Few films have been as misunderstood as Stephen Spielberg's A.I.
50. A.I. Artificial Intelligence
Few films have been as misunderstood as Stephen Spielberg's A.I. - Artificial Intelligence. Originally intended to be a Stanley Kubrick production, when Spielberg announced that he was taking over the project after Kubrick's death, the media and critical community were skeptical at best.
I remember viewing the movie at the State Theater in Ann Arbor, Michigan on opening day with a crowd of students. After the movie was over, immediate reactions ranged from ecstatic praise to flat out anger. As the years have progressed, I have seen the film on both lists defining the greatest and worst films of all time. Honestly, for a while I wasn't even sure where I stood on the piece of work.
Now, nearly ten years later, I look back on A.I. as one of the great flawed masterpieces of cinema. It does not always work. Some of the acting is not necessarily where it needs to be, and there are times when the special effects are dodgy. That being said- the vision, themes, and implications explored in this picture are among the most deeply philosophical I have seen in a Hollywood production.
Much has been said about the ending of A.I. It is certainly open to interpretation , as Kubrick would have intended. I will say that anyone that thinks this film has a happy ending is sadly incorrect. The fact that this movie still cements such discussion is a testament to its place in the history of the movies.
49. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgandy
Will Ferrell is the most absurd of modern comedians. He is hilarious, and has never been funnier than in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. This movie is utterly ridiculous. There is no plot, the camera just rolls on while Ferrell and the gang go about their misadventures. There are sequences in this film that are so idiotic I laugh until I cry. Seeing Ron Burgundy talk to his dog, Baxter is one. Seeing the news team sing a beautiful rendition of Afternoon Delight is another. Then there is the wonderful sequence in which Brick (Steve Carell) kills a man with a Trident. This is one film my friends and I routinely quote dialogue from.
This is a movie that exists for no purpose other than to make us laugh, and in that it is wildly successful. There are no profound moments of realization here and the movie does not have the emotional resonance of some of the other great comedies of this decade- but this doesn't matter. This movie is simply funny as hell.
48. Bowling for Columbine
Michael Moore is at his best when he stands back from a situation and begins to ask questions. I think the most profound question he has asked in any of his pictures is in Bowling for Columbine, his examination on the obsession with guns and violence in America. There is a bank that is offering a free gun whenever anyone opens an account. Moore looks at the teller and asks- "Don't you think its a little dangerous handing out guns in a bank?" It is ironic how sometimes the most simple questions can be the most profound.
Moore has made a career for himself being a rabble rouser, generally with justifiable causes. There are times that he comes across as too brash though, and some of his stuff is simply outrageous propaganda. For the most part, Bowling for Columbine steers clear of this fault. His interview with Terry Nichols brother and Charlton Heston are the highlights of the film. More than anything, Bowling for Columbine makes us think about the state of the American psyche.
Another film about school violence, this one a work of fiction. Gus Van Sant's brilliant Elephant tells the story of a day in a life of students at a suburban high school. The style of the film is technically outstanding, using long tracking and steadicam shots to literally follow the students as they roam the halls, interact with each other, attend class, and plan to kill other students.
Elephant is an exceptional picture because it does not offer cookie cutter explanations; it is only a portrait of sadness and grief. It is alarming to think about the number of students that live these lifestyles. We feel for them, and at the end of the film we may not understand the actions of the characters but we understand they are a product of their environment. Much deserved winner of the 2003 Cannes Film Festival Palm Do'r.
46. Iron Man
Iron Man is a purely entertaining film experience from start to finish. It works so well primarily based on the brave choice of allowing Robert Downey Jr. to play Tony Stark. In his portrayal of Stark, Downey Jr. created a character that was so completely realized and special that we would watch him even if he wasn't in the latest superhero tent-pole attraction. As spectacular as some of the sequences are, I distinctly remember being more entertained when Iron Man wasn't on the screen. There has never been an alter ego that has been more interesting than its super hero counterpart in the history of these types of movies- this is what made Iron Man the comic-book movie for people that didn't like comic book movies. And yes, I enjoyed watching Downey Jr. be reborn along with Stark. We have a sense that both characters, the living and the fictional, have had a insane life. Tony Stark grows up and takes responsibility along with Downey Jr., and transforms into something magical.
