Friday, January 1, 2010

The Lonely Double-Zeros : Ten Favourite Films of the Decade

The New Year has arrived. Over a hundred years ago, the first ten years of the 19th century culminated in a period that came to be known as “La belle époque”. As Jean Renoir says in his final film, Le Petit Theatre de Jean Renoir, of course it had its intolerance, its cruelty but, “I like it!” admits the great man. The first decade of what became mythologized, even during its first quarter, as “the 20th Century” was mostly a holdover of the “Gay 90s” of 1890-1899, the imperial powers still ruled the roost, their colonies remained under control but the calm either implodes on it blows up. The decade that will come will see centennial anniversaries of such unprecedented events as the Great War (as it would be known for a few decades), the Russian Revolution, the Easter Rising, the end of the Manchu dynasty in China, and the forming of the League of Nations. We will also celebrate hundred years of D. W. Griffith’s The Musketeers of Pig Alley, The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Broken Blossoms, True Heart Susie, Way Down East, hundred years since Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, John Ford, Raoul Walsh, came into movies. That is to say the hundred year anniversary of the beginning of the classical period of film history, which began with this decade and would stretch till the early 60s.

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.

Yi Yi/A One and A Two (2000), directed by Edward Yang

‘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.

Eric Rohmer made two period films in the 70s. Perceval le Gallois, an anti-naturalist rendition of the Arthurian chronicle by Chrétien de Troyes and Die Marquise von O…, the adaptation of the Heinrich von Kleist novella of the same name. Since the box-office failure of these films, he has remained a film-maker of the contemporary urban world. In this decade, he has made three features, all of them period films. One reason he cited is that he is unable to write modern French dialogue on account of the decline in the quality of spoken French today. Dialogue, the spoken word are central concerns in The Lady and the Duke and Triple Agent. The former film is based on the real-life memoirs of Grace Elliot(Lucy Russell), a Scottish noblewoman who lived in France during the revolution, a former mistress and friend of the Duc d’Orleans (Jean-Claude Dreyfuss). Rohmer is astute and intelligent enough to remain with the point-of-view of Grace Elliot whose presence as an outsider in a changed world is shown objectively, as a foreigner she is spared the violence of the Revolution on account of her nationality but is allowed to witness it and record it, thereby making her the perfect subject for Rohmer. Rohmer, who is a realist, re-creates Paris during the revolution as it really was, by inserting his characters into painted landscapes with the use of digital technology. More than Fellini Satyricon or Barry Lyndon, this film treats historical recreation like it was science-fiction and its use of special effects makes George Lucas’ work in the Star Wars prequels look positively shambolic.

Je rentre à la maison/I’m Going Home! (2001)- Manoel de Oliveira
“The nation, as we now know it, is an invention of the French Revolution. Men who had been merely subjects were raised to the rank of citizens. Systems crumble slowly…The nation is like an outworn house, but we like it and prefer it to a more modern dwelling…Yes, the nation was a pleasant thing. It was the widow of the local grocer’s shop…the song of the house-painter reaching us through the leaves of chestnut trees. It is the hair of a beloved woman, the caress of a family pet. A very pleasant thing, but it is dying, and we cannot bring the dead to life.” – Jean Renoir, My Life and My Films.

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

Rebirth is a theme of Tian Zhuangzhuang’s exquisite chamber piece. Tian was part of the Fifth-Generation of Chinese Cinema. Where Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige got the awards and prizes, Zhuangzhuang got the controversies and suffered marginalization from the Bosses. The Horse Thief which was made in the 80s(it impressed Scorsese enough to call it the best film of the 90s since that was when he saw it and he didn’t think any new film was as good) was poorly distributed and released with a tacky title card that set the film in Pre-Invasion Tibet(when Tian made this film for the people of the 21st Century). The Blue Kite got him banned from film-making. His first film made after this ban was a remake of a 1948 classic by Fei Mu. I haven’t seen the original but Tian’s remake is a major film in every way. The mise-en-scene of the film where the interiors of the broken house as well as the landscapes around it form the perfect setting in which the characters deal with the pains of memory. Of love that was lost, of lives that could have been different from what they are. Yet the promise of starting over, of rebirth is too late because people are too set in their ways. Change is either too late or not enough to fill the void.

