Friday, August 7, 2009

The 100 most memorable characters of the decade - part 1

I'm now old enough to actually remember when a decade began, so like many movie buffs, I've likely watched at least a thousand films over the last 9 and-a-half years. I read somewhere that we have to slog through so many terrible and mediocre films so that our children don't have to. We have to watch them all, keep the classics, throw away the disappointments, and steer our children towards what is best from the past.

With this decade winding down, we're all going to reflect. Film-wise I thought I would begin my reflection with the characters that made getting through so many films worthwhile. The list was narrowed down from over 600 to 100 characters and I tried to incorporate as much criteria as I possibly could - box office, critical acclaim, some of the characters readers voted for, and my own personal tastes. Over the course of several weeks I'll post the top 100.

100 - William Forrester (Sean Connery) Finding Forrester - William Forrester, a reclusive Pulitzer Prize winning writer, may not only be one of Sean Connery's last roles, but I think it may end up being one of his most remembered.

Forrester is one of those characters in film history who is remembered more for a line uttered in a trailer than for what he actually does throughout a film. The quote "You're the man now, dog," was so absurd that it inevitably became an Internet meme and spawned a website. I suppose we only parody what we truly love.

But at first, Forrester is a character who is difficult to love; he's cranky, emotionally withdrawn - he's probably past his prime. Somehow he becomes someone with more courage and emotional depth than he could have hoped for, and by the end of Finding Forrester, he becomes an inspirational figure.

99 - John Givings (Michael Shannon) Revolutionary Road - For a character that drives so much of the story forward, John Givings appears onscreen for a mere 8 minutes in 2 scenes. At least 14 other actors have been Oscar nominated for equal or less screen time, but none in recent memory have done it with the understated power of Michael Shannon.

Givings is introduced as mentally disturbed genius, having undergone treatment in a mental institution. He has none of the social graces any of the other characters in Revolutionary Road have. He is one of the more horrifying characters one can encounter simply because, he does not lie. Not to himself. And not to the people around him. He will a spade a spade, and he calls a doomed marriage exactly what it is.

98 - Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) Lost in Translation - Aimless, lonely, but undeniably sexy, Charlotte became the poster-girl for many lost, restless, confused twenty-somethings after mid 2003. Scarlett Johansson played her so convincingly it was easy to forget that the actress at 18, was at least half a decade younger than the character she was portraying. And while what Charlotte goes through is tumultuous - now that I'm about the same age I finally understand it to be quite painful - Johansson was wise enough to see the humor in Charlotte's quarter-life crisis:

I think that she [Sofia Coppola] found the idea of this very preppie girl, married and well-off, having a mid-life crisis at the age of twenty-four, very interesting, and funny. Ironically funny...She wanted [her] to be cool-her version of cool...The character always had long blonde hair, and that was to separate her from the Japanese...the relationship with Giovanni [Ribisi] is similar in the sense that they're both busy. He's busy and focused, and she's floating around not really knowing what she wants, and he doesn't get that.

The aimless, angst ridden twenty-something has been duplicated numerous times on film, but none feel quite as authentic as Johansson's Charlotte. I suppose very few ever will.

97 - Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle) Hotel Rwanda - Maybe every decade gets an unforgettable film hero who actually existed: Atticus Finch in the 1960s and Oskar Schindler in the 1990s. I once thought, that even though Rusesabagina made an impact on me and a few of the people around me, his inspiring story would probably never find a wider audience. Maybe I was wrong.

Netflix subscribers recommended the film so highly that it became Netflix's fifth most-rented movie ever. As of 2006 it was doing better than The Bourne Supremacy. That's quite an achievement for a film that only made $33.8 million worldwide in 2004. Now, if only more people would actually watch the thing instead of just renting it and letting it languish on the top of their DVD player.

