Shawn Drury's Blog is now at shawndrury.com

Latest posts are at shawndrury.com

Posts Tagged ‘terrorism’

When It’s Not Enough To Be a Hero

Posted by sdrury on January 3, 2010

On January 13, 1982, Air Florida Flight 90 crashed into an icy Potomac River moments after taking off from Washington National Airport. The weather in the Washington, DC area that day was frigid, with the temperature in the low-20s and the region had been blanketed by snow from a record-setting blizzard. Washington National, since re-named after Ronald Reagan, who ironically was president at the time of the tragedy, had been closed for a few hours that day due to the inclement conditions. A subsequent investigation into the accident revealed that the plane had not been properly de-iced and should never have taken off.

All but five of the passengers and crew were killed. Before coming to rest in the Potomac, the plane struck several cars on the 14th Street Bridge, killing four people.

Amid the senseless loss of life, what emerged from that day were stories of incredible acts of heroism.

Two such stories were those of Lenny Skutnik and Roger Olian, neither of whom was affiliated with the flight or with emergency personnel. Olian was parked on the 14th Street Bridge on his way home from work as a sheet metal foreman. Seeing what was happening, he leapt out of his car, ran down an embankment, and upon hearing the desperate shrieks from the river, jumped into the Potomac while bystanders looked on. Navigating through ice floes, he yelled words of encouragement and told the survivors that help was on the way even though he wasn’t sure if it was. In retrospect, it seems that Olian was attempting to comfort people, complete strangers, as they neared a horrific death. They later reported that his actions gave them the hope and impetus to struggle on.  Once Olian’s own act of humanity had been completed, he was later pulled to safety himself.

Skutnik was working in a nearby office at the time, and like many others, went close to the river bank to watch the rescue operation unfold. Once at the scene, it became apparent to him that one passenger was too weak to grab the rescue line that had been thrown to her from a helicopter. Even though numerous rescue personnel were nearby, he refused to stand by idly, watching someone drown or freeze to death. So, he tore off his coat and boots and jumped into the river and assisted the woman in reaching the life line that led to her rescue. The woman was then taken to a local hospital, her life saved by a complete stranger.

To make it plain, both Olian and Skutnik threw themselves into frozen water to save the lives of people they did not know.

This past Christmas day another air tragedy, albeit of a different kind, may have occurred aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253 were it not for another act of heroism. Above Ontario, Canada, as an Airbus with 290 passengers on board was making its final descent to Detroit, a 23 year-old Nigerian terrorist named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to ignite an explosive device he had sewn to his underwear. Fortunately, the device did not detonate properly, but it still created a small fire and passengers later reported hearing a popping sound. As the terrorist was attempting to re-ignite the device, he was grabbed and subdued by another passenger, Jasper Schuringa, preventing him from doing any more damage. The fire was extinguished in short order and the perpetrator, later identified as a member of Al-Qaeda, was handcuffed by a member of the crew with assistance from Schuringa who had endured minor burns to his hands. The plane landed just after noon, without further incident. Schuringa was applauded by his fellow passengers as a hero.

By the afternoon, as word about the near-cataclysm had spread, an associate of Schuringa contacted CNN, informing the network that there were pictures of the incident, taken from a cell phone, available for sale. The following day, Schuringa, who is a Dutch national, signed an agreement with CNN, giving them the rights to the photograph in exchange for an undisclosed sum of money. In the next few days, Schuringa made similar arrangements with the New York Post and ABC News. Other news organizations reported that they also were approached by Schuringa, or his representatives, with the offer of rights to photos in exchange for financial considerations.

When news of Schuringa’s post-flight maneuverings gained traction on the Internet, many wondered if he was exploiting a national security failure for personal gain. Nevertheless, he continued to appear on media outlets, without compensation, to describe his story. It should be noted that Schuringa lists his profession as a film director and told interviewers that what had happened to him over Canada bore an eerie resemblance to a script he had written several years earlier, not long after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

In the aftermath of their efforts, Olian and Skutnick were given Carnegie Hero’s Medals, (among the many honors they received) and were lauded by President Reagan during his State of the Union address two weeks after the disaster. In 1984, a television movie aired,  paying tribute to their actions along with the many other feats of bravery that occurred that day. While many books have been written that mention both men for inspirational or spiritual purposes, neither Olian nor Skutnick has written a book to call his own. As of 2009, both men were in the same line of work as they were that day they plunged themselves into the Potomac.

It almost goes without saying that Schuringa would not be the first person to profit from an act of heroism and he most certainly will not be the last. Yet the alacrity with which he seized his moment gives one pause. How long after suppressing the threat did Schuringa think he think he ought to promote his own bravery? Would he have acted in such a manner had he thought there was a chance he wouldn’t be recognized? The answer to the latter is “of course he would” and only Schuringa knows the answer to the former. Schuringa’s accomplishments should not be minimized, for his fellow air travelers are undoubtedly grateful for his presence on their flight. But a distinction must be made, particularly in comparing his deeds to those of Olian and Skutnik nearly 28 years earlier. When Schuringa thwarted the terrorist, first among the lives he saved was his own. Conversely, Olian and Skutnik intentionally risked their own lives for the benefit of people they did not know. On the hierarchy of heroic altruists they rate a notch or two higher than Schuringa. The specific acts of gallantry aren’t so much the point here as are the responses that followed and the conditions that created them.

