2. “Watchmen” (2009)
“Watchmen” is the movie that Zack Snyder was born to make. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s good, only that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s seminal graphic novel is the perfect vessel for all of the things that make Snyder tick, and that no other property in the superhero genre could ever provide him a better conduit through which to explore his pet obsessions.
Strictly as an adaptation, Snyder’s “Watchmen” is flawed in a number of Snyder’s signature ways. The movie is awkwardly stuck between slavish fidelity and stylized fetishism, to the point where it feels like there’s a disconnect between its body and soul. While impeccably cast (Jackie Earle Hayley is a flawless Rorschach) and punctuated by at least two astonishingly good sequences that underscore Snyder’s gift for synthesizing a certain mood through sound and image, the film is so disposable that HBO is already in the process of doing it all over again. The characters are never able to escape their legends, and even the scenes that take place in the present are entombed in amber. But it’s still “Watchmen.”
Which is why, as an act of ambition, this thing is a marvel. Snyder’s greatest success for “Watchmen” was simply convincing a studio to make it in the first place. The filmmaking process begins a long time before cameras roll on the first day of shooting, and the truth is that Snyder is even better in a boardroom than he is on the set. Snyder’s ability to convince Warner Bros to plunk down for all 160 minutes of it back in 2009 is still mighty impressive (even if the squid monster got lost in the shuffle). It also helped that Snyder found the perfect moment for this movie, as the dawn of superhero cinema had left multiplex audiences as susceptible to this kind of subversion as comic book readers had been in the ’80s.
1. “Dawn of the Dead” (2005)
There’s something unkind about crowning a filmmaker’s first movie as his best, but you’re encouraged to think of this less as an insult to the rest of Snyder’s work than it is a celebration of an under-appreciated modern classic. “Dawn of the Dead” is the perfect showcase for Snyder’s talent: It makes use of everything he does well, and ditches everything he doesn’t (there were so many bad habits he had yet to acquire). The director’s flair for darkness has never again served him so well, if only because this remains the only one of his films where the decision to go bigger, scarier, and more fucked up was always the right one for the story. The baby delivery scene? Yeah, it’s even more disturbing than you remember.
Starting — as is his wont — with an iconic text that’s inextricable from our culture, Snyder took George Romero’s zombie classic, borrowed a little speed from Danny Boyle, and brought “Dawn of the Dead” into the 21st century at a full sprint. The opening sequence alone was probably enough to convince Hollywood that this guy had the goods, as it turns the world upside down in just a few minutes. Those incredible bird’s-eye shots of cards screaming across intersections reinforce the disturbed idyll of suburbia while also expressing the scale of the terror in a way that Romero never could. All of this before the first of Snyder’s signature title sequences, this one using Johnny Cash to orient this madness in a pop cultural place, to present a body of work where everything is slightly unreal and in reference to itself.
While the original film was a merciless attack on capitalism, Snyder’s remake was made in response to 9/11, and the xenophobia that followed in its wake. The movie may have been shot in Canada, but the sheer Americanness of its mall setting keeps its context in check; there’s still something uncomfortably real about one of those evil security guards moaning that “If we start letting people in here, then we’re gonna let the wrong ones in, and then we’re gonna die.” At the start of a career that’s been obsessed with killing gods, Snyder made a heart-stopping film about a world in which God is already dead, and people are left to consolidate power or be eaten alive by the vacuum that divinity has left behind. Watching Jake Weber evolve from a Best Buy TV salesman into a stoic leader is the most fascinating hero’s journey that Snyder has ever chronicled. Ving Rhames and Mekhi Phifer are stellar, and of course “Dawn of the Dead” is Snyder’s best film by default because it’s the only one he made that stars Sarah Polley.