And we come to the end of another decade, this time the first of a millennium. 2000 to 2009 was a splotchy era for film, following one of the strongest years of the previous decade, and probably all time – 1999. Film writers of the professional and blogging varieties have been wrapping up the best and worst of the decade over the last few weeks, and I for one find it all very interesting. The problem is it’s hard not to agree with the vast majority of these lists beyond technical specs like descending order. My first impulse was to follow suit, but what’s the point? Does anyone really care that I love Oldboy, No Country for Old Men, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, or that I hated The Love Guru? Of course not*. My second though was to suggest some of the decade’s underrated gems, but then I realized what site I was posting on, and that I’m simply not clever enough to pull such a list off (though I have some recommendations, like every other manic film fan in the world – ask at your own risk).
So this brings us to my final impulse, and the one I’m going to pursue – the loveable films the bulk of fandom considers the dregs of the decade. I find that the films we love despite ourselves are often the most interesting in defining our taste. I don’t like to call such films ‘guilty pleasures’ because, as a horror fan specifically, I don’t really believe in feeling guilt over genuine affection, even if the opinion is wildly unpopular. This isn’t really a matter of championing films that are unfairly shit upon, to the contrary, I find the bile spewed upon these selections mostly fair and balanced, and am only really troubled by the more damning indifference. Almost every one of these films is a practice of style over substance. As I’ve aged from 19 to 29, and likely have seen well over 1000 films over the last 10 years (I’m guessing closer to 2000), I’ve developed a greater interest in originality and story, but for most intents and purposes these films represent a handful of visual marvels that still titillate despite their obvious shortcomings. Based on what I’ve been able to glean concerning the general tastes of this website’s readers I’m removing a few choices I’d include for the ‘normals’, like Ang Lee’s Hulk and George Romero’s Land of the Dead, both of which seem to have developed a relatively positive reputation ‘round these parts.
Freddy vs. Jason (2003)
I own all the Nightmare on Elm Street films, and most of the Friday the 13th films as well, but I don’t consider myself a die-hard devotee to either series. The idea of mixing the two slasher icons seemed like a no-brainer (mixing and matching horror icons has been a movie mainstay for generations), and largely the kind of thing no one could possibly mess up. Apparently a lot of fans were unhappy, whereas I was pleasantly surprised by the final product. Freddy vs. Jason is far from the best film in either series, but it’s more entertaining than the bulk of either series, and hiring Bride with White Hair director Ronny Yu to helm the project was kind of a master stroke on New Line’s part. The film is every bit as silly as we should expect from such a pairing, slathered in garish lighting schemes and bright red blood.
What the haters can’t deny: Yu direction is delightfully imaginative, and captures the oddball dream logic of Freddy Kruger’s powers like few other films in the Nightmare on Elm Street series. The scene in which Kruger finally gains the upper hand over Jason and delves into the mongoloid killer’s mind is practically inspired. The script, though weak concerning dialogue, and a little unfocused overall, features a solid story. I can’t think of any better way to bring the two universes together. Any effort is naturally convoluted.
What is inarguably awful: The film’s biggest problems are its unlikable characters. Though there’s something to be said for rooting in favor of a slasher film’s killer, but there’s also something to be said for protagonists with an iota of real character. The comedy is also pretty hard to defend, especially Freddy’s one liners, but this is largely made up for thanks to a few genuinely amusing physical gags. Some viewers also despise the over-the-top wire-fu stuff integrated into the final battle. Though I find the last act plenty amusing, I can’t really logically defend it either.
From Hell (2001)
There is no doubt that the Hughes Brothers’ version of the Jack the Ripper legend doesn’t hold a candle to Alan Moore’s layered, long, and genuinely disturbing graphic novel, but source material shouldn’t be the only means of criticism. Truth be told that of all the films on this list From Hell is the one I find it most difficult to defend, but I still think it got a bum rap mostly out of its impossible expectations – a seminal source, two young, directors with a lot to prove, and Johnny Depp at the top of his game. The final script is a Cliff’s Notes version of the real story with a shoehorned love story, but the film is visually marvelous, and the director’s technical obsessions really shine.
What the haters can’t deny: Despite apparent studio influence, and changing up their actor choice for Jack at the last minute, the Hughes Brothers find interesting ways to visually tell a very tired story. The film’s filth dripping art direction is to rich to entirely ignore, the murder scenes handily recall the best Argento, and despite the script’s shortcomings there is a historical authenticity to the whole film, at least in a tactile faculty. The plot also manages to holds some basic intrigue, even if it is a shadow of Moore’s original story, or even the historical facts. Also, spoiler, Ian Holm is Jack the Ripper. I love that.