Commentators are quick to point to events where things “change”, as if drawing a circle around a date on a calendar will clarify complex human behavior. However, in considering Schuringa’s conduct post facto vis a-vis Olian’s and Skutnik’s, it is apparent that a fundamental change has taken place.

Previously, in a more Romantic era, people did things (worked, prayed, cared for their family, maintained good health, etc) because, in an empirical sense, they were the “right” things to do. You did the right thing as a matter of course, indifferent as to whether someone else was watching you, with no expectation of praise. Ted Williams, the great Boston Red Sox slugger from the 1940s and 1950s, once remarked that it’s easy to give it your all when the stands are full, with thousands watching your every move, but it was the truly great players that gave their maximum effort regardless of circumstance. Often, doing the “right” thing meant putting the needs of the group ahead of the needs of the individual.

Things are different now, different than they were in 1982 and a mere silhouette of what they were in Ted Williams’ day. Now, one can’t help but wonder if the only reason people do the “right” thing at all is so they’ll get credit for it. By extension, one wonders if being acknowledged for a heroic deed has become more important than the deed itself.

In 1982, MTV, CNN, and ESPN were in their infancy. Their success was far from assured. Watching any of these channels today, as they document the endless parade of people with insatiable desires to do something worthy of the camera’s gaze, that’s hard to believe. There are no shortage of subjects who feel themselves worthy of notice.

To be fair, human beings are, and have always been, social animals that seek feedback, and we do all manner of things to get it. To be sure, positive feedback is preferred, but some attention is better than none at all. With the explosion of media in the last generation, there’s more opportunity than ever before to be appreciated. The problem is, that although the number of places a person can be appreciated has multiplied exponentially, the things that merit such appreciation haven’t.

So, scenarios were manufactured to produce them. Television screens are now filled with phony conflicts, callously billed as reality shows, which exist solely for the purpose of designating winners, who, by definition, must be feted. The shows are populated by dozens, if not hundreds, of people, who seem hard-wired to engage in activities meant to elicit some response, irrespective of form. Can it be a coincidence that almost all of the “characters” in these shows were born after 1982 and, therefore, know only a world of cable television?

Lacking the prodding of producers and cameramen, some among us have taken matters into our hands by devising false crises on our own. A few months ago, a Colorado man informed authorities that his son had blown away in a balloon setting off a search and rescue mission that was followed, step by step on live television. Except the boy was perfectly fine, sequestered away so that when he was found by his father, his dad could be hailed as a hero in the news media, and therefore launching a reality of his own.

The most popular “reality” shows of them all, are, of course, sporting events, whose participants are routinely dubbed “heroic.” Let’s take this moment to be clear. No athlete, ever, while in pursuit of victory for his or her team, can have performed in a way that could be described as heroic. Admirable? Perhaps. Heroic? No. Using such terminology is an insult to people, like Lenny Skutnik and Roger Olian, and, yes, Jasper Schuringa, who actually have performed heroically when something more than a win or a loss was at stake.

And then there are the numerous websites where even the most quotidian of choices can be met with chords of approval, be it a knowing remark or an apparitional thumbs up. Facebook, specifically, with its 350 million users (and growing), is the king of the affirmation, allowing “friends” to pile plaudits on our choice of breakfast or our taste in music or our inclination to take a nap. Or whatever else we choose to share. How long did it take Jasper Schuringa to type, “Just foiled a terrorist plot from another one of those crazy Muslim suicide bombers!!!” into his Facebook status?

We shouldn’t be offended by Schuringa because we created him. And given the chance, most of us would have mimicked his actions—including what he did after the plane landed. We are entitled, after all.

Before anyone rings a death knell for heroes, be advised that as long as there are police officers and firefighters there will be acts of unselfishness. But in our current landscape, where the line between competing character traits—like narcissism and altruism—is blurred, determining who or what makes a hero has become virtually impossible and by necessity we need someone to tell us who they are, thereby diminishing the heroes in the process.

Posted in Current Events, Essays, We're Doomed - Americans, We're Doomed - Humanity | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Nextflix Decade – The Best Movies of the 2000s

Posted by sdrury on December 13, 2009

The idea that a cultural movement begins or ends with the flip of a calendar is, of course, fallacious. “60s Music” is an identifier of a specific strain of popular music that really refers to the time period, between 1965 (mid-career Beatles) and 1976 (the Sex Pistols/beginning of punk). What we think of as the Golden Era of 70s movies began, arguably, with The Graduate in 1967 (or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? the year before) and ended with Raging Bull in 1980.

For now anyway, the 2000s can be called The Netflix Decade, a time when, in theory, more movies were more accessible to more people than ever before. That doesn’t necessarily mean everyone took advantage of this opportunity. Still, the idea that a movie, even one from say, Romania about abortion, can have a second life on video is encouraging. If you’re a stickler for lists, consider this the 90 (or so) best movies of the last ten years. What this era in film will ultimately be called is anyone’s guess, but, many films in this list, particularly those made in the US, reflect life in the Age of Terror, where the country was led by a man whose ambition far exceeded his abilities.

