Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Tops

A selection of favorite movies from 2000 to the present

The last decade’s had a lot of great entertainment – almost too much to name. So I’m not going to try to name it all, nor do I have the patience to sift through everything, put it in order, then pick out the “top 20” or whatever. Instead, I’m just going to select a few favorites and describe why they stuck in my memory.

The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) – you can’t talk about favorite movies from the 2000 era without mentioning Peter Jackson’s epic masterpiece. In my mind, this series represents some of the greatest filmmaking in the history of the genre, and that’s not just the raging fanboy talking. Well, ok, it kind of is, but still, what more could you want from a movie? The writing was obviously superb (having been lifted whole-cloth from the classic novels), the acting was well above par, the music and special effects and cinematography were all outstanding. When you end up with a 9-hour-long story that doesn’t feel like half that, you’ve reached true brilliance. I sincerely hope that Jackson’s The Hobbit manages to deliver in the same way, but regardless LOTR will stand on its own as the pinnacle of movie-making for our age.

I, Robot (2004) – this isn’t a lot of people’s favorite movie. It’s got some plot-holes, to be certain, and apparently Will Smith is so popular that some people instinctively dislike him. But when I’m in the mood to pop in a DVD to kill some time, I keep coming back to I, Robot. It’s a cleverly-written sci-fi story with good action that even manages to wrestle with the question of what makes one human without getting too lost in its own morality over it. I love this movie and I don’t plan to stop watching it anytime soon.

Harry Potter and the X of Y (2001 – present) – I admit that when I first heard about these “kids books” I was skeptical. I didn’t really read much Young Adult fiction when I was a young adult, much less as an old man. But we were picking up the books as they came out to put away for when our kids were old enough and as they took the world by storm I figured “what the hell.” And I was hooked – I really loved the books and have read them all several times. When they started making movies out of them, I sincerely hoped that they’d pull it off. And, by and large they did. Some are weaker than others, and all of them are forced to leave out huge chunks of the story to keep to a manageable length. Heck, even Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies left out plenty of stuff (Thom Bombadil, for one, the which I miss not in the least) and they’re technically not of a manageable length. Now when I read the books, it’s hard NOT to picture the actors from the movies, as they did such a good job of becoming their characters. The movies are very watchable even for those who haven’t read the books – as evidenced by my kids and their clear enjoyment of them – and yet true fans can enjoy them as well. They will certainly stand out in my memory of this era as time rolls along.

Wanted (2008) – when I saw the previews for this movie, referencing the “secret order of assassins” I was intrigued. When we got it from Netflix and fired it up, the intro scenes, so reminiscent of Office Space, hooked us. But then the film did a switcheroo worthy of Tarentino’s From Dusk Until Dawn and suddenly it was a whole different story and we were enthralled. This is the only movie we’ve ever gotten from Netflix that we didn’t immediately return, but instead tossed back in the DVD player and watched a second time.

Eagle Eye (2008) – another Netflix hit, this movie was a gripping techno-thriller that pulled us in and then took us for a ride. This and Wanted (above) are both in a very short list of DVDs that I’d consider buying to own after already having seen them off Netflix. Incidentally, I, Robot is the only movie to date that I’ve ever done that with.

Kill Bill, Volume 1 & 2 (2003/2004) – I don’t know why I held off so long in seeing these two films. Part of it, certainly, was that they’re not usually my wife’s sort of movie and we generally see most movies together – particularly when they’re on DVD. Part of it was just a reflex that they couldn’t possibly be as good as everybody seemed to think they were. I had a similar reaction to Fight Club which proved to be dead on (though my wife loved it, I thought it was lousy). I have to admit, though, that Tarentino really did an outstanding job on these movies. Their story is carefully-crafted, pulling from a wide array of sources that included such unlikely influences as spaghetti westerns and Japanese manga comics. These movies are also on my very short list of DVDs I’d like to own.

