Talking about remakes is tough. On the one hand, as a film lover the ideal scenario is that remakes should be an endangered species; that filmmakers will spend their time and money investing in new ideas instead of rehashing other people's dreams. On the other hand, some film's are worth remaking because, A) the original didn't fulfill its potential in the first place, or B) the story is strong enough to tell over and over.
When it comes down to talking about the quality of a remake, things get even tougher. Take this Best Remakes of the Decade list, for example. Just because a film finds itself on said list doesn't mean it is inherently better than the original film, just that I think it's a fine film in its own right that happens to have the label "remake" attached to it. In compiling this Top 10 - which is numbered, but not ranked in any kind of order - I came to realize that whether or not a remake is better than the original film, the element that almost always divides a Best from a Worst is the cast. Again and again I found myself wanting to type the words "great cast" without realizing that was the make-or-break quality for most of the titles below.
But before we get to the Top 10, I'd like to tip my hat to a handful of contenders that didn't make it to varsity: The Ring, Zatoichi, The Hills Have Eyes, The Last House on the Left, The Italian Job, War of the Worlds, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Nine, The Ladykillers, and Bedazzled.
10. 3:10 to Yuma
The popularity of the Western comes and goes in Hollywood. Usually all it takes is one solid, popular Western to kick start a new cycle, so I'm honestly a little surprised that 3:10 to Yuma (2007) didn't spark more studio interest in remaking old Westerns. Directed by James Mangold and starring the great match up of Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, this remake of Delmer Dave's 1957 film adaptation of Elmore Leonard's short story of the same name was a modestly budgeted, yet large-scale retelling of the story of a down-on-his-luck farmer (Bale) who offers to help escort a notorious criminal (Crowe) to his prison transport.
More notable than how well Mangold managed to make a low-tech Western just as intense as high-tech, effects-heavy big budget action films is how great that cast was even beyond the two big heads. Alan Tudyk, Peter Fonda, Gretchen Mol, Luke Wilson, Kevin Durand, and particularly Ben Foster all make this one of the best ensemble casts of character actors on this list.
9. The Happiness of the Katakuris
It's not hard to envision the Hollywood sign as a giant, Sauron-esque eye that scours the international film world for treasures to remake, but us yanks aren't the only one in the remake game. They may not be as common, but from time to time, non-US countries can be found getting in on the fun and my favorite example of this phenomenon is Takashi Miike's The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001). Weird is a word that applies to most Miike films, but it barely even begins to describe his remake of Ji-Woon Kim's already fantastic The Quiet Family (1998).
The original was a dark drama/comedy about a family that moves from the big city to start an isolated bed and breakfast in the country, only to have all of their guests wind up dead, leaving them with the burden of hiding the bodies. Miike's remake takes that exact premise, straps it to a chair, and pours LSD in its every orifice by turning it into a surreal blend of genres that is as likely to explode into full-on rock opera dance numbers as it is claymation sequences that will make you question your sanity. The Happiness of the Katakuris is a wonderfully weird little experiment that is simultaneously immensely charming, baffling and horrifying. Still one of the best films from a true cinematic auteur and easily the best example on this list of a director taking another film's premise and absolutely making it their own.
8. The Departed
Martin Scorsese put his particular gangster-loving stamp all over The Departed (2006), his remake of the Infernal Affairs trilogy out of Hong Kong. William Monahan's script cherry picked various elements from the three original films to tell the story of two men on either side of the law in Boston. One is Leonardo DiCaprio, a police officer who has gone undercover to infiltrate an Irish mafia run by Jack Nicholson. The other is Matt Damon, a long time member of the Irish mafia in question who happens to be a police officer tasked with taking down the family he has secretly been a part of for years.
As with all Scorsese films, the extended cast was overflowing with tremendous actors all eager to contribute whatever screen time they could to a devilish menagerie of corrupt cops, undercover cops, FBI agents, and psychotic mobsters. It's crass, hilarious, violent, dramatic, and 100% Scorsese.
When looking at Christopher Nolan's filmography most people talk about Memento, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, or even The Prestige, which is a shame because they end up overlooking Insomnia (2002). Remade from a 1997 Norwegian film of the same name, this was Nolan's first director-for-hire gig and he was able to take what could have otherwise been a by-the-numbers procedural investigation flick and turn it into a dark thriller with a loose grip on reality. For my money it marks the last time Al Pacino really was allowed to sink his teeth into a role, in turn giving a great performance as a detective called in to investigate a string of murders in a small Alaskan town during a time of the year in which the sun never sets. It's beautifully shot, has great cast of supporting characters, and features an excellent script with enough alterations to keep things interesting even for fans of the original Norwegian film.