4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days – Over the last ten years there has been a rush, in relative terms anyway, of films from countries that were formerly behind the Iron Curtain. The best of these was a heartbreakingly frank film about the moral and practical dilemmas of abortion while Eastern Europe crumbled in the late 1980s. A movie of unflinching honesty. (2007)

8 Mile – Don’t laugh. Yes, Eminem played himself, but great movies put the viewer in a time and place and Curtis Hanson’s impeccable direction gives life to the hopelessness of Eminem’s Detroit ring of despair. The performances of Kim Basinger and Mekhi Phifer are first-rate.  The movie looks even more authentic now that Eminem has faded from the limelight. (2002)

21 Grams – The title refers to the amount of weight we lose after we die. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s follow-up to Amores Perros brought together a math professor (Sean Penn), a grieving housewife (Naomi Watts) and a re-born convict (Benicio Del Toro). The story isn’t arranged chronologically and the morality of what’s taking place is apparent before the full impact of the plot.

The 25th Hour – Spike Lee’s least bombastic work. Three men (Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Barry Pepper) one of whom is preparing for a prison stint, re-assess their lives in New York City while terrorist occupied planes still echo in the background. The request made late in the film by Norton will make you gasp, but then nod in agreement with his logic. (2002)

About Schmidt – When Jack Nicholson’s wife dies he decides to rent an RV and drive around trying to avoid the realization that he’s a selfish creep. Alexander Payne’s portrait of aging shines even brighter when compared to the emptiness of another Nicholson film about old age released several years later—The Bucket List. Hope Davis is brilliant as Nicholson’s estranged daughter. (2002)

Almost Famous – The best fictional account of the rock and roll life this side of Spinal Tap. Billy Crudup hits every note as an ambivalent guitar hero. Philip Seymour Hoffman is hysterical as rock critic Lester Bangs. Cameron Crowe’s movie also launched the career of Kate Hudson, who plays a groupie. Don’t hold that against it. The “Tiny Dancer” sequence on the tour bus is sure to put a lump in your throat. (2000)

Amelie  – Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s fable starring Audrey Tautou is certain to become a beloved classic if it hasn’t achieved that status already. Jeunet and Tautou occupy a world that looks much like our own yet is eminently more just, hopeful and full of love. Engaging from any number of perspectives. (2001)

Amores Perros – The three-pronged story about how lives have been irreversibly altered by a car accident can only be described as awe-inspiring. It introduced the world to the massive talents of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Gael Garcia Bernal and the progenitors of Latin American Cinema. Much as Amores Perros is a child of Pulp Fiction, it is also the father to the acclaimed City of God. (2001)

Away From Her – This tiny movie about a woman (Julie Christie) coming to grips with Alzheimer’s raises challenging questions about the true nature of love, honesty and companionship. That Sarah Polley was only 27 when she directed this counts as a miracle. (2007)

Babel – Whereas Amores Perros’ and 21 Grams’ centerpiece were a singular event, Innaritu’s Babel centers on a singular feeling brought on by a digital, wireless age. It’s one of mutedness. We can speak to more people in more places than ever before, yet we still have no clue what to say. The characters’ eyes tell us everything we need to know about their hollowed-out existences. In Babel, continents are little more than land masses that separate people trying to cope with this new world. Brad Pitt has never been better. (2006)

The Beat That My Heart Skipped – Romain Duris dreams of becoming a concert pianist conflict with his father’s desire that he follow his footsteps into a life of low-level street thuggery. Director Jacques Audiard brings together the disparate physical and emotional universes that Duris occupies. Paris, probably the most-filmed movie locale in the world after New York, is presented in a new, fresh way. (2005)

Before Sunset – Nine years after Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy fell in love on a single night in Vienna they meet again. Except now they’re in Paris. But time has passed and things have changed. Or have they? A great idea executed to perfection by director Richard Linklater and the two leads. (2004)

Black Hawk Down – Mark Bowden’s searing chronicle of the US Army’s disaster in Somalia. Ridley Scott and a strong ensemble cast capture the frantic efforts of well-intentioned men in one impossible situation after another. (2001)

Bigger Faster Stronger* – A straightforward documentary about steroids and American culture by a first time director and former devotee of the weightlifting/bodybuilding scene. (2008)

Bloody Sunday – Made prior to United 93 and The Bourne movies, Paul Greengrass’ re-creation of the events of January 30, 1972 in Derry, Northern Ireland seethes with anger. (2002)

Borat – Far and away the best comedy in recent years. Although it dutifully serves its  function as a biting social satire, it’s the bar which other comedies strive for: “Yeah, (title) was pretty funny. But it’s no Borat.” (2006)

Bowling for Columbine – With the school shootings still fresh in the public mind Michael Moore’s film about America’s obsession with guns is a tour de force of filmmaking. It’s become the template for countless other issue-driven documentaries, but the original is still the best. Who could forget Moore emerging from a bank, gun in hand as gratitude for opening a new bank account? (2002)

Capote – I tend to resist portrayals of historical figures little more than overwrought imitations, but there are some performances that just throw you back in your seat. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s depiction of the caustic, gifted, tortured Truman Capote is such a performance. (2005)