Phone Booth (2003) – a movie about a guy in a phone booth. Literally, 98% of this movie takes place inside a phone booth. Crazy, right? Crazy like a fox. It’s a story about a guy who’s not a total scumbag, but he’s definitely an asshole. He uses a particular phone booth from which to call both prospective business associates (he’s a wheeler and dealer) as well as a woman he’s set his sights on making his mistress. On one particular day, though, the phone rings while he’s there, and the guy on the other end of the line has a sniper rifle aimed at his head. He then puts him through a series of demands by which he peels away the asshole’s tough outer crust, revealing his most personal secrets to the world – especially to his wife, his near-mistress, and the business associates he’s been trying to convince that he’s a real player. All while a legion of cops looks on, clueless to the fact that he’s the victim of a crime, not the criminal himself. It was a really riveting and amazingly original movie and we enjoyed it very much.

Cellular (2004) – it’s no coincidence that Cellular is similar to Phone Booth – the screenplay for both was written or co-written by Mackye Gruber. In this film, an abducted woman locked away in a building manages to partially repair the phone that was smashed by her kidnappers. She reaches a young man on his cell, but if the connection is lost she may be screwed. So only he can help her, yet neither she nor he knows where she is being held or even why she’s been abducted. Another thriller, Cellular was a riveting adventure from beginning to end.

Pirates of the Caribbean, the Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) – considering that this movie was based on my all-time favorite Disney ride, I had high hopes going into it. And boy were they rewarded. The character of Captain Jack Sparrow was a fine and necessary addition, as the ride itself had no real “protagonist” per se with whom you could tell a story, and Depp played him marvelously as slightly bumbling but in a way that always suggested it was all just an act and he really was as brilliant as he said he was. On top of old Jack, the cursed pirates were also magnificent and really helped embody the spirit of the timeless ride. The rest of the trilogy wasn’t quite as good, as often happens, but the original was excellent.

Star Trek (2009) – kudos to J.J. Abrams for having the guts to reboot this tired series. I’m one of the few who has watched (and largely enjoyed) all the Star Trek TV shows up to and including the much-maligned (and admittedly disappointing) Enterprise, but the movie franchise has been pretty hit-or-miss, with all but one of the “Next Generation” films being especially bad. My only regret with the success of the Star Trek Movie is that it’s not plausible within the scope of “show business” for the cast of the film to embark on a new TV series (despite the fact that several of the key actors had either no significant acting resume or were actually television stars before striking it big with Trek).

Avatar (2009) – previously reviewed, but real damn good.

The Comic Book Movies – the 2000s produced a slew of really fantastic comic book movies after decades of miserable failure. I mean, in the 70s, 80s and 90s, all we really got were Superman 1 & 2 and Batman. Everything else was crap. The 2000s finally proved that you could use classic comic book superstars to make fun, interesting and engaging movies.

Iron Man (2008) – possibly my favorite so far, and very unexpectedly. Iron Man was clever, action-packed, irreverent, and, at times, really funny!

Spider-Man 1& 2 (2002/2004) – leave it to Sam Raimi to really get it right. Well, on two-thirds of this (so far) trilogy, anyway. The third movie was crap, but the first two really captured the essence of Peter Parker’s dual existence, his relationship with his friends and family, and his growth into a true hero. I hope they don’t screw up the fourth one.

The Dark Knight (2009) – Batman Begins was actually pretty darn awesome, too, and worthy of note, but Ras Al’Ghul just wasn’t equal to the task of being Batman’s nemesis the way the Joker was. Batman Begins suffered some of the “origin myth” trauma that’s common to superhero movies – having to spend so much time developing the character into the hero that there’s not much left for the rest of the story. The Dark Knight, rather, started with a bang and kept going, most of it courtesy of the Joker. Granted, it had some plot holes you could drive a batmobile through, but the action and the performances made up for them and made Dark Knight into a kickass superhero movie.

X-Men and X-Men 2: X-Men United (2000/2003) – the fact that these two movies, helmed by Bryan Singer, were so great is a big part of what makes me hate the third of the series so much. You can see the potential for what it could have been just by looking back at the first two, as they were terrific. The first, in particular, does an amazing job of pitting Wolverine against Cyclops with some excellent banter and one-liners, but we also see Magneto at his most menacing and Xavier as the champion of reason and discussion over violence. If the forthcoming Avengers movie manages to be anywhere close to as good an ensemble film as the first two X-Men movies, it’s going to kick some serious superhero ass.

Tune in tomorrow for highlights of the best Television from the 2000s!

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