Tag Archives: coen brothers

2013: A Lucky Year

Upstream Color, Drug War, This Is Martin Bonner, The Act of Killing

I always like to say that cinema is a menagerie, not a horse race. In support of that sentiment—and because my list employs no faultless critical methodology; my love for #25 is just a hair’s breadth away from my love for #1—here are 15 additional titles, listed in alphabetical order, before I even begin: The Act of KillingAprès maiBefore MidnightComputer ChessDrug WarThe GrandmasterLeviathanNoStories We TellThis Is Martin Bonner12 Years a SlaveUpstream ColorViolaThe Wind Rises, and The Wolf of Wall Street. (For yet more, you can see this year’s Indiewire poll and #12FilmsaFlickering, in both of which I participated.)

Furthermore, here are 10 performances that just barely missed my list (but I guess actually did make my list, since I’m listing them here): Gael García Bernal, blending ad industry satire with political revolution in No; Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, two magnificent actors bound together by love and venom in Before Midnight; Anna Margaret Hollyman, catatonically depressed among holiday cheer in White Reindeer; Sun Honglei and Louis Koo, giving a pair of symbiotic performances as the narcotics officer and his snitch in Drug War; To the Wonders ethereally feminine Olga KurylenkoSaskia Rosendahl, the ideal Grimm fairy tale heroine for Lore; Amy Seimetz in Upstream Color as a woman whose identity is upended by loss; and Miles Teller, who exudes such friendliness in The Spectacular Now.

Each year I give an award for the Best Performance in a Documentary, past recipients of which have included Thierry Guetta (Exit Through the Gift Shop), Joyce McKinney (Tabloid), and Frédéric Bourdin (The Imposter). This year’s winner is the “star” of The Act of Killing, Anwar Congo.

10) Museum Hours, directed by Jem Cohen

Rippling out from Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum to the cold city beyond its walls, this uncommonly humane film blurs the border between great art and the real world. Structured by the happenstance friendship of two lonely strangers, Museum Hours dabbles in streetside documentary while capturing a plethora of artistic practices: the paintings of the Old Masters, the music of actress Mary Margaret O’Hara, the architecture of this old European city. It’s a gentle movie, and comforting like a thick winter coat.

Lola Crèton was good in Après mai, but cuts even deeper as a nonverbal abuse victim in Bastards, registering trauma in her bruised body and blank face.

I love the oblivious grin that stays on David Cross’s face while he endures history’s most awkward brunch in It’s a Disaster.

9) To the Wonder, directed by Terrence Malick

Elements of Malick’s style—the impressionistic montage, the pensive voiceover, the magic hour lighting—are becoming commonplace in ambitious new indies, but nobody can pull them off quite like Malick himself. His camera snakes its way through present-day Oklahoma, discovering beauty, passion, and embattled faith at every turn. It’s brash filmmaking, earnest filmmaking, sculpting less a story than a whole emotional environment out of Middle America.

I hated The Great Gatsby, but I loved Elizabeth Debicki, the Australian actress who plays Jordan Baker with sinuous movement and suggestive eyes.

Nick Frost takes a turn as straight man in The World’s End, counterbalancing Simon Pegg’s comic wildness before drunkenly brawling all through the film’s second half.

8) Bastards, directed by Claire Denis

Your unconscious is the soil, Denis is the gardener, Bastards is the seed. The flowers, presumably, will smell rotten and be nothing but thorns. Laced with Tindersticks’ throbbing score, this noir-horror nightmare leaves dark impressions of erotic and financial transgression, of a world where everyone and everything is a bastard at heart. Denis builds this bleak story from the top down, letting images and actions accumulate; by the time you realize what’s going on, you’re already right at the bottom.

Zhang Ziyi is impressive in The Grandmaster not merely due to her elegance, steeliness, and graceful kung fu but because of the palpably broken heart she carries beneath it all.

In Computer Chess, Patrick Riester represents nerdy introversion sympathetically, yet with an undercurrent of extremely deadpan comedy.

7) The World’s End, directed by Edgar Wright

Mixing boozy verbal comedy with John Wyndham-style sci-fi and virtuosic action set pieces, The World’s End is pop filmmaking at its finest (and most affecting). Even as its story expands, putting the fate of humanity in the hands of a few beer-soaked Brits, the film stays intimate, letting its characters mull over their regrets and tangled relationships. Riotous comic motifs like “Let’s Boo-Boo,” The Three Musketeers, and “selective memory” froth with both linguistic wit and increasing poignancy, and it all unfolds at a pace so frantic that it’s easy to lose track of how inventive the whole thing is.

