Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Decade's Best Movies: The Best Movies of the Decade

1. I'm Not There. (2007)

Todd Haynes only made two films this decade, but they were worth waiting for. First there was Far From Heaven (2002), his affecting homage to Douglas Sirk's technicolor melodramas, and then this even more ambitious work that's not exactly a bio-pic of Bob Dylan, but is more like a series of myths loosely inspired by his life--sometimes very loosely. Marcus Carl Franklin is a natural charmer as an African-American child calling himself Woody Guthrie, who rides the rails singing songs about the union cause that are twenty years out of date (the story is set in the late 1950s). And Charlotte Gainsbourg and Heath Ledger both deliver fine performances in the story of an actor, Robbie, who becomes famous for playing a Dylanesque folksinger in a movie, and his wife, Claire, an abstract painter, whose relationship runs parallel to America's involvement in Vietnam. In total, there are six different Dylans, none of them uninteresting, and the impossibility of reconciling them all into a single person is what gives this mosaic its enduing tension. Stylistically, Haynes and his cinematographer, Ed Lachman, up the ante in relation to Far From Heaven by filming each segment in a different style, ranging from a spot-on recreation of Fellini's 8 1/2 (1963) to pastiches of the French New Wave and several hippy westerns. Bottomlessly stimulating, this is the only movie I've ever seen four times in theatres.

2. Yi Yi (2000)

Edward Yang's magisterial final film is a real heartbreaker--despite, or perhaps in part because of, his meditative long take style. Some reviewers have compared Yang to Yasujiro Ozu, and the English title of his second feature, Taipei Story (1985), is obviously an allusion to Ozu's work. But in both his earlier masterpiece and this film, Yang's concern with alienation, and the absence of close-ups, bring him closer to Michelangelo Antonioni. (Yi Yi means "individually," and Yang's suggested English title, A One and a Two, is both an allusion to music--a major leitmotif in the narrative--and to the characters' shared sense of isolation from one another.) Set in Taipei at the end of the twentieth century, this film about a severely dysfunctional middle-class family is an uncommonly bleak and pessimistic portrait of modern life, and Yang's contemplative style does nothing to temper the story's seething anger. I remember how mad this movie made me the first time I saw it for a scene in which the family's eight-year-old son, Yang-yang (Jonathan Chang), brings some out of focus snapshots he's taken to school, and is cruelly mocked by his teacher, who snidely remarks to the class that avant-garde art is worth a lot of money. Part of what made me so mad is that, in a society driven by the pursuit of profit, the teacher's hostility towards art is hardly exceptional. This is a movie about the way we live.

3. Dogville (2003)

Lars von Trier is one of the most consistently exciting filmmakers on the planet, and is possibly the boldest and the most confrontational. He began the decade with Dancer in the Dark (2000), an audacious neo-Stalinist musical about a Scandinavian woman (Björk) who's crushed by American capitalism, and ended it with Antichrist (2009), a film that's impossible to be indifferent about. Even better were this Depression-era drama set in the Rockies and its sequel, Manderlay (2005), about slavery in the deep south. (If I have to pick just one for this list, I'll say Dogville because I've seen it four times, while I've only seen Manderlay twice.) Frankly allegorical, both films were shot on a bare soundstage with chalk outlines to represent streets and buildings, and Dogville gets a lot of mileage out of symbolic fruit. At three hours, this tale of a woman, Grace (Nicole Kidman), on the run from gangsters, who's exploited by the wretched townspeople who agree to help her, is a virtuoso piece of storytelling, gripping and stately, building steadily to its chilling climax. It's also perversely funny in the way it plays the heroine's suffering for dark comedy. Papa Fassbinder would be proud.