Roger Ebert had this to say about the character:

The man is named Paul Rusesabagina, and he is played by Don Cheadle as a man of quiet, steady competence in a time of chaos. This is not the kind of man the camera silhouettes against mountaintops, but the kind of man who knows how things work in the real world, who uses his skills of bribery, flattery, apology and deception to save these lives who have come into his care.

96 - María Álvarez (Catalina Sandino Moreno) Maria Full of Grace - There is a quiet determination to María. There is almost a saintliness to her, but there is a recklessness there too. She is seventeen after all. In recent films the teenagers have all blended together into one shrill, narcissistic, overindulgent nightmare. I can't guarantee there there will be many teen aged characters on this list in the weeks to come, but most of them will have something in common with María.

Unbelievably this was Moreno's first screen role:
We've probably all heard the term "drug mule" before and perhaps been somewhat aware of the process by which these women are used to transport drugs out of Colombia and into America. Maybe you've seen a 60 Minutes special or a report on the nightly news. Maria Full of Grace tells the story of a young Colombian girl named Maria. She is struggling in a poor Colombian town. When she loses her job and finds out she is also pregnant, a friend introduces her to a new way to make money. No matter what you may have read or watched on the news about Colombian "mules," I'd wager that most Americans will walk out of this film with an entirely new understanding of the horrible lengths these women go to and the desperation involved in putting their lives on the line for the chance to escape Colombia or put food on the table for their families...

"I read the script and I was so proud that an American was not stereotyping Colombia. He never showed a gun. He never showed, like, bloody Maria's face. He never did those types of things, and for me it was incredible... There's more about Colombia and what Josh did was an incredible job and I'm so proud that he did it. That's why a lot of Colombians are so grateful [to] him, because he just put his eyes on Colombia and made an incredible movie.

95 - Lady Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) The Lord of the Rings trilogy - Galadriel was chosen to narrate the prologue for the films - in a realm where many of the inhabitants are impossibly old, Galadriel is one of the oldest among them. She was alive when the One Ring was forged. Of course she was chosen to tell us about it. Galadriel's scene with Frodo shows the audience and Frodo just how powerful the One Ring truly is.

If a character as old, powerful, and good as Galadriel has a hard time fighting its power, then the ring has an even darker force than we, or Frodo imagined:

More on Galadriel:

...Galadriel is the Morning Star of her people. She embodies the beauty of the dawn, bringing light to conquer darkness. She is infused with wisdom, and...her her great beauty. In the moment when she is transformed by desire for the Ring, she metamorphoses into a woman `tall beyond measuring, and beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful'. Then she becomes again, Galadriel - `a slender elf woman, clad in simple white, whose gentle voice was soft and sad.' Lovely, yes, but not `beautiful beyond enduring.' A woman to inspire love in the previously fearful Gimli, but not the perfection of an air brushed Hollywood star.

To be able to show this transformation, Jackson needed an actress of character and great skill, and one whose beauty could inspire admiration and love in men who are in themselves of deep character and Honor. Cate, who did the same thing in creating an Elizabeth who lived up to the passions inspired by the great Queen, was just the right choice.

94 - Jacobim Mugatu (Will Ferrell) Zoolander - His real last name is Moogberg, he invented the piano key necktie, and despite being utterly ridiculous, his hilarious master plan is truly evil. Mugatu goes in search of a dimwitted male model who can be brainwashed into assassinating the Prime Minister of Malaysia and thus, keep child labor cheap for the fashion industry.

Like many movie villains, Mugatu also gets some of the most memorable lines from the film. My sister and I quote Zoolander a lot - many of the quotes are Mugatu's:

"Let me show you Derelicte. It is a fashion, a way of life inspired by the very homeless, the vagrants, the crack whores that make this wonderful city so unique."

"Who cares about Derek Zoolander anyway? The man has only one look, for Christ's sake! Blue Steel? Ferrari? Le Tigra? They're the same face! Doesn't anybody notice this? I feel like I'm taking crazy pills! I invented the piano key necktie, I invented it!"

"Todd! Are you not aware that I get farty and bloated with a foamy latte?"