Like Lola Crèton, Lupita Nyong’o plays a victim in 12 Years a Slave, a woman who experiences constant abuse and humiliation, but does so with jarring resilience and a gleam of strength mingling with terror in her eyes.

Rob Lowe’s hair and demeanor in Behind the Candelabra are bone-chilling, yet impossible to look away from. He’s like the Dr. Pretorius of plastic surgery.

6) Like Someone in Love, directed by Abbas Kiarostami

Playfully, meticulously, like someone designing a puzzle, Kiarostami has built his follow-up to Certified Copy out of audiovisual information. He couples 360° of sound with very selective individual frames, telling us exactly what we need to know about young escort Akiko and the men in her life as she drifts through the neon-dotted Tokyo night. It’s an ambling, elliptical film of false surfaces and well-played roles; a puzzle that lacks a solution, but still contains several of the cinematic year’s most unforgettable car rides.

Emma Watson in The Bling Ring puts every “Millennials” thinkpiece to shame with her satirical tweaking of 21st century vanity and greed.

Dwayne Johnson’s born-again doofus in Pain & Gain is like the Second Coming of Curly Howard, growing funnier every time he says the word “Eldad.”

5) The Unspeakable Act, directed by Dan Sallitt

I won’t bullshit you: this is a movie about incest. But it’s not even remotely the kind of the movie that the words “about incest” conjure up. It’s not sensational, miserabilist, or provocative. Instead it’s a coming-of-age story told patiently, modestly, with many quiet scenes playing out in long takes. Jackie does want to have sex with her brother, but she’s also a teenage girl with a razor-sharp intellect who’s growing up in Brooklyn and trying to figure herself out. I want to see more indie dramas as self-defined as The Unspeakable Act, a film whose emotions and sense of humor may be subdued, but are no less powerful for it.

Sun Don’t Shines Kate Lyn Sheil made for a genuinely scary femme fatale, at once sweaty, unpredictable, and childlike.

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street is the latest avatar of white-collar crime, with a black hole ego and a knack for druggy physical comedy.

4) Behind the Candelabra, directed by Steven Soderbergh

Supposedly Soderbergh’s final feature, this is a showbiz biopic that’s been filtered through Fassbinder and mummified in camp. Set deep within the glitzy, gay heaven/hell of Liberace’s estate, the film’s rife with betrayal and body horror—but it also aches with an authentic desire for love. Power and sex are exchanged as Lee tries to become Scott’s “father, lover, brother, best friend,” a gesture that’s both sweet and frightening. Behind the Candelabra intertwines the bodies of Michael Douglas and Matt Damon as they give life to a reality smothered beneath the artifice of the entertainment industry.

Stoker makes a lot of sudden swerves and feints, but Mia Wasikowska is consistently extraordinary, her face flickering between agony and arousal.

Paul Eenhoorn’s very mild-mannered in This Is Martin Bonner, yet his work’s still so powerful, with notes of regret and spiritual confusion submerged within.

3) Beyond the Hills, directed by Cristian Mungiu

Step by harrowing step, this religious drama moves toward its predestined end. No one wants it that way—certainly not the well-intentioned nuns at this drab rural convent, nor their young victim Alina—but the options grow fewer in number over the film’s sprawling run time until finally the story comes to a dead end. Neither Alina’s erratic behavior nor her love for a childhood friend (now wholly committed to God) fall within the order’s narrow moral parameters. So in agonizing static shots, she’s pushed and pulled by medical and economic forces beyond her control. Mungiu’s austerity contains empathy, but the most prominent feeling here is despair at the cost of faith.

As the star of Concussion, Robin Weigert breathes new life into the “bored suburban housewife” type. Her obliging smiles, weariness, sexual willingness, and yes, marriage to a woman all make this performance something different.

Who better to lead the audience through Chinese history than Tony Leung, playing the debonair and ass-kicking yet wistful Ip Man in The Grandmaster?

2) Inside Llewyn Davis, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

The Coens have made a musical comedy where the comedy’s gone sour, and the music stings of the pain that went into making it. It’s a period piece that doesn’t gloss over a single ugly detail of early ’60s Manhattan. And it’s a character study about an artist who keeps losing people and missing out on opportunities, usually through his own short-sighted decisions. Wrenching in its absurdism and cold as the winter air, Inside Llewyn Davis is structured like an odyssey that winds up back at Troy. Good thing, then, that Llewyn’s music (unprofitable though it may be) is still cathartic as all hell.

Acerbic and idiosyncratic, Tallie Medel’s work in The Unspeakable Act resists cliché while pushing deep inside her thorny character.

