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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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Sand, film, and comics: representing the oppressed

So, first things first.

Pussy Goes Grrr in the best of WordPress

This is a screenshot from Tuesday of an earlier post, “Asking and Telling,” being featured in “Freshly Pressed: The best of… WordPress.com.” Which is, to put it bluntly, awesome. It led to a scad of views (a whole scad!) and was a pleasure to learn about. I have no idea who selects this list, or how it’s determined, but whatever; it’s a point of pride, and I take it as an indication that this blog is going in the right direction. Whatever that direction may be (possibly drilling diagonally into the mantle of the earth?).

So, with that out of the way, there is much to discuss. Thing #1: following up on Ashley’s recent post, I watched the beautiful, moving video and decided to look up Kseniya Simonova. She’s a 24-year-old Ukrainian artist who is currently enjoying a wave of worldwide popularity for winning Ukraine’s Got Talent. Her art is both aesthetically striking and highly unusual – it’s a visual performance, not something we frequently see. It reminds me of a movie I haven’t actually seen, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Mystery of Picasso, which similarly films an artist creating in real time, as well as one that I have seen, Lotte Reiniger’s dazzling The Adventures of Prince Achmed, the first extant feature-lenghth animated film (take that, Disney!), which uses shadows in a way similar to how Kseniya uses sand.

I think what I like best about Kseniya is that she’s such a heroic anomaly: artistically, for creating and destroying images (with sand, no less) right in front of an audience, and geographically – well, when was the last time the global Internet community paid attention to anyone from eastern Europe, let alone the Ukraine? (Likely but disappointing answer: when the Moldovan band O-Zone’s song “Dragostea din tei” was popularized as the “Numa Numa” song.) And better yet, she’s not just an artist who happens to be from eastern Europe; it’s wonderfully integral to her art, which concentrates on the wartime atrocities suffered by the Ukraine, a nation with the misfortune to lie right between Germany and Russia.

Ukraine's location, courtesy of Wikipedia

It’s fascinating, too, how Kseniya’s performance really is a performance: she’s not just drawing in sand and letting the pictures telling the story. She tells it as much with her hands and with the music, whose pace is synched up with hers. It’s so appropriate that a piece of art about how war changes the shape of a country – in terms of people, buildings, connections, identity – should be done in such a temporary, rapidly shifting medium where each hand movement looks arbitrary but ends up producing a precise, recognizable image. And the final status of the sand, with what appears to be a family torn apart and the words, “You are with us always” (alternately translated as “You are always near”), makes a bittersweet conclusion to a uniquely told tale of a human landscape, savagely altered by sand and bombs. Even if Kseniya fades away like most foreign Internet sensations, hopefully everyone will still be just a tiny bit more thoughtful and more open-minded. And maybe we’ll eventually get a show called “America’s Got Genuinely Interesting Talent” (but I doubt it).

[It’s worth noting that Ashley discovered the video of Kseniya when it was linked by Neil Gaiman on Twitter with the words, “If you are an ad executive planning to rip off this Ukrainian Sand animation for Coke or Sony, please die first.” Which means he’ll be indirectly responsible for like 2/3 of the content of this blog – pretty amazing.]

Other topics need exploring: one is Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembène’s Mooladé (2004) which I watched recently, one of the few African films I’ve seen. It deals with the subject of female genital mutilation, placing it within the context of the greater battle between tradition and modernity in western Africa. On one side of the conflict are a group of women, led by the buoyant, defiant matriarch Collé Gallo Ardo Sy. When a group of young girls fight against the “purification” rite and opt to remain “bilakoro” (i.e., uncut), they receive mooladé, or sanctuary, in Collé’s home, signified by a rope stretched across the doorway. As the film progresses, other groups – the male leaders, who include Collé’s husband, and the Salidana, the female elders who administer the cutting – take more and more desperate measures to curb Collé’s rebellion, but the ending is nonetheless triumphant and inspirational.

The Salidana and their would-be victims

Mooladé lets its audience see the initial attitude toward female circumcision as the status quo, a religious rite that signifies a coming of age, and then the traumatic personal consequences that lead to a wellspring of activism and solidarity from the village’s women. We see how one person’s disobedience, even when prompted by children’s fears, can help overturn firmly entrenched mores (interestingly, bilakoros are denigrated and considered unfit for marriage, which at first reinforces the cutting as normal). Mooladé both strikes a blow for human rights and tells a powerful story; it also makes me want to watch more African movies.

This is kind of a laid-back post, trying to get across some random thoughts about various art I’ve been experiencing. One of the most sublime experiences I’ve recently had has been finishing Neil Gaiman’s comics epic The Sandman after 10 volumes and, I’ve been told, about 2,000 pages. So you can expect to hear a lot about it in the coming days. Especially because there’s so damn much to look at! The Sandman is, simultaneously, a great, beautiful tragedy; a compendium of horror and fantasy stories; a series of character studies; a re-examination of mankind’s myths and folk tales; its own elaborate mythology; and a masterful juxtaposition of words and pictures. Much has been written already about the series, but as with most great literature and art, there are still, I’m sure, rich veins of gold lying just under the surface, still waiting to be tapped. And what that ornate metaphor means is that with such an ambitious, expansive (and recent) work, there’s sure to be some layer of meaning nobody’s dived headfirst into quite yet.