45. Spirited Away
I dislike Anime. I watched Spirited Away many years ago after it won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature over more noteworthy nominees. I was pleasantly surprised that Spirited Away was extremely accessible, beautiful and moving. The voice work in the American Version is done quite well, and the story has the Eastern way of taking an emotionally complex and moving story and making it simple and universal.
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, with the majority of the animation being done by his own hand, the film is at the top of its craft. The animation may be some of the most beautiful I have ever seen. There is something about 2D work that will always be more powerful to me than CGI; I appreciate each frame being hand-drawn, these works are a labor of love. I believe that this is the kind of picture that Akira Kurosawa could have easily directed- a wonderful film.
44. Spider-Man 2
If Iron Man is entertaining because of the performance of Robert Downey Jr. then Spider-Man 2 is entertaining due to the wonderful performance of Spider-Man. We know that there is no possible way that Toby Maguire can be in that suit, jumping from rooftop to rooftop. Certainly half of the time we are watching Spiderman we are watching CGI animation, yet we don't care. I was a fan of the comics as a child, and watching one of my old heroes fight Dr. Octopus on the side of a skyscraper nearly brought tears to my eyes.
The original Spider-Man was too campy (the Green Goblin costume was completely absurd) and Spiderman 3 had just too much going on and contained one of the lamest sequences in the history of film- the Emo Dance Sequence. Spiderman 2 is the one that got it right. This is how it should be, with one villain fighting Spider-Man, and Peter Parker longing after Mary Jane, struggling with his decision to take responsibility over his powers. The special effects are amazing, and more than anything there is something grand about watching Spidey jump from rooftop to rooftop, laughing to the heavens. This is the best superhero movie ever made.
43. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
A picture of utter majesty. I can honestly say that I do not always understand what is going on in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The story is the equivalent of a Chinese fairy tale, and there is a princess, and yada, yada, yada. This is a film to be seen not heard. The martial arts sequences are masterful. Watching two characters swordfight high up in the swaying trees of a forest and doing super-human acts of Kung Fu are simply amazing. Brilliantly directed by Ang Lee and choreographed by Yuen Wo-Ping, we watch characters defy gravity and realize that we are not watching CGI, but outstanding wire work. The actors are doing these things, they just have a little help. Per Lee, the only CGI used was to remove the wires from the actors. These are not stuntmen and women, but actors so physically in line with their outstanding skills they defy our conceptions of what the human body is possible of.
42. United 93
The concept is simple. A group of men board an airplane and take it over. The passengers are frightened. Air traffic control loses contact with the plane and begins to notice its route beginning to change- they can sense something is going on. The group of men on the plane are deranged and capable of unspeakable evil. The passengers on board the plane realize that they are going to have to stand up for themselves- they do. The plane crashes, and everyone dies. Well, not everyone. You see, the plane is United flight 93, and the date is September, 11th- the target being either the White House or the U.S. Capitol. This is a story of a group of people determining to take control over an uncontrollable situation. Expertly directed with restraint by Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum) United 93 never pauses for sentiment. There are no lingering shots of the Trade center, no easy shots to the tear ducts. It tells the story of a specific place and time, as if it doesn't realize it is telling a story from the most horrible day in American history.
41. Lost in Translation
I have never seen a better movie about loneliness than Lost in Translation. Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) and Bob (Bill Murray) are two lost souls struggling with their lives on separate business trips in Japan. They meet at a hotel bar and become friends. They talk deep into the night and we sense that there is a connection between them
Here is a film that is not afraid to force you to think about the emotions of the characters. Charlotte, who is in her mid twenties, is trying to experience her own life and become independent as well as loved. Instead, she is dragged around the globe with her photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi). Bob has been married for many years and is a successful film actor. He hates the monotony of his life, his marriage, even his children. These are two characters on spiritual poles; one wants to live her life, while the other is tired of living.