I still find it hard to believe how dynamic, pathetic, pained, and hilarious Simon Pegg is as he talks a mile a minute through The World’s End

1) Frances Ha, directed by Noah Baumbach

I’ll admit to a certain demographic vulnerability where this movie is concerned. Like Frances, I’m a liberal arts grad and aspiring artist in my mid-twenties who has trouble socializing and earning money. But this movie’s pleasures go so much farther than merely seeing oneself onscreen. It’s musical, whether that refers to the soundtrack’s snatches of Bowie and Georges Delerue or the rhythms that accumulate among its shots, scenes, and bits of plotting. It also has the most biting dialogue in recent memory, flowing in every direction throughout the movie. (I could spend days just unpacking and reveling in Mickey Sumner’s “This douche is my affianced.”) Speckled with joys and tinged with sorrow, Frances Ha is definitely a movie for “now,” but I suspect it’ll be a movie for the decades to come, too.

(If you want more, by the way, a clip of me discussing Frances Ha was included in The Cinephiliacs’ “2013 Favorites (Part 1)” episode, starting around 33:00.)

Of course, Frances Ha couldn’t be what it is without co-writer/star Greta Gerwig, who physically manifests her character’s awkwardness and self-deceit, wrings self-deprecating punchlines out of every encounter, and makes even her feeblest victories feel hard-won.

Nearly matching Gerwig is Oscar Isaac, who plays Inside Llewyn Davis’s sullen title character. He utters resigned “Okay”s like white flags raised toward Fate. He sings as if his world-weariness left him no other choice. Llewyn’s is not the voice of a generation, and Isaac lets us know that it couldn’t be any other way.

[Movies I have yet to see include At Berkeley, Captain Phillips, The Counselor, Enough Said, The Last Time I Saw MacaoLaurence Anyways, Post Tenebras Lux, and A Touch of Sin.]

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Horror is everywhere (3)

By Andreas

Since The Mike, of the truly excellent genre film blog From Midnight With Love was on vacation, I volunteered to help keep FMWL (and its June theme of ’80s horror) going in the meantime. To that end, I wrote a continuation of my “Horror is everywhere” series from Pussy Goes Grrr, delving into the scary side of five ’80s movies that aren’t technically horror: Raiders of the Lost Ark, The King of Comedy, Blood Simple, Ran, and Blue Velvet (the last of which I also addressed over at The Film Experience). Head on over to FMWL to read “Horror is everywhere (3)”!

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Link Dump: #22

Crookshanks may be half-Kneazle, but he’s still a KITTY! so voilà, here he is. Look at that cute, flattened face and orange fur! Magic kitty! As you may have noticed, we’ve had something of a posting renaissance here lately, with both Ashley and I adding new content with surprising frequency. In case you’re wondering: yes, I do want a cookie. With that, here’s a wide gallery of entertaining links plus some weird-as-fuck search terms:

  • This NYT article about the new “Disney Baby” line of merchandise reads like satire, but I’m pretty sure it’s real. And terrifying. And deeply fucked-up.
  • According to the Toronto Sun, Jane Fonda was recently visited by physicist Stephen Hawking, who apparently loved her in Barbarella.
  • My friend Jacob hipped me to this very funny but also disturbing essay by sci-fi writer Larry Niven, “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex.” It’s about Superman’s chances of reproducing.
  • The latest feminist Twitter meme sparked by the awesome, hard-working Sady Doyle is #DearJohn, which opposes the recent attempts by certain Republican congressmen (like teary-eyed Speaker John Boehner) to redefine rape as part of their anti-abortion agenda. (Go to Tiger Beatdown for more on the fight and how it’s progressed.)
  • Here’s a catalog of (frequently film-inspired) works by sculptor Andy Wright, many of which are disturbing in their realism.
  • eCards are amusing enough, but ultra-depressing/funny eCards? The fun never stops. They’re bleakly funny, and also very well-written.
  • Robin Hardy of The Wicker Man fame has made a sequel to his masterpiece, entitled The Wicker Tree. Watch the trailer; it’s very cool.
  • The Guardian has two articles of interest: first, a fairy pretentious but occasionally insightful piece by Will Self on True Grit and the Coen Bros., and even better, a look at England’s obsession with dystopian fiction (like Brazil and Children of Men) from Danny Leigh.
  • Cinephiles rejoice! Paul Thomas Anderson is making movies again, and we have a rich young woman named Megan Ellison to thank!

We had our fair share of bizarre, ridiculous, and horrifying search terms this week. Highlights included “fuck cuddle” (awww…) and the also-cute “old fashioned cunt stories,” as opposed to those nontraditional, newfangled cunt stories. We had two peculiar gay-related searches, “irrational gays” and the oddly judgmental “lolcats are proof of gayness.” (What is this, a witch-hunt?) One search term takes the cake for grotesque excess and redundancy, “nude dead raped killed girl murder,” but the most suggestive, baffling term of all was “female sex giant animation movies.”

