Best/Worst Of The Decade: Drama

We wrap up our look at the best and worst cinematic offerings from the first ten years of the new century with dramas.

4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days (2007)

A harrowing look at the lives of two women in repressive, 1980s Cold War Romania is chronicled in this unflinchingly bleak but engaging film. When Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), a young woman in her early 20s, finds herself pregnant and is unsure of what to do, she turns to her friend and roommate Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) for help. As abortion is illegal in 1980s Romania, Otilia arranges for the illegal procedure to be done at a local hotel and raises the money needed to pay for everything. Gabita, for her part, constantly endangers the girls by not following the abortionist’s directions for their clandestine meetings. Finally, the three meet at a hotel for Gabita’s procedure and while things seem to go right at first, complications arise, forcing Otilia into drastic actions that test her friendship with Gabita.

Director Cristian Mungiu allows each scene to play out in long continuous shots with virtually no camera movement. Not only does this allow us to feel more immediacy as observers to these events, but the starkness of the technique also reflects the starkness of their lives. Raw, gritty and uncomfortable, 4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days is not necessarily a movie you would watch over and over for a relaxing evening’s entertainment, but it is a film you should at least see once. – Rich Drees

Cinderella Man (2005)

This film follows the typical formula of the sports movie—an athlete who is down on his luck fights against unbelievable odds to rise to the top of his sport. But that formula is covered with real meat, and a story that is deeper than your typical “Cinderella story.”

Based on the true story of James Braddock, a journeyman boxer whose career went into a decline just as the Great Depression hit and miraculously fought his way back up to become World Heavyweight Champion. The story is an interesting one, but the film excels at filling in the details of the story. You feel how hopeless the situation is, experience the desperation of the characters, and their fears of not being able to find a way out of their financial predicament become palpable. This makes the inevitable triumph at the end all the more sweet and satisfying.

Director Ron Howard, writers Chris Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsmith and a top-rate cast take the formulaic out of the formula and make a moving story out of one man’s true Cinderella tale. – William Gatevackes

I Just Didn’t Do It (2006)

A frustrating look at a cultural Catch-22 and how it affects the Japanese legal system from Masayuki Suo, the director of the touching Shall We Dance? (the original Japanese version, not the crap American remake). In a cultural where any mistake could become a loss of one’s standing and authority, the police and the judicial system are under enormous pressure, lest too many acquittals make it impossible to do their job. To that end, they resort to what is essentially blackmail, encouraging those arrested to admit guilt and pay a fine rather than go through the possible publicity and embarrassment of a trial. And as the accused do not wish to suffer their own loss of face, they acquiesce, no matter if they are guilty or not. But one man decides he values the truth of his innocence over anything else and begins a nightmare-ish journey into a world beyond the imaginations of Kafka and Orwell. An understandably controversial film in Japan, it is an exercise in aggravation for the US viewer given the difference (in theory, at least) of jurisprudence philosophy. – RD

Lost in Translation (2003)

Two aimless people, as different as you can be, find each other in Japan. He is an actor whose best years are behind him. She is a woman fresh from college who followed her newlywed husband on a photography assignment and is essentially abandoned for his work. Their brief interlude in the Land of the Rising Sun becomes one of the greatest unrequited romances in cinematic history.

Both the loneliness each character faces and the joy each experience when they come together is hard to pull off on screen. But this film nails it. Scarlett Johansson gives the finest performance of her career and Bill Murray gives one of his best, too. Decades separate the actor’s ages, but they have a chemistry that is tangible and real. And the script and directing by Sofia Coppola proves that the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. This film is a masterpiece for our times. – WG

Walk the Line (2005)

You need two things to make a biopic a success. You need a person whose life is interesting enough that people want to find out more about it and you need a strong creative collaboration that will bring the most out of the subject matter. This film is a perfect example of when those two things really click.

The film traces Johnny Cash’s life all the way from his tragic childhood to his legendary concert at Folsom Prison. Along the way, the film stops at all the usual biopic tropes—death of a sibling, cycle of drug abuse, arrests, and a romance that saves and redeems the main character. But what separates this film from the rest are the contributions from the people involved.

