Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Fifteen Fave American Films From the Past Seven Years

Terry Teachout has an intriguing list, which seems to be in "article-steeping" mode. Here are his fifteen (correction: 20 runners-up - thanks, FCB):

About Schmidt(!)
Being John Malkovich
The Cooler(!)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind(!)
Garden State
The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou(x)
Lilo & Stitch(!)
The Limey(!)
Lovely and Amazing(x)
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World(!)
Me and You and Everyone We Know(x)
The Secret Lives of Dentists(x)
Sunshine State
The Tao of Steve
The Whole Nine Yards(x)
Three Kings

"x" means, "I haven't seen this." "!" means, "Amen, brother!" I'm tempted to comment on all the ones I've seen, but I don't have the time. Instead, I'll focus on two I think are particularly noteworthy, and add a third title no-one seems to have seen.

1. Lilo & Stitch. This title keeps making appearances on this blog, for a couple of reasons: 1) my girls love it, 2) I love it even more than they do. This title alone should have prompted Disney to keep investing in cel-animation - or at the very least, in compassionate story-telling that bucks against the trends.

The overarching trend in North American children's entertainment is Smart-Ass Kids With Dumb-Ass Parents. It's entirely loathsome, and suggests at least two depressing undercurrents: the adults producing this crap feel terrific guilt over the rearing of their children; these same adults are frightened of the future and are hoping desperately that their children will bail them out of the messes they've created.

The Lilo character plays off this trend with some intelligence and insight. She's got attitude and smarts to spare, but the movie makes it clear that this is a line of defence she's adopted to deal with the immeasurable grief of losing both her parents. When the movie opens, this defence is developing fissures that are certain to lead to disaster, and the rest of the movie is a race against time and against her desperate, self-defeating impulses. This is a lovely, absorbing, funny and moving film.

2. The Cooler. I loved this film, and if you can buy into the early premise that there is actually something about the William H. Macy character that brings bad luck to the casino tables, then I expect you will love it, too.

3. If you wanted to like The Cooler, but hesitated to "buy in", you should go out and rent Diamond Men. I can't think of another movie from the last seven years that steadily builds effective drama out of a man's line of work - in this case, a travelling diamond vendor. In fact, prior to Diamond Men, the most recent example to come to mind is Save The Tiger, from 1973. If there's another example or two that fits between the extremes of this time-frame, let me know.

Robert Forster did this movie shortly after what should have been another Tarantino "breakout" role (a la John Travolta) in Jackie Brown. Forster was justly praised for his nuanced performance in Jackie Brown, and did what he could to ride that wave with his follow-up as "Eddie" in Diamond Men. Eddie is a plum role for this man, and Forster patiently paints the picture of a man who has learned the values of caution, fidelity, and respect for others. In short, Eddie possesses actual wisdom, and needs to impart a great deal of it to his new upstart partner. As life throws a few nasty curves his way, Eddie learns to cautiously indulge in a little risk-taking with love and with life.

Diamond Men, like Save The Tiger before it, has its imperfections. But like Save The Tiger its approach to real people and real work is so articulate and rare, it earns and rewards our attention with a deep emotional resonance.

Forster gives his thoughts on Diamond Men here.


F.C. Bearded said...

Most intriguing because it is his runner-up list. A worthy engagement might be to predict Teachout's Top Ten, perhaps?

In any event, I was surprised that I have not yet seen fully nine of these movies, although two or three are sitting wrapped in DVD cellophane, waiting for a suitable evening.

Of those we have both seen, I'd swap (!) and ( ) between "Being John Malkovich" and "Magnolia". The former I loved, the latter I detested. Might "Boogie Nights" have a place in Teachout's heart, I wonder?

Absolutely agree that The Cooler is a wonderful movie, one that I've watched several times now. I do believe there are such people - I do now, at least.

Whisky Prajer said...

"Runner-up"?! Oh my - hadn't noticed that! Given how he touched on so many of my unassailable favourites, I'd be hard-pressed to name ten more.

re: "Being John Malkovich" and "Magnolia" - I haven't seen the latter since I saw it in the theatre. I saw BJM in the theatre, too, and thought the set-up was an exhilarating hoot. Not so, the pay-off - unlike "Eternal Sunshine", which gets an "!" from me.

As for "Magnolia", what I remember of it are one or two especially stunning moments. The scene where Philip Hoffman pleads with a 1-900 operator to let him link up with sleaze-boss Tom Cruise was one such moment. "You know those scenes in movies where...?" Such cheeky self-awareness! It's the equivalent of a magician (Penn Gillette?) saying, "For my next trick, I'll pull a rabbit from my hat. And here's how I'll do it." He does it, exactly like he said he would, yet something's happened that still catches us by surprise. (At least, it did me.)

DarkoV said...

Never heard of Diamond Men, thanks for the Netflix suggestion.