What these two characters share in this movie is special, and we are glad to be apart of it. It is as if we are observing “What happened in Paris” from Casablanca. I think I most like the film for Sophia Coppola’s wise choice not to have the characters sleep together. It would have ruined the movie.
Above all else is the ending. The trip is over, and both Bob and Charlotte are on their way back to their lives. Bob finds Charlotte walking down the street, stops her, and whispers something in her ear. We aren’t allowed to listen. A tear falls out of Charlottes eye as the movie ends. This moment alone earned Coppola her Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. We aren’t supposed to hear what is said, only wonder.
40. The Royal Tenenbaums
Wes Anderson's masterpiece. This is without a doubt one of the most eccentric movies I have ever seen. Anderson's vision is always unique and the skill he puts into his ensemble pictures is considerable, yet few of his films have the heart of The Royal Tenenbaums. We begin the film bewildered and intimidated by the cast of characters. By the end we care about all of them individually. This movie is both funny and heartbreaking. The soundtrack, specifically the Mark Mothersbaugh work, is classic.
39. Letters from Iwo Jima
Letters from Iwo Jima may be the most truthful war picture. The men in the trenches are there not for political reasons, or even love for their country, but due to a sense of honor. All of the solders know that they are going to die and that their deaths will probably not be quick and immediate, but slow and painful. They stand their ground for the purposes of duty, and nothing more. We hear their thoughts through narration of letters home and we realize the utter futility of war.
I don't necessarily believe that this is Clint Eastwood's finest film, but it is certainly his best directorial work. The idea of creating an American film documenting the Japanese side of the war is nothing short of a stroke of brilliance. This picture came out with a companion, Flags of Our Fathers the same year, but Letters from Iwo Jima has more resonance today. In knowing that our enemies are just like us we learn a greater sense of humanity. This is a beautiful picture.
38. In Bruges
A hidden gem. American audiences did not take to In Bruges the way that some international audiences did, and it is a shame- this is a fantastic motion picture. Colin Farell and Brendan Gleeson are outstanding as two hitmen being exiled to Bruges (its in Belgium) after a hit gone wrong. This film is a stunning work of art with exceptional range. We are laughing like crazy one minute, and then shocked with an act of violence or an emotional climax the next. This is the kind of movie that really does defy genre. The movie is dark, but the humor is superb as are the performances. I love the way the film leaves the villain out until the last third of the story, and when Ralph Fiennes does take the screen, all we do is smile. If you have not seen this you owe it to yourself, it is certainly a favorite of mine.
37. The Lives of Others
This is perhaps the most effective horror movie I have ever seen, if only it were a horror movie. The Lives of Others tells the story of Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe), a surveillance and interrogation expert in the communist regime of East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The opening sequence, in which Wielser is shown interrogating a suspect intercut with teaching a class on the methods of interrogation, is one of the most is cold in its exactness. The reaches of the communist regime was endless, and as we see in the film- abuse of power was common. While the world of George Orwell's 1984 did not necessarily realize itself in America, based on The Lives of Others, it was alive and well in communist Europe. This is an exceptional thriller, with moments of extreme tension. I particularly like Wiesler's inner struggle when he realizes that the work he is doing for the state is not necessarily ethical.
36. Slumdog Millionaire
Here is the feel-good movie of the list. Slumdog Millionaire is such a glorious and eclectic experience. The movie has it all: action, comedy, romance, drama, even a Bollywood dance number. Danny Boyle has taken what could have been a depressing and relentless look at the Ghetto and turned it into a mixture of Oliver Twist and Rocky.
There are scenes here ranging from true horror (the “orphanage” sequences) to delight (the sequences at the Taj Mahal). The film moves along at a breakneck pace, telling story after story within the brilliant framing mechanism of an episode of Who wants to be a Millionaire. The characters of Jamal, Salem and Latika are all fully realized and it is sheer joy to watch the characters grow from children to young adults. The movie, above all else, is about the significance of our life experiences and the importance of our choices. Every choice each character makes in the film is based on what they know, or who they love.