93 - Queen Clarisse Renaldi (Julie Andrews) The Princess Diaries and The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement - While some characters, like Queen Clarisse's granddaughter, Mia Thermopolis think with their hearts - Clarisse undoubtedly thinks with her head. She remains reserved throughout most of the first film, but becomes noticeably less so in the sequel.

In the first film, it's tough to determine if Queen Clarisse is so self-restrained because it comes naturally to her, or if it comes with the nature of being royalty. She rarely makes emotional choices, which, to her sixteen year old granddaughter may seem harsh. Over the course of the first Princess Diaries, however, she finds it increasingly difficult to choose between what's best for the monarchy and what's best for her grandchild. Despite this, she's the ultimate movie heroine, because as a public figure, she acts exactly the same way in public as she does in private. She treats the servants the same way she treats heads of state. Her quiet grace isn't an act, which is part of the reason why she's a very well liked character.

In the film's sequel, she is still as gracious and elegant as she has always been, but she is more open, more fun. While her granddaughter Mia is maturing, on the inside, Queen Clarisse is becoming younger. As she sees her power passing to an heir, her self-restraint fades slowly, revealing that a large part of who she is, has been molded by the nature of her job as Queen.

What should have been a two-dimensional royal, Julie Andrews made into a subtle and layered character, which is what makes Queen Renaldi so memorable.

92 - Leonard McCoy (Karl Urban) Star Trek

I've talked about McCoy at length already, so I'll shamelessly leave you with my impression of him from earlier in the year:

McCoy was without fail, Captain Kirk’s closest confidante, and in some cases, more of a sibling than merely a friend. McCoy was Kirk’s conscience, and his being Kirk’s voice of reason was no accident – his divorce left him world weary, and at times dangerously over-emotional, giving way to moments of irrationality. With J.J. Abrams’ reboot most of this is clear within the first few minutes of his and Kirk’s meeting aboard a ship. While Kirk is calm about their flight – McCoy is the polar opposite, and rattles off a list of horrifying, potential deaths in space ("One tiny crack in the hull, and our blood boils in 13 seconds").

It’s a near perfect match with DeForest Kelly’s McCoy, and everything from the rhythm of how Urban speaks to even his hand gestures are spot on.

91 - Jadis, the White Witch (Tilda Swinton) The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe - It's fitting that memorable female characters created by close friends C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien would be among the first ten characters of this list. It's purely coincidental and not intentional. While Tolkein's White Lady, Galadriel, is flawed but good, Lewis' White Witch is the embodiment of pure evil. We have Tilda Swinton to thank for perfectly recreating the villain that haunted our childhood nightmares. I've learned over the years that children immediately understand White Witch, while the adults are not usually as perceptive. Tilda Swinton probably knew that when she said this in a 2005 interview:
“The studio couldn’t understand that someone evil would not have black hair,” she said. “They told me, ‘She has to be beautiful.’ I said: ‘The witch will be beautiful; the key is no makeup. After all, she’s the White Witch; her face should be bare.’ And I think, eventually, they saw my point. She’s very scary. I’m fully at peace with the idea that children who see this film will be backing away from me for the rest of my life.”

Swinton had more to say about the White Witch, and her effect on children:

Rather than playing up, it was more a question of playing down. Both Andrew [Adamson, the director] and I shared very early on that neither of us had had been convinced by the cackling, shouting, hot-under-the-collar witches that we'd been exposed to as children. They hadn't frightened us. It occurred to me that since this is not a human witch, this is the epitome of all evil. It's like a free pass with any kind of nonsense you can come up with. It doesn't have to add up. What children, in fact all of us at any age, find frightening is unreliability and emotional coldness. The idea that you can't affect someone, that you can't see where they're coming from and can change tact at any moment.

Well folks, that's the first 10. There will be 90 more characters over the coming weeks so if you haven't seen your choices yet, maybe they'll be listed higher. Who would you like to see on the list?

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