4. demonlover (2002)

Olivier Assayas is a director whose restless intelligence is manifested in his restless style, which is characterized by a probing handheld camera that's alive and alert, not merely a passive recording device but an active participant in the story. This dark and seriously deranged thriller begins as a lurid yarn about a cutthroat multinational run by Amazon fashionistas that distributes anime porn over the internet, but halfway through, the narrative goes haywire with the accumulating ambiguities making it increasingly unclear just what the heck's going on in this movie. Five years later, Assayas tried to do something similar in Boarding Gate (2007) to lesser effect, but here he's in total command of his material even as the plot seems to spin wildly out of control. Or maybe he's really not and I'm just misreading the film, but either way, I was captivated throughout. A bold, brilliant, bewildering mind-fudge of a movie.

5. La Pianiste (2001)

This elegantly clinical character study by Michael Haneke is especially noteworthy as it contains the best performance yet by Isabelle Huppert, my favorite actor of all time. Adapted from a novel by Elfreide Jelinek (which I haven't read), it's about a Viennese piano teacher, Erika (Huppert), who's leading a double life, presenting herself as the living embodiment of bourgeois respectability while acting out her perverse impulses in secret. And Huppert, who's often pegged as an ice queen (she has a hilarious cameo in David O. Russell's I ♥ Huckabees [2004] as an existentialist philosopher), is totally convincing at portraying both sides of this character. There's a wonderful scene in which Erika runs into some of her teenage students at a sex shop, and lectures them on their disgusting behavior so that they're too embarrassed to ask her the obvious question of what she herself is doing there. Benoît Magimel is almost equally impressive as Walter, the cocky piano prodigy who sets out to seduce this reserved older woman as a kind of macho challenge, and gets in way over his head. And Annie Giradot is truly terrifying as Erika's monstrous mother, with whom she shares a bed. This is a film about extreme, shocking behavior, but Haneke's approach to the material is ferociously coolheaded, so that we come to empathize with Erika instead of merely recoiling from her.

6. Marie Antoinette (2006)

I wasn't a fan of The Virgin Suicides (1999) or Lost in Translation (2003), but Sofia Coppola finally won me over with this sensuous bio-pic of the last queen of France, which is a major step forward in terms of both subject and style. After the lazy and dehumanizing Japanese stereotypes in her (Oscar-winning) second feature, here Coppola does something unexpected and kind of radical in attempting to empathize with Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) as a human being--something that upset a lot of people on both sides of the political spectrum, who would apparently prefer a simpler, less nuanced version of history that ends with a good, clean beheading. Beyond that, this is a feast for the senses. Coppola's mise en scène--the soft, naturalistic lighting, candy coloured costumes, and Versailles locations--is exquisitely beautiful, and the film boasts the most radical sound mix of any Hollywood picture of the last decade. This is an uncommonly quiet film, and in many scenes the dialogue is barely above a whisper (I found myself leaning forward in my seat and really listening to the film in a way that I don't often do at the movies). So when the rabble start to assemble outside the palace, the contrast is overwhelming (an effect somewhat diminished when watching the film on DVD). This would make a great double bill with Eric Rohmer's L'Anglaise et le duc (2001), which offers a more overtly political (and unapologetically monarchist) take on the French Revolution.

7. Femme Fatale (2002)

It's a neat paradox that the more Brian De Palma borrows from other directors, the more singular and personal his films become (something you might also say about Haynes). A work of consummate craftsmanship and inspired goofiness, this daffy thriller tips its hat to everyone from Louis Feuillade and Claude Chabrol to Luis Buñuel and Andrei Tarkovsky, but the extreme high angles, dramatic slow motion shots, and complicated split-screen sequences are pure De Palma--not that he invented any of these techniques, but brought together, they add up to a unique sensibility. Opening with an improbably elaborate jewel heist at the Cannes Film Festival, the audaciously nutty story line embraces obvious devices like coincidence and mistaken identity, but De Palma truly outdoes himself in the film's final scenes, which don't make any logical sense, but as pure filmmaking come together with clockwork precision. If there was ever an illustration of Stanley Kubrick's description of a movie director as a kind of taste machine, this is it.

