Wednesday, December 30, 2009

My Top 80 + 20 Guilty Pleasures


After many obsessive weeks of sorting, eliminating, and organizing, I offer you charitable readers of my blog my very own personal top films of the decade*. As exhaustive—not to mention exhausting—as this summary may be, you would be surprised by how many potential contenders I had to regrettably leave out. It saddens me to think that I had to limit myself from citing such wonderful films like The New World, Belle toujours, Million Dollar Baby, Grizzly Man, The Pianist, 25th Hour, ABC Africa, Climates, or even Martin Scorsese’s superb documentary My Voyage to Italy**. But such is life, at least for those who live with self-applied constraints***.

Fortunately, for my own sanity rather than yours, I did not bother to rank my choices and instead am simply listing them in alphabetical order. It would, after all, be incredibly pretentious and just plain illogical of me to create hierarchies when one is dealing with such diverse titles as Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Brakhage’s Love Song, and Jia’s Platform—it would be so pretentious and illogical that I myself am surprised I didn't attempt to do it.

Without further introductory details, I present to you my decade of cinema.

* Well, from 2000 to 2009 anyway. Those who want to argue that the 21st century actually began in 2001 clearly do not understand how compulsive list-makers like me will look for any excuse to write these things, no matter how centennially-incorrect the reasons.

** There has got to be some way for me to cheat and mention these films somewhere in here.

*** Yes, I am indeed a masochist.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg, 2001)

Completing a project originally helmed by Stanley Kubrick, Spielberg provides a complex, moving, and at times downright creepy critique of his own manufactured (i.e., artificial) sentimentality as well as his own audience's willingness to identify with it, ending in a startling (if not also extremely disturbing) epilogue that rivals the best work of Michelangelo Antonioni in its narratological audaciousness.

Les amours d'Astrée et de Céladon (Eric Rohmer, 2007)

Rohmer’s adaptation of L’Astree by Honré d’Urfé may thematically suggest another Perceval le gallois, but the French director’s swan song is stylistically more a return to the combinatorial love games of his great ‘80s period, with some charming gender-swapping and a heightened (or, more accurately, a reconfirmed) sensuality added to his choice elements.

Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004)

Linklater’s grown-up and considerably darker (albeit paradoxically day-lit) sequel to his relatively naive Before Sunrise functions as a critique of that earlier film’s romantic idealism, using real-time to add an urgent weight to every look, line, and gesture of its now-disillusioned lovers.

Blissfully Yours (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2002)

In my favorite film by Apichatpong, the sexual exploration of two young lovers within an exotic jungle retreat becomes an opportunity for this always unpredictable Thai filmmaker to rediscover the language of cinema itself, from his experimental use of interposed titles and voiceover to an opening credit sequence that arrives 45 minutes into the film.

The Boss of It All (Lars von Trier, 2006)

The first ever film to use Automavision (a constraint technique in which every shot’s tilts, pans, and zooms are randomly generated by a computer), von Trier’s satirical comedy about acting and capitalism is both a surrealist conundrum worthy of the Oulipo movement and a multilayered form of expression in which the film’s artificial aesthetic reflects its own thematic premise of an authorless modern world.

Broken Flowers (Jim Jarmusch, 2005)

Those who have ever used Facebook to reignite past relationships should take note of Jarmusch’s quietly tragic allegory of social dysfunction in the internet age, with Bill Murray’s emotionally-repressed loner using web search engines and MapQuest to make a series of increasingly bleak reconnections with his long-lost ex-lovers.

Café Lumière (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2003)

Hou’s tribute to Yasujiro Ozu—more in theoretical conception than actual execution—confirms the Taiwanese filmmaker’s sensitivity to national history on a more global scale, proving that he is just as adept in dramatically personalizing the histories of other countries (Japan in this case) as his own native region.

Camera (David Cronenberg, 2000)

Cronenberg’s career-long examination of the human body’s relationship with various technologies (television in Videodrome, automobiles in Crash, virtual reality in eXistenZ) finally turns its attention to the movie camera itself, thereby self-reflexively making the viewers themselves susceptible to the resulting distortion of identity.

The Circle (Jafar Panahi, 2000)

Iranian director Panahi reconfigures the perpetually plot shifting structure of Luis Bunuel’s The Phantom of Liberty into a truly transgressive cultural protest against his nation’s oppression of its female citizens, where the narrative’s continuous interruptions reflect the cultural restrictions imposed on women.

Code Unknown (Michael Haneke, 2000)

Deconstructing multiple narratives in order to comment on social disconnection in a globalized society, the at times condescending Haneke offers a generously puzzling and highly uncharacteristic film that, unlike some of his lesser works, actually works to expand rather than limit our awareness of the world.

