The Royal Tenenbaums
I came out of the theater hating this movie. I had seen and loved Rushmore, and so was excited to see Wes Anderson's next offering. What I found clever and endearing in Rushmore I found intolerable in Tenenbaums:
Anderson is known for static camera positions and beautifully composed frames. The first time I saw Tenenbaums, the lack of motion drove me crazy. It's a movie where the camera barely moves, the characters barely move, and emotions are barely shown. Barely shown, that is, until a volcanic ending when everything explodes out into the open. Upon repeat viewings, this technique has begun to work on me. The frenetic energy of the climax is made all the more intense by the slow-build immobility of all that came before. And Gene Hackman is great. His wry performance and perfect delivery get better with each viewing.
Being a huge Michael Mann fan (The Insider, Heat, Collateral), and knowing his involvement with the television show, I was excited to see the film adaptation. This was a case of expectations being too high. Mann's last three movies (aforementioned) had been such triumphs that only Citizen Kane-level perfection could have satisfied me (see also: The Simpsons Movie). Upon repeat viewings, though, Miami Vice proves to be densely plotted, beautifully shot (on digital tape), and very well acted. Mann coaxes good performances from Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx as the leads, but it's the surrounding players who give the film its weight and provide the best moments, making Miami Vice one of the greatly underrated crime thrillers of the last decade.
Mel Gibson's Mayan tale was sold as an epic adventure, when really it's just the opposite. The above trailer is for the DVD release, and advertises a simpler story than the longer theatrical trailer. A stripped-down action adventure tale of a man desperately trying to rescue his wife and son while being pursued by baddies, Apocalypto was an incredible comedown from Gibson's previous film, The Passion of the Christ. I had been (and continue to be) so moved by The Passion that Apocalypto felt incredibly slight by comparison. As I watch it again and again, though, I realize that it's meant to be. It's Frantic or The Rundown...a guy being chased, trying to save those he loves. The action beats are all there, and the cinematography is, again, beautiful. That seems to be a common denominator of this list: perhaps beautiful film-making requires an existing familiarity with the story to be truly appreciated.
The Dark Knight
I know, right? How could I not like one of the best reviewed movies of all time? I had really liked Batman Begins, and so, as is common on this list, was eagerly anticipating the sequel. My problem with The Dark Knight upon first blush was that I thought it succumbed to sequel-itis: that is, doing the same things, just more, more, more, and bigger, bigger, bigger. I thought the movie was overstuffed (see Iron Man 2, which hasn't yet gotten better with age) with at least one bad guy too many (Two-Face, in particular) and enough gadgets and vehicles to make your head spin. I also thought that the morality play on the barges was a little overwrought. After seeing the movie several more times, I like it much more. What at first seemed to be a convoluted plot revealed itself to be intricate but understandable, the scene on the barges had depths I hadn't noticed, and the nihilistic anarchy of the Joker became more and more creepy. I still don't like the fact that Aaron Eckhart's arc is tighter than a boomerang's flight path, but maybe I'll even like that, one more viewing in.
I liked this movie immediately, and simply like it more and more every time I see it. George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones square off in this Preston Sturges-style farce. It's funny, it's warm, it's winning. It also features Coen brother's regular Richard Jenkins giving one of the great line readings in the history of cinema (NBC Universal apparently won't let me embed the clip).
Burn After Reading
Another Coen bothers film, Burn After Reading is wispy-thin. So slight that even the main characters don't have any idea what's going on in the movie or why it matters (and the cause of my initial shoulder-shrug and "meh" reaction), Burn nevertheless contains a great Brad Pitt comedic performance, offset by a hilariously overwrought John Malkovich one. Ostensibly a tale of intelligence-service intrigue, it's really an opportunity for a group of comedic actors with impeccable timing (the aforementioned Pitt, Malkovich, and Jenkins, plus George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand and J.K. Simmons) to show off their best stuff.