascinating,” it combines impressive imagination with spectacular execution on a tiny budget, punches far above its weight as a result. Zombies, swordplay, really-big guns and martial-arts combine in a delightful and heady cocktail that is quite unique. Some of Kitamura’s subsequent work has been solid; nothing has quite matched Versus.
  • 7. Kill Bill, Volume 1
    Proof that, when Quentin Tarantino reins in his verbal diarrhoea and keeps himself off-screen, he is capable of delivering a thoroughly-entertaining piece of work. He is now 1-for-6 there [not see Inglorious Bastards yet], thanks to the best action-heroine film to come out of Hollywood in the decade. Uma Thurmann’s Bride was a tornado of revenge, chewing up and spitting out any and all who got in her path, be it old friends like Vernita Green, new enemies such as Go-Go Yubari or, in the film’s most impressive sequence, an entire pack of enraged, masked Japanese men wielding samurai swords.  A marvellous swirling of popular cultures.

  • 6. Wall-E
    Not the last Pixar movie you’ll see in this list, and the studio dominated the decade as far as animation goes, in the way Studio Ghibli did the mid-80’s to mid-90’s. After a bit of a road-bump with Cars [pun not intended], Pixar roared back with a tale about a garbage clean-up robot that falls in love with a probe. James Cameron could have learned how to make non-human characters – indeed, non-organic ones here – sympathetic. They could conceivably have made the entire film without a single word of meaningful dialogue, and it would still have been eqally as marvellous. Or possibly even more so.
  • 5. Borat
    I still have absolutely no idea how this subversive piece of surrealist theatre managed to get a massive release across the entire world [except, I suspect, Kazakhstan]. Too much of what passed as ‘satire’ in this decade was toothless, but Sacha Baron Cohen hit his marks with impeccable precision, as he tore across the United States from New York to Pamela Anderson. Great satire should offend people – especially its targets – but Baron Cohen exposed not just the prejudice inherent in Western society, but also its remarkable tolerance for and patience with outsiders. It made us laugh, cringe, and think, a unique triple-play.

  • 4. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
    The only martial-arts movie to ever make me shed a tear, because for once, equal attention was given to the characters as to the ass-kickery. The relationships between them had a genuine, timeless feel to them which meant the period setting was not a strait-jacket for the storyline. The amazing action sequences which punctuated proceedings, by Yuen Wo-Ping, had a lyrical grace and imagination to them which has rarely been matched: the duel between Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Zi-yi was probably the finest one-on-one fight in the period covered here, like watching water go over a cliff. Add the emotional punch of the end, and it’s a masterpiece.
  • 3. Monsters Inc.
    Oh, look – another Pixar movie. I could just copy and paste the paragraph above, about the ability to make non-human characters work.  However, this was not only a very sweet and innocent love story, it was also riotously-funny, and showcased a blizzard of pure imagination – the lifeblood of animation. This was apparent, not only in the construction of Monstropolis, but also the characters which populated it, and all the way to little things like the street signs [Stalk/Don’t Stalk]. CGI animation is no longer anything rare or unusual; however, this film transcends the medium and is simply great movie-making.

  • 2. Shaun of the Dead
    Probably counts as our most-watched film of the decade. Any time it’s on – even on a non-premium channel, where it has been been formatted to fit the screen, run in the time allotted and edited for content -we just have to watch it, rejoicing in the glorious dialogue and marvellous combination of horror and comedy, two notoriously difficult genres to combine well [many have tried – most have failed, and few things are worse than a horror-comedy that is neither horrific nor funny]. There is not a wrong step, weak moment or wasted sentence to be found in the entire thing. Makes me proud to be British.
  • 1. Lord of the Rings – Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and Return of the King
    To commemorate the end of the decade, I decided it was long past time to pull out all three entries in the series, and watch them back-to-back-to-back, see if they all held up. The versions in question were the extended cuts of parts one and three, and the regular version of part two – we really didn’t feel that it was a film particularly in need of additional footage of tree pontificating. The results of this furry-footed marathon are a separate article, which can be found here.

11 Hours in Middle-Earth: The Lord of the Rings marathon

Watching the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy in one sitting is something I’ve wanted to do for quite a while, almost since the third movie came out. It makes sense because it is basically one epic, split into three parts due to length, so putting them back together again seems like the best way to appreciate the trilogy as a whole. However, the gap between theory and practice proved difficult to bridge, for a number of reasons. I almost did get there at Thanksgiving 2009, but technical issues involving our new Blu-Ray DVD player meant it had to wait until we got a new TV set too. However, on Boxing Day, the stars aligned, the decks were cleared, and an intravenous drip of caffeinated beverages installed.