Reports from premieres at film festivals around the world were that audiences verbally cheered at certain moments. I am not surprised. This is a magical movie.
35. Man on Wire
When I was seven years old my mother took me on a trip to New York. I have forgotten most of the vacation, but I distinctly remember visiting the World Trade Center. I remember looking out the windows on the observation deck at the beautiful city, and I recall standing on the roof. Little did I know that a little over ten years prior Phillippe Petit also stood on the same roof- and walked on a high wire across a 1350 foot pitfall.
Man on Wire is one of the great documentaries. It is in a class by itself. There is never a moment that is not engaging. From the very beginning when we see the construction of the World Trade Center until the end we are in a constant state of interest. Petit is quite a character and many of the things he says and does are profound. Parts of the movie work almost like a thriller or heist film, other parts pure drama. I remember three things most vividly about the film. I remember Petit recalling how he saw an image of the World Trade Center in a picture and immediately drew a line between the towers. Later, Petit justifies risking his life by saying that failure to walk the line would be a failure to live, and if he died it would be a glorious death. Finally at the end of the film, when Petit and others talk about him crossing the void 8 times there are tears on their chin- as if they were apart of something special.
Fittingly, there are no talks about September 11th in the film, even though it was released in 2008. This is a story about strength, hope, and the willpower to do something great- not evil.
34. Chop Shop
Chop Shop is a movie that took me by surprise. I watched it for the first time off of a critics recommendation, but did so some time after reading the article. For some reason I assumed that this was a foreign film when I sat down to watch it. The movie opens with Alejandro, a young boy no more than 11, standing with a group of men looking for work. The foreman tells Alejandro that there is no work for him and as the truck begins to drive off the boy jumps in the back. As the truck slowly begins to drive we see a skyline in the distance. It is New York City- yet the world Alejandro inhabits could exist in any third world country.
Alejandro lives with his sister, Isamar, in a small, dilapidated room over a auto repair shop in the slums of Queens in an area known as the Iron Triangle. He lives with residents in urban decay, sells candy for high prices on the subway, sells pirated DVD’s, and even occasionally steals. His sister sells things too, but not the kind of things bought in a store. One of the best moments in the film shows Alejandro realizing his sister is a prostitute. He never says anything, nor does he judge her. They are doing what it takes to survive.
The two children save up enough money over time to purchase a beat-up food vending van. There intentions are to remodel the van (doing the work themselves, of course) and sell tacos and other food out of it. This is their American dream, to run a taco van. The boy is shattered when he realizes that the van will cost double the price he paid for it to be repaired. This is life on the streets.
The director, Ramin Bahrani is an exciting new voice. His work is similar to old Italian Neorealist films, such as Bicycle Thieves (soon to be featured on A Movie A Week). He does not tell a story as much as explore the environment and conditions of the world his characters inhabit. The results are eye-opening.
33. Million Dollar Baby
Clint Eastwood is a National Treasure and his Million Dollar Baby is a triumph. What begins as a story of hope ends as a story of utter despair; there is never a moment that is not truthful to the characters. The performances by Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood are all nothing short of perfect. We understand them, where they come from, and why they do what they do.
Many may have not watched the movie because they saw it is a boxing picture. This is no more a movie about boxing than Raging Bull is- this is a human story with deep implications that burn the soul. The ending has been deemed controversial in many circles. I suppose many do not believe that the final act in the film is moral. Certain groups even boycotted the film because of the ending. This is absurd. It does not matter whether you think the actions taken at the end of the film are moral or not, the point is that the characters are doing what they think is right. Winner of the 2005 Academy Award for Best Picture.
