The Top Five:
5. Ocean's Eleven (Steven Soderbergh, 2001)
One of the decade's great entertainments – and a testament to the virtues of star power. George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Andy Garcia, Julia Roberts, Don Cheadle, Elliot Gould, Carl Reiner – it's almost too much for one movie to handle. Yet director Steven Soderbergh manages to juggle multiple character threads without ever losing his audience, so that we know exactly who's doing what, and where they're doing it. What's more, he remembers that movies, at their core, are supposed to be fun. Ted Griffin's script is a treasure trove of snappy dialogue exchanges, and the actors have such an easy rapport you get the sense they really enjoy each other's company – the spark is palpable. Critics blasted Soderbergh and Co. for relying too much on style, not enough on substance. To which I say: What's the problem with that? When a movie's as effortless and enjoyable as this, that's substance enough.
4. Juno (Jason Reitman, 2007)
4. Juno (Jason Reitman, 2007)
3. Dan In Real Life (Peter Hedges, 2007)
Steve Carell stars – in a role about a thousand times removed from any character he's played before – as a widowed newspaper advice columnist who packs up his three daughters (two of them teenagers) for a weekend family get-together in Vermont. While there, he falls head-over-heels for the woman (Juliette Binoche, lovely) dating his younger brother, and spends the rest of the movie throwing temper tantrums. Most of the laughs are of the awkward, too-close-for-comfort variety, as Carell struggles with his emotions and tries to be an example to his children – and fails at it miserably. It's a movie populated with characters you'd probably recognize from your own life: the parents who sit back, amused, while their grown-up kids make grown-up mistakes; the brother in a seemingly endless string of relationships; the petulant, love-struck teenager – the list goes on. That's the beauty of a Comedy like this, how we recognize the foibles and frustrations of the lives on screen as our own.
2. Stranger Than Fiction (Marc Forster, 2006)
Magical. The kind of experience that's so one-of-a-kind in tone and story you can't wait to tell all your friends about it. Its basic concept – lowly IRS auditor (Will Ferrell) starts hearing a voice that turns out to be narrating his life – would have been enough to sustain a lesser movie. But the script by first-timer Zach Helm is literate and funny, and it keeps adding layers to the plot and the characters, so that it actually unfolds like one of the novels in which Ferrell's Harold Crick is supposed to be playing a part. Ferrell is a revelation here – he's funnier acting as straight-man to the absurdities going on around him. Plus, he's surrounded by actors (Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, even Queen Latifah) who force him to step up his game. Those quirky visual tricks director Marc Forster peppers throughout the movie are nifty too; whether they're on-screen digital readouts of a character's thoughts, or clouds that move oh-so-subtly behind Ferrell's head on an office wall (above), they reinforce Fiction's underlying theme, that we're all cogs in grander schemes at play.
1. The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001)
Wes Anderson has a bold filmmaking style all his own, with humor so dry it takes a peculiar sensibility to appreciate it. His characters seem overly pleased with themselves, content in their own little worlds, and his actors deliver their lines in such a hushed, ironic monotone (it's like they can barely be bothered to speak) that their performances border on the catatonic. But it's a defense mechanism masking deeper heartache. All three Tenenbaum children – reclusive playwright Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), fallen tennis star Richie (Luke Wilson), and widowed mathematics wiz Chas (Ben Stiller), all geniuses – have been damaged in some irreparable way, most of it due to the influence of their father, Royal (Gene Hackman). The punchline to the movie's big cosmic joke is that, for all his bluster and detachment, it's this same man who ultimately helps them break out of their shells – and gets me all misty-eyed, every time. Tenenbaums is, finally, a summation of each title that makes up this list: the star power of Ocean's Eleven; the characters of Juno (adolescent or adult) who all have some growing up to do; the family dynamic of Dan In Real Life; a plot, like Stranger Than Fiction, that unfolds with the richness of a great novel; and a voice as original as anything I've seen these past ten years.
Okay, so that's two down (and sorry for the delay, but the entire family's been extra sick the past two weeks). Agree? Disagree? Please comment below! And stick around, because our next entry will tackle a genre I never would have even considered a valid category until this last decade.