Friday, December 25, 2009

100 Films of the Decade - Part 5: The Top 10

The top ten for the decade – or, as the more observant will notice, a top 12 – a miscalculation resulted in there being more left at the end than I originally thought. But none of these films could be left out and there’s no obligation to stick too closely to the rules. So here they are, and 12 films that everyone with an interest in either cinema or the contemporary world should see. Happy Christmas to all and a very Happy New Year too. See you all in 2010.

11. Still Life and 24 City - (Jia Zhang-Ke - China, 2006 and 2009)
Now that Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige have given themselves over to the impasse of heritage cinema and martial arts movies, Jia is now the foremost Chinese director, providing a much more nuanced and interrogative look at China’s industrial boom. He is also the greatest geographer in contemporary cinema. Still Life follows a woman searching for her long-lost husband in a city that is in the course of being dismantled by its inhabitants before being engulfed by water to make way for the Three Gorges Dam. Hauntingly beautiful, it makes excellent use of sound and a bleached-out visual aesthetic that reinforces the ghostly nature of the passing of history and the way it affects ordinary people.
24 City continues Jia’s familiar blend of drama and documentary. It charts the closure of the former chief munitions works in the southern Chinese city of Chengdu, which in its day employed 50,000 people. It is due to be turned into a luxury hotel and apartment complex. The film features interviews with people who have passed through the factory, some of them real workers, some of them played by actors. And Jia’s sense of history is palpable. A middle-aged woman is interviewed about her youth, when she was nicknamed after a Joan Chen character she resembled; in a deft stroke of inspiration she is herself played by the middle-aged Chen. And the most heartbreaking moment in the film comes when a couple who arrived from the north in the 1960s to work in the factory tell of losing their child at a port-stop on the way, resigning themselves to the loss as the ship, symbolizing the future of China, could not dally.

10. Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman – Israel, 2008)
It might seem crass for an Israeli film about soldiers serving in the IDF in the very offensive that facilitated the massacres of Sabra and Chatila, to dwell on the after effects concerning the soldiers themselves. But Waltz with Bashir has its logic nonetheless. It testifies, like other recent Israeli films such as Avi Mograbi’s Z32 and Eytan Fox’s The Bubble to how the comprehensive militarization of Israeli society has blurred the line between military service and leisure activity. Israeli soldiers have full responsibility and no responsibility. Youngsters on military service increasingly use the opportunity to humiliate and poke fun at Palestinians and peace activists alike. IDF casualties are miniscule compared to those among Palestinians yet all military funerals are televised and the dead honoured with Wikipedia entries.

Folman builds on his own experiences of serving as a conscript in the Israeli Defence Force in the invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Unlike some of his former comrades he cannot remember anything from the time so he interviews others, fellow soldiers, military commanders and journalists to piece the personal history together. The film is a harrowing, yet matter-of-fact exploration of the war that veers from hallucinogenic phantasmagoria to moments of keen psychological observation. Folman’s blocking out of his memories is undoubtedly linked to the guilt of the Israelis guiding the Christian Phalangist militias – with flares - to the refugee camp of Sabra and Chatila, where they massacred thousands of Palestinian civilians. The film closes with real footage of the slain bodies, which provides an uncomfortable jolt after the stylised animation of the previous hour and a half. And even if the film might have the distasteful feel of self-indulgence in the face of the slaughter of thousands of civilians, Folman is being honest in his recollections of a military campaign remembered almost as if it were a gap year, but underneath which lie the sordid and disturbing truth of an army that deliberately stood by and let evil take its course.

9.Two Lovers (James Gray – USA, 2008)
With two superb films in recent years James Gray might well be the true heir to the great Scorsese of old that we have seen so little of over the past twenty years. All his films have been set in Brighton Beach in Brooklyn and are steeped in the atmosphere of that musty down-at-heel neighbourhood. Gray also reminds you of many of the finer forensic observers in the history of cinema, the Bergmans, the Rossellinis, the Ozus.

Two Lovers is a departure from the crime films of Gray’s previous work, being a simple yet psychologically sophisticated love story involving a young man with a troubled past. Joaquin Phoenix is superb as Leonard Kraditor, jilted for his medical history and who struggles to rehabilitate himself having moved back into his parents. His parents encourage him to start a relationship with Sandra, the daughter of another Jewish businessman, and she is all game. But the irrational call of love incites him to look elsewhere, towards Michelle, the glamorous blonde who has moved in upstairs. She finds him charming, indulges him but is ultimately uninterested. It’s a banal tale of unrequited infatuation that will be familiar to everyone, but Gray films it with the same tautness as he did his tales of hoodlums and hard-nosed cops. It is one of the most psychologically plausible love stories ever to have been put to film and Phoenix’s performance is such that you hope his current retirement from acting will be only temporary.

8. Climates (Nuri Bilge Ceylan - Turkey, 2006)

Following on his hugely impressive second feature Uzak, which was a prizewinner at Cannes four years ago, Turkish director Ceylan cast himself and his wife (along with his own parents) in this melancholy domestic drama charting the break-up of a relationship between a sullen architectural lecturer and his younger girlfriend. Like Uzak, Climates is beautifully paced and each frame is rich with the tautness of minor human dramas. There is an echo of Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy in the film’s impassive retelling of a rupture. What makes it all the more striking is the unsympathetic nature of Ceylan's own character, the greatest directorial self-abasement since Fassbinder in Fox and his Friends.

7. La Graine et le mulet (Adbelketif Kechiche – France, 2007)
Adbelketif Kechiche didn't exactly come from nowhere with La Graine et le mulet - his previous film L'Esquive also won best picture at the Césars three years ago previously - but the jolt felt by this marvellously ambitious and inventive feature was such that you had a sense of seeing cinema entirely anew.

Kechiche started off as an actor in the films of André Techiné and he has inherited his mentor's astutely deft handling of ensembles and his clear-eyed humanism. The film tells the tale of Sliman, a Maghrebin sexagenarian living in Sète in the south of France, who after being laid off his job renovating boats in the town's harbour, decides to do one up himself and open a couscous restaurant on it. So far so banal, this hoary old tale is given extra pertinence for the fact that its protagonist is so firmly outside the French system that simple scenes such as visiting the bank and the local authorities are invested with unbearable tension and discomfort. Sliman is assisted by Rym the daughter of his common-law partner, a resourceful young woman, who works the system, herself half in the dark as to its labyrinthine intricacies.

Everything about the film ought to work against it; Kechiche uses non-professional actors and improvises heavily, he shoots long takes and lingers on small dramatic details. And the simplicity of the plot would be hard to get past most producers in this day and age. But Kechiche pulls it all off, mainly because he understands so well how cinema works, how much it is a fusion of the kinetics of human drama and the strange fabric of familiar everyday life. The film's magic is a fine balancing act between sociological observation of an immigrant community and dramatic exploration of a group that fleshes the characters out as the film develops.

The film's resounding success in France, where it did very well at the box office for a low-budget film without any stars, and also won Kechiche another brace of Césars, was even more remarkable. It also introduced Hafsia Herzi, a 22-year-old law student from Marseille, in the role of Rym. She herself won a César for best female newcomer and is likely to become a star, having stolen the show with a belly dance (which she put on 6 kilos to perform) that marks the film's dizzying climax. Internationally its success was not so great, hampered by a lack of big names and the awful title 'Couscous' but it’s a film that will last.

6. A History of Violence (David Cronenberg - USA/Canada, 2005)
Cronenberg’s was the comeback of the decade. After a period in the shadows in the 1990s when he made films of varying artistic success, he hit form again with his 2002 adaptation of Patrick McGrath’s novel Spider. But it was a comic-book adaptation that gave him one of his finest film’s yet. Viggo Mortensen plays a man with a hidden violent past that comes to light when he is hailed as a hero for killing two violent assailants in his diner. His Philly gangster brother, played by Ed Harris, tracks him down and tries to gain the pound of flesh he’s been looking for since Viggo’s absconding years earlier. The film, like Cronenberg’s next one Eastern Promises is shot in a deceptively crude Hollywood style. It looks like a contemporary B-movie without the jokey self-referentialism of a Tarantino or a Robert Rodriguez. But the A History of Violence, despite its outer simplicity, is the work of a master at the height of his powers. Cronenberg’s interrogation of violence goes beyond the merely gorely or visceral. Many people will find disturbing the reactions the film provokes in them, I for one found it creepy that the sudden collapse of Mortensen and Maria Bello’s marriage gave me more of a jolt than the rising body count or the conjugal rape. It’s not a pleasant feeling to have and Cronenberg knows how to supply it.

5. Avenge But One of my Two Eyes (Avi Mograbi – Israel, 2005)
Mograbi is a giant among dissident filmmakers. The Israeli served time in the 1980s for refusing to serve in the IDF’s occupation of Southern Lebanon, a move that has since been replicated by his teenage son. He has been a constant thorn in the side of the IDF and the Israeli authorities, even if his own susceptibility to the charm of Ariel Sharon – whom he has no hesitation calling a war criminal – led to his disgusted wife leaving him after his 1995 documentary How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Ariel Sharon. Of course Mograbi never did actually love Sharon but the film was an indication of the ambiguity inherent in political struggle on the Israeli left.

Avenge But One of my Two Eyes is the greatest documentary of the decade. The more straightforward parts of it show Mograbi filming the daily humiliation of Palestinians at check-points and at the Israeli ‘security barrier’ in the West Bank, Mograbi, a great big bear of a man, regularly intervenes and berates thuggish recalcitrant soldiers by reminding them ‘you work for me’. Mograbi also corresponds with an Arab friend by telephone in a series of illuminating conversations where the Palestinian’s resigned sense of outrage and refusal to condemn suicide bombings tests Mograbi’s own hopes for peace and justice. The more offbeat part of the film looks at Jewish suicide cults currently popular in Israel based on the histories of Samson and Massada. The clear suggestion is that Israel can hardly expect to disregard the injustice that drives Palestinian suicide bombings while continuing to valorize their own such suicide drives. The title itself comes from a rock song sung by a band affiliated to the far-right Orthodox Kash. It’s a chilling, bewildering detour into the fringes of settler fascism, but Mograbi is in no doubt that such extremists are a functional cog within the greater wheel of Israeli expansionism and triumphalism.

