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The Awkward Movie Challenge: The Best Movie of the ‘00s

January 06, 2010 By: Category: Greatest Hits, Movie Reviews, The Awkward Movie Challenge

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According to Netflix, Mike and Jeffrey agree with each other on movies 84% of the time. In their weekly feature, The Awkward Movie Challenge, they search valiantly for that sweet 16% that results in big arguments and big laughs.

However, this week Jeffrey and Mike will be jettisoning one of the key elements of their “Awkward Movie Challenge” to commemorate the end of the decade: the “challenge” part. Instead of explaining to each other why they’re such huge assholes for not liking the same movie (or electronically making out because they love the same one), each fellow will discuss his personal favorite film of the ‘00s.

Mike:

I did not watch “Twin Peaks” during its initial run, when the “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” question received as much airtime on the nightly news as The Gulf War and the Queen of England was ducking out of Paul McCartney’s command performance rather than miss the latest episode. But several years after it went off the air, I was flicking through late night T.V. and landed on Bravo where I was halted by the image of a man picking stones out of a bowl held by a cop wearing oven mitts. He then tossed each stone at a glass bottle as some sort of Tibetan deductive detecting technique he”d learned about in a dream. I’d stumbled across a rerun of episode two of “Twin Peaks”, written and directed by the show’s co-creator, David Lynch. I’d never seen anything so goofy yet genuinely funny, so weird yet comfortably ordinary on television, and I’d already been a regular viewer of the goofy, funny, weird, ordinary “Northern Exposure”. After watching my first episode of “Peaks”, “Northern Exposure” seemed relatively trite. Everything else on T.V. seemed like a massive heap of cow dung.

Agent Dale Cooper solves Who Killed Laura Palmer with a little help from a pair of oven mitts on "Twin Peaks".

Getting into “Twin Peaks” hipped me to the idea that television could be cinematic, experimental, genuinely scary, and uncomfortably challenging. I tried to sate my yen for such shows with things like “Northern Exposure”, “The X-Files”, and “Strange Luck”, but none came close to recapturing “Peaks’” air of dreamy creepiness and creeping dreaminess. So when I read that David Lynch would finally be returning to the little screen with a new show called “Mulholland Dr.” for ABC in 1999, I was thrilled. Unfortunately, after seeing Lynch’s surreal pilot, the confounded ninnies at the network passed on it in favor of contemporary classics like “Oh, Grow Up” and “Odd Man Out”. Though heartbroken, Lynch has never been a guy who allows a good idea to go to waste. He reclaimed his 90 minute pilot, shot a new ending for it, and released it theatrically in 2001, thus cobbling together the best feature film of a decade that had barely begun.

The cast of "Oh, Grow Up" sez: "Who are we?"

As I wrote in our piece about Magnolia a couple of weeks ago, a great film should transport the viewer in ways that transcend mere issues of plot mechanics, revealing something never before seen, something that conjures a completely realized world in which the viewer may dwell for the duration of the film. With the possible exception of Stanley Kubrick, no filmmaker ever did this better than David Lynch. In Mulholland Dr., that world is ostensibly Hollywood, but as the film unfolds, we come to learn that the real landscape is a psychological one (which is the case in most of Lynch’s films). Naïve, beautiful ingénue Betty (Naomi Watts) has traveled from Ontario to L.A. (which she describes as a “dream place”) to make it big in the movies. When she meets sexy but damaged amnesiac Rita (Laura Elena Harring), Betty discovers that delving into a real-life mystery (Who is Rita? Where did she come from, and why is her purse full of cash and a mysterious blue key?) and striking up a romantic relationship with her new friend are more rewarding and exciting than any role in a fictional film.

As the T.V. pilot portion of the film reaches its conclusion, Betty’s concept of reality crumbles and it becomes apparent that everything we’ve seen up until this point was a dream (specifically, a masturbatory fantasy, as we’ll learn in what may be the cinema’s most heartbreaking depiction of spanking the lady-monkey). Betty is no aspiring starlet. She’s not even a Betty. She’s hardened, failed actress Diane Selwyn, and Rita is actually her former lover, Camilla Rhodes, who has decided to pass her by in favor of a career-furthering marriage to hot, young director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux). Betty’s City of Dreams has morphed into Diane’s City of Nightmares.

Judge Reinhold passes the torch to Naomi Watts…the tragic-wanking torch, that is!

The transformation of sweet Betty into seething Diane halfway through Mulholland Dr. is utterly devastating (and a trick that Lynch likes to play, as anyone who has seen the final episode of “Twin Peaks” knows). Part of this power derives from Lynch’s direction and script, but a great deal of the credit must also go to Naomi Watts. When I first saw Mulholland Dr., I thought, “Gee, she’s cute, but she’s not a very good actress” as Watts enters the film as the kind of two-dimensional “I’m gonna be a big star!” rube one might see in a ‘30s musical. Then came the famed movie-audition scene, which forced me to completely reevaluate that opinion. Lynch obviously intended the revelation that goofy Betty is actually a brilliant actress to be a shock, but that surprise would have completely fallen flat had Watts not been able to shift gears so radically while remaining true to the character she’d already established.

After waking from her Betty-dream to become Diane (the character’s true self), Watts shifts again to stunning effect. She really had a lot to tackle in this film, metamorphosing from a sweet and naïve starlet to a deft actress to a cagey Nancy Drew-wannabe to an open-minded and uninhibited lover to a devastated, jilted, jaded woman at the end of her rope. I would say that Watts gives the performance of the decade in Mulholland Dr. if that didn’t completely underestimate what she actually accomplishes in the picture: it’s the finest acting I’ve ever seen.

"I’m the best. "

As well as a film that houses one of the cinema’s most fascinating plot twists and the cinema’s greatest acting feat, Mulholland Dr. is also a trove of wonderful, unforgettable individual scenes: Adam Kesher’s unnerving encounter with a buggy-ridin’ cow poke with an aversion to smart alecs; the scene in which he gives his wife’s jewels a bath in a can of pink paint, which naturally leads to fisticuffs with Billy Ray Cyrus; Betty’s exchange with a meddling medium; a thug’s increasingly disastrous attempt to pull off the theft of an address book; a perky starlet’s lip-synching of Linda Scott’s “I’ve Told Every little Star”; an aging songbird’s annihilating a capella rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” at a phantasmagoric nightclub. Lynch also crafts several of the most unexpectedly frightening sequences in film, as when a man recounts a nightmare to a friend only to live the nightmare while awake, Betty and Rita’s discovery of a rotting corpse in a bungalow, and a feverish confrontation between Diane and a pair of old folks at the film’s climax. The nightmare scene, a stand-alone masterpiece of tension and queasy inevitability, has often been named as the scariest sequence in film.

And now several sources are naming Mulholland Dr. as the best picture of the decade, including indieWIRE and Film Comment. Mulholland Dr. is a nicely appropriate choice for the latter publication, because as a film that explores the depths of Hollywood’s gossamer promises of stardom, it is the ultimate film comment. For its rich atmosphere, magnificent acting, mesmerizing music, and provocative twists— its eroticism, humor (which I barely touched on here), scariness, humanity, and epic structure— it is the only choice. Mulholland Dr. is the greatest film of the ‘00s, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better one in any other decade. Not bad for a flop pilot, eh ABC? You stupid assholes.

Next page: Jeffrey talks about some movie that isn’t as awesome as Mulholland Dr.

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