Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Shutter Island Review

Shutter Island:
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Released in 2010

For five decades now, Martin Scorsese has directed some of the finest films of all time. Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino, and The Departed are his most notable accomplishments, and his influence has affected filmmaking worldwide. Now, in 2010, Scorsese has released his latest triumph, but any evidence of his signature style is nearly stripped. Shutter Island is a psychological thriller in the vain of The Shining or Memento and even has traces of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and Mulholland Drive. The result is a captivating film that will not appeal to the universal audiences Scorsese usually receives but stands as one of his most unique and ambitious accomplishments yet.

Based off the novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane (who has had a lucky streak in Hollywood with this, Gone Baby Gone and Mystic River all getting the silver screen treatment), Shutter Island follows a winding narrative structure that does not resolve until the eye-opening conclusion. The beginning synopsis is not that complicated, however:  Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) is a federal marshal joined by his new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) to investigate the disappearance of an inmate at the ominous Shutter Island, a house for the "criminally insane." Located 11 miles into the Boston harbor, the island is overseen by Dr. Cawley, a composed yet freaky Ben Kingsley. He believes that the patients can be cured through attention and a healthy environment rather than heavy doses of drugs. However, Teddy sees through the smokescreen and suspects something else is up. A doctor with possible ties to the Nazis, played by Max von Sydow of The Exorcist fame, and a downright creepy warden, given that aura by Ted "Buffalo Bill" Levine, set Teddy off to uncover the truth. Telling much more about the story would venture into spoiler territory but, rest assured, this is a film you will want to see twice. 

Set in 1954, the film quickly becomes a psychological-centered tale once Teddy's mind serves as the stage for much of the action. Teddy is prone to migraines and sea-sickness, and usually recalls his experience as a concentration camp liberator in World War II when he is impaired by these ailments. Disturbing flashbacks of heaps of dead bodies, as well as fresh Nazi corpses, haunt his memories. The increasingly hostile weather on the island serves as a huge obstacle on top of this and the gap between reality and imagination unpredictably widens. The scene atop the cliff is particularly memorable for both serving as a branch in the story as well as a showcase for neat film techniques. Freeze frame images and brisk editing give these scenes a nightmarish quality, a technique more akin to Stanley Kubrick than anything Scorsese has done yet. Even if you are familiar with Scorsese's work, his name will probably not come to mind if you view this film without any knowledge of the forces behind it.

Nonetheless, the directing is the force behind perhaps the legendary director's most distinctive work yet. While not a horror film in the sense of Kubrick's Shining, the unnerving atmosphere and grim images certainly cast a tense aura over the entire story. Marty, to my surprise and petty disappointment, does not include any long, tracking shots a la Goodfellas, a technique that was popularized in Kubrick's aforementioned film 30 years ago. He showed his unparalleled mastery at this form in the classic mobster film, and considering those shots naturally draw suspense, an incorporation of the tracking shot into Shutter Island could have been both a nostalgic homage but, more importantly, the making of a classic thriller scene. Alas, this qualm is very minimal as it only applies to idiosyncratic movie buffs like myself, and the directing overall is stellar. Scorsese has always been able to delve deep into the soul of his characters, forming a personal connection between the viewer and the protagonist. He uses this to his advantage here, but also relies on the provocation of the senses to connect to the viewer. Some excellent sound design accompanies the most harrowing scenes, and, to contrast, beautiful picks by Gustav Mahler and Lou Harrison plant the film in its time during the seemingly "normal" sections. The haunting main theme by Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, who, ironically, composed the iconic soundtrack for The Shining, guarantees that the final scene will stick in your head for some time.

The acting is excellent overall, though Leo's performance is getting the most attention. In the beginning he speaks in his imperfect Boston accent, but thankfully his dialect does not remain the focus; his true acting ability does instead. I cannot think of any role that was more complex or nuanced than this one, even including The Aviator, and it may be safe to say that this is his finest achievement yet. He grows convincingly frustrated at the stalemate of an investigation he is presented with, and conveys true loss when needed. Leo is almost never off the screen and, even those who usually dislike his work, will find his presence welcome. Meanwhile, Ben Kingsley does what he does best and chews up the scenery. However, this time around it is more urbane than some of his recent work and he is a menacing delight to behold. One line he speaks (and you will know what is upon hearing it) shocks you like cold water but, you have to admit, you love it. John Carroll Lynch, the lovable husband in Fargo but also the suspected serial killer in Zodiac, is the Deputy Warden and convincing as an arrogant authority figure who does not need much more than his word to get work done. He finds himself, funnily enough, in the middle of those two memorable roles, for this film here. Watchmen's Rorschach, Jackie Earle Haley, shows his intimidating mug for a tense scene that starts shining a light on the whole story. Finally, Michelle Williams, the talented young actress, plays Teddy's wife in many of the flashbacks and hallucinations. She is excellent as the diaphanous figure of a spouse, especially once the difference between those two types of scenes becomes muddled. All the performances together are superb, though Leo's will be the only one that will be particularly remembered.