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Link Dump: #20

Anne Hathaway can try – and best of luck to her – but she’ll never out-Catwoman the beloved Eartha Kitt. I mean, her last name was “Kitt”! You can’t get more Catwoman-y than that. Luckily for Anne, though, she’ll undoubtedly outdo the previous incarnation – i.e., Halle Berry’s. Guess we’ll just have to wait until 2012 to know for sure! In the meantime, some links:

  • Runt of the Web has a very funny observation about “Why I Need To Quit Facebook.”
  • I think these film noir woodcuts by Guy Budziak may be the coolest things ever. Feel free to contradict me on that… but you’ll probably be wrong.
  • Oh, women. First they’re menstruating all over the place, now they’re falling asleep during movies. Luckily AskMen.com’s scienticians are here to tell us the very scientific reasons why!
  • If you’ve never checked out Banksy’s website, it’s got a great collection of his bitingly satirical graffiti pieces, both in and out of doors.
  • Speaking of Oscar nominees, aren’t the Coen Bros. awesome? This chart contains all 15 of their films to date, plus info about actors they’ve reused.
  • Christopher Hitchens in Slate points out a few of the “gross falsifications of history” present in The King’s Speech. A glossy piece of prestigious fluff chooses to overlook unpleasant truths? I know, I’m shocked too! (Matt Singer of IFC responds with a comparison to The Social Network.)
  • I always love jokey photoshopped posters, so TheShiznit brings us “If the Best Picture nominee posters told the truth.” The alterations of are of varying quality, and to be truly nitpicky, neither Love and Other Drugs nor The Ghost Writer was nominated. But it’s worth a laugh. And no matter what you do, there’s no way to make that poster for The King’s Speech worse.
  • This was published last June, but I just discovered it: an essay by Matt Mazur talking about Fassbinder alongside The Night of the Hunter. As a massive fan of both, I had to read it.

On the search term front, we don’t have much this week. But there is the odd, lie-filled “why aren’t gay men attractive”; the extreme long “first atempt menses vigina in indian femle with clear videos,” which doesn’t seem sure what it’s searching for; and finally, the ominous “pictures of pussys you’re not supposed to see.” Which pictures are those, exactly? Do I even want to know?

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Goy’s teeth and sensual daydreams

So, after a Thanksgiving week spent in suburban squalor, I am back at Carleton to act as the Cinema & Media Studies office assistant for three weeks. Mostly, this involves receiving mail, filing applications, and inventorying movies for 6 hours a day. [Note: Ashley suggests I wear “sensible, yet stylish heels and a pencil skirt” for my secretarial duties; if anyone wants to go back to 1959 and fetch those for me, I’d be more than willing to oblige.] Plus, I have to make my own food for once in my life. Eek! My computer was tragically damaged on the way down here so now the monitor’s pretty brutally fucked up, but I will blog on nonetheless in an attempt to remedy my absence.

So first of all: I had a number of fun cinematic experiences in the past week. Most of them involved me being cuddled up next to my DVD player watching great movies like The Wind (1928) or Brief Encounter (1945), but two actually required me to visit a theater and pay for a ticket. The first of these was the Coen Bros.’ latest film, A Serious Man, which I’m still trying to puzzle out. Are the filmmakers sadistic or sympathetic? Does their universe contain even the slightest glimmer of hope?

I won’t spoil anything since Ashley hasn’t seen the movie yet (and is pissed about it), but A Serious Man is basically about Larry Gopnick, a Jewish physics professor living with his family (a wife, son, and daughter, each dysfunctional in their own way) in late-’60s suburban Minnesota. At first everything seems superficially fine, but then everything pretty much starts going to hell, all at once. The Coens are no strangers to tormented Minnesotans – see William H. Macy as Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo, fielding viciously bureaucratic phone calls just like Larry does throughout A Serious Man. The big differences here are the personal and religious elements.

While Fargo was based on a true story of violence and local color that never really happened, A Serious Man is steeped in a milieu that did happen, to the Coens themselves – i.e., growing up Jewish in St. Louis Park in the ’60s. (Worth noting that Joel and Ethan would’ve been about 13 and 10 respectively when the film takes place.) In this regard, I think you could view A Serious Man as akin to Woody Allen’s Radio Days or Spike Lee’s Crooklyn; the director’s fondly (or in this case, brutally) nostalgic return to childhood roots.

