by D.W. Lundberg

Monday, September 6, 2010





Biographies. Period pieces. Inspiring true stories of triumph over adversity. There was much to admire about the Historical Dramas of 2000-2009, from the Oscar-winning star performances as larger-than-life personas (Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich, Charlize Theron as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster, Jamie Foxx in Ray) to the blood-soaked spectacle of atrocities old (Pearl Harbor, The Pianist) and new (Hotel Rwanda, World Trade Center). While filmmakers have long been notorious for altering events to suit Dramatic purposes, the Historical film should nevertheless stick as close to the facts as possible, as well as provide us a vivid recreation of times past. Done right, these films not only show us where we've been, but also what we've yet to become.

The Top Five:

5. The Aviator (Martin Scorsese, 2004)

Biopics aren't typically my thing. Too much sentimentality, I suppose, or maybe it's the self-congratulatory attempt to shoehorn an entire life's story into feature length. Martin Scorsese, though, takes a more creative approach with his bustling Howard Hughes epic, narrowing his focus to the impressive 20-year span in which the billionaire industrialist burned brightest, from shooting Hell's Angels at 22, to his successful test flight of the "Spruce Goose" H-4 Hercules in 1947. Scorsese also seems to be having great fun replicating the Hollywood of yesteryear, right down to the two- and three-shade Technicolor film stock of the period (most noticeable in the grass where Hughes and Cate-Blanchett-as-Katherine-Hepburn play golf, or the fields where Hughes crashes his H-1 Racer). And while Leonardo DiCaprio initially seems too boyish to carry the entire movie on his shoulders, his performance actually gains in stature the older his character gets. It's a mirror for DiCaprio's own career trajectory, of a prodigy whose talents extend far beyond his years.

4. Flags Of Our Fathers / Letters From Iwo Jima (Clint Eastwood, 2006)

Few projects felt quite as ambitious as Clint Eastwood's companion- piece World War II saga – and Eastwood was an astonishing 76 years old when he shot them, back to back. Not bad for a guy who forged his career making genre pictures (Westerns, War movies), and now spends his time debunking them instead (first Unforgiven in 1992, and now this). Both Flags and Letters, too, are about shifting perspectives. The first, told largely through flashback, recounts the Battle Of Iwo Jima from the American POV, and how a single photograph (re-created for the movie above) forever altered the lives of those men who fought in the war, and also the public's perception of it. Letters, meanwhile, follows the battle from the Japanese side, which not only humanizes the "enemy" but also provides a fascinating counterpoint to the military strategies shown in the earlier film. The combat scenes in both movies rival the scope and intensity of anything since Saving Private Ryan, with a bleached-out, chiaroscuro color scheme to match the muted, often poetic emotions on display.

3. Black Hawk Down (Ridley Scott, 2001)

Ridley Scott's harrowing re-enactment of 1993's Battle Of Modadishu immerses you in the ferocity of combat like no other movie before it. The focus here is on the U.S. Military's ill- fated attempt to capture lieutenants loyal to warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid, and the 18-hour firefight with Somali militia members that followed – no more, no less. Just a few opening pleasantries and then all hell breaks loose for an hour and forty minutes, minus the gung-ho posturing and political context so typical of the genre. Some find this approach a little oppressive, that so much emphasis on sustained bloodshed and so little on characterization ultimately numbs the soul. Well, guess what, folks: that's exactly the point. Characters are defined by their extraordinary will to survive, as resolute and unyielding as the enemy they're facing. Call it the tonal opposite of Pearl Harbor, 2001's other Jerry Bruckheimer mega- production to hit theaters that year.

2. Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)

You wouldn't expect the director of Se7en to downplay the more sensational aspects of his follow-up serial-killer thriller. Then again, David Fincher has always had a knack for confounding expectations. Based on the infamous murder spree that terrorized Northern California during the late 1960's, Zodiac is a mystery that refuses to play by the rules: the case is never solved (SPOILER), and the screenplay by James Vanderbilt favors long scenes of expository dialogue over macabre thrills. The result is a two-and-a-half-hour multi-character study on the nature of obsession - about the methodical gathering of evidence, never conclusive, that drove both men and the media to follow a killer into the abyss. Even Fincher himself comes off as a tad obsessive, with an eye for period detail that goes beyond the meticulous (everything from the phones to the typewriters to copies of newspapers are specific to the day scenes actually took place). It's a perfect match between filmmaker and theme, of the unquenchable thirst for truth that plagues us all.

1. United 93 (Paul Greengrass, 2006)

The day that defined an entire decade becomes the movie no one wanted to see. And with good reason: our collective memories of 9/11, like an open wound that had yet to heal, felt too immediate, too personal, to be trivialized on the big screen. But Paul Greengrass, who directed Matt Damon in The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, never resorts to ham-fisted melodramatics. In United 93, there are no "movie stars" to speak of, no speeches, no left wing/right wing political agenda; and it's shot in a pseudo-Documentary style that captures, with gut-wrenching intensity, the escalating panic of a nation caught completely off guard. Scenes play out in real time, between the air-traffic controllers, FAA officials and military personnel (some of them playing themselves) trying to make sense of the chaos, and the passengers and crew on board UAL Flight 93, who make the iconic and fateful decision to overpower their hijackers. You may question, of course, the purpose of reliving the events of that morning in such visceral detail. "Entertainment" this is not; as a testament to those "first people to inhabit the post-9/11 world," though, it is absolutely essential.


So there it is. Seven down, three to go - and with roughly three months to go for the year! With any luck, I'll finish this project before Christmas. (But don't hold me to that.) Next in line: the Horror films of the Noughties. Ooh, scary.

1 comment:

  1. This is a very good list! And your reviews are great, too!

    To remember 9/11 I actually watched United 93 recently. I remember when I first saw it in the theatre I was so upset and shocked by what I was seeing on the screen I could literally feel the blood pumping through my veins, and after watching it again in my home, I re-lived my theatre experience with the exact same intesity. I agree with you, Darin, it's definately an important film!