If there was one problem I had with Shutter Island more than anything, however, it was its marketing campaign. Simply put, the trailers give away a little too much, as the conflict is not established until a considerable amount of time in. This is not the filmmaker's fault, and the delayed release schedule is most likely to blame. The marketing team had to saturate the public with an amount of revealing promos to draw attention, after all. Nevertheless, this con is separate from the film's quality itself. Shutter Island is, like its setting, insular in Scorsese's catalog. He has not done a thriller of this type or caliber before, and, while it still is a strange offering from the master of high-class, yet accessible films, it is a first-rate offering. The story takes you on a ride that dives, loops and corkscrews until the final scene. Your heart races and you need to catch your breath. But, like any great roller coaster, you cannot wait to get on it again.

Final Verdict:
4.5 Stars Out of 5

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Mass Effect 2 Review

Mass Effect 2:
Developed by Bioware
Released in 2010

Now, I love video games more than most but I am usually reluctant to ever publish a comprehensive review of any title. I spend more than the average number of hours with a gamepad or mouse and keyboard in my hands but I still feel that games are miles away from the nuanced art forms that are literature, music and, of course, film. Every so often a few games will come by and challenge this notion: Bioshock, Braid, and Metal Gear Solid 4 are just a few to name. However, the majority of games out there, ones that I appreciate no less, like Modern Warfare 2, are polished, extremely tight shooting games that value style over narrative substance. Saying all of these seemingly inane opinions of mine, I love Mass Effect 2

Mass Effect 2 is not a game that will revolutionize the medium in any significant ways. Rather, it takes its ambitious yet flawed predecessor's core and fleshes it out with a bevy of new improvements. The result is a very memorable experience that is the automatic lock for Game of the Year 2010 until something very, very impressive tries to knock it off its pedestal. 

The first Mass Effect had an incredibly engaging storyline and rewarding combat but was hampered by a wide gamut of small, but souring, flaws. The inventory was a mess, and no one will speak kindly of omni-gel and the efforts needed to navigate the clunky menus. Technical problems also plagued the original, starting at texture pop-in and glitches and going as far as game-ending crashes. The side mission structure was repetitive as well, as the tank-like Mako was the only means for transportation on boring, desolate planets.

Thankfully, the sequel not only eliminates all of these problems, but comes up with enjoyable alternatives.The inventory system is practically gone; all weapon and armor switches can be made on the ship or before a mission. The Mako is scrapped in favor of a single loading screen that launches you straight into the action. Side mission variety is also improved:  many trivial quests are present but they are all different with unique environments and objectives. The first title was often given a pass on its problems for its epic story, but there are no need for excuses here. 

As a Bioware game and the sequel to the game that launched this console generation's ultimate role-playing tale, Mass Effect2 is expected to have an above-average storyline. Fortunately, what is here is a gripping, cinematic science fiction experience that is greatly aided by its motley crew of characters. Leading is Commander Shepard from the first title, and the import of a Mass Effect 1 character to the sequel strengthens the narrative structure as all choices from the first carry over to the second (it is expected that the second will do the same for the third). After a dramatic opening reminiscent of 2009's Star Trek film, Shepard is put through an intense trial but brought back into action not too long after. He works for a company that is not the noble yet hidebound Alliance, but a more secretive and, let us say, illusive branch.

Most missions in this game revolve around assembling a powerful, eclectic team to fight the new threat. Miranda, the genetically "perfect" leader; Grunt, another lovable Krogan; and Thane, a master assassin with a conscience and case of physical atrophy, are all members of the new team. The best of all new teammates is, hands down, Mordin Solus. A Salarian (skinny, typical alien appearance), Mordin talks in quick, terse statements, and every discussion with him usually usually ends in a chuckle. Two chats on histrionics and interspecies intercourse left me with a guilty grin, in particular. On top of these characters, old flames reappear, all in a welcome manner. The story of Mass Effect 2 should satisfy fans of the original as well as the unacquainted.

Why Mass Effect 2 succeeds so well, however, is because it does not merely rely on cutscenes to convey its story. Like the original, a dynamic dialogue system takes up a significant portion of the game's time. Extensive motion capture and very accurate lip-syncing make all the characters feel alive, complementing the excellent voice acting in the process. Martin Sheen, Yvonne Strahovski (from the TV series Chuck), and Seth Green all play characters with a lot of screen time in addition to the dozens of other talented actors that worked on this title. Martin Sheen's character, "The Illusive Man," sports a surprising likeness to the veteran actor, and his gravel voice does not sound too far off from Apocalypse Now. All of the humans, aliens, and curiously deformed creatures benefit from the motion capture that give them an emotional weight, rendering them as caring, scary or maybe even a mix of both. Think of the work here as Avatar on a smaller scale. The impressive aspect here is that the control is in our hands for nearly every action the character makes.

