Films of the Decade: Drama

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

I found it almost impossible to restrict my best drama list to five movies. Therefore, for this final category, I’ve decided to expand it to a list of ten flicks.

Top Ten Dramas

10. The Piano Teacher

Still waters run deep. In other words, quiet people are probably tortured perverts. Well, at least that’s the case in The Piano Teacher. Dark, twisted and with no hint of redemption for any of the characters involved, it’s a brilliantly bleak film that shows that the most loathsome people aren’t those who have sexual desires that deviate from the norm (the protagonist here is someone who secretly enjoys S&M), but those that punish people because of their proclivities.

9. Hunger

Hunger surprised me a great deal. With Steve McQueen directing, I was expecting a visual feast, but I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so heartfelt. Focusing on how the conflict between the IRA and the British government dehumanised those involved, it manages to be both brutal and tender. No judgements or sides are taken; we just see that this conflict is a cancer that eats away at everyone involved.

8. American Psycho

Far superior to the novel that it’s based on, this adaptation dispenses with most of the more ridiculous violence and instead focuses on the black humour. Patrick Bateman is a man stuck in a nightmare of conformity and no matter how desperately he tries to break out, no one is listening and no one cares. He’s trapped. Christian Bale’s performance is amazing and the writing and the direction are impeccable, showing that even the most ‘unfilmable’ books can be transported to the big screen if the filmmakers are talented enough.

7. The Lives of Others

At the beginning of The Lives of Others one of the characters states that people don’t change. However, we get to see that exact thing occur – we get to see a Stasi officer have his blind faith eroded and in the process regain his humanity. It’s a very tight film with great performances and Hitchcockian direction. It also has a terrifically moving and understated ending.

6. Downfall

It’s ridiculous that people criticised this film for ‘humanising’ Hitler. Newsflash motherfuckers, Hitler was a human being! Yes he may have been among the shittiest human beings of all time but to reduce him to a cardboard cut-out monster is extremely dangerous – it makes it harder for people to learn from the mistakes that Germany made when they allowed this madman to seize control. But Downfall goes some way to reversing that – it’s a film that allows you to get a small idea of what this lunatic was really like. It never makes you sympathise with Hitler but it does flesh him out to some extent, making the horror of his regime even more palpable.

5. Auto Focus

No other film depicts the desperation of male sexuality as accurately as Auto Focus. Portraying the exploits of Bob Crane and John Carpenter, it shows that there’s nothing as disturbing, pathetic and blackly comic as grown men who are stuck in adolescence. Unable to focus on anything but themselves they’re constantly looking for their next orgasm. In fact, their need is so desperate that they even masturbate in each other’s company while watching their own homemade sex tapes. But as lurid as the film is, it manages, in the end, to achieve a note of melancholy. Still, for women I imagine this must resemble a horror movie – these men (duplicitous horny bastards who have no moral fibre) must be their worst nightmare.

4. Dogville

At first it seems like Lars von Trier’s film might amount to nothing more than a gimmick – there are no real sets and the actors mimic the actions of opening doors and performing other actions. But I found it very easy to forget this artifice and it actually ends up helping the film – there are scenes where horrific events occur and you can still see people in their buildings getting on with their lives; you can visually see the way people turn a blind eye to abuse. And although the brutality in the film is exaggerated, it does have a serious point – if you treat people like animals, you shouldn’t be surprised when they treat you like one.

3. There Will Be Blood

It’s easy to just remember There Will Be Blood as a film about milkshakes, but there’s a whole lot more going on in this film. Deep down it’s a horror film about how we’re all beholden to capitalism and the insatiable greed of big business. Daniel Plainview is a man who uses his wealth to build schools and roads and irrigate the land, but while this would suggest he’s a decent human being, he’s actually a murderous monster. And instead of ushering in an era of freedom, he helps usher in a monetary-based class system – no longer will society be controlled by nobility; it’ll be controlled by big business. But the film also illustrates the uneasy relationship between religion and capitalism (America’s two biggest obsessions). And if There Will Be Blood is anything to go by, should the two sides of America fight to the death, capitalism will win.

2. United 93

Few things are as scary as religious mania. Otherwise decent people can be driven to perform atrocious acts. This is what United 93 manages to capture so superbly. These people aren’t evil – they weren’t destined to do this from birth. They’ve just become warped. And like loyal soldiers, they execute their orders faithfully. The last few moments are among the few times that I’ve become anxious while watching a film – the passengers frenzied attempt to cling onto life is gut-wrenching.

1. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

One of the most remarkable films ever made, The Assassination of Jesse James is a beautiful film about the hollowness of celebrity. Robert Ford is a man who thinks that some of Jesse James’ stardust will rub off on him if he kills him and thus follows the soul-destroying realisation that fame for the sake of fame doesn’t bring happiness. It’s a very modern film in the body of a historical drama – it might as well be about Mark Chapman or any of the losers that appear on programmes like Pop Idol. The final twenty minutes are especially good and are amongst the best cinema I’ve ever seen.

Ten Worst Dramas

10. Into the Wild

The story of a tiresome twit who gives all of his savings to Oxfam and lives a pure, spiritual existence in the wilderness. And when I say he lives a pure life, I mean he meets annoying hippies, discards his evil parents (who aren't evil at all and who, while not great people, just want the best for him) and dies alone in Alaska. Sean Penn obviously thinks that this guy is a hero, but his selfishness and stupidity are unbelievable. I mean, the conceit that his disappearance and his retreat into the wilderness makes his parents better people is offensive. Fuck this kid and fuck this film.