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.

The Company (2003) – Robert Altman

I had only seen Popeye as a young child before I saw Robert Altman’s appearance on the Academy Awards in 2006(he would die a few months later). Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin(who play singing sisters in his final film, the delightful A Prairie Home Companion) in one of the great Oscar moments, roast Altman by giving a live demonstration of “overlapping dialogue”, then Altman steps in and reveals that he has lived with a heart transplant these past few years. Over the following period of years I began seeing his films which is one of the great careers in American cinema. In this decade, he made the fantastic Gosford Park, Tanner on Tanner, a sequel to Tanner ’88 which is essentially a time capsule of the crisis of American politics of the last decade and a parody/ode to the burgeoning documentary cinema. My favourite is a film I saw for the first time on Boxing Day a few days ago. The Company is a film about the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago. It stars Neve Campbell(who is a gifted ballet dancer, who also produced and co-wrote this film), a pre-stardom James Franco and Malcolm McDowell in a splendid cheeky role as the manipulative but canny artistic director of the company, less Boris Lermontov and more Jeffrey Cordova. This is also an ensemble piece but it’s far more quiet and moody than the cacophony of Nashville. The Company hearkens to the Depression era Busby Berkeley musicals in their celebration of performance as a solution to the problems of the “real world”, Malcolm McDowell is in the mode of the James Cagney/Warner Baxter impresario role. In Altman’s film, the real world is there every step of the way. Whether in the lack of time available in maintaining romantic relationships, the clash of bruised and hurt egos or the transient nature of the life of performance as well, this is a tribute to performance as a selfless calling. The mood of loneliness in the film often recalls Edward Hopper’s paintings especially the first meeting between Franco and Campbell in a bar as he watches the ballerina shoot pool.

Elephant (2003) – Gus Van Sant

In a first, the film won both the main award at Cannes and the director’s prize at the insistence of instant fan Patrice Chereau who recognized it as a major work. Elephant is simply greatest film about teenagers since Rebel Without A Cause and one bold, challenging American masterpiece.

Notre Musique - (2004) – Jean-Luc Godard

Notre Musique didn’t get much attention in the States. Philippe Garrel, among others consider it among the best and most major films of Godard’s career. Godard’s cinema is one that interrogates, with much humour, the functioning of images, the functioning of cinema itself. Notre Musique interrogates the ability to speak against conflict without resembling the side with which one is conflicting, in the hope, that “unlike Hawks I can understand that a woman is different from a man.”

Les amants réguliers/Regular Lovers – 2005 – Philippe Garrel

Garrel described his film about May ’68 as a B-Film to Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers. He used the same actor, his own son, Louis Garrel and used some of the same extras. His film of course is a wholly different thing. It aims to subscribe to the New Wave film policy that Vigo’s L’Atalante is the most beautiful film in the world whereas Bertolucci said the 60s were the coolest period in history. This austere portrait of disaffected youth and the collapse of utopian dreams from the 60s feels like a lived memory more than a period recreation. The use of black-and-white by the great William Lubtschansky enhances the immediacy as does the anachronistic use of This Time Tomorrow from Lola vs. Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One by The Kinks.

Of Time and the City – 2008 – Terence Davies

Terence Davies in this film and elsewhere mourns the fading of traditions and the passing of time. Yet by re-creating the Liverpool of his youth, by showing in detail the careful disintegration of the world of his often imperfect and tormented childhood, he recreates or rebuilds the bridges to the old traditions. Partly it’s through the use of the poetry excerpts in his voice-over, it’s also there in the amazing rhythmic editing of the archival footage mixed with the modern footage shot on digital. Of Time and the City returns the documentary form(which Davies notes is British in origin) to that of its roots, the great Humphrey Jennings’ Listen to Britain. Hopefully England's finest active film-maker can get more films of the ground in the wake of this film's artistic success.


