Dec. 8-11, 2005
Best films, 2001-2005
1 Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet
The circumstances surrounding “Eternal Sunshine” are complete fantasy.
Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman has constructed a mythical device to erase painful memories, and the result is a twisting, backtracking storyline that explores how memories make a person who they are. How even beautiful or painful or embarrassing moments in the past can construct the present, and the program by Lacuna Inc. to erase these memories is ancillary to the message at the end of “Eternal Sunshine.”
Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) are complete opposites in everything but their interest in each other. The actors produce an undeniable chemistry through characters where one is close-mouthed and the other can’t stop chatting.
But the bulk of the movie is not seen through their growing relationship, but as it dies. Only backwards. The memory erasing takes place entirely inside of Joel’s head, and we get to witness the poignant moments in their relationship as they slowly disappear.
Inside Joel’s mind, director Michel Gondry and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman create stunning moments through the cinematography — Clem and Joel playing by the street circus, laying on the frozen river, talking quietly underneath the covers. Several scenes they focus a single light on the two of them together, isolating Joel and Clem as they clutch to the memories there are left. “Eternal Sunshine” allows a glimpse in these poignant moments of their relationship, and to think about our own.
By the end, as Joel’s memories are continually erased, we feel our own loss. The last moment of the film is the perfect tone — an isolated scene in a hallway, lying to themselves it may be better this time around, but at the end not caring if its better or worse, as long as those memories remain.
— Tessa Moll
2 City of God
Alixandre Rodrigues, Leandro Firmino
There is a moment in “City of God” when you realize there is no happy ending. Two young children are crying, leaning against a shoddy fence, shot in the foot by Lil’ Ze, the singularly focused boss of the City of God at only 20 years old.
The boss hands the gun over to an up-and-coming deputy in their malevolent gang. Steak’n’Fries may be only eight years old, but he has to choose one child to die. His face hardens, and one of the kids falls over, unmourned, against the fence.
“City of God” director Fernando Meirelles formerly created Brazilian commercials, and he has amassed a brilliant landscape, quickly drawing sharp strokes and back stories to define his characters and then cutting away as the action rages on.
Although derived from a novelistic account by a former resident of the ghetto, Meirelles had himself never lived in the City. Instead, he enlisted his co-director, cinematographer and actors from the area and used their experiences to enrich the filmmaking.
But amidst the frighteningly realistic and violent images, Rocket, the narrator (Alexandre Rodrigues), is simply trying to get out of the City without being shot.
Meirelles’ contrasting images are clear here — white sand beaches and groovy disco parties are flanked by gangs of children brandishing guns bigger than themselves and drugs, drugs, drugs. There are no parents — only workers, students or hoodlums, and all are scrapping for a way to survive within the ghetto, weaving their way through an endless barrage of street crime.
Perhaps even God has forgotten about them all.
3 The Royal Tennenbaums
Bill Murray, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson
“The Royal Tenenbaums” is writer/director Wes Anderson’s most accessible film.
That being said, tons of people hate this movie.
Released in late 2001, American patrons arrived in theaters expecting a funnier Ben Stiller fresh off his crowd-pleasing performance in “Zoolander.” People expected the suddenly famous Wilson brothers to be more engaging. After all, Luke had recently starred opposite Martin Lawrence in “Blue Streak” and Owen was hilarious as Derek Zoolander’s nemesis, Hansel.
The collective conscious of Americans had never heard of “Bottle Rocket,” the ’96 indie film that put the Wilson brothers on the map. Owen Wilson was that blonde dude the cheesy CGI serpent in “Anaconda” ate third.
Anderson’s visual style is tremendously appealing and pretentious at the same time. The characters dawn hip, vintage Ritchie Tenenbaum’s tennis outfits or Chas’ 80s track suits.
The score is resoundingly high-class with Mark Mothersbaugh’s arrangements and hand-picked hipster nuggets from The Ramones and Nico. Ironically, Elliot Smith’s “Needle in the Hay” plays during Ritchie’s attempted suicide.
A healthy chunk of current students were young enough to see “Tenenbaums” in theaters with parents or classmates who hadn’t a clue what they were watching.
