Top Fifty Films of the 00s — Number One

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#1 — No Country For Old Men (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 2007)
After all the words I’ve tapped out in the name of this ongoing project, this public exercise in grappling with the films that have meant the most to me, spoke to me most truly and forcefully these past ten years, it’s strangely difficult to come to the title at the top of the list. All the explanations and opinions and justifications of the previous forty-nine essays are, in some ways, just a precursor to this. Such is the imposing stress of that slender digit, that number one. To anoint this the greatest, the best, the favorite, or whatever near synonymous term you choose, of the past ten years begs a daunting question. What do I love about No Country For Old Men?

It starts with the story itself, adapted faithfully from Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel, a page-turner so terse that it could have been handed out on the set in the event that the scripts went missing. Set in a desolate corner of Texas in 1980, the story involves a leather-tough, laconic Vietnam veteran named Llewelyn Moss who stumbles upon the site of a drug deal gone bad in the desert. He finds bullet-riddled trucks, a few corpses and a satchel stuffed with money, the last of which he gladly claims for himself. He also finds a victim on his way to dying but not quite there yet, which haunts him and sends him back to the crime scene in the middle of the night to deliver some water to soothe the man’s suffering. It’s an act of kindness that brings all manner of mayhem down upon him, a storm led by the seemingly unstoppable man-hunter named Anton Chigurh.

That role is played by Javier Bardem, who does nothing short of delivering a performance that is instantly iconic. From the moment he arrives on screen, you simply know that this is the stuff of movie legend, the sort of performance that you’ll be watching in clip packages of cinematic greatness for as long as such diversions exist. He commands the screen with an almost inhuman menace, a piercing intelligence and a grinding impatience for those who bore him with their weakness and ineptitude, a population that comprises just about everyone. He lives by his own set of rules and warped sense of honor. No threat is idle, no comment offhand. Anything he says he’ll do is a rock-solid pledge which can only be undone by fate itself. It’s a great character to begin with, and Bardem embodies the role. Underneath a bad haircut and behind alert eyes that serve as a window to a dangerous electricity sparking in his brain, he embodies this man that is pure force. After watching the performance it’s tempting to try it out, to roll “friendo” off the tongue like he does, just to see if you can taste the genius of it.

It’s so good and so dominating that it’s easy to lose sight of how much great acting is contained within the film. Josh Brolin is revelatory as Llewelyn, taking a role that’s highly internalized, built off of short, sharp one-liners as much as anything else, and signaling the reservoirs within the man. You get a sense of the decency that sends him back to a place he knows is dangerous, and the weakness that will be his eventual undoing. Kelly Madonald plays his wife Carla Jean with a tremulous concern, a preemptive exhaustion at the trouble that looms and a welling certainty that there’s no way out of the mess that’ll get here. Tommy Lee Jones plays a lawman investigating the case, watching the problems unfold from a step or two behind the action, and slowly, surely buckling under the weight of a world that changing in ways that he just can’t fathom. Decency is slipping away, and increasingly feels helpless, unable to do much more than slowly shake his head at the awfulness of it all. Though the parts are briefer, there’s equally strong work further down the cast list, including Woody Harrelson as a droll bounty hunter who tried to warn Llewelyn about the full extent of Chigurh’s formidable power, and Garret Dillahunt as a deputy working with Jones’s sheriff, bringing an amusing untainted eagerness to his investigative efforts. Out of all the great moments in No Country For Old Men, few delight me quite as much as Dillahunt riding his horse around the detritus of the drug deal gone bad and verbally speculating about how the conflict escalating with the simple and perfect phrase, “And then, whoa…differences…”

There’s a lot of praise to be doled out for the film, but the litany of great contributors must begin and end with the names Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. They’ve presided over a long list of exceptional films, but there’s something especially gratifying about their efforts on this one, perhaps because of the happy schism of seeing the men who’ve made their reputation largely on inspired excess craft of a film that is a model of shrewd discipline. Clearly responding to the restraint of McCarthy’s original work, the Coens deliver their leanest, tightest film since their debut, Blood Simple. McCarthy undoubtedly gave them great material to work with, but it was up to them to shape it into a movie with its own energy, its own identity, a task that’s more difficult than it might seem, as evidenced by the massive number of great books, including those penned by McCarthy, that have been transformed into mediocre films. The Coens largely achieve this through focusing on the most important, and yet often neglected or woefully under-realized, responsibility of a filmmaker: telling the story visually. Whether it’s a silhouette of a truck on a distant hillside or the chilling shadows creeping in from the crack beneath a closed door, the Coens continually find clean, novel ways to convey the most important information in the film. They don’t feel the need to explain everything directly, but the intricacies of the film should only be a mystery to those who aren’t really paying attention, or at least those who have been so decisively driven away from the beautiful vernacular of cinematic narrative by brain-dead, bludgeoning spectacles that excuse their shortcoming in the name of entertainment that they can no longer recognize the craftsmanship of true masters.

So what do I love about No Country For Old Men? That’s easy.