Comparing Mass Effect 2 to a film is not totally off, however. After any mission, it only seems proper to converse with all the inhabitants of the ship, getting to know their histories and feelings for the mission ahead. The term "video game" suddenly did not apply anymore; this was more of an "interactive cinematic experience." The interactive part is something film cannot achieve. Games like this one are showing the true advantages to the medium that many still frown upon when motion control is not slapped on. Getting lost in a deep, distinct world like Mass Effect 2's star-spanning cosmos is something that only video games can properly convey, and few do it as well as Bioware's latest.

Of course, the story and universe to explore are rich and detailed, so how does the rest of the game stack up? For the original, the positives ended around here. This is not the case with the sequel. The RPG nature of the first has been stripped down to a barely recognizable, yet very tight, third-person action game. Ammunition is not unlimited this time around, which at first presents itself as a nuisance but turns out to be an intelligent alternative that gives firefights more of a sense of urgency. Enemies are smarter this time around, and cover is absolutely necessary if you want to get through any tougher difficulties in one piece. The whole title feels much more like an action game this time around, even when the few RPG elements have been tremendously improved upon.

The need to update character stats is not as necessary this time around; small aspects like a rifle scope's drift are already handled and do not need any useless upgrades. Upgrades do play a major part in developing a tough protagonist and resilient squad, however. Improvements to weapons' damage, accuracy, and capacity will give your team an advantage, and enhancing the Normandy (the space shuttle that you call home) is highly recommended. In order to pay for these boosts, materials in the form of three real-life elements, Platinum, Iridium, and Palladium, as well as the mysterious Element Zero, will need to be scavenged from scanning planets. This system can be extremely boring and derivative (basically you hold a button and move a reticule over a planet until the controller vibrates), but I seemed to dump a few hours on this system without a second thought. The flaws in Mass Effect 2 are few, but this is certainly one of them. Minigames are used to hack safes, doors and important data, and these are repetitive but enjoyable enough to not feel like a trial. Overall, the gameplay in Mass Effect 2 is lightyears ahead of anything that reared its head in the first. Finally, we can praise this series for more than its ambition alone.

In the end, Mass Effect 2 ranks along the likes of Resident Evil 4 in terms of drastically improved sequels. The qualms of the first game are gone and, in the process, a satisfying action game emerges. The dialogue system has made changes for the better, and the world is so detailed that it is tempting to list the richest science fiction epics as Star Wars, Star Trek, and then Mass Effect. There are many stories to witness throughout the world. One recurring minor storyline in particular stuck with me. A male and female in the Normandy's Crew Quarters cabin sit a single table throughout the game, and you can check in periodically to hear their story. The male is a father and wants to eliminate the alien threat as it puts his family to risk at home. Listening to this story of woe is touching, even if it is as minor as side stories go. Small details like these can only be conveyed through video games, and Mass Effect 2 represents everything that is great about the medium in one absorbing, near-perfect package.

Final Verdict:
5 Stars Out of 5

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Top 40 Films Of The Decade

The last 10 years have been dizzying, shocking, tragic, uplifting, tiresome and, overall, fast. Technology advanced at a rapid speed and keeping up with the latest gadget or website was always a trial. Our country fared an interesting fate these years as well. Nonetheless, while it is debatable whether or not America's politics or economy made any significant strides between 2000-2009, it is a fact that this decade was phenomenal for cinema. Special effects were elevated to new heights and many new faces arrived who are now household names. It is terribly difficult trying to condense the brilliance of some of the movies of the last 10 years into one article but I will try.

The following list contains what I considered to be the best movies of the decade. This list is going to be varied and representative of different genres but, of course, quality is the main factor. Perhaps on top of that is whether or not it left a lasting emotional impression on me, a true benchmark of a film's value. Innovation is another point of consideration for all of the movies chosen and their influence since. Without further ado, this is my list for the Best Films of the 2000s.

