Wednesday, December 30, 2009

2009 (and Earlier) in Review: My Favorite Films of the Decade

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Because, as I mentioned in my previous post, I only really started to dabble in cinephilia about midway through this decade, I don't feel up to making any bold declarations of what the "best" film of the decade is. According to many polls I've encountered, Edward Yang's Yi Yi (2001) is considered at or near the top of the heap of '00s films; I still have not seen either that or Spike Lee's 25th Hour (2002), which is another film polling pretty high in film-of-the-decade polls. And I didn't really bother to try to catch up in the last couple months of this year; there would be too much to try to see in such a short period of time, in addition to trying to catch up with 2009 releases (which I don't think I did a very good job of either).

So I am just going to have go with what I know in picking the film that stands out for me personally in the decade as I experienced it. Drumroll, please...

Still Life (2006), Dir.: Jia Zhangke

Jia Zhangke, one of the leading lights of the "Sixth Generation" of Chinese filmmakers, may well be the most important film director of this decade. Not only is he important in terms of formal experimentation, pushing, as he does, the boundaries of what is documentary and what is fiction—a blurring of genres that reached an apotheosis of sorts with his most recent film, 24 City (2008)—but he's perhaps the only director I can think of who is chronicling the effects, both beneficial and detrimental, of encroaching globalization and modernization both in mainland China and, by extension, outside of it. In other words, he is one of the few living filmmakers out there who not only have a lot to reveal about the world we all live in, but has the artistic sensibility to do so without being overly preachy or topical. So forget self-important, shallow Hollywood prestige fare like Babel (2006); if you want a true sense of how our world is possibly shrinking even as world economies integrate internationally, watch any impassioned and imaginative long take of a Jia film.

Still Life blew me away when I saw it on DVD toward the end of last year, and even after catching up with most of his earlier work, this one still strikes me as his best fiction feature to date. Here's what I wrote about the film in summing up the 2008 movie year:
A younger Asian talent, Jia Zhang-ke, tackles the disintegrating effects of the Chinese government's Three Gorges Dam project on land, culture and human interactions, but does so with a painterly eye, an occasional penchant for whimsy and a roving openness to the many people wandering around in this wilderness. Subversive and critical yet somehow oddly hopeful and rejuvenating.
That's not very in-depth, so I'll turn it over to film critic Howard Feinstein, who wrote briefly about this film at's new Film Salon blog, and sums up its revelatory beauty better than I probably could:
Two characters who never meet arrive there to tie up loose ends. A woman (played by the director's muse, Zhao Tao) seeks her husband to finalize their divorce; a man looks for the daughter he had abandoned years before. Jia is careful not to diminish the value of his protagonists' lives against the huge, impressive backdrop of gorgeous mountains haloed in fog, the wide Yangtze River, the strangely attractive remnants of centuries-old towns, even the bland new replacement cities in the distance. His palette and the narrative itself are distinctly Chinese: Jia has said he wanted to create a cinematic version of ancient scroll paintings. Winner of the best-film prize at Venice in 2006, "Still Life" testifies to the inner strength of the powerless residents and boldly challenges the decision-makers who care more about technological "progress" than quality of life.
A few other favorites of the decade—far from exhaustive, but these select few stand out strongly for me)—in alphabetical order:

2046 (2004), Wong Kar-Wai: In the Mood for Love (2001) seems to be the more popular choice for Wong film of the decade, but I rather prefer this work, in all its grand ambition and passion.

Café Lumière (2003), Hou Hsiao-hsien: As much as I have love Flight of the Red Balloon (2008) and admire Three Times (2005), this Ozu-inspired, Japanese-language meditation on generational gaps and modern city life is probably this Taiwanese master's best of the decade.

Casino Royale (2006), Martin Campbell: A James Bond for our troubled times. Enthralling action with a welcome amount of character drama and a sneakily subversive finish; never has the sound of this iconic superspy saying his trademark "Bond. James Bond" felt so bitter.

Diary of the Dead (2007), George A. Romero: The legendary horror director crafted a cutting examination of technological responsibility in the YouTube age with this fifth entry of his Dead series.

I'm Not There (2007), Todd Haynes: Bob Dylan or no Bob Dylan, this postmodern deconstruction of a famous American artist's various public personages says more than most films I can think of in the '00s about an artist's responsibility to his public and the world at large. It's a question that is more relevant than ever now.

