As the decade draws to a close, I thought it would be interesting to take a stab at putting together a best of/worst of list of Fantasmo-esque films from the past 10 years. While I recognize the superficial nature of these types of ranking efforts, I nevertheless enjoy taking them in (and hope you will as well). If nothing else they’re fun to debate. In looking back I wouldn’t say it was the greatest decade in genre filmdom, but it wasn’t bad either . . . and it was MUCH better than the 90’s! There were some bona fide classics which emerged, and a host of horrifically bad efforts as well. For putting together this list I stuck with identifying relatively major films, so more obscure (yet cool) titles aren't represented here (e.g. I’d certainly put Goodbye Dragon Inn or OSS 117: Cario, Nest of Spies on a best of list, but so few have seen them they likely wouldn’t register). So without any further ado here are my top 10 lists, both bad and good.
Top 10 Best Films
1 – Bubba Ho-Tep (2002): I don’t know about you, but Bruce Campbell had fallen off my radar for a while prior to this. He just hadn’t made anything that jumped out in an Evil Dead/Brisco County Jr. sort of way in a number of years. And the same was true for Phantasm director Don Coscarelli. Then the two team up for this unlikely story of the later years of Elvis and JFK as they battle an evil mummy! Not only is it a fun movie, it’s also surprisingly touching and gives Bruce what may be his best role ever. It’s a shame he appears to have passed on Bubba Nosferatu.
2 – Donnie Darko (2001): Arguably the biggest cult film of the decade, this one is a minor masterpiece. Director Richard Kelly came up with a melancholy, intelligent sci-fi outing that is sure to be the object of many a midnight show to come. He also understood the power of a great soundtrack, and his selections from the 80’s are top notch. Any film that opens with Echo and the Bunnymen garners instant points!
3 – The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004): I don’t always like Wes Anderson’s films, but they never fail to be interesting. Life Aquatic is amazing. Having Bill Murray play a washed-up, Jacques Cousteau type character was brilliant. And I love the idea of competing marine biologists (I believe no matter what field you’re in, be it librarianship or whatever, you should always cultivate a nemesis). I personally would love to own a pair of the Team Zissou Adidas sneakers. Apparently there was an unsuccessful grass roots effort to get Adidas to actually produce them for the mass market. You can still get them on Ebay where folks have made their own custom versions, but I digress.
4 – Night Watch (2004): The inaugural film in the adaptation of a series of Russian fantasy novels, Night Watch was a breath of fresh air, particularly in the arena of vampire movies. It had cool, Matrix-like flourishes, and established a fully-realized world of its own that was akin to something on the scale of Lord of the Rings. Although it deviated significantly from the novels, enough was retained to satisfy fans (at least non-sticklers like me). The follow-up Day Watch appeared to tie up any loose ends, but there are still two books to go. Here's hoping we'll see those in the upcoming decade.
5 – Team America: World Police (2004): Trey Parker and Matt Stone continue to prove that they are geniuses. Reviving Gerry Anderson style supermarionation for the purpose of skewering the current political scene (along with Michael Bay action films) was a jaw-droppingly brilliant idea. How they convinced anyone to back it financially is nothing short of miraculous, and its dismal failure at the box office probably insured that such an endeavor won’t be undertaken any time in the near future. Perhaps best of all is the incredibly catchy soundtrack, which will lodge itself firmly in your mind for a good, long while after the credits have rolled.
6 – The Devil’s Rejects (2005): Let’s be clear upfront, I’m not the world’s biggest Rob Zombie fan. But as I mentioned in my post on remakes, I respect that he has a unique voice in the world of horror cinema. I’d rather see 10 Rob Zombie movies than one of the lifeless retreads we’ve endured in recent years. Having said that, The Devil’s Rejects is the closest he’s come for my money to making a great film. It has a terrific villain in the form of William Forsythe, the 70’s vibe is spot on, and it’s often visually stunning. The drawback for me is that it’s grittier than I care for, but if it’s your cup of tea then there’s little not to like.
