The first ten years of the new century, hopefully, will be called, “La mal époque”, a period of deranged political strife, and the complete collapse of moral order in the world today. I use the word “hopefully” in the naïve logic that where in the 20th Century, the period of calm with which it commenced was mostly a self-fostered illusion that was promptly shattered by the myriad bloodbaths of the succeeding forty years; the period of violence with which the new century begins will hopefully be followed by an age of restoration, rational discourse and flexible interaction. This is the hope that one can gather from the appendix of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, where the use of the past tense has let some people, Thomas Pynchon amongst others, to argue that the book is a text from a distant period of the future that narrates how bad the period of the novel’s narrative is, for future generations. 1984 has come and gone and while political correctness is scarily like newspeak, one cannot say that our world of human relations bears direct relationship to Orwell’s paranoid nightmare projection of Cold War(a moniker he invented) divisions. Judi Dench’s M in Casino Royale, laments the passing of the Cold War as if it were the belle époque. The world today is more complicated and more divided than the one in the immediate post-war world.
(The New York skyline with the real towers as seen at the end of Gangs of New York)
As Jean Renoir noted in the final chapter of his memoirs – “With the development of new means of communication we are back in the state of horizontal compartments, just as in the Middle Ages the Western world was united by the Latin language and Christianity. Our present-day religion is the bank, and our language is publicity. The key-word is output, by which we produce more. When the world market is saturated we start another war to get new customers. The aim of warfare is no longer conquest but construction. When the building is destroyed the wheels turn again. We build skyscrapers on the ruins of pagodas, and this fills the belly of the working-man, who would otherwise revolt.”
On that note, the best films of the last ten years.
‘The characters in "Yi Yi" live in a world that would be much the same in Toronto, London, Bombay, Sydney; in their economic class, in their jobs, culture is established by corporations, real estate, fast food and the media, not by tradition. NJ and Yang-Yang eat at McDonald's, and other characters meet in a Taipei restaurant named New York Bagels.’ – Roger Ebert
Edward Yang passed away in 2007. He made a mere seven films, but as in the case of Jacques Tati, that was enough for him to join the ranks of the great masters. Yi Yi, his last film was the closest he ever got to the mainstream. For years, he was “the other guy” of the Taiwanese New Wave, overshadowed by the far more prolific Hou Hsiao-Hsien(who was cast in Yang’s Taipei Story). Yi Yi, released in the year 2000, was named the best film of the year by the National Society of Film Critics. Yi Yi is often considered in the realm of the Altmanesque ensemble film and it is similarly accomplished in the editing and juxtaposition of the multiple storytelling arcs and the poetic associations and connections created through the cutting, as well as a keen awareness of urban topography as displayed by the auteur of Short Cuts and The Long Goodbye but Yang’s neo-modernist seriousness is on a different wavelength than Altman’s post-modernist expansiveness. Yang seeks to define nothing less than the experience of living in cities today, especially the experience of living in a traditional family in a modernist consumerist landscape. Mr. Ota(Issey Ogata) tells N-J(Wu Nien-Jen) that every day is new, and each moment is a new experience but “we are always afraid of the first time”. Yang shows that the reason for this fear is the myriad repetitive patterns human society falls into - whether it is our love lives, or in our conversations with our loved ones, we often have little to say or little we can do different. At the end of the film, the characters return right back to square one, the exception is the young child of the family Yang-Yang(Jonathan Chang) who notes that when he sees his newborn cousin, “I feel old too”.
L’anglaise et le duc/The Lady and the Duke (2001) by Eric Rohmer.
Je rentre à la maison/I’m Going Home! (2001)- Manoel de Oliveira
Manoel de Oliveira knows a lot about death of course. He has outlived many people in his one hundred and one years of existence. It was not until he turned eighty that his output became prolific and as the greatest active film-maker in the world today, he represents many things - A figure of inspiration whose example makes us less afraid of growing old and as an artist who like Manny Farber’s termite, is entirely devoted to “eating away the boundaries of his own art”. That is to say that Oliveira has refused to accept or take on the mantle of the Grand Old Auteur of Europe that his great age and quality allows people to readily cast him as. His A Talking Picture, is a harsh “goodbye to all that” to the good and the old Occidental civilization. A civilization that Oliveira loves, whose best qualities his cinema represents and whose decline he chronicles dispassionately. In I’m Going Home! he chronicles the story of a grand thespian (Michel Piccoli) who struggles with his life and his career after the death of his loved ones in a car accident. He still has his grandson for company of course. But even then the civilization is routinely putting him through more and more hoops and traps be it a role in a cop film or as Buck Mulligan in a weird-as-hell adaptation of Joyce’s Ulysses. Oliveira is harsh in his dismissal of modern life with it’s synthetically made fish food(as he describes in the interview on the Artifical Eye DVD) and the inability of the increasingly stagnant civilization to find avenues of rebirth.
Xiao cheng zhi chun/Springtime in a Small Town (2002) – Tian Zhuangzhuang
Gangs of New York (2002) – Martin Scorsese
If the nineties represented Martin Scorsese’s most consistent period, the Double Zero decade is a period of uncertainty that hearkens to the troubles he faced in the 80s. Gangs of New York is the only great film he made this decade. It’s flawed, contains awkwardly cut expository scenes at the beginning of the film and never quite solves the dilemma between the operatic revenge story that serves the surface plot and the revisionist political mythmaking project it undertakes in the background. But after two viewings one can leave these obstacles at the door and relish the pleasure of a delirious fevered imagination, of film-making on a scale that probably won’t be seen for a long time or ever again. This is above all a despairing Great American Movie - A film about American history, ideals, myth in the tradition of John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The larger than life universe of the characters, the sense of suffering and oppression accumulated over the years is vividly etched in this film.
Of Time and the City – 2008 – Terence Davies