9. Incendiary

What’s the worst thing you can imagine happening while you make love? Accidentally spearing your penis on your lover’s perineum and breaking your cock? Or if you’re a woman, having one of your nipples chomped off by an over enthusiastic man slut? Well, those are bad, but far worse is cheating on your husband and then seeing your child and your hubby blow up on the TV at a football match as Ewan McGregor takes you from behind. That would give you psycho-sexual problems up the wazoo. As you can probably gather from this, Incendiary is a ridiculous soap opera – a screaming, wailing, hysterical woman of a film; you just want to reach into the film and slap it so that you can shut it up.

8. The Time Traveller’s Wife

A crap book ends up making for a crap movie. Manipulative and flatly written and directed, it’s a lonely housewife picture. An impossible romance full of impossible suffering that is somehow supposed to make us feel better in the end. But instead it just made me feel used and abused – the film tries to pull every string in order to elicit some emotion; dead men coming through time, husbands losing the power of their limbs, cursed children. It’s shamelessly ridiculous.

7. A Talking Picture

Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal’s most famous director, takes a dull travelogue (the film follows a mother and daughter travelling around the Mediterranean) and turns it into something supremely ridiculous by introducing a time-bomb with three minutes of the film left to run. It’s one of those twists that, rather than shock, has the audience howling in the aisles. Adding to the hilarity is John Malkovich speaking incredibly bad Portuguese.

6. Crash

Somehow Crash beat Brokeback Mountain to the Best Picture Oscar. But while Ang Lee’s film was understated and complex, this is offensively simplistic. You see, we’re all a little prejudiced and racism is bad. But the worst thing about the film is the way that sudden events colour every person’s outlook. Prejudices are either removed or created by people ‘crashing’. This is bollocks. Prejudices aren’t removed or created in a flash. They take time. You certainly don’t start off being a racist and then find your humanity in an instant. But the ending is hilariously awful. An ex-racist finds some Thai slaves, gives them $40 and then ‘frees’ them. In other words, he sets them lose on the Los Angeles streets. This is not the uplifting ending it purports to be. Without any money and without the ability to speak English properly, these people are going to be royally fucked. It’s ridiculous.

5. Marie Antoinette

The story of Marie Antoinette is turned into a drab, lifeless American teen film. We even have a quick shot of a pair of Converse. You see, Marie Antoinette is really just the story of Paris Hilton and her ilk – only Sofia Coppola is sympathetic rather than scathingly critical like she should be.

4. Garden State

An incredibly lame ‘dramedy’ from Zach Braff, star of the awesomely bad Scrubs. This is a film that is straining so hard for meaning and pathos that all of Braff’s organs spill out of his butthole and leave a disgusting mess on the floor. Hamster funerals, men prancing about in knight costumes, a bottomless pit; Garden State has all of this. Oh, and it also has a woman who wants to capture Braff’s tears in a cup. Run away, Braff, she’s insane! But Braff isn’t much better. He’s a young man who’s in so much pain that he has to medicate himself into oblivion. But the film doesn’t have any idea what real pain is. And the idea that a little cry will make everything better is ridiculous.

3. Elizabethtown

Another risible ‘dramedy’. This time it features the charisma vacuum that is Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst and her weird baby teeth. What makes the film so objectionable is the psychotic narcissism of Dunst’s character. She latches onto Bloom like a leech and then oversees a road trip that will allow him to do some important healing. Of course, this being a Crowe film, she makes the ultimate mix tape and of course this mix tape allows Bloom to see life in a new light. Pissing hell.

2. O Fantasma

O Fantasma details the exploits of a gay sanitation worker who becomes obsessed with a young man. What starts off as rather dull and silly movie becomes truly risible when the lead character goes on a gimp rampage. He handcuffs men, grabs rabbits, eats garbage and drinks toxic water. The film is supposed to be making some sort of comment on this guy’s all consuming desire and the way that it makes him an animal, but it doesn’t feel at all realistic or believable. Hell, in one scene the guy gets arrested by a cop and then the cop lets the man lick his nightstick. And this is not a euphemism for ‘sucks his cock’. But the film does feature that, in all its explicit glory. Yippee.

1. Morven Callar

One of the most soul destroying film experiences of my life, Morven Callar is a preposterous, pretentious piece of piss. It begins with Samantha Morton’s writer boyfriend topping himself and leaving her his novel. Rather than phone the police or anything like that, Morton claims the novel for her own and gets a publishing deal. She then spends the rest of her time arsing about in Ibiza. The End. Honestly, Morton’s character is wretched and the film has the depth of a puddle. But oh how it strives for meaning. There’s even a scene where Morton stands by a river and lifts her skirt in slow-motion. Yes, she has a cunt…and is one. Genius.

Update: I originally had The Convent in the number two spot. Yeah, one problem - the film came out in 1995. Oops. I guess I must have overlooked that one important detail. But thanks to the commenter who pointed this out. However, if you're thinking about watching The Convent, don't. It's fucking awful.

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  1. Terrific lists, my friend. I must confess, though, to not having seen most of the films on your best list -- I'll remedy that as soon as possible, although as a fan of neither American Psycho nor The Piano Teacher, the resolve begs the question: what am I in for? I was thrilled to see you rank AJJCRF in the top spot -- it's a masterpiece, full stop. And the novel, too, has been haunting me more and more since I read it back in the EST.

    Thanks for the heads-up on steering clear of Portuguese films starring John Malkovich. And yeah: Morvern Callar is just puzzling to distraction...

  2. The Convent came out in 1995, dude. Still, wonderful critiques.

  3. Thanks for pointing out the glaring mistake. I have updated the list accordingly.

  4. Oh yeah, and in the Crime list, the Boondock Saints came out in '99. It may have come out in 2000 in Britain, though. I'm done being pedantic, I swear.