The Dark Knight – One of the major secular features of Bush Era was rampant self-involvement. Facebook has turned the personal into the global scale. In a landscape where fame goes to those who are willing only to be more extreme than their predecessor, Heath Ledger, as the sadistic Joker tapped perfectly into this pathos while living up to unprecedented pre-release hype. Everything, onscreen and off, about The Dark Knight reflected the culture of entitlement. Mostly though, The Dark Knight delivered on all its promise.  The movie has flaws; Christian Bale’s smoky (or is it gravelly?) voice is an unneeded prop and the stunt make-up of Aaron Eckhart’s character is unnecessary. That said, it performs the near impossible—a summer blockbuster whose story and message stays with you for days, if not weeks. (2008)

Darwin’s Nightmare – A documentary about the perch in Lake Victoria that shows the social and political effects of an ecological nightmare. While An Inconvenient Truth was the environmental movie that bagged the awards and attention, Hubert Sauper’s movie chilled and moved. (2005)

Eastern Promises –  David Cronenberg re-emerged with A History of Violence, but its follow-up was far more entertaining. Naomi Watts’ London midwife stumbles across the Russian mob, as personified by Viggo Mortensen, cultures clash, mayhem ensues–including a grisly fight in a steam bath. (2007)

Edge of Heaven – The best movies of the decade made outside the US addressed the blurring of boundaries among class, race, ethnicity or sexuality. Fatih Akin’s film about a German Turk who moves to Istanbul in order to find his half-sister makes you wonder if maybe boundaries aren’t such a bad thing. (2008)

Elephant – Gus Van Sant’s take on school violence is haunting. The impending carnage looms over the characters to such a degree that, as an audience member, you want to shake them by the shoulders and tell them to run before the bullets start flying. (2003)

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room – The best of its type. A traditional talking-heads documentary that harnesses the national outrage of the Enron collapse and the subsequent dominoes that fell. Names are named and we’re given plenty of reason to hold those mentioned in absolute contempt. (2005)

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – I resisted this as too gimmicky at first and I don’t buy Jim Carrey doing anything serious, but on a second viewing it struck me as a thoughtful consideration of how memory relates to romantic longing, especially considering it’s a major studio release. The rare instance of  when a blend of a potentially toxic mix of artists–Carrey, Kate Winslet, Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman results in a coherent final product.  (2004)

The Fall – A suicidal stunt man, an eight year old Eastern European immigrant girl who speaks accented English, Charles Darwin, Alexander the Great and many, many others people populate Tarsem Singh’s follow up to The Cell. Reportedly made without CGI, it’s unlike any film ever made. (2008)

Finding Nemo – A father clown fish loses track of his son clown fish. In desperate need of help in finding him, he is assisted by a pang fish with short-term memory. That the movie somehow takes a parent’s worst nightmare and turns it into something cute is a testament to its many charms. Edged Ratatouille and Up for a spot behind WALL-E on this list. (2003)

Garden State – While it’s easy to dismiss the movie as a tool for Zach Braff’s navel-gazing, Garden State appealed to people of a certain age, pre mid-life, who wondered, “What’s it all for?” It owes massive debts to The Graduate and the work of Wes Anderson but it’s a movie of and about its time. (2004)

George Washington – David Gordon Green’s somber sketch on poor black children in North Carolina plays like a Miles Davis number. The movie is all mood, but by the end, you feel like you know the kids in this movie intimately. (2000)

Gone Baby Gone – This may be a blasphemy in some quarters, but Ben Affleck’s directorial debut does Clint Eastwood better than Eastwood himself. It confronts many of the same issues as Million Dollar Baby and Mystic River the difference is the performance of Amy Ryan, as the world’s worst mother. (2007)

Good Night and Good Luck – George Clooney’s paean to an era gone by was meant to be a body blow to the modern media, where rumor and innuendo flourish. More than David Straitharn’s uncanny impersonation of Edward R Murrow, most the high points are the elegant singing of Dianne Reeves that served as a bridge scenes of increasing tension. (2005)

Goodbye Solo – Souleymane Sy Savane is  Solo, a Senegalese cab-driver in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (the Tar Heel State is a new hot spot for American Indie Cinema). He picks up a weary, southern man who asks that a few days from now Solo take him to Blowing Rock National Park, no questions asked. Ramin Bahrani’s movie is so loaded with symbolism it’s easy to overlook what an assured, confident piece of filmmaking it is. If there’s any justice, Savane will pick up an Oscar nomination this year. (2009)

Happy-Go-Lucky – How far does attitude go in life? At first glance Sally Hawkins’ Poppy is gratingly optimistic, but as Mike Leigh’s small masterpiece unfolds we see that Poppy is far more sophisticated than we’ve given her credit for. Furthermore, I can think of no film of this or an era that so lovingly presents a friendship between two women—Hawkins and Alexis Zegerman. They’re co-workers and have each other’s backs in ways that the girls from Sex and the City would never understand. (2008)

The House of Flying Daggers  – Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon set a standard that Zhang Yimou’s exhilarating epic set in the Tang Dynasty surpassed. That’s Ninth Century kids. Two police officers, with differing motives, force a gorgeous dancer to go undercover and infiltrate The House of Flying Daggers, a group of militants who steal from the rich and give to the poor. There’s a sequence where…ok forget that, watch it and you’ll instantly recognize why this movie is on a “Best of” list. (2004)