7 – The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008): Here’s another one where it’s somewhat of a miracle the film even exists. Almost a decade after the first X-Files feature, Chris Carter crafted what could best be described as an anti-blockbuster. Arriving in the heart of the summer movie season, I Want to Believe was unapologetically minimalistic. No explosions, relatively little action, and absolutely not epic. It doesn’t concern itself with the main story arc of X-Files, but rather a standalone tale that is touchy on a number of fronts. For this reason alone it merits attention, even if it left audiences cold during its initial run.
8 – JCVD (2008): If you would have told me in the year 2000 by decade’s end I would be raving about the brilliance of a film starring and named after Jean-Claude Van Damme, much less putting it on a top 10 list, I would have called you crazy. In defiance of all odds that is exactly what has happened, and I can’t recommend this movie more strongly. Not only is it a cool riff on action cinema, it is proof positive that Van Damme has strong acting chops that have yet to be explored. Let’s just say I find myself unusually excited about the upcoming Universal Soldier 3 which teams him and Lundgren up again!
9 – Black Dynamite (2009): In the interest of full disclosure I have not seen this film, but feel confident on the strength of the trailer and every review I’ve read that it belongs on this list! Sadly it didn’t get a strong release, but hopefully video will see it become the cult favorite it deserves to be. Michael Jai White has officially made up for Spawn!
10 – Drag Me to Hell (2009): After far too much Spider-Man for my tastes, it was great to see Sam Raimi in a stunning return to form with this wildly, over-the-top horror film. Some were disappointed that this was PG-13, but frankly it wasn’t missing a thing as far as I’m concerned. I’ve said it before in an earlier post, but the sequence with the goat is one of the most hilarious things I’ve seen in a long time . . . and classic Raimi. If you liked Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness, you’ll love this movie.
Top 10 Worst Films
1 – Battlefield Earth (2000): If there’s one thing I can appreciate, it’s when a big star cashes in hard won clout to make a movie that is truly personal. Look no further than Seagal’s On Deadly Ground. John Travolta made his personal opus in adapting Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth. Meant to be the beginning of a blockbuster saga, the movie utterly tanked. I don’t think this was due as much to the content, which is pretty standard sci-fi stuff, as it was to questionable choices. The clearly expensive production just isn’t very attractive, and it has sort of a bland lead in the form of Barry Pepper. To be fair I don’t know how much you can really put that at his doorstep, as he isn’t given much to work with. At the heart of it all though is Travolta. His villainous turn ranks as one of the all-time most over-the-top performances ever committed to film – which is both good and bad. On the positive side it gives the film some life and is fun to watch. On the bad side it turns the proceedings into total camp . . . which probably wasn’t the intention. If you like this sort of thing it doesn’t get much better (or worse) than Battlefield Earth.
2 – Monkeybone (2001): I’m not familiar with the source material for this film, but it must be pretty outrageous stuff . . . and it’s always surprising when a movie like this gets made. Unfortunately what seems to have happened is that those who greenlighted it realized too late that they’d approved something that had the potential to be quirky and interesting (horrors). As a result Monkeybone was reportedly edited in order to put together something palatable for a mass audience. To no one’s surprise the final product is a disjointed mess. On that level Monkeybone is not a good movie. However one can still see the vestiges of what promised to be a truly special film, and interested parties should (and likely will) continue to seek this out in the future. It would be great to see a true director’s cut, as Monkeybone is ripe for such treatment.
3 – The Adventures of Pluto Nash (2002): Eddie Murphy has carved out a pretty decent comeback in family films, this one was an expensive misfire. I’d love to see him return to some of his 80’s greatness, or at minimum get offered some stronger projects. That the star of Beverly Hills Cop, The Golden Child, and 48 Hours is stuck playing Pluto Nash is just unfortunate. Enough said.