1.      There Will Be Blood (2007) - It is certainly a tough call, but no film this decade blew me away as much as Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood. It is a true masterpiece but executed in such a way that final impressions may range from utter awe to confused perplexity. Nonetheless, there is no debating that this is something special. It is the tale of an oil man, Daniel Plainview, who, with his adopted son, accumulates wealth and property but loses his mind in the process. Daniel Day-Lewis gives the best performance of the decade with every movement: his somber tone, painful facial expressions, drawn-out cadence, and even his stilted posture. The result is magnetic, aided by a haunting score from Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood and beautiful, stark cinematography. Watch the American Dream go sour in the finest movie of the last 10 years.
2.      Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) - A truly unique fusion of romantic comedy and science fiction, Eternal Sunshine stands by itself as a extremely innovative film as well as a masterfully executed one. A couple (Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet) have a rough, emotional breakup and decide to erase the relationship from their memory through a new form of technology. While undergoing the procedure, Jim Carrey's character starts to have doubts as he sees their happiest moments. The grade A script by Charlie Kaufman and Michael Gondry (also the director) is full of twists and touching moments that progress in a flawless manner with no boring lulls. Jim Carrey shocks with an incredible performance, subduing his crazy man persona in favor of a humorous, but sentimentally centered, character. Tom Wilkinson, Kirsten Dunst, Elijah Wood and Mark Ruffalo round out the stellar cast that brings this one-of-a-kind tale alive. There has never been another movie like Eternal Sunshine and, for that reason, it takes top marks.
3.      The Departed (2006) - Martin Scorsese is still king. Taxi Driver was one of the defining films of the 70s, Raging Bull of the 80s, Goodfellas of the 90s, and, now, The Departed for the 2000s. The rough, gritty style of Marty reaches Boston in this violent, hilarious, and tragic film. A cast of heavyweights featuring Leo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Ray Winstone, Alec Baldwin and, the one significant female role, Vera Farmiga all combine their talents. The result is not  a convoluted mess, like what could have been, but a modern crime classic. Watch Jack as he nonchalantly pulls a dismembered hand out of a plastic bag to joke about the poor soul's demise, all the while eating lobster and quoting John Lennon. Nicholson is a mad man in top form (which he usually is) but the movie also succeeds because all the stars around him are so bright. Scorsese has been strong for four decades now and there is no doubt he will last five or maybe six.
4.      Up (2009) - Up is Pixar's best film yet, but the reason it stands so, uh, high on this list is because Pixar delivered hit after hit this decade. Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc., The Incredibles, Ratatouille, the brilliant Wall-E, Cars...actually forget that last one. Nonetheless, they were the most consistent production company in the business and every film of theirs deserves a top slot here. However, Up was their most-balanced film yet, executed in a way that both adults and children loved. The humor is sharp throughout, with two lovable animals in tow, both featuring hilarious introductions. The real reason why Up holds top honors however is for its perfect introduction. We watch as a couple fall in love, marry, go through life, and ultimately face the worse in less than 5 minutes and without any dialogue. It is the closest any scene this decade came to perfection and is guaranteed to reduce anyone to a sobbing mess, or at least a sniffling one.
5.      Inglourious Basterds (2009) - My personal favorite on this list, Inglourious Basterds is Quentin Tarantino at his most excessive and self-indulgent. Sure, dialogue scenes could have been 3 minutes each but he makes them 25 minutes. Thankfully, it pays off because these scenes of increasingly hostile badinage are so intricately detailed; Tarantino is in control of his own script and can draw suspense from the mere scooping of cream for a strudel. The story itself is about a band of Jewish soldiers who go to World War II era France to do one thing only: kill Nazis. Brad Pitt leads the squad that also has such standouts as Til Schweiger as Hugo Stiglitz and Omar Doom as, well, Private Omar, whose nearly silent-movie demeanor is offset by a few winning lines. Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent) and Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) are the strong-willed females who have their own plans of taking down the Nazis, leading of which is Colonel Hans Landa, played by Christoph Waltz. In one of the most stunning performances this decade, Waltz spans four different languages while remaining sinister, yet truly unknown in his motives, throughout. As he exclaims "Thats'a BINGO!!," you wonder if his or your sanity went away first.
6.      Memento (2000) - This was the film that launched Christopher Nolan into the public conscience before The Dark Knight. While obviously not as commercially successful, Memento features mind-bending, non-linear plot progression that goes backwards; B to A instead of A to B. You know what happens the same time, you do not. It is best leaving the film to speak for itself as it contains such a tight, well-written script that keeps you gripped from beginning to end. Guy Pearce stars as an ordinary man who has a severe memory loss issue, leaving him to trust people based off of photographs and notes he takes. Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano are his friends who guide him along, and their motives stay cloudy until the very end. The defining thriller of the decade.
