Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The Thrilling 00's

The Best Thrillers of the 2000s - Part VI of a series

Oldboy (c) 2003, Egg Films, Show East

Thriller is a funny genre (not ha-ha funny, of course), because usually thrillers play with some other genres at the same time. Thriller is the modern equivelent of the suspense genre, which was a new-fashioned film noir in the first place. It's not a crime movie, although it might center around murders. Crime movies center around the world of organized crime, and thrillers center around the suspense. It's also not a horror movie although it might have a murderer. A thriller is more commonly told from the point of view of the police chasing the criminal, not the victim as in horror films. Most of these films here are gritty films that usually have some sort of a revenge motif.

Some perfectly good thrillers had to be left out simply because they fit other lists yet to come better. In particular, thrillers based on true historical events will come up later so don't get your underpants in a twist.

2004, dir. Michael Mann

Mann did a lot of hit-and-miss work that decade, but this one is a genuine class act. It's the first time he directed a film totally with digital video cameras. Clear, sharp shots create tension as well as a vivid cityscape on canvas. As a result, the film might be the best one there is about the city of Los Angeles. The city is shown throbbing, pulsating with life, through its seedy discos, run-down alleys, and dark spots where one can watch the entire city's lights. This is a movie first and foremost about athmosphere.

But oh yeah, this was supposed to be a thriller, right? It's about a ruthless hired gun (Tom Cruise) that hijacks a taxi and makes the timid driver (Jamie Foxx) run his errands. These two actors, who I don't normally like, do splendid work against their normal types. Cruise in particular should've done more of these villain roles, as his cold eyes are damn scary. Wouldn't want to cross him. Unlike usually with these sort of villain roles played by a huge star, Cruise's character is quite irredeemable. By the end he has become a Terminator-like vengeance machine. And even earlier, he's just humanesque at best, he really is unable to act humane. Also, even though this isn't another of Mann's L.A. Takedown remakes, his character is "able to get in and out of anywhere". As it is, Mann's ideas may replicate, butv the movie itself is unique.

Dead Man's Shoes
2004, dir. Shane Meadows

This very dark and cynical film intriduced me to the cinema of Shane Meadows. It's a revenge film that might happen in a small town near you. This countryside feeling is helped by long nature shots. Man is truly the most cruel animal and "civilization" means nothing when the chips fall down.

Like many good thrillers do, this saves the information of what is being revenged very late, which makes all the violence (verbal and physical) that happens before the exposition irrational and frightening. And people won't die as easily as in, say, Kill Bill. Paddy Considine in the main role is just bursting with hatred. The film isn't total grimness, but has a lot of black humour in it too. The only bad thing to say about the film is the too upbeat country-like music that doesn't seem to suit the athmosphere properly.

A History of Violence
2005, dir. David Cronenberg

Cronenberg really slipped this out from everyone's radar. I figured it would be a simple western-like story where a gunslinger's past comes to haunt him. And actually felt pretty much that way after seeing the movie, too. But there is more to the film than just the familiar plot structure. In a way, by setting it to the modern day, it emphasizes how the circle of violence carries on from decade to decade, and has no intention of stopping. And it isn't pretty Hollywood-violence, but raw, sickening, realistic violence. It gets to even the most virtuous-seeming of us. And the society may be shocked, but ultimately, it accepts this.

Now, the film isn't perfect, but Cronenberg excels in creating a creepy athmosphere where something is not quite right. It's also the first time that I realized how good an actor Viggo Mortensen is. Even though I loved him in the Lord of the Rings, it's based mostly on his charsima, not his acting chops.

2002, dir. Gaspar Noé

A very hard film to watch through, partly because the first 30 minutes have a quiet ominous noise, which causes nausea in many people. As if we would need this in addition to Noé's crazy camera swinging. And this is before the horrifying rape-scene that's even more terrible than anything Michael Haneke has ever put on screen. But it's perhaps not fair to compare Noés exceptional film to other narratives, as he makes cinema a physical medium, not just something to look at.

Like another film on this list, this too is a revenge tale told backwards. The chaotic first scenes show the payoff without the audience knowing the context. Thus, these are not in any way catharctic but just disgusting and terrifying. Noé emphasizes this chaos by letting his camera fly around wildly. At the centre is the bad scene. After that, things cool off and the film becomes like a perverse relationship movie. Hints of what is going to come are given, and characters are shown at the points where they are making choices, which affect the outcome. Of course, the characters can't recognize them and make the poor choices which lead to suffering. The audience watching this feels powerless.

At the core Noé seems to have pretty nihilistic ideas about sexuality's connection to violence, both of which he feels are essential to human beings. The highly sexual main character has been shown to be able to be coaxed to being the most cruelly, animalistically violent.

Time destroys everything.

Mad Detective
Sun taam
2007, dir. Johnnie To

The main thing to get out of Mad Detective after the first viewing is how gorgeous the movie is shot, plus one scene where the main character pees on the foot of a guy he's shadowing. And of course, a couple of other memorable scenes about the Detective being, well, mad. But it's his stark raving lunacy that gets results, and many cases solved. He actually has seven different personalities, which he can utilize to crack the cases.