  1. A very, very unique list. The only choice we have in common that's remotely similar is that I also included a Terence Davies film, the only one I've seen--THE HOUSE OF MIRTH. I'm really interested in seeing more of Davies' work, his bittersweet love letters to his country. And now that I'm better understanding Godard, I'll be seeking out his filmography.

  2. Nice list, though I'm far from as enamored of the Godard and the Marty as you are. I would have included Star Spangled To Death, Son Frere, I'm Not There, and Pas Sur La Bouche.

  3. Well obviously I can update the list later on. This list was important to me in so far that it was in this decade I became a serious cinephile, rediscovering old cinema. As a result, most of the contemporary films I like are from from established film-makers rather than new talents. It's obviously not a definitive list, although I do believe each film on this list qualifies as a serious major work.

    Other movies I liked include Tokyo Sonata, Goodbye Dragon Inn, Paranoid Park, A Talking Picture, Merci pour le chocolat, Ne touchez pas le hache, Cassandra's Dream, Match Point, Colossal Youth. I was also impressed with Apichatpong Weersethakul's films but I feel that I need to see them a few more times to appreciate them.

  4. Okay Arthur, I'll play, but here's the thing: I'm a pedant, so the decade doesn't end for me for another year. This means that I can't include anything registered in the year 2000 (no Yang, sadly, but it was my favourite film of the nineties, if that's any consolation), and I might have to update in twelve month's time if something else classic comes along.

    Plus, I think your list is absolutely first-rate, with the exception of the Scorsese, which, as I've said to you before, I can't see anything worth salvaging from, so I'm not including anything of yours. Twelve different films (I couldn't cut it down to ten, sorry!), in chronological order, which are...

    MULHOLLAND DR. (01/US) - David Lynch
    One film per director, so no INLAND EMPIRE, but Lynch's mastery of the form, for me, is now absolute: this is scary and entertaining and the most perfect commentary on cinema as an art form ever made. I don't think there's a single shot here I would wish changed.

    SPIRITED AWAY (01/Jap) - Hayao Miyazaki
    A great decade for animation, but only room for one, so this must be it.

    VENDREDI SOIR (02/Fra) - Claire Denis
    The best French director currently working, and her most sublime piece. Snow and sex and traffic jams and strange romance.

    FIVE (03/Iran) - Abbas Kiarostami
    Every film this man makes demands attention, and this is as good as they come. Like the Lynch, a perfect commentary on the act of seeing.

    WEST OF THE TRACKS (03/Chi) - Bang Wing
    Again, a great decade for documentary, and here's the daddy of them all. 900 minutes on the changing face of a small part of China made universal. Simply superb. (And if anyone reading this should be interested, there's a first-rate French three-disc set available).

    BEFORE SUNSET (04/US) - Richard Linklater
    Swooning romance in Paris again, but as sunny as the Denis is wintry. Linklater has not had a great decade, but this is fantastic.

    THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS (04/Den) - Lars von Trier, Jorgen Leth
    Von Trier, on the other hand, has had a fabulous decade: every film has had immediate importance. This examination of what goes to make up a movie is his very, very best.

    TROPICAL MALADY (04/Thai) - Apichatpong Weerasethakul
    Brilliant Buddhist acid trip about, erm, tigers and stuff. All of his stuff is great.

    COLOSSAL YOUTH (06/Por) - Pedro Costa
    A kind of anti-cinema. Immerse oneself in an alien world for a time, and then record a very slightly fictionalised version of it. Costa will, I think, be seen as hugely important in the future.

    THE NEW WORLD (06/US) - Terrence Malick
    Malick's best film, a dream-like meditation on destruction and the end of the world. Utterly sublime.

    THERE WILL BE BLOOD (07/US) - Paul Thomas Anderson
    A creation-legend for American capitalism that wrenches one's guts out. Indulgent, yes, but it earns it.

    HUNGER (08/UK) - Steve McQueen
    An artist, rather than a director, and something like a whole new grammar for cinema. Rivetting.

    And that's your lot.

  5. I haven't seen anything on Wang Bing though I am very interested in his works. I am especially interesting in Fengming : Chronicle of a Chinese Woman, His runtimes makes Bela Tarr look like Edgar G. Ulmer...