7.      No Country For Old Men (2007) - The Coen Brothers created a sinister masterpiece based off the work of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Cormac McCarthy. With shocking violence and an ultimately pessimistic message, this is not the ideal family movie night fare. However, for those willing to go forward, they will find one of the most well-crafted films of the decade, featuring a haunting performance by Javier Bardem. As he saunters from one motel room to another, silenced shotgun in one hand and cattle gun in the other, with an expression of true sociopathic madness, the hostility is palpable.
8.      City of God (2003) - Paying homage to classics like The Godfather, Goodfellas, and Shawshank Redemption while inspiring Slumdog Millionaire in the process, City of God draws influences from the best but creates its own unique and totally unforgettable experience. Set in 1960s-70s Rio de Janiero and entirely in Portuguese, the film is about one boy (Rocket) and his life in the hoodlum underworld of Rio. The primary business is drugs and it gets paid out in blood, lots of it. The violence is shocking in this film; the body count by the end must have far surpassed the 200s. Nonetheless, the film is kinetic and, strangely, upbeat. While the very memorable villain Zed resembles a Goodfellas-esque Joe Pesci, the protagonist uses his photographic skill to win his way over with the gangs and ultimately take them down in the end. City of God sticks with you and shows you that films can really engrain themselves into your conscience.
9.      Pan's Labyrinth (2006) - Films have always been respected enough to be labeled "art," but Jimmy Fallon's Taxi will make you sometimes doubt this notion. Once in a great while, however, a film of such true artistic beauty will come by and stun you. For this decade, that position belongs to Pan's Labyrinth, directed by Guillermo del Toro. The art design is captivating, as is the story of a girl in fascist Spain who is transported to a magical world to escape the troubles of the real world while encountering new ones all the same. She encounters savage monsters, giant toads and other frightening, or just strange, creatures along the way. Violence is prevalent throughout, so an "adult fairytale" is a proper term to label this one. However, it successfully combines its bloody brutality and childlike sense of wonder to create something thoroughly excellent.
10.  Mulholland Drive (2001) - Condensing the insanity that is Mulholland Drive to a mere paragraph is impossible. I do not think that it can even be summed up in 10 pages. Nonetheless, David Lynch's hypnotic nightmare centers around two gorgeous women (Naomi Watts and Laura Harring) as a whirlwind of events encircle around them. Watts, with this as her breakout role, stuns with her character, who starts as a cheery, naive actress and progresses to something totally different by the end. Haunting settings, an erotic but passionate relationship and monsters all make their way into this film, and you are left more bewildered by the end than the beginning.  It speaks for the quality of the structure and narrative when I say that this film could have been made in any year over the last three to four decades, eschewing special effects for a dreamlike approach to cinematography. David Lynch is America's modern surrealist:  pay attention to this nearly extinct breed.
11.  The Diving Bell and The Butterfly (2007) - Directed by Julian Schnabel, Diving Bell is a film that explores the limitless expanses of the human mind. After suffering a stroke that reduces his whole body to an immobile state with the exception of one eye, Jean-Dominique Bauby narrates from inside his head, seeing the events unfold around him but unable to react. Based off a true story and a book of the same name, the film shows the true value of imagination and how it can transport you to faraway places, even when you are unable to merely move a finger. Bauby composed an entire autobiography by blinking at certain times, and Schnabel combines his natural artistic talent with amazing cinematography to create a movie that makes you value how impressive the brain we waste every day on YouTube cat videos and Jersey Shore really is.
12.  The Dark Knight (2008) - Now this is strange....this is a movie that most people reading this may actually have seen!! What the hell is a movie that made over a billion dollars doing here? Well, The Dark Knight is the product of uncontained ambition, lots of money and an unfortunate, premature death. Heath Ledger's Joker gained popularity because he died before the movie was released but his performance is incredible, death notwithstanding. He showed us a maniacal Joker who does not cower over the abyss but instead laughs as he jumps down, feet first. A strong supporting cast and a new mature tone give this film a strong artistic value, a nice trait when it can also reel in the big bucks.
13.  Big Fish (2003) - One of the most underrated films of the entire decade, Big Fish is Tim Burton's best film to date, one that utilizes his visionary mind and eliminates the pretentiousness. What is left is a fascinating fairytale full of intriguing characters, comical situations and heartrending conflicts. Ed Bloom (Albert Finney) is a father who has constantly told tall tales throughout his life, leaving his son William (Billy Crudup) unaware of what is true and what is false. As Edward slowly dies, a series of flashbacks, some exaggerated yet many true, is shown with Ewan McGregor as the younger Ed. These scenes are all visualized with such an esoteric beauty that only Tim Burton can realize, one that elevates this film from mere fairytale to a fantasy that is as inspiring as The Wizard of Oz upon first, and repeated, viewings.
14.  Into The Wild (2007) - 2007 was a year of standouts, but Into The Wild combined stellar filmmaking with a freewheeling, entertaining value that others that year lacked. Emile Hirsch plays the infamous Christopher McCandless, an intelligent yet adventurous young man who abandoned his education, hiked into uninhabited Alaskan territory and never returned. Sean Penn reveals that he is a very adept director, on top of his other skills, and gives the film a very soulful air. Hal Holbrook commits a heartrending performance as an old man who finds Chris on the road and believes he is the piece that has been missing from his life for so long. We know now that Chris' actions were careless but we cannot help but root for him as he has the guts to do something we never would do.
