Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire - Harry Potter masters as the full transition chapter with this grim mystery that channels all the feels of John Hughes' teen angst heyday. Mike Newell takes what Alfonso Cuaron started with the previous installment in maturing the content of the story but also extrapolates some really strong performances from the young actors with this go around. Rupert Grint raises to the task of playing the drama at hand exceptionally well, and Radcliffe showcases some actual emotion for the first real time in the role. And while all the dramatic beats land well with this film, it is the comedic moments that really soar and help to undercut the maudlin nature of the narrative. Radcliffe gives my favorite filmic spit take in this film. Ron explaining--in rapid fire progression--how he was really the one to warn Harry of the first task is comic gold. And, Alan Rickman (who is shockingly underused with this film) hits his reactionary comedy perfectly.
Steve Kloves had the monumental task of trimming the excess of the book for this adaptation and, for me, I thought he nailed it. Sure, there are a few scenes here and there that are definitely missed (Snape and Sirius shaking hands comes to mind), but he boiled it all down to the main ingredients and really managed a strong brew. The addition of Brendan Gleeson as Mad-Eye and Ralph Fiennes as Voldy really help to elevate the film. This is the point of maturation for the series and this film really rose to the task of it. By pulling the strong performances, really hunkering down on character and moving away from the whimsical score of John Williams for the more romantically tragic score of Patrick Doyle, Mike Newell really brought a new level of authenticity to these films. And, between Newell and Cuaron, the cinematic language the films operate by is far more artistic and grandiose and far from the BBC Original Movie look the first two films had. For my money, this is the best of the Potter films. It may not be as satisfying as the final installment, and Emma Watson may flutter her eyebrows far too much in this film, but the elements come together to create something really quite magical.
King Kong - Peter Jackson's revision of King Kong may be swoll with excess, but somehow this remains the best Monster Movie of the decade (if not century). This film is a glittering love letter to the original film that allows the original's beating heart to give new life to the Kong mythos while also being as big, engaging and dramatic as the story demands. Naomi Watts delivers a stunning performance as Ann Darrow. Andy Serkis brings Kong to life with such authenticity, that were the special effects up to it (as they would be in the Planet of the Apes prequels just a decade later), I think there could have been Oscar talk for his work. The score by James Newton Howard is classical and beautiful. The action of this film is unparalleled within the monster movie genre. The battle between Kong and the V-Rexs is masterful. Place this action to any of the current Godzilla, Pacific Rim or Kong titles, and they all pale in comparison.
Serenity - This is my favorite film of all time. It took me more than a decade to admit that, but it is the truth. I think that this film, in how is blends genre, weaves theme and symbolism, and masters authorial intent, should be hailed as one of the finest films of its ilk. The fact that this is Joss Whedon's first film as director is jaw dropping. The use of camera to visually tell the story and communicate with the audience is genuinely inspiring. There is a tense scene early in the film where two men are arguing with each other to the point where one of the men says something that brings the room to a complete pause. The camera cuts to a shot out of focus and slowly comes to perfect clarity with one of the other characters leaning in and saying with the most even-tempered voice "you better leave the room." The rage felt by her character as she leans in is communicated fully through the use of that out of focus lens and is one of many striking shots throughout this film.
Like most of Whedon's work, this film blends genre. Here we have a movie that follows the traditions of a Western and Space Opera that mingles elements of romance, comedy, sharp drama, political intrigue, horror and fierce action and done so through a lens of moral ambiguity. This is a film where you follow a ship full of thieves, murderers, and people ducking the law while the film's main villain is a man who is trying to rid the universe of sinners to create 'A better world; all of them...better worlds.'
The film is built around the premise that an Operative of the Parliament is hunting a psychic who has information that could be used to take down the Alliance of Planets. This small band of space pirates has taken the psychic in, not knowing the full extent of what she knows and gets caught in what looks to be the re-ignition of a nasty civil war. The film spends a lot of time ducking and hiding with the stakes ever raising until it hits a tipping point that can no longer be ignored.
This film was the revivification of the cancelled TV show Firefly and acts as both a series finale and introduction to the series. You do not have to have seen the show to get what is going on or even feel the weight the film holds, but if you have seen the show, this film will both thrill and hurt you. Whedon pulls no punches here. Characters die. Good characters who have the potential to have many more stories left in them. But Whedon forces you to feel the weight of war with each life taken and the final conflict grows so tense that it will leave you cold with fear if you are genuinely invested in these characters and their lives.
