Favorites from the decade that was

Fifty fillets of film, alphabetically ordered. Now I can finally get on with my life.

“4 Months, 3 Days, 2 Weeks” (2007) – Believe the hype, I guess. Beautifully stained and impenetrably dark. Eeriest shadows of the decade. The genius of this film is how it manages to cook the events that constitute its narrative to the point that any latent absurdities (let there be no doubt: they’re there and they’re pretty funny) boil off almost imperceptibly. Descriptions of “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days” as a political horror film were essentially apt.

“Beau travail” (2000) – Just barely counts as a film released in the Aughts. Claire Denis’s poetry is everything that everyone—or rather, everybody—says it is: dominating in its physicality, irresistibly intoxicating and resistant to throwaway acts of interpretation. This movie quivers with sandy sensuality and self-conscious difficulty. More so than any other film on this list, “Beau travail” just doesn’t give a shit what you think of it. The humorlessness of its final image is a testament to how tight a headlock it applies to the viewer.

“Broken Embraces” (2009) – As you’ll recall, this was the subject of my most recent review in the Daily Cardinal. Nobody wants to see me repeat myself, so head there for my thoughts.

“Café Lumière” (2003) – Hou Hsiao-hsien’s quietest, most understated, most mesmerizing and, ultimately, most charming film. “Soothing cinema” is not an oxymoron.

“The Captive” (2000) – Chantal Akerman’s bizarro-adaptation of Proust is marked by an intensely gutsy desire: not to capture and interrogate a found reality (something that many attributed to her most famous work, “Jeanne Dielman…”) but instead to dissect an artificial reality and find within it a multiplicity of hidden qualities. No filmmaker’s work is more attractive to me, though it’s easy to see why this one might leave many viewers cold cold cold.

“Che” (2008) – Admirably audacious and inspiring in its fidelity to a guerrilla sensibility, this film feels really long and is really long. The first half is kind of Hollywood, to be sure: this only makes it seem more epic. The second half is kind of dramatically spare, to be sure: this only makes its ends seem more economically achieved.

“A Christmas Tale” (2008) – Arnaud Desplechin’s status as the “future of French cinema” is on its way to becoming an unfortunate cliché—but jeez Luis, this motion picture is almost too alive for its own good.

“Code Unknown” (2000) – My favorite by Michael Haneke: meandering, seemingly directionless, as nomadic as the characters it parasitically follows. “Code Unknown” evokes a sense of feeling lost rather than a sense of loss, setting it apart from the rest of Haneke’s experiments in grimness.

“The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” (2005) – More rustic, more decrepit, more dilapidated, more worn and even murkier than “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days” (a comparison worth drawing, if only because the visual styles of these two films are quite similar). It’s also funnier, though that’s not saying much. Whether the Romanian New Wave exists or not is beside the point: Romania was responsible for at least two black-as-night masterpieces during the Double-Zeroes.

“Eastern Promises” (2007) – Wilier, stickier and messier than “A History of Violence”; a wonderful illustration of flesh smacking against tile.

“Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009) – A faux-fur meditation on family, community, criminal compulsion and the labor that is filmmaking. Extended thoughts can be found here.

“The Five Obstructions” (2003) – Here’s kind of a strange pick. An extremely uneven film, but that unevenness accounts for much of its charm. Jørgen Leth and Lars von Trier are constantly duking it out to see who’s the boss: a power struggle between two auteurs with really remarkable results.

“Gabrielle” (2005) – The use of intertitles recalls you-know-who, but Isabelle Huppert’s performance is a controlled riff on Delphine Seyrig in “Last Year at Marienbad.” The restricted color scheme was a wise decision.

“The Gleaners and I” (2000) – A witty treatment of a subject you’d likely never learn about otherwise and a philosophical investigation into the essence of cinema. It’s pretty funny, too.

“Goodbye Dragon Inn” (2004) – One of the decade’s most uncompromising exercises in demonstrating the virtues of style over so-called “substance.” This film’s apparent hollowness is a hypnotic and heartfelt ode to the inexhaustible allure of motion pictures.

“Gosford Park” (2000) – Initially presents itself as a showcase of established talents, like most of Robert Altman’s recorded hangout sessions; soon enough “Gosford Park” reveals itself to be an astonishing feat of swirling, freewheeling, schizophrenic cinematography.