I must confess to wondering  how I’d cope. Even though we had skipped the extended version of The Two Towers, we were still looking at 640 minutes from one source in a single day, which would easily smash the previous record of about 350 minutes [set back in Christmas 2002, when we watched eight episodes of 24, for three consecutive days]. However, I hoped that the unarguable quality of the works in question would ease their consumption – it should be easier to watch eleven hours of the greatest trilogy ever than, say, 11 hours of American Idol. Well, so went the theory, anyway.

This is therefore no so much a review as a live blogging of the event. If you want “reviews”, you should go here, here and here for the three parts respectively. This will be more of a stream of consciousness, and will likely not make a great deal of sense, unless you have already seen the films. [And if not, how was Mars?] Because of this, I will not be exercising any caution in the spoiler area. Time stamps given are straight off the DVD timer, and as noted, are based on the extended editions, except for Part Two – we’ll get into the reasons for this in due course. And with that…

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Avatar: or, Earth First – we can rape the other planets later

Dir: James Cameron
Sam Worthington, Zoë Saldaña, Stephen Lang, Sigourney Weaver

We saw Avatar on Tuesday night, in IMAX 3-D. Well, I did, anyway – the relentless camera motion made Chris’s motion-sickness kick in, and she spent much of the moving trying to fight back her nausea. I know how she feels: as the storyline unfolded, I had to restrain my own rising tide of vomit – though in my case, this was triggered by the yawning chasm between the stunning technical aspects, and the storyline that was not only a cobbled together hodgepodge, it was a two-hour forty-minute anti-technology, anti-human, screeching polemic, which we will forever refer to as, Dances With Blue Things.

Before getting into the pitiful excuse for a plot, let me first say, as a technical achievement in whizzbangery, it’s quite magnificent. The alien world of Pandora is realized in an incredible way, populated with alien creatures and a landscape that, from the ground up, makes it clear, to quote one character, “We’re not in Kansas anymore.” [a line that, like much of the movie itself, was cynically lifted from another, superior film] If you’re going to see the film, make sure you see it on the biggest screen possible. Because, then, there’s a chance the visuals might help distract you from the story-line.

Quick summary.  Humanity, having screwed up Earth, has now moved on to Pandora, a lush, forested moon in the Alpha Centauri system. Arriving there is Jake Sully (Worthington), a paraplegic ex-Marine who is taking over for his deceased brother as an avatar pilot. These avatars are vat-grown hybrids between humans and the native Na’vi population and are used to explore the planet, in the hopes of fostering peaceful interaction with the somewhat combative Na’vi. The pilots are linked remotely to the avatars during their waking hours, experiencing what they do and controlling their bodies. On his first mission, Jake becomes separated from his team and is rescued by Neytiri (Saldaña, left).

Which is where the wheels fall off the plot, and it becomes mired in a combination of painful predictability and pretentious pomposity. As Jake learns more about the Na’vi – who resemble eight-foot tall Smurfs with USB connectors in their pigtails – he inevitably grows to love and appreciate their native culture. His original mission was, in part, to find a way to get the tribe of Na’vi to move so we could use the valuable mineral on which they are sitting. When he realizes this will never happen, it triggers an attack by the industial-corporate forces under Colonel Quaritch (Lang), and Jake completely rejects his humanity, becoming the leader of the Na’vi forces in his avatar body, and taking them into battle against the invaders.

Even Sully at one pont calls the philosophy of the Na’vi “tree-hugger crap,” and it’s a rare moment of honesty, because that’s exactly what it is, propagating the myth of the noble savage. For example, one core aspect of the Na’vi lifestyle appears to be that it’s okay to slaughter other animals in the forest – as long as you apologize to them afterwards. Well, I bet that makes feel alien Bambi, whose twin hearts you just stabbed with your large knife, feel a lot better as their life ebbs away. The Na’vi come across as the kind of smug, hypocritically pious jerks who insist that everyone has not only to respect their way of life, but bend over backwards to fit in with it – yet still need a human to solve their “time of great sorrow”. Add in the fact that it looks like all the CPU cycles went on the landscapes, with the Na’vi looking less than convincingly alive than the local lichen, and you have a gaping hole at the heart of the movie.