The elements at play here all make for an excellent movie. Whedon brings a grand visual eye to the film that separates itself from any other major sci-fi franchises of the time (and in fact would be borrowed heavily for J.J. Abrams 2009 Star Trek reboot). The scenes with the main crew are all shot handheld with reflective lenses that cast lens flairs, but are done so artfully and do not offer visual distractions (*cough* J.J. *cough*). The scenes with the Operative or Alliance are all dolly shots ad offer careful smoothness. The scenes are brightly lit which is in stark opposition to the moody lighting of the main crew and the natural lighting you get on the worlds that are outside Alliance control.
The cast is fantastic. Nathan Fillion gives a textured performance as Captain Mal Reynolds. He hits his heroes stride with grace, but plays with internal struggles in interesting moments of subtlety. The camera really loves his face and he can show both the emotion necessary for the scene as well as being able to communicate simmering uncertainty. He also lands Whedon's humor better than just about any actor out there. Summer Glau does some fine work here also. It is her and Fillion that are tasked with carrying this film and both rose to the occasion. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the Operative. He is spectacular. He plays the character with such diplomacy and evenness, yet he is still a visible and tense threat. This is my all time favorite screen villain and I think that this man was robbed of awards for how well he masters this role. The other main crew all have some great moments to shine with Ron Glass, Alan Tudyk and Jewel Staite having some especially grand scene stealing moments. But it is three small but effective performances that deserve some extra praise. David Krumholtz plays a tech guru called Mr. Universe. He is fun and pops off the screen and really plays with Whedon's dialogue well. Michael Hitchcock is smarmy perfection in an introduction to the Operative. But it is Sarah Paulson that gives one hell of a terrifying an emotional monologue that transcends scene stealing and is movie stealing. He layers the emotion and fully commits to the grim fate of her character. This film was my introduction to her as an actress and boy has she had a killer career.
David Newman's score deserves some extra recognition. He blends western and eastern motifs into the score and delivers one hell of a hauntingly beautiful as well as rousing score. This man has done some great work in his day, with this being his (as of now) final really great work. He also lent great music to Galaxy Quest and delivered scores for films such as The Mighty Ducks, Jingle All the Way, Scooby-Doo and Critters that are all significantly better than the films in question. This score feels more mature than any of the ones previously listed and I had hoped that this would signal his great rise towards recognition, but that didn't really happen.
The last thing I would like to discuss is this film's great use of structure and feeling within scenes. The opening fifteen minutes of this film are breathtaking. So much information is being conveyed to you and yet it renders itself unnoticeable. Juxtapose this with pretty much any scene in a film like, say, Inception where the biggest complaint that gets is that it is information overload and that it doesn't blend well or unnoticeably into the narrative. The audience can tell that they are being told the plot by the characters on screen. In fifteen minutes, Whedon explains the world, the stakes, the heroes and villains, and the level of moral ambiguity as well as establishing most of the film's themes. We are given the whole of the backstory of the civil war that led to the rise of the Alliance. We are shown a gifted young girl, told that she is special, that she suffers nightmares of scary monsters, and that she suffers them because of what she psychically gleaned. We are introduced to the Operative and given his modus operandi. We are then introduced to Serenity the ship, and the crew within and each of the main players offer up a brief bit of foreshadowing as to the context their characters will be put within the narrative as well as being introduced to their own separate reasons for being on the crew. All in fifteen minutes. That is breathtaking.
But the whole of the script is reflective of this. Every scene has purpose and progresses the narrative as well as expands on what we know and need to know about all the characters. Some moments are overt and some are incredibly subtle. It is really quite impressive. And this film manages another impressive feat on a scene by scene level in how it tackles the blending of genre. The way the film juggles genre doesn't feel forced. It feels authentic as it does in life. There is the typical upending of genre tropes that Whedon is know for all throughout and quite a bit of humor to undercut moments of sincerity, but it is never at the expense of what is necessary and it never feels out of character.
One of the best scenes in the film comes during a great space battle. That scene weaves genre all throughout and manages to be, what I would argue, as the best space battle scene ever filmed as a result. The scene pits hero ship vs villain ship and then you get a but of a western vibe with the introduction of the Reavers as cavalry and then you get the cheer moment, then it turns hella dramatic, some comedy cuts in, the action gets tense, some more comedy, the action gets nothing short of white-knuckle and then things settle a bit. The audience is given permission to breath. A joke undercuts everything you have just scene. Then a moment of shock and horror before emotions turn to sharp drama and action takes over once more before letting the horror genre take command for a bit. It is a stunning five minutes.