6. Funny Games U.S.
If you are of the camp that remakes are pointless and you should just go see the original instead, then you must be extra annoyed by Funny Games U.S. Not only did Michael Haneke make both the remake and the original, but the US version is a nearly shot-for-shot, beat-for-beat remake of his 1997 film. The only crucial difference from the decade-prior Austrian film is that this one has Naomi Watts and Tim Roth as the upper-class couple held captive in their own home and Michael Bitt and Brady Corbet as the dressed-in-spotless-white young men who torture them. However, that makes this twisted examination of media violence no less damaging on your psyche. It's a film that is without equivocation not for everyone, but those who are up for it can attest that few give a cinematic punch to the face with as much beauty as Haneke is (repeatedly) capable of.
5. Vanilla Sky
I have a love hate relationship with Cameron Crowe's 2001 remake of the 1997 Spanish film Open Your Eyes. I love the film, but man do I hate that every time I think of it I also think, "Wait, what happened to Cameron Crowe?" It's the last great film made by the man who gave the world Say Anything... and Almost Famous, but that's not the only reason it belongs on this list. It's both heartwarming and smashing at the same time thanks to a delightful soundtrack, ethereal mood, and tremendously sympathetic performances from Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, and Tom Cruise. It's the kind of movie that I often find myself having a strange craving to pop in at completely unpredictable times, a quality I wish I could say more films possessed.
4. King Kong
It's easy to argue that Peter Jackson's CGI-reliant King Kong (2005) lacks the physical-puppet charm of the original 1933 film, but such claims imply that there is no charm to 'his big-budget updating. This is bull. If someone becomes attached to one kind of fakery, they can become attached to another kind of fakery, and, frankly, Jackson's Kong is my favorite. The artistry used to bring Kong to life is some of the best digital wizardry cinema has ever known. And I think all of the bombastic new opponents and creatures added to Skull Island this time around only make the already outlandish adventure even more larger than life.
Grift movies are a dime a dozen, but rarely are they as engrossing in their simplicity as Criminal, a remake of the low-budget Argentinian film Nine Queens. John C. Reilly gives a career high performance as a con man who enlists a new partner, played by Diego Luna, to sell a rare bill of currency to a private collector. The script is a deft one-two combination of humor and drama that instantly hooks you into the bittersweet world of con men that will have you genuinely concerned for the outcome of the story in no time. Writer/Director Gregory Jacobs is wonderful at the misdirect, constantly shifting focus to the point where the audience begins to wonder whether Reilly, Luna, or even themselves are the ones actually being lied to, yet never does he employ any malicious tricks of editing or misinformation.
2. Ocean's Eleven
As mentioned above, more often than not the make-or-break element of the remake film is the cast. Almost everything on this list succeeds due in large part to the performances, but the clear king of the remake casting department is Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven. Since everyone with a television has seen this film more times than they can likely count, I won't redundantly recite them all here, but I struggle to think of a better batch of perfectly plucked, broad-appeal character actors than the crew who plot to pull off the most elaborate (and rewarding) heist Las Vegas has ever known. It's a rare thing in cinema for a film to be enjoyed by every age and gender demographic available, and yet that's a feat Soderbergh and friends accomplished with ease.
1. Dawn of the Dead
Even though I've stated that there is no actual ranking to this list, I'd be withholding if I didn't confess Zack Snyder's remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004) is, indeed, my absolute favorite remake of the past decade. Yes, much of the anti-consumerism commentary is lost in the transition from Romero's 1978 film to 2004, but that doesn't stop it from being an outstanding portrait of the end of the world. It's well cast and well shot, but what I love most about it is how relentlessly optimistic it is despite the fact that the reasons for it to be pessimistic keep snowballing from the second the film opens.
And speaking of that opening, of Sarah Polley's drive through hellish suburbia, I think it's about as good a kick-off of the apocalypse as one can expect to find. The opening credit sequence...the exploration of the mall...shooting zombie celebrity look-a-likes...the birth of Luda's baby...the trip to Andy's gun store...the convoy of murdered-out shuttle buses...the crushing ending...oh, man, I love every thing about this movie.