4 – Rollerball (2002): I know I just wrote a big piece on the worthiness of remakes, but here is a perfect example of the type of remake that creates such bad blood. The original Rollerball isn’t the greatest movie ever made by any stretch, but it’s fairly entertaining and has an interesting concept. In some ways it’s perfect for an update as it doesn’t have that high level of rabid fandom that other similar properties do (e.g. Logan’s Run). Truth be told when I heard the director of Die Hard was at the helm, I figured this would be a home run. And it had one of the greatest teaser posters ever. Alas the action was unexciting, and Chris Klein didn’t prove to be a substitute for James Caan.
5 – Thunderbirds (2004): When you look at Gerry Anderson’s original show, it wasn’t the awesome storylines or well-developed characters that kept kids glued to their sets - it was the puppets (Team America sure got that part right)! So it was no surprise that Thunderbirds were not go at the box office. The casting of Ben Kingsley as The Hood was relatively inspired, but everything else not so much. Basically it’s a movie that is puzzling to anyone too young to remember the original and off-putting to longtime fans.
6 – The Wicker Man (2006): Again a remake. The original is such a fantastic film, that it’s a tall hurdle to clear in doing something worthwhile in terms of an update. Interestingly it has a cool director (Neil LaBute) and great cast (Nicolas Cage, Ellen Burstyn), so you’d think it might have a shot. Nope. Particularly crazy is the outlandish performance by Cage who is in rare form. Don’t get me wrong, I like when Cage is in full on Cage mode (e.g. Vampire’s Kiss, Wild At Heart) . . . just not here. I always thought Ewan McGregor would’ve been good in the role, but he couldn’t have saved this.
7 – Alien Vs. Predator: Requiem (2007): I didn’t hate the first Alien Vs. Predator film as some did. It had a cool concept, but was unfortunately a bit watered down. Frankly I preferred it to Alien Resurrection. The announcement of Requiem didn’t excite me at all, but it did have a great tagline – “This Christmas there will be no peace on Earth.” Say what you will but that’s pretty good. Giving it the subtitle of Requiem also makes it sound as though it may be high minded fare for a movie depicting a conflict between aliens and predators. Unfortunately the movie is a total mess. It’s not just that the plot and characters are weak, the film looks bad. You literally cannot see the action most of the time. In some cases (e.g. the original Alien) this is a stylistic choice, here it looks like someone forgot to pay the electric bill.
8 – Hulk (2003): The truth is I’m of two minds on this movie. While on one level I appreciate that Ang Lee attempted to do something radical for a summer blockbuster, it simply doesn’t measure up to the larger than life nature of the title character. The comic book visual style is pretty cool, there are a few great Hulk action sequences, and Nick Nolte turns in a performance beyond description. I’m betting in a few years I warm up to this one, but that hasn’t happened yet. For what it’s worth it’s not as lifeless as the follow up with Edward Norton.
9 – Hollow Man (2000): This was such a major disappointment. The material was perfect for Verhoeven, and it certainly bears some of his crazy trademark touches, but the end result is underwhelming. Interestingly I watched the first 30 minutes of the DTV sequel starring Christian Slater and found it more entertaining. That’s the great thing about DTV, it rarely favors style over substance.
10 – Halloween: Resurrection (2002): This installment came and went without showing up on my radar, and then I randomly came across it on cable one night. It reminds me of the old saying what good is wisdom if it brings no profit to the wise. Not much as it turns out. Say what you will about Zombie’s reimaginings, but they’re a far cry better than this. It makes the Friday the 13th reboot look like a work of unparalleled genius. In the right hands I don’t have a problem with the concept they were trying to pull off (i.e. reality television meets the horror genre). Recently I just saw a great example of a similar effort in the British show Dead Set (zombies meet Big Brother). Unfortunately these were the wrong hands.
So there you have it a best of/worst of list for the 2000’s. As I said in the intro, these kinds of lists are never satisfactory, in my mind they serve to highlight standouts (of which there are many). Feel free to comment and share others you think are worthy (or unworthy : )