8. In the Mood for Love (2000)

Not an authentic recreation of Hong Kong in the 1960s but a throwback to the glamour of films from that era, Wong Kar-wai's tale of unrequited romance is as visually ravishing as it is poignant. The screen is awash in deep purples and reds; the camera's languorous gaze regards the characters' daily rituals in slow motion; and Nat King Cole croons smoothly on the soundtrack. Maggie Cheung is dressed to impress, and Tony Leung smokes and smokes and smokes. They play neighbors who discover their spouses are schtupping on the sly, and together begin to speculate about how it started, each one acting out the part of the other's spouse, like a dress rehearsal for an affair of their own that never quite happens. Both actors give subtle performances as people who never say exactly what they mean. Early in the film, they both individually suspect that hanky-panky is occurring, and notice the cautious, indirect way that Leung tries to broach the subject. Undoubtedly, the decade's greatest love story.

9. Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

A bleakly beautiful, beautifully bleak meditation on order and chaos, adapted by Béla Tarr with his usual collaborator, László Krasnahorkai, from the latter's 1989 novel, The Melancholy of Resistance (which I haven't read), this awe-inspirng masterpiece is nearly two and a half hours long, but consists of just thirty-nine unbroken takes, most of them elaborately choreographed tracking shots. Set in a crumbling Hungarian backwater ruled by suspicion and rumor, the story is set in motion by the arrival of a traveling exhibition of natural wonders, including a giant whale carcass on the back of a truck, and an anarchist prince whose followers soon descend upon the town, gathering in the main square to wait for his instructions. In response, a group of influential townspeople form a committee for the restoration of order. Tarr has said that the film was a response to the war in Bosnia, and like all his movies, it's uncompromisingly serious and unfashionable, so it's no wonder that he only gets to make a film every seven years. But as Roberto Rossellini said of Charlie Chaplin's A King in New York (1957), this is the work of a free man.

10. The Holy Girl (2004)

Remarkably, this absorbing and singular Argentine film was only the second feature by writer-director Lucrecia Martel, who with La ciénaga (2001) and this film established herself as one of the most distinctive stylists now working. Her shallow, claustrophobic compositions are striking for the way she crops her actors' faces and bodies, which are constantly spilling out over the sides of the image, as if there's too much going on to get it all in frame. Yet, far from being congested, her staging of actors is surprisingly elegant (and elegantly surprising) so that we always know exactly who we're supposed to be looking at in each shot. And seeing the film again recently, I was reminded of Martel's light touch with actors. There's a lovely scene in which the heroine's mother, Helena (Mercedes Morán), is flirting with a married man, Dr. Jano (Carlos Belloso), who's staying in her hotel for a medical conference, when she gets a call from her ex-husband. "It's Manuel," the bartender informs her. "Which Manuel?" she asks, knowing perfectly well who it is. "Your ex-husband Manuel." Martel's third feature, The Headless Woman, premiered at Cannes in 2008, and I can't think of any film I'm more eagerly anticipating.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Geeking Out on Mulholland Dr.

"'The cinema,' said André Bazin, 'substitutes our gaze for a world that corresponds to our desires'."

This quote, read by an off-screen narrator at the beginning of Jean-Luc Godard's greatest film, Le Mépris (1963), is a good entry point into David Lynch's Mulholland Dr. (2001)--not quite his best film but close (Heather says Inland Empire [2006], but I'm partial myself to Eraserhead [1977])--as its two-part structure is virtually an illustration of the different ways this quote can be interpreted (and because the Angelo Badalamenti theme over the credit sequence is almost a dead ringer for George Delerue's score for Godard's film). Le Mépris playfully turns Bazin's quote on its head, so that "a world that corresponds to our desires" doesn't mean a world of easy gratification but a confirmation of our worst fears--namely, that a loved one would cease to love us--and Lynch's film, which is no less of an epic break-up movie, gives us both sides of the equation. In the movie's first and longest part, an aspiring actress, Betty (Naomi Watts), moves into a swanky apartment, is discovered by a casting director, and falls in love with a glamourous amnesiac, Rita (Laura Elena Herring). Betty's meteoric rise is contrasted with the decline of a unibrowed Hollywood director, Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), who in the same day loses control of his film, and is left by his wife for the pool man (Billy Ray Cyrus, in a surreal cameo), which is retroactively recoded as wish-fufillment in the second part of the movie when Rita (who's now called Camilla Rhodes) leaves Betty (now called Diane Selwyn) for Adam, and to add insult to injury, Adam is rewarded with a fat settlement in his divorce ("I got the pool, and she got the pool man"). This part of the film begins with Diane waking up in a much dingier apartment than the one where Betty was living, and it's Camilla who's discovered as an actress, landing the lead role in Adam's film, The Sylvia North Story. The important thing to note is that neither part of the movie is more real than the other.