Then there’s the Jewishness, which stretches into every corner of the film, glazed over with a layer of Coen quirkiness, whether we’re talking about the prologue’s beautiful recreation of shtetl life or the kafkaesque visits to increasingly unhelpful rabbis who mark the film’s progress. Woody Allen’s protagonists just crack wise about perceived anti-Semitism; a Coens protagonist has a deeply disturbing yet oddly funny nightmare about it. (OK, maybe Allen does too, if you count the monks-with-crosses dream from Bananas…) Similarly, one of the best parts of the film is probably the story of the Goy’s Teeth, simply because it’s so weird, so very Jewish, and manages to sum up film’s major themes in a few short, bewildering minutes.

I don’t think enough time has passed yet for me to determine where this film stands in the Coens’ filmography, let alone in film altogether. But I do think it’s a great direction for them to go in – we’ve got the same dark oddball humor as The Big Lebowski, only toned down to match the film’s evocations of a real time and place in its colors and characters. For example, instead of a hair-trigger Vietnam vet, we get a slightly autistic brother with a sebaceous cyst. The one aspect that’s been ramped up is the torturous ambiguity of the ending: if you’ve seen Barton Fink or No Country for Old Men, you know what to expect, only count on more.

This film has been frequently described as the Coens’ retelling of the story of Job. I’d go one step further and apply it to the whole Old Testament. Larry Gopnick wanders around the desert, falls to his knees, asks, “Why me, lord? Why me?” What answer does he get? You’ll have to see the movie to find (and even then, good luck), but let me say that familiarity with the poetry of Stephen Crane couldn’t hurt. Also, special kudos to Fred Melamed, who plays Sy Ableman. At least in my eyes, he’ll probably be 2009’s Best Supporting Actor.

The other, possibly even more amazing, film-related experience of the weekend was seeing The Rocky Horror Picture Show at Minneapolis’s Uptown Theater on Saturday night. I love pondering the Rocky Horror phenomenon – why should this weird, gleefully perverted ’70s rock musical-cum-tribute to Poverty Row B movies be so wildly popular among nerdily obsessive audiences who treat it like the Second Coming of Halloween? Or did I just answer my own question? (Note: I am myself a member of said nerdily obsessive audience, as is Ashley.)

If you’re not familiar with the cult of Rocky Horror, you can familiarize yourself at rockyhorror.org; basically, fans will dress up as characters (Tim Curry’s Frank-N-Furter is understandably a favorite), reenact the movie while it plays on-screen (which the talented troupe Transvestite Soup did last Saturday), shout at the characters on-screen (e.g., calling Brad an asshole every time he introduces himself), and throw things! (Rice, toilet paper, playing cards…) That’s the gist of it.

Better yet? It’s lots of fun! Granted, many people do it with more than a little chemical alteration, but I’ve seen the play and movie sober, and enjoyed myself greatly. I think a lot of it has to do with the breaking down of barriers, the cutting loose of inhibitions encouraged by both the film and its surrounding cult. For example, “virgins” are required to make a twisted Pledge of Allegiance which concludes,

…and to the decadance for which it stands,
One movie, under Richard O’Brien,
With sensual daydreams and erotic nightmares for all!

These sentiments – in praise of decadents, tolerance, and freely exploring fantasies – are echoed in Transvestite Soup‘s mission statement:

…to all other freaks, punks, Goths, Christians, pagans, gays, straights, misc., hippies, normals, whatever you are,
that here shall be a place where fun and humor rule supreme…

I think this is part of Rocky Horror‘s beauty, and maybe why so many flock to it – that is, so many of the people who’d be going to a midnight movie anyway. I mean, wasn’t the original cult/midnight movie Freaks, a similarly bizarre movie all about rejecting normality while embracing deformity and weirdness in all their forms? At least until its (very perplexing) finale, this is what Rocky Horror proclaims, too, through the desire-driven character of Frank-N-Furter, who sings, “Give yourself over to absolute pleasure!” as he and the other cast members swim orgiastically, draped in soaking lingerie.

So this, at least to me, is a large part of the appeal: it’s freedom, it’s acceptance, it really is Halloween all over again. In his It’s a Bird – a semiautobiographical meditation on Superman in graphic novel form, much of which deals with Superman’s relationship to the Other – Steven Seagle tells about an unpopular kid who dresses as Superman for Halloween. All of a sudden, he’s popular for a day. So naturally he decides to dress as Superman the next day. He’s promptly picked on and told to change his clothes.

I think the connection to Rocky Horror should be pretty clear: that theater is a self-contained world where no one will ever tell you to change your clothes (unless they’re being “a bitch,” as Carleton’s production of  the stage musical put it). It’s also a world without homophobia, or transphobia, or heteronormative discrimination of any kind – because what’s cooler than being a sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transsylvania, at least while you’re watching Tim Curry sashay up and down that carpet? And what’s wrong with being at least a little – if not a lot – attracted to him, or the other fishnet-clad men (or women, or those who aren’t quite sure!) around you?