“The Headless Woman” (2008) – I sang this film’s praises not-so-long ago, but it bears repeating: Lucrecia Martel’s masterpiece is a wonderfully jagged, disjunctive and double-jointed piece of work. The calculated framings cool the screen to just a few degrees above freezing. Yet, “The Headless Woman” is hardly willing to struggle with the viewer against his/her will. Like Martel’s two previous features, this film demands an active and enthusiastic spectator: how many of those exist today?

“The Heart of the World” (2000) – A terse and hilarious encapsulation of Guy Maddin’s shtick, it’s every bit as aesthetically volatile as the Eisenstein and Pudovkin flicks it mimics/lampoons.

“The Holy Girl” (2002) – I was torn between this one and “La Ciénaga”; in the end, I decided that the air of fragility and unease conjured in “The Holy Girl” was impossible to deny. I still haven’t a clue whether this is (or was supposed to be) a comedy, a psychodrama, a thriller or an erotic film without sex.

“Hotel Chevalier” (2007) – Its ostensibly unfunny moments are often hysterical, while its ostensibly humorous moments are often serious as a heart tumor. The final shot is an outstanding homage to the endings of Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” and Antonioni’s “Blowup.” Best of all, the length of “Hotel Chevalier” invites repeated viewings—as though its sounds and images weren’t already stuck in my head.

“Hunger” (2008) – This one struck me as being the unwanted progeny of Robert Bresson and Francis Bacon. Brutally textural, endlessly foul, relentlessly unpleasant: an aesthetic experience-and-a-half. This was the best bodily horror film of the 00s—and its politics runneth over.

“I’m Going Home” (2001) – A super lovable film. Michel Piccoli clumsily moves about like a boulder in a pinball machine. Really cleverly played interpolations of Ionesco, Shakespeare and Joyce. Not so much a film about filmmaking as a film about the uncertain period that follows the completion of an artistic production.

“INLAND EMPIRE” (2006) – In my review of “Inglourious Basterds,” I characterized that film as being a kind of guided tour into Tarantino’s personal world of cinematic fantasies, that is to say, the film was set less in Paris or Germany during WWII than it was set inside Tarantino’s head. This characterization also applies to David Lynch’s “INLAND EMPIRE,” though unlike Tarantino, Lynch declines to lead us by the hand through his neverending night(mare) in which all the snow is stained by rust and every shadow conceals an unfathomable secret. Strange as it may sound, I think this was the most wide-open film to come out in the last ten years: it pretty much is what you make of it.

“In Praise of Love” (2001) – The first three-quarters are a masterful demonstration of the camera’s ability to “give [reality] the style it lacks” (to quote a twenty-something JLG). The last leg is a lesson in making remarkable films with video technology, whether you find Godard’s critique of Spielbergian cinema convincing or not.

“The Intruder” (2004) – Like “Beau travail,” “L’intrus” is a work of art that refuses to be put to work. A great many self-consciously slippery films were released in the last decade, but for me this was the slipperiest and, by extension, the sexiest.

“Kings and Queen” (2004) – My favorite Desplechin and a marvelous appropriation/reinvention of New Wave devices—which, of course, were already second-hand to begin with. Emmanuelle Devos and Maurice Garrel are both creatures whom it’s impossible not to look at, so pairing them off as daughter and dying, deliriously disillusioned dad was a prudent move.

“The Last Mistress” (2007) – I actually preferred this to Jacques Rivette’s 2007 period piece “The Duchess of Langeais,” and not because of Asia Argento’s anachronistic angel (you know what I’m referring to). Catherine Breillat’s genius resides in how she frames her shots in a deliberately kitschy way and then hides pearls of transgression in not-so-hard-to-find places—within gestures, within innuendos, etc. She’s so obvious that she’s subtle.

“The Limits of Control” (2009) – By now most of you, dear readers, know what I think of this film: it’s a brilliantly conceived and constructed attempt to overload the contemporary viewer’s faculties of perception. There’s something ecstatic about having no clue what one has just seen, and Jim Jarmusch does a remarkable job harvesting that sense of bliss.

