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Michel Gondry achieved a rare thing with his 2004 breakthrough film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. His surreal, twisty love story resonated with art cinema geeks, but it also acquired a new, more mainstream fan base for the French director. After garnering 2 Academy Award Nominations for Eternal Sunshine (including a well-deserved win for Charlie Kaufman for Best Original Screenplay), it seemed like all eyes were on Gondry’s next project…which turned out to be Dave Chappelle’s Block Party. Uh, okay. Well, you know, that was really more of a documentary…I’m sure his next movie –
Then he made some weird bilingual part-stop-motion thing? And he doesn’t even have any big stars in it?
Yes, believe it or not, not all directors sell out after success, and Gondry in fact took a step back in terms of accessibility with The Science of Sleep. It’s a meandering, strange little film, but despite its overall modesty, it’s actually quite ambitious. Melding together the mundane reality of life with a frenzied dream state, Gondry avoids every pitfall of the surreal and makes a surprisingly moving film.
Our protagonist, Stephane (Gael Garcia Bernal), is a shy singleton stuck moving back in with his mother. He meets an intriguing neighbour, Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), but initially finds himself more drawn to her subtly cruel friend, Zoe. But throughout his struggles to find love, Stephane often finds himself interweaving fantasy with reality. And as his relationship with Stephanie evolves, both of them have trouble seeing the truth of their situation for what it is.
With such a simple plot, The Science of Sleep relies quite heavily on its visual style and overall whimsy. Luckily, Gondry is a master of such things, and the sheer creativity of his vision is a wonder to behold. Many scenes of the film evolve from being rooted in reality to becoming entirely bizarre, but like a real dream, it’s done so seamlessly that it never disorients the viewer. From Stephane’s imaginary talk show (which opens the film, and pops up frequently throughout) to the mixed media representations of his dreams, it feels like a school art project, in the best way possible. While Eternal Sunshine was slick with its quirkiness, The Science of Sleep is much more modest. At one point, Stephane and Stephanie create a sea of cellophane, carefully positioning the pieces to appear “random”, and this arts-and-crafts vibe permeates every corner of the film.
Also enhancing the unconventional tone are the performances. Bernal and Gainsbourg are well-respected actors in the world of foreign film, but they may only be familiar to American audiences for small parts in Hollywood films (Bernal appeared in Babel and, more recently, Letters to Juliet, and Gainsbourg can be seen in 21 Grams and I’m Not There). Both juggle English and French here (Bernal’s primary language is Spanish, while Gainsbourg’s is French), and both shine on screen. Bernal, especially, is both vulnerable and hilarious. He nails Stephane’s bumbling, unassuming nature and embodies every one of the character’s insecurities.
The visual flare and Bernal’s alternately charming and heartbreaking performance take this film far. Gondry also says a lot about love and our aversion to reality. But even with such a simple plot, I felt like this film could’ve been propelled along in a more engrossing way. It starts to sag in the middle, and there may be a few too many fantasy sequences to keep the concept fresh.
Gondry wrote the script without Charlie Kaufman this time around, and while he handles it fine, it lacks some of the punch of Eternal Sunshine‘s. The relationship of the two main characters here is poignant, but it never quite manages to transcend the modest vibe of the film.
The Science of Sleep‘s slow pace and inaccessibility will put off a lot of viewers. But I would recommend it to a larger group than merely Gondry fans. It’s funny and inventive, and the film’s charm takes it far. It nails a woozy dream world, but it’s Gondry’s depiction of the ups and downs of the real world that make it worthwhile.
Of course, it was a daunting task to pick my favourite movies of the decade. But after re-drafting my list at least a dozen times, this is what I managed to come up with. These are the ten films that I enjoyed most from this decade.
10. Capote (2005)
For some reason, the #10 spot seemed to be the hardest to fill on this list. But Capote, which won Phillip Seymour Hoffman an Oscar, was captivating in every way. The acting (of course), the story, and the visuals are all stunning. The evolution of Capote’s character, and his relationship with the murderous subject of his next book, were astounding to watch unravel.
9. Finding Nemo (2003)
I guess this is my requisite Pixar choice. Up and Ratatouille underwhelmed me, but this colourful tale of aquatic life was undeniably joyful. The animation is hypnotic, and the characters are unforgettable. It’s both a touching story of family, and an exciting adventure tale. Throw in Ellen Degeneres’ hilarious Dory character, and you’ve got a fantastic family film.
8. Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
Spend thirty seconds with the foul-mouthed grandfather in Little Miss Sunshine (played by the wonderful Alan Arkin), and you’ll likely appreciate your own family a little more. But underneath the biting, dark humour of this film, there is actually an incredibly heart-warming road trip story. Steve Carrel’s suicidal scholar and Paul Dano’s voluntarily silent teen make one of the best on-screen duos I’ve ever seen.
