Wednesday, December 30, 2009
The 2000s were a time of steep cinematic learning for me. I got into film around 2005, with the decade half over, and spent the past five years catching up on a century of historical treasures while trying to stay afloat with the new offerings. Which is my roundabout way of saying I haven't seen nearly as much as I should, but you can never see it all, so it's time for my best of the decade.
No matter how many claim the 2000s were weak to mediocre, it's been an extraordinary decade for film, not as revolutionary as the '60s but full of its own challenging wonders. I'm at a point in my education where I value ambiguity and uniqueness more than command of aesthetics, and many of my top few films are open-ended to say the least.
Again, this list is my interpretation of the "best" films of the decade, not an outright list of favorites, but necessarily filtered through my own experience and knowledge and tastes. It's not a caution-to-the-wind bias-fest, but it nevertheless reflects my own sensibilities.
One last caveat: this list was impossible to compile, changed radically throughout the process, and will be different about a minute after I post this. There are so many candidates, some of which I haven't seen for several years (The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, The Man Who Wasn't There), several films I'd like to reconsider (The New World, The Fountain), and, again, more than a few films I should have seen before posting such a list but haven't (Russian Ark, The World). So, grain of salt and all that.
My Top 25 Films of the 2000s:
25. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) by Shane Black
The best buddy flick of the decade, besides representing high points in the careers of Shane Black, Robert Downey, Jr., and Val Kilmer, is also one of the most interesting contemporary neo-noirs. Arriving around the time of Veronica Mars on the small screen and Brick in the arthouse, this vibrantly colored, labyrinthine LA detective story updates hard-boiled to the new millennium with the snappy banter between Harry and Gay Perry. Endlessly watchable and entertainingly postmodern, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a comedy that endures.
24. Children of Men (2006) by Alfonso Cuarón
This is a film that devolves into a physical struggle, a lengthy chase, and a bunch of people shooting at each other with the survival of the species in the balance, but what separates Children of Men from every other popcorn flick is Alfonso Cuarón. His long shots keep us viscerally involved in the action and always geographically aware, and the narrative consistently finds fresh takes on dystopian tropes. Action films can have trouble coming up with new thrills, but I've never seen anything like Children of Men.
23. Once (2007) by John Carney
It hadn't occurred to me when I arranged this list, but after finding room for a great comedy and action flick from the 2000s, here is the quintessential 2000s musical. The music is the relationship between a man and a woman who are so fully embodied that you believe they have lives offscreen. It's an archetypal tale with a solidly un-archetypal ending of two people whose lives barely, briefly, perfectly intersect.
22. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) by Cristian Mungiu
First, it's a struggle to choose among this, Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, and Corneliu Porumboiu's 12:08 East of Bucharest (and I eagerly anticipate Police, Adj.), but for the moment, my preferred representative of the 2000s Romanian wave is the much heralded abortion drama. The best part occurs after the traumatic, dehumanizing operation of the patriarchy in waiting, when Anamaria Marinca's Ottilia visits her boyfriend's family for dinner. We're in suspense throughout the small talk and the conversation about Romanian politics, worrying about her friend at the hotel and wondering about Ottilia as well. And she can't leave. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days constantly invents new ways to suppress its characters, creating a gripping, thoughtful cry for freedom.
21. In the Loop (2009) by Armando Iannucci
I've heard it called the best political satire since Dr. Strangelove, and while I'm wary of the verbiage (every relationship is "political"), In the Loop is at least the best (funniest, scariest, most credible) government satire of the 2000s. Bureaucracy is an old target, but in an increasingly corporate world of an ever-passing buck, In the Loop exposes our mythic democracy as dangerous and irresponsible. And it almost makes me cry. No joke. In the scene with James Gandolfini and Mimi Kennedy sitting on the little girl's bed talking about the troops ("Your military hardware is impressive general" is one of my favorite lines, by the way), there's just enough of a pause toward the end--and this is one rapid film--to let the punchline land: "At the end of a war, you need some soldiers left, really, or else it looks like you've lost." Nobody's ever accused me of being a heartstring-pulling support-our-troopser, but it's hard not to believe that human lives on the scale of 12,000 are seriously, carelessly, summarily discarded by those in power seeking political windfalls.