This is probably why college students love Wes Anderson films. To “get” something is to love it. The dry, satirical humor is sharply timed, and they catch it the first time around so as to intellectually quote it later.
4 Kill Bill, Vols. 1 and 2
Uma Thurman, David Carradine, Lucy Liu
Quentin Tarantino is good at taking you to a place of extreme violence while giving a history lesson in film.
In “Kill Bill,” Tarantino creates an homage-filled flick that entertains and disgusts at the same time.
But then there’s the theme of revenge and The Bride’s (Uma Thurman) back story that makes us sympathize with her.
The most beautiful scene in the film is a The Bride and O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) at the end of Volume 1. The setting is a snow-covered garden, which looks like it was ripped right out of a Hokusai woodblock, that quickly becomes a scene of intense violence.
Tarantino is stylistically the best director working today. “Kill Bill” shows this off, giving a smorgasbord that combines color, black and white and animation in a film that boarders on sensory overload.
Audrey Tautou, Mathieu Kassovitz
About halfway through “Amélie,” a photobooth picture comes to life and talks to Nino, the main male character, about the heroine.
“She is in love,” the man in the picture tells Nino. “I don’t even know her!” Nino replies. “Oh, you know her,” the man says, seriously. “Since when?” Nino asks. “Since always,” the man says. “In your dreams.”
Amélie Poulain, played by Audrey Tautou, is the perfect girl. The world she sees is magical, and life’s subtlest beauties — letting grain slide through her fingers, skipping stones at St. Martin’s Canal, cracking crème brulee with a teaspoon — are her greatest pleasures. At the beginning of the film, Amélie finds an old tin box filled with marbles, a toy car and a photograph. After she returns the box of childhood memories to its owner, compelling him to reunite with his disowned daughter and grandson, Amélie decides to devote her life to secretly helping people around her.
Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet illustrates her whimsical journey with breathtaking cinematography. He is one of the few directors who still painstakingly plans each of his shots on a storyboard before he films, frame for frame. He manipulates color and sound with unmatched skill, creating a world that could only be seen in a pixie’s imagination. And as each fantasy plays itself out, Amélie’s big brown eyes twinkle mischievously, and her candy-apple lips curl into an impish smile.
6 The Incredibles
Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter
Forget that “The Incredibles” has a great plot. Forget the masterful voice work done by Craig T. Nelson and Samuel L. “My-that-is-a-tasty-burger” Jackson.
The Incredibles deserves to be in the top 25 best movies of the past five years because Pixar pushed computer animation past its boundaries to produce it.
The film is riddled with some of the most difficult CG animation techniques to pull off: realistic hair, believable water animation and “shirt grabs” (animating clothing to bend and shift due to character interaction). When Dash’s face reads surprise that he can run on water, it’s as though the animator’s themselves are expressing disbelief that he looks so good doing it.
Like the innovative techniques used in some of Disney’s work decades ago, this film will be remembered as a milestone in animation.
7 Batman Begins
Christian Bale, Liam Neeson
In 1989, Ramon Ramirez took his two children, Ramon and Eduardo, to see Tim Burton’s “Batman.”
Before Jack Nicholson fell into acid and became The Joker, Mr. Ramirez had to exit the theater with his terrified, sobbing children.
We would spend the ‘90s watching a once-proud Batman franchise fade into irrelevance and ridicule.
It appeared Gotham City’s caped crusader was finished, until director Christopher Nolan decided to shake up the franchise like an Etch-A-Sketch and start over from the beginning.
Christian Bale brought a credibility and darkness to Batman not seen since, well, ever. Nolan followed a winning formula Superman producers used in the ‘70s in surrounding a relative unknown lead with talent. Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson and Morgan Freeman did just that.
“Batman Begins” was as cinematic as it was badass. It joined a booming breed of comic book films that has dominated the box office this century by appealing to purists and children alike.
8 Lost in Translation
Scarlett Johansson, Bill Murray
Everybody’s always looking for someone. But they’re also looking to be found.