In conjunction with earlier posts, then, I want to look into the fascinating subject of LGBT characters and issues in The Sandman. Glancing over some information on the subject, it’s interesting to see how slow comics as a whole and mainstream/superhero comics especially have been to incorporate diverse sexualities into their stories. Fredric Wertham speculated about Batman and Robin’s relationship in Seduction of the Innocent, the Comics Code banned homosexuality, and reportedly Marvel Comics in the ’80s had a “No Gays” policy; Marvel’s first outed character, North Star, became so in 1992. Sandman #6 (“24 Hours”), meanwhile, was published in 1989 and features Judy, a visibly lesbian character (who, like everyone else, sadly comes to a very unfortunate end).

Judy in "24 Hours"

My point is not just that Gaiman was ahead of his time in writing these characters, but that they’re written sincerely; they don’t feel like he’s filling a diversity quota by randomly making a character gay. They feel, as is so vital to Sandman‘s literary power, like real people, or barring that, at least like convincing characters. One of the big reasons for this is, naturally, that Gaiman (as he’s disclosed in interviews) gathered a lot of his details from real life. The behavior of a character dying from AIDS in The Kindly Ones, for example, comes from his own knowledge of friends who died from AIDS. Another reason, I think, is that the characters’ sexuality isn’t foisted upon them as a superficial, obvious trait, let alone their single attribute, as with so many stereotypical gay characters in the past. It grows organically as part of their character as a whole, just as naturally as the sexualities of anyone else in the series. Gaiman clearly likes his characters, and I really think this helps.

Chantal and Zelda sleeping

On the other end of the spectrum, The Doll’s House contains one memorable character Gaiman describes as gay because he only eats the eyes of little boys: The Corinthian. The strange boarding house Rose Walker stays at also introduces some new and varied queer characters: there’s Hal, a drag queen, and Chantal & Zelda, the spider women, who share an ambiguous relationship (clarified slightly by Rose in The Kindly Ones when she says, “Their only drug was each other”). One of the beauties of these characters is that they’re so fleshed out, yet understated – Gaiman says the spider women are based to a degree on a couple he knew, and they’re certainly very remarkable, unsettling characters. But ultimately they’re just another very satisfying side dish to the main narrative, one of many secondary characters who populate the series’ bizarre yet believable world. They’re introduced and developed, but not lingered upon.

Hazel McNamara with Barbie (The Sandman #33, "Lullabies of Broadway")

This changes somewhat in A Game of You, the fifth volume in the series. One of The Sandman‘s “female” stories (along with The Doll’s House and The Kindly Ones), it draws a group of women from New York into a Narnia-derived fantasy world, including the very cute, friendly Hazel and Foxglove (the latter of whom, under the name Donna, was the ex-lover of Judy from “24 Hours”). This story also establishes a character who, I’m guessing, must be one of the most lovably portrayed transgender characters in all of comics, Wanda Mann (formerly Alvin). Wanda is brassy, maternal, loyal, and ultimately sacrifices herself for another character, who in return makes a sweet gesture with “Tacky Flamingo,” Wanda’s favorite shade of lipstick. Wanda’s death comes largely as a result of the cosmic forces of the moon regarding her as chromosomally male, but as she retorts:

Well, that’s something the gods can take and stuff up their sacred recta. I know what I am.

This forceful self-determination, regardless of what the gods of nature may think, is backed up twice in the final pages of A Game of You, both by friendship and by one of Sandman‘s most beloved characters, Death. Overall this story arc, like the series as a whole, comes down on the side of individual concerns, decisions, and interpersonal relationships over any lofty, world-shaking forces. The characters are defined by their decisions, and Wanda’s decision is to be female; she takes this self-definition to her grave, and beyond.

The motherly transsexual Wanda (The Sandman #34, "Bad Moon Rising")

The series contains a few other LGBT characters – I couldn’t forget Alex Burgess and Paul McGuire, who appear briefly in both Preludes and Nocturnes and The Kindly Ones, the latter of whom quotes Quentin Crisp in describing himself as “one of the stately homos of England” – but I think I’ve gone over the most significant ones. The Sandman is a series that emphasizes the kinship of all beings: gay or straight, fairy or 16th century English actor, talking raven or nightmare incarnate, immortal Greek witch or living concept. And, through Gaiman’s incredible storytelling abilities, the series introduces a number of likeable, well-defined characters allowing for the representation of queer people in a medium that has historically shut them out.

So that’s about all I have to say on that topic for today. I think the three works this blog touches on just show, very well, that art and beauty are alive and well in the world today. And God, am I thankful for that.

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