Cœurs (Alain Resnais, 2006)

The 87-year-old French master’s delicate and oftentimes ethereal direction transforms an English stage play by Alan Ayckbourn about repressed desire into a dreamlike tableau of spatial interiors, aided by enthusiastic performances from many Resnais regulars (especially Sabine Azéma and Pierre Arditi) and a beautiful, expressionistic handling of snow.

Coffee and Cigarettes (Jim Jarmusch, 2003)

Jarmusch’s ensemble piece (featuring particularly nice turns by Steve Coogan, Alfred Molina, and Cate Blanchett) utilizes a tableau of visual and verbal rhymes to reveal how the efforts to maintain a high profile consequently hinders one’s ability to have actual conversations with others—a message that, despite some of these episodes’ age, couldn’t be more contemporary in these narcissistic, Facebook times.

Chats perchés (Chris Marker, 2004)

Although nowhere near Marker’s best work (prime candidates would be The Last Bolshevik or Sans soleil), a faux-documentarian like Michael Moore could still learn a lot from this video essay on contemporary French politics and culture, which remains steadily upfront in its socialistic leanings without regressing to condescending agitprop.

A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin, 2008)

The family unit—a complex series of social relationships unified within a common bloodline—happens to be the perfect thematic apparatus for Desplechin’s stylistic approach to filmmaking, which offshoots a seemingly limitless number of narrative strands and experimental techniques (fade-outs, intertitles, split screens, and even shadow puppetry) that nevertheless remain genealogically amalgamated within both the filmmaker’s sensitive direction and his familial acting troupe.

Crimson Gold (Jafar Panahi, 2003)

Sandwiched between his examinations of gender restrictions in Iran (The Circle and Offside), Panahi’s haunting and compassionate drama about a pizza deliveryman—played by real-life schizophrenic Hossain Emadeddin—manages to express the nation’s class anxiety (particularly how poverty perpetuates criminal activity) without ever falling prey to class resentment.

The Darjeeling Limited (Wes Anderson, 2007)

Arguably Anderson’s best film, this laid-back voyage is simultaneously more of the same (especially when Anderson resorts to his usual mix-tape of pop songs and fashionable bourgeois disillusionment) and yet incredibly adventurous (primarily in its use of Indian locale and its unfashionably serious treatment of spirituality) while also demonstrating, in its colorful and intricately-designed mise en scène , that Anderson is one of most geometrically-conscious filmmakers since Tati.

The Day I Became a Woman (Marzieh Makhmalbaf, 2000)

Partitioned into three discrete parts that eventually converge in its Fellini-esque final episode, this immersing contemplation by Makhmalbaf—wife of the more famous Iranian filmmaker—on what it means to be a woman in Iran avoids simple political platitudes about gender oppression (although this topic is certainly not ignored) and instead applies its insights to a more universal celebration of living life in the ever-fleeting moment.

Les destinées sentimentales (Olivier Assayas, 2000)

The remarkably eclectic Assayas completely shifts gears from his 1996 postmodern masterpiece Irma Vep with this breezy period-piece adaptation of Jacques Chardonne’s novel trilogy (which remains, to my knowledge, still untranslated into English), allowing the former Cahiers critic to defamiliarize the costume drama via his light-as-a-feather camerawork while also drawing out moving performances from Charles Berling and a fully-clothed Emmanuelle Béart.

Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (Guy Maddin, 2002)

This sexy fusion of ballet and silent film, based quite faithfully on Stoker’s novel, is probably Maddin’s least personal film yet and all the better for it: his usual Freudian preoccupations are kept at bay, allowing for a more expansive stylistic playing field where the Canadian filmmaker’s aesthetic talents (particularly an expressive use of color tinting and propagandistic intertitles) are able to soar beyond the thematic limitations that occasionally weigh down his other films.

Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg, 2007)

In the way his sensual, serious attentiveness to the human body leads to a kind of spiritual awareness, Cronenberg proves himself to be the most Bressonian of modern filmmakers in this immaculately executed crime drama, which also has a lot to say about what tattoos and knives can do to alter our sense of identity and damage our fragile tissue, respectively (if not sometimes concurrently).

Éloge de l'amour (Jean-Luc Godard, 2001)

As demonstrated in this film’s expressive two-part structure (where the present is portrayed in black-and-white and the past in a beautifully saturated color, in what seems an homage to Otto Preminger’s equally melancholic Bonjour Tristesse), Godard’s political and at times maddeningly inexplicable diatribes are ultimately inseparable from his formalism itself. The filmmaker’s verbalism has thus become an aesthetic object all its own, where charges made against the former’s incomprehensibility are about as purposeful as criticizing light, image, or sound for possessing no direct meaning.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)

Gondry’s childish self-indulgence and Charlie Kaufman’s narcissistic melancholia strike me as the two most infuriating extremes of this modern age’s hipster spectrum, but when blended together the cancellation process actually may lead to enlightening results, as is particularly evident in this ambitious and ultimately moving fantasy about the value of memory that also happens to be a clever parody of Freudian psychology.

Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002)

Haynes’s skills as a conscious imitator of other, better filmmakers remain more provocative when he’s pillaging from only one or two sources, as he did in last decade’s Safe (a disturbing hybrid of Michelangelo Antonioni and Chantal Akerman) and now this explicit yet very moving homage to Douglas Sirk, which largely succeeds thanks to the unapologetic sincerity that everyone (especially actors Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid) bring to the proceedings.

La fille coupée en deux (Claude Chabrol, 2007)

This indirect response to the feeble Chabrol-imitation that was Woody Allen’s overrated Match Point is an almost indecently well-executed crime farce that pushes the French director’s usual bourgeois furnishings into a Bunuel-like surrealism while having a whole lot of fun demolishing—in a critical and finally quite literal sense—the star persona of Ludivine Sagnier, whose self-parodying erotic presence here demonstrates everything Allen got wrong with Scarlett Johansson in Match Point and is perhaps closer to Godard’s deconstruction of Brigitte Bardot in Contempt.

Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2007)

Hou’s first French-language feature is a simultaneous reflection on and expansion of the Taiwanese filmmaker’s talents, incorporating some familiar thematic and stylistic motifs from his earlier career (particularly through puppet shows and extended one-take shots) while increasing his poetic awareness of the everyday. It’s a film that requires its viewers to mine out deeper meanings from subtle occurrences, thereby functioning, like Agnès Varda’s Les glaneurs et la glaneuse, as a perceptive training manual for observing the little details in life.

Les glaneurs et la glaneuse (Agnès Varda, 2000)

Varda’s documentary about the act of gleaning—and all the various metaphorical connotations this implies—begins as a socially-conscious analysis on economic resourcefulness in France that gradually develops into an inspiring manifesto on how to see and live in the world as a compassionate artist.

Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Tsai Ming-liang, 2003)

Tsai’s extremely minimalist riff in environmental ambience locates a majority of his thematic and stylistic preoccupations (extended takes, homo- and heterosexual flirtation, lots and lots of water) within the spatial interiors and exteriors of a closing movie theater, thereby functioning as a funereal (albeit at times subtly humorous) lamentation on the death of the communal filmgoing experience.

Gosford Park (Robert Altman, 2001)

Altman’s characteristic use of multiple protagonists (or what might be more accurately termed a protagonistless vision) loses none of its expansiveness when situated into a single household and partitioned between servants and the bourgeoisie; such confinements actually serve to organize the various personalities into a clearly defined universe, where conventional plot patterns (including the central murder mystery) evaporate into what is more accurately an unpredictable and ultimately compassionate study on class relationships and the human ego.

Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh, 2008)

In a world where everyone, for one reason or another, is a self-proclaimed victim of society, Sally Hawkins’s resiliently optimistic Poppy comes across as the ultimate nonconformist, not to mention a healthy antidote to the trendy melancholia induced by lazy, scornful films like Ghost World and its ilk.

The Heart of the World (Guy Maddin, 2000)

Everything you could ever want in a film by Guy Maddin (melodramatic intertitles! phallic imagery! bombastic plot developments!) in the span of a thrilling, orgiastic, and ultimately generous six minutes, proving that less is clearly more for this talented if occasionally self-indulgent Canadian director.

Histoire de Marie et Julien (Jacques Rivette, 2003)

Delicately shifting identification between its two protagonists (played by Emmanuelle Béart and Jerzy Radziwilowicz) within the course of a swift 150 minutes, Rivette’s time-conscious ghost story is both a fulfillment of the creepiness suggested by his Celine and Julie Go Boating as well as a return to the sensual exploration of identity found in La belle noiseuse via Rivette’s reunion with Béart, who bares a lot more than simply her body this time around.

A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2005)

Fusing the Americanism of Norman Rockwell with Darwinian social theory, Cronenberg’s deceptively straight-forward genre film fashions a troubling and ultimately moving critique on comforting U.S. myths, which consequently heightens the Canadian filmmaker’s tragic, post-Christian meditation on the impossibility of redemptive conversion in a world where our primal instincts remain unknowable and outside our control.

The Hole (Tsai Ming-liang, 2000)

Although water has been an ongoing preoccupation for Tsai throughout his career, this is probably the Malaysian filmmaker’s most fetishistic concentration on the substance and perhaps also his most pleasurable work overall: an absurdist love story set in a leaky apartment building, where the sound of perpetual rain is only intermittently interrupted by a Grace Chang musical number.

Howl’s Moving Castle (Hayao Miyazaki, 2004)

Miyazaki’s endlessly inventive animated fantasy breaks down so many traditional dichotomies related both to age (i.e., old and young) and identifiable role models (heroes and villains) that the proceedings may come across as innocuous or just plain incomprehensible for those who adhere to society’s rigid binary structures. For me, this is what I imagine heaven, if it exists, will be very much like.