Sofia Coppola’s “Lost In Translation” is an essay on finding companionship in the unlikeliest of places with the unlikeliest of people. The visuals and sound make you feel like you’re in contemporary Tokyo, right in the middle of all of the rush and all of the gaudy pop culture.
The movie follows the spontaneous connection between an older actor, played by Bill Murray, and a young wife, played by Scarlett Johansson, both of whom are dissatisfied with their marriages. The characters are each introduced bored and unglamorous — Johansson waking up in her underwear with no makeup and Murray in his kimono. As Tokyo comes alive for them, they too come alive, dancing their way out of their boredom and into clubs and karaoke bars.
What elevates the movie is that, despite the obvious subtext in the interaction between the two, the relationship never turns sexual. These are two people who find joy in moments, in smiles and in butchering classic tunes.
In the end, what becomes lost in translation in this movie is irrelevant, as the most beautiful moment in the movie comes from a simple whisper in Johansson’s ear, which the audience is never privy to.
9 Sin City
Bruce Willis, Jessica Alba, Clive Owen
Basin City is an urban landscape of broken promises, dreams blasted full of bloody, gaping holes, a place where corruption breeds, and honor and virtue are choked off whenever they attempt to take a breath. Where the babes are hard and dangerous and the guys are brick walls who whisper with conviction, “I’m gonna give him the hard goodbye.” And the audience believes it.
Limbs are sawn off, priests are shot in confessionals, ears and various body parts get blown off with a flash of white, faces get smashed into walls, heads are mounted or served on a plate, and crotches are shot repeatedly or simply torn out.
But the violence is stylized, never realistic. When a character fails to die in an electric chair, he taunts the executioner. “Is that the best you can do, you pansies?” he growls defiantly, blood gurgling from his mouth.
Robert Rodriguez takes the gritty neo-noir fantasy world created by comic-book god Frank Miller and puts each sequential frame on a pedestal in front of his digital camera.
The angles and dialogue illustrated and written by Miller remain the same, but Rodriguez’s innovations in directing, shooting and editing rival even the best film noir-cinematography in that it captures the eerie beauty of stark darkness.
“Sin City” also bears the distinction of the first green screen creation that’s actually entertaining (ie. “Sky Captain” or Episodes I and II). Many actors that appear on screen together did not film with each other at all, but were digitally inserted, along with the backdrops, into the scene.
10 The Motorcycle Diaries
Garcel Garcia Bernal, Rodrigo De la
“The Motorcycle Diaries” isn’t your typical biopic or your typical road movie.
Sure it’s about Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the iconic revolutionary who helped Castro take power in Cuba.
Sure it’s about a road trip through Latin America. But there’s more to this film than how some socialist passed his time before fighting the good fight.
Director Walter Salles paints a humble, moving picture showing why Guevara became who he became. He doesn’t just tell Guevara’s story, he actually takes you on the journey, filming on-location and capturing the same breathtaking scenery that changed the lives of Guevara and his companion.
Realistically, there is no one point in “Motorcycle Diaries” where Guevara and his compatriot’s lives change. Rather the journey’s impact is felt as you sit watching the closing credits roll, that perfectly orchestrated soundtrack resonating in the emptying theatre.
11 Donnie Darko
Jake Gyllenhall, Drew Barrymore
Donnie Darko is a superhero. At least that’s what director Richard Kelly says in interviews.
The awkward, grinning, sarcasting high-school kid is a warrior for truth — or something like it — on the same level as Spider Man. He just doesn’t wear a costume.
His parents and siblings may argue about Michael Dukakis and Bush Sr., but Darko is beyond that.He burns down buildings, busts water mains and tells his teacher to “forcibly insert the Lifeline card into [her] anus.”
Darko is the kid in high school who felt there was something wrong with everything he was asked to do — the archetypical intellectual outsider. But Kelly gives his character ambiguous superpowers of premonition and time travel that allow him to act. In doing so, he exposes a community’s secrets and changes its destiny.
And the ‘80s soundtrack is even better than “Grosse Point Blank’s.”
Nicholas Cage, Meryl Streep
Charlie Kaufman apparently found writing a straightforward adaptation of Susan Orlean’s book “The Orchid Thief” impossible, given that it doesn’t exactly fit Hollywood’s mold for a money-making movie.
