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Memento, Batman, and Beyond: Notes on Christopher Nolan

With this Friday’s release of Inception, director Christopher Nolan will add one more entry to his increasingly compelling oeuvre. To celebrate this blessed event, and Nolan’s status as one of the most intriguing directors now working in mainstream American cinema, I’m participating in the Christopher Nolan Blogothon at Things That Don’t Suck. I’ve seen three of Nolan’s films – Memento (previously written about here), The Prestige, and The Dark Knight – and found much to recommend all three (as well as some common faults), all of which makes Inception easily my most-anticipated wide-release film of the summer. So here, in somewhat piecemeal form, is my take on the career of Christopher Nolan. (Also note that given the nature of Nolan’s films, this piece is almost entirely spoilers.)

1. “John G. raped and murdered my wife.”

Khan once said that revenge is a dish best served cold. This doesn’t hold true for Nolan’s protagonists, who crave immediacy in their payback: for them, it’s the hotter the dish, the better. Memento‘s Leonard Shelby wants to wipe out the semi-mythical “John G.” as soon (and, perhaps, as often) as he can, willfully altering his own “evidence” to expedite the consummation of his bloodlust. Angier and Borden in The Prestige let other motivations like love and professional success take a back seat to revenge, until both men are consumed by their own labyrinthine, continent-spanning death traps. And Batman, of course, is on a quest for revenge so storied and complex that it has transformed into a nocturnal heroism, as he projects his response to his own familial tragedy onto the criminal class worldwide.

With his brother Jonathan, Nolan has built these criss-crossing stories of stimulus and response, cause and effect, the two of which are often confused. Obfuscation abounds on every level of his films, whether diegetically embedded in the film’s subject matter (Leonard’s brain injury, The Prestige‘s stage trickery, Batman and the Joker’s exchanged illusions1) or in the Nolan bros.’ layered and intentionally duplicitous screenplays. These tendencies prevent us from ever answering the question “Who started it?” and strand us on a morally relative battleground. All we really have is the knowledge that a woman (Leonard’s wife, Angier’s wife, Rachel Dawes) died, and the characters’ subjective assertions that the guilty party must be punished. Should Batman have saved Rachel instead? What knot did Borden use? Is John G. to blame for his wife’s death, or is it Leonard himself? Unable to obtain satisfactory answers, Nolan’s anti-heroes toss aside the questions and get revenge.

2. “How about a magic trick?”

Even after the rest of the film would seem to have dispelled its mystery, I still love the contextless opening image of The Prestige: dozens of top hats lying in a field. Whether or not you know the image’s real place in the film, it produces, like the whole of Memento, a sense of being temporarily thrown off-balance and forced as a viewer to ask yourself, like Leonard Shelby, “Now, where was I?” As Nolan’s stories grind on inexorably, even mechanically, it becomes easy for us and the characters to lose track of where we are amidst the dense twists and turns of the narrative. But like a dove out of a handkerchief, some resolution emerges from the story’s logic, usually with a disconcertingly fatalistic thrust. Leonard, for example, trustingly follows his tattoos’ guidance, but the audience doesn’t learn until the end/beginning that he’d predestined his own beginning/end all along. And all it takes is an explosion and a pep talk for the Joker to turn Harvey Dent from a White Knight to the monstrous Two-Face.

Thus, it’s their own pathological obsessions that, when coupled with a myopic unawareness of the broader picture, undo these flawed men. As the Joker says with reference to the cops and criminals of Gotham City, “they’re schemers… schemers trying to control their little worlds.” The Joker and Memento‘s Teddy can see beyond themselves, and sink their teeth into the protagonists’ drives and delusions. Angier and Borden attempt to pull similar tricks on each other, but are too caught up in their own fixations to realize the pointlessness of their mutual grudge (and both end up paying for it). Between their slippery subjectivities, the inevitability of their characters’ fates, and the bitterness of their finales, Nolan’s films mark him as one of the most consistent latter-day masters of neo-noir.