20. Marie Antoinette (2006) by Sofia Coppola
Sofia Coppola's best film, as far as I'm concerned, is this oft-misunderstood portrayal of isolation. From Jason Schwartzman's introverted king to Kirsten Dunst's homesick political prostitute turned meditative independent, Marie Antoinette, on top of illustrating the historical moment and exploring adolescence and indicting irresponsible governance (the theme of the decade), is a beautiful, thoughtful look at a woman alone.
19. In the Mood for Love (2000) by Wong Kar-Wai
The best Wong film of the decade would make a terrific double feature with Once. Featuring Wong's typically dazzling camerawork and sumptuous colors, In the Mood for Love lives in the details of the budding romance played with subtlety and grace by Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung. 2046 is a fantastical followup, but In the Mood for Love is a powerful, intimate short story.
18. Brokeback Mountain (2005) by Ang Lee
A formal beauty with timeless themes and a timely attack on social repression. One of cinema's great melodramas and a love story to nestle alongside that of Scarlet and Rhett, Brokeback Mountain, with its glorious cinematography and tremendous ensemble, is an impressive work of restrained naturalism.
17. Zodiac (2007) by David Fincher
Phenomenally edited, Zodiac is a two-and-a-half-hour time-and-space epic that flies by and threads suspense throughout its running time. Like many of the great films from 2007, not to mention the decade, Zodiac asserts the impossibility of truth, only this film doesn't portray the quest for meaning as noble or meaningful itself but as obsessive, self-destructive, and insane. With an unusual structure, creepily gliding camerawork, and three brilliant performances, Zodiac is David Fincher's best film.
16. Synecdoche, New York (2008) by Charlie Kaufman
I have one misgiving about this film: its unmodulated despair. Here is a film overflowing with life, and while its absurdism is hysterical, it doesn't come close to covering the scope of the human emotional experience. That said, Synecdoche, New York is imaginative and curious, plays with postmodernism for a philosophical end, and has a wealth of topics on its mind, an excellent role model for films in the modern age.
15. Kings and Queen (2004) & A Christmas Tale (2008) by Arnaud Desplechin
I'm blaming the tie on my having seen Kings and Queen only once and A Christmas Tale a few times (and very recently). But these two films are of a piece, Desplechin's stylistically excessive looks at modern family in modern France. Desplechin's directorial style is easily expressed as intense, never cutting once when he can capture a moment from seven different angles, and his co-written screenplays blend the grandeur of myth with familial issues from illness to estrangement. If I had to pick one, Kings probably wins by a hair, thanks to 1) the incomparable Mathieu Amalric, 2) the Greek myth flashback interlude, and 3) the scene in the picture, Desplechin at his most touching. But A Christmas Tale is so joyous and vibrant, lending a bit more spotlight to the dearly departed Jean-Paul Roussillon and taking all the disparate parts of the family leviathan and sticking them all under one Parisian roof, that it makes an excellent companion.
14. The Headless Woman (2008) by Lucrecia Martel
Feminist lament and classist horror flick The Headless Woman is the clear standout of the new Argentine wave, ahead of Martel's first masterpiece, tropical tapestry The Swamp. The story consigns possible hit-and-run bourgeois wife to passive, traditionally feminine or childish spaces, and resolves in an unsettling washing of hands. Martel interviews that the story illustrates how friends can become sociopathic conspirators, but that transfers too much responsibility from our primarily culpable protagonist, played grippingly by María Onetto. This small post-traumatic stress story is technically brilliant, with soundtrack or other details augmenting the thesis, but what makes it one of the best is its dependence on ambiguity. The Headless Woman is a film about what goes unsaid.
13. Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) by Tsai Ming-Liang
An elegy for a dying way of life, here represented by the closing of a cinema, Goodbye, Dragon Inn has me rabid to catch up with the rest of Tsai Ming-Liang's oeuvre. Composed of gorgeous, inviting long shots, the film is spooky and sad, nostalgic and energetic, lonely and desperate.
