NOTE: I am reviewing this film after seeing it on IMAX 3-D. I recommend this be the way the film is seen, to get the ultimate experience of it.
I’ve always enjoyed Alfonso Cuaron’s films. From “Y Tu Mama Tambien” to “Children of Men”, I like that he seems to do things his way and doesn’t back down from studio pressure or anything. His films are fresh and honest, and aren’t afraid to be tragic and dark. He carries this tradition on in the big budget “Gravity”, a film that is not only an incredible visual experience, but also a pretty incredible emotional one as well.
We are introduced immediately to a space mission already in progress between veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and a bio-medical engineer, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock). They are operating at two opposite places of a career: Ryan at the beginning, Matt at the end. He waxes poetic about old stories to Houston Mission Control (voiced by Ed Harris), and teases Dr. Stone while listening to lazy, irritatingly twangy country music. Then, the mission is abruptly aborted when Houston informs them that during a Russian missile strike to destroy an out of service satellite, space debris is headed their way and they’re ordered back to the Hubble. But Dr. Stone moves a little too slowly and they can’t all get back in when the debris hits, knocking the Hubble out of commission and killing everyone on the shuttle. Dr. Stone and Kowalski are the only survivors, and their communication with Houston gets cut off, leaving them stranded.
But they’re not completely out of options. There is an ISS (International Space Station) around them with an escape pod, and they can make it there before the debris comes at them again. The ISS is Russian as well, but according to NASA, all escape pods run basically the same. While on their way to the ISS, Dr. Stone is running out of oxygen, but Kowalski assures her she can still live in the suit if she takes smaller breaths (“Sip, don’t gulp. It’s wine, not beer.”). He tries to get personal information out of her; but she is very closed about herself, even though she does reveal that she had a daughter who died in an accident at school one day very suddenly during recess.
Once they find the ISS, however, things don’t turn for the better for them. They find that the ISS has been damaged, and the crew has already vacated, leaving only one pod behind that has already deployed its parachute. This leaves the pod useless to return to Earth. Again, Kowalski has a plan. There’s another space station a little ways away (“It’s a Sunday drive”) owned by the Chinese. Again, their pods work the same way so they should be able to get back home using that. En route, however, Stone’s leg gets caught on one of the parachute cords, and she can only let Kowalski drift off into space to untangle herself. He tells her to let him go, and she’s alone to try and find the Chinese space station.
The remainder of the film is Stone’s personal sojourn, an allegory of sorts of re-birth and resurrection. There are many symbols, some overt and some subtle, and the film can certainly be seen as a metaphor for the cycle of life. Kowalski resonates with Stone, and there’s even a glimpse of him again, giving her hope that she’s not really all alone out there.
The film thrives on pulse pounding suspense, especially during the chaotic space debris sequences and when she’s facing a crisis in the Russian Soyuz. But where the film is strongest is in the quiet moments when Stone is left to face herself. There’s a wonderfully painful and emotional sequence in which Stone wants to give up and let go. She reaches communication with a random person (possibly Chinese) who has picked up her frequency from his house. He can’t understand her, and calls her “Mayday” (since that’s what she keeps repeating), and she listens to hear a dog in the background, and the sound of a baby. She finds comfort in this, because even though it’s remote, it’s a connection to life–something she has lost a connection with both literally and figuratively.
Obviously, she does not give up. And all of this builds to an incredibly intense climactic ending that really keeps you clinging to your seat. I won’t reveal how it ends, of course. But at 91 minutes, you won’t be waiting that long for it. And you’ll be so engrossed in all the goings-on you won’t even feel the time.
The performance by Sandra Bullock is one for the ages, and will certainly come with an Oscar nomination. And well deserved. All in all, is film will make you feel like you just went through all of it with Dr. Stone and Kowalski right next to you, and that’s a great achievement by Cuaron. It’s one of the few films, like “Avatar”, where 3-D actually makes you feel “a part” of the whole experience.
This isn’t about the BEST 10 movies of the past 10 years. I probably haven’t seen the best 10 movies of the last 10 years. I’m sure I’ve missed out on some great obscure foreign film I’ve never heard of, or some documentary that I skipped over or something…this is just my list of 10 movies that I could watch over and over again and that I adore personally. Your lists will differ, I’m sure. But mine’s clearly the best.