The film isn't told very conventionally, which is why it may fly overhead of some viewers. One actually needs a little bit of madness to appreciate the strange storytelling method of the story. Nothing is told simply, and one must be able to translate what is shown into something coherent. This works well with a psychological film about mental illnesses.

2000, dir. Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan, like many big Hollywood directors, made his best film back when monetary limits only fed his creativity. This is a story about how obsession can come in the way of healing from a loss. Or is it? In a way, the only thing in the main character's life is the need for vengeance as he doesn't remember anything else. That is, even if there is anything to be avenged or to chase. This is shown how he's willing to even give his body to permanantely store some small notes, however mundane. And as the are not thorough enough, they lead him to astray in the beginning (or the end).

I agree that this would be somewhat run-of-the-mill without the backwards structure. But that's the whole point, isn't it? If the structure was just a gimmick, it would ruin this but it's actually serviceable to the story. It unwinds slowly, and often we only know what Leonard knows, that is to say, nothing. Actually, this film is about how one easily blames other people without having a clear idea why. Some self-searching would do some good. Leonard's condition may be self-inflicted.

Mystic River
2003, dir. Clint Eastwood

A class turn by Clint Eastwood in looking at darkness within the hearts of small town folk. I know, I know, again. And also it's being brought out by an unforgiving anger at a wrong that cost the life of an innocent person. I'm starting to see certain patterns in the movies on this list.

The cast is one of the strongest ensembles of the decade. Particularly Sean Penn does brilliant work as the grief-struck man who turns out to be a lot more than meets the eye. And jolly old Tim Robbins as a man riddled with guilt and ghosts from his past.
I also really like that Eastwood gave Eli Wallach a cameo. In the end the film isn't actually Eastwood's best as the film does contain some unnecessary dragging and clichés. The end twist isn't that strong, either as it's not properly grounded. With one rewrite of the script this could've been a true masterpiece. But, it is of course quite good as it is, too.

2003, dir. Park Chan-Wook

Park Chan-Wook's revenge trilogy's middle part is also his biggest masterpiece. I also think people don't consider Lady Vengeance to be that good as it couldn't possibly compete with this. Park is not bashful about his skills and thus, people are still talking about the hallway fight or the live octopus-eating scene in Oldboy. I'm having trouble remembering anything about Lady Vengeance, good though it is. The lesson is, save the best for last.

At first round, it just seems like a bleak revenge thriller, until the ending comes along. But I better not spell it out yet. Suffice to say, the film might be about the need of knowledge. And not like book-knowledge, the kind we would get from social interaction and such. The main character (Choi Min-sik) starts out being locked for 15 years in a room with only a TV. When he gets out, he starts to hunt down the man responsible. His tour-de-force revenge might give a number of people a hammerstrike to the skull, but actually he's worse off himself, as a crucial piece of knowledge has been forbidden from him.

But actually the one responsible for putting him there is not a whole person himself and has ruined his entire life by obsessing about Choi's character. The end result is just that they both want cruel revenge on each other. Whatever the perspective, this just seems so pointless. It's not only revenge where this may be applied. Humans in general may devote their lives to one passion or desire and come out the worst of it. Is this vicious circle always necessary?

One can have many different readings from the story. I've read a fascinating text about the left/right -wing setting of the film. It certainly rewards repeat viewings. A lot of revenge pictures are on this list. They are not all straight-forward about the revenge aspect. This is my personal favorite from them.

2008, dir. Götz Spielmann

This Austrian gem strats out as a bank robbery film, but develops into thriller area quite soon. I shouldn't talk too much about the film's plot as it's quite surprising, while being also simple enough and, crucially, leisurely moving. I can tell you that the main character does want the titular Revanche from another character. While thinking things over at his hideout in the country makes him get it in the most unexpected way. This film is by no means, larger than life. In fact, it's seemingly very ordinary, that trusts on more than just dialogue to tell its story. Nature and the activities the characters do tell the other side.

2007, dir. David Fincher

This doesn't play it safe once during its 2 1/2 hour running time nor rely on tired Hollywood thriller formulas. Instead, this is a movie about investigating murder cases. And not the end result but the process.The focus is on the details, no matter how minor. I've heard director Fincher became as obsessed with the true Zodiac as the characters in the film. As it is, the lives of the main characters start to crumble, but this is told subtly in the background, not by underlining anxious faces. The movie feels very truthful, even though surprisingly its world is mostly created with computer-generated backgrounds.

The movie has nothing that wouldn't need to be in the film. The film also has good deals of suspense and even comedy to smoothen the waves of facts it gives the viewers. The acting is top notch, especially Robert Downey, Jr. in a role he was born to play. It's a talkative movie that they used to know how to do. It seems only the most uncompromizing directors can do these kind of films any more and make them great. Too bad Fincher sold out with his next, way inferior film.

Bubbling Under: Brick, Phone Booth, The Pledge, Spider

Okay, I'm exhausted. I'll have to have a break from these leists because of the festival hurries. There will be reports on those, the next list will resume probably early october, perhaps late september, if you are nice.

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