7. Memento (2000)
Guy Pearce (one of the more underrated actors out there) plays a man who can’t make new memories in Christopher Nolan’s frenzied breakthrough film. The film amazingly manages to keep up its fast-paced momentum, despite the fact that it’s scrambled and chopped, and that scenes play out in overlapping reverse order. It’s amazingly unique, and Memento is both intelligent, and an incredibly entertaining whodunit.
6. There Will Be Blood (2007)
This film seems to be popping up on everyone’s top 10 list (often at the top spot), but that’s probably because There Will Be Blood is such a masterpiece. Daniel Day-Lewis is amazing, there are so many striking, unforgettable moments (the whole oil rig fire sequence was amazing, not to mention the final scene).
5. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
There is no doubt Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is one of the most unique films of the decade. From the quiet, realistic courtship of Joel and Clementine, to the unusually messy breakup (they decide to erase each other from their memories entirely), it’s a whimsical, gorgeous film. It feels like it’s made for this time, which is probably why so many people connected to it so intensely.
4. The Dark Knight (2008)
Honestly, do I need to say anything at all? I’ll just apologize and move on.
3. Half Nelson (2006)
Ryan amazingly subtle performance as a crack addicted teacher is the anchor of Half Nelson, but the film as a whole is entirely absorbing, and it’s a stunning debut for director Ryan Fleck. Half Nelson celebrates and laments the small moments in life that everyone experiences, as well as delving into the tragic problems of the character’s lives. The relationship between Gosling’s Dan and Shareeka Epps’ Drey is beautiful – full of sorrow, understanding, and respect.
2. Juno (2007)
Maybe it sounds stupid to say this about a fairly lightweight comedy, but Juno is a film that really spoke to me. I love that Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody created a fun, mainstream film that actually has something to say, and it features some amazing well-written characters. It’s touching and funny, and Juno is one of the only honest on-screen depictions of what it’s like to be a young woman.
1. Almost Famous (2000)
Almost Famous has a wonderful sense of joy, and it captures the feeling of being young and loving music in a way that I didn’t even know was possible. Patrick Fugit, Kate Hudson (in what may be her only good performance, like, ever), Frances McDormand, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman are vibrant, and the killer soundtrack (featuring the first Led Zeppelin tune to be licensed for a film) tops it all off.
A Beautiful Mind, The Departed, Donnie Darko, Garden State, Into the Wild, Requiem for a Dream, Signs, Snow Angels, Zodiac
I think that I’m going to expand this list from 25 to however many performances there are that I feel are noteworthy. Here are five more performances from this decade that I’ve loved. Be sure to check out the other parts of this feature, and feel free leave me some comments on what you think!
Kate Winslet – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind starts off as an unconventional love story, and then becomes even more unconventional when love goes sour, and Clementine and Joel decide that they want to erase each other from their memory entirely. The most memorable moments of Winslet’s performance come when Clementine gives glimpses of her emotional, raw inner self. This often comes during spats with Joel. While I loved Carrey’s moody, restrained performance, Winslet is the opposite. She’s fiery and passionate, and Carrey almost feels like the “straight-man” to her ultra-vibrant character. Yet the vulnerable moments are great too. And even the moments where everything is actually going right in Clementine and Joel’s relationship seem elevated from the usual romantic comedy fare. Without Winslet, much of the quirkiness, heart, and charm of this movie would be gone.
Sam Riley – Control (2007)
My favourite musical biopic of the decade was Anton Corbijn’s Control, which chronicles the short adult life of Ian Curtis, and the rise of his band, Joy Division. It’s a pretty grim movie. Curtis cheats on his wife, has horrific seizures, struggles to find success with his band, and ultimately takes his own life. But Riley’s up to the role, clearly. Riley’s Curtis is soft-spoken, withdrawn, and petulant. Yet when he steps on stage, everything comes alive in a bizarre, desperate kind of way. Riley switches between Curtis’ electric stage persona and troubled personal life with startling ease, and you can feel Curtis’ pain. At times, it feels much more like a documentary than the usual glossy biopic, and this is largely because of Riley unaffected performance. Curtis is a figure who is often romanticized in hindsight. But Joy Division was only on the cusp of success when Curtis killed himself. Riley portrays him as the real, troubled human being that he was.