In America – After WALL-E this was the movie that stole my heart. Jim Sheridan directed a script he wrote with his daughters about a family a lot like their own. It’s the magical story of a family overcoming the loss of the youngest child through great sacrifice and a move to Hell’s Kitchen. Sarah and Emma Bolger, who play the precocious daughters, will steal your heart too. (2003)

In the Bedroom  – Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek have a son (Nick Stahl) who gets involved with an older woman (Marisa Tomei) estranged from her husband. When Stahl gets killed by the husband in a jealous fit Wilkinson must face his own thoughts of revenge in this wrenching drama directed by Todd Field. (2001)

In the Mood for Love – It’s 1962 Hong Kong and Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung are neighbors who suspect their spouses of infidelity. Wong Kar-Wai’s film is in the grand tradition of a love story set against a society in upheaval, but simmers with a lust and eroticism all its own. Runner-up to Y Tu Mama Tambien for sexiest film of the decade. (2001)

In the Valley of Elah  – When Tommy Lee Jones’ son goes missing shortly after returning from a tour in Iraq, he sets out to find him. In the course of his quest he’s aided by Charlize Theron and the movie becomes a layered treatise about the war in Iraq, the military and family. In his best roles, Jones face says far more than any word could and that’s certainly the case in this movie, which takes its title from the site of David’s biblical battle with Goliath. (2007)

Into the Wild  – After graduating from Emory University in Atlanta, Chris McCandless, the child of well-to-do parents, gave away all his possessions and hitchhiked across America en route To Alaska. A wonderful companion to Jon Krakauer’s elegiac account of McCandless, Sean Penn’s movie brings together sweeping natural panoramas, marvelous supporting characters (Hal Holbrook especially) and a pitch-perfect score from Eddie Vedder. (2007)

Junebug – So many films about the clash between urban and rural ways of life resort to easy stereotypes, but Phil Morrison’s movie strikes just the right tone. Now living in Chicago, a son brings his art gallery-owning wife (the stunning Embeth Davidtz) to meet his parents in rural North Carolina. He re-acquaints himself with his brother whose wife (played by Amy Adams in the breakthrough performance of the decade) is pregnant. New conflicts arise as old wounds are re-opened. Celia Weston is delightful as the family matriarch. (2005)

Katyn — The legendary director Andrzej Wajda may have made his best film in his 80’s. It’s the heretofore untold story of the slaughter of thousands of Polish soldiers at the beginning of World War II by the Russian Red Army. Wajda focusses on how the Russians lies about the massacre left a permanent stain on the Polish psyche. The final twenty minutes of Katyn put your heart in your throat. (2008)

Kontroll  – Nimrod Antal’s film about life in the Budapest subway system defies easy description. Every scene and piece of dialogue seems loaded with literal and metaphorical interpretations. And the metaphor can apply just as easily to the main characters as to life in Hungary after the fall of the Soviet Empire. (2005)

 Lilya 4-ever – Abandoned by her mother, 16 year-old Lilya must fend for herself in bleak, gray Estonia. She meets a young man different from the abusive thugs in her neighborhood. He is kind to her and promises to pull her out of her dire circumstances. Hopeful and desperate, she trusts him. Thinking they will run off to a slice of heaven, Lilya is instead lowered into a kind of Hell that can only be borne from the minds of the truly evil. Lukas Moodyson’s film muscles its way into the pit of your stomach and stays there for days.

Little Children  – The decade’s best movie about suburban dystopia and arguably Kate Winslet’s best performance. She plays an educated mother whose marriage is passionless. She begins an affair with Patrick Wilson –The Prom King, as he’s dubbed by the neighborhood mothers—whose marriage is  deteriorating while he attempts to pas the bar exam. Most memorable, however, is Jackie Earle Haley, a sex offender trying to start a new life while under the watchful eye of self-appointed moralist. (2006)

The Lives of Others – An engrossing film about the horrors of life on the front lines of the Cold War. Ulrich Muhe is a member of the Stasi in 1984 who listens in on the conversations of a playwright and his lover. His own life being one of boredom he becomes increasingly engrossed in those of his subject. Florian Heckel von Donnersmarck crafted a film of personal destruction while addressing contemporary issues of privacy in a time of unparalleled freedom. (2006)

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy – It will be hard to explain to future generations the impact that this series of films had on a populace put on perpetual edge in the age of terrorism. Thousands of people lined up to watch the entire trilogy, nine hours in total. It did not take much imagination to see the similarities between Peter Jackson’s sprawling epics and the state of world affairs. The stories of honor, mysticism, fellowship and duty in the face of an indefatigable enemy bent on an engineering an apocalypse resonated with millions of people who had never even heard of JRR Tolkien. (2001-2003)

Memento  – How Christopher Nolan began the decade. The taut Guy Pearce is covered from head to toe with tattoos. He’s also written himself hundreds of notes. The ink on both the paper and his skin is critical because he has no short term memory. In normal circumstances this would be quite the conundrum, but it’s worse because Pearce’s wife has been murdered and he’s trying to figure if he did it or if someone else did. Memento was that rare, visceral movie that left the audience in their seats after the house lights came up, catching their collective breaths. (2001)

Michael Clayton  – Where Good Night and Good Luck was a clarion call to a lazy media elite, George Clooney got back in front of the camera in this tightly written drama about corporate malfeasance. He’s a fixer who keeps small problems from becoming big ones. He must prevent an old friend gone crazy (a manic Tom Wilkinson) from jeopardizing a billion-dollar project while keeping the company lawyer (a scathing Tilda Swinton) at bay. Tony Gilroy’s movie recalls 70s classics like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor. (2007)

