You can probably sense it, right? The 'best of the decade' list that's coming your way at Love & Squalor in the next couple weeks. Yeah. It's coming. Be prepared. M. and I are busy debating and arguing over the phone about which films really deserve spots on the list, so if nothing else, know that we've gotten all sorts of anal retentive and obsessive about it. Yet, before we reach that point, I have been working on a list of the 25 films that i feel just haven't gotten the attention they deserve during this decade. Some of them have been ignored. Some misunderstood. Some received a horrible backlash. Some, i sense, will magically be transformed into noteworthy Criterion releases in the decades to come. Some, believe it or not, are even on the master list of Love & Squalor's best of the decade. Yet, i have chosen these to defend. These are the movies that for one reason or another, i championed in the face of adversity (life is hard). Thus, i present to you: Wilde.Dash's list of the 25 most grievously underrated/overlooked films of the oughts. Keep in mind, if you like this one, Love & Squalor will be getting the bulk of the decade/year end lists, so i'd check out what's happening over there with some frequency (shameless self promotion!).
1. Josie and the Pussycats (2001): If you're scoffing as you read this, you either haven't seen the movie, or you're looking at it from the wrong angle. At the dawn of the 21st century, the music scene was made up almost entirely of pop tarts and pre-fabricated commercial groups made by svengalis like Lou Pearlman. You couldn't turn around without hearing another song that sounded like the last or seeing another new girl singer with the same navel-revealing sequined crop top as the one who topped the charts last week. Out of that atmosphere arose Josie and the Pussycats, a film which seemed easy to lump in as a prime offender in these times. It was fully branded, bright and fluffy, and produced (in a way) to feed off of these very trends. Yet, for anyone willing to take the time to read between the glittery lines, it was also 100% satire - and an incredibly effective one at that. Under the guise of a brainless teen film, Josie attacks materialism, corporate slime, and music film cliches. Josie is a modern nightmare; it cheerfully presents an exaggerated portrait of our world: a world in which everything is defined via logo and each individual is a target for advertisers. Plus, it has a fabulous pop-rock soundtrack and a cast featuring Rosario Dawson, Alan Cumming, and Parker Posey, among others.
2. The Fountain (2006): Darren Aronofsky's passion project and one hell of an emotional roller coaster. The Fountain is an intellectual's tearjerker. The film is beautiful and uncompromising in its focus and presentation. Aronofsky built a confined epic, a love story spanning 1000 years that feels impossibly intimate and heavily personal. It builds up metaphysical presence within an ultimately very simple tale of dying too young and the challenges therein and was received with a mix of disdain and misunderstanding it did not deserve. The film is gorgeous, the puzzling bits are a surface representation of basic emotional conflict, the feelings it elicits are remarkably powerful. I don't think i'll ever forget going to see this in a completely empty theater on a chilly day a few years back. I was the only one there, and i don't think i could move until the credits were over.
3. The Libertine (2004): I have yet to meet anyone who enjoyed The Libertine. This is a true story. Yet, i also haven't met many people who have actually seen The Libertine, or who made it to the film's conclusion upon starting it. As a period piece it does what few period pieces ever do: present the period without excessive romanticization. It's a vile, crooked, repugnant piece of work that looks as though it was shot by candlelight and feels as though it was conceived without any need to appeal to an audience. For those who do not know, The Libertine follows the decay of John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, a very literal libertine prone to all the sexual excess and bold face blasphemy thus entailed. When i saw this film, most of the theater walked out, one person announced loudly "this movie sucks" as the movie dragged on unnecessarily. Yet, in spite of the rather dull filth, the film is due for reappraisal. As Wilmot, quirky Johnny Depp channels something that feels unexpected and startlingly decrepit. His performance is remarkable and stands as testimony to the fact that Depp really does take on each role as intensely as the next. It's not a hero's tale, it's a rogue's swan song and an extensive study of an obscene character that simply does not concern itself with likability. It's fascinating. A wholly unique piece of work the traits of which place it beyond any established plot towards the building of a repellent, witty swaggering devil.
4. Marie Antoinette (2006): Panned by critics, French and American alike, Marie Antoinette has been unfairly dismissed for its juxtaposition of 1980's and 1780's excess. I swear, though, that if you're hung up on the pop-punk soundtrack and that glimpse of Converse sneakers, your focus is too narrow. This is not a biopic. I'm sorry you won't have the privilege of watching the young queen's head roll (it's disappointing, i know). Instead, what you will find if you care to look is a spectacularly ornate, candy filtered dream. Sofia Coppola has strung together a brilliant tableaux of moments to build a fabulously odd teen film that captures the essence of a fantasy. What it might feel like, what it might be like, the awkwardness and spectacular greed that might be involved with being a teenage royal. Kirsten Dunst is strangely dazzling, Jason Schwartzman is cardboard, deadpan, and believable. Even if it's a bastardization of history, the action and emotion are matched perfectly to the soundtrack and romanticized beyond all logical comprehension. It's an untraditional epic, a swooning work of cinema loaded with striking images that are truly something to behold.