I’m Going Home (Manoel de Oliveira, 2001)

It would be worthwhile enough to see the modern world through the eyes of someone who, as film historian Richard Peña has observed, is nearly as old as cinema itself, yet what makes this tender comedy an especially fine treat is that de Oliveira (who just recently reached his centennial) also demonstrates a refreshingly optimistic view of growing old, as conveyed here in one of Michel Piccoli’s most charming and serene performances.

In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000)

In this very uncharacteristic masterpiece by the Hong Kong director, Wong’s stylistic graces, aided by Chris Doyle’s exquisite cinematography and a beautifully orchestrated score, find what may be their most moving and subversive application, primarily because they center their attention on characters (played by the eternal Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung) who are typically cast off to the side in most films. By bathing platonic love in some of the most lovingly formalistic devices imaginable, Wong conceives a new kind of romantic yearning that revitalizes the erotic power of looks and gestures, yet it’s also a yearning infused with a tragic awareness of love’s eventual dilution before it has even been initiated. It’s my favorite film of the decade and, if I may be so brash, a prime contender for the film of the 21st century.

Innocence (Lucile Hadzihalilovic, 2004)

Gaspar Noé could learn a thing or two about the power of understatement from his wife, whose enigmatic feminist allegory—set in an isolated boarding school for young girls—sustains a threatening atmosphere of undetermined, foreboding menace despite (or perhaps, as director Jacques Tourneur once taught us, because of) the complete absence of any explicit violent imagery.

Iraq in Fragments (James Longley, 2006)

Longley’s remarkable piece of poetic journalism (a genre still undervalued by those who believe art and journalism cannot and/or should not mix) helps to complicate what we mean, and more specifically who and what political ideology we are exactly referring to, when we talk about “Iraq.”

Jerichow (Christian Petzold, 2008)

This German modernization of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice may initially come across as a straightforward genre exercise, but Petzold transcends conventions by maintaining a disquieting, almost Bressonian distance from his actors, thereby heightening—to lingering results—the subtle effects of poverty and xenophobia on his characters’ motivations.

Kings and Queen (Arnaud Desplechin, 2004)

Infinitely generous and unapologetically populist (it’s no surprise that Desplechin cites François Truffaut as an influence), this freewheeling masterwork may at times come across as a grab bag of assorted genres—featuring, among other excursions, hip-hop dance numbers, harrowing flashbacks, ghostly visitations, and botched crime capers—but every digression remains carefully integrated into the consistently startling performances of actors Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Devos, who work to blur the line between comedy and tragedy in unexpected and life-affirming ways.

The Lady and the Duke (Eric Rohmer, 2001)

In its marvelous use of digital matte paintings and its identification with an antirevolutionary protagonist (played with fine sensitivity by Lucy Russell), Rohmer’s characteristic naturalism takes on the capabilities of a cinematic time machine, transporting its viewers not only to late-eighteenth-century France but also—as critic Michael Anderson has keenly observed at his blog—to the very political climate of those who opposed the Revolution.

The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch, 2009)

The widespread critical consensus that Jarmusch’s latest film is a pretentious misstep only goes to show how unfamiliar many critics are with the director’s wide array of European influences. For those attuned to the qualities sans intrigue of Jacques Rivette and Jean-Luc Godard (among countless others, considering Jarmusch’s eclectic tastes), this is a visually expansive and endlessly provocative exercise in style that additionally possesses a knowing, very Jarmusch-oriented sense of humor in regards to its own minimalism.

Love Song (Stan Brakhage, 2001)

Brakhage’s self-described “hand-painted visualization of sex in the mind’s eye” gives his beautiful hand-painted film cells a new kind of expressivity by periodically alternating their rate of image change and occasionally adding light to the wetted surface, thereby bestowing his calligraphic brush strokes with a striking three-dimensional quality that almost seems to protrude right off the screen.

Michelangelo Eye to Eye (Michelangelo Antonioni, 2004)

In this final film by the gifted Italian filmmaker, Antonioni culminates his career-long contemplation on the relationship between the human subject and architecture by centering his focus, for the first time, on a digitally-altered, constructed form of his own self.

Moolaadé (Ousmane Sembene, 2004)

Skillfully synthesizing drama with social protest, the great African filmmaker’s swan song is a colorful and complex portrait of communal living in all its beauty, humor, and occasional horror.

Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, 2001)

In this astonishing blend of Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating, Bergman’s Persona, and Lynch’s own singular brand of dream logic, the U.S. filmmaker for once sets his nightmarish signifiers on a meaningful (not to mention vastly self-reflexive) signified—namely, the illusory spectacle of acting within the Hollywood star system—and comes up with an enigmatic and surprisingly moving experience that may just stick with you for a lifetime.

