Monday, December 21, 2009


It's very likely that the last thing anyone wants to read at the moment is another "Best of the Decade" list, but I've been itching to write one. There's no way in hell I could do a decade list for music, but I think I can do it for films, so I'm going to take a crack at it. Like I said, for many, list fatigue is setting in, and so I forgive you if you entirely skip over this. We're still friends, for realsies. Anyhow, here are my Top 10 (potentially 11) films from the past 10 years. I might even try to rank them. I'm feeling gutsy.

10. The Constant Gardener, Fernando Meirelles, 2005

I feel that this is one of the more overlooked films of the past decade. It really is a tremendous piece of work, with leads Ralph Fiennes and Rachael Weisz delivering powerful, and oftentimes heartstopping performances throughout. Meirelles treats the sweeping, overwhelming vistas of Africa simultaneously with respect, refusing to give into tropes of slum representation, while still making every frame read as something of an abstract composition. I'm still haunted by the image of the overturned jeep on a muddy, salt-crusted lake shore. The story itself is urgent, and unabashedly engages with some of the most pressing issues we face today regarding first world treatment, and oftentimes, devastating abuse, of third world resources, both material and human. Yet at the same time, the details of the mystery are left vague enough that the script dodges the bullet of becoming moralistic didacticism, and echoes in a deeply unsettling way how little we actually know about how money, power, and wellbeing are traded in a globalized economy. I really do love this film, and maybe it's because it seems so effortlessly excellent that it doesn't stick out as particularly challenging, or something like that, but the script, the images, and the performances, taken together, create a pulsating, disturbing, and emotionally engaging brew that shouldn't be missed.

9. Divine Intervention, Elia Suleiman, 2002

On the poster pictured above, this film by Palestinian director Elia Suleiman is described as both hysterical and devastating, and I'm inclined to agree, but perhaps not at the most obvious level. It's hysterical because it's devastating; it makes us laugh out of self defense. And it is devastating because it is hysterical; when we laugh, we realize how staggeringly flawed our perceptions (as Westerners) of the Middle East truly are. Divine Intervention is sort of like American Beauty set within a Palestinian encampment in Israel. Suleiman constant plays with mediatized images of Palestinians as violent, destructive, and dangerous, and then turns them on their heads, swinging us wildly between horror and humor, and in the wake of the transition, a bit of shame and embarassment for having been mislead. Suleiman himself plays the film's central figure, a silent, almost Buster Keaton-type figure who somewhat listlessly shuffles about, never seeming any real threat, yet he constantly opens doors, through hilarious and surrealist slapstick, to legitimate discussions of who defines whom in the Middle East, and to what effect.

8. Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, Joel and Ethan Coen, 2000*

I love the Coen Brothers. They could make almost any movie as well or as poorly as they wanted, and I'd probably love it, but this one holds a particularly special place in my heart as it was my introduction to their work. George Clooney has never been funnier or more bearable than he is as the fast-talking Ulysses Everett McGill, and his superb comedic timing throughout literally always leaves me laughing out loud in a pretty embarassing manner. The barn sequence, coupled with the repeated line "Damn, we're in a tight spot!" is one of my favorite comedy moments of the decade. The film, further, looks absolutely stunning. The Coens capture, in vibrant, vivid strokes, everything from pastoral beauty and picturesque agrarian vistas, to almost operatic and theatrical images of depression-era devastation and poverty, and press them all through a warm, dusty colour palate that makes the whole thing at once stunning and gritty. Many of my favorite scenes and shots of the decade come from this film, such as the Siren Song/River sequence, the Baptism sequence, and an early scene in which a blind, railcar-hopping soothsayer foretells the troubles in Everett's future. If you haven't seen Oh Brother, I really suggest that you do, and if you have, watch it again. I'm almost sure you'll be surprised how hard you fall in love with it all over again.

*Tied for this spot is Guillermo del Toro's amazing fascist fairy tale Pan's Labyrinth from 2006. Dark but lush, terrifying but still heartfelt, this film is easily one of the most ambitious and successful experiments in genre, style, and representation in recent memory, and refuses to leave you for a long while after leaving the theatre, if it ever does leave you. Also, can you recall a more terrifying image in the past 10 years than the eyeless Pale Man sitting at his sumptuous banquet, deathly still? I think not.

7. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Julian Schnabel, 2007

Anyone's who's seen this film knows why it's on this list. Stunningly acted by all parties, even Mathieu Almaric who, for the vast majority of the film has mobility only in his left eyelid; Poetically and elegantly photographed by Schnabel; and absolutely beautifully scripted in a way that captures both the frustration of paralysis, and the faint glimmers of hope we find within despair. Diving Bell is just beautiful. I don't have much to say about this film in an academic or analytical mode, because I just love it as it is. Really, it's a classic trope about excess, suffering, and redemption, but Schnabel executes this narrative with such subtelty, honesty, and emotive power, that it's hard to do anything but love it.

6. Waltz With Bashir, Ari Folman, 2008

Even if this film weren't emotionally engaging, socially relevant, and superbly voiced (which it is), it would deserve at least honorable mention on this list for its absolutely stunning animation style and genre-bending approach to documentary convention. Ostensibly a documentary, but framed through fantasy, memory, and surrealist dream sequences, Folman brings to the screen, through his incredible non-rotoscope animation style (that is somehow 3D and 2D at once), an intensely personal, idiosyncratic, subjective examination of his own role in facilitating the devastating Sabra and Shatila massacres of the 1982 Israel-Lebanon war. Folman has been criticized by a number of people for refusing to engage with the lager trauma of the war as a whole by languishing in his own fantasies and memories, and some have even claimed that the film operates as an attempt to absolve Israel of its brutality in the conflict. To be certain, there's problematic elements here, such as the curious choice to not subtitle the Palestinian figures in the film, yet I can't help but think that these critiques expect something of Folman that he never attempts to explore, in the first place- after all, what authority does he really have to act as the voice of a suffering Palestinian refugee? He has his own voice, and explores it as his own truth, and never makes an attempt to extrapolate it out into some broad assertion of Israeli innocence. I see Waltz With Bashir as an emphatically personal story, and an innovative, arresting one, at that.

5. Downfall, Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004 (German Release)/2005 (American Release)

For very obvious reasons, the centrepiece of this film is Bruno Ganz's heart stopping performance as Adolph Hitler in the final 12 days of the Third Reich, as his paranoia, physical health, and mental stability collapse upon him within his Berlin bunker. It really is one of the best performances ever put to film, in my opinion. But in a broader sense, Downfall takes a defiantly innovative approach to the WWII film, shirking sweeping vistas, exploding forests, and tales of individual heroism. Rather, we find a focus upon cramped spaces, the devastation of insularity, and the transformation of the war from something deeply disturbing and visceral into something totally abstracted and distant. Near the end of the film, as the Red Army marches on Berlin, we catch our first glimpses of actual combat. For the vast majority of the running time, however, the war is nothing but distant explosions, the drone of airplane engines, and flickering lights. Nonetheless, the tension within the bunker is almost unbearable, with every character caught between their unwavering faith in Hitler, and a complete awareness that their project has failed, and that they now stare death in face for their crimes. The brutality of this circumstance is fleshed out in exquisite detail by Hirschbiegel, particularly in the heartbreaking sequence in which the wife of Himmler chooses death for her children, as opposed to life in a world without Naziism. A staggering, haunting portrait of self-conscious guilt, and the impossibility of delusion in the moments before the collapse, Downfall is truly one of the most memorable films of the decade, and likely one of the best war films of all time.