This is why I think Rocky Horror is more than just some goofy little ritual, and why so many people take it so seriously (which, at the same time, means taking it very lightly): it’s not just a case of another “so bad it’s good” movie you can get some laughs out of. It’s a campy, sequined, madness-drenched romp with a new motto advocating sexual exploration at every turn. And if you can get all that with a live, enthusiastic audience doing the Time Warp in the aisles – what more can you ask for? God bless Lili St. Cyr, and God bless Richard O’Brien.

W

ith sensuous daydreams and erotic nightmares for all!

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Best films of the 2000s: a premature list

While I have this lovely little interlude called “working on Friday night” and am able to post blogs, I think I’ll touch on a topic that’s been discussed heavily as of late in the Carleton film community (OK, amidst me and 3-4 other people). See, this is late 2009, which means that 2010 and a brand new decade are just around the corner. And us human beings (and film lovers) being such 10-centric creatures, we like to divide up history by which decade it lands in. So the point I’m coming to is this: it’s time to determine, roughly, the “best movies of the decade.” In other terms, that means figuring out which films released between 2000-2009 were highest in quality, contributed most to the sum of our culture, were the most transcendent works of art. Etc.

Here’s the hitch, though: I am a poor college student. Also, earlier in this decade, I was about 12. This means I have by no means seen all, or even most, of this decade’s good or great films. This may well disqualify me from making any sort of list or judgment, but so be it. I do not put myself forth as the ultimate arbiter of that which is beautiful; maybe when somebody ponies up the cash for me to see every movie that comes out, then I’ll declare myself arbiter. Till then, this will have to do. I’ve pretty much just glanced over lists of movies from this time period and picked out a few particularly good ones I’ve seen. Trying to make such selections, especially with films that may yet make a difference historically, is full of its own special hazards, but this is my own little, minimum-effort attempt at it. I’ve assembled 10+ movies, in no real order, because fuck that. Enjoy!

Timecode (2000). It’s a perverse, complex experiment from Leaving Las Vegas director Mike Figgis: four cameras, shooting continuously for an hour and a half, mapping out the quadrants of a story set in a small Hollywood production company. It may seem gimmicky to some, distracting and confusing to others, but it really worked for me, and as with most of the movies to be listed here, I desperately need to see it again. (Oh, but for an extra day without responsibilities.) If the technical and logistic innovation required weren’t enough, it’s also dramatically solid – the actors (an ensemble including Salma Hayek, Stellan Skarsgård, and Julian Sands) aren’t just window dressing, but provide a four-paneled window into a set of confused people striving for romantic and professional success. It’s a challenging film (the four soundtracks, for example, are carefully mixed to emphasize some pieces of dialogue at the expense of others), but also very worthwhile.

Adaptation. (2002). Charlie Kaufman: mindbending screenwriter/auteur of our times. I still haven’t seen Synecdoche, New York, which has received mixed reviews (and has been included on some similar lists), but I think Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is also probably one of the best-of-the-decade. Adaptation., though… despite a general, well-earned antipathy toward Nicolas Cage (he was in the Wicker Man remake, 2 National Treasure movies, etc.; don’t pity him), he pulls off being one of Kaufman’s nervous, sweaty men just as well as John Cusack did in Being John Malkovich – and in this case, said sweaty man is Charlie Kaufman himself, or a fictionalized version thereof, full of humorous neuroses and foibles, as well as a healthy, also-fictionalized sibling rivalry. Then he starts adapting an unadaptable book by Meryl Streep who’s really Susan Orleans who wrote the book Adaptation. is adapted from… and the typical Kaufman craziness begins (this is a movie engineered to make you repeat “Kaufman” many, many times). As with Timecode, the gimmick – in this case, metafiction to the extreme – works, and every Kaufman, fictional or otherwise, gives some insight into the creative process, with alligators. Chris Cooper is great, too.

Cage/Kaufman/Kaufman is shattered in Adaptation.

Mooladé (2004). Note to self: watch more African cinema. Senegalese master Ousmane Sembène showed why with this powerful, engrossing film about the ritual of female genital mutilation in western Africa, and a fearless woman who wants to put a stop to it. I wrote about the film in more detail shortly after I first saw it, and I have no reservations about putting it on this list. It simultaneously takes on clashes between old and new, Africa and Europe, women and the patriarchy, being political and good-spirited at the same time. It’s a beautiful film that shows you what’s happening and why it’s wrong, while balancing a number of colorful village characters and day-to-day events. And its matriarchal heroine, Colle Ardo Gallo Sy, is one you won’t forget soon. I hope to keep my eyes further open for the next decade of African film.