But as I have been saying, this film stuns all the way. It was a film that was ahead of its time and I think would play much better now. At the time, it had the Star Wars prequels to compete with. The film is a little too cerebral for an audience expecting your average Star Wars. At the time, few films blended genre the way this film does. Now every Marvel film does so with ease (in part because of Whedon's contributions). But, do yourself a favor. Sit back and let Serenity soar once more.
Shopgirl - This sweet, unlikely romance really struck a chord with me when it came out. Its significance never really wavered in my mind, even if I haven't revisited it as some other films of the era that did not make this list. Scripted by Steve Martin and starring himself, Claire Danes and Jason Schwartzman, this film finds a young shopgirl who finds love in two men. One of the men is significantly older than she and the other is her own age but lacks emotional maturity. How these men flit into her life and she in theirs is where a really striking character piece emerges. The film is swimming with emotional resonance. It is a sentimental film and offers some nice comedic beats, as one would expect from Steve Matrin, but the film never betrays the characters within the narrative. The film both unfolds as it should but also unfolds in unexpected ways. There might be movies left off this list that are better crafted works or offer up new takes on familiar ground, but Shopgirl never tries to rise above what it is. It is as artistic as it needs to be and as heartfelt as it should be.
Sin City - Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller teamed up to bring to life Miller's hard hitting comicbook series. The film is really an effective modern day noir that hearkens back to the gritty feel of the classic noir but pumps up the sex and violence far past 11. What really makes the film work is that it simply looks so damn good. Rodriguez went to great lengths to make the film look like the comic and he damn well succeeded. Now, the comics are not high art. I will be the first to admit that. They are violent, bloated, oversexed, simple minded, pulp fan fare. I totally get how this would not be for everyone. But for those that are fans of this genre of little gritty crime capers, this film really flies high. There are some strong performances, especially from Micky Rourke, Clive Owen, Bruce Willis, Alexis Bledel, Rosario Dawson and Benicio Del Toro who all manage to channel performing in an era long past in a genre long dead. The film simply oozes with cool. Leave it to Tarantino to steal the show as special guest director. He directed a single scene for this film (as a thank you for Rodriguez scoring Kill Bill Vol. 2) and it easily stands out as the strongest artistically. It is a mere conversation and car ride with Own talking to a dead Del Toro, but the director's stamp is clear and inventive.
Best Picture : Crash - Crash is the quintessential Oscar movie--not because it is the best of what the Oscars choose to recognize but rather because it established pseudo-progressiveness. Now, I don't think Crash is a bad movie as some do. The elements here make up for a solid film. It is the manufactured drama that hurts the film and renders it unworthy of Best Picture. So let's try this again....
Best Picture : Brokeback Mountain - That is right. I am going to Adam Savage this: "I reject your reality and substitute my own!" Brokeback is a narratively complex, emotional drama and intriguing romance that ought to have won Best Picture. I am still confounded as to how this didn't happen, when it was so clearly deserving of the top prize. The performances are top notch and, yet, it was only viewed as a punchline in its era. Time has shown that this film is artistically relevant, even by today's standards. Much like with Do the Right Thing, the academy got it wrong here. It selected a film that was easier to handle and more palatable over the film that was dramatically inspired and actually offered something significant to say.
Biggest Box Office : Star Wars Episode 3 Revenge of the Sith - Easily the best of the prequel films, Revenge of the Sith finally gets around to telling the story fans of the original series had been waiting for for thirty years; How did Anakin fall from grace? The film works excessively well as an action picture. The action here is awe-inspiring. There is even some nice symbolism within the action scenes that play into the series overall themes, namely when Palpatine dismantles the senate by hurling the senate chairs at Yoda after declaring the Republic and Empire. That is visual brilliance. The film is over the top like you read about, but it works for a series that had become so overtly operatic. The performances are significantly better this time around. Hayden Christiansen brings emotion to Anakin that feels more believable, Natalie Portman (though relegated to being only a pregnant mama) plays the emotional pivot of the film, Frank Oz gives some great depth to Yoda's voice work here, but there are two scene stealers of note with this installment: Ewan McGreggor and Ian Mcdiarmid as Obi-Wan and Palpatine respectively. Ewan brings fantastic energy to his portrayal of Obi-Wan and is fully believable that he would become the Obi-Wan of the original film. He channels Alec Guiness very well and props are firmly given. Palpatine is magnetic with this film and the performance is inspired. Even though it has moments of pure cheese, this is still a Top 5 Star Wars film for me.