What is inarguably awful: The changes to the story are mostly cosmetic and for reasons of length, but the shoehorned love story, and changes made to the characters of Abberline and Mary Kelly are pretty inexcusable. From Hell could’ve been a great movie, and it’s not, which is the hardest fact to overlook. The DVD extras are still pretty fantastic, including a reasonably pissed off commentary from the directors, and two wildly differing documentaries on the real Jack the Ripper.
As a follow up to Silence of the Lambs and Gladiator, Hannibal is a clear disappointment, but as a vicious piece of studio exploitation few films are its match. In critically dissecting the film we really must consider the source material, which is by all accounts dreadful. There was nowhere to go but up from there, and clearly Ridley Scott and his newfound love of high contrast film was the man for the job. Hannibal scores most of its points for Scott’s style, and it’s ridiculously graphic gore. Few blockbusters have this vigor and these testicles, and fewer still were made by an elderly man just having fun with the subject matter. Can you count any other time you’ve witnessed a giant boar eat an evil, handicapped man face first? No? That’s because Hannibal, in all its lovably lurid glory, is not like anything else in tent pole movie history. It’s a comedy in the guise of a popular thriller, that at the very least features a handful of memorable sequences, which is what most horror aficionados have learned to live for, and is a lot more than can be said for the utterly lifeless Red Dragon. The less said about Hannibal Rising the better.
What the haters can’t deny: Hannibal is a fantastic looking film, one that truly earns a spot in Scott’s pantheon of form over function features. Viewers adverse to the film’s extreme gore, must admit the excess of gothic atmosphere is at least somewhat affecting. Gary Oldman’s performance as Lecter’s nemesis Mason Verger is also inarguably enjoyable, and though Anthony Hopkins’ performance does devolve into parody, I find it hard to believe that anyone with a sense of humor didn’t get any enjoyment out of Lecter’s sardonic wit.
What is inarguably awful: The script is kind of a mess of meandering character impulses and violent set pieces (not unlike Hannibal Rising). Despite being a great actress in her own right, Julianne Moore’s version of Clarice Starling is sadly weak-willed for the most part, and Ray Liotta is almost entirely wasted as an utter cliché.
Hostel Part 2 (2007)
Eli Roth has shown enormous growth from film to film. The technical leaps from Cabin Fever to Hostel Part 2 are easily comparable to Peter Jackson’s growth over a similar period, though with the advantage of guidance from the likes of Quentin Tarantino. The anger with which the geek community has treated the director is something I find somewhat dumbfounding, and I genuinely hope that his new found celebrity (thanks to his performance in QT’s Inglorious Basterds) serves him well in the coming years. I also hope this growth continues, and that he follows through on his action movie ambitions.
Concerning Hostel 2 specifically, I find that most of the people that claim to hate the film haven’t actually seen it, and assume it’s just a replay of the first film. Hostel was a bit of a disappointment that couldn’t quite make it above the very basic subtext of its concept. Roth cleverly aped the tone of Takashi Miike’s slow burn masterpiece Audition, but failed to achieve the same harrowing effect. In the end the film was like any good Old Wives Tale – light on narrative intrigue, heavy on bawdy side effects. Hostel 2, on the other hand, features several layers of story and character, some a bit predictable, but none of it as simplified as that found in the first film, or Cabin Fever for that matter. Hostel 2 is rich with in-film mythology, and is one of the only horror sequels in recent years to really develop the story presented by the first film (Rob Zombie’s Devil’s Rejects being an arguable exception). Roth’s imagery is beautiful, his (apparently QT assisted) dialogue sharp and sparse, the performances are top notch, and the film has an adult-minded political core that cannot be ignored.
What the haters can’t deny: Again, Roth’s technical improvements from Hostel to this film are shattering, and his visuals are occasionally breathtaking. The party scene, and all its baroque glory is an obvious example, as is the scene were businessmen Todd and Stewart prepare for slaughter in slow motion, to mournful choral music. Roth doesn’t follow the Miike template here, opting instead for a more even-handed deliberate pacing, and his gore is more personal this time around. Richard Bart and Lauren German’s turn-on-a-dime performances are also quite impressive. And there’s a Ruggero Deodato cameo.
What is undoubtedly awful: Honestly? Nothing. I really think Hostel Part 2 will work its way into forgotten gem status in the next decade.
Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)
Does anyone here realize how hard it is to be a Star Wars fan with an otherwise relatively ‘refined’ taste in film? It’s like admitting you enjoy partaking in pedophilia with AIDS stricken children, after eating their souls to prevent their passage into heaven. People that once respected you will do a complete 180, and suddenly nothing you say about anything else is valid ever again to their painfully pricked ears. It would be so easy to pretend I outgrew the original films, and even easier to pretend I hated the prequel trilogy, but I don’t want to lie to you people – I genuinely enjoy all of these films, and the animated spin-off show they spawned. The Phantom Menace doesn’t really thrill me beyond a few set pieces, and I admit that the love story angle of Attack of the Clones is kind of one of the worst things ever, but I really and truly have the same affection for Revenge of the Sith that I do for a great number of ‘real’ movies from the decade. If I had made a Top 100 list it would’ve made the cut.
Why do I enjoy this oft-mocked mish-mash of hackneyed clichés, wooden dialogue, and cartoonish digital effects? The short story is because it’s such an opera. It’s the most operatic thing I’ve ever seen in the realms of sci-fi, even soft-sci-fi/fantasty (though clearly Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films hold more sway in the realms of more straight fantasy). I watch the film and I feel that, a few garbled interaction aside, this is what I expected out of the director of American Graffiti and THX 1138 – sweeping broad strokes defined by eons of storytelling, nearly abstract color and light play, and the most attention demanding musical score in the filmmaker’s cannon. From its first scene of two small fighters dancing pirouettes among the epic destruction of the battle of Curoscant, to the final battle of two Jedi warriors twirling their lightsabers with the rhythmic vigor of dueling Barishnikovs, Revenge of the Sith is a practical celebration of a time when entertainment was all about big, brash emotions, defined by music and a larger than life, stylistically maddening stage. Why does Darth Vader scream ‘no’ to the heavens? Because that’s what Placido Domingo would do. This isn’t real life, this is Star Wars, a Baroque galaxy of hobnail boot tone poems far, far away.
What the haters can’t deny: Besides John Williams’ truly fantastic score, easily the composers best this decade, I can’t understand anyone not being transfixed by Ian McDiarmid scenery chomping performance and Emperor Palpatine. The scenes of the Sith Lord tempting Anakin with the promise of the Dark Side transcend the less than incredible abilities of Lucas as a dialogue writer, and his eventual embracement of teeth gnashing evil is positively orgasmic. Ewan McGregor also manages to delve deeper than the provided text, creating a lot of the last act’s genuine tragedy, especially his cry of ‘You were my brother!’, which I admit brought a pretty big lump to my throat.
I tend to think the ‘Order 66’ scene is a gloriously restrained mix of rousing effects, and Williams’ best theme since the Duel of Fates, but I’ve been assured that only I find the scene at all moving.
What is undoubtedly awful: Besides the obviously wooden line reads, corrosive dialogue, and occasionally flimsy special effects, I find that General Grievous is a very problematic character. Perhaps it’s the Christopher Lee lover in me, but there would’ve been a much bigger dramatic pay off had Count Dukoo been given a longer run in the film. I’ve personally grown used to some of the less effective performances, but have to admit that Hayden Christiansen leaves a lot to be desired, even if the larger problems appear to be the fault of the director. I’ll also never understand why Yoda doesn’t fight Palpatine to the death, or why Padme had to die from a loss of will, and not a crushed trachea. You know what? You guys are right, let’s burn down Lucas’ house!!!
*And to prove how boring such a thing would be, here’s my top 50 of the decade in alphabetical order.
1. Almost Famous
2. American Psycho
3. Battle Royale
4. Capturing the Friedmans
5. Casino Royale
6. Chicken Run
7. Children of Men
9. City of God
10. El Crimen Ferpecto (The Ferpect Crime)
11. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
12. Drag Me to Hell
13. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
14. Final Destination 2
15. Finding Nemo
16. The Fountain
17. Ghost World
18. Happiness of the Katakuris
19. The Host
20. Hot Fuzz
21. Ichi the Killer
22. The Incredibles
23. Inglourious Basterds
24. Kill Bill 1 and 2
25. Lady Vengeance (Sympathy for Lady Vengeance)
26. Land of the Dead
27. Let the Right One In
28. The Lord of the Rings
29. Minority Report
30. The Mist
32. Night Watch/Day Watch
33. No Country for Old Men
35. Pan’s Labyrinth
37. Requiem for a Dream
38. The Royal Tenenbaums
39. Save the Green Planet
40. Shaolin Soccer
41. Shaun of the Dead
42. Spider-Man 1 and 2
43. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
44. Spirited Away
45. A Tale of Two Sisters
46. There Will Be Blood.
47. Wall-E (maybe Up…I don’t want every Pixar movie in here…)
48. Wonder Boys
49. X-Men 2