by D.W. Lundberg

Tuesday, May 25, 2010





Happiness. Heartache. Man's eternal struggle to achieve one and distance himself from the other. The Dramatic film is Hollywood's favorite genre, with six out of ten Best Picture wins at the Academy Awards this past decade (Crash, The Departed, The Hurt Locker, Million Dollar Baby and Slumdog Millionaire; other winners included an Action epic, a Biopic, a Musical, and a Fantasy film, respectively). Dramas provide stars ample opportunity to show off their acting skills, and a chance to impress their peers. They also give filmmakers the chance to probe the great mysteries of the human heart. Like all great films, though, the Dramas that matter most are the ones that surprise you with their depth and emotional impact.

The Top Five:
5. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)

Typo'd title aside (it's a deliberate riff on a Z-grade Dirty Dozen rip-off from the 70s), Quentin Tarantino's latest love letter to movies features some of his most literate work to date. It's still a mishmash of genres – this time it's World War II revenge fantasy meets Nazi spy thriller with a dose of French New Wave. I include it here based on the intensity of Tarantino's extended dialogue sequences, which build and build to the point of anxiety; an opening prologue at a farmhouse and, later, a rendezvous at an underground bar are like master classes in screenwriting, with adversaries playing verbal games of cat and mouse to discover each others' secrets. The movie itself is almost gleefully anachronistic – a David Bowie ballad plays at one point, and Tarantino even re-writes the outcome of the war so that Hitler meets his end at the hand of Jewish mercenaries. Not exactly what I'd call an accurate depiction of history. Just a director at his exhilarating, visceral best.

4. Cast Away (Robert Zemeckis, 2000)

That's right, the movie where Tom Hanks spends over 70 minutes of screen time alone on a deserted island, talking to a volleyball. But oh, how it haunts me to this day. Robert Zemeckis' fiercely-controlled, much-maligned masterwork is a deceptively simple tale of a man too busy "living by the clock" to appreciate the woman he loves, only to find himself stranded (literally) in a position where he's got all the time in the world to think about what he's lost. That's it – any allusions to Robinson Crusoe or wider themes of Man's Rediscovery Of His Inner Survivalist are entirely beside the point. The true daring of the movie lies in its dogged devotion to its hero (never cutting away, for instance, to show others' attempts to rescue him), plus a third-act wrap-up that's emotionally devastating because of how much is left unresolved. And then there's Hanks, at the center of almost every frame, in the strongest, savviest star performance of the decade.

3. Caché (Hidden) (Michael Haneke, 2005)

A movie less interested in solving its central mystery involving cryptic videotapes than in showing the unsettling effect said tapes have on the characters – forcing them to confront aspects of their lives they'd so far been able to keep, well, hidden. That creeping anxiety extends to the audience, too. Images play and replay on screen, until it's never entirely clear whether we're watching a narrative, or taking an active part in some voyeur's sadistic head games. (Not to worry, though: apart from one shocking suicide and a harrowing scene involving a chicken, the horrors are kept mostly off-screen.) Director Michael Haneke sees the movie as "productive frustration," adding, "[f]ilms that are entertainments give simple answers but I think that's ultimately more cynical, as it denies the viewer room to think." He's right. Beneath the movie's conventional thriller trappings hides a shattering Drama that continues to shape and reshape itself even after repeated viewings.

2. No Country For Old Men (Joel Coen / Ethan Coen, 2007)

The Coens' most blissfully brutal work since Blood Simple, based on the novel by Carmac McCarthy. The suspense sequences are so well crafted (thanks largely to an exquisite ambient sound design) you may think you're caught in the grip of a crackerjack cat-and-mouse chase thriller, with Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem as opposing forces chasing each other and a satchel full of two million in cash. Little wonder, then, that so many people feel cheated by the ending, which reveals the movie as a meditation on fate and the banality of evil instead. In fact, I'd say all of NCFOM feels like an exercise in subverting expectations: there are long stretches without dialogue, for example, the music score's virtually non-existent (about 16 minutes worth, including credits), and the rhyming character beats are so subtle you'll miss them if you're not paying attention. The result is pure visual poetry – stark, reflective and uncompromising.

1. Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000)

It hardly seems fair. I saw this in January 2001, at the tail end of its promotional tour at the Sundance Film Festival, and hardly any other movie's been able to match it for sheer narrative virtuosity since. It's structured as two concurrent threads, one told chronologically (in black and white), the other (in color) unfolding in reverse, with each scene followed by the action that preceded it. Sound confusing? Well, that's the point. We're constantly kept off balance, much like our hero, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), who suffers from a brain injury that prevents him from creating new memories, ever since the night of his wife's rape and murder. Now he seeks revenge, obsessively scribbling down notes, taking Polaroid photographs, and tattooing various clues all over his body to keep himself on the right track - a futile quest, since he's trapped in an endless loop of anger and despair. This is Christopher Nolan's masterpiece, a twisty, sometimes wickedly funny head trip of a movie that also finds time for a little soul searching. It's instantly unforgettable.


Been a while, I know - I'm nothing if not an epic procrastinator. Next up: Family/Animated. Maybe a little sooner this time.


  1. Memento rules! When I first saw Memento (I believe I saw it with you, Darin) I wanted to rewind and watch it all over again. It is a perfect movie! It quickly jumped to the top of my top ten list. I only wish I had thought of it first. Selur otnemem!

    No Country for Old Men is also a great movie! I've always thought that less is more, especially when it comes to the musical score. I hate movies that underscore everything. This movie proves that movies can connect with the audience and that it is possible for the audience to feel the intended emotion without the score indicating what you're supposed to feel and when you're supposed to feel it.

  2. I'm glad you added this movie to your list. When Ruth and I first saw Inglourious Basterds we mistakingly took our son with us, so Ruth ended up leaving the theatre and left me to watch the movie alone. I fell in love with the film, and I did, however, convince Ruth to come see it again (without the kid) and she--like me--loved it! The script, the acting, the production design, and cinematography were all superb. I didn't want it to end. The thing about Tarantino's films is you never know what you're going to get, but you can be sure it will be one crazy rollercoaster ride, not just cinematically, but emotionally as well. In my mind there are only a select few perfect movies and this is one of them!