James Mangold provides an easy touch to the story, making the tale lyrical and flowing. And he also gets great performances out of his actors. Joaquin Phoenix inhabits Cash’s skin completely, Robert Patrick, known primarily for his role as the liquid metal Terminator in Terminator 2, gives a surprisingly good performance as Cash’s dad and Reese Witherspoon, typically cast in fluff such as Legally Blonde and Sweet Home Alabama, puts a lot of grit and resolve in her portrayal of June Carter. There are a lot of career-best performances in this film, which raises it above the usual biopic pack. – WG

Worst:

Collateral (2004)

This film probably will appear on a lot of critics “Best of the Decade” lists. I have no idea what version of Collateral they saw. Because the version I saw was one of the most infuriatingly awful films of the decade.

It is less a film than a bunch of plot contrivances strung together in an absurdly implausible story. Hit man Tom Cruise hires cabbie Jamie Foxx to drive him from hit to hit. Over the span of the night, a cat and mouse game develops between the two. Or so the writer desperately wants us to think.

The film works so hard to artificially create tense moments that there is no suspense at all. The wires are showing all the way through the film. Cruise’s character puts the body of one of his victims in the trunk of the cab. Why? Because they will be pulled over by cops the very next scene. Who cares if a professional hit man hiding one of his victims in the trunk of a car he was riding in makes no sense whatsoever? It is a clumsy way to try and keep us on the edge of our seats. For me, it didn’t work and was annoying. – WG

The Da Vinci Code (2006)

This film is a rare accomplishment. It manages to be utterly confusing and quite predictable at the same time.

Based on the 2003 Dan Brown novel, the film focuses on Robert Langdon, a symbologist brought in to help out in an investigation in the Louvre. The routine investigation soon develops into a globe-trotting adventure as Langdon and cryptologist Sophie Neveu try to solve the mystery behind the murder.

The plot draws heavily from conspiracy theories about the Christian religion such as Jesus fathering a child and creating a lineage and the Knights Templar organization. If you have a prior knowledge of these theories, then the film is easier to follow. If you don’t, you had to pay attention to the massive amount of exposition in the characters’ dialogue, which in itself is circuitous and confusing.

But yet, you can see many of the plot points coming from a mile away, including the identity of the real villain and who the last scion of Christ really is. Perhaps the popular book is less predictable and easier to understand. But the film that adapted it is a boring and confusing mess. – WG

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

I have a theory about writer/directors that I like to call the “Bad Auteur Theory”. A writer /director puts out a number of films that receive extraordinary critical praise. Then, a switch comes on. The auteur then begins to seem less concerned with making great films that filling his films with self-indulgent quirks and concepts. The critics who loved his past work continue to praise his new, lower quality work because, well, he’s an auteur.

This film is a perfect example of this. It follows Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson’s excellent Rushmore and is widely acclaimed as one of the best films of the decade. However, it signifies when the tandem became self-indulgent “bad auteurs.”

The plot about a dysfunctional family learning to deal with one another is rather pedestrian. Anderson and Wilson wish to spice the proceedings up by filling the movie with the quirkiest characters you could possibly find. But the personality quirks exhibited by the Tenenbaums are too obscure, too weird and quickly become grating. The weak plot and the too-kooky characters result in a painful movie to watch. – WG

Seven Pounds (2008)

Seven Pounds is without a doubt the most morally repugnant of this, and perhaps several, past decades. Will Smith plays a man obsessed with finding seven people in need of an undisclosed act of philanthropy. In the final reel, we find out that he is suffering extreme guilt over being in a car accident that claimed seven lives, including his wife, and seeks atonement by planning to commit suicide and donating his organs to the needy people he has been stalking. Oscar bait at its worse, the film holds up a mentally and emotionally disturbed man’s suicide as a heroic act. It’s nauseating and repellent. When you factor in the way that he kills himself (death by poisonous jellyfish) would actually render his organs useless for transplantation, it is monumentally stupid as well. – RD

Swedish Auto (2006)

Emo turned up to 11. Carter (Lukas Haas) is a young man with no family whose lonely life consists mainly of working at a run down garage and then heading back to the condemned apartment building where he squats. He generally keeps to himself, preferring to watch others than actually interact with them. But he finds himself pulled out of his shell when he meets Darla (a pre-Mad Men January Jones). Written and directed by Derek Sieg, Swedish Auto is nothing more than a collection of obvious and cliché storytelling choices, the most jawdroppingly bad being the switch from the drab, washed out monochromes that Sieg has shot a majority of the film to bright, oversaturated colors when Carter and Darla go on a date. It is as subtle as an atomic bomb flyswatter. – RD

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