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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