Heath Ledger – The Dark Knight (2008)
I’m not sure if there’s much left to say about this instantly iconic performance. Only exacerbated by the tragedy of Ledger’s untimely death in January of 2008, his brilliant performance as the Joker was haunting. Darkly funny and incredibly eerie, his take on the anarchistic clown has become a landmark of 21st century pop culture. Some questioned whether Ledger would have won the Oscar (which he was posthumously awarded at the 2009 Oscars) if he had still been alive. I have no way of knowing if he would have, but I absolutely believe that he would have deserved it. His death is tragic for many reasons, but for the fans, perhaps the most frustrating aspect is the idea of the performances that we could’ve seen from this immensely talented actor.
Benicio Del Toro – Things We Lost in the Fire (2007)
While it was generally received positively by critics, Things We Lost in the Fire seemed to disappear as soon as it was released. This is a huge shame, because as well as being a really good film, it features one of my five favourite performances of the decade. Benicio Del Toro plays Jerry, a heroin addict who, after the death of his friend, goes to live with his friend’s wife and kids. If you look at a film like Requiem for a Dream, that film is all about the surreal, frightening visuals, which are meant to represent a drug-induced whirl. This film has a much simpler style. It relies on Del Toro to convey the horrors of his addiction, rather than the style and editing of the film. It’s not a by-the-numbers character arc, and Del Toro’s performance is anything but contrived. He takes the performance far beyond the usual one-dimensional “drug addict” stereotype, bringing a surprising amount of warmth to an otherwise bleak role.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman – Capote (2005)
Whether his Truman Capote was captivating a crowd at a lavish party, or visiting a convicted murderer in his tiny jail cell, Hoffman’s performance was both grand and subtle at the same time. Of course, he imitated the infamous voice of Capote well, but the performance goes far beyond an impersonation and never becomes the stereotype that it could have been. I thought Capote was an excellent movie, and the performances were a large part of that. Some of the supporting performances are great (Clifton Collins Jr. is incredible and understated in his role as one of the murderers that Capote is chronicling), but it’s clearly Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s show. He earned a well-deserved Oscar for his work in Capote, and it cemented his status as one of the best working actors.
Here’s the second part of my “Favourite Performances of the Decade” feature. You can check out the first part of the series here, and be sure to stay tuned for the next three parts, which will be revealed over the next few months.
Emile Hirsch – Into the Wild (2007)
In Sean Penn’s directorial debut, Emile Hirsch plays Christopher McCandless, a young man so disillusioned with society that he sets off alone on a journey to Alaska. Though McCandless meets a few kind strangers along the way (most notably, a lonely old man played by Hal Holbrook), the film is essentially Hirsch’s. Luckily, he seems to have no trouble filling three hours with his understatedly charismatic, honest performance. Whether McCandless is marvelling at the breathtaking Alaskan wilderness, or struggling to survive in the face of its backlash, Hirsch’s performances never seems forced. In fact, I found it indefinably inspiring. As the audience, we follow the arc of emotions that McCandless goes through, and Hirsch is a good companion to have along for the ride. His performance is joy, innocence, heartbreak, and courage all rolled into one. Into the Wild is long and kind of slow-moving, but it’s ultimately very rewarding to watch, and a lot of this is because of Hirsch’s wonderful performance.
Jim Carrey – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
As much as I love Jim Carrey’s style of comedy (I’m picky about broad, physical humour, but Jim Carrey’s always makes me laugh.), my favourite performance of his came in Michel Gondry’s 2004 breakthrough, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Here, he plays Joel, a lonely, low-key man who finds love in the quirky Clementine (played by Kate Winslet). But don’t let the floppy hair and glum demeanour fool you. Carrey’s Joel isn’t just some middle-aged guy who’s still wallowing in teen angst. Carrey brings more dimensions to his performance. I totally related to Joel, and while a lot of the credit goes to the brilliant writing of Charlie Kaufman, Carrey’s performance also played a huge part. Even when the film takes a bizarre turn and explores the world of purposeful memory loss, Carrey still brings a lot of heart, and his presence keeps the film grounded.
Ellen Page – Juno (2007)
Page’s portrayal of the sixteen-year-old mom-to-be in Juno is just as sassy as everyone says, but while Juno seems self-assured, we learn that a lot of her bravado is covering up insecurities. Vaguely questionable relationships with the man about to adopt her child (played brilliantly by Jason Bateman) and dealing with the judgement that she faces as a pregnant teen clearly begin to wear Juno down. Page’s performance feels perfect as she plays a girl who is slowly stripped of her defence mechanisms (sarcasm, mainly), and is only left with real life to deal with. The way that Page reacts to teenage experiences that are both typical and unusual was so believable, and just a joy to watch. Her performance is the reason that so many different types of people loved this movie, and it’s probably the most authentic portrayal of a teenage girl that I’ve seen on film.