“Lost in Translation” (2003) – Though I haven’t seen it for four or five years now, “Lost in Translation” pointed me to My Bloody Valentine, which was a pretty exciting discovery for a 15-year-old to make. Enough people I know like this film to the point that I’m perfectly comfortable including it on this list.

“Margot at the Wedding” (2007) – This selection might strike some as odd, but the truths suggested by “Margot at the Wedding” are even more seductive than those of “The Squid and the Whale,” if only because all of “Margot”‘s characters are equally pathetic and equally sympathetic. Resist the temptation to say something about how “human” this film is.

“Match Point” (2005) – Not just the best Woody of the decade—a contender for the best Woody drama ever. (Honestly, what are the other contenders? “Interiors”? “Crimes and Misdemeanors”?) Hitchcockian narration, Dostoeveskian ideas, opera: it’s all more than enough to conceal Scarlett Johansson’s totally unconvincing l’amour fou.

“Merci pour le chocolat” (2000) – I can’t imagine that anyone was as high on this film as I was. The thing about “minor” Chabrols is that they tend to be every bit as rude, clever and refreshingly cruel as the more well-regarded ones. “Merci pour le chocolat” is perverse and a lot of fun.

“Moolaadé” (2004) – I’ve yet to be let down by a Sembene film, and this one is particularly charming—but don’t be fooled: some parts of “Moolaadé” are straight-up brutal. That said, the images are really striking and each scene is fueled by a shameless, confident energy.

“Mulholland Dr.” (2001) – For the time being I’ll stand by what I said about this film a couple of weeks ago in the Dirty Bird, but I think it’s worth reiterating that this was the movie that gave me the big, bad, incurable cinebug. I was 17 and impressionable—the best way to be, some (who?) say.

“No Country for Old Men” (2007) – I figured the brothers Coen ought to be represented here in some fashion. Perhaps this film is truly as bleak and exploitative and pessimistic as many seem to think it is; I was too busy taking in the tripwire tension, the gorgeous chiaroscuro and the stretches of tumbleweed silence to notice.

“Not on the Lips” (2003) – Who’d have guessed that cinema’s senior Faulknerian had such a fun film up his sleeve? Actually, anybody who saw “Mon oncle d’Amérique” or “Same Old Song” probably could have told you that the writing was all over the wall. Nobody adapts preexistent material like Alain Resnais: he brings the living back to life, always with an air of humility.

“Notre Musique” (2004) – Even though I’m a card-carrying Godardian, this one left me super-cold the first time I saw it. Well, I’ve watched it a couple times since then and I’m convinced that it’s every bit as infinite and as affecting as any film released in the 00s. Of course, infinity and affect aren’t everything, so approach “Notre musique” as if it was what it is: a film by Jean-Luc Godard.

“Regular Lovers” (2005) – My favorite period film of the decade. William Lubtchansky’s images bear the anguish of a generation and nod to Philippe Garrel’s earlier works like “Le révélateur” and “Le lit de la Vierge.” “Can we make the revolution without the working class?” Maybe, but can we “make the revolution” in an era of political stasis? Better off being a full-blown dandy.

“Russian Ark” (2002) – Probably more interesting as a spectacle than as a work of art (which isn’t to say that films can’t be both—they usually are), but it’s worth seeing for precisely this reason. One of my resolutions for the decade ahead is to see more Alexander Sokurov.

“The Saddest Music in the World” (2004) – Possibly the funniest movie on this list. Too absurd to summarize, so I won’t bother. More so than any other filmmaker working in comedy today, Maddin grasps the fact that the visual style ought to be just as hilarious as the verbal style that runs beside it. For my money, this was even more quotable than the comedies put out by the Apatow camp—though quotability is by no means the measure of a successful comedy.

“Story of Marie and Julien” (2003) – This masterpiece abounds with mysteries, most of which are concealed behind the veil of no veil. It suggests the possibility of a narrative cinema beyond reason, and I mean that as high praise. No film released in the last ten years did a better job of demonstrating that dreams and fictions are every bit as real as so-called “reality.” I decided against ordering this list hierarchically, but let there be no doubt: this was my fave.

“Syndromes and a Century” (2006) – Like three of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s four features (all of which were released this decade), “Syndromes and a Century” is a film cut in two; both halves go heavy on the poetry of institutional sterility and on the melancholy of repressed amorousness.