15.  Kill Bill Volumes 1&2 (2003-04) - While all part of one, cohesive narrative, the two Kill Bill films are surprisingly different from each other. The first is one of the best action films of the decade with buckets of blood and a stylized feel that incorporates black and white as well as incredibly violent anime. It establishes an interesting story of "The Bride," played with burning hatred by Uma Thurman, a reformed assassin who decides to settle down with a family, only to be nearly killed by her former employer, Bill. Vowing revenge on all of those who wronged her (including Lucy Liu and Michael Madsen), The Bride makes the first a bloody ride that also has one of the better endings in recent memory. The second goes for a slower paced, methodical approach that is more reminiscent of Basterds but very satisfying. Bill, David Carradine's last great role, is given the spotlight at the end for some of Tarantino's best writing yet. It all wraps up in a way that most sequels would envy. Think of it as The Godfather I and II; the first establishes the fiction while the sequel fleshes it out. In its own insane way, the quality is top-tier throughout as well.
16.  Mystic River (2003) - In the black and white genres of ancient times, there were Comedies and Tragedies. Mystic River defines "Tragedy" to the utmost extent, more than basically any movie this decade. Its tone starts somber and only gets darker, as one kid in a Boston group of friends gets abducted and molested by creeps early in his life. This individual is Dave, whose later life remains scarred from this incident and whose mind becomes senile. Jimmy, in an acting tour de force by Sean Penn, is an ex-convict who is in the middle of a violent conflict that his other childhood friend, Sean (Kevin Bacon), now a cop, investigates. Tim Robbins as Dave is haunting: his tragic disposition makes him so vulnerable and occasionally frightening that his Oscar for this part seems like an understatement. The same goes to Penn, whose incredibly nuanced and emotional performance reaches deep into a desperate soul. Marcia Gay Harden is also fantastic as Dave's wife; she is so fragile and diaphanous that a wind could seemingly blow her away. This film is a downer and a true tragedy, but as an exhibition of acting as well as Clint Eastwood's talent behind the camera, Mystic River is worth diving in.
17.  Lord of The Rings (2001-03) - A lock on any "Best Of" list, Lord of The Rings, as a trilogy, is not a personal favorite of mine but there is no denying the amazing craftsmanship and respect to the source material. Peter Jackson created the only true epic of the decade, with the final chapter tying up the loose ends nicely while sweeping the Oscars in the process.
18.  Hot Fuzz (2007) - Does this film deserve to be in the Top 20? Possibly not but for me, no other film has stood up to as many repeated viewings as Hot Fuzz. A star London cop, Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg) is transferred to a small English village because he is making the city cops look bad. A series of gruesome murders, with seemingly innocent victims, gets Angel on the prowl. A supporting cast including Nick Frost, Timothy Dalton and Jim Broadbent give this film a distinctly English bent that blends well with fast editing, excessive yet cheesy violence and energized action. Some hate it, some love it. For me, this was one of the most memorable films of the decade.
19.  In Bruges (2008) - In Bruges was a breath of fresh air. The characters, writing, setting, all was original in its own strange way and created a film that was funny throughout, immensely quotable and also full of shocking violence. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson are two hitmen ordered to lay low in the quaint village of Bruges, Belgium. The personalities of the two greatly differ, as Gleeson greatly appreciates culture while Farrell sees the old city as a bunch of boring buildings. A bloody conflict ends up with their boss (a profane and hilarious Ralph Fiennes) assigning them an order that will compromise the other; the story from there winds and turns but ends up with a biting, satisfying conclusion. The script is top-notch and hilarious, as is the acting. This Irish film takes jabs at Americans, racism, midgets, and everything, large and small, in between. Have fun.
20.  Million Dollar Baby (2004) - I saw this in the theater when I was only 11 and its harsh and very sentimental theme should have been a detractor. However, this was my real segue to dramatic cinema, and for that reason it is personal to me. The tale of the determined boxer, played with such battered tenacity by Hilary Swank, is directed with grace by the veteran Clint Eastwood. Morgan Freeman delivers in possibly his best performance to date, and this drama knocks you out on the mat. 
21.  Adaptation. (2002) - Believe it or not, there was a time when Nicolas Cage was not only a good actor, but an excellent one. Adaptation. (though he was apparently brilliantly nutty in the recent Bad Lieutenant) is the last known document of this. Cage plays the screenwriter for the film, Charlie Kaufman, and his "twin brother" Donald. This complex comedy goes through the strains of screenwriting and far, far beyond. Meryl Streep is a successful author who is struggling to find what she really wants in life, and then she sees Chris Cooper as the man who already knows what it is. Cooper, who won an Oscar for this performance, delivers another amazing performance as a nearly toothless orchid hunter in Florida who has a love for Streep's character. Kaufman gets in the middle of this all and the situation turns ugly. This self-deprecating satire on love and Hollywood is mad as hell and revels in it.