12. My Winnipeg (2008) by Guy Maddin
Too often documentaries settle for traditional narrative or interviews-and-reenactments, but Maddin, like Terence Davies and Ari Folman, innovates with his creativity. Infused with Maddin's hallmark psychological expressionism, silent film tropes, and wit, My Winnipeg is not just a surreal yet historically accurate educational piece, but a love letter to the timeless, universal abstract of home.
11. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) by Michel Gondry
Charlie Kaufman, this is more like it. It's a melancholy phantasmagoria saturated with loneliness, but it has some of the decade's sweetest, lightest, and most touching moments, a film that celebrates life for all its frustrations. Kaufman's helped here by two fantastic central performances and a solid supporting cast, but the star talent is Michel Gondry, seamlessly, quietly, dare-I-say minimalistically devastating a man's most treasured memories in a way that is pure cinema.
10. George Washington (2000) by David Gordon Green
The first and best film by the continually promising David Gordon Green, George Washington is another tapestry film with a wealth of subject matter, not least the lower middle class experience, American mythology, and heroism. I've said it before, and I'll say it again, but my favorite film quote of the decade comes from the pictured scene: "Sometimes I smile and laugh when I think about all the great things that you're gonna do. I hope you live forever." Elliptical, graceful, and ambiguous, George Washington contains poetic passages of astonishing beauty, a powerful antidote to commercial cinema malaise.
9. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) by Wes Anderson
Anticipating both of the aforementioned Desplechin films, The Royal Tenenbaums is the decade's first great, big, stuffed family piece about estrangement and illness and expectation and privilege. In fact, I've come around to it as Wes Anderson's best film (although I haven't yet seen Fantastic Mr. Fox), a visually stunning work that is, like life, about the details, from the games in the closet to Margot's cigarettes.
8. No Country for Old Men (2007) by Joel & Ethan Coen
Forgive me: I didn't, because it's just too soon for me, but I may tie this film with A Serious Man in time. Like the latest Coen brothers picture, No Country for Old Men has so much going on, from the central concepts of inevitability and the wake of progress to a capitalist critique and promotion of nonviolent resistance. It's becoming a cliche of this post, but I must highlight the surprising structure, like Zodiac a loose connection between the contemporaneous stories of three men revolving around a single mystery that resolves fascinatingly. Beyond that, despite some outstanding comedies and, again, A Serious Man, No Country for Old Men is the funniest Coen film of the decade, thanks to Cormac McCarthy's source novel, the wits of Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, and Woody Harrelson, and the comical, absurdist, now iconic force of nature that is Anton Chigurh.
7. I'm Not There (2007) by Todd Haynes
I maintain that Bob Dylan is simply the segue into this film, his life merely the dressing on this brilliant, elusive look at the impossibility of freedom and its neighbors, truth and identity. It's a sprawling, ambitious, flawed masterpiece that revolutionizes the biopic and places a premium on imagination.
6. There Will Be Blood (2007) by Paul Thomas Anderson
The third 2007 masterpiece in a row, no matter how often the term is thrown around, in what's basically a three-way tie for the best film of the best film year of the 2000s. Another unusual resolution, another director marked by effective tracking shots, and another formally virtuosic accomplishment. There Will Be Blood is more than a mere reiteration of "power corrupts," more than a mere analogy between capitalism and religion, more than a moralist take on greed. It's nothing less than a timely evisceration of political, social, and philosophical myths that have taken dangerous root in contemporary America, the latest, strongest argument for the self-destructive Faustian bargain of the "American dream."
5. Almost Famous (2000) by Cameron Crowe
About as good as commercial cinema gets, Almost Famous goes down easy and makes you feel good, suspicious effects typically antithetical to what I consider great art. But here is a richly textured portrait of a specific period of American life, and I'm talking both about the archetypal story of the rise and fall of a music group and the adolescent coming of age. In both stories, Almost Famous is a staunchly humanist work, spotlighting a slew of memorable walk-ons that in turn demonstrate the vast network of people connected by this one band's rise. It captures not only the early '70s but the general feeling of being an art fan, with artist worship doing eternal battle with objective criticism, and it's a masterful evocation of nostalgia, a series of special moments elevating a cliched narrative arc to one of the most impressive films of the decade.