La Pianiste (2001). Again, I begin this listing with a single name: Michael Haneke. You can love him or you can hate him. If you’re fond of pleasurable cinematic experiences and not so fond of abrasive, agonizing art films, it’s more likely to be the latter. (I could say the same of a lot of people, I suppose. Lars von Trier and Antichrist, from what I’ve heard, probably count.) My experience with Haneke is pretty limited (this and his original Funny Games), but he’s a creative force to be reckoned with as the century marches on – hell, he won the Palme d’Or for The White Ribbon, as I learned earlier. La Pianiste, or The Piano Teacher, is driven largely by one performance: that of the also to-be-reckoned-with Isabelle Huppert, here a freckly, receding woman full of intelligence, Freudian conflict, and self-loathing. She teaches piano; she experiments with forbidden sexuality; she does some very, very bad things involving glass. Through Huppert’s actions, Haneke sticks his dagger into bourgeois sickness and twists it, hard.

Brick (2006). It was made cheaply by a first-time director, Rian Johnson, who edited it on his personal computer. The tale of a loner moving through dark circles attempting to solve the murder of a loved one wasn’t new, but the story’s milieu – a suburban California high school – was. Three years later, the novelty’s worn off, but the tag of film-noir-set-in-high-school doesn’t really do it justice. Johnson creates a new, identifiable world out of ones that more or less existed before, whether in our miserable adolescences or on Warner Bros. back lots in the 1940s. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the stoic Brendan, investigating his girlfriend’s death, and undeterred by the crowd of teenage thugs leaping at him (often literally) out of the woodwork. The rest of the cast is filled in by archetypes-made-flesh, from the Pin, a kid with a cane who could’ve been George Macready, to Tug (Mike Mazurki?), former flame Kara (maybe Gloria Grahame?), and Laura, the femme fatale. It’s visually engaging, fast-moving without being rushed, and with staccato dialogue right out of Sweet Smell of Success to match. Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom unfortunately made little impact when it was released earlier this year, but his career’s still full of potential, and I’m excited to see what else he produces from Brick‘s promise.

A dead hand lies in the water in Rian Johnson's Brick

The Saddest Music in the World (2003). This is another film I’ve covered in depth on this blog, and an admittedly very idiosyncratic choice. Like Rian Johnson, Canada’s resident mad scientist Guy Maddin plunders cinematic history for inspiration, but unlike anyone else, he transmutes classical Hollywood gold into his own brand of very strange gold (that’s an alchemy metaphor that didn’t quite work out). Co-writer George Toles fills in the dark non sequiturs, stars like Maria de Medeiros and Isabella Rossellini turn the words into viable conversation, and Maddin provides an overarching vision of Depression-era Winnipeg, all expressionistic set design and splintered editing, like that perfected in his The Heart of the World. There’s sad music, fake folklore, and allusions aplenty to Maddin’s ’20s-’30s forebears, all wrapped together in a melodramatically absurdist package. (This has also been quite a decade for Maddin’s countryman David Cronenberg; I haven’t seen A History of Violence, but Eastern Promises was an international gangster film that carried over many thematic elements from his horror films.)

Let the Right One In (2008). In an age when vampires are most associated with a sparkly, vapid teen idol called “RPazz,” it was sheer relief to see this intense, crystalline horror film travel across the Atlantic, like the plague-infested cargo of some Swedish Nosferatu. It doesn’t focus exclusively on the bloody truth of vampirism, nor does it take the accursed SMeyer path of reducing its monster to a glamorous mannequin entangled in a love for the ages. Instead, its protagonists are a quiet 12-year-old boy living in a typical, snowy Swedish town, and a quiet, slightly older vampire girl who wants to be his friend. Background characters are normal, sometimes drunken adults and selfish schoolchildren who go about their own lives. Like another recent Swedish masterpiece, You, the Living (2007), these are pale, average people; only in this case, one of them happens to hungrily scarf up blood every chance she gets. It’s a somber film about a connection between two lonely kids, punctuated by scenes of ferocious violence. And it’s certainly in a class of its own.

Spirited Away (2001). Hayao Miyazaki is probably the most consistent positive force in animation over the past 20-30 years. I haven’t yet seen Ponyo, but Miyazaki just looks unstoppable: imagine, making Princess Mononoke (1997) and Spirited Away back to back! The more I think about it, the more Spirited Away – or properly Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi – looks like one of the greatest accomplishments thus far in animation history. It has as much potency as any one of the Magic Kingdom’s properties, whether you go with Snow White, Fantasia, or Beauty and the Beast. It’s a Japanese film, but it’s absolutely universal. It speaks in terms of friendship, nature, and kindness, as many of Miyazaki’s films do, rather than national or cultural boundaries. It’s endlessly rewatchable, and appealing to any age group with its detailed settings and playful artistic sensibilities.