5. Watchmen: The Director's Cut (2009): I covered this earlier in the year, and i stand by it. Remember: Watchmen is one of my absolute favorite literary works and i assert i have the proper level of nerd clearance to say yay or nay. Alan Moore's work is near impossible to film. It's densely layered, has multiple primary characters, a very specific universe, temporal leaps, and its own isolated moral code. It was a huge risk that Zack Snyder was willing to take. It's also, in comparison to most graphic novel adaptations, hugely successful. The attention to detail is phenomenal, and for every single instance that's missing, dozens more have been painstakingly included. Every second is visually slick as hell, and overall the film's heroes and antiheroes are closely matched to the apathetic, jaded personas i'd always envisioned them as having. It's cold and bleak. It should be. One day, after the initial nerd backlash has passed, this film will be recognized as an undeniably well-done adaptation.
6. Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2005): Speaking of unfilmable, Michael Winterbottom decided to try and tackle Laurence Sterne's convoluted comic novel Tristram Shandy and created something that's as under appreciated as it is brilliant. If you follow the text literally, Tristram Shandy is most certainly unfilmable. A big, thick 18th century work that fails to arrive at its protagonist's birth in spite of its hundreds of pages, it has been dubbed "postmodern before there was any modern to be post about" and indeed it is. Winterbottom, wisely, then, avoided literal adaptation and instead shot a bizarre comedy chronicling the production of a Shandy adaptation that is never completed. Remarkably, however, it manages to fit in all of the most memorable moments, as well as the overall good humor and sparkling wit, of the text. Steve Coogan plays Steve Coogan. Rob Brydon plays Rob Brydon. The film banters, bickers, and alludes its way into any literary nerd's heart with remarkable ease. It's hysterical...undoubtedly one of my favorite comedies of the decade, and one that only grows funnier with each repeat viewing.
7. Domino (2005): I can't defend this unless you're willing to surrender yourself to the ride. Based lightly on the life story of deceased British fashion model turned bounty hunter Domino Harvey (played here by Keira Knightley, looking a bit like a glammed up twelve year old boy), Tony Scott’s ‘biopic’ is maddening, pulsating, and positively chaotic. Here is a film so full of its own energy that its inertia blows through the end credits.It’s filmed dazzlingly, with bright kinetic tints and hues and dizzying shots that make filth and grime seem the height of cool. This is stylization to the extreme, with text popping up for emphasis of phrases, echoing narration, and driving repetitive beats. Scott slices up the film and lets it fly by so fast it could induce an epileptic fit. It’s a total raucous train wreck. An electric, destructive, cracked out train wreck. Yet, it's fabulous, an action film that constructs its own action via its editing and feels like an experience as you sit and slowly go insane. It does to your nervous system what it does to its characters, puts them through the wringer and tests their limits. If it sounds unpleasant, it sort of is.
8. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008): It went from being one of the most anticipated of 2008 to one of the biggest disappointments. In spite of its Oscar nominations, the backlash that immediately followed David Fincher's whimsical love story through time was phenomenally widespread. It has been attacked and abused on all counts "it's too precious", "too long", "too much like a magical Forrest Gump". Alright, it is a little precious. The accents are a bit thick and silly sentimentalism runs rampant. The Hurricane Katrina tie-in didn't need to be there. But those are the only concessions you'll get from me. Otherwise, i sense Benjamin Button will persevere and one day be dug up as an example of a turn of the century throw back to a simpler time. It's a gorgeously spun adult fairy tale of love, loss, and life that affects a distance in its telling that allows its characters to become magical cyphers that are not quite human, but feel as humans do.
9. Snow Cake (2006): For the life of me, i have no idea how this little film was ignored by so many people. The synopsis is a little disconcerting: indie melodrama centered around the odd bonds formed between an autistic mother (Sigourney Weaver) and the man (Alan Rickman) who feels partially responsible for the car crash that killed her daughter. Yet, the film sits above playing on pathos and sympathies. Snow Cake is a remarkably successful little film with full-bodied characters brought to life by seasoned actors, and more than enough humor to keep its otherwise downer plot almost completely at bay. With a bigger budget and different actors i believe Snow Cake would have been nearly impossible to endure, yet, instead it was one of the biggest surprises of the last few years.