The other important reference point in relation to Mulholland Dr. is Fritz Lang's greatest film, Spies (1928)--another movie in which some of the characters have multiple identities. At the beginning of Lynch's film, Rita is about to be killed in a limo on Mulholland Dr. (we learn later for stealing money from the mob) when the parked car is hit head-on by another vehicle, and Rita walks away from the accident with no physical injuries but total amnesia. (Rita is the name she gives herself after Rita Hayworth.) The efforts of the gangsters to track her down unfold at the same time, but apparently unrelated to, their taking control of Adam's film. Pulling the strings behind both operations is a single all-knowing mastermind, Mr. Roque (Michael J. Anderson), who like Haghi (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), the master criminal in Lang's film, is confined to a wheelchair. And the office where Mr. Roque receives information from and gives orders to his henchmen is almost as anonymous and abstract as Haghi's. In keeping with the generic abstraction of Lang's film, where it's never explained what's in the stolen documents, Lynch's film never explains why Mr. Roque is so keen on having Camilla Rhodes (played in the first part of the movie by Melissa George) star in Adam's film, or why he decides to shut down production on The Sylvia North Story instead of simply replacing Adam. Additionally, other gaps in both films add to the sense that their villains are omnipotent: In Lang's film, a soldier claiming to have seen Haghi is promptly shot by an unseen assailant, while the gangsters in Lynch's film are some how able to track Adam to the dodgiest downtown crack house dive hotel imaginable, even though he payed the improbably friendly concierge in cash. However, in the second part of the movie, Mr. Roque is effectively replaced by a hit man (Mark Pellegrino) that Diane pays to bump-off Camilla using the money that Rita stole from Mr. Roque. Needless to say, the movie doesn't explain how Diane got this money, but as part of an overall system of rhymes between the film's two parts, it fits cinematically even if it doesn't make any sense literally.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are: Trier and Herzog

As a rule, Lars von Trier's English language films are a lot more ambitious and interesting than his movies in Danish, where one gets the impression that he's merely keeping himself occupied in between bigger projects. Coming four years after Manderlay (2005), his boldly un-P.C. allegory for slavery in America, and two years after The Boss of it All (2007), a slight and uneven office comedy, Trier's Antichrist (2009) is certainly audacious and singular, as much for its style as its content (although it's the latter that caused such a stir at this year's Cannes Film Festival, and indeed, everywhere else the film's been shown). However, I'd hesitate to call this A-squad material because I find its subject--or perhaps I should say the film's treatment of the subject--has less resonance than Breaking the Waves (1996), Dogville (2003), and Manderlay.