4. The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke – Germany/France/Austria, 2009)
Haneke won the Palme d’Or with his first period drama, set in the twelve months preceding the outbreak of the First World War. A series of violent incidents violate the peace of a seemingly bucolic feudal domain in Northern Germany. It is never made exactly clear who is responsible for the outrages but there are indications as to the culprits. But Haneke is concerned more by the violence itself than by who was responsible for it. The acts of the locals suggest a greater fracture and social dysfunction than is presupposed at the start of the film. And though it would be a bit too much to read in it the roots of Nazism it is significant that the menacing brood of children would be just of an age to later enact the cruelties and atrocities conceived by Hitler. As ever with Haneke it’s a wonderfully mounted piece – shot in black and white, which lessens the distraction of the period detail – laden with dark premonitions.

3. The Wind Will Carry Us (Abbas Kiarostami – Iran, 1999)
Kiarostami at the peak of his career. Having just shared the Palme d’Or in 1997 (with Shohei Imamura) for the excellent Taste of Cherry, he bettered it with this intriguingly gnomic piece about a camera crew that arrives in Iranian Kurdistan to film the local waking rituals of a woman about to die. The film has the usual geometrically precise images of a Kiarostami film and there’s also gentle satire of the cosmopolitan Tehran elite. But the overall intent and ambience is profoundly humanistic. Kiarostami takes his title and much of the inspiration throughout the film from a poem by the late celebrated poet Forrough Farrokhzad, a particular bugbear for the Islamic regime. Kiarostami seems to have got bored with cinema in recent years, channeling most of his creative energies into art installations and photography. There are still films here and there but they seem more spin-offs than freestanding projects. Good as these are, it would be nice to see a string of new films from the man many consider to be the greatest filmmaker alive.

2. The Death of Mr Lazarescu (Christu Puiu – Romania, 2005)
Christu Puiu took the Un Certain Regard sidebar award at Cannes in 2005 for this brilliant comic drama about an ailing sexagenarian alcoholic's passage from one Bucharest hospital to another one autumn night. The self-confessed hypochondriac Puiu used his experiences in the city's hospitals to create this drama in which the splendidly-named Dante Lazarescu undergoes a nightmarish journey, entirely beyond his control as he lies semi-conscious on a stretcher, aided only by a sympathetic brow-beaten female paramedic. The state of the Romanian health service is abysmal and Lazarescu is successively misdiagnosed, rediagnosed and at one point turned away by a megalomaniacal doctor intent on punishing him for his drinking. Mr Lazarescu is redolent of the 'little man' in many a Central European novel and even while prostrate for much of the film he is a beguiling presence. The final, protracted scene where his dead body is washed and dressed is almost unbearably moving, all the more so in the light of the fact that the actor portraying Lazarescu, Ion Fiscuteanu himself passed away two years after the film. Puiu intends this to be the first of a sequence of six films, inspired by Éric Rohmer's Moral Tales; somebody ought to keep the chequebook open indefinitely for him if this stunning film is anything to go by.

1.Dogville (Lars Von Trier – Denmark/Sweden/Germany/France, 2003)
There are simple-minded folk that think Lars Von Trier is an inveterate misogynist and anti-American bigot. A close look at his films, where the trope of misogyny is practically a clinical control – and an enormous red herring – and the complex portrayal of a grieving mother in Antichrist should disabuse any sensible person of the previous illusion. As for the supposed anti-Americanism, if one supposes Dancer in the Dark and Dogville to be savage critiques of the United States, one must think likewise of Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. If one persists in those nonsensical ideas about Von Trier, there’s very little that can be done, save perhaps watch The Five Obstructions, the film he made with his ‘hero’ Jørgen Leth and which lays bare his modus operandi and his outrageous provocation.

As for Dogville, well it’s not about the US, stupid, despite LVT’s bombast at press conference and despite the needling in the final credits. Von Trier’s real theme is the corruption of public discourse. The mountain village turns on Nicole Kidman’s Grace in a savage way but far more significant is the rhetorical justification for it proffered by the villagers themselves but also by the film’s epicentre of villainy, Thomas Edison (a fine name) played by Paul Bettany. This is why Dogville is the film for a decade, which was marked by a criminal invasion of a middle-Eastern country justified on pseudo-humanitarian grounds, and where jackals such as Blair, Berlusconi and Sarkozy protested innocence while they were engaging in acts of political garroting, a decade where Israel murdered 1400 Palestinians in a three-week offensive – a death toll of a ratio of 1000 to 1 – all the time claiming to be the ‘most moral army in the world’. Von Trier is a far more serious filmmaker than his press conferences suggest and he is possessed of a savage indignation worthy of Swift himself. He doesn’t always get it right – such was the case with the second film of the Grace Mulligan trilogy, Manderlay – but the man raised by dogmatic communists is rightly suspicious of both groupthink and the bullying consensual rhetoric of public relations. He’s the right cynic for our times, one we all deserve.

Monday, December 21, 2009

100 Films of the Decade - Part 4

The Man Without a Past (Aki Kaurismäki – Finland, 2002)
Kaurismäki narrowly missed out on both the Palme d’Or and Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for this film in 2002 but it deservedly made him known to a wider international audience. A man is brutally beaten in a mugging and wakes up with no recollection of his past. He starts life from scratch and strikes up a relationship with a Salvation Army worker played by Kati Outenen, who won Best Actress at Cannes for this. Like Kaurismäki’s earlier Drifting Clouds and later Lights in the Dusk, the film is a loving, matter-of-fact look at the resilience of the poor. He sees heroism in people whom many would dismiss as losers or basketcases; and underneath the deadpan front, a darkly humorous genius glistens. Kaurismäki is one of the great characters of international cinema and an unfailingly generous one. When, at the height of the Bush-era xenophobia, Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami was refused a visa to appear at the New York Film Festival, Kaurismäki refused to turn up himself.

Nobody Knows (Kore-Eda Hirokazu – Japan, 2004)
Hirokazu is a quiet, unassuming director probably best known for his brilliant 1998 film Afterlife, where the recently deceased pass through an clearing house on their way to the eponymous afterlife. In Nobody Knows, a single mother abandons her four children, the oldest aged twelve. The four fend for themselves with remarkable success, managing to find food to live and even pay the rent. The mother returns briefly and then disappears almost as quickly. Hirokazu’s patient, gently paced direction is mesmerising but best of all is the performances he gets out of the four kids who, in most scenes don’t even have adults to play off.

There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson – USA, 2007)
For all its scope, its anchoring in the history of California oil and its origins in Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, Anderson’s fifth film is largely an interior one. There’s not much nuance in its historical portrayal of the oil trade, nor in Paul Dano’s preacher, who is almost a cartoon character who never ages throughout the film. But the film is a superb character-centred film with Daniel Day-Lewis striding the surrounding big country like a colossus. The opening half-hour where he silently labours towards his breakthrough is a stylish tour de force that few Hollywood directors would even conceive of. And Daniel Plainview (a representative name if there ever were one) storms through the film and his life with an irrepressible sense of self-entitlement and bitterness. He is a personification, if not of capitalism itself, but of the energy that drives entrepreneur’s on even when the goals no longer have any meaning. Probably the closest thing to Citizen Kane that has ever been attempted since Welles’ film came out.

Stuck On You (Peter and Bobby Farrelly – USA, 2003)
The Farrelly brothers’ gross-out comedies often have hidden in them an unlikely moral purpose – one that is far more subversive and sympathetic than the suburban conservatism of the overrated Judd Apatow. This insanely silly tale of conjoined twins – played by Greg Kinnear and Matt Damon doubles as an adroit critique of prejudice and marginalisation of the disabled, without ever sinking into mawkishness. And everybody, including Meryl Streep and Cher – who send themselves up gloriously – looks like they’re having a ball playing in it.

Yi-Yi (Edward Yang – Taiwan, 2000)
This decade saw the sad death of Edward Yang at the relatively young age of 59. Yi-Yi was his most successful film ever, a touching drama about three generations of a Taipei family, whose father NJ is unhappy in his career, has seen his mother slip into a coma and his wife leave him to go to a rural retreat following a mid-life crisis. It all sounds grim but it has a lighter touch than you’d think. And despite running for almost three hours it never gets dull.

Far From Heaven and I’m Not There (Todd Haynes – USA, 2002 and 2007)
Haynes is one of the most fascinating American directors there is, a true original, who delights in playing with the conventions of form and the icons of American pop culture. Far From Heaven is a pastiche of a Douglas Sirk that ought to be wearisome in its slavish reproduction of 50s suburban Connecticut and its right thinking. But it works, Dennis Quaid, Julianne Moore and Dennis Haysbert play it straight and Ed Lachman’s stunning fall-inflected cinematography raises it to the level of Sirk’s lush Technicolor masterpieces. I’m Not There retells the more interesting years in Bob Dylan’s career and Haynes has the inspired move of getting a string of actors, including Cate Blanchett, Richard Gere and Heath Ledger to play the man. There’s more than a touch of Haynes’ underrated Velvet Goldmine in the playfulness, and Haynes gets Dylan’s significance spot-on without regard to lengthy exegesis or sociological musing. And a double album soundtrack of Dylan covers by some great artists is the icing on the cake.

Beau Travail and L’Intrus (Claire Denis – France, 1999 and 2005)
Claire Denis is a quietly prolific treasure of French cinema, whose films feature heroes in existential revolt against constraining environments. Beau Travail updates Herman Melville’s Billy Budd to a Foreign Legion outpost in Djibouti. Denis Lavant play an officer who becomes fascinated by and jealous of a younger, better looking recruit played by Grégoire Colin, whom he sets out to destroy. In L’Intrus, Michel Subor goes on the run to Tahiti after a heart transplant. There he reminisces about his life as a young man, which is illustrated by footage from an unfinished film Subor shot in the Pacific with Paul Gégauff in the early 60s. It’s a liberating film about a solitary but defiant man approaching old age. Adapted from a philosophical text by Jean-Luc Nancy, which was more obliquely adapted the same year by Nicolas Klotz for the film La Blessure, about African immigrants squatting in Paris.