3. “Do you know how I got these scars?”

Nolan’s greatest triumph has been his ability to carry these predilections over into giant-budget superhero filmmaking. In a genre where anonymity is king, where authors in print and film are expected to defer creatively to the characters’ ongoing sagas, Nolan turned out an unusually personal and unexpectedly great work. For all its obvious blemishes and political superficiality, The Dark Knight is still an impressive example of an intimate story told on an epic scale. Rather than letting them be a hindrance or become the substance of the film2, Nolan plays with all the trappings of the superhero lifestyle, either in a light action-movie way or by working them into dramatic conceits (like the hero/archenemy rivalry). He also directs performances that are subtle variations on broad archetypes – embattled Dark Knight, incorruptible White Knight, paternal butler (with some riffing on Michael Caine’s 1970s screen persona), culminating in Heath Ledger’s villain-to-end-all-villains.

Why is Ledger’s Joker so compelling? Is it the sloppiness of his makeup, the griminess of his hair, or how the costume design somehow makes his cartoonish purple suit believable? Is it his voice, which sounds like Bugs Bunny3 doing an impersonation of Daffy Duck, or how he can dart from Groucho-style one-liners to threats of mass murder without taking a breath? Is it his proudly anarchic, amoral ethos, his unwillingness to commit to a single back story, or is it how Ledger has so knowingly incorporated these multitudes into his cheap vaudevillian persona? Whatever it is, he’s the class of criminal that Nolan’s Gotham deserves, because he’s the missing link in the director’s dark vision of humanity. In my review of Memento, I described Carrie-Anne Moss’s Natalie as “damaged [and] secretly predatory.” This, I think, gets at what unites these three films: portrayal of individuals as the sums of their damages, as an accumulation of scars tissue4 and conditioned responses. All of which makes Nolan a perfect match for Batman.

4. “Don’t trust his lies.”

This brings us to Nolan’s future, which starts on Friday. It feels so right that Inception‘s characters will hazard into the geography of the mind, since that’s the terrain that Nolan’s been circling around all these years, albeit more metaphorically. His films, by and large, explore the distortions imposed by fallen men onto their own realities, and that space between perception and truth. From the looks of the trailer, Inception will see Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, and others (!!!) entering that space and working around those distortions. With that cast, that premise, and the directorial prowess behind it, this is one journey I’ll be shelling out $8 to take. And you know I’ll be taking notes to see what Inception adds to my understanding of Nolan’s style.

Thankfully, as well, Nolan’s future will continue in July 2012 with the release of the as-yet-untitled Batman 3. Whether it’s in the form of comic-book operas or ambitious stand-alone projects, I hope we hear a lot from Christopher (and Jonathan) Nolan in coming years. Many of the trends I’ve cited, like the nonstop obfuscation and the mechanical natures of his scripts, can negatively impact the finished films, but at his best – as, I’d say, represented by Memento‘s hard-boiled cunning and The Dark Knight‘s action-packed grandeur – Nolan has directed some of the smartest, most exciting commercial cinema of the 21st century. So, thanks to Bryce at Things That Don’t Suck for providing an excuse to write this piece, and now I turn it over to you, dear reader. Am I ridiculously overrating Nolan’s work? (Maybe.) What am I missing? Penny for your thoughts.

1By which I’m referring to the multiple Batmen, the decoy Batmobile, Gordon’s faked death, the Joker’s constant lies and disguises, and the minions-as-hostages ploy during the climactic showdown.

2Cf. Joel Schumacher’s 1998 anti-opus that enabled Nolan’s entrance to the franchise.

3While mentioning Bugs, I must also mention Ledger’s Looney Tunes-style cross-dressing turn as a hot nurse – an interlude I spent marveling at how convincingly (and attractively) he pulled the outfit off.

4And since superhero comics are intensely melodramatic, psychological wounds are always externalized, as with Two-Face and the Joker, the latter of whom has only his face as a record of his past. As Gordon asks, “What’s he hiding under that makeup?”