10. Black Snake Moan (2006): If you were deterred by the man-chains-up-nymphomaniacal- woman-in-his-house-in-an-attempt-to-cure-her plot, you missed out on one hell of a good time. At its roots, Black Snake Moan is something of a moralist exploitation film. It thrives off of a gritty, absurdly cliche rendering of a deep South filled with Bible thumpers, Tennessee Williams spitfire arguments, and hot hot heat. It's a tad misogynist, yes, but the film is saved as much by the comic energy of its characters (portrayed with fervor by Christina Ricci and Samuel L. Jackson) as it is the frank boldness of its endeavors. There ain't any other films quite like this that manage to transform something this insulting into something so entertaining. It's trashy and ridiculous, but it works...and in 2006, it was a wholly original breath of cinematic fresh air with a steady rhythm and pulp feel that stripped it of its raunchiness and revealed something uncomfortably close to charming.
11. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004): I know you think it sucks. I know you think it's lame. It's nonsense. A piece of celluloid candy floss with some cardboard green screen acting and overdone special effects. Yet, i can't help but love it for its complete lack of pretension. Sky Captain is a throwback to the adventure films of the 1930's filled with newspaper men, trench coats, aviators and feuding leads who deal in wry puns. In another time, it would have qualified as an instant classic and we would have clung to its cheesiness as a part of the package, now it's simply too guileless to seem at all credible. That's the beauty of it, that it is an idealized science-fiction fantasy of another era that does not cater to anything other than a childlike sense of wonder.
12. Julia (2008): Julia is a sprawling, twisted tale of intrigue and alcoholism starring the one and only Tilda Swinton in a remarkably transcendent performance. Swinton plays the titular character, a morally decrepit woman who drifts from night to night under the influence and who finds herself wrapped up in a kidnapping and extortion scheme proposed by her desperate neighbor (Kate del Castillo). The story progresses with a believably boozy logic, jumping with the illogical progression and dangerous recklessness of someone with nothing much to lose. Julia is an engrossing film that dazzles even as it appalls, and is the perfect point of argument for proving that Swinton is being underused (to the extreme) in her high-profile Hollywood roles. This is a little film with an epic scope, and one that's accessible and accolade worthy. I have no idea why it didn't receive a wide theatrical release. Seriously. I could rave for hours about Tilda Swinton's iconoclastic acting skills and how much i basically adore her, but i suggest you watch for yourself
13. Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (2006): Just one of Nicole Kidman's strange little indie turns between high profile roles, this one sat between Bewitched and The Invasion as an example of Kidman overload. The film itself, though, is in actuality something of an enigma. Director Steven Shainberg (Secretary) dismisses the facts surrounding photographer Diane Arbus's real life and manufactures an existence that feels like the work she produced instead of what was happening behind the lens. The result is a haunting and magnetic glimpse into a richly textured world. I applaud it for its endeavors. In her art, Arbus sought to capture a freakish other-side of humanity, her real-life may not be reflected in Shainberg's interpretation, but her spirit is. Facts be damned, this is how you do an artist's biopic.
14. Speed Racer (2008): With Speed Racer, the Wachowski Brothers went the route less traveled, instead of revamping a childhood favorite into something of substance, they merely polished up the old product so it sparkled. You might not respect the old animation, you may even have been disappointed that the live action version wasn't transformed into a franchise endeavor, but the Wachowski's built their homage carefully and executed it beautifully. Speed Racer is a seriously underrated movie for children. That's really the key. It's kid-friendly in humor and appearance and not the movie one has come to expect from Hollywood actioners like the Wachowski's. The film is a living cartoon that subscribes to the family values and bright, poppy action of its source material. As such, it's a remarkable achievement that is exciting and a delight to behold.
15. Tropic Thunder (2008): In many ways, this doesn't qualify as underrated or overlooked at all. Many people saw it. It was rather hyped. It received strange award nominations and critical acclaim. Yet, in the real world, most people i've met harbor a general ill-will towards this film that i can't quite figure out. I'm with the established critics on this one, Tropic Thunder is a fantastic satire that deftly attacks war as Hollywood commodity. It spares no expense as it travels to meet its goals. Brutal violence, really risky segues into discussions on race, mental handicap, and homosexuality, gross sight gags involving a heavily made-up Tom Cruise. You're thinking as you're laughing. You might merely be thinking 'this is wrong', and it is, you're right, but it's so wrong it's right and that's the mark of a solid comedy. The laughter is a nervous one, the situations awkward at best, the film as smart as it is sophomoric, but when you add the pieces together they create something that's really quite valid.