It’s almost as if Cameron is trying to make up for Aliens, a film which, if you think about it, basically had the somewhat questionable moral that genocide is sometimes a pretty good idea. There, the humans were the good guys and the alien creatures the villains, with no shades of grey. Here, the roles are completely reversed, and the problem is, it’s a much harder task trying to get me to empathize with blue, cat-like alien hippies, who would be really good in the NBA. I’m sure it’d bring audiences around Alpha Centauri to their feet though. At the end, Quantich asks Sully, “How does it feel to be a traitor to your race?” and he’s right, as Sully abandons his body entirely, in favour of the avater. However, it’s a question that should probably also be posed to James Cameron, whose opinion of the bulk of humanity is clearly that of a Hollywood liberal, isolated from everyday reality.

The humans try to make sense of the script

It doesn’t help that the rest of the storyline is equally ham-handed. Clunky metaphors for Iraq abound – or maybe for the colonization of North America, it’s hard to be sure – with characters such as the one played by Giovanni Ribisi, who could be directly channeling Paul Reiser’s corporate drone from Aliens. Other films more or less shamelessly strip-mined include Dances With Wolves, The Matrix, Braveheart, The Emerald Forest and, most obviously of all, Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. The last-named covers much the same ecologically-conscious territory, pitting technology against nature, without making the audience feel like a baby Harp seal, or pissing on us, collectively as a species.

Can I also  that the material for which we are plundering Pandora is called – and I kid you not – unobtainium. While this has been a joke name applied by scientists for decades, its conversion into an apparently serious use here provoked a derisive snort. It’s like Cameron thought when writing the script, “Well, I’ll come up with a proper name for the stuff later,”  then promptly forgot all about it. One can imagine him slapping his forehead and going, “Dammit! I knew there was something I meant to do!” at the premiere. It should have been on the list – right below stopping James Horner from writing another crappy song for the end-credits.

There is a definite moral to be drawn from the film. But I should warn you, it probably isn’t the one Cameron wanted. In future, if we find another planet, with resources which we want to have, the human race should not bother trying to negotiate with any local inhabitants – because according to Avatar, this will lead to us getting our butts kicked by the local insurgents. A better, less painful (for us) approach can be found in another Cameron movie. What we should do in order to secure the mineral rights is simple: “Take off and nuke the entire site from orbit.”

After all, it’s the only way to be sure.

[December 2009]

See also:

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The 10 Greatest Monty Python Sketches of All Time (plus one)

IFC recently ran a six-part documentary series, chronicling the history of the Pythons, from their beginnings in the Oxford and Cambridge revues, through to Spamalot. It was quite a treat, not least realizing how the troupe was a semi-random collection of people, who gelled into a near-perfect whole for three sublime seasons of television, at a rare moment in television history when the opportunity to make a show like that presented itself.

Of course, as with any sketch-based comedy series, it wasn’t all good: it’s a genre that inevitably lends itself to peaks and valleys, rather than the consistency of things like Fawlty Towers or Blackadder. And, especially in the abortive fourth season, there were plenty of valleys – without John Cleese, the show was lost, and those episodes are the Python equivalent of those Eastern Bloc Tom and Jerry cartoons from the early 1960’s. But the peaks were sublime; both in the TV series and the movies, they created timeless moments of comedy which have rarely, if ever, been matched. It spans generations: my father loved Python. Myself and Chris adore Python. And our son is just as much a fan, who will recite The Four Yorkshiremen at the drop of a dead parrot.

Hence, this list of my favourite Python moments – not just from the TV, but the movies as well, which can hardly be denied their significance in comedy’s Hall of Fame. However, I have excluded stuff from The Secret Policeman’s Ball and its sequels. The hard part was restricting it to ten eleven (for reasons explained later): I could easily have doubled the number without blinking. The link for each title will open a new tab where you can view the sketch in question.

I note that my preference is clearly skewed towards the more verbal side of Python comedy, rather than the physical – I think this is because the slapsticky stuff is rather too well-worn a path, from Charlie Chaplin through to Benny Hill. Hence, sketches like Upper-class Twit of the Year, often ranked highly on other, similar lists, are not ones of which I’m particular fond. It’s in word-play and their use of the English language that the true strength of Python can be seen. They manage to be immensely smart (who else would ever base a piece on summarizing Proust?) without getting pretentious (you don’t really need to know who Proust is to appreciate the results), and that’s a lot rarer than you might imagine.

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