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The Avengers, Batman, and superhero auteurs

I don’t talk about film news that often, but there’s been a nexus of superhero movie headlines that I couldn’t ignore. Recently we’ve had both directors and release dates announced for The Avengers and Batman 3: Joss Whedon and May 2012 for the former; the returning Christopher Nolan and July 2012 for the latter. So, why don’t we ponder for a moment the ramifications of these announcements?

One big reason I usually don’t talk about film news is because there’s so much speculation and industry politics involved; to be honest, it gets pretty boring. I don’t especially care about the financial angle, and therefore tend to ignore Variety-style announcements about budgets and contracts and so on. But this is big news, on a cultural level. And it’s especially interesting because of the contrast between these huge, highly anticipated projects. Whedon’s Avengers movie will be the final result of a giant, corporate engine turning out a half-dozen superhero movies to set it up; it’ll be the full realization of Paramount/Marvel’s ambitions, and filmmaking on an epic scale.

Meanwhile, Nolan’s Dark Knight follow-up will still be the mainstream of a corporation, in this case Warner Bros. But it looks like it’ll be based much more in the decisions of creative individuals, namely Nolan and his screenwriter brother Jonathan. I might be oversimplifying how much of a binary this is, especially since I have no idea how much of an authorial imprint Whedon will leave. But this much I know: Whedon will be picking this project from where Jon Favreau, Louis Leterrier, Joe Johnston, and Kenneth Branagh left off. Nolan came in and revived a disgraced franchise through the strength of his talent and ideas. If you can’t tell, I find myself increasingly drawn to Christopher Nolan, and how well he’s maintained his creative integrity while directing big-budget action epics.

I’m not too well-acquainted with Whedon’s work, but the man’s admittedly a nerd deity and one-man sci-fi/horror empire. Still, I’m very curious about how this will translate into working on Marvel’s franchise-defining mega-project. To sum up: this news raises lots of questions about the place of the director in superhero movies. Questions that interest me as a fan both of superheroes and auteur cinema. Like comics, superhero movies have often been classified as below art simply by virtue of their subject matter, and I think Nolan’s helping to change that by taking Batman very seriously, and by giving his films the qualities you’d expect of any good/great movie. The Dark Knight had solid – sometimes extraordinary – performances, a labyrinthine narrative of anarchy and revenge, and some amount of thematic weight. This is the blockbuster action movie striving toward something higher.

So expectations are understandably high for Batman 3, as well as Nolan’s upcoming Inception. I’m skeptical about whether The Avengers will achieve similar crossover success, but anything could happen. Mainly I’m impressed by the sheer coordination necessary to get this project into the air. By the time it’s released, it’ll have 6 different feature-length origin stories behind it, so it’ll have a lot to live up to as well. And with such a huge, diverse ensemble… well, this movie should ample opportunity to become a sprawling chaotic mess. I won’t deny it: I love an enormous, well-told story. I love small, personal stories better, but I can’t resist something if it’s overwhelmingly huge, like the LOTR and Star Wars trilogies. Batman 3 will probably have a monopoly on intelligent, brooding superheroes in 2012. So come on, Whedon: dumb or not, impress me with a story so nerdy in flavor and epic in scope that I’ll have no choice but to enjoy it.

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Memento remembered

A couple nights ago, I watched the movie Memento (2000) for the second time, as part of my “Personal Identity” class, and it dawned on me that I didn’t fully appreciate its merits the first time around. So even though the film’s been talked about to death, I’m going to add my own two cents. I first saw Memento my freshman year and mentally lumped it in with The Usual Suspects as structurally clever but superficial, and therefore overrated. My opinion of The Usual Suspects hasn’t changed (really, aside from some Spacey and Gabriel Byrne, where’s the appeal?), but I want to reconsider Memento. At the time, I felt that the narrative acrobatics may have occupied the mind while viewing and trying to put together the pieces, but once you had them together, the final product was hardly profound. I sided with Roger Ebert’s ambivalent review:

Nolan’s device of telling his story backward, or sort of backward, is simply that–a device. It does not reflect the way Leonard thinks. He still operates in chronological time, and does not know he is in a time-reversed movie. The film’s deep backward and abysm of time is for our entertainment and has nothing to do with his condition.

