Tag Archives: decade

Ending the year with international cinema

And now the year 2009 is really coming to an end. Which means another year, another decade past – the first decade of a new millennium. Etc., etc. In this, my last little post of the year, I just want to touch on some of the movies I’ve been frantically watching as December wears on.

First of all, there was Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Das Leben der Anderen, which won the Oscar for best foreign film back in 2006, beating out Pan’s Labyrinth. Known in English as The Lives of Others, the film involves Wiesler, a surveillance operative for the Stasi (State Police) in 1984 East Germany, who’s assigned to watch over a potentially subversive playwright.

Das Leben der Anderen is an intelligent film about the  hazards of creating art in a totalitarian state, anchored in the eerily stoic performance of Ulrich Mühe as Wiesler, who moves from being an interrogation-happy servant of the state in the opening scene to someone visibly different in the quietly ecstatic freeze-frame that closes out the film. Through its drab decor and Orwellian anxieties, the film recreates a very recent dark chapter in German history (hell, one that ended just before I was born).

I also watched a pair of films by French-Canadian director Denys Arcand: The Decline of the American Empire (1986) and The Barbarian Invasions (2003). Watched back to back, they tell a lot about the twenty year span between them, as the flirtacious comedy of the first film leads into the sober satire of the second.

The former film follows a group of professors enjoying a weekend in the country while chatting freely about both their frequent affairs and their theories of human history. (One sequence, for example, has Pierre relating how he met Danielle: receiving a “happy ending” during a massage while discussing millenarianism.)

The proceedings have an apocalyptic, Buñuel-esque undercurrent to them; as the title suggests, they seem to be enjoying their decadence at the end of an age. Claude is HIV-positive (though this goes unmentioned in the sequel), Louise feels betrayed by her husband Rémy’s infidelity, and the film’s title derives from the idea that the widespread pursuit of personal happiness signals the downfall of an empire (e.g., Rome or 18th century France).

This harsh edge is amplified in The Barbarian Invasions, which revolves entirely around Rémy’s gradual death from cancer. Set against the decaying medical system in a post-9/11 world, the film reunites everyone from The Decline of the American Empire as they’re gathered up by Rémy’s estranged, affluent son, Sébastien. The satire remains, but tinged with an omnipresent fear of mortality, as Sébastien makes contact with one of the older character’s daughters, Nathalie, in order to acquire heroin to numb his ailing father’s pains.

Arcand certainly likes his comedy black. I still have to see his Jesus of Montreal, about a passion play performed by nonbelievers, but just judging from this duo of films (which have since been followed by Days of Darkness), he’s a filmmaker very aware of the bleak ironies inherent in the sociopolitical climate of North America.

In The Barbarian Invasions, he presents this group of friends laughing about their former lusts for life when death looms so close, pressing them face to face with some toxic truths: that these well-meaning intellectuals have been bypassed by history, with their affairs as ancient and buried as any optimism or innocence they had in 1986. It’s rare to be able to compare such different attitudes in two adjoining films, and I’m glad to have had the experience.

The last film I want to talk about this decade is a very underappreciated classic from New Zealand: Geoff Murphy’s Utu (1983). I watched it last week with very few expectations or preconceptions since, well, I’ve never seen the movie discussed anywhere. It’s a fictionalized account of a Maori uprising in 1870s New Zealand, a mere thirty years since the Treaty of Waitangi had handed the islands over to the British colonists.

Unlike so many movies about rebellions against imperialism, Utu isn’t full of speeches clearly delineating which side is right and which is evil. Instead, most of its characters are pretty confused about what’s going on. The motivator for the film’s events is Te Wheke, a Maori who’s also a lance corporal in the British army. After he sees his village razed by his overeager comrades, he has his face ceremonially scarred and begins a massive campaign of revenge. (Specifically, utu: achieving a balance with one’s enemies.)

However, the film isn’t just about Te Wheke self-righteously avenging himself on the Brits. There’s the question of whether violence can be justified – graphically illustrated when Te Wheke interrupts a minister’s sermon on how “those who take the sword will perish by the sword” to behead the minister. Te Wheke also spurs others to pledge their own vengeances, like Williamson, who becomes paranoid and obsessive after Te Wheke causes his wife’s death, and develops a one-man arsenal.

Opposing Te Wheke’s slowly growing ranks of guerillas (who also include Maori wives and children) are the British soldiers, led by the scrupulous, sexually repressed Col. Elliot, the young, New Zealand-born Matthew Scott, and the well-educated Maori Wiremu, who has a deep connection to Te Wheke. And caught between the lot of them is Kura, a beautiful Maori woman intermittently held captive by the British.

Maybe this is why I love this movie: it’s about a small war, but it doesn’t build its story out of sheer historical import so much as the smaller conflicts of its characters. It’s an intimate war, where the main players have personal grievances against each other, and where the ties of land and blood play a larger role than the colonial interests of some “fat German woman,” as Te Wheke calls Queen Victoria.

I’m glad to have seen Utu, and you can bet I’ll be soon checking out director Geoff Murphy’s postapocalyptic follow-up, The Quiet Earth. Between Murphy, Jane Campion, and Peter Jackson, I love Kiwi cinema. Now I’m off to check out Avatar, which might lead to some interesting postings of its own. Here’s to another ten years of great international cinema (notwithstanding the inevitable onslaught of subpar 3D sci-fi epics)! Happy New Year.

2 Comments

Filed under Cinema, Media, Politics

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).

4 Comments

Filed under Cinema