Films of the Decade: Top 20

Monday, April 26, 2010

So, several months after the project started we come to the highly anti-climatic conclusion of my Films of the Decade project. Here's my overall Top 20:

20. American Psycho

Favourite scene: Patrick Bateman gives a speech about Whitney Houston as he encourages a couple of women to make out on a sofa. With tears in his eyes he speaks about the greater meaning of Whitney’s music and how important it is to empathise with other people and one’s self. We then have a jump cut to him vigorously fucking the women and then killing them. It’s very funny and shows the complete disconnect that exists in Bateman’s character. He can regurgitate all this nonsense about Phil Collins and Whitney Houston but the reality is that he has nothing but contempt for the people around him – he may speak with emotion and he might talk about how important it is to empathise with other people, but this is just stuff that he’s read; in reality he wants to destroy everything.

19. The Lives of Others

Favourite scene: Having become seduced by an artist couple while performing surveillance on them, a Stasi officer encounters the actress half of the couple and chats with her in a bar. She has no idea who he is, thinking he’s just a fan, but he manages to give her the resolve to stop an affair she’s having with a high ranking minister. The scene that follows shows the officer relieving his subordinate from duty and reading the report of what happened during the night. The actress returns to her writer lover and they make passionate love. It’s very romantically filmed and you can see the joy that the report gives the officer – for once, rather than have a destructive effect on someone’s life, he’s doing something positive. He even manages to overlook his subordinate sleeping and praises him for a good report.

18. Audition

Favourite scene: When you give your heart to someone, there’s always the fear that the other person will hurt you. But what happens in Audition takes this fear to the extreme. A widower ends up being tortured by a prospective bride. Her reason for doing this? To prove what is feels like to need someone. It’s a very tough scene to watch but with Miike very slowly winding the tension tighter and tighter, it’s almost a release. The need to possess her ‘love’ is far too much for this woman – she doesn’t just want love, she wants full ownership and devotion; she’s willing to disable the object of her affection to make him totally dependant and subservient.

17. Memento

Favourite scene: Lenny finally hears the truth of his quest to find his wife’s killer and learns that, thanks to his memory disorder, he’s been manipulated by his friend Teddy. Apparently he found his wife’s killer a long time ago but because of his condition he doesn’t remember it. Since then Teddy has been giving him puzzle after puzzle to solve in order to give meaning to Lenny’s life. In a moment of quiet rage, Lenny sabotages his quest and sets Teddy up as his next target. The film ends with Lenny forgetting the fact that he’s set up his friend, ready to begin the investigation that will inevitably end with Teddy’s death. The scene brilliantly explains everything that has been going on, but more than that it shows human fallibility. We may think that we can overcome anything and build perfect systems that will help us achieve our goal, but we’re still slaves to our emotions. Rationality will rarely win over anger. And it’s also true that people often lie to themselves in order to be happy. This scene just elevates it to a grand scale.

16. Grizzly Man

Favourite scene: Timothy Treadwell is filming a grizzly bear when a couple of foxes run into the shot. One of the foxes then goes up to him and smells his finger. It’s a little moment but it shows why Treadwell became so obsessed with living in the wilderness. These animals give him the companionship he didn’t get in the city. They also give him (in his mind) unconditional love and they definitely protect him from his demons. They prove to be his saviours and the cause of his destruction.

15. No Country For Old Men

Favourite scene: The Coens manage to produce a shoot-out that is several times more exciting than anything that the best action directors managed to film. Shot at night and not accompanied by a score, the two lead characters face off against each other in a Texas street. For all intents and purposes, this is like something out of a Western. The evil man in black stalks the hero and the good guy turns the tables to bring on the pain. But with an innocent driver getting shot in his throat and with the sight of two men having a gun battle in the middle of a deserted street in a populated town, the action scene ends up having an abstract quality. Both men are both hunter and hunted, and in the end they fight to a stalemate. In the mindless pursuit of money, no one wins.

14. Downfall

Favourite scene: With the Soviet troops rapidly approaching Berlin, Frau Goebbels poisons all of her children. She and a doctor pretend that it’s ‘medicine’ and all but one of the children happily gulps the stuff down, but one child knows what’s going on and resists. Frau Goebbels and the Doctor then force her to drink it. The most disturbing thing about the scene is the normality of it – you really would think that the woman was giving them medicine; she’s like a rock. It’s only when the final child resists that she seems a little rattled. And there’s also a moment when we see her put a book of fairytales to the side; these kids have read their final bedtime story – they don’t need the book any more. But again to the disturbing normality of the scene – another thing that makes the scene difficult to watch is the kindness present in it. Millions of other people weren’t shown this same kindness in their final moments – they were treated like vermin. So in a way you should rejoice at this extermination of Nazism and the seeds of its evil, but there’s no joy to be taken from this act.

13. Auto Focus

Favourite scene: Bob Crane and his best pal ‘Carpy’ have a discussion about how unreasonable women are while they both masturbate to their homemade porn. Funny, melancholic and pathetic, the scene encapsulates everything about these guys – their desire to orgasm at the drop of a hat eclipses any need for a deep, fulfilling relationship. They’re clueless teenage boys trapped in the bodies of men.

12. Munich

Favourite scene: The first assassination. Proving just how hard it is to kill someone, the Mossad agents fumble and hesitate and then almost close their eyes when they finally pull the trigger. Their target then falls in a heap and lands on some bottles of milk which spills across the floor with his blood. It’s a quick, brutal scene, but it beautifully sets up the film – that revenge isn’t clear cut; it’s brutal and messy.

11. Zodiac

Favourite scene: A relatively innocent July 4th drive turns into a bloodbath when a couple of kids stumble upon the Zodiac killer. At the tail end of the sixties it signals the end of the era of peace and love. A new darker era is being ushered in and America is very quickly losing what innocence it had. The killing is filmed in minute detail and the choice of ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’ on the soundtrack is perfect.