WALL-E (Andrew Stanton – USA, 2008)
Disney did well to acquire Pixar back in the 90s because just as the Mouse has seemed incapable of producing out any original material, never mind good stuff, Pixar has matured into a glittering studio the likes of which has not been seen in Hollywood for decades. It’s a pleasing vindication for Pixar founder John Lasseter whose adventurous proposals earned him the sack from Disney as a young man. Wall-E is probably Pixar’s best film so far (though there’s some very stiff competition). The quality of the animation has by now evolved so well to deal with the complex graphic depiction of an abandoned planet. There are techno-anthropomorphic thrills galore as Wall-E, the waste disposal robot discovers love in the form of the reconnaissance ‘probe’ Eve, and you can’t help but like it, even as it gets cutesier and cutesier. The film doesn’t quite live up to its stunning opening half hour but it is still possessed of a far greater dollop of misanthropy than you’d expect from such a film. And there’s great peasure to be had in the workings of the cutting-edge Heath Robinson devices that populate the ‘earth-in-exile’. And some of the gags are priceless.

Les invasions barbares (Denys Arcand – Canada, 2003)
Arcand’s sequel to Le declin de l’empire américain was so good that it actually breathed life into the preceding film, which I always thought had dated very soon after its 1986 release. Arcand had initially intended making a different film about death after his own father’s death from cancer a couple of years previously. But he soon realised a reunion of the group of philandering left-wing academics was the perfect vehicle for the film. But the main focus of the film is the dying Rémy’s relationship with his financier son, who, despite a hugely successful career has never lived up to his intellectual father’s expectations. It’s a talky film endowed with superb acting and a poignant sense of loss for earlier ideals, with the shadows of the fall of Communism and 9/11 looming large. Despite the grandiosity and the pretentions of its protagonists it’s an accessible and moving drama.

Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud – France/USA, 2007)
Satrapi’s Persepolis was probably the comic book that defined the decade and enjoyed a huge international success. She then adapted her autobiography for the big screen with fellow bande dessinateur Vincent Paronnaud. It’s a faithful enough adaptation and the book’s distinctive heavy monochrome lines are preserved with some slight shade for the domestic scenes and the book’s dark humour is maintained throughout. The book – and the film – is probably more responsible than anything else for destroying the idea in the West of Iranians as firebrand anti-American fundamentalists. In a memorable appearance by Satrapi on Stephen Colbert, her host called the humanizing of Iranians before a possible Israeli or American strike ‘dangerous’. Not surprisingly neither the film nor the book pleased the Mullahs in Iran, which is surely the highest of praise.

Kandahar (Mohsen Makhmalbaf – Iran/Canada, 2001)
Mohsen Makhmalbaf was a star of world cinema in the 90s though this decade he’s been much quieter. He did however briefly spring to public prominence shortly after 9/11 when his film about a Canadian Afghan returning to her native land while under Taliban rule coincided with the Allied invasion of Afghanistan. The film is his usual blend of fiction and documentary and is a disturbing account of a woman’s disappearance into a hellish trap. It was afforded a Presidential screening at the White House, even if Makhmalbaf was no fan of Bush. After years of conflict with the Iranian authorities he moved to Paris, where, along with Marjane Satrapi, he was to the forefront in protesting the disputed re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Entre les murs (Laurent Cantet – France, 2008)
François Bégaudeau’s third novel – a semi-autobiographical tale of a teacher in an inner city Paris school – looked like it would be difficult to film. Laurent Cantet got around it by getting Bégaudeau to play the teacher himself. The film is surprisingly close to the book, charting a whole school year, with the hero getting embroiled in petty squabbles with his charges – and one or two not so petty ones – and he tries valiantly to drill them in the correct usage of classical French. Largely improvised, the film is a hugely enjoyable and persuasive portrait of modern French society, the sort normally ignored by the bourgeois-obsessed French cinema. And seeing the teenage cast whisked around the world from Cannes to New York for screenings was a delight.

Match Point (Woody Allen – UK/USA, 2006)
The last person you would expect to see on this list is Woody Allen, so far has his star fallen from the glory days of the 1970s and 1980s (even his so-so comedies from the 90s seem a distant echo now). But Woody reinvented for one last great film, which was the start of his self-imposed European exile. It was an unusual departure for him, a chilly Chabrolien thriller in which arriviste tennis professional Jonathan Rhys-Meyers finds he must choose between dull but wealthy Emily Mortimer and sexy but penurious Scarlett Johansson. It’s a dark and disturbing film, peppered with a wickedly witty script in which Woody surprises us with his ability for ventriloquism of the Home Counties bourgeoisie. The run of form didn’t last however, Woody’s British hiatus continued with two of his worst films ever, Scoop and Cassandra’s Dream. But Match Point is one for posterity.

Morvern CallarI (Lynne Ramsey – UK, 2002)
It doesn’t quite have the bleak grace of Ramsey’s debut Ratcatcher but this adaptation of Alan Warner’s novel is still a fine film. Samantha Morton plays a young woman who following the suicide of her boyfriend, publishes his manuscript under her own name, and, like Juliette Binoche in Three Colours: Blue, enjoys a new-found freedom. The only question one must ask is why Ramsey hasn’t made more films.

Un prophète (Jacques Audiard – France, 2009)
Jacques Audiard cemented his position as a great of French cinema to rival his legendary father Michel with this film, which in any other year would have easily swept the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Tahar Rahim is a revelation as a young Arab prisoner who reluctantly falls under the wing of Corsican gangsters. He then plays them off against his fellow Muslim inmates who naturally view him as a traitor. A superbly gritty portrait of a thug-in-the-making and of atavistic survival.

Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog – USA, 2005)
Werner Herzog became famous again this decade with a string of brilliantly essayistic documentaries. Grizzly Man was the most famous of them. It is a cinematic post-mortem of Timothy Treadwell, a failed actor turned ecologist who lived among grizzly bears for thirteen summers before being mauled and eaten by one along with his girlfriend in October 2003. Herzog is blessed by Treadwell’s obsessive documenting of his work in video diaries and a large number of witnesses give their testimonies. It’s ultimately a sympathetic portrayal of a troubled soul, even if, as Herzog concludes, Treadwell was a Promethean transgressor who was only ever going to end the way he did.

Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson – Sweden, 2008)
It may not have had the stratospheric success of Twilight but Alfredson’s vampire film and John Ajvide Lindqvist’s original novel, was a surprise international sleeper hit, driven mainly by Internet word-of-mouth. It’s a surprisingly elegant piece, beautifully framed and shot, as if Michael Haneke had undertaken to make a teen movie. The film tells the flowering relationship between twelve-year-old Oskar who is tormented by bullies in suburban Stockholm in the early 1980s and Eli, a anguished child vampire whose father kills young children to feed her. It’s a sad and sometimes disturbing tale, unlikely to be bettered by the American remake next year.

The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck – Germany, 2006)
Von Donnersmarck’s smash hit may indeed have the fatal flaw identified by Stasiland author Anna Funder – that there never existed a single Stasi operative who spared one of his subjects. But that aside the film is a powerful look at the squalid cruelty operated by the GDR state apparatus. It was made all the more poignant by the death soon afterwards of Ulrich Mühe, who here plays the renegade Stasi agent who becomes fascinated by Georg Dreyermann, the playwright he is surveying. Mühe had himself been spied on in a similar way in real life, at the instigation of his actress wife, who was presumably working under duress. The Lives of Others is a technical and dramatic tour de force that pays fitting tribute to the hundreds of thousands of people whose lives were destroyed by Stasi surveillance. One of the better winners of the Best Foreign Film Oscar too.

Bullet in the Head (Jaime Rosales – Spain, 2008)
Catalan director Rosales followed up his arthouse hit Soledad with a more ambitious piece. Inspired by the ETA assassination of two Spanish undercover policemen in France in 2007, Bullet in the Head is shot entirely in long-range shots, often through windows and doors, with only scraps of dialogue heard. The action builds up in cool, detached fashion, with the audience implicated in the voyeurism of the crime. A great companion piece to Coppola’s The Conversation.

Mesrine L’Ennemi public Nº1/Mesrine L’Instinct de mort (Jean-François Richet – France/Canada, 2008)
The French have always had more than a sneaking regard for former bankrobber Jacques Mesrine, gunned down, almost certainly unlawfully, by police in 1979. So it wasn’t a surprise that this double biopic starring Vincent Cassel in a César-winning role was a big hit. And the success was replicated abroad. Richet, who previously directed a highly regarded remake of Assault on Precinct 13, directs with aplomb and the film has a stellar cast, none of whom detracts from the power of the work. It’s superb entertainment and also a highly intelligent crime film, written by Abdel Raouf Dafri, who was also responsible for Un prophète and the Wire-esque TV series La commune.

Into Great Silence - Philip Gröning (Germany - 2005)
A 160-minute documentary about the silent monks of La Grande Chartreuse near Grenoble would not set many people’s hearts racing but Into Great Silence is a surprisingly engrossing experience. The film follows the monks in their everyday life over the course of six months. It details prayer, silent contemplation, the manufacture of habits and other essentials and, of course, the famous green liqueur, which is the monastery’s main source of income. A measure of Gröning’s Herculean patience is the fact that permission to film was granted only 16 years after he first requested it. He’s the only outsider ever to have been allowed inside the walls of the monastery and he filmed all on his own. If ever a film deserved the tag ‘unique’ this is surely it.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

100 Films of the Decade - Part 3

The Life Aquatic…With Steve Zissou (Wes Anderson – USA, 2004)

People either love or hate Wes Anderson, though I find I have a foot in either camp. I initially detested The Royal Tennenbaums before a second viewing revealed it to be not quite as irritating as I first thought. I then joined the anti-Wes backlash when I found the hipster impassivity of The Darjeeling Express nigh unwatchable. But occasionally Anderson does it right, even if his films, for all their notional subtexts of failing fathers, are frivolous things. Along with Rushmore, The Life Aquatic… is his best film. For no reason other than it is funny. Very funny. One of the few performances by Bill Murray in recent years that doesn’t feel like it has been faxed in, a string of great sight gags, and as usual, a great soundtrack, with Scott Walker and Iggy interspersed with Seu Jorge’s Bowie covers. It stays just the right side of quirky.

Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl (Manoel de Oliveira – Portugal, 2009)

Filmmakers don’t come any more amazingly redoubtable than Manoel de Oliveira. The Portuguese director turned 101 last week, and this decade he turned out a film per year, as well as a handful of shorts, in both Portuguese and French. He even starred in one of them, Christopher Columbus – the Enigma along with his wife of sixty-nine years. Almost any of the ten films would deserve a place here but I’ll go for a personal favourite, this year’s Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl, a charming adaptation of an Eça de Queiroz short story, scarcely an hour long but bewildering in its pacing and its wilful anachronism, which nonetheless works perfectly. The film is like palimpsests layered on top of one another, each one gradually becoming visible, much like the faded charm of Lisbon itself. De Oliveira is the only currently active filmmaker whose career goes back to the silent era (he even worked on Portugal’s second sound film in 1932) and his continued vitality and intelligence puts to shame dozens of cineastes decades younger than him.

What Time is it There? and The Wayward Cloud (Tsai Ming-Liang – France/Taiwan, 2002 and Taiwan, 2005)

Tsai Ming-Liang is not an easy director and he has become increasingly experimental since he first came to international prominence in the early 90s. What Time is it There? was his first sortie outside his adopted homeland of Taiwan (he’s originally from Malaysia), a touching tale of loneliness and disaffection experienced by a young Taiwanese woman visiting Paris. It’s a convincing portrait of timidity in the face of culture shock. Tsai renewed his relationship with Paris with this year’s almost impenetrable Visage but a little more accessible is his 2005 film The Wayward Cloud which combines watermelons, a Taipei heatwave, an impromptu porn film and the high-camp song-and-dance numbers already glimpsed in his earlier surreal drama, The Hole. Tsai can be hard work at times (there always seems to be at least one walk-out during a screening) but his films are also often fun and in the hangdog, perpetually mute Lee Kang-Sheng he has one of the great comic actors of our time.

We Own the Night (James Gray – USA, 2007)

I suppose I shouldn’t go on knocking Martin Scorsese all the time but it was striking, following the hugely successful but overrated The Departed, how a younger New York director was able to mount much the same film a few months later with far greater élan, economy of style and theme and with far less pretentiousness. Until this film I was not particularly taken by Gray but his tale of family cops, played by Robert Duvall as the father and Mark Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix as his sons, battling the emerging Russian mafia in Brighton Beach in 1988 was irresistible. Gray followed it up with the even more stunning Two Lovers, of which more later. Phoenix and Wahlberg also produced as well as turning in great performances, a doubly great contribution to contemporary American cinema sorely missing intelligent dramas like this.

The Magdalene Sisters (Peter Mullan – UK/Ireland, 2002)

Though actor Peter Mullan’s directorial debut Orphans was promising, I wasn’t sure that his account of women condemned to the hell of the Irish Magdalene laundries would amount to much. You could sense the playbook well in advance. And though the film pulls no punches in its polemical accusations towards the Church, the film is intelligent, subtle agitprop rather than a crude tirade. The reason it works so well is Mullan implicates the viewer in the onscreen crime. For an Irish viewer of even my generation, the society on display is uncomfortably familiar, and while the Catholic Church is clearly villainous and rotten to the core, there is also a searing indictment of a society and a people that let them get away with it all. And judging by the official responses to the Ryan and Murphy reports, intends to continue to do so.

Capote (Bennett Miller – USA, 2005)

Biopics out of Hollywood are usually godawful, full of pious platitudes about journeys through harrowing adversity and the horrors overcome by people with the right can-do spirit. Bennett Miller's portrayal of Truman Capote's descent into terminal depression while writing In Cold Blood is a marvel however, beautifully shot and edited, perfectly scripted and a fine performance, just on the right side of mannered, by one of the finest American actors alive, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who deservedly picked up an Oscar for this. Mercifully a literary film that is neither vulgarly inane nor tweedy.

Black Book (Paul Verhoeven – Netherlands, 2006)

After years of making brash thrillers in Hollywood that were always too clever for their own good and built of ambitions far exceeding their execution, Verhoeven returned to his native Holland where he made some of his greatest films in the seventies and early eighties. Black Book is a virtuoso old-fashioned thriller, set during the Nazi occupation of Holland and based on a true story, about a young Jewish woman named Rachael Stein who joins the Resistance in The Hague and goes undercover to seduce the local SS Captain. The film is a masterpiece of detail - cosmetic, historical and political - and it has a splendid twist about half and hour from the end that nobody will see coming. Best of all though, it is a refreshingly unsentimental and clear-headed drama about both the Holocaust and the local Resistance to Nazism.

Control (Anton Corbijn – UK, 2007)

Photographer to the stars Corbijn's first feature is a moving portrait of one of his earlier collaborators Ian Curtis. While many complained of the film not focussing enough on Joy Division and their music, Control excelled for this very reason, fleshing Curtis out (thanks to Sam Riley's fine performance) and putting his epilepsy and his legendary demise in a human context. As you would expect from such an accomplished photographer, it looks great and it's also unexpectedly funny.

Night and Day (Hong Sang-Soo – South Korea/France, 2008)

I’ve been a fan of Hong’s unassuming intimiste dramas for a few years but Night and Day took me by surprise. Going to Paris to make a film has by now become almost an obligation for Asia’s top directors and Hong follows the lead of Tsai Ming-Liang, Nobuhiro Suwa and Hou Hsiao-Hsien with this tale of a Korean artist, Kim Sung-Nam, who flees to France having been ratted out to the police by an American backpacker for sharing a joint. That starting point is representative of the film as a whole, which is a succession of brilliantly filmed episodes, most of which could themselves pass as self-contained stories. Kim loafs about Paris in the cocoon of its tiny Korean immigrant community, meets a former girlfriend by accident, has a falling-out with a North Korean over an unguarded comment about Kim Jong-Il, develops an ill-advised infatuation for a young, narcissistic art student and pines for his wife back home. The film’s tagline is ‘everything is as it seems’, which puts it fairly well. Not only a fine film in its own right but also one of the few that offers a foreign perspective on Paris without falling into clichéd and banal observations.

Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood – USA, 2008)

You never really know what you’re going to get from Clint. The quality of his films varies as widely as his subject matter, but you have to hand it to him for the frequency with which he turns them out. His finest film of recent years may well be the one the older Clint is remembered for. A film that veers close to clumsiness in its examination of racism in blue-collar Detroit, it had particular timeliness for being released just as the US auto industry began to endure its death pangs. Walt Kowalski is a hateful old racist crank who is bitter at everyone in his life, including his two sons, who have even gone so far as to betray his life’s legacy by driving Japanese cars. Walt treats the arrival next door of an Asian immigrant family with predictable disdain, which is reciprocated by many of the family. Things change though when he runs off some thuggish relatives, and the grateful Hmong family and Clint gradually warn to one another. The film has the potential to be very hokey indeed and on first appearance does seem a little simplistic but the overlying simplicity masks a robust moral purpose, worthy of a studio-era classic (the film is, quite suitably, a Warners production). Eastwood has forged an unlikely but genuine humanism in his films over the past twenty years and even when he doesn’t get it right, to see someone from the very mainstream of American popular culture exercise such principled free thinking is stirring.

Tony Manero (Pablo Larraín – Chile, 2008)

Tony Manero is the tale of Raúl, a 52-year-old ne'er-do-well obsessed with Saturday Night Fever in the dark days of the military dictatorship in Chile in the late 70s. His dream is to appear in a TV talent contest as a John Travolta clone. So far, so-Full Monty. But Tony Manero is a far more scabrous, disobliging work, an ill-mannered riposte to the idea that popular culture (especially American pop culture) can provide redemption in the face of political repression. In this film, pop music is, at best a malign distraction from the evil within, at worst a vector for the rotten state of a country whose ruling élite has placed its consumer concerns above human ones. It reminds me of the lines parrotted by Pinochet supporters as the old bastard was held under house arrest in London ten years ago: "Before the General came to power, you couldn't even get blue jeans in Chile. He saved our country."

Apparently at its Cannes screening 18 months ago, several Hollywood studio executives left violently angry, incredulous anyone could envisage their product used for dark ends. Job well done, Pablo Larraín, whose second film this is. It’s a work that cares too much about the history of Chile to blindly do the bidding of entertainment. Not that it isn’t entertaining either, mind.

12:08 East of Bucharest (Corneliu Poromboiu – Romania, 2006)

Corneliu Poromboiu put his experience as a cameraman on a local television station to good use in this incredibly funny political comedy which attempts to establish, sixteen years on from the fall of Ceausescu, if there was any revolutionary impetus in a provincial Romanian town before the dictator, abdicated, at 12.08pm on the 22nd of December 1989. Tiberiu Manescu, alcoholic college professor, claims there was, and he was part of it. Conflicting testimonies on a phone-in show say otherwise, that he was part of a group of drunken revellers who seized their moment of revolutionary glory when it was safe to do so. The film is by turns gentle good-natured and cynically sinister, not least when a former Securitate officer, now a successful businessman, ‘persuades’ Tiberiu to withdraw allegations made on air. The film drags a little towards the end but it has a sharp comic spirit and Ion Sapdaru, who seems to pop up in every Romanian film these days, is great as the poor, pathetic Tiberiu. And Poromboiu, a young talent to watch, directs with a lyrical touch.

Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul – Thailand, 2004)

Thai cinema gained a new international prominence this decade, and Weerasethakul was probably the most successful director, with a string of films appearing at the big festivals. Tropical Malady is a strange beast, a diptych of two films that seem to have little in common, the first a gay love story between two Thai soldiers and the second a pursuit through the jungle of a mysterious tiger spirit. The film is a masterpiece of sensual cinema, with almost no dialogue at all in the second part, with the narrative relying on only the basic of dramatic hooks. It is also fantastically shot, the screen bursting with lush colour. A visual treat.

Code inconnu: Récit incomplet de divers voyages and Caché (Michael Haneke – France, 2000 & 2005)

Austrian moralist Haneke upped sticks and moved to France to work at the start of the decade, extending his themes to absorb the ills and fears of modern French, and European society. Juliette Binoche starts in each of these films, the first a gripping, open-ended series of fragments in which she plays an actress married to a war photographer and whose fugitive brother sets in train a series of events that result in the expulsion of a Romanian asylum seekers. In Caché, a much tighter film, she is married to Daniel Auteuil, a TV arts presenter who is being harassed by a figure from his distant past. Both films have the customary iciness one expects from Haneke and each manage to avoid the more deterministic scenarios of his weaker work. And, as ever, the films are a perfect blend of style and substance.