4. No Country for Old Men, Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007

Those rascally Coen brothers, taking up two spots on my list. No Country seems to be pretty divisive, with audiences split between abject hatred and boredom, and visceral adoration. I place myself in the latter category, quite obviously. Without being too crass, yes, this film does indeed make a haunting assertion about the omnipotence of terror and the reproduction of oppression over time in contemporary society, but mostly, I felt No Country in my bones. I was literally white-knuckling my armrest throughout the movie, particularly in the scene where Josh Brolin sits alone in a dark hotel room, staring at the sliver of light sliding under his door, knowing that Javier Bardem's terrifying (if slightly unfashionable) villain is only steps behind. This sequence, alongside the gas station/coin flip scene earlier in the film, at once acts as a philosophical fulcrum around which the whole message of the film pivots, as well as a breathless, haunting atmospheric piece that functions almost as a stripped down and terrifying ballet. I find it hard to re-watch this movie, because it affected me at such a gut, base level on first viewing, but one viewing is really all it took for No Country For Old Men to become etched into my memory for what will hopefully be decades to come.

3. Children of Men, Alfonso Cuaron, 2006

I love dystopia films. I'm obsessed with possible futures and apocalyptic finales to life as we know it, and Cuaron, in his 2006 film, Children of Men takes a unique approach to the dystopia trope that realigns the conventions of the genre to respond to more contemporary anxieties rooted in the body and the natural world. Bladerunner, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and other classics of the genre are obsessed with the breakdown in the boundary between man and machine, yet in Children of Men, the body itself is the enemy, with the film set in 2027, 18 years after all women on earth mysteriously became sterile. Cuaron depicts a rapidly decaying urban London, marked sporadically by new, but conceivable technologies such as video billboards and animated bus ads. Outside of these advertising-based technologies, the only new innovations we see in the film are highly sophisticated, but still cubicle-bound computers, and the slightly more fantastic video newspaper. However, these flashy technologies are hardly the norm in Cuaron’s world. He portrays them as superfluous and mundane decorations amid the anonymous, concrete housing projects, the dreary filth of urban waste, and caged hordes of “illegal immigrants” on street corners. Against this stark and hopeless visual world, though, is a tiny glimmer of hope in the form of a young, pregnant immigrant, Ki, who must be smuggled to the coast to keep her out of the hands of a corrupt government. The ending of the film is often criticized for being vague and unsatisfying, but I really like it. It asks a question of the audience, instead of slipping into the precautionary finger-wagging so common in science fiction. It gives us hope by asserting that the capacity for change and progress lies within our own bodies, but leaves it up to us to make the leap to actually use that capacity.

2. The Lives of Others, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006

At its core, this film is really about isolation, and the pain of sacrificing pity, love, emotion, and care to the demands of a rationalized, heavily policed state- both for those it polices, and those who do the policing. But just as many of the films on this list do, The Lives of Others resists schmaltz or hamfisted moralizing. Ulrich Muhe steals the film in the role of Gerd Wiesler, a cold, calculating, expert interrogator for the Stasi, the East German state police. However, when he is assigned to monitor and observe the actions of stage actress Christa-Maria Sieland and her party-friendly playwright boyfriend, Georg Dreyman, he finds himself drawn to their intoxicating passion, artistic vigor, and honest love for one another, and so is suddenly caught between the relentlessly pragmatic and brutal authority of the East German state, and his own crippling isolation from all meaningful human contact. Muhe performs the role to perfection, displaying at all times microscopic suggestions of doubt and guilt, making the audience feel deeply for his personal circumstance, but never leaving us to languish in the idiosyncratic realm. Our pity for Wiesler is quickly expanded into a sweeping condemnation of the brutality of the East German state, and totalitarian governments, in general. Above all, though, I think I like the scripting best in this film. Tiny suggestions established early in the film (which, despite being quite personal and intimate, really does feel sprawling and powerful) are quietly built up over the course of the running time, and then elegantly tied back together in the conclusion with tremendous emotional power. The dialogue is expertly crafted, and every nuance of the story seems to have been considered in detail, giving powerful insight into the personal experience of isolation, love, and life under a totalitarian regime. This is an excellent film that, in every way, deserved its Academy Award in 2007.