Minority Report – The back end (after Artificial Intelligence: AI) of a Steven Spielberg double-dip on the dire possibilities of the near future, blisters with energy. Tom Cruise plays a pre-crime officer—criminals are arrested before they commit their crimes—who finds himself caught up in agency politics that have far-reaching implications. Watch it again just to see how prescient it is, based on a Philip K. Dick novel. (2002)

Monster’s Ball  – An extremely graphic sex scene featuring Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton (ick) generated buzz, but Marc Forster’s depiction of troubled lives in the south is harrowing. Heath Ledger, Sean Combs and Peter Boyle are excellent in support of Berry’s raw performance. (2001)

The Motorcycle Diaries – Before he became a face on a t-shirt, Ernesto Guevera was called “Fuser” by his friends. As a student, he and a buddy traveled through South America on a beat up Norton 500. Gael Garcia Bernal is Che in Walter Salles’ exquisite travelogue about idealism colliding with reality. The Machu Picchu sequence is breathtaking. (2004)

Moulin Rouge! – Unapologetically over the top, Baz Luhrman’s was the best musical of the past ten years. A courtesan (Nicole Kidman) falls in love with a would-be poet (Ewan McGregor) much to the chagrin of a duke. This triangle is resolved in a splash of song, color and double-entendres. Jim Broadbent won an Oscar the following year in Iris, but he deserved it for his role as the ringmaster here. (2001)

The New World – Terrence Malick’s lyrical, contemplative rendering of the affair between John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pocahantas sweeps you up and carries you off to a place that only he seems to be able to construct. When the duties of colonization become too much, the stability of their relationship is threatened. (2005)

The Notebook – The moment you say, “Oh, come on! That would never happen!” you’ve missed the point. Every character in the movie is of a type and that very broadness is what makes the film such a timeless love story. (2004)

No Country for Old Men – Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh immediately joined the pantheon of cinematic psychos but Tommy Lee Jones is outstanding as sheriff trying to make sense of killer whose weapon of choice is a cattle prong. Josh Brolin is up to Jones’ lofty standards as Chigurh’s main target. Kelly MacDonald turns a potentially forgettable role as Brolin’s wife into the moral center of the film. While the movie may have caught fans of the Coen Brothers off-guard, it fits nicely in the canon of the makers of Miller’s Crossing, Fargo and Blood Simple. (2007)

Once  – Set in modern day Dublin, Glen Hansard is a Hoover repair man and Marketa Irglova is an immigrant caring for her mother and daughter. They are both amateur musicians and gradually they write songs together that reflect their growing feelings for each other. A small treasure. (2007)

Pan’s Labyrinth – In order to escape her sadistic stepfather in Franco’s Spain, a ten year-old girl imagines a secret world where she must perform three tasks to prove that she is, in fact, a princess. Fashioned by Guillermo Del Toro, who spent the decade creating worlds that exist just beyond the reach of our own. (2006)

Requiem for a Dream Four disparate characters succumb to drug abuse. Most frightening in Darren Aronofsky’s film is the descent into madness of a woman collecting social security played by Ellen Burstyn. Far from a lecture, the movie shows in explicit detail how different people become addicted for different reasons.  (2000)

Sideways – In celebration of his philandering pal’s upcoming nuptials, Paul Giamatti takes him on a tour of California wine country. Like any good road movie, Alexander Payne’s film contrives one scenario after another in order to reveal something about the characters. What made Sideways different was the intensity of Giamatti’s portrayal of a man consumed by his own self-loathing. (2004)

The Station Agent – A thoughtful independent film from Thomas McCarthy about a dwarf (Peter Dinklage) who inherits an abandoned train station after his best friend dies. He’s subsequently harangued into friendship by a chatty hot dog vendor (Bobby Cannavale). The unlikely friends then encounter a woman (Patricia Clarkson) who is in mourning. Well-deserving of the many awards it picked up on the festival circuit. (2003)

Taxi to the Dark Side – Of the many righteously indignant documentaries criticizing the Bush Administration Alex Gibney’s was the best. It’s the story of an innocent Afghan cab driver who was tortured and killed while in US custody. He’s not a casualty of the madness of war, but rather, the victim of carefully vetted policy.  (2007)

There Will Be Blood  – P. T. Anderson’s sprawling epic of greed, oil and religion has a problematic ending but who could forget the opening scene, where Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview, without saying a word, grunts his way into our psyche. He plunges one hole after another into the ground through the force of his personality, creating to a fortune but and future that will, most certainly, be bloody. An instant American classic. (2007)

Traffic  – The War on Drugs from the peripatetic camera of Steven Soderbergh. In his most complete film, he inspects many, if not all, aspects of the struggle and concludes that the effort has been a colossal failure. Sturdy performances by Benicio Del Toro, Dennis Quaid, Don Cheadle and Michael Douglas anchor a somewhat chaotic enterprise. (2000)

Waking Life – Richard Linklater’s mind-massaging meditation on truth, reality, dreams and just about everything else washes over you like a hot shower. The fact that it merges animates live action characters pushes it to the stuff of legend. An exponentially better “alternative reality” film than Mulholland Drive. (2001)