The Cooler was quite enjoyable..with the exception of the ending. A surprise, yes..but not in tone with the regular movie. That's why the bonus endings of the DVD were enjoyable as one seemed to fit the film in a better way. (Similar thing hit me with 28 Days, alternate endings on DVD were better) I'm all for deus ex machina, on occassion. But if a chaaracter is going downhill fast and nothing will stop him/her, then the natural conclusion is their demise.

I liked Secret Lives of Dentists and that mainly becasue of Scott Campbell. The wife, ever-loving that she is, can't stand Steve Buscemi, the creepiest guy in films these days, well at least according to her. By my judgement, it's Mr. Campbell. If you've seen Roger Dodger and ..Dentists, you'll know what I mean. He seems normal, but something just isn't right about him.

Being John Malkovich, as you said Mr. WP, is a hoot. And almost (emphasis on almost) anything with John Cusack is a hoot. (On the the other hand, everything with his sister, Joan, is a hoot and worth watching just to see her).

I'm surprised he TT has Garden State listed, so I'm assuming one of his top ten will include another Jersey-based film, The Station Agent. American Beauty made in 1999 will probably end up on the list as well, along with Memento.

Thanks for posting this bit!

F.C. Bearded said...

The Station Agent! That's one I'd forgotten - ever-present problem with lists of favorites.

"Dentists" is one of those waiting to be viewed.

I figure my top ten - let me not prejudge the man himself - might include "Rushmore", "There's Something About Mary", "In America", and "O Brother, Where Art Thou?". Oh - and mibbe "Kill Bill Vol. 1".

I have a list of others but it's Mine, I tell you! Mine!

Whisky Prajer said...

I'm of the impression TT didn't think much of American Beauty, but I'd definitely put money on The Station Agent and In America. O Brother seems to divide people - since I'm one of those who will never tire of it, I'm probably not good to comment on it. And KB1 literally put me to sleep - in the theatre, no less.

"Seven years" is a strange number to settle on. It's throwing me off a bit.

Whisky Prajer said...

DV - I'll side with you on the "creepiness" assessment. Campbell has Buscemi beat. But while I considered Buscemi, a couple of titles occurred to me: Terry Zwigoff's Ghost World and the fabulously shlumpy American Splendour - doncha think?

F.C. Bearded said...

I'd thought of Ghost World, but American Splendor was another I'd forgotten.

Both my wife and myself are big Buscemi and Campbell Scott fans.

Seven Years is curiously perfect for me - all I have to ask myself is "did I see it here?" I'd include "Big Lebowski" for that reason, except I watched it on the plane back to Scotland one time in May '98, so it probably does not count?

Dang, but I loved Splendor. And O Brother is huge amongst all of our kids too. As for KB1, it took me entirely by surprise. I did not expect to like it, I did not want to like it, but I was absolutely hooked.

DarkoV said...

WP: "Ghost World"!? How could I've forgotten that one? A noble addition. "Oh, Brother.." must absolutely be on the list; if you can watch a movie 4-5 times AND still enjoy it and see something else in the movie, it qualifies as a gem.

"American Splendor". Hmm. I liked it, not loved it. Harvey Pekar's wife used to own and run a comic book store right here in Delaware. In fact, she was previously married to an acquaintance at the radio station I dj/putz around at on weekends. She was, by his description and some other friends' opinion, a real B-queen. So, watching the movie, marvelous as Giametti's performance was, left me cringing a bit. A close friend who knew Pekar's wife, Joyce Brabner, simply said, regarding Hope Davis' portrayal, "She's just not that nice!" I've been a Pekar fan since the early 80's and I was really looking forward to this movie. If there was only a way to cut out Hope Davis' character....

So, I'll agree with you and with FCB on this movie, since both of your viewings were not tainted by six degrees of seperation.

Can I add one more? (Yes, you can Darko!)
Ronin was made in 1998, so it's within the 7 year rule. Robert DeNiro, Jean Reno, Stellan Skarsgard, Jonathan Pryce, and some of the best driving sequences in the last 20 years. It's a guilty pleasure, but I slip in the DVD at least once every few months. That and Lock, Stock, & Two Smoking Barrels. But that's a Brit film, so it can't be included in this list.

Whisky Prajer said...

Ha! I liked Ronin, too, but my all-time favorite "guy" movie is Heat. Unfortunately, it falls well-outside the seven-year limit (1995).

Alan Kellogg said...

Lilo and Stitch

Don't forget her sister. Overwhelmed, 'bout to lose it, barely making it through each day. But she keeps pluggin on because it's the right thing to do.

Then, right in the middle of things, comes a little blue anarchist created by a mad scientist who's a couple sandwiches short of a picnic.

And when Stitch got hit by that tractor -trailer rig ...

Ultimately Lilo and Stitch was about redemption. The saving of souls. Not just the soul of a creature made for destruction, but the souls of those who take him in, and the one who made him. You get right down to it, Lilo and Stitch succeeded because it had layers. Because it spoke to people.