#10: The Descent (2005)
Written & directed by Neil Marshall
I start off with a horror movie, and I think it’s one of the finest horror films of this age. It’s not as well known as movies like “The Strangers” or “The Ring” but it’s far better than either of those because it’s not only a creature feature–it’s also a psychological horror film where you’re not really sure if what’s going on is real or not. That might sound cliché and stupid; but Marshall handles the balance exceedingly well and you never feel cheated either way. It’s an all female cast of spelunkers who find that there are these nightmarish “Silent Hill” looking things that only compound the problem they have of being lost in a large cave that they don’t know how to get out of. But there’s also a subplot of the main character who lost her husband and child in a single car accident; and one of her friends may have had an affair with the husband. The thing I like about this subplot, too, is that it never overshadows the main story with melodrama. It’s very nicely put together by Marshall and is by far his greatest achievement in filmmaking so far.
Written & directed by: Wes Anderson
Wes Anderson’s career has been a little more up and down than I thought, especially around this time when he already had “Bottle Rocket” and “Rushmore” under his belt. And this movie was even better than both. Combining family drama with offbeat comedy, “The Royal Tenenbaums” is a very strong film. It never goes too far in either direction, although some of its quirkiness may turn some people off. But I think it’s Anderson’s most accessible film. And the soundtrack, once again, is outstanding. Nick Drake, John Lennon, Elliott Smith, this one captures the feel of the movie so well. I think it’s Anderson’s last great film; he’s made a few good ones since…but I still haven’t forgotten “The Life Aquatic” and boy do I long for a lobotomy for that one. Very strong performances by Ben Stiller and Gene Hackman especially, who contributes a lot of humor to this story of pathos. It’s Anderson at his best.
Written & directed by: Quentin Tarantino
I wasn’t sure to expect with this movie, because all we saw from the previews were the scenes about the Basterds, a rag-tag group of Nazi hunters that are all Jewish. It was a plan of vengeance, that was obvious. What I got, though, was probably my favorite Tarantino film of all time. While I thought “Pulp Fiction” was fantastic, and probably one of the most important films ever made, there’s something about this movie that I just can’t get enough of. I love that he doesn’t make his foreign actors speak English. For an American made film, almost half of it looks like a foreign language film. I also like that for a movie that’s as bloody and war-related as it is, it begins extremely quietly and slow-paced. But I love what Tarantino does with the quiet conversation scenes. There’s always tension in the room, and you know something is going to happen, you just don’t know when. It’s incredibly suspenseful. The opening scene, for instance, has a Nazi commander searching a French farm house that has been known to harbor Jews. Instead of interrogating the man of the house, however, they simply talk. Meanwhile, the Jewish family he’s harboring is underneath the floor. The camera dips once and shows us them hiding, and then it pans back to the room. And the talking goes on, and on. But you’re clinging to your chair, waiting to see if he knows. My favorite sequence takes place in an underground bar where a game is being played, and there are Nazi imposters in the bar that could be figured out to be infiltrating. You’re just waiting for a moment where things break out. The use of suspense is outstanding, and the theme of vengeance being all-for-naught is also refreshing. You’d think this is just an anti-Nazi fun filled movie. But the lesson to be learned is far more poignant.
Directed by: Christopher Nolan / Written by: Christopher Nolan/Jonathan Nolan
This movie will be on a lot of people All-time Overrated List I think in the coming years rather than All-time Best Films list. But I really think if you step away from the hype, it is still a very solid film. It’s dark, it’s sleek, it’s intelligent–yes, pretentious too. I forgive it in this case because the plot moves quickly enough that I never felt bored. Obviously the strongest thing about the movie is Heath Ledger as the Joker; but there are some other things about the movie that I liked–I still like that Batman is a more tortured soul, and that he makes decisions in this film that he ultimately regrets and has to live with the tragic results. I like that a heroic character becomes a villain–even if it was rushed a bit. Two-Face certainly could have been given his own film. But I didn’t think it was a total waste. Besides the Batvision subplot, I think most of the film works extremely well. As a superhero flick, it’s epic. But even more, as a character drama it’s very complex and endearing. It’s my second favorite Batman movie, besides “Batman & Robin”. Just kidding. “Batman & Robin” was better.