Like most of Trier's films, Antichrist alternates between two diametrically opposed shooting styles: A pseudo-documentary style characterized by a handheld camera, sync sound, and jump cuts (though it seemed to me there were fewer jump cuts here than in Trier's previous films, particularly Dogville), and a more dreamlike style characterized by a stable camera, slow motion (according to David Bordwell's blog entry on the film, some shots were filmed at one thousand frames per second), and in place of sync sound, off-screen dialogue and a low Lynchian droning. (Additionally, the bookending sequences, which are also shot in slow motion with a stable camera, are distinguished from the rest of the film by being photographed in black and white, and scored to a baroque aria.) The film is about a man (Willem Dafoe) and a woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg), whose infant son, Nick, falls from an open window and dies in the opening sequence while they're schtupping in the next room. At the funeral, the woman collapses, and when the man goes to visit her in the hospital, Trier boldly cuts 180 degrees on a close-up of the man's face in profile, so that he seems to jump from one side of the 'Scope image to the other. When Trier cuts back to the woman, they both seem to be looking in the same direction, at something off-screen left, rather than each other. After the woman is released from the hospital, the man--a therapist who thinks he knows better than his wife's doctors--decides to take her, for therapeutic reasons, to the place she fears the most: the garden outside of Eden, their cabin in the woods. On the train ride there, the man asks her to imagine herself arriving at Eden and becoming one with nature. And the sound of their conversation continues over a scene representing her fantasy, shot in slow motion and accompanied by an ominous rumbling on the soundtrack. The first style is associated with reality, while the second is linked to dreams and flashbacks, but as the film continues, the line between fantasy and reality becomes increasingly ambiguous.

The film is dedicated to Andrei Tarkovsky, the Russian master of mysticism, misogyny, and mist (all of which are highly pertinent to Antichrist), but the dead white guy who seems most relevant as a reference point is Carl Theodor Dreyer, whose Day of Wrath (1943) is about a witch hunt in 16th century Denmark. In keeping with the characters' puritanical worldview, Dreyer's film never questions the existence of witches and associates nature with evil--an outlook shared by Antichrist. Roger Ebert has been aggressive in pushing the interpretation that the film is about a universe created, not by God but by the Devil, which is consistent with the woman's belief that nature is evil, and therefore, human nature is evil as well. (It could also be read as a fairy tale with a cruel father and an ambiguous mother.)

However, unlike Dreyer's film, and Trier's earlier Breaking the Waves, about an isolated religious sect on the northern coast of Scotland during the sexual revolution, Antichrist is set, like F.W. Murnau's Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), in no particular time or place, so the characters exist in a historical vacuum. Despite its 16th century outlook, Dreyer's film is also something of a proto-feminist statement about how women are oppressed by patriarchy. (When the heroine discovers that her late mother was a witch, she's sexually aroused by the idea that a woman could have such power.) And in Breaking the Waves, set during the time when the feminist movement was in full swing, the heroine's behavior confounds not only the rigid church elders, but the more secular and progressive characters as well (and poses a comparable challenge to viewers). I'll need to see Antichrist again to be sure, but it seems like this time Trier is siding with the church elders.

Werner Herzog's The Bad Lieutenant—Port of Call: New Orleans (2009) is one seriously loopy movie. Although it doesn't slow down long enough to lull the viewer into the same druggy stupor as Herzog's '70s films, its story is trippy enough all by itself; as he did in his earlier remake of Nosferatu (1979), Herzog reinvents Abel Ferrara's anguished Bad Lieutenant (1992) as a stoner comedy. (There's a sequence in a retirement home, which I won't describe here because you absolutely have to see it for yourself, except to say that it made me laugh as much as anything in Todd Phillips' The Hangover [2009]--maybe more.) Then, to add an extra dash of weirdness to the proceedings, the more desperate its crack-smoking cop protagonist becomes, the more he starts to talk like Jimmy Stewart. The tension between the constraints imposed by working in a commercial genre with big stars, and Herzog's yearning to sail off into the wild blue yonder of cine-craziness, is only slightly less apparent here than in his stylistically bland Discovery Channel co-production Grizzly Man (2005), but in light of how compelling and funny this film is, maybe it's churlish to complain.