10. Gomorrah

Favourite scene: A couple of wannabe gangsters play about with stolen weapons as they piss about in some marshland. Wearing nothing but speedos, they fire machine guns and rocket launchers. Drunk on violent movies and the violence that surrounds them in the slums, this is their idea of masculinity. Nothing is tougher or more fearsome than a man firing an AK-47 in his underoos. Needless to say that despite the heavy crimes these teenagers commit, they have the minds of young children.

9. In the Loop

Favourite scene: There are certainly more intelligent scenes in this amazing film, but nothing gave me as much pleasure as Malcolm Tucker bullying a minister and his staff. Best line: ‘Allow me to pop a jaunty little bonnet on your purview and ram it up your shitter with a lubricated horse cock!’

8. Touching the Void

Favourite scene: With a broken leg, Joe Simpson falls into a crevasse. Stuck in a hole and filled with impotent rage, he screams every swear word he knows. Simpson then explains that despite his dire situation he never prayed to god. The fact that the man never asked a higher power for help and that he didn’t just crawl up and die is a huge inspiration.

7. Dogville

Favourite scene: With blossom falling, Grace and Tom confess their love for one another. It seems that their blooming romance has come to fruition. And yet Tom, being the colossal coward that he is, can’t bring himself to kiss Grace. We then have a dinner where one of the townsfolk of Dogville thanks Grace for showing the town who she is. You’d think that nothing but bright skies would follow, but under the surface everything isn’t quite so rosy. Grace might have shown the town who she is, but she’s also shown the town who they are. She’s seen right through them, and although they thank her for this, they grow to hate the mirror she’s shone upon them. The scene wonderfully captures the polite façade and the hatred and hypocrisy that can lie beneath it.

6. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Favourite scene: The best scene in the Lord of the Rings trilogy actually comes at the very beginning. The film opens with a dizzying prologue that beautifully and economically tells us the history of Middle Earth and explains what’s at stake in the story that follows. In particular I love the image of Gollum in the cave, allowing the ring to consume him for years and years.

5. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Favourite scene: When Doctor Maturin accidentally gets shot, Captain Jack Aubery temporarily ends his pursuit of the French ship Acheron. Yes he has the ship in his sights but he ends up putting his friend before duty. He ends up taking him to land so that surgery can be performed. Of course with both of them being British males, they can’t verbalise the depth of feeling they have for each other. Jack says that this detour hasn’t been taken on the Doctor’s account. He says that he needs to stretch his legs. But both know that this is an act of friendship. This scene helps give a wonderful adventure film an added dimension – the characters aren’t just meat to be blown up and sliced to bits; they’re people that we come to care about.

4. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

Favourite scene: Grenouille’s first encounter with Laura - with his superior olfactory senses, he smells her long before he sees her. Immediately enraptured, he hides from the road as she passes in a horse and carriage. But then like a dog he follows her to her father’s mansion and hides in the garden, drinking her in. The scene is wonderfully scored and hopelessly romantic but it’s also filled with dread – you know that nothing good is going to come of this and that death is waiting around the corner.

3. There Will Be Blood

Favourite scene: Daniel Plainview finally strikes oil but his ‘son’ gets injured as a result. However, his injured boy concerns him little. As it is, his family is just an artifice – it’s just a way of masking his greed and making it more palatable to the masses. The most telling moment is when he’s looking at the burning oil. A colleague asks him if his son is okay and he casually replies that he isn’t. You can almost see the dollar signs in Plainview’s eyes – he doesn’t give a shit about the boy; the money is everything.

2. United 93

Favourite scene: Cutting through the simplistic jingoistic ‘Let’s roll’ bullshit like a knife, the final scene shows the passenger revolt for what it was: a desperate, violent last ditch fight for survival. These are people placed in a horrible situation desperately clawing at their tormentors as they try and regain control of the plane and their lives. But both sides are spinning out of control and mutual destruction is the only possible result. Knowing exactly what’s going to happen to these people only makes everything that more powerful; the desperate way that they try and push the pilot into the cockpit, in particular, never fails to get to me.

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

Favourite scene: The final moments are amazing. Finally realising the hollowness of his celebrity, Robert Ford is left to live a disappointing existence. No one really likes him and he misses his old friend. All that’s left is for him is to read hate mail and hang out in his saloon. The melancholy of this is magnificently captured and fate eventually catches up with Robert Ford. Considering what Ford did prior to this, this killing, in lesser hands, might have resembled someone getting their just desserts. But there’s no feeling of victory with this murder. It’s empty and it’s sad, and just as Ford is finally coming to terms with his act and just as he’s understanding how rotten it was, his life is taken away from him. But what makes the scene even more powerful is how resigned he is to his killing, like he knows it’s just around the corner. He almost embraces it.

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  1. I was surprised to see Up fail to make the final cut. But I was glad to see you list your favorite scenes from the films that did make it. Mine from a few of the films on your list: Gandalf meeting the Balrog on the bridge in Moria, Jesse going knife-apeshit out of nowhere and putting the fear of God in the Ford brothers, the opening 20 or so minutes of There Will Be Blood...

  2. Up has that great opening, but I personally think the little moments make it. The build up to Muntz's being a lunatic, when he digs through the photo album's "adventures", when he fantasizes about letting go of Russell (the most deliciously funny and evil moment in any Pixar film). The themes of personal failure, disappointment, dreams and perpetual youth all remind me of Herzog. Except in an incredibly colorful, buoyant, mood-enhancing package.

    I still prefer Wall-E, Monsters Inc and Toy Story, but only by a bit.

  3. Oh, and I was surprised he left out Children Of Men, too.

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