Written & directed by Stephen Spielberg
Here’s another one that gets a lot of bad word of mouth; it got mixed reviews, and Spielberg was accused of destroying a possible Kubrick project and wasting it. I can’t disagree enough with the detractors of this imperfect masterpiece. I think it’s one of Spielberg’s most personal films, along with it being a love letter to Kubrick himself. Most of the negative comments are directed at the ending; they all thought it should’ve ended with the boy finding the Blue Fairy at the bottom of the ocean that at one point had been Coney Island. While that would have been dark, and cool–it would not have been an ending. The film’s theme is about getting what you want too late, and not being able to move on. Finding the Blue Fairy as something that was just a symbol of the past was not a true resolution to the plot. The boy still had to find his parents. The movie is two halves: the first half is about a set of parents that want to covet a relationship with a child, and yet something’s always missing because the child is synthetic; and there‘s something to be said about the fact that their biological kid is a sniveling brat. The second half is about a synthetic child that wants to covet a relationship with his mother, who is real. At the end, they are long gone, as well as all of humanity. It’s the complete opposite of the first half of the film. And in the end, the day he spends with his mother IS synthetic, which turns him into a real boy–and he finally dies. Now that, to me, is far more beautiful, far more bittersweet and even tragic in a way; and it’s far more POWERFUL than if the film ends with the boy finding the Blue Fairy. So that’s my defense. Is it perfect? No. It probably could have been a bit shorter. It probably could have had a stronger handle on its theme. But it holds true to everything that Spielberg is all about as a storyteller, and adds an element of Kubrick that makes it dark enough to be less conventional than the typical Spielberg film. It’s all about loss and grieving and broken families, and that’s where Spielberg thrives.
Directed by: Peter Jackson / Written by: Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens
I have to include all three films and treat them as one here, although I’d probably watch “Fellowship” over “Towers” and “King”; but all three are part of the same story and to me is one of the strongest adaptation of a book in the history of film. It breathes new life into the “Lord of the Rings” and does so with such a command by Peter Jackson, it will have to go down as his greatest accomplishment. His career was delightfully progressing from his bloodspattered early days of “Bad Taste” and “Braindead” to the more mature but still off-the-wall “Heavenly Creatures” and then the fun, weird “The Frighteners”. All of these seemed to lead up to a perfect storm of creativity, expression, imagination, and…fun. The look of this film is magnificent. The performances by Elijah Wood, Ian McKellan, and Vigo Mortensen are fantastic–but one I really thought was special was Sean Astin’s. While there was all the homoerotic talk between Frodo and Sam–the story really is about a friendship that is very deep. This film is epic fantasy but it is also a story about relationships. All of it is well handled by Peter Jackson. He took all of his best elements and put them forth in this trilogy that I think will go down as the best film trilogy besides the original “Star Wars” trilogy.
Directed by Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller, and Quentin Tarantino / Written by: Frank Miller
If you ever wanted to see a comic book truly put to film in its total essence, I don’t think there’s a better example than “Sin City”. It combines the talents of two gifted filmmakers along with Frank Miller, whom you could tell had a lot of fun with his own material, adapting it to the screen. This collection of talent on one film is as great as the Romero/King/Savini holy trinity that made “Creepshow” in ‘85. The movie is just a bunch of vignettes, but all of them are woven together so well that it feels like one big story. There are some sickening things going on in this film, but it all looks so good it’s hard to be reviled. It’s more than just an exercise in style; it’s got nice, fleshed out storylines and some really strong performances by Mickey Rourke and Bruce Willis. And who can forget a Jessica Alba pole dance? This movie, again, takes joy in its excess violence and nudity, and because it revels in it…we can’t help to follow its lead.
