2009 – Inglourious Basterds
This movie is, without a doubt, Tarantino’s best work since Pulp Fiction. Even though it is an “alternative history” it maintains a feel of historical authenticity. Tarantino did his homework with this one. The references to Karl May (a turn of the century German novelist who became famous for writing stories about the American frontier – Hitler was a huge fan and even recommended that his soldiers read the books) and to Weimar film culture in the 1920s demonstrate that Tarantino knows his subject well. Even though the average film buff will not catch all of the references, for someone like me, it makes the story all the more enjoyable. There is also a really interesting interpretation on the symbollic meaning of King Kong to be found in the drinking game scene.
As with nearly all fiction, characters make the story. The “Jew Hunter” is one of the most manipulative and creepy villains I’ve seen on the screen in years. You have the young theatre owner (Shosanna) on a quest for revenge. Ironically, she gets her chance for vengeance because the “German Sergeant York” (Fredrick Zoller) falls in love with her. The undercover British lieutenant who is an expert on the German film industry is wonderful, but all too brief in the story. Brad Pitt’s character (Lt. Aldo Raine) is great. The fact that he’s a gun toting redneck from Appalachia makes it even better. One of the funniest scenes in the movie is when Brad and two of the other Basterds try to sneak into the premier for Nation’s Pride posing as Italians (being typical Americans they are the only characters in the movie who can only speak one language). Listening to Pitt trying to speak Italian with a hillbilly accent is hilarious.
In some ways, the film feels like World War II meets the western genre. The opening sequence looks and feels like it happens on the American frontier, even though it takes place in Nazi occupied France. The music adds to the “western” flavor. The Basterds are, of course, portrayed as American, gun-slinging cowboys. You even have the saloon gunfight (in this case in a basement, much to the chagrin of Lt. Aldo Raine). In the end, however, this movie is Tarantino’s revisionist Nuremburg Trial. Tarantino shows the Nazis no mercy. In fact, one of the main characters dies as a result of showing sympathy for a German soldier. But Tarantino never gets in a hurry in this tale, allowing the rich dialogue to move the action and fully develop every character. Even though the film is two and a half hours long, I wanted to see more of each character. Personally, I think everyone could use a little more Hugo Stiglitz.
2008 – Gran Torino
No one has been more influential in shaping the perception of masculinity in American pop culture in the second half of the twentieth century than John Wayne and Clint Eastwood (the first half of the century belonged to Hemingway). Even though it is a new century, Eastwood still has what it takes. In many ways Gran Torino is to Eastwood what The Shootist was to Wayne. In both films, the main characters are dying of cancer, both of them befriend and become a mentor to a younger man, both of them stick with old fashioned values in a society that views them as relics, and both Eastwood and Wayne refuse to go quietly, going out in a blaze of glory. Eastwood’s commentary on race, ethnicity, and the changing face of America is both funny and enlightening. One of my favorite scenes is when Eastwood takes Thao to the barber shop to teach him how “men talk” to one another. It really reminds me of the way some of my friends and I spoke to one another in the office at WVU. The film is touching without being overly sentimental and smart without being preachy.
2007 – There Will Be Blood
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better fable on film about the self-consuming power of ambitious greed. This is how the industrialists made their cash. Daniel Day Lewis gives a performance that is every bit as iconic as George C. Scott’s Patton. The score is really good as well, provided by Jonny Greenwood, the guitarist from Radiohead. This is not a film for those of you who like sentimental, happy fluff. It is not even a piece of entertainment. It is a deep resonating, artistic piece. Even though the story strays far from Upton Sinclair’s novel, I think he would be pleased with the result. The final showdown between the Capitalist Baron and the False Prophet is chilling.
2006 – The Departed
The more I see this film, the more I like it. This story is a tragedy, pure and simple. Usually, I can tell you nearly everything that will happen in a film within the first five minutes, but The Departed contained twists that even I did not see coming. The cast is superb. DiCaprio, as Billy Costigan, gives his finest performance. Costigan is one of my favourite film characters in a long time. You can't help but feel sympathy for him and I absolutely hated to see him get killed. On the other hand, I loved watching the slimy, rat Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon's character) getting axed. That is what a great story does. You want certain characters to be happy and you want others to get what they deserve. A perfect example is Madolyn. I wanted her to be with Costigan (even though it could have never worked in the long term) and get as far away from Sullivan as possible. I really loved the scene where Costigan hooks up with Madolyn while Van Morrison is singing his cover of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” in the background. Great scene. Baldwin, Sheen, and Walberg round out a very solid cast and Jack is, of course, still money. It ranks in my top five mafia/crime films of all time.
2005 –Kingdom of Heaven (Director’s Cut)
Talk of religion often makes people squirm, but this film does so in a very smart way. If you watch this film, get the Director’s Cut and only the Director’s Cut. Some people may complain about the running time of the extended version, but to those folks I say, “It’s called an attention span. Get one.” A number of academics have gotten their panties in a bunch over the numerous historical inaccuracies in the film, but as it so often happens with overly anal scholars, they get bogged down on details and miss the overall point. Ridley Scott was trying to give us a discussion of contemporary religious issues and conflicts in a medieval setting. In that, he succeeds while simultaneously telling a really gritty and engaging story. While the message of religious and multicultural toleration juxtaposed with the true meaning of spirituality pervades the film there is also an element of Divine Providence found in the tale of Godfrey’s son, Balian. He is a man who believes that God has abandoned him, only to be guided to greatness. There are also poignant moments that reflect on the advantages of class mobility over a stagnant caste society. Interestingly, Godfrey refers to the Holy Land as the "New World" where a man can become whatever it is within himself to be as opposed to Europe where a person's station in life is based entirely on birthright. I liked all of the characters, both Muslim and Christian, both heroes and villains. And one can’t help but love Edward Norton’s portrayal of the leper King. The audience never sees his face, but the performance is wonderful. There is also some very powerful symbolic imagery when Muslim and Christian armies face one another outside the stronghold of Reynald de Chatillon. The story also does a good job in demonstrating the importance of leadership in making peace and starting war. Kingdom of Heaven is a good example of how fiction can entertain and still tackle important social issues. This how I believe stories should be told.
That is all for Part I. The next part will cover 2004 back to 2000. Cheers.