Half Nelson (2006)
Director: Ryan Fleck
Writer: Fleck, Anna Boden
Actors: Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps, Anthony Mackie
My wife and I saw Half Nelson on our honeymoon. Yeah, not a romantic movie. What I loved is the totally unconventional plot, plot devices, character relationships. It takes the hip and quirky set-up of a lot of mid-00s dramedies and turns it on its head. Yeah, he’s a cool young teacher with a 5-day beard, wearing short sleeve shirts and coaching basketball and generally living life funky and on the edge. But it’s also about a decent guy who wants to do good and is trying to change, and it takes the whole movie before he’s even able to get the slightest upward momentum. And it goes deep. There’s a scene in which Dan’s student, the one with whom he’s been trying to connect, shows up to sell him some crack. It’s hard to imagine a darker moment for either character, or for a viewer who’s been been waiting for things to get better.
Director: Phil Morrison
Writer: Angus MacLachlan
Actors: Embeth Davidtz, Will Oldham, Amy Adams, Alessandro Nivola
This cavalcade of tiny, touching moments is rent wide open by Amy Adams in a wide-eyed optimist of a role she won’t best for another 10 years. It’s in it’s way a movie about a search for authenticity, and director Phil Morrison has managed to fill it top to bottom with authentic performances of human beings living through trying times in their small lives. There’s sadness in the singing.
9. Requiem for a Dream (2000)
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Writer: Aronofsky, Hubert Selby Jr.
Actors: Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly, Marlon Wayans, Christopher McDonald
This is at the top of the list of fantastic movies I don’t ever want to see again. Aronofsky is, quite simply, a genius, and this is one of those blessed circumstances in which a guy at the top of his game gets a little money to play with, and some great actors and technicians willing to execute his desperate, glitchy vision. It’s harrowing to say the least, and to tell the truth I do occasionally pop in the DVD and watch the first 40 minutes or so. But once the title card that says “Winter” shows-up, I run for the hills. It’s too terrifying and too real. There but for the grace of God, as they say.
8. I’m Not There (2007)
Director/Writer: Todd Haynes
Actors: Cate Blanchett, Ben Whishaw, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Richard Gere, Marcus Carl Franklin, Julianne Moore, Charlotte Gainsbourg, David Cross
True, this movie is worth it for the soundtrack alone, but there’s so much more credit to give Mr. Haynes, for managing to capture the manic glory of both Dylan the man, and Dylan the man’s body of work. So, yes, the movie is kind of hard to follow, and you have to be ready to hold in your mind several ideas that all contradict each other at once. But that’s art, baby! It’s messy! And that’s Bob Dylan, man! He’s a mess! As much as that though, this film is just as much about the performances, and it’s a crime that Cate Blanchett didn’t get more recognition. She’s the most Dylan-esque of all of ’em, and it’s not hard to imagine her and Todd Haynes giggling about that. Oh, and David Cross as Allen Ginsberg? Y-E-S.
7. The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) (2006)
Director/Writer: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Actors: Ulrich Mühe, Ulrich Tukur, Sebastian Koch, Martina Gedeck
It’s true I have a thing for Eastern Bloc countries, and spend countless hours trying to imagine what it must have been like. This movie does a better job a demonstrating it than any other. Rather then attempting the historic sweep that’s so tempting in evaluating the Cold War era, this movie sticks to a handful of lives and the ways in which the atmospheric pressure of the times turns them against each other, implicating and condemning even those who try to stay out of it. Miraculously, the movie avoids putting a simple villain at the heart of it, instead finding a conceivably good man, and putting him in a bad way. I know a person who actually lived at these cross-roads, and no one short of Soltzhenitsyn has better captured what it must have been like to be there, on the ground, day after day. Yes, I just dropped the big, red S. It’s that good.
6. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Director: Michel Gondry
Writers: Gondry, Charlie Kaufman, Pierre Bismuth
Actors: Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Elijah Wood, Mark Ruffalo, David Cross, Kirsten Dunst, Tom Wilkinson
You can imagine how I feel about Charlie Kaufman. He’s always worth viewing. And Gondry is a guy committed to finding new ways of doing things even in an era of movie-making that releases directors almost completely from the obligations of the imagination. Yet there these two are, making film experiences that bend reality, sans digital effects, and finding a way to root it all in a pair of broken hearts. A lonely night with the DVD player doesn’t get much better than this.