I still haven’t decided for myself quite what I think of the reverse chronology; it’s clear that it puts us in a state of awareness similar to that of clueless anti-hero Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce). But does the movie necessarily have to be backward? For now, I’ll just say that I can’t think of a more effective way to cinematically convey the tabula rasa state in which Leonard enters each new scene. (Damn: it occurs to me that if I were really clever, I’d be writing this post backward.) But setting aside the question of whether the film’s structure is necessary, I’ll move on to what I really wanted to talk about…

Now, where was I?

I really love several elements of Memento. I believe a great film should be more than a puzzle – and it is more than that – but at the same time, it must be one of the great “puzzle movies” of all time. Having devoured countless Agatha Christie novels and Sherlock Holmes stories when I was a kid, I appreciate the appeal of a good whodunit, or a whodunwhat, or whatever word you’d use to describe the investigation at the heart of Memento. (Maybe a whatidun?) A basic reason for its consistent popularity has to be the pure giddiness of trying to solve the mystery along with Leonard, trying to use your own short-term memory to make up for his shortcomings. And writer-director Christopher Nolan is so careful about which clues he dispenses, and when – a note here, a tattoo or polaroid there, visible in the margins of the screen.

But it’s really not just a puzzle; it’s a revenge saga, akin to Oldboy (2003) – compare Oh Dae-su’s plight with Leonard’s cry of “I want my fucking life back!” It’s also a brilliant example of neo-noir, quietly invoking numerous recognizable noir tropes. “I’m Leonard Shelby. I’m from San Francisco,” insists Leonard every time Teddy (smarmy bastard Joe Pantoliano) casts doubts about his identity. The line almost feels plucked from the screenplay of, say, DOA (1950). And Leonard’s a former insurance investigator, too, like the protagonists of Double Indemnity (1944) and The Killers (1946). Like any good noir, it’s got a convoluted narrative and a murder to solve. Only this time, it’s uncertain when the murder was committed, whether it’s been avenged, or who’s trying to obstruct the investigation.

This is one of the beauties of Memento: you never know who or what to trust. While the pervasive dishonesty of The Usual Suspects led me to wonder, “OK, then, what’s the point?”, Memento goes places with its confusion. The whole film, after all, is about the fallibility of a basic human resource – memory. “Memories can be distorted,” says Leonard to femme fatale Natalie (the beautiful Carrie-Anne Moss, in the best role she’ll ever have). “They’re just an interpretation, they’re not a record, and they’re irrelevant if you have the facts.” Everyone’s been forced to face the imperfection of memory sometime or other (consider the deliberations of 12 Angry Men); Leonard just deals with it to a greater degree.

But this uncertainty doesn’t just operate on the level of Leonard’s memory, or the viewer’s perception of the plot. It informs the very world the characters are living in. Memento‘s world is one without absolute authorities and without objective truth. Never in the film is the viewer exposed to a media outlet – no TV or radio, let alone Internet. No news, nobody who can clear up the hydra-headed mysteries. The city in which the film takes place is as insular and claustrophobic as Leonard’s motel room during the black and white sequences. And what’s the city called, anyway? Teddy repeatedly suggests that Leonard leave town, but where would he go?

I’m reminded of two 1998 films, both of which involve confused men investigating the constructed worlds they live in: The Truman Show and Dark City. (Though the storyline is older than both films, having been used occasionally in The Twilight Zone.) The generic, probably Californian city of Memento is never shown to be artificial, and I don’t think it is, but I think Leonard’s condition is exacerbated by lack of contact with the outside world, and this leaves him especially susceptible to Teddy and Natalie’s games.