32. Star Trek
I don't know if I have seen a movie as simply entertaining as Star Trek in a very long time. J.J. Abrams (TV's Lost) has rebooted this franchise with such energy that it is hard to dismiss this film as another summer movie. The casting is perfect, and Abrams films the story at a relentless pace (he reminds of a young Robert Zemeckis) always moving the camera from side to side, or around the characters.
I have never been much of a Star Trek fan. The characters, with the exception of Spock, always seemed wooden and boring to me. Not here. Chris Pine, Zacahary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, John Cho, Simon Pegg and Anton Yelchin all inject so much energy and life into their characters that one can only smile when they come on screen. Mix these great performances with an exceptional villian in Eric Bana, and fantastic special effects, and you end up with one of the most satisfying blockbusters in years.
When watching this movie I feel like a ten year old boy, sitting up on the end theater seat, eyes wide open. This is not only the re-imagining of a long stale franchise, but a creative, bold new franchise in its own right. I eagerly look forward to the next installment.
31. Kill Bill (Vol 1. / Vol. 2)
Quentin Tarantino, that most energetic of filmmakers, has created something truly mesmerizing in Kill Bill- a collage of style.
Working as a video store clerk in CA for years before selling his first screenplay, Tarantino was a student of the grindhouse, a form of theater that specialized in nothing but B Kung Fu movies, Spaghetti Westerns, and ridiculous action, horror, or porno flicks. He has followed the lesions of his teachers with exact precision with Kill Bill; this is a movie that does not defy genre, but embraces it.
Split into two sections (Vol. 1 and Vol. 2) Kill Bill assaulted its viewers with non-stop action that is beyond insane. The fight at the House of Blue Leaves sequence in which the Bride (Uma Thurman) takes on dozens of bad guys (and girls) with her sword belongs in the history books. Surely it is the bloodiest, most ridiculous, and outrageous battle sequence ever filmed. On top of the zany madcap action we have Tarantino’s always unique sense of dialogue and humor- making the film enjoyable even when action is not in the forefront.
The second part of the film (Vol. 2) is the best. Here Tarantino leaves much of the Kung Fu behind and transitions to his other professors, the ones that created the wonderful Spaghetti Westerns. Vol. 2 is more of a straight revenge tale, but it is here where the characters really develop. The final sequences with Bill (the late David Carradine) have a surprising amount of emotional resonance.
More than anything, Kill Bill is a showcase for Tarantino’s unique voice and talent; a true example of both style and substance. It is a fantastic ride.
Master filmmaker David Fincher’s Zodiac is a film about obsession. It is the cinematic equivalent to a sore on the roof of your mouth, than you can not stop tonguing. Eventually the sore gets bigger and begins to bleed- yet you keep licking it anyway. This is what political cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gylenhaal) does over the course of the film.
The movie features many grisly murders, but more than anything it is a simple detective story. The cops are hunting a serial killer that is taunting them with ciphers, encrypted messages using symbols. From the moment Graysmith cracks one of the Zodiac killer’s ciphers he is obsessed. We follow him through the film, see him lose his job and family, and confront the killer- who may not be the killer after all.
The real life Zodiac murders remain to this day unsolved. Zodiac infers and suggests that it may have the answer, but in the end it has almost as much as Graysmith. While viewing the picture we understand that the story is real, and we join in on Graysmith’s obsession.
29. Requiem for a Dream
This is what pain looks like. The destructive nature of drug addiction has never been explored more deeply than in Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. The film follows the lives of a boy, his best friend, girlfriend and mother as they all destroy their lives for their drugs. Screw D.A.R.E, McGruff the Crime Dog, or commercials involving fried eggs- this is the motion picture that every student in junior high should see.
This is not a film about the dangers of pot, but the consequences of hardcore cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine consumption. What starts as a relatively happy unit ends with death, complete sexual humiliation, amputation, lies, deceit and despair. This is not a movie that you really need to see more than once. Aronofsky never falters in his skill as director, constantly putting the camera where the addiction is. The jump cuts, quick edits, and sounds all represent the spiraling, circular behavior of addiction. This is one of the scariest films ever made.