Rather than radically alter the book’s story, Kaufman compares his own struggle of adapting the book with that of Orlean, a writer for The New Yorker (Meryl Streep), and Laroche, a really ugly self-educated, high-strung horticulturist (Chris Cooper).
While Kaufman (portrayed by Nicholas Cage) struggles with adapting Orlean’s book, his idiot twin brother Donald is staying with him and writing his own screenplay. Donald’s serial-killer script epitomizes everything that Charlie hates about movies and their unoriginal screenplays.
The conversations between the two characters provide the most biting commentary of today’s high-concept movies and boringly predictable scripts.
Though a screenplay about a screenwriter trying to write a screenplay is a bit self-indulgent, Kaufman and Jonze manages to convey a story about LaRoche and Orlean and their quest for passion and fulfillment.
The ending leaves viewers wondering whether or not they should feel guilty for leaving the movie entertained. Was it the compelling characters and the masterful weaving of different personalities and storylines? Or was it the car chase and gun fights at the end?
It was probably the man-eating alligator.
13 The Fellowship of the Ring
Elijah Wood, Ian McKellan
Peter Jackson was either going to be the most lauded director of the new millenium or the one with the most death threats. Recreating the mysticism and alchemy of J.R. Tolkien’s sacred Lord of the Rings trilogy, it was likely that Jackson would fall to the latter.
Astoundingly, Jackson commenced his first Tolkien undertaking “Fellowship of the Ring” almost flawlessly. Elijah Wood was an unmarred choice to tackle Frodo Baggins’ reserved, self-doubting character, and Sean Astin (Sam) outdid himself as Baggins’s clumsy, apologetic accomplice.
Beneath the blockbuster special effects was the movie’s real mirth and epicenter — the devout Catholic overtones, the fundamental warfare of good and evil and embracing the golden rule. It’s possible to lose these messages amid the action and scenery.
Viggo Mortensen would later have his turn in stealing the show, but Fellowship belonged to Wood and nail-on-nail enactment of the young hobbit that is unintentionally inflicted with the wounds of his world. What Jackson portrayed best was the struggle of the routine, fixed-schedule hobbit adjusting to life as Middle Earth’s savior, constantly running from the evil attempting to erode his central value structure.
Jackson kept a copy of the unabridged first novel in close quarters, certain he could delight film critics without trouncing over the book’s loyal fanatics. He ended up doing both in a fashion few film aficionados will ever tailor.
14 Mystic River
Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon
Best Director and Best Picture Oscars for both “Unforgiven” and “Million Dollar Baby” may have finally completed Clint Eastwood’s transition from spaghetti-western superstar to directing auteur. But it was for a film in which he was shut out in both categories that Eastwood set himself head-and-shoulders above the Academy’s long list of actor-turned-director pity cases (yeah, that means you Warren Beatty).
Eastwood’s “Mystic River” was a dark, brooding revenge tragedy that, if not up to the Olympian heights of Best Picture-winner “Return of the King,” was at least worthy of anything in Ibsen or Shakespeare. Sean Penn’s menacing turn as a ex-con in search of his daughter’s killer and Tim Robbins’ role as the man accused of the crime netted them both acting Oscars.
But it was the measured tone of Eastwood’s directing, interweaving the investigation into the daughter’s murder with the reconverging paths of childhood friends Penn, Robbins and Kevin Bacon, that made “Mystic River” the tour de force it was. The grieving father who gives in to the avenging angels of his nature drew from the vigilantes and outsiders Eastwood portrayed earlier in his career and made for one of the most memorable films of the decade.
15 Hotel Rwanda
I cried frequently during this movie, which is presumed to happen rarely with guys.
The grim decay of conditions at Kigali’s four-star Hotel Milles Des Collines was a recreation to horrific events that transpired in Africa during the Clinton administration. Largely ignored by the Western world, the Rwandan genocide claimed the lives of millions and spread into the neighboring Congo.
The war was rooted in a ridiculous hatred between the Hutus and the minority Tutsis, two African class groups.