Mysterious Object at Noon (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2000)

Utilizing the surrealist technique of cadaver exquis (exquisite corpse) to form its narrative structure, Apichatpong’s experimental film lacks the pictorial beauty of his later masterworks (Tropical Malady, Blissfully Yours) but more than makes up for it with the Thai filmmaker’s ambitious approach, which transforms basic storytelling into a celebration of collaboration and community.

Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (Charles Burnett, 2003)

Burnett’s absorbing one-hour documentary on the legendary slave rebel Nat Turner concerns itself less with the actual facts of the case (which remain varied and problematic, as demonstrated by the film’s occasional dramatizations) than how the case has been interpreted over the past 150 years by authors, historians, and others of various political positions, including Burnett himself—a telling reminder that history often depends more on those who tell it than those who actually were a part of it.

Notre musique (Jean-Luc Godard, 2004)

Godard’s playful interpretation of hell, purgatory, and heaven is one of his more insightful (or at least more decipherable) commentaries on the interdependent relationship between cinema and history, worth seeing alone for its poetic application of the “shot – reverse shot” to warfare (which harkens back to Godard’s brilliant analysis of imagery in Ici et ailleurs).

Offside (Jafar Panahi, 2006)

Drastically different in tone to his somber The Circle, Panahi’s teen comedy, about a group of girls who dress as boys to attend the World Cup qualifying match in Iran, challenges gender restrictions in a manner that neither sentimentalizes its female protagonists nor demonizes the young soldiers who bar them from entering the stadium. Instead, Panahi offers a hopeful plea for mutual understanding and reconciliation between both oppressed and oppressor.

Oliver Twist (Roman Polanski, 2005)

Although it lacks the playfulness of his most pleasurable features (The Ninth Gate, Pirates, and The Fearless Vampire Killers), Polanski’s adaptation of Dickens’s famous novel is still an example of classical filmmaking at its highest and most refreshingly unfashionable level, directed with a personal sensitivity (perhaps even more so than his explicitly autobiographical The Pianist) by an artist who has unquestionably suffered himself.

Opera Jawa (Garin Nugroho, 2006)

One may cite Sergei Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates or Tony Gatlif’s Latcho drom as notable influences on this stunning Hindu musical from Indonesia, but Nugroho’s film remains ultimately one-of-its-kind in its expressive use of the human body and is, if anything, more indebted to Malian filmmaker Souleymane Cissé’s Yeelen in its poetic use of natural elements to suggest the magical.

Pas sur la bouche (Alain Resnais, 2003)

In its ghostly hues and unabashed nostalgia for an archaic genre, Resnais’s musical not only seems to come from another time but also from another world altogether, forming an atmosphere that—through the sincerity of its mise en scène and actors alike—is simultaneously affectionate and eerie.

Platform (Jia Zhangke, 2000)

This living, highly personal document of China’s recent westernization, spanning from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, is remarkable precisely for its refusal to foreground the cultural shift, despite it being the film’s implied subject matter. Rather, Jia focuses almost exclusively on the love lives and social troubles of his young musician protagonists, providing a glimpse into what the nation’s gradual development must have actually felt like for the twenty-somethings who experienced it firsthand.

The Return (Andrei Zvyagintsev, 2003)

Although certainly a masterful expression of childhood fears and anxiety (one of the best I’ve seen on this topic), repeated viewings of Zvyagintsev’s troubling Russian family drama actually illuminates its multiple perspectives, where either one of its central three characters may be empathetically identified as the principal protagonist.

Russian Ark (Alexander Sokurov, 2002)

The first feature film to be shot in one single continuous take, Sukorov’s groundbreaking achievement not only proves that Russia is still one of the forerunners in the cinematic arts (even if Sokorov’s complete elimination of editing opposes Eisenstein’s reliance on montage) but also utilizes its technological feat as a means of provoking an increased alertness to the subject matter. As filmed within the country’s marvelous Hermitage Museum, three hundred years of Russian history have never felt so immediate and alive than when contextualized within the breathtaking scope of this 90-minute high-wire act.

Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas, 2007)

Mexican filmmaker Reygadas’s tale of infidelity in a Mexican-based Mennonite community updates Ordet for a decidedly more secular age, with the divine intervention suggested by Dreyer’s spatial interiors being replaced by the technological intrusion of the gazing, off-screen camera itself—a fusion between photography and the natural realm that Reygadas particularly emphasizes in his utterly breathtaking opening and closing shots.

Spider (David Cronenberg, 2002)

A welcome return to the psychological horror of Dead Ringers, Cronenberg’s bold venture outside his usual sci-fi domain utilizes a Samuel Beckett-inspired mise en scène to defamiliarize Freudian theory, thereby allowing the film to transgressively seek identification with a socially-inept loner (Ralph Fiennes, marvelous) who just may be insane.

Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)

Miyazaki’s unparalleled ability to tap into his audiences’ most childlike instincts might seem socially irresponsible if not for the fact that his films are always infused with an overwhelmingly generous empathy towards every character, “heroes” and “villains” alike, as is especially the case with this crowning achievement—an escapist fantasy in the best sense of the term that brings out the kid in me like no other work of art, cinematic or otherwise.

Springtime in a Small Town (Tian Zhuangzhuang, 2002)

Tian’s remake of Fei Mu’s 1948 Chinese masterpiece Spring in a Small Town retains the previous film’s moving depiction of repressed love while also suggesting—by way of its very recreation—a poignant verification that China’s state of being before the cultural revolution of 1949 is still very much alive in its citizens’ memory.

Stevie (Steve James, 2002)

The precise antithesis of an Errol Morris documentary, this compelling investigation of a criminal and his community integrates the filmmakers themselves as part of the ongoing drama, thereby removing the voyeurism that typically accompanies such ventures and allowing the development of genuine compassion (rather than condescending sympathy) for its remarkable individuals.

Still Life (Jia Zhangke, 2006)

Like his Platform and The World, this masterpiece—and my personal favorite film—by the Chinese filmmaker incorporates historical spectacle (in this case, the recent construction of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River) as an illuminating backdrop for the dramatic narratives of protagonists who find themselves increasingly threatened and overshadowed by this very spectacle, especially when Jia begins introducing some startling sci-fi elements midway through his introspective film.

Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas, 2008)

In this drama about the loss of cultural identity due to the technological blurring of national borders, the remarkably eclectic Assayas crafts a effortless, seemingly weightless narrative structure that subtly shifts identification between three separate generations, thus utilizing his medium—like Arnaud Desplechin in A Christmas Tale and Edward Yang in Yi Yi—to formally situate a unifying frame around his complex family unit.

Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2006)

Apichatpong’s ambitious and disquieting experiment in narrative repetition suggests a contemporary remake of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman 23, quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles, with the entire nation of modern Thailand reprising Delphine Seyrig’s routine-following protagonist.

Talk to Her (Pedro Almodóvar, 2002)

Almodóvar’s subversive character study utilizes a variety of Hollywood techniques and postmodern cinematic devices to popularize content that would seem socially unacceptable on paper; if this Spanish director’s brand of filmmaking oftentimes comes across as critic-proof, it may simply be because his radical empathy is so integrated into the cinematic form that much of its dimension is lost when reduced to mere summaries (like this one).

Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, 2002)

In its visual confinement to a car’s interior, this is both a radical reexamination of Kiarostami’s mise en scène (with jump cuts and cutaways replacing the director’s usual long shots and tracking shots) and a continuation of his minimalist use of absence, featuring an unapologetic attentiveness to the female experience in Iran that is rare for this filmmaker, at least outside of his scripts for the more socially-conscious Panahi.

Three Times (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2005)

Utilizing the same two actors (Shu Qi and Chang Chen) within three distinctive time periods (1966, 1911, and 2005), Hou culminates his previous examinations of Taiwan’s national history into this relatively accessible and musically conscious elegy on the way historical context changes how we communicate as lovers.

Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004)

Part gay romance (charmingly conveyed with a guilt-free naturalism that remains foreign to U.S.) and part mystical folklore (complete with interposed animation, cutaways to paintings, and talking baboons), the value of Apichatpong’s enigmatic, singular masterpiece lies precisely in its inability to be conveniently summarized—a film that, like most of the Thai director’s other experimental features, actively works to redefine what cinema can and should say.

2046 (Wong Kar-wai, 2004)

Wong’s epilogue to In the Mood for Love is a visual and aural expression of his previous masterpiece’s id, conflating past, present, and future into a kaleidoscopic chronotope that is formed less by any kind of traditional narrative structure than by the romantic longings of its characters, all appealingly lit in Christopher Doyle’s breathtaking cinematography.

Volver (Pedro Almodóvar, 2006)

Despite a fetishistic absorption with Penelope Cruz’s physique that makes me wonder if this film more appropriately belongs in my list of guilty pleasures, Almodóvar’s vibrantly colorful and subtly supernatural family drama nonetheless forges an inviting feminist utopia, where men are done away with not from ill will but rather so that mothers and daughters may eternally bond without unnecessary male distraction.

Waking Life (Richard Linklater, 2001)

Rather snobbishly dismissed by some who undervalued the expression of its philosophical ideas by concentrating on the content of these ideas alone (a critical misconduct also commonly applied to Godard), Linklater’s imaginative and groundbreaking use of rotoscoped animation is actually one of the creepier and more lingering examinations of the dream state since Un chien andalou.

The War Tapes (Deborah Scranton, 2006)

Documentary filmmaker Scranton solves the ongoing problem of “fair and balanced” journalism on the U.S. military’s occupation of Iraq by giving cameras to the soldiers and letting them report on their lives themselves, proving that admitted subjectivity is always more informative as news than attempted objectivity.

Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr, 2000)

Tarr’s first film of the new century is polytheistic on a level that equates cinematic formalism with its own filmed natural environment, essentially creating a divine presence through the camera’s gaze—one that is always on the move and is extended to incredible time durations (this 145-minute film contains only 39 takes).

What Time Is It There? (Tsai Ming-liang, 2001)

Perhaps the Malaysian filmmaker’s most friendly and accessible film, Tsai’s pre-Visage love letter to France—specifically François Truffaut and Jean-Pierre Léaud (who are referenced in unexpected ways)—also happens to be a very Tati-esque comedy about our emotional dependence on time itself.

When the Levees Broke (Spike Lee, 2006)

This swiftly-paced four-hour documentary on the devastation caused by the U.S. government’s ill-response to Hurricane Katrina is not merely a powerful and convincing political statement (much more effective than most of Lee’s feature films); it’s also an appreciation of New Orleans culture that refuses to look down upon the city (as certain politicians have) but rather upholds its citizens’ rich traditions and musical heritage.

The World (Jia Zhangke, 2004)

Jia transforms China’s popular amusement park—in which famous landmarks from around the world are miniaturized and condensed into one location—into a sensitive, moving allegory of the way that increased global awareness only becomes personalized through technology, thereby sustaining (rather than eliminating) the same old subjective complexities of love and friendship for Jia’s naive, text-sending youth.

Y tu mamá también (Alfonso Cuarón, 2001)

This sexy and multilayered charater study from Mexican filmmaker Cuarón manages to be a great many things at once: sexual fantasy, coming-of-age drama, class-conscious criticism, and, most provocatively, the explosive reactions that result when these disparate elements are mixed together.

Yi Yi (Edward Yang, 2000)

Yang’s endearing drama functions as a kind of multidimensional family portrait, where through a framework of paralleling and intersecting narratives the Taiwanese director gracefully shifts the viewer’s identification among various members of the film’s five-person household, conveying midlife crisis, adolescent anxiety, and childlike wonder (among other aspects) with an astonishing ease and flexibility.

Zatôichi (Takeshi Kitano, 2003)

Unlike Tarantino’s adolescent Kill Bill series, Takeshi’s irresistibly playful homage to the samurai film mixes comedy and musical interludes into the genre conventions without ever diluting his sources nor pandering to his audience’s baser instincts, despite a rather poetic treatment of violence that even the most ardent pacifist might appreciate.

Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)

An absorbing and intricately constructed—as well as beautifully cinematographed—response to Fincher’s own Se7en (if not also The Silence of the Lambs, The Cell, and other imitators), providing a critical meditation on society’s morbid fascination with serial killers that actively refuses to give its audience the exploitative payoffs (aside from an unfair treatment of squirrels) typically offered in this genre.


Nate said...

Well, now I know how I'll be spending most of 2010...

This is a great round-up, Jeremy, and not nearly as masochistic as you make it out to be, although I cringe to think of how many hours you spent in front of the computer.

I'm not sure I told you this before, but you're my favorite Cronenberg commentator. I enjoyed reading your pithy takes on Camera, Spider, A History of Violence, and Eastern Promises (surely the most body-conscious of recent thrillers). Well, well done. Also, I love the ubiquitousness of Jarmusch on your list. (But where's Ghost Dog?)

It seems we both love A.I. for different reasons. I very much doubt Spielberg set out to critique his own sentimentality, but if you truly believe he deserves credit for that, then I accept your judgment. I actually find myself in a similar position defending Oliver Twist (which I'm delighted to see on your list). Though I can't be sure of Polanski's intentions, I choose to read it as an apology for a career built on evil portraiture.

Personally, I think you are being too harsh with the Coen brothers (next to Lynch, they are the greatest of contemporary American filmmakers). Are they simply not humane enough for you? How about the curiously absent Herzog?

Also, thanks for reminding me (and everyone else reading) that short films are still vital to the continuance of cinema as an art form. You singled out several of the best.

J. Nyhuis said...

Thanks for your extensive reply, Nate. I appreciate your feedback very much.

You are very kind in singling me out as your favorite Cronenberg commentator! I only wish I had more time to write more about him and the highly personal connection I have with his films. And I must admit that you, sir, are one of my favorite commentators on Polanski, especially in helping me realize the pleasures of underrated works like The Fearless Vampire Killers, Pirates, The Ninth Gate, and indeed Oliver Twise, which probably would not be on this list without your influence.

As for A.I., I do sometimes wonder if it is more of a subconscious critique, yet Spielberg provides so much explicit commentary on the question of whether one can love (or, in another sense, feel sentimentality for) an artificial being--particularly in Hurt's opening speech--that I can't believe it was completely unintentional. (Spielberg's comments in the DVD extra features also reveal a certain awareness of this.)