Even within all the film’s structures and modes, it’s essentially a three-person drama. Each of them wants something from the other two. Leonard is the most transparent, or so it seems, as he’s just using them to get to the truth. (Or is he – ? Look at the poster again: an infinite amount of past Leonards, with all their lies and ulterior motives, are hidden around corners in the film’s temporal reality.) Natalie “has also lost someone. She will help you out of pity,” according to Leonard’s polaroid. “I think I’m gonna use you,” says Natalie to his face. This is what’s great about the film. Leonard’s facts aren’t worth the plastic they’re printed on, and his notes are about as ephemeral and useless as his memories. Nihilistic? Probably, yes. But so well-stated, as if the film were a giant thematic Möbius strip.

And Teddy. What motivates him? I think he’s probably manipulating Leonard to get money out of local drug dealers. “Don’t trust his lies,” says the polaroid. Teddy is a hell of a liar, and even as he sounds off at the end/beginning, telling Leonard all the unpleasant “truths” he’d rather not here, you can’t possibly be sure. I don’t think his words are completely true – I mean, really, he had Leonard kill Jimmy just so he could see a look of happiness on Leonard’s face? Yet there’s probably a grain of truth concealed in them somewhere. In this way, Memento is like a less beautiful but more elaborate variation on Rashomon. You can never really establish the entire truth, but you try, you can get close enough to realize how futile it is.

Memento‘s certainly not without its flaws. After all, when most of a film’s reputation stems from its zigzag structure, it’s especially prone to plot holes. I’m still confused as to why Natalie, after seeing Leonard in Jimmy’s car and wearing his clothes, only did a brief double-take. Did she realize that Jimmy was dead, and decide to sink her claws into Leonard then and there? Apparently she’d already heard about his memory condition, as the dialogue in the bar reveals. This is just a minor quibble, but similar logical gaps are easy to find if you look for them. I don’t they ruin the experience, but they can distract you from the film’s real accomplishments.

I also think it’s not worth dwelling too much on the reverse chronology. I still think Ebert makes a good point, as when he compares Memento to Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, a play about the unraveling of a relationship told backward, where the structure has a profound emotional impact. In Memento, the tragedy isn’t built up so much by experiencing the events backward, but by Leonard’s inability to put everything together, and the reverse chronology works, at least, to keep us similarly off-balance. The irony is that while Leonard forgets his own lies, we’re forced to remember it all, even as the satisfaction he receives from one act of vengeance invalidates another.

At present, the only other film I’ve seen by Christopher Nolan has been his massive 2008 hit, and perhaps masterpiece, The Dark Knight. The same renovations to neo-noir imagery and character types that made Memento so fresh and different were applied to the most noirish, anti-heroic member of the superhero pantheon, and with terrific results. As both films show, Nolan knows how to make entertaining pop cinema, but he’s not afraid to work in darker, more complex ideas. (For extra auteur fun, compare Teddy and the Joker as chaotic, eternally smiling trickster gods.) His next film, Inception, is due out this summer, and it looks like he’s up to more of his old (which is to say, new) tricks. You can bet I’ll be seeing it as soon as I can. (Besides, it’s got supporting parts for Ellen Page and Cillian Murphy – i.e., an attractiveness overload.)

So ultimately, I grant that Memento does deserve repeated viewings. Not, as so many Internet commenters have said, because it’s impossible to understand after just one. I understood the plot just fine the first time. (With Primer, though, it’s a different story…) Instead, the second viewing paid off because in seeing the finer details of the performances and mise-en-scène, I was engaged by the doubts and dilemmas that underlie the entire film, and connect them with the moral ambiguities of film noir, whose codes Nolan uses as touchstones. Memento isn’t the deepest or most thoughtful cinematic inquiry into memory (for that, see the work of Alain Resnais, please), but it’s an unusual, fun film with unusually dark undercurrents.

[The following discussion of Memento contains many spoilers. Be warned. Yes, that’s my stab at a reverse chronology joke.]

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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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