Directed by: Alfonso Cuaron / Written by: Alfonso Cuaron, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby
I think what I liked most about this movie is how bleak it is, and how much it really builds this dystopian world in which no children exist. For some people, maybe this is the best world you could ever live in. But it is utterly depressing to think about, with no future, nothing to look forward to. In the film, there’s even a suicide drug that’s so popular, there are ads littered everywhere on streets and on TV. Clive Owen stars in a very strong role as a man who joins a group of rebels that actually have a woman who is pregnant. They have to protect her, but there are many bloody realistic battle scenes that have you on the edge of your seat, hoping she can get to safety. This movie pulls no punches, and even kills off one of its big stars early, and still somehow ends in a satisfying manner. It’s very taut at times, and it’s very engrossing. I like that it’s a kind of nativity story, too; about the protecting of life, whether you’ve conceived it or not. It was one my favorite films of 2006.
Written & directed by: Guillermo Del Toro
If you haven’t seen this movie, and are a fan of fantasy/horror/storytelling…stop whatever you’re doing and see this movie. And PLEASE see it in its native language, subtitled, and NOT dubbed. Not because the dubbing job is bad; but because dubbing itself is lame. And it would take away from a great dramatic story. Del Toro is Mexican but he has a fascination it seems with Spain, and more precisely, the Spanish Civil War. So that’s the underlying theme and backdrop to this otherwise fairy tale of a girl who is brought to meet her stepfather, who is a captain of the Spanish army, trying to quell a rebellion. Her real father is dead, and her mother is a dutiful wife to the captain. The girl, though, embarks on a fantasy journey that can be as dark and deadly as the real life war that’s going on. The way Del Toro uses visual horror is amazing. Every one of his creatures comes to life and while some are more terrifying than beautiful, they are all wonderful to look at. It’s a sad story for the most part, because we know it’s not real. We want to believe in the fantasy, as little Ofelia does, but reality comes crashing down as it always does. It’s a very sweet story as well as it is tragic, and it’s terrifying at times, too. Just a brilliant film, and one of the best of the decade.
And now…my number one movie…is something a bit different. But I couldn’t think of anything that makes me smile more than…
Directed by Trey Parker / Written by: Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and Pam Brady
Maybe this film suffered from bad timing (Roger Ebert didn’t find it amusing at all) but as time grows on, this movie becomes more and more dear to me. During the reign of W, America always seemed to be butting into foreign affairs that were revolving around terrorism, as it was called the War on Terrorism. Well, because there’s no known true villain (besides Osama Bin Laden), we started a few wars just to sort it all out. Parker and Stone are at their best when they’re angry and anarchic, and this is their best execution of their satire that I’ve ever seen. Not just because it satirizes American foreign policy and its flag-waving jingoism; but because it savagely satirizes every single thing about America that is oversaturated and over the top. What makes it fun is that it uses the typical Hollywood Action Movie as its conduit. A beautiful overproduced score is a great contrast to the shoddy production values of the sets, and of course, the marionettes. Everything is done cheaply, but loudly. And everything is done on purpose. All of the songs mock all the sugary sweet top 40 Billboard genres that we’re forced to listen to on the radio (including an hilarious one about film montages), and all of the dramatic dialog is so stupid, you can’t help but laugh because you KNOW it’s been in a Michael Bay film sometime (“Maybe feelings are feelings because we can’t control them.”). This movie had me howling with laughter; but meanwhile, also nodding my head to how stupid this country can be when it’s so simple minded. It ridicules the so-called patriots in this country who don’t understand our true enemy, and who are more of a detriment to our society than even the enemy that we’re attacking. The point of this film is that WE are the true terrorists. And at this time in our history, it couldn’t be more spot on. I call this the “Dr. Strangelove” of our generation. At the time, that movie perfectly satirized the present day America that was also insecure about the Cold War and communism and so in love with war. This movie does the same, but adds the sweet touch of making fun of Hollywood as well. And the most brilliant thing is that this could have been a movie that Hollywood would’ve taken seriously had it not been for the puppetry. In fact, it already has. It was called “Armageddon”. As much as I love “South Park”, and most of what Parker & Stone do–this is their greatest accomplishment, and this film belongs in the discussion of greatest comedies of all time.
That’s my list! Fuck yeah