28. Y Tu Mama Tambien
One of the greatest things about this decade has been the emergence of the new Mexican Cinema, helmed by filmmakers Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo Del Toro and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. These three filmmakers above any others are showcasing Mexico as the home of some of the best filmmakers the world has to offer. Cuaron’s Y Tu Mama Tambien marked the beginning of this new Mexican cinema, and it is one of its best examples.
Told in the formula of a traditional road trip picture, Y Tu Mama Tambien is about 2 boys, a girl, friendship, and sexual awakening. There are moments are joyful as scenes from a John Hughes movie mixed with passages of sadness and profound understanding. As we travel with Julio (Gale Garcia Bernal) Tenoch (Diego luna) and Luisa (Maribel Verdu) towards the beach, we get the sense that this is a picture about realism. The boys are angry, confused, and constantly horny; the woman their lover, friend and mother. The film is renowned for its honest and realistic depiction of sex. The sex is not glamorized or exaggerated for the sakes of sensationalism on the screen- it is just there because in reality, teenagers have sex. This film is less interested with that truth than with the emotional implications of the characters actions. This is a movie about the feelings of adolesence, and could be perhaps the most honest depiction ever created about what it is like to be a teenager.
This is a movie that is hard to classify- a true experience.
27. King Kong
What a spectacle this is! King Kong is certainly one of the great entertainments of the decade. This remake surpasses even the original in terms of adventure and energy. The special effects are among the best ever done, and more importantly, they are all in the interest of the story. The performance by Naomi Watts is kind of brilliant, and I am still surprised that every time I watch this flick I relate to Kong. More than anything, I love how the film builds for the first hour and takes its time with the character development, only to have the final 2 hours filled with non-stop action. Sure the movie is long, but I am not one to complain about too much of a good thing.
The energy of the film is astounding. Jackson directs each scene effortlessly as we experience everything from a domino effect of Brontosauruses to large, maggot like creatures that eat human beings alive. And then there is Kong himself, expertly played using motion-capture technology by Andy Serkis. When Kong is on screen he is not just there, like in the previous Kong films. He is a character in his own right, with body language, facial expressions, and even deep looks in the eye. Kong is nothing short of a technical triumph.
What makes Jackson’s King Kong a great film is not just the spectacle, but the heart. We feel for the beast that has fallen in love with the woman. In all of the previous Kong pictures he was the villain, the monster in the monster movie. In this film it is us who are the villains, that ravage his natural habitat, kidnap him, and force him to climb the Empire State Building. In the end, King Kong becomes a tragedy of almost Shakespearean beauty- quite a feat for a film that spends over an hour in a place called Skull Island.
26. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is my favorite movie musical. There is none other like it. Tim Burton has created a London in this picture that goes perfectly alongside the worlds he has created in such films as Edward Scissorhands, and then meshes it perfectly with the lyrics to Stephen Sondheim’s classic Broadway production.
Johnny Depp (probably the decade's most entertaining actor) gives one of his best performances as Todd, while Helena Bonham Carter (Burton’s wife and muse) is an absolute show-stopper as Mrs. Lovett. The tale is certainly macabre; images of headless corpses falling to their doom and crumpling on the floor are still, to this day, stuck in my memory.
Sweeney Todd showcases some of the best songs I have seen in a musical. The music works in relationship to the story, and not just to exist for a new song and dance number. This is what always bugs me about musicals. You will have a perfectly good story, with reasonable characters, and then all of a sudden they start singing like idiots. Sweeney Todd is more operatic that musical, the songs subdued, with the action going along at the beat of the music. None of the cast are overwhelmingly impressive singers, but this is actually a good thing. We feel the emotion come through in their voices, and we listen to the lyrics instead of being impressed by the big picture.
This is certainly Tim Burton’s best film. Always expressionistic, ranging from somber, to deadly, to terrifying, to light. The ending is a real tragedy, for sure, but with a beginning and middle like this- what else is there to expect?
To view Shaun’s Top 25, click here.