Songs from the Second Floor (Roy Andersson – Sweden, 2000)

The flop of Andersson’s second film Giliap in 1975 was so chastening an experience he was unable to get funding for a feature for another 25 years. Instead he made some of the most inventive commercials ever and when he came back it was with a bang. Songs from the Second Floor is a surreally apocalyptic deadpan masterpiece that uses the same elaborately choreographed single takes as the commercials. It is both hilarious and nightmarish and the glumness of the décor and the ugliness of the characters make Aki Käurismäki look like Vincente Minelli. Andersson took a mere seven years to follow it up with the equally bizarre You, the Living.

Oxhide (Liu Jia-Yin – China, 2005)

I don't expect that many people will rush out to watch this, a two-hour docudrama shot on low-resolution DV, entirely in a tanner's workshop in Beijing, in long static takes, using the director's family (including herself) as cast. It looks gloopy green and the camera never moves once but it is completely entrancing. The director Liu was only 25 at the time and she did practically everything on this film in an astounding piece of DIY filmmaking; as ever with prodigies of the sort, it has an incredible maturity and the performances she draws out of her cranky family's quotidian life are marvellous. Despite the best efforts of the Chinese government to marshall cinematic output there is still good stuff being made and the freshness of the work never lets up.

Our Daily Bread (Nikolaus Geyrhalter – Austria, 2005), We Feed the World and Let’s Make Money (Erwin Wagehofer – Austria, 2005 & 2008)

Food documentaries came into vogue this decade; the films were of varying quality but most had a bien pensant streak in common. Two of the better ones came from Austria and were both released within months of one another. Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Our Daily Bread was the more experimental of the two, being a non-narrative look at food production across Europe, going from salt mines in Poland to slaughterhouses in Austria to greenhouses in Almería. The film is a hypnotic, if sometimes unsettling passage through the various production cycles, portrayed via lengthy, geometrically precise tableaux. More overtly polemical is Erwin Waghofer’s We Feed the World, which takes its title from the motto of the German agri-giant Pioneer. There are more accusatory interviews, particularly with Swiss sociologist and UN Special Rapporteur Jean Ziegler, and Nestlé chief executive Peter Brabeck steps in to defend his company, in much the same vaguely sinister way as the Mondavi family in Jonathan Nossiter’s Mondovino. The film’s focus is more on the cost and waste, both humanitarian and ecological, of an industry that is wildly skewed in favour of Europeans in search of cheap food. The film may strike some as preachy but Wagehofer has a fine visual sensibility for a journalist. He then pulled the same trick a second time three years later on the financial services industry with Let’s Make Money. In production long before the crisis, by the time it came out it was fully vindicated.

Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki – Japan, 2001)

Miyazaki’s Oscar-winning animated gem won him wide recognition in the West. Lonely 10-year-old Chihiro is left friendless when her family moves to a new town; one day when walking in the woods with her parents she disappears down a tunnel and is befriended by a number of mysterious spirits. In order to save her parents, who have been turned into pigs for the dinner table of the gods, she takes a job in the gods’ bathhouse. The film, like most of the best tales for children is dark and admonitory, a parable that teaches the virtues of self-responsibility and loyalty to friends and family. It might be said that Miyazaki makes the same film every time but his clean, old-fashioned cell animation, and his formal inventiveness, not to mention his first-class story-telling make Spirited Away a kids’ film to watch again and again.

In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai – Hong Kong, 2000)

Perhaps even more so than Chungking Express, this is the distillation of the entire career of Wong Kar-Wai. Wong revisits the Hong Kong of the 1960s he treated in Days of Being Wild for this gorgeously atmospheric tale of adultery between neighbours played by Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, sparked by their common suspicion that their spouses are themselves engaged in an affair with one another. It’s a film of modest ambition that’s all the more impressive for this. Wong’s flimsy English-language debut My Blueberry Nights later suggested that buried beneath all the Cantonese dialogue was whimsy all along, but In the Mood for Love rings true, as was the unorthodox ‘sequel’ 2046, released four years later.

Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze – USA, 1999)

Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s bizzaroid comedy was one of the original thing to come out of Hollywood this decade and it took a rare genius to take a personality as imposing – and at times unpleasant – as Malkovich and send him up. And Malkovich went for it too, though who wouldn’t want to be immortalized, however ridiculously, in a cult film? It’s a film that is actually as clever as all that and the pair pulled off the trick again three years later with the equally left-field Adaptation. And judging by their respective films since then, they need one another badly.

Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch – USA/France, 2001)

Lynch’s failed TV pilot was salvaged to provide one of the most enduring American films of the noughties. Not quite as indecipherable as the later Inland Empire, the film nonetheless stumped many viewers and Lynch even published five clues in newspaper advertisements that worked brilliantly to entice people back to watch it multiple times. Lynch can be maddening at times, not least the Zen Buddhist nonsense he comes out with, but he is one of those artists that articulates himself far better through his work. And even when you don’t have a clue what’s going on, it’s engrossing stuff trying to figure it out.

The President’s Last Bang (Im Sang-Soo – South Korea, 2005)

Im’s darkly comic account of the murder of Korean president Park Chung-Hee at the hands of his bodyguards, not surprisingly caused some controversy in his home country. Park’s son secured a court injunction forcing Im to make cuts, which resulted in the film strangely carrying three-and-a-half minutes of a black screen, until the injunction was reversed a year later. The portrayal of the former President is none too complimentary with him viewed largely as a lascivious alcoholic buffoon with suspiciously Japanophile tendencies. Having already survived two assassination attempts, a web of intrigue surrounding his handling of student protests finally put paid to him. The film is stylishly mounted and well paced, with most of the action taking place in the days preceding Park’s murder. And in case anyone had any doubts about where Im’s sympathies lay, he followed it up a year later with The Old Garden, an account of a former dissident’s release after decades in prison for his part in the 1979 protests.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

100 Films of the Decade - Part 2

Man on the Moon (Milos Forman – USA, 2000)
Milos Forman followed up his Larry Flynt biopic with one of another American curio, comedian Andy Kaufman. You don’t have to think Kaufman was an undisputed comic genius (I certainly don’t) to be both tickled and moved by this film, which features Jim Carrey’s finest performance as the late comedian, who was best known for playing Laika in Taxi. Carrey had only recently proven himself as a serious actor in The Truman Show and this film cemented his reputation, earning him a Golden Globe and he was incredibly overlooked for an Oscar nomination. The film is especially impressive in that it manages to relay at second hand how funny Kaufman could (sometimes) be and the stand-up scenes are masterfully staged. Forman, being both an outsider (Czech by birth) and contemporary witness (he rose to Hollywood fame at the same time as Kaufman), was uniquely placed to impart a sense of wonder in the film and the sharp script is by the Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewki, writers of the finest biopic of the 90s, Ed Wood. Man on the Moon is an equally fitting portrait of an unsung hero of American pop culture.

This is England (Shane Meadows – UK, 2007)
Nottingham autodidact Shane Meadows is a one-man film industry, having risen from making camcorder shorts on the cheap to arthouse auteur. His films all benefit from his clear affection for his characters and a complete lack of pretentiousness. After a brief blip using name British actors in the uninspired Once Upon a Time in the Midlands, Meadows went back to working with lesser lights, including his old friend Paddy Considine, whom he, ironically helped turn into one of Britain’s most sought-after young character actors. The disturbing Dead Man’s Shoes was followed by This is England, a semi-autobiographical tale about a 12-year-old boy getting sucked in by the National Front in 1982 Scarborough. Shaun is recently arrived in town following the death of his father in the Falklands War. Some friendly skinheads take him under their wing only for the sinister fascist Combo to muscle in on things on his release from prison. Shaun falls for Combo’s tough-guy charisma and is soon abusing Pakistani shopkeepers and attending far-right rallies. The film is a clear-eyed, non-moralising view of the menacing embrace of racism closing in on a vulnerable person. Meadows is one of the rare talents in British cinema who can combine a superb skill with actors with a visual sensibility that is almost European in its lyricism. Thrilling stuff.

The Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr – Hungary, 2000)
I first heard of Béla Tarr ten years ago in a eulogy penned by Gus Van Sant and published in Le Monde. As well as being proof that Van Sant still had a stirring of adventurousness in him it was a tantalising glimpse of the sort of director you see so rarely in contemporary cinema. The Werckmeister Harmonies is a relatively straightforward work compared to Tarr’s earlier seven-hour long Satantango, but it nonetheless demands attention and patience, running to 160 minutes and being comprised of no more than 38 shots, and shot entirely in claustrophobic monochrome. Tarr is not terribly interested in plot or story and his pre-apocalyptic tale set in a village on the frozen Hungarian plains has only frail scrimpings of either. But when it comes to atmosphere, mood and character, he has few betters. And, like all his films, The Werckmeister Harmonies leaves you with a murky uneasy sensation, rather similar to a dog’s distant howl on a dark night.

Uzak (Nuri Bilge Ceylan – Turkey, 2002)
Turkish photographer and filmmaker Ceylan made an international name for himself with this beautiful film about the gradual falling out between an enthusiastic young provincial freshly disembarked in Istanbul and his successful photographer cousin whom he stays with. The cousin is a man who feels he has outgrown family obligations and his gauche relative quickly becomes an unwelcome imposition. As one would expect from an accomplished photographer the film is wonderfully shot right from the lengthy opening scene of the young hero leaving his snowbound Anatolian village. The film is also rich in dramatic detail, with the heartbreaking final rupture cruelly hinging on an incident of petty crime. It also has one fantastic gag, where the photographer tries to watch a porno, but is forced to switch on Tarkovsky’s Stalker to discourage his cousin when he intrudes.