WALL-E – The other major secular strain brought on by the reign of error that was the Bush presidency was conspicuous consumption. Remember that he suggested we go shopping in the weeks after planes were crashed into the financial and political capitols of the country. And we did. Boy did we spend. The magicians at Pixar presented the down side of this approach to calming our collective nerves, while telling a tender love story. If you didn’t go “awwwww” at least once while watching WALL-E may God have mercy on your soul. (2008)

Waltz With Bashir  – Perhaps the first and last of its kind. An animated documentary about an Israeli soldier’s memories of a battle that occurred some twenty years earlier. Ari Folman’s autobiographical story of The Lebanese War had the unique distinction of reminding you of several other films while still being thoroughly original. (2008)

Y Tu Mama Tambien – The sexiest movie of the decade. Maribel Verdu joins Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna on a road trip from Mexico City to a mysterious beach with no strings attached. Much steaminess follows. (2002)

You Can Count on Me  – Before starring in Kenneth Lonergan’s movie Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo had minor roles in minor movies. They play a brother and sister who are connected by a tragic event from their past. Each day is a struggle as they to overcome their flaws and make something out of their shiftless lives. Linney was nominated for an Oscar as a single mother trying to build a life out of perpetual setbacks. The soundtrack features several songs from Steve Earle, who knows a thing or two about turmoil. (2000)

Zodiac  – David Fincher’s story of the serial killer that spooked the Bay Area in the 1970s. Jake Gyllenhaal is a newspaper cartoonist who starts out trying to decode the murderer’s cryptic messages and ends up more obsessed with finding the killer than the police officer (Mark Ruffalo) assigned to the case. Fincher gets the grisliness out of the way early and delivers an unsparing crime procedural; the inclusion of Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man on the soundtrack is inspired. (2007)

They barely missed the cut: High Fidelity, Oldboy, Adaptation and Up

Best Releases Three or Four Decades Late

Army of Shadows – Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic of The French Resistance, released in Europe in the late 1960s made going underground heroic and cool. It ushered in a much-deserved reassessment of Melville’s place in The French New Wave. (2006)

Killer of Sheep – the life of a Los Angeles slaughterhouse worker in black and white with one of the best scores in film history. Charles Burnett’s film sat in a vault at UCLA for 30 years until it was released on video by Milestone/New Yorker Video. (2007)

Underrated, Forgotten or Worth a Second Look

24-Hour Party People – Steve Coogan nails it as the riotously self-possessed Tony Wilson, the television host who sired the Manchester music scene in the late 1970s. Michael Winterbottom adeptly recalls a flowering cultural moment that was both depressing and inspirational. (2002)

The Bridge – Eric Steel’s documentary about why the Golden Gate Bridge has become Ground Zero for suicides. More than that though, it’s about those left behind and trying to make sense of the profoundly tragic. (2006)

The Cell – The acting isn’t much (Jennifer Lopez playing a psychologist and Vince Vaughn playing it straight) and the plot machinations are absurd but Tarsem Singh’s movie about the subconscious of a serial killer is loaded with visual explosions from start to finish. (2000)

The Claim – When you sell off your wife and baby daughter for a gold mine it’s just a matter of time before it comes back to bite you, even in the pre-Information Age. There’s no escaping karma on that one. Michael Winterbottom’s version of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge is unforgettable. The icy turn-of-the-century Canadian landscape is the ideal backdrop for this morality tale. (2000)

The Dish – What role did Australia play in the first moon landing? Well, the country put up a satellite interface in a remote desert. Sam Neill plays one of the technicians who helps the locals prepare for and cope with their day in the, uhh, sun. Patrick Warburton is winning as the American liaison. (2001)

Everything is Illuminated – The movie based on what might be the best novel of the decade barely registered at the box office. Eugene Hutz steals the movie as Elijah Wood’s linguistically-challenged guide and Liev Schreiber’s debut behind the camera is extremely faithful to Jonathan Safran Foer’s source material. (2005)

Heaven – It came and went in the blink of an eye, but Cate Blanchett is a bald vigilante aided and abetted by police-officer Giovanni Ribisi. Impossible to categorize as an action pic for the art house crowd (or is it vice versa?), Tom Tykwer’s movie merits another consideration. (2002)

Idiocracy – Mike Judge’s futuristic comedy about what happens to a society that spends decades rewarding impulse and hubris over intellect and honesty. Sound familiar? (2005)

The Illusionist – In pre-World War I Vienna Edward Norton plays a magician who astonishes and taunts royalty (Rufus Sewell) and law enforcement (Paul Giamatti). It was overshadowed by The Prestige which was released the same year, but it is better shot, better acted and without the cop-out ending of Christopher Nolan’s film. (2006)

Innocence – After his wife dies a man looks up his lost love from over forty years ago. She has married and is living a comfortable life. Now in their 70s, they try to pick up where they left off. Paul Cox’s film of hope, death, loss, regret and risk tugs at your heart and never lets go. (2001)

Last Orders – A London butcher (Michael Caine) instructed his best friends (Tom Courtenay, David Hemmings and Bob Hoskins) to throw his ashes into the water at Margate beach. His son (Ray Winstone) joins them as they make the journey, recollecting about what was and what might have been. The type of small, touching film that big stars don’t seem to make anymore. (2001)