Everything.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

Top Fifty Films of the 00s — Number Two

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#2 — Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006)
“Every edit is a lie.” That assertion is famously credited to filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard. I referenced that the first time I wrote about Children on Men, but I can’t resist returning to it. The most famous portions of Alfonso Cuaron’s film, the sequences that even those who don’t quite understand the devotion other movie-lovers feel for it, involve extended single takes of intricate action set pieces. The camera doesn’t blink as the passengers in car traveling down a rural road are suddenly halted by a flaming vehicle that careens into their path and then accosted by raging subversives pouring out of the woods. It’s similarly unflinching as a man scuttles furiously through ravaged city streets that has been transformed into a war zone, hunkering behind urban debris and racing from point to point as bullets fly and bombs explode. This isn’t just an instance of stunt filmmaking, a cheeky but empty display of directorial cleverness. Cuaron’s choice is purposeful, placing us directly within these fraught situations, heightening the tension by denying us the soothing safety of an edit, a reminder through the most commonplace tool of cinema that was are simply watching a movie. Instead, Cuaron wants us to feel every harrowing moment of being in that car, fully comprehend the difficulty of crossing that battle-battered street, and, when he employs the technique in a quieter moment, the way past heartbreak can reach out and enfold a person anew when they overhear a certain conversation in the next room. In every instance, these scenes are marvels of construction. Cuaron is not merely flinging his camera around, counting our comfort with documentary-styled verite to compensate for artlessness. The images are carefully considered, the camera capturing what it needs to when it needs to. Cuaron mimics the urgency and unpredictability of life, but never abdicates the responsibilities of cinematic storytelling.

He’s got quite a story to tell, after all, and vitally important points to make. Children of Men is adapted, reportedly rather loosely, from a P.D. James novel. Multiple screenwriters are credited, but Cuaron insists that the finished version is entirely the handiwork of himself, Timothy J. Sexton and, though uncredited, star Clive Owen. Set approximately two decades in the future, the film posits a world that’s developed in the wake of unexplained global infertility. There are no children. At the film’s beginning, news reports announce the death of “the world’s youngest person,” an eighteen-year-old male. This context shades the ugly fraying of society itself. England is a dystopian police state where immigrants are thrown into cages like brutalized cattle, and billboards demanding compliance are everywhere. It is a culture helplessly eroding away, by definition operating under a deadline. With no pending generations to carry our world forward, humanity is simply circling the drain. This hopelessly permeates the landscape.

And it has left the protagonist, played by Clive Owen, as a member of the walking wounded, dragging his damaged idealism behind him like chunks of unidentifiable metal scraping the roadway from the undercarriage of a clunker that defies expectation every time turning the ignition actually starts it. It’s to Owen’s credit that he remains very true to the place where his character begins. The usual progression in such a film centers around the rediscovery of hope and heroism, but Owen is more subtle than that. Once he encounters a woman who carries within her the first possibility of an actual future for the human race, he steps up as her guardian and her mentor. It’s less than he’s transformed by this experience than he discovers some vestiges of his former self, just enough to carry his charge forward, getting her to a place of safety at the most critical time. He doesn’t emerge from his own personal abyss, but he does look above and see glimmers of light for the first time in a long while, and that itself, thanks largely to Owen’s skillful performance, feels triumphant.

While there is hope interlaced into the story, Cuaron’s vision is bleak, largely because his broken future looks so familiar. The catalyst in the film is an unthinkable, almost fantastic turn of genetic events, but the gray, devastated vistas and social unrest on display feels frightfully close. No matter how it’s reached in the film, it’s all too easy to envision a few dominoes falling the right way in our current unhappy society to lead us to the place on the film, and suddenly watching the screen is a little like looking out the window. It’s the plausibility of it all that makes Cuaron’s picture engrossing. It’s enough to make you want to find your own little household bunker in the woods, like the one that Michael Caine’s aging hippie character resides in, living out your days hiding from the rest of humanity, listening to old rock records and growing fruit-flavored psychoactive herbs by lamplight.

Caine is marvelous in his role, just one of a collection of actors matching Owen’s excellence in the supporting roles. Julianne Moore brings edged intensity as he ex-wife of Owen’s character. She’s one of the leaders of the underground, anti-government movement, and wears the focus and certainty of that role. And as the woman at the center of the film, the one who needs defending and transport, Clare-Hope Ashitey balances the wariness of someone inadvertently drawn into grand, world-changing situations with a welcome pragmatism, the grounded nature of someone who was raised in a place and time where simply being a survivor was the most valued and daring aspiration one could have.

Children of Men is a thrilling twirl of cynicism and hope, inevitable decline and the possibility of building something better. Cuaron manages to acknowledge the worst instincts of people and still hold out some shred of belief that we can collectively rise above it, that we can reach that ship christened Tomorrow and prove ourselves worthy carriers of the great potential lurking deep within our self-destructive species. It’s not a treatise, though. It doesn’t pound drums or delivering ominous warnings with the condescending directness of a self-satisfied lecture. First and foremost it is moving drama, rich with insight and charm, delivered in a master class of realizing the full potential of every technical advantage of modern filmmaking.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)