Dancer in the Dark (Lars Von Trier – Denmark/Sweden, 2000)
Von Trier finally won the Palme d’Or for this maddeningly provocative film and secured a lifetime of brickbats for his alleged misogyny and anti-Americanism (neither of which is true). Taking the Dogme strictures he conceived more or less for his own benefit to another level, LVT fashioned a roughly-hewn masterpiece that, like Björk’s acting, gets better and better as it progresses. Unusually for an established artist, the film inspires the exact type of thrill you get when you discover brilliance in a complete unknown. There’s an army of Von Trier haters out there to rival his admirers, and that’s exactly the way he wants it.

Blackboards (Samira Makhmalbaf – Iran, 2000)
Made when she was only 22, Makhmalbaf’s tale of itinerant schoolmasters in Iranian Kurdistan is an impressive but bleak interrogation of the value of culture and learning amidst the most adverse human suffering. Using, like so many Iranian directors, non-professional actors, Makhmalbaf has a steady, unsentimental eye and her social questioning has an echo of early Pasolini about it. She’s a resolutely unglamorous filmmaker, who has since concentrated on Afghanistan for her films, with varying degrees of success. But there should be more like Blackboards to come.

The Free Will (Matthias Glasner – Germany, 2006)
The German cinema renaissance is one of the most inspiring things to have happened in recent years. The country has a chequered film history, with its glory Ufa days ending when the Nazi’s rise to power sent the talent fleeing to Hollywood. There then followed the golden age of the New German Cinema in the 1970s which faded out with the deaths of Fassbinder and Syberberg , the decline of Schlöndorff and the self-enforced irrelevance of Wim Wenders. Until a few years ago there had been little to get excited about in the film production of Europe’s biggest country but now the quality of output is such that almost every German release is worth seeing nowadays.

Matthias Glasner’s The Free Will was one of the better German films this decade. Jürgen Vogel (who also co-wrote the screenplay) plays a sex offender released from prison at the beginning of the film who moves into a halfway house with hopes of rehabilitating himself and settling back into society. Things, as you can imagine, don’t work out as his brutal urges resurface, overcoming even the possibility of a relationship with the young student he develops a normal relationship with. It’s a frank, disturbing film that is a rare dramatic portrait of an everyday monster.

Hunger (Steve McQueen – UK/Ireland, 2008)

When I first heard about Hunger, I couldn’t have been less interested. Did we really need another film about the hunger strikes? And, Steve McQueen’s reputation as a visual artist notwithstanding, I was worried that the result might be an over-aestheticization with most of the politics sucked out of it. So I’m glad I was proved wrong. Hunger is a fascinating, unflinching look at the strength of a principle and people’s determinations to stand by them. Previous H-Block films such as Some Mother’s Son and H3 were typically void of either a visual sense or ideas like many British or Irish films but McQueen dissects the historical incident with economy and aplomb. Michael Fassbender is great as Bobby Sands, with the 20-minute-long colloquy with Liam Cunningham that lies at the centre of the film a masterclass in dramatic writing. More remarkably, though McQueen’s sympathies are clearly with the hunger strikers, there is no facile endorsement of the IRA forthcoming. The Republicans are shown to be every bit as brutal as their captors and you don’t need to be a supporter of the men of violence to be affected by this film.

Je veux voir (Khalil Joreige and Joana Hadjithomas – Lebanon/France, 2008)

The Lebanese video artist pairing of Hadjithomas and Joreige came to international attention a couple of years back with the Antonioni-esque Perfect Day, the tale of a narcoleptic young Lebanese haunted by the disappearance of his father who was kidnapped during the Civil War and now about to be declared officially dead. It was a film I should have liked but I found it stultifyingly languid and ironically, for a film about a narcoleptic, put me to sleep.

Perfect Day came out before the 2006 Israeli bombing, the results of which form the basis for their second oblique film. Catherine Deneuve, attending a film festival in Beirut, announces she wants to see the damage done to the country. Hadjithomas and Joreige go with her and film her. It’s a strange film, where Deneuve plays herself in what appears to be a documentary but of course is a scripted film. Ill at ease, she slowly develops a rapport with her driver Rabieh Mroue; they chat about the effect of decades of war on Lebanon and view the rubble in the Lebanese capital and the southern towns, shattered by the bombings. Very little happens in this short, 75-minute film, but few other films have managed to make a country come to life on screen so well with such modest means. Just sit back and watch.

Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg – UK/Canada, 2007)

Cronenberg went off the boil a bit in the 1990s (though without ever really descending into irrelevance in the way that his contemporaries Scorsese, de Palma and Coppola did), and his resurgence over the past few years has been one of the most gratifying things in contemporary cinema. Eastern Promises is, like his previous two films Spider and A History of Violence, a hyper-realist jaunt through a range of subjects such as guilt, violence, broken trust and the audience's capacity to be outraged or shocked by the most unexpected things in a film. Shot and styled like a piece of banal direct-to-video fodder, the film is deceptively simple, masking an ingenious network of provocations that question our attitudes to the very film itself. And, best of all, it is damn scary.

Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas – Mexico/France, 2007)

Reygadas' first two films, Japón and Batalla en el ciélo were arresting and often shamelessly provocative examinations of the mundane existential struggles of ordinary people in testing situations. For this story of infidelity and forgiveness among German-speaking Mennonite farmers in Chiahuahua, Reygadas once again uses non-professional actors though the tone and the methods are more restrained than in the previous two films. Lovingly rendered landscapes and a punctilious attention to sound detail make the two-and-a-half-hour film one of the most enthralling of the year. While many people will hate it, Reygadas has no problem with that; he has stated in interviews that he has no interest in entertaining his audience. Demanding his films might be but the pay-off rewards the attentiveness.

Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (Philippe Parrano and Douglas Gordon – France/UK, 2006)

The prospect of a documentary filmed in real-time on one of the greatest footballers ever by two video artists renowned for their endurance-testing installations was not instantly appealing and, when I saw this in Paris just before the 2006 World Cup, half the audience walked out, probably a mix of arty types and football fans expecting something different. But Gordon and Parrano's film of Zidane playing for Real Madrid in a 2-1 win over Villareal in April 2005 is riveting stuff for the insight it gives both into the work of a modern footballer and the movements of the human anatomy. Sixteen cameras were trained on Zidane for the duration of the game, and the result is intriguing and boring in turns but one of the few great art/film crossovers. Zidane's surprisingly gnomic pronouncements about the game are interlaced with a soundtrack by Mogwai, and there is even drama, prophetic of the great man's eventual exit from the game: he gets sent off in the last minute after a mass brawl. Along with the efforts of Steve McQueen and Khalil Joreige and Joanna Hadjithomas, Zidane suggests video artists moving up to the big screen is not such a bad thing at all.

Close to Home (Vardit Bilu and Dalia Hager – Israel, 2005)

One of the big cinematic success stories of the decade is Israel. An influx of funding from television and a flowering of a talented generation of filmmakers have resulted in a string of great films, many of which give a glimpse of Israeli society to Westerners that is more nuanced than the rigidly heroic or villainous tone taken by either sides in the Israel/Palestine debate. Close to Home is one of the lesser known of those films but it’s a little gem. Two Israeli girls doing their national service patrolling West Jerusalem, hassling Arabs at random, and doing their utmost to shirk their duties, all the while maintaining a breezy indifference to the war on their doorstep. A cool examination of the demeaning nature of Israeli checkpoints that also manages to be funny and touchingly human.

To Get to Heaven, First You Have to Die (Jamshed Usmonov – Tajikistan, 2006)

The world is not overrun with films from Tajikistan but Jamshed Usmonov has managed to carve out an international reputation with his understated, grimly comic cinema. Here he follows up the acclaimed The Angel on the Right with the tale of a teenage husband unable to consummate his marriage but, who, it appears is not any the less horny for all that. He takes a trip to the capital Dushanbe, tries his hand at following the city women around, with little success, only to fall in with a small-time hood, who inveigles him into a dodgy heist. The film is one gripping episode after another, all imbued with a wonderful dramatic ambiguity, bestowed as much by the passivity of the actors as by Usmonov's clockwork-precise direction.

Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog – USA/Germany, 2007)

Werner Herzog continues to give the best value of those German filmmakers that sprung to prominence in the 1970s. Now focusing mainly on documentaries, Herzog persuaded the National Science Foundation to fund his Antarctic film but declared that he would not be making another film about penguins. Herzog joins the research teams at the McMurdo research station and interviews those there about their motivations for going there, he meets a Russian philosopher, a Canadian linguist who specializes in dying languages, a Czech former refugee who has a 20kilo pack ready for a quick getaway at all times and vulcanologists studying one of the world’s most active volcanoes. Herzog’s mordantly deadpan narration is wildly funny and he has an admirable distrust of pseudo-spiritual cant and a love of scientific enquiry. The film is beautifully shot, both above and under the ice, and a lone, deranged penguin, despite Herzog’s initial intentions, ends up giving the film its best known scene. One of the most entertaining documentaries of the decade.

Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino – USA, 2009)

Like many, I had given up on Quentin Tarantino. Kill Bill was too big and too unwieldy for such a flimsy theme, Deathproof was a return to form but you still felt Tarantino could stretch himself more. The news that he was doing a film about Jewish Nazi-hunters during World War II wasn’t encouraging; I doubted the subject matter would survive the exposure to Tarantino irony. And I have to admit it’s still a mystery why his scattershot approach to history is so successful. I think it might be due to the fact that Tarantino understands the spirit of the second World War better than most. Not for him a slavish reconstruction of the facts but, better than almost any American filmmaker before him he understands how vital a role language played in the occupation by the Nazis. The tour-de-force opening scene plays on this as does another scene where Melanie Laurent’s Jewish escapee listens to a conversation in German, on which the camera lingers and which is, crucially, left unsubtitled. This is a brilliant distillation of the alienating effect of occupation, something that French critics – who almost universally acclaimed the film – recognised better than their Anglophone counterparts. Many would quibble at the counter-factual nature of much of the film but this was a common theme in popular culture of the time (Michael Chabon already touched upon it in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay) and it also contains a kernel of truth, with an echo of the infamous Ratlines that helped thousands of Nazis escape justice at the end of the war. The film is not perfect, with some of the acting and the plotting quite mangled but you certainly don’t feel cheated at the end of it. Quite how Tarantino pulled it off, I don’t know.