A young girl experiences new worlds in Spirited Away

Gushing about Spirited Away aside (OK, it’s not perfect, but it’s still one of the decade’s best films), there are some other animation highlights to point out. Also in 2001, Richard Linklater directed the rotoscoped Waking Life, a smörgåsbord of philosophical and sociocultural rumination, as the narrative itself digresses from idea to idea, and from character to character – as if in a dream, or in a Linklater movie (see 1991’s Slacker). In 2003, French animator Sylvain Chomet produced the oddball, Tati-influenced Les Triplettes de Belleville, an endlessly inventive, primarily visual story of a resilient old woman rescuing her bicyclist grandson from enigmatic gangsters.

And sure, there was Pixar, but fuck Pixar. Finding Nemo was full of prefab sentiment, The Incredibles was tolerable, and WALL-E was certainly more impressive than either, but Pixar inevitably leaves me dissatisfied – maybe it’s their world of glossy-eyed underdogs, or maybe the fact that they’re constantly trying to produce a milestone as big as Toy Story. In any case, I prefer films like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, a faithful adaptation of her graphic memoir of the same name. The film is as beautifully illustrated as the novel (I feel like more comics should be adapted that way), with the added pleasure of hearing Catherine Deneuve and Danielle Darrieux voicing Marjane’s mother and grandmother, respectively. Beside that, it’s damned poignant and politically relevant. Persepolis is the kind of animated adaptation I want to see more of in the 2010s.

The Dark Knight (2008). Yes, it was overhyped. If you were around in the summer of ’08, you were probably being asked “y so srs?” It was also the most profitable movie of the ’00s. And, by and large, it was good. Christopher Nolan stayed true to his gritty, naturalistic self. The film has several climaxes, a number of high-adrenaline set pieces, but doesn’t get bogged down in them; Bruce Wayne and Morgan Freeman brave a number of ethical dilemmas, but it’s never self-righteous; and Harvey Dent goes more than a little crazy (and deformed), but it feels natural. The single reason for the film’s greatness, what prevents it from being just another Batman movie (and Christ, we do not need another of those), is exactly what everyone’s said the reason is: the late Heath Ledger. Because his Joker is a character who so defies straight, Manichaean action, who laughs at the notion of ethics, and to whom crazy is just as good as sane. Basically, saying that Dark Knight is one of the great films of the 2000s is saying that Heath Ledger gave one of the great performances of the 2000s. He did, and it really makes the movie work, and it’s a really enjoyable movie.

Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight: grimy, smarmy, and anarchically comical

No Country for Old Men (2007). It’s the Coen Brothers. They’ve done, they did it, and they’re still doing it. No Country is set in a bleak world where a little greed can lead to a lot of mayhem, Treasure of the Sierra Madre style, except now a cattle gun is involved. [Worth noting: doesn’t this show how appropriate it was for the Coens to adapt Cormac McCarthy? Bleak and violent… Blood Simple? Blood Meridian? I rest my case.] As with The Dark Knight, a villain ties it all together, but it’d be inane to lump the Joker together with Anton Chigurh. He’s taciturn, undefeatable, and more fiercely deterministic with his coin-flipping than Two-Face. It’s one big game of cat and mouse across Texas, with interlopers trying to get their own fistfuls of would-be hero Llewellyn Moss’s dollars, but to quote The Third Man, “they can’t stay the course like a professional.” And always in the background is Ed Tom Bell, a sheriff musing about the film’s goings-on and the transitory nature of life. Granted, the Coens’ vision is dark and pretty male-centered, but it’s also a diverting, thoughtful yarn set against the expertly filmed heat of the Southwest.

So, it’s almost 4 am, and that’s all I have at the moment; other movies I didn’t have time for include Mulholland Drive (2001), Hable con ella (2002), and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). As for 2009, from what I’ve seen, Coraline and Inglourious Basterds both look like they might turn out to be important films. But that’s the problem with declaring movies the “best of” something. Historical perspective might just come around and bite you in the ass, and next thing you know, you’re the guy who said How Green Was My Valley was undoubtedly better than Citizen Kane. Maybe someday I’ll be a real critic, and somebody’ll pay me to write one of these lists. For now, though, it’s all off my own dime, and it’s all for love of the art form. Here’s to the 2000s, and here’s hoping that another 10 years of great movies is right around the corner (and that the Mayans don’t cut it off 2 years in).

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