Inglourious Basterds (2009), Quentin Tarantino: Too soon? Maybe. Nevertheless, I'm convinced that this is Tarantino's best film of the decade, so onto the list it goes! As far as I'm concerned, he's only getting better (more mature?) as he gets older.

Inland Empire (2006), David Lynch: Lynch has two masterpieces to his credit this decade, Mulholland Drive (2001) being the other one (obviously). But I marginally prefer this one—if nothing else, for its more wildly experimental nature, its fascinating use of (consumer-grade) digital video and Laura Dern's astonishing force-of-nature performance pulling us through Lynch's grandiose labyrinth of feverish visions.

The Man Who Wasn't There (2001), Joel Coen: To my mind, this is still the Coens' masterpiece of the '00s, the film above all others that gives lie to the rather tiresome criticism of these artists as snickering hipsters. The depth of tragic feeling in this work of despairing existentialism is immense.

Profit Motive and the Whsipering Wind (2007), John Gianvito: Gianvito's beautiful hour-long documentary fashions an image-driven history of our nation, as inspired by Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, simply by focusing on the landmarks and tombstones marking key events. The result is not only formally and historically provocative, but viscerally revelatory, the kind of film that may well leave you more deeply aware of your surroundings. It's now available on DVD, for the many of you who I suspect have not even heard of this film.

Pulse (2001), Kiyoshi Kurosawa: The world has perhaps gotten much more used to the latest technologies, but Kurosawa's vision of technology and its resulting fear of disconnection as a source of eerie dread still resonates.

Ratatouille (2007), Brad Bird: WALL-E (2008) runs it close, but this is my favorite Pixar film of the decade, a beautiful celebration of the joys of art and art-making.

Regular Lovers (2005), Philippe Garrel: Garrel looks back at the high idealism that inspired the May '68 demonstrations in France, and then, in its second and third hours, vividly and methodically traces the draining away of said idealism. 

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), Chan-wook Park: If it can be said that vengeance became a prominent theme in a lot of entertainment this decade, both in popular cinema and in art houses, then I would submit that this first installment in Park's much-debated "vengeance" trilogy—even more so than Oldboy (2003) and Lady Vengeance (2005)—reveals the futility of vengeance most devastatingly, through its cold-eyed Kubrickian perspective.

Syndromes and a Century (2006), Apichatpong Weerasethakul: This celebrated Thai auteur contrasts life from his parents' generation with modern life, and the visual contrasts he finds are endlessly fascinating. Above all, though, what remains is his curiosity and warm sense of humor.

Synecdoche, New York (2008), Charlie Kaufman: I sorely underrated this the first time around; it took me two viewings to fully appreciate the sheer ambition and scope of Kaufman's temporal and emotional mindbender, his most impressive effort of the decade. I would say more about it, but I think Roger Ebert, in arguably the finest review he's written in years, got most of it covered; Filmbrain, in two posts on his site, picked up the rest.

Zodiac (2007), David Fincher: Fincher's best film to date is a gripping exploration of a based-on-true-events quest for knowledge and a certainty that may never come. The chronicle of Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and the rest is rendered in a crystal-clear digital video that, in its own way, mocks the obscured visions of his obsessive protagonists. I saw it again recently on a flight from Hong Kong to Japan, and, to my delight, this movie holds up remarkably well.

Blind spots of note: Jean-Luc Godard's In Praise of Love (2001) and Notre Musique (2004); Steven Spielberg's A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001); the aforementioned Yi Yi and 25th Hour; Béla Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies (2001); Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation (2003); Ousmane Sembene's Moolaadé (2004); Richard Linklater's Before Sunset (2004); Tsai Ming-liang's The Wayward Cloud (2005); and many, many more. No use hiding my shortcomings, right?

UPDATED (12/30/2009, 1:43 P.M.): One more runner-up I neglected to mention: Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette (2006), a misunderstood film that uses its fashion-show surface (and its deliberate, controversial anachronisms) to mask deeper levels of empathy for its titular queen. Yes, it focuses fastidiously on the not-always-interesting details of her pampered life within the walls of Versailles in the 18th century. But only when the real world intrudes by the end, with angry peasants protesting and finally storming the palace, do we truly grasp just how sheltered she really was, and just how much she yearned to break free from her imprisonment, whether she herself understood what she was feeling or not. With an impressionistic style that verges on Malickian, this may well be Coppola's The New World.

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