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child calling himself Woody Guthrie, who rides the rails singing songs about the union cause that are twenty years out of date (the story is set in the late 1950s).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.


  1. Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. yeh:i just re-read. very nice, and a list of films i want to see for sure.