Gomorrah (Matteo Garrone – Italy, 2008)

The young Italian writer Roberto Saviano was already in hiding before the release of this film version of his best-selling non-fiction book but the film’s success can hardly have helped his security situation. The film examines the Comorra, the Neapolitan mafia, and its tentacular reach into all sectors of Italian business and society. The film departs from the book by dispensing with the narrative voice, which was Saviano himself, who occupied a recklessly central role in his tale. What we are left with are six distinct tales told in a sober, dispassionate manner, similar to Alan Clarke’s Elephant or Gus Van Sant’s of the same name. Tim Parks has complained that the film lacks an oppositional force, a crusader that might represent resistance to the thuggery of the Naples mob. But this misses the point of the film, which is to resurrect the mob film from the relativistic morass and the dubious glamour it has been mired in for near on thirty years now. It is significant that the two young numskulls that try to muscle their way onto the turf of much more formidable men should be beholden to Brian de Palma’s Scarface. But Gomorrah has little truck with the mythologizing of that film – its gangsters are brutal thugs that bully their way around any situation, fascists in shellsuits.

The film is bleak in that it declines to offer a way out for anyone, the only characters that manage to opt out do so at the expense of their career. But it’s a timely film for its frankness in tackling the canker of organised crime from a left-wing point of view without making facile, shopworn observations about how it’s simply another extension of mainstream capitalism. The Comorra is deeply embedded in mainstream capital but the film makes no attempt to exonerate the organisation because of its unorthodox status.

24 Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom – UK, 2002)

The incredibly prolific Winterbottom, like Steven Soderberg, can be a bit hit and miss but he’s always worth a look, his subject matter ranging from adaptations of Hardy and Tristram Shandy to tales of Afghan refugees and internees of Guantanamo Bay. And sometimes he completely surprises you with a film like 24 Hour Party People, a hugely enjoyable account of the rise and fall of Factory Records, told through the eyes of its mercurial founder Anthony H. Wilson, played by Steve Coogan. Unlike Anton Corbijn’s Control, the tone is light, even the sequences covering Ian Curtis’ last days, but it never feels frivolous. While the film’s subject matter obviously limits its appeal, for those in the know there is a pleasure to be had spotting the personalities from the various Manchester scenes in both their real and onscreen incarnations (Howard Devoto of Magazine, for example, pops up as a toilet cleaner while The Stone Roses’ Mani plays a sound engineer). The music’s good, it doesn’t take itself seriously and it gives a rare chance for Manchester to appear on the big screen. One of the better films about music.

The Return (Andrei Zvyagintsev – Russia, 2003)

Andrei Zvyagintsev came from nowhere to win the Golden Lion at Venice in 2003 with this bleak but stylish film about the return of an alcoholic father to his family. He insists on spending some quality time with his two young sons who know him only from an old photograph, and it soon becomes apparent that the reunion is going to be an uneasy one. In one respect the film might be considered the epitome of the Russian miserablist family drama and there are times when it veers close to cliché. But the overall tone rings true, with superb acting, particularly from the two children. Zvyagintsev returned at Cannes four years later with the similarly dark The Banishment, which most critics hated. But that too is worth a look.

Rois et reine (Arnaud Desplechin – France, 2004)

Desplechin made his international breakthrough with this compelling ensemble drama about two ex-lovers (Emmanuelle Devos and Mathieu Amalric). Devos is coping with the impending death of her father, having previously lost a husband, while Amalric’s musician is trying to break free from a mental asylum. Like in his later Un conte de Noël (also excellent) Desplechin paints human relationship with punctilious, novelistic detail. A talky film in the best sense of French cinema but one mercifully devoid of pretention.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

The Draw

The thing most notable every time a World Cup draw is made is how adrift most of us are as to the actual ability of all but a handful of teams. As William Goldman famously said about Hollywood, “nobody knows anything.” Few of us have watched a wide range of qualifying games in Europe, never mind South America, Africa or the other confederations, and our assessment of the capabilities of teams is based largely on the players they have playing in either the Premiership or the Champions League.

And so we have a few misdiagnoses of the groups. Everyone agrees that Group D, which sees Germany, Australia, Ghana and Serbia square off, is the Group of Death; these are four teams of broadly similar ability, the Germans would be reasonably considered the favourites but none of the other three will be overawed by them. But there is also too much respect being paid to Group G, where Brazil, Portugal and the Ivory Coast will slug it out for the top two spots. The group, however, is likely to be hellish only for the latter two; Brazil, motoring along efficiently if inelegantly with Dunga’s brand of pragmatic football, will probably take the group – and I fear, the tournament – comfortably. So it’s up to the Ivorians and the Portuguese to fight for the second spot. Many, watching the tournament in their Premiership-refracted haze will bill it as Drogba v Ronaldo, but there'll be more than that. And I suspect, the Portuguese, wary of being muscled out of it by an Ivorian team unfazed following their fine performances in the Group of Death last time round, are probably the more worried.

Other highly competitive groups are likely to be Group B, with Argentina, Nigeria and Greece – all of whom met each other in USA 94 – all in the running, with South Korea possibly being the bystanding kingmaker. It may not be dazzling football though, especially with the Greeks involved. That may come in Group E where the Danes play their footballing mentors the Dutch, with Cameroon also capable of excitement providing excitement. And though European Champions Spain are likely to win Group H at a canter, Honduras, Chile and Switzerland are all capable of fighting for second place.

France and England both got draws that, though favourable enough, could prove to be harder than they first appear. Nobody fears France these days, as Ireland showed in Paris last month, and both Mexico and Uruguay will fancy their chances, even if the Mexicans have never yet beaten France in international football. Particularly perilous for France is the fact that their easiest match, against hosts South Africa comes last, by which time dropped points in the first two encounters could put them under pressure. And, with the notorious benevolence often shown to host countries by referees, the karmic wheel could swing right round in an unpleasant manner for the French. My hunch is that France’s collective lack of backbone (which cannot be entirely blamed on the hapless Raymond Domenech) could see them on an early flight home.

England should be able to finish top of their group but the sort of complacency the English do best could give them a few jolts. The US are a tough side for anyone to beat, and should provide stiffer resistance to England than in last year’s friendly at Wembley. Slovenia will be similarly undaunted having given England a decent game in another friendly last November. A young Algerian team may be four years short of gelling into a formidable side but they will, like all the other African teams bar the hosts, have the advantage of playing in January’s African Cup of Nations in Angola. Algeria shocked the world in 1982 before being disgracefully shafted by West Germany and Austria, and now they are arguably better, with many of their players having come through the French national youth team system. A technically gifted side who showed immense character to come through a torrid tie with Egypt, they can cause anyone trouble. That said, I expect England to finish top, which they will want to do, presuming Germany finish top of Group D. The Germans are now back to the level of composure where they can unnerve the English and were the two to meet in the second round, England’s World Cup would end there. If they avoid each other, England can reach the quarter-finals and, with some extra discipline, the semi-final. That’s really as far as they’ll go, with suspect goalkeeping, an occasionally febrile defence and a glaring lack of strength in depth to be their undoing when up against the big boys.

And who are the big boys? Spain, Brazil, Germany, Italy. The winners will come from one of those four. Argentina probably could do it if freed from the mania of Maradona’s management and an African side might benefit from a tournament held on the continent. The Ivory Coast look like the only side strong enough to put up an ultimate fight but they too will probably have to hope for semi-finals at best. And the winners? My head rather than my heart, says Brazil, who these days are eschewing the jogo bonito in the same way they did in 1994 and 2002. And we know what happened then…

Thursday, December 03, 2009

100 Films of the Decade - Part 1

The past decade presented cinema with both new challenges and new opportunities. While on the one hand new technology freed filmmakers from the shackles of financing, a greater homogenisation of taste and lack of adventure among distributors and producers has made it harder to get interesting films seen. The internet has made it possible for films to bypass traditional media outlets but it is still far from a renumerative means of publicity. In the United States, with a few exceptions, mainstream cinema has reached a cul-de-sac of sterile, self-congratulatory mediocrity. Hence there is a notable dearth of Oscar-winning or nominated fare here. Hollywood has surrendered excellence to American TV, which often produces far superior work in the fields of both comedy and drama. For this reason, casual cinemagoers are convinced the quality of cinema overall is on the slide. Of course this is not true, with countries as diverse as Portugal, France, Taiwan, Korea, Argentina, Israel, Iran, Germany and Romania regularly producing great films.

The 100 films I have picked are broadly those I have been most impressed by over the past ten years. It is not however exhaustive – some are there despite the fact they have a number of major flaws, others have been left out perhaps unfairly and deserve a second viewing, and there are a number of candidates that I contrived to miss when they came out. There are a number of big names absent, some of them rightly (Martin Scorsese and Brian de Palma are two I have no qualms about overlooking) and others perhaps unfairly (the Coen brothers, the Dardennes, Ken Loach, Christophe Honoré, Nanni Moretti among others). There are also a few films that will have passed even the keenest eyes by, and some that others might consider modest works of promising talent rather than among the best produced this decade. But I stand by the films selected and though any reader will be doing well to have seen all 100 of those on the list, I think a list that offers a few surprises is more useful than one than one that recycles the familiar, more obvious suspects. Here’s the first batch of the 100, in no particular order. When I get to the top-10 I’ll introduce a more ruthless system of classification. Until then, consider these all films equally worthy of one’s attention.

PS You might notice 1999 appended to a number of films. This is the date of their original release in their country of origin. I have however taken films that were released after January 2000 in either of the countries I’ve lived in since then – Ireland and France.

M/Other (Nobuhiro Suwa – Japan, 1999)

Nobuhiro Suwa won the FIPRESCI International Critics Prize at Cannes in 1999 for this beautifully observed tale of a six-year-old boy’s efforts to adapt to a new stepmother. Two and a half hours long and shot almost entirely with static cameras, the film combines the intensity of Cassavetes with the formal exactitude of Ozu. Suwa, incredibly, remains unknown outside Japan and France, where he has been making films for the past few years.

Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson – USA, 1999)

There’s a good case for saying Magnolia is not as good a film as either Punch-Drunk Love or There Will Be Blood, but Anderson’s sprawling third feature makes up for its many flaws with its many long sequences of brilliance. Audacious, funny and immensely entertaining, it makes great use of a fantastic ensemble cast in a way only Robert Altman could better. Visually and dramatically, it’s a splendid feat, studded with memorable characters and possessed of an energy generated by an almost decadent lack of discipline. The guilty pleasure of the decade.

Pingpong (Matthias Luthardt – Germany, 2006)

Young German director Matthias Luthardt expanded his film school graduation piece to make this icy cuckoo-in-the-nest drama. Teenage malcontent Paul shows up at his rich uncle’s country home and insinuates his way into every relationship to be had. It’s a simple straightforward film and there are no big surprises. But the film is a gripping look at an uncomfortable situation. Luthardt is a great talent for the future.

The Time That Remains (Elia Suleiman – Palestine, 2009)

Suleiman is a quiet resistant, choosing to mount his family drama spanning 60 years of a Nazareth family beginning with the 1948 nakba, as a deceptively whimsical burlesque. Suleiman plays his alter ego ES, with his usual Buster Keaton hangdog look, uttering not a single word, like his younger selfs, as an anti-imperialist schoolboy and a naïve young revolutionary. The tragedy of 20th-century Palestinian history is given an absurd twinge, with tabbouleh being searched for explosives, Suleiman pole-vaulting the Israeli apartheid wall and the Suleimans’ elderly neighbour continually failing to put an end to it all through public self-immolation. But though it’s a funny, wondrous piece Suleiman’s impassive humour is the vector for a troubling, potentially savage anger.

The Circle and Crimson Gold (Jafar Panahi – Iran, 2000 & 2003)

Crusading filmmaking in the west takes on a rather worthy tinge but when you live in a society with rather precarious freedoms such as Iran, taking on the mantle of political cinema is something a good deal more dangerous. Panahi famously wrote to the master Abbas Kiarostami back in the 1980s asking for a job. He eventually passed on to directing himself, winning the Caméra d’Or for The White Balloon in 1995. There then followed The Circle, a dark feminist thriller that follows fugitive women across the Tehran cityscape as they attempt to escape the morals police after them for what is most likely prostitution. Panahi went out of his way to beat the drum for Iranian women in his 2007 film Offside, an absurdist drama about women trying to get into an international football match. And there was also Crimson Gold, a sympathetic portrait of an Iran-Iraq war veteran turned pizza-delivery man caught adrift amidst the Iranian nouveau riche pizza-eating classes. It was no surprise that when the anti-government protests sparked off last June Panahi was to the fore of the protestors. He’s a man whose work attests to the value of dissent.

Together (Lukas Moodysson – Sweden, 2000)

Moodysson is an unlikely sort in the field of international cinema, a man raised by Marxist parents – like Lars Von Trier – but professing a very different robust Christian humanism. He has also gone from bubbly, purposeful feel-good comedies to hellish visions of human evil and the fortitude of the wretched, such as Lilja 4-Ever. But it is his second feature, Together, a semi-autobographical account of life in a left-wing commune in Stockholm in the 1970s, that is the most memorable. Moodysson weaves wife-beating, closet homosexuality and sexually precocious teenagers into the narrative and over it he pastes a soundtrack of Abba songs, songs that he gleefully admits the communards would have readily scorned. It’s a strange but fantastic piece and one of the best pieces of popular cinema of the decade.

Gerry and Elephant (Gus Van Sant – USA, 2002 and 2003)

What a difference a decade makes. Ten years ago Gus Van Sant was mired down in sentimental Hollywood productions such as Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester, films that, though they bore his recognisable imprint, reeked too much of a sad compromise. Van Sant used some time out with two of his mainstream buddies Matt Damon and Casey Affleck to make Gerry, a bleak minimalist chamber piece in Death Valley. Van Sant films both faces and landscapes with an unerring eye, and the exercise in experimental rigour reinvigorated him, helping him win the Palme d’Or the following year with the Columbine reconstruction Elephant. After a string of fine counter-cultural films, Van Sant went back to the mainstream with Milk and this time he had Hollywood on his own terms.

Mondovino (Jonathan Nossiter – USA/France, 2004)

I had never been impressed by Nossiter’s rambling, pretentious fiction films but it was a real pleasure when he brought his day job as a wine importer to bear on this monumental documentary on the wine trade. You may not buy his arguments such as planting the Mondovani family, the titan of wine critics Robert Parker and wine consultant par excellence Michel Rolland in the camp of villains, but the film is gripping drama. Pitted against the above are pluckily genial Bourgonnais viticulteurs whose own daughter has crossed over to the dark side, a Jewish wine importer in New York who bemoans the increasing homogenisation of the global wine trade and pernickety European left-wing politicians unimpressed by the new wine gospel. The film is about more than wine though; it’s a study of the trade-offs, wilful self-abnegation and fierce resistance induced among people by the pensées uniques of globalisation. The mouthpiece of the latter is the exemplary ‘quiet American’ Parker, who might be construed as an oenological equivalent of the belligerent liberals who have found creative new ways of waging war in our overly-comfortable times. Also released in a 10-hour version for French television.

La Ciénaga (Lucrecia Martel – Argentina, 2001)

Martel says that she does not make political films but it was hard to watch La Ciénaga, released in the wake of Argentina’s economic collapse, without thinking of it as a stern corrective to a culture of fiscal irresponsibility and avarice. This is a film where all the responsible characters are children; from the very opening scene – one of the finest of the decade – we see the adults as drink-sodden zombies, edging catatonically towards an inevitable crisis. The film has a fetid air, suitably unclean for one whose title is the Spanish for ‘swamp’.

Topsy-Turvy, All or Nothing and Vera Drake (Mike Leigh – UK, 1999, 2002 and 2004)

While most of his American contemporaries have wandered up avenues of critically acclaimed irrelevance, Mike Leigh just gets on with making films and he rarely misses a note. You have to go back to 1997’s Career Girls to find a poor film by Leigh. His best this decade was his first effort, the unexpectedly entertaining Gilbert and Sullivan biopic Topsy-Turvy. Leigh’s first period piece was a breath of fresh air amid the stuffy academicism of British costume drama; he didn’t stint on the detail, nor on the historical context and best of all the film had its flashes of autobiography in the scenes where the light operatistes put their actors through rehearsals. There then followed the darkly tough urban drama All or Nothing and another period piece, Vera Drake, with Imelda Staunton a star turn as a 1950s back-street abortionist. Special mention too to Happy-Go-Lucky, not on this list, but one of the more sophisticated comedies of the noughties.

Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki – USA, 2003)

It started off as a documentary about New York party clowns but Jarecki changed tack when he discovered the story of one of his subjects, David Friedman. David’s family were embroiled in a child abuse scandal in the 1980s, which led to the conviction of his father Arnold and 18-year-old brother Jesse. Most amazingly, the family were willing to talk (though Arnold had, by then, passed away) and even more so they had home movies galore to fill in the gaps. Despite the confessions and convictions of both, questions marks remain over the actual guilt. Both claimed they lied in their confessions, making the film a maelstrom of doubt (its tagline was ‘Who do you believe?’) Though there’s something unseemly about the film’s voyeuristic position, it’s enthralling viewing. The Friedman’s bizarre reaction to their family turmoil is proof that reality TV and Balloonboy were dramas that were only waiting to happen.

Saraband (Ingmar Bergman – Sweden, 2003)

The master’s swansong, made for Swedish TV four years before his death but it got an international theatrical release. A sequel to Scenes from a Marriage (which was also made for the small screen) it reunites Karin and Johan 30 years later, by now a divorced couple and beset with crises involving their various children. It’s an elegant drama, in which little happens, but the depth of characterisation is impressive and the whole thing rings with the pain and cruelty that runs like letters through a stick of rock through the life work of Bergman, a life’s work that ended with this film.

En construcción (José Luis Guerín – Spain, 2001)

Guerín’s ludic cinema was still unknown on the release of this film in 2001, and it was only the international release of Dans la ville de Sylvia seven years later that brought it to the attention of most people. In a similar way to the recent cinema of Jia Zhang-Ke, Guerín deconstructs history through the decline of a building. As the century ends he follows the demolition of an apartment building constructed in 1900, being knocked as part of the gentrification of the barrio chino, Barcelone’s traditional red-light district. Like Jia, he mixes documentary and fiction, following those working on the building and interviewing locals on their memories of a vanishing neighbourhood. He also struck it lucky as during demolition, human remains dating from Roman times were uncovered, adding an unexpected extra layer to the film’s dense texture. A great film about urban history.

Requiem (Hans-Christian Schmid – Germany, 2006)

Hans-Christian Schmid's harrowing account of the exorcism of a young German woman in the 1970s is both a masterful piece of kinetic cinema and an angry, if even-handed examination of faith and madness. The young woman, played by the amazing Sandra Hüller, is doomed from the start, as her epilepsy cuts her off from society and hampers her studies and her efforts to live an ordinary life. Her obsession with Catherine of Siena does not help - leading her to believe her illness is a messianic affliction thrust upon her by God. A perfect counterpart to Breaking the Waves and arguably more moving, Requiem is proof of the current rude health of German cinema.

Guernsey (Nanouk Leopold – Netherlands, 2005)

A little-known Dutch film, about a young mother who witnesses the suicide of a colleague while working as an engineer in Egypt and then tells nobody about it, allowing her marriage and her relationship with her widowed father and her desperately embittered sister unravel almost as an existential experiment. Leopold touches all the right buttons in the Antonioni fashion but her film has a bracing individuality and an almost-Protestant rigidity of economy in its editing and mise en scène. There is not a shot wasted and as well as featuring a great, haunting performance as the wife by Maria Kraakman, it has a cast of some of the finest buildings seen on film in many a year.

4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu – Romania, 2007)

The consolidation of Romanian cinema as one of the world's most impressive came in 2007 with the awarding of the Palme d'Or at Cannes to Cristian Mungiu's drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days which told the harrowing account of an illegal abortion in the final years of the Ceausescu regime. The film is a finely calibrated slice of life, shimmering with the squalid discomfort of the Communist-era gloom, brilliantly acted and difficult to sit through. If the clutch of Romanian films that have their way west in recent years is any indicator, the country is, despite its many social and political problems, a formidable repository of stories that will produce many more in years to come.

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