LIE – Paul Dano, in a pre-There Will Be Blood role plays a teenager who sits on a bridge above the Long Island Expressway. He has nothing, so when a dubious character, the slimy Brian Cox, offers him some semblance of normalcy, he takes it. (2001)

Made – Jon Favreau’s comedy is a follow up to Swingers which again features him and Vince Vaughan. This time they’re playing wanna-be mafiosos hired by Peter Falk to cut a deal with Sean Combs. The repoire of the castcast is terrific and the movie is even funnier with the audio commentary on (by Favreau and Vaughn). (2001)

Our Daily Bread – A dialogue-free documentary about the mechanized, industrialized nature of food production. Make sure you eat before viewing. (2006)

The Proposition – Set in late 19th century Australia, the underappreciated Ray Winstone is magnetic as a frontier lawman determined to bring peace to his town. A group of four brothers has terrorized the locals and Winstone urges two of them to turn in the oldest, who is the ringleader. This sounds like a traditional Western but Nick Cave’s bloody and depraved script is accompanied by a setting that invites comparisons to Antonioni. (2006)

Reign Over Me – Almost all of Adam Sandler’s comedic characters are emotionally-stunted man-boys. His character in Mike Binder’s film is also a shell of a man, mumbling his way around New York City on a scooter, donning headphones to keep the outside world away. Don Cheadle is his usual superb self playing a dentist, trying to find out what’s gone wrong with Sandler, his old college roommate. In the course of reaching out to Sandler, Cheadle must face problems in his own life. (2007)

Sweet Land – In 1920s Minnesota a beautiful German woman arrives to marry a Norwegian farmer. He speaks little English and she speaks none. This is the least of their troubles as her ethnicity, in light of World War I, gives the rest of the community pause. Ali Selim’s feature debut is quiet, elegant and assured. (2006)

The Widow of St. Pierre – Patrice Leconte’s tale of redemption set in the (then) French colony of Newfoundland in the 1850s. Emir Kusterica plays a drunk sentenced to death for a murder. But time passes before the guillotine can arrive from France. Slowly, the community, represented by Juliette Binoche and Daniel Auteuil, comes to see the murderer in a different light. (2001)

The Yards – James Gray’s story of corruption in the Queens rail yards was unjustly ignored by audiences on its release. Perhaps it was because the star, Mark Wahlberg, was an unproven quantity as a dramatic actor (Ok, some might say he still is), but he more than holds his own among James Caan, Ellen Burstyn, Faye Dunaway, Charlize Theron and Joaquin Phoenix. (2000)

A Double Feature About Women Living on the Margins

Frozen River and Wendy and Lucy –  Melisso Leo and Michelle Williams try to save their son and dog, respectively, while staring some hard truths in the face. (Both released in 2008)

Actors of the Decade –Gael Garcia Bernal and Philip Seymour Hoffman

Actresses of the Decade – Cate Blanchett, Laura Linney and Kate Winslet

Directors of the Decade – Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Christopher Nolan

Overrated

Brokeback Mountain – A movie more concerned with its message than advancing the story in a cinematic way. The script is clunky (saved by Heath Ledger’s performance) and for a movie intended to bust stereotypes, it’s comprised of supporting characters who are exactly that.

Knocked Up – Where The 40-Year-Old Virgin was a sweet, bromance about the complexities of dating, this was self-indulgent. A stoner who lives with other porn-living potheads hooks up with a successful television producer? That’s a shaky premise to begin with and impossible to ignore whenever the two leads start talking about child rearing. Why weren’t women insulted by this movie?

Lost in Translation – Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson are displaced Americans in Tokyo. It’s a Jim Jarmusch movie done by Sofia Coppola. One Jarmusch is plenty thank you very much.

Mulholland Drive – What’s this movie about? No, really somebody tell me.

Movie that’s aged the worstCrash. Only five years old and the tale of race and circumstance in Los Angeles already feels quaint.

And what of Wes Anderson? – His four films (three live-action and one animated) are entertaining, but they’re all riffs on a similar theme—highly stylized portraits of fractured families done to great soundtracks. They all made my best of the year list when released, but Anderson, so far anyway, has been content to have his characters talk about their struggles rather than show them.

Television (Still a vast wasteland)

The conversation begins and ends with The Wire. If you haven’t seen it you have deprived yourself of storytelling on par with Charles Dickens, but more visual. There’s no point in spilling more cyber-ink on it as countless others have extolled its virtues. So watch it. Now. You’re welcome.

The two best documentaries of the past ten years originally aired on television. Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home revealed every available side of Bob Dylan including a few that Mr. Zimmerman would rather have kept under wraps. Scorsese seemed to talk to everyone who ever had anything to do with Dylan.

The other great doc was Spike Lee’s agonizing, thorough, poetic story of the debacle and failure of our government’s response to Hurricane Katrina. It’s not hyperbolic to call When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts an act of public service.

OK…if I must choose…a baker’s dozen…(I actually already tipped my hand above by adding a clip after the summary)

WALL-E, Amelie, The Dark Knight, Memento, Amores Perros, In America, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Moulin Rouge! There Will Be Blood, The Lives of Others, Waking Life, You Can Count on Me and Lilya 4-ever.

Posted in Movies | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 43 Comments »