Casey Affleck – The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Not since Jon Favreau called the same girl’s answering machine six consecutive times in Swingers have we witnessed such an epic display of loserdom on screen. But while Favreau’s performance was played for laughs, the 2 hours and 40 minutes we spend with Casey Affleck’s bumbling Bob Ford is far from comedic. The movie itself is a complex character study of the two men in a battle of wits (Robert Ford and Jesse James, who is played by Brad Pitt), and their never-ending quest to be one step ahead of the other. At one point, James muses to Ford, “I’m not sure if you want to be like me, or to be me.” That sentiment kind of sets the tone for Affleck’s entire performance, which twists and evolves beautifully throughout the film. I found Affleck’s performance unexpectedly moving, in a way. This is best shown in the last half hour or so of the film, after Bob has killed Jesse and has to return to the real world – only to find that they don’t want him, either. He’s annoying and egotistical, yet Affleck’s amazing performance made me pity and even sympathize with this bizarre character.
Leonardo DiCapprio – The Departed (2006)
In Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning film, DiCapprio plays Billy Costigan, a conflicted young man working as an undercover investigator for the Boston police. When he’s assigned to get in with gangster Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) he soon finds himself in over his head. One of the things that I liked most about The Departed is that they had two characters on either side of the law, who are crossing into each other’s turf for their work (a very clean-cut Matt Damon plays Colin Sullivan, who is a Costello’s rat in the SIU), and they flip our expectations early on in the film, when we find out who is working for who. DiCapprio is so convincing as a man with a questionable family history (which is the entire reason that he was chosen to be the mole), but who is essentially good, and strives to do the right thing. The conflict that Costigan feels is played so well, and the entire process that he goes through is really amplified by DiCapprio’s great work.
I’ve never really considered myself much of a fan of romantic comedies. I even turned down an invitation to see The Ugly Truth with some friends tonight in favour of seeing the new Harry Potter movie (and because The Ugly Truth looks fairly terrible). There’s so much mindless crap out there that’s targeted towards women looking for pointless escapism, and these so-called rom-coms usually aren’t very romantic or funny. I knew that there were a few I liked out there, but then I stumbled across Paste magazine’s list of the 17 best romantic comedies of the decade. I realise that their article is six months old, which makes it either obsolete or nostalgic in internet terms, but if you want a testament to how current I am, read the subtitle of this blog. ANYWAYS, the point of this is to say that Paste came up with a pretty good list! You can click here to read the full article.
As they admit, they use the term “romantic comedy” pretty loosely. Personally, I never really considered Wall-E or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to be comedies, much less romantic comedies (where’s Hugh Grant? And the sappy airport endings?), but I think it was a great choice to include them. Those movies offer an alternative to the usual cheesy fare that always seems to test my gag reflexes. And while movies like Waitress, About a Boy, and High Fidelity are slightly more conventional takes on the genre, they’re also a cut above the rest. They have much better acting, and you can tell that genuine affection went into making these films. I really enjoyed all of the movies on this list that I’ve seen, so what does that say about me? Perhaps I’m not the cold-hearted realist I like to think I am? Perhaps there isn’t anything wrong with me for tearing up during the trailer for The Time Traveller’s Wife for no apparent reason? Perhaps I can enjoy movies where people don’t die and aren’t addicted to drugs and don’t have to deal with real world problems? Maybe all it takes is a good love story.
And speaking of that, here are 10 more “romantic comedies” from this decade that I really enjoyed:
10. Kate and Leopold (Kind of your typical rom-com, but the leads are charming, and the fish-out-of-water story is amusing)
9. 2 Days in Paris (Adam Goldberg is hilarious. The French setting lovely, and it manages to be both incredibly charming and funny.)
8. Meet the Parents (More of a straight comedy, but Ben Stiller goes through it all in the name of love.)
7. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (It balances a film-noir spoof with a romantic side plot, and both are equally strong.)
6. Elf (Don’t even deny it.)
5. Wristcutters: A Love Story (Stories about suicide are not generally good romantic comedy fare, but this one pulls it off. Darkly funny and romantic.)
4. Definitely, Maybe (Ryan Reynold is charming, and this well-constructed, sweet story is what The Proposal wished it could be.)
3. Almost Famous (Great coming-of-age story that happens to involve rock stars.)
2. Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (It received mixed reviews, but I thought Michael Cera and Kat Dennings had great chemistry.)
1. Garden State (Okay, this one’s a little sappy – and if I remember correctly, the climax takes place in an airport – but even I could not resist cheering for the perfect hipster couple.)
EDIT: Oh, yeah, and how good does (500) Days of Summer look?! I’m dying to see it, but it’s still in pretty limited release, so it’s not playing near me.