1. Caché, Michael Haneke, 2005

For lack of a better term, Austrian director Michael Haneke has long been known as something of a shit disturber. Films such as Benny's Video and The Piano Teacher earned Haneke, early in his career, a reputation for subjecting his characters to staggering brutality, denying his audience any sense of narrative satisfaction, and exposing violence in film for what it really is- horrifying. Haneke has commented extensively upon this habit, calling it a negative aesthetic, a cinema of insistent questions as opposed to a cinema of easy answers (read Hollywood), a cinema that forces us to witness the horror of death and violence rather than making it exciting, thrilling, and consumable. Haneke's films, then, are deeply politicized from the outset, especially when it comes to violence. His negative aesthetic reached its apex with the release of Funny Games in 1997 (which he followed in 2007 with a shot-for-shot English remake starring Naomi Watts), which is all but unwatchable. With Caché, however, and his recent follow-up, The White Ribbon, Haneke seems to have turned a bit of a corner, still focusing upon violence, brutality, and horror, but in a much more subtle manner, exploring how the subjects of surveillance and ideological oppression internalize the forces that control them, and become themselves objects of symbolic, historical, and ideological violence. Caché mobilizes these themes in a manner that makes the film seem absolutely urgent, even five years after its release.

The film’s ostensible “subject” is a contemporary French bourgeois family made up of Georges Laurent, his wife Anne, and their young son, Pierrot. The family lives in a stylish, well-designed Paris flat. Georges hosts a popular television program about literature while Anne works at a publishing house and Pierrot assumes the role of the media-savvy but emotionally-disengaged teenager. The pleasant mundanity of this life is rocked when a tape of the family’s home appears, unmarked and apparently unmotivated, on the Laurent’s doorstep. Anne and Georges initially approach the tape with a sense of bewilderment; venturing guesses that it may be an innocuous prank pulled by one of Pierrot’s friends. As more tapes appear, though, they become increasingly invasive and unsettling. Eventually, frightening drawings of disturbing scenes begin to accompany the tapes; among them, crude renderings of a young boy vomiting blood, and a decapitated bird. As the tapes delve deeper into Georges' history, Haneke expertly draws out and re-inscribes within out contemporary culture of digital images (where the line between private and public has become increasingly fluid), a hidden French history of colonial rule and oppression.

One of the cornerstone events of French-Algerian history and Georges’ own narrative is the Paris Massacre of 1961. Despite the estimated 200 Algerians this event left dead, in the decades following, it received almost no attention in the mainstream French media, and remains a largely ignored part of French history. To finally fix this buried legacy of Algerian oppression to video, then, to draw it into a public and transnational media culture and out of the repressive realm of personal memory is, in some ways, the fundamental crux of Caché as a whole. In Haneke’s imagining, the culture of digital images has the capacity to confront those parts of history and ourselves that have been packaged and restructured by historical media discourses as innocuous or insignificant. Caché confronts the hidden legacy of French colonialism by turning repressed personal memories inside out, and exposing them through cinema as embodiments of an entire history ignored and forgotten through silent negotiation.

Political, thrilling, challenging, and tense beyond measure, Caché is a marvel of contemporary cinema, and gives me a deep sense of hope that the grand artistic gesture isn't dead; that there's someone out there making film that they think will matter, films they think can change the world.


esther said...

I have seen a grand total of ONE from this list! I need to work on this!

TM said...

I should say so! Merry everything!

BunkleLife said...

wow - brave! I wouldn't even try to pick my top 10, waaaay too daunting. Some great choices & some that would certainly be on my list too - there are two I haven't seen that are now on my to-do list. I would include City of God, and my flawed but long time favorite, Magnolia (though strictly speaking it was released Christmas 1999...but you gotta stretch the rules sometimes ;), and the Station Agent. That's all you'll get out of me though, coming up with a true top 10 is waaaay too stressful ;)

TM said...

Oh man- it was actually so much harder than I thought it would be. Even looking back at it now, I want to add about 5 or 6 more...but that's the nature of the top 10 beast, I guess. I do love City of God. That film was one of the most energetic, and beautifully photographed of the decade, for sure. I haven't seen the other two, actually.

BunkleLife said...

You might give Magnolia a try - imperfect for sure, but the only movie I have been able to watch multiple times - and I love it more each time around. Painful and beautiful.

BunkleLife said...

Just saw The White Ribbon. I liked Cache a lot, but The White Ribbon blew me away. Amazing film making.