22.  Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) - The best Harry Potter film, but also a great film in its own right, Prisoner of Azkaban sees a switch in directors (Alfonso Cuaron) and mood, swapping the elementary school antics and looks for a matured, darker setting. The children all excel in their roles, but it is Gary Oldman as Sirius Black and the consistently perfect Alan Rickman as Severus Snape who make this film more than another teenage supernatural tale but an acting powerhouse. The technically impressive and equally funny opening sequence of Aunt Marge rapidly expanding still amuses, and, as a piece of cinema itself, I am shocked by how great this film really is.
23.  District 9 (2009) - Fresh, intelligent and badass, District 9 is the decade's premier sci-fi film. The budget was surprisingly low ($30 million) and no big names were attached to this besides Peter Jackson for producing, so its success and overall quality was shocking, to say the least. Drawing influence from The Fly and South African history, D9 creates its own realistic take on an alien invasion, but this time, the aliens want to leave. Sharlto Copley stars as the tool turned hero who turns in a unexpectedly great, raw performance as one man against the whole human world. The cinematography, blending a documentary style with impressive special effects, and moving, human story combine for this close-to-perfect film.
24.  The Darjeeling Limited (2007) - Wes Anderson delivered a few winners this decade: The Life Aquatic was flawed but quirky, while The Royal Tenenbaums had an all-star cast and a great black comedy vibe. Fantastic Mr. Fox was perhaps his best yet, but The Darjeeling Limited holds a place in my heart. Either the older celluloid feel or exotic setting did it for me, but this spiritual journey through India had an essence no others did. Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman are three estranged brothers who want to reunite by going on an impromptu train ride through India. Pepper spray, snakes, and sweet lime juice all appear for comical sequences but the human, family connection this film makes is why I found it so real.
25.  Spirited Away (2001) - Visually stunning and intimately scary, Spirited Away is Hayao Miyazaki's magnum opus. This animated feature is about a girl who loses her way to find herself in a surreal world of beasts and magic. The sense of mystery throughout the whole setting and the lack of any parents made this a riveting film to watch when I was less than 10 years old, but it is easy to appreciate the brilliance now. The animation is beautiful: creature designs are unlike anything ever seen and this shows that Pixar's 3D is not the only route for spellbinding animation.
26.  Letters From Iwo Jima (2006) - While the seminal Hurt Locker deserves props too, Letters was the finest war film of the decade. Clint Eastwood created the problematic but inspiring Flags Of Our Fathers in tandem with it, but Letters really is the superior movie. It shows the story of Iwo Jima from the Japanese point of view, all in the native language and coated in a grimy, grey filter. The superb Ken Watanabe plays General Kuribayashi, the fearless leader who accepted surrender as a fate worse than death. His performance shows a sense of courage unseen in most American protagonists, and you actually sympathize with the enemy by the end, even if it was our GIs who claimed victory.
27.  Gladiator (2000) - It is hard to believe Gladiator was released in the last decade, but it won its handful of awards for a reason. Ridley Scott directs and Russell Crowe stars in this years-spanning Odyssey of betrayal, exile and revenge. The beautiful cinematography, chilling performance of Commodus by Joaquin Phoenix, and brutal action all make for an inspiring Roman epic.
28.  Slumdog Millionaire (2008) - The world loved this Best Picture winner set in India for good reason. No other film of 2008 felt more vibrant or awe-inspiring than Danny Boyle's masterwork. Slumdog is the tale of three kids growing up in the slums of India and how far one will go to impress his true love. Sure, some of it seems cheesy on paper but when the young actors show their skill and the simply amazing cinematography from Anthony Dod Mantle manifests in city-wide chase scenes, there is no denying the mesmerizing lure Slumdog pulses through its veins.
29.  Avatar (2009) - Now the highest grossing film of all time in a matter of weeks, Avatar is not only a technical marvel but also a spellbinding experience. From start to finish, you remain glued to your seat, unable to move as the world of Pandora comes alive in front of your eyes. The lush flora and fauna are a sight to behold, but the real draw comes from the shockingly detailed native species, the Na'vi. Created using state of the art technology, the Na'vi are James Cameron's brainchild that he has tried to put onto the screen since childhood. While the story sometimes becomes encumbered with its noble yet heavy green message and there are more than a few plot holes, there are more than enough reasons to enjoy this mesmerizing blockbuster. Considering this film has already surpassed $2 billion in earnings and has reignited the entire moviegoing business, the draw is certainly apparent.
30.  Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004) - No film this decade was as straight-up hilarious or more quotable than Anchorman. Will Ferrell and the gang (with the classic Brick character performed by Steve Carrell) embody the 70s virtues of alcohol, sexism and indecency to a tee. It is San Diego in the Me Decade, and an attractive, strong-willed female reporter is set to overthrow the current establishment. The chaos that reigns, especially during the totally random but memorable fight scene, define this comedy that will make you love lamp by the end.
31.  Children of Men (2006) - I could say how I felt this film rushed through a few of its plot lines or was unremittingly depressing, but that was probably the point. This frantic tale of one man's quest to save the first newborn baby on Earth in 18 years finds its strengths in the immense talents of its director, Alfonso Cuaron, and cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezski. A few scenes are shot in one take, lasting up to 10 minutes. The action is visceral and the viewer becomes one with the events unfolding. This film has its flaws but is so memorable for those killer moments.  