I love Ghost Dog, but it was released in 1999 and is thus disqualified from my summary. And I admit the absence of the Coen brothers and Herzog is probably due to the influence of Rosenbaum and Kehr on my critical tastes in recent years, although my relationship with both filmmakers still remains pretty personal and is more love/hate than it may first appear. I actually think Grizzly Man is one of Herzog's very best--it just isn't one of my 80 favorite films. And I will always defend my love for the Coens' Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski, and Burn After Reading (the latter of which at least made it in my so-called "guilty pleasures"). I really want to see A Serious Man, too, which might turn me around a bit. But yeah, I do take some issue with the contempt for humanity I see in Herzog's and the Coens' films, although my feelinsg are more cautious than contemptuous.

I'm glad you share my fondness for short films, too. They are indeed an undervalued, but I find it quite extraordinary how much can be said by directors like Cronenberg and Maddin in a mere five minutes. It's great that the recent resurgence of anthology works is allowing more directors to take advantage of this form of expression.

Thanks again for the reply! I hope you are having a nice holidays.

Nate said...

Yes, please do write more about Cronenberg!

I'll have to approach A.I. again very soon, because I haven't done so in years. I'm almost afraid to, so singular was its impact. 2001 was a key moviegoing year for me; I'd just graduated high school, and was only beginning to grasp just how deep and wide the world of cinema really was. A.I. and Mulholland Dr., released within a few months of each other, opened up new vistas for me.

A Serious Man needs no further endorsement from me; it's simply the most personal film the Coens have made, and for my money, their best since Fargo. They are stingy-hearted, yes, but there is real moral anguish beneath the facade. Or else they are the best of liars. Master caricaturists is what they are and always will be, and once you reconcile to that, deep appreciation soon follows. I'll admit, though, that even with the Oscar wins, '00s was not their decade. In fact it's hard to imagine their '90s streak ever being topped.

I wouldn't discourage you from seeing the two new Herzogs, but to be honest, they made me second-guess the man. While quite enjoyable on their own terms, I'm afraid his tricks are beginning to show. I'm facing a similar crisis with Von Trier. I'll never forget what a powerful experience Breaking the Waves was when I saw it in college. Revisiting it again recently, it just seemed kinda... trashy.

Something else I just noticed: there's not a single P.T. Anderson on your list. I'm glad I'm not alone in thinking There Will Be Blood overrated. I really should collect my thoughts on it sometime.

All compliments and thank you's gratefully accepted. Your post was a pleasure to read, and I'll no doubt return to it in the coming months to compare notes.

J. Nyhuis said...

You really should give yourself the pleasure of seeing A.I. again, Nate. I've probably seen it four times since its release, and my appreciation has only deepened with every viewing.

I agree that the Coens are indeed master caricaturists, which I think is one of the reasons I've had difficulty responding to them with anything more than mild enthusiasm over the years. I admit that The Hudsucker Proxy, along with Hitchcock's Vertigo, was one of the first films to teach me about the expressive capabilities of film, and there was a time when I adored the Coens for their perfectly executed (albeit easily discernable) formalism.

Today, however, the Coens' formalism feels for me too safely alienated from genuine emotion, not to mention anything remotely related to the real world. Like Tarantino's films (which I have no personal interest in seeing anymore), they seem to exist in a purely cinematic milieu that is completely separate from the real one, thereby giving permission to their viewers to respond in any manner they desire--after all, it's "just a movie," as the Coens and Tarantino are always willing to remind us in their intentionally artificial aesthetic. In this sense, I believe the Coens, Tarantino, and others of the "cinephile" school encourage viewers to lower and ultimately limit their expectations about what cinema can say and do, particularly in relation to the world outside cinema (although I certainly wouldn't say they do this to you).

Perhaps you can enlighten me further about this "moral anguish" you discern in the Coens' work, which at least would help me identify some kind of relevant connection between their films and reality. I wonder if a crash-course in the art of caricature would benefit me, too!

And yes, I would guess we share similar feelings about P.T. Anderson, although I think he and Daniel Day-Lewis were in good company for There Will Be Blood, considering the show-offy approach they both take to their respective professions. Every one of Anderson's scenes screams THIS IS ART, just as every line by Day-Lewis screams THIS IS ACTING, which to me just doesn't qualify as good art or acting--it would be generous of them to let the audience make its own decisions now and then.

Dr Orlof said...

Hello, i'm a bit late but your list is amazing. Here's mine :

you'll see that most are in your list too. I'm just surprise not finding Gus Van Sant in your list.
I regret not speaking english better : your blog seem very interesting...

Jeremy Nyhuis said...

Thank you for your comment, Dr. Orlof. I have actually been in France this past week, gazing upon the beautiful seaside of Normandie and visiting cinema shops in Paris. I was so happy to find a DVD of "Parade" by Jacques Tati at La Cinémathèque française!

I look forward to reading your post. Thank you for the link.