4. Mulholland Dr. (2001) by David Lynch
Intoxicating in its mystery and invigorating in its genre tropes, from the shady corporate boss to the bumbling noirish PI to the intriguingly urban cowboy. But the overwhelming majority of the story falls on the love triangle between Naomi Watts, Laura Elena Harring, and Justin Theroux, which begins as an innocent dream fantasy and descends into gripping, hateful reality. If it isn't clear, I've become an eager student of postmodernism, and Lynch in general and this film in particular were my catalysts. It's a disorienting puzzle as much about storytelling and the artistic process as the "surface" elements of the art itself.
3. Beau travail (2000) & 35 Shots of Rum (2009) by Claire Denis
I almost can't believe these are tied: Beau travail floored me with its elliptical elegance, and no matter how much I thought of 35 Shots of Rum, it seemed impossible to surpass Beau travail. But the more I live with these films, the more I find them both so full of curiosity and insight, and better, so modest and unassuming. They're perfect bookends to the decade, mythic and intimate, political and philosophical, and never forgetting the universality of personal tales.
2. Werckmeister Harmonies (2001) by Béla Tarr
Tarr's style of long shots covering geographical distance complements the cosmic preoccupations of Werckmeister beautifully as we follow characters on their daily orbits about town and learn about the natural and societal systems of order. It's an entrancing wonder with a lot on its mind, and an essential inquisition into the post-Cold War era.
1. Inland Empire (2006) by David Lynch
Even before we get to Hollywood, the opening cavalcade of sequences demonstrates virtuoso control of the elements of style. Lynch plays with light from the opening, and color and space and movement, before warping time and space and reality, notably during the meeting of Grace Zabriskie and Laura Dern in her Wonderland chess board of a foyer. Then the narrative settles down, lulling us into a susceptible state, and the entire film becomes, among many other things, a confusion of representation and reality, the nature of art itself. Sure it's also suffused with Lynch's hallmark gripes against the studio system or at least capitalist dehumanization in the industry he's most familiar with, but the wonders of Inland Empire lie in the layers upon layers of artificial reality. Three hours and utterly bewitching, Inland Empire is a singular work of art, a concentrated film course, and the best movie of the decade.
Now that that's out of the way, I must reassert that I have a vast swath of 2000s cinema ahead. I'm especially looking forward to Peter Watkin's La Commune and Pedro Costa's Colossal Youth, finally seeing commercial release in America in March thanks to the Criterion Collection. Of their 2000s output, I've only seen one Rivette (The Duchess of Langeais), one Rohmer (Romance of Astree and Celadon), and one Assayas (Summer Hours). I have yet to explore the work of Jia Zhang-ke, Aleksandr Sokurov, and 2000s Godard, and I can't wait for a few 2009 features I haven't been able to see yet.
And my honorable mentions number in the triple digits, The Lord of the Rings trilogy foremost among them. I couldn't find room for a single Herzog picture, despite treasuring The White Diamond, Encounters at the End of the World, Rescue Dawn, and The Bad Lieutenant, and I regret the absence of Altman, whose Gosford Park and A Prairie Home Companion number among his best. Pixar is a similar case, though I don't find any of those films quite up to the level of brilliance expected for a best-of-decade list. And there's a grab-bag of films I need to refresh or reassess or simply couldn't find room for, in no particular order: The Proposition, The Squid and the Whale, Syriana, Junebug, Friday Night Lights, Before Sunset, Pan's Labyrinth, In Bruges, Superbad, Four Nights with Anna, Donnie Darko, Y tu mama tambien, The Son, and, of course and in all sincerity, Mean Girls.
What do you think? And what are your favorite films of the decade?
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Tuesday, December 29, 2009
I had fun doing this last year, so it might become a tradition. For now, some sixty images from the year in film for me, the year I caught up with remaining classics by Bunuel and Dreyer and Godard as well as contemporary treasures from Martel and Denis and Garrel. DVD spread access to the adventures of Jeanne Dielman and Pinocchio and The State. New releases carried the torch, though mostly from old names like Haneke, Herzog, and Coen. 2009 in film, take one.
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