Stuck between protecting his Tutsi family from massacre and his Hutu heritage, Paul Rusesabagina opened the upscale establishment to 1,200 refugees. To funnel supplies to his guests, Rusesabagina had to convince Hutu army officials to retrieve rationed supplies with nothing to give but a few cash wads and an amazing density of courage.
Joaquin Phoenix gave an under the radar performance as Jack Daglish, a journalist determined to capture running footage of the genocide. His line mid-movie could apply to the entire conflict.
“I think if people see this footage, they’ll say, ‘Oh, my God, that’s horrible.’ And then they’ll go on eating their dinners.”
— Robert Klenman
16 American Splendor
Paul Giamatti, Judah Friedlander
The movie opens with a young, sullen Harvey Pekar trick-or-tricking with other children who are decked out in store-bought superhero costumes. The lady offering a tray of caramel-coated apples, noticing that Pekar is dressed unspectacularly in everyday clothing, asks Pekar who he is supposed to be. “I’m Harvey Pekar!” he says in exasperation. “Why does everybody have to be so stupid?” he asks, heading home in disgust.
What the candy-apple lady doesn’t understand is how fitting it is for Pekar to be granted a spot among the Batmans, Supermans and Green Lanterns. The ever-slouching, ever scowling Pekar (Paul Giamatti) is a hero in the sense that he’s someone who can get out of bed in the morning without immediately shooting himself in the head.
Written since 1975, the cult favorite series has failed to produce enough money for Pekar to survive, though through his comics he manages to meet his wife and land guest spots on the David Letterman show and earn other slight celebrity perks, including this movie.
Leave it to a foreigner who has never set foot on American soil to deliver stunning, horrific tragedies set in the U.S. about the repulsive side of human nature.
Lars Von Trier claims that he doesn’t have to come to the U.S. to see its influence on the world; all he has to do is step foot out of his home in Denmark.
Von Trier sets his story on a stage with its set consisting of chalk outlines of houses with their owner’s names, a few pieces of furniture and very little set dressing. You’re forced to pay attention to the story and the force of the acting.
The story is that of Grace (Nicole Kidman) who is on the run and at first is welcomed to the community of Dogville, providing that she helps the residents in their daily chores. She quickly becomes a slave of the community that holds her hostage and is forced to participate in unthinkable acts.
“Dogville” is all about the evils of people. Under the surface of care and concern lies selfish, hateful motives that result in dire retribution. Social commentary, anyone?
Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renee Zellweger
Propelled by a jocular script and a banging soundtrack, director Rob Marshall found triumph in this big screen adaptation.
More than a mere cavalcade of big-band/swing high budget musical numbers, “Chicago” said multitudes about the cronyism of the American judicial system. Velma Kelley (Catherine Zeta-Jones) landed in prison when she shot her philandering husband. Quick to pursue the publicity opportunity, the city’s crackerjack lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) rushed to the case. Vexed by the promise of fame and fortune Roxy Hart (Renee Zellwegger), a ditzy young blonde, also found herself in prison for shooting her abusive lover. The two singing drama queens competed to make the headlines.
The tactics that both Hart and Kelley used were mostly ridiculous, with Hart faking a pregnancy and Kelley scheming with Prison Warden Mama Morton (Queen Latifah). The movie transplanted vaudeville to the courtroom as Flynn resorted to outright hypocrisy and emotional distress to get the charges dismissed against his two high-profile clients.
The connection between the 1920’s metropolitan set and modern day courtrooms is easily forged. With the Michael Jackson, Robert Blake and Robert Kelly trials’ swamping the presses and all three defendants walking relatively Scott-free, “Chicago” still hits home.
Though based on previously written material, “Chicago” delivered a harsh image of the American courtrooms as more of a media circus than a place of lawful judgement.
Whether the message is indeed legitimate or not, its presentation in the film was dazzling enough to bring any judge’s gavel to the mercy of its woodwork.
19 Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson
In order for the director Alfonso Cuaron to get acquainted with the three main actors, he asked them to write an essay about the wizards they were portraying.