32.  Up In The Air (2009) - Jason Reitman crafted a superb script with Up In The Air, leaving you wondering why he just did not write the screenplay for the painfully sassy Juno. His film is crafted with finesse from a young filmmaker, and the performances shine. George Clooney becomes one of the most relatable protagonists in recent memory as the suave but commitment-phobic Ryan Bingham, and Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick excel in the two, different female roles they play in his life. The writing and acting are top-notch, and the best part is that they form into one comical yet tragic whole.
33.  Casino Royale (2006) - The James Bond series was in need of a serious reboot and Casino Royale delivered. Daniel Craig is a surprisingly able Bond, caring less about how his martini is served and more on the mission at hand. His recklessness and close encounters with the several Bond girls still makes for great entertainment, and this time it is directed with action movie flair by Martin Campbell. Craig's resilience in the squeamish torture scene alone make this possibly the funniest yet most disturbing Bond film yet.
34.  Downfall (2003) - Those funny YouTube clips showing Hitler getting angry that his Xbox Live was banned actually derive from excellent source material. Emotionally intense and uncompromising, Downfall is the document of Adolf Hitler's final days at his bunker in Berlin. Bruno Ganz becomes absorbed in the main role like only a few actors can:  he creates a human (not sympathetic) version of the leader of the Third Reich that goes beyond emulation and into art. His emotions sway from reserved compassion to violent outbursts of anger, and details like the twitching of his left hand as he walks suggest his mental state was rapidly deteriorating. The hidebound ethics and horrible actions the Goebbels family committed, as well as the general theme of suicide, make this film a tough one to watch but a fascinating look into the greatest symbol of evil known in modern history.
35.  Superbad (2007) - Before the Apatow train became so exhausted of relevance, there was 2007. Knocked Up is a personal favorite of mine (Paul Rudd as Robert DeNiro is classic), but Superbad was more of a comedic Odyssey, with two high school kids looking to get laid by their crushes through the only means possible: alcohol!! Michael Cera and Jonah Hill's performances remind of a simpler time when their presence was not only tolerable but a pleasure. McLovin is still an immortal comedy figure however:  the fake ID scene, his "Aladdin" vest and his ultimate score make him a youth icon for our times. The funky soundtrack sets the vibe for a film that is still a riot today.
36.  United 93 (2006) - Any media interpretations of the attacks on 9/11 are still considered taboo, and with good reason, but United 93 went beyond the despicable exploitation that was expected and emerged as a harrowing tale of American heroism. Paul Greengrass, seen below in the Bourne films as well, cast unknown actors to star as the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93, the flight destined for the White House before the passengers bonded together to revolt. The claustrophobic intensity is palpable as the tubular coffin the passengers were aboard careens towards certain doom, with tense cinematography by Barry Ackroyd. This tragic tale ends up being one of the most inspiring films I have ever seen, as a group of unknown, diverse bystanders decide to take action and overthrow the terrorists on board. The heartbreaking final scene leaves you paralyzed, leaving you angry, bereaved but astonished. Forget James Bond or Harry Potter:  these were the decade's heroes.
37.  Sin City (2005) - This decade saw the largest influx of comic-based movies ever, but none where as faithful or uniquely stylized as Sin City. With three separate stories that have surprisingly little to do with each other, the movie features a sexy cast with the likes of Jessica Alba, Rosario Dawson and the late Brittany Murphy, as well as Clive Owen, Bruce Willis and, in arresting performance, Mickey Rourke. The film is brutal, with inordinate amounts of violence even by graphic novel standards, but the black and white (with special red bursts) style does not ever let you look away.
38.  The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) - The stellar Bourne series improved with every outing, which naturally makes the last one the best. With some amazing technical work in sound and editing, Ultimatum is given a sharp, kinetic edge that thrusts Matt Damon's Jason Bourne into the action for a final, explosive round. Hand-to-hand fight scenes are captured by Paul Greengrass in a brutal, efficient manner unrivaled by almost everything else. A tight, suspenseful plot of corruption and murder propels this action fest forward and, thankfully for us, it never looks back.
39.  A History of Violence (2005) - If one word can define this film, it is "gritty." The violence is uncompromising, and the entire story, as suggested by the excellent title, is centered around bloodshed. Viggo Mortensen is a small town man who is accused of having a violent past by Philadelphia mobsters; he finds these accusations out of line but the core of his character slowly reveals layer after layer as the movie progresses. Ed Harris and William Hurt turn in excellent performances, and the action stuns. 
40.  Synecdoche, New York (2007) - The last item on this list is one that I will take a long time to fully conquer. Written and directed by the legendary Charlie Kaufman (this is his third item on this list) and starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Synecdoche, New York is a tale of life and almost every element it encompasses. Love, hate, life, death, obsession, divorce, growth, is all here. The film defies the term "bizarre" as Hoffman's character, Caden, a theater director, creates the most ambitious production in the city by turning a whole warehouse into a duplicate of the city. This project lasts for decades, and Caden's true nature, such as his sanity, health and even gender, comes into question.  Go read any of Roger Ebert's multiple articles to try to digest the film that makes Mulholland Drive's story arc look as complicated as a Will Ferrell movie.