Considering the huge differences between the two films in terms of character and plot (to say nothing of tone), Herzog's Bad Lieutenant feels closer, in some respects, to a crypto-remake of Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life (1956) than it does Ferrara's bellow of Catholic angst. For starters, Ferrara didn't give his character a backstory or even a name; instead of trying to explain his behavior, Ferrara's lieutenant (Harvey Keitel) simply was. Here, the screenplay by William Finkelstein not only gives the lieutenant a name, Terrence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage), but a more detailed backstory as well. Like Ed Avery (James Mason) in Bigger Than Life, Terrence is diagnosed early in the film with an incurable condition that will require him to take medication for the rest of his life. In Ray's film, Avery goes cuckoo for Cortisone and tries to kill his son; here, six months after his doctor prescribes him Vicadin for chronic back pain, we see Terrence snorting a little cocaine in his car before walking into the scene of a murder. Later, we learn that Terrence's father is a recovering alcoholic. (Like father, like son, we're obviously meant to conclude.) Also, like Bigger Than Life, Herzog's film has an ambiguous ending, since in each movie the protagonist will have to continue taking drugs indefinitely to treat his condition. The sinister implication of both films is that the characters were already bad, and the drugs merely exacerbated an existing situation. Other changes to the story are more dubious, like the substitution of a pair of wretched Latino rapists in Ferrara's original for a flashy black gangster (Xzibit) in Herzog's remake, which is indicative of how the material has been Hollywoodized in certain respects.

Stylistically, this doesn't look very different from a Hollywood feature, apart from Herzog's taste for the occasional handheld sequence shot--here broken up by jump cuts that don't reappear elsewhere in the film. Herzog's touch is particularly evident in the scene where Terrence tells his girlfriend, Frankie (Eva Mendes), a story about his childhood, which is filmed in an unbroken take (without jump cuts) with a handheld camera, and set to a score by Mark Isham doing his best Popul Vuh impersonation. But what's most Herzogian about this scene, which recalls the best moments in Herzog's non-fiction work, is the way it invites the viewer to fill in the gaps with their imagination. And then there are the reptile point of view shots, and in particular the already famous scene where Terrence sees some iguanas on a table that no one else believes are there. Herzog employs a wide angle lens to distort the space of the room, and the story comes to a complete halt as Terrence just stares at the iguanas while an old blues song plays on the soundtrack--a moment that feels closer to the work of Herzog's American disciple Harmony Korine than Herzog himself. (Making this scene even stranger is the fact that none of Terrence's coworkers seem even remotely concerned that he's apparently hallucinating. As in a later sequence where he sees the soul of a dead man dancing, the obvious explanation is that Terrence is straight-up tripping; but a crazier, more Herzogian explanation is that the world is an illusion and Terrence is simply being given a glimpse into the reality of dreams.) But apart from occasional non-narrative interludes like these, the film is, on the whole, a fast moving piece of storytelling, lacking the meditative quality of Herzog's German films, like Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972) and Heart of Glass (1976).

It's curious how, in a matter of only a few years, Herzog has gone from being a slightly marginal cult hero to something like a bankable Hollywood director. It all started when Grizzly Man became an art house hit and was shown endlessly on the Discovery Channel. I was in the minority in finding it a disappointment, and passed on Herzog's subsequent Rescue Dawn (2006)--a fictionalized version of the story Herzog told in his already pretty conventional Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997)--and Encounters at the End of the World (2007), his Antarctic documentary which was nominated for an Academy Award. My immediate knee-jerk conclusion was that Herzog had been tamed enough to be embraced by the mainstream, and I probably would've passed on The Bad Lieutenant as well had it not gotten such ecstatic reviews coming out of TIFF.

My own enthusiasm for The Bad Lieutenant has forced me to rethink some of my biases, but as with Grizzly Man, its craziness is largely a matter of pro-filmic content rather than anything Herzog's doing behind the camera. And even then, the delirious hyperbole of the story is tempered somewhat by leftover obligations to the detective genre, like a sub-Peckinpah slow motion shoot out, which was less the case with Ferrara's original despite it being less ostentatiously weird. Also, one misses the the presence of real people in Herzog's films, as opposed to actors, which was so effective in Invincible (2001), where he contrasts Zishe Breitbart's total lack of guile as the simple strong man with Tim Roth's performance as the sinister illusionist. As with Fritz Lang, another German who made some impressive films in Hollywood (but nothing to rival Die Nibelungen [1924], Metropolis [1927], Spies [1928], M [1931], and The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb [1959]), Herzog's talent seems diluted rather than enhanced by his access to the resources of a Hollywood studio.