True to their characters, Daniel Radcliffe turned in one page, Emma Watson, 16, and Rupert Grint, zero.
Cuaron masterfully expands the world of Hogwarts, enriching the campus with bridges, stone henges and huge pumpkins.
The new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, Remus Lupin, is brilliantly portrayed by David Thewlis, who almost played Professor Quirrell in the first movie. Lupin becomes the moral anchor within a movie that showcases the most satisfyingly developed story to-date.
20 Mulholland Dr.
Laura Harring, Naomi Watts
It’s not about how you get there, as long as you get there. David Lynch has you believe you know what’s going on, then tells you that you’re wrong and does not give you any answers.
He spins a seemingly simple story into a web of confusion that leaves you thinking about the film long after you’ve left the theatre. “Mulholland Dr.” utilizes Lynch’s entire box of tricks and makes you either want to turn off your brain or blow it all over the theater wall.
21 I Heart Huckabees
Jason Schwartzman, Isabelle Huppert
It’s OK to be confused. UT’s two resident existential professors don’t have much to say about the David O. Russell “existential comedy.” One hasn’t gotten around to seeing it yet, and the other considered it “not very good or original.”
So why should other people heart it?
“I Heart Huckabees” is a frantic exploration of existential and Buddhist philosophy that involves tree-huggers, African immigrants and Shania Twain. It’s hilarious, it’s twisted, and it’s wildly original. With a stellar cast that includes Dustin Hoffman, Jason Schwartzman and Lily Tomlin, the images and situations Russell throws at the audience create enough offbeat moments of humor to make the movie a classic.
Actors are required to embarrass themselves quite frequently. Two characters make love in the mud, Mark Wahlberg repeatedly punches himself in the face, Jude Law regurgitates into his own hands, and Naomi Watts pretends to not like being beautiful.
The audience can choose to ignore the philosophical musings — some have argued that the philosophies expressed in the movie is merely satirical, mocking those who only follow one doctrine and ignore the ideas of others. But the movie’s theme is simply this: Everything in the universe is connected, and sadness is inevitably a part of it.
22 Control Room
Jehane Noujaim, 2004
In addition to gripping war footage, “Control Room” showed Al-Jazeera cameraman Tareq Ayyoub’s last moments to the world. Ayyoub was killed by an American tank that fired on a hotel, where the U.S. knew 200 journalists were staying.
The U.S. claims the attack was accidental, but the event nonetheless underscores the relationship between media and government during wartime. Questions of Al-Jazeera’s own ethical oversights aside, “Control Room” portrays journalism as insurrection, working against a propagandist war machine to uncover hard facts.
23 Bad Santa
Billy bob Thorton, Tony Cox
Nothing says holiday spirit like a drunken Billy Bob Thorton moaning, “I’m eating, drinking, shitting, fucking Santa Claus.”
Thorton’s character Willie T. poses as a mall Santa at department stores to rip off each business’s holiday earnings.
Maybe it’s seeing Thorton stumble with an empty glass bottle of hard liquor in front of a mile-long line of anxious elementary school children
Whatever your poison, “Bad Santa” is a Christmas winner that succeeds on every level to which it stoops down.
Natalie Portman, Jude Law
Though constantly uneasy, the film so vividly depicts a dark side of sex and love that it deserves respect.
Director Mike Nichols intelligently decides to leave out sex scenes, but he has sex become such a focus in the dialogue. This omission emphasized the struggle of the characters in dealing with the truth.
The world needs more bluntly honest movies, but if too many films produced had the same mood, we’d all be a little more depressed with our own lives. But we’d at least look a little deeper into them.
— Jason Sweeten
25 Punch-Drunk Love
Adam Sandler, Emily Watson
Adam Sandler made a film with Paul Thomas Anderson, director of the melodrama “Magnolia.” There is something wrong here.
Where we would normally laugh in “Punch-Drunk Love” as Sandler rages, we are strangely disturbed. It’s a love story where the most romantic line metaphorically suggests taking a sledgehammer to the face.
And yet between Sandler’s sad fury and Anderson’s poignant direction, the distrubing elements give way to a story and characters we simply care about.
— Tessa Moll