“Tropical Malady” (2004) – And here’s the other one. Much of what I said above applies here as well, but “Tropical Malady” is much sweatier, much more romantic and much folkier than “Syndromes and a Century.” I seriously hope that American filmmakers take to imitating artists like Weerasethakul and Tsai Ming-liang the way that an earlier generation took to imitating Godard, Truffaut, etc.

“Unknown Pleasures” (2002) – It was either this or “Still Life,” and in the end I succumbed to my being a sucker for films following young people who glow with angst-n-ennui. That this film shares a title with my favorite Joy Division album also doesn’t hurt.

“Wendy and Lucy” (2008) – This one made the list, in part, for sentimental reasons—after all, it was the subject of the first review I ever wrote for my current home away from home, the Daily Cardinal. (To my surprise, the review can still be accessed here.) Supposed neo-neo-neo-realism aside, “Wendy and Lucy” is a tremendously affecting and visually striking piece of found art.

“Werckmeister Harmonies” (2000) – This one didn’t quite knock me out the way I initially thought it would; maybe I was too pooped when I saw it to appreciate the million-and-one things that happen on-screen, off-screen and on-and-off-screen. Nevertheless, this seemed to me every bit as technically impressive and grandiose as “Russian Ark,” though it reads more like a eulogy for an entire era as written by an idealist whose heart’s been ripped out. Politics as classical tragedy.

“What Time Is It There?” (2001) – Scatological, romantic and gloriously patient; in short, it’s good cinema—the kind you can’t just look at but instead have to climb over.

“Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?” (2001) – If Pedro Costa’s project is truly to glorify the quotidian, as many critics seem to think, than “Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?” performs a miraculous negation-of-the-negation: It makes filmmaking seem like impossibly difficult work that anybody can do. That’s dialectics for ya.

“Woman Is the Future of Man” (2004) – Critics can’t get over Hong Sang-soo’s Frenchness, though in  doing so they tend to compare him to chatline operator Eric Rohmer. “Woman Is the Future of Man” really knocked me out because it’s not at all Rohmeresque; it’s much more similar to “The Mother and the Whore” (an all-time favorite of mine), only a wee bit dirtier and more painful.

“The World” (2003) – My favorite from Jia Zhangke (and, from the looks of most “best of the decade” lists, everybody else’s as well). What I like most about Jia’s films, “The World” in particular: how a single shot often contains several distinct vibes; the carefully measured cinematography; and the eclectic soundtracks that juxtapose ambient audio with the occasional pop song.

I hope that this exercise was as good for you as it was for me. Questions and/or comments and/or charges of pretentiousness are invited.

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7 Responses to “Favorites from the decade that was”

  1. Jozie Altidore Says:

    You write well. Your thoughts are interesting. I applaud that you recognize you may come off as pretentious. And you are willing to be yourself–fuck the haters.

    But WHY must you be so full of yourself? You have a choice. To be sincere, to write with passion, you don’t have to be arrogant…have some compassion. The choice is yours, but changing your attitude can do wonders for the mind and brain.

    • Dan Sullivan Says:

      Thanks very much for reading and for the kind words, but if you honestly think I’m in love with myself, either you’re not paying attention or I’m totally oblivious. If you read this blog regularly you’d know that I regard myself as being a complete loser.

      Anyway, thanks again for reading.

  2. Troy Buckley Says:

    good list my man. i just got done watching goodbye dragon inn a few hours ago so it was funny to see it on here. i’ve only seen about half of these so i’ll take this as recommendations and get to watching.

    you certainly aren’t lacking in compassion. you can’t be expected to pour your heart out into a best of list. to say you lack compassion is harsh when you consider you only have a few lines for each film. your love for film is evident here and it’s impressive. i can see that you have fun with this, reminding people of this in writing isn’t always so easy to convey though. keep it up you complete loser haha.

    • Dan Sullivan Says:

      Thanks for reading Troy. I haven’t seen as much Tsai as I’d like (hoping to change this sooner rather than later), but what I have seen is incredible. If you haven’t already watched it, “What Time Is It There?” is phenomenal. It’s got what may be the oddest Jean-Pierre Léaud appearance ever—and for him, that’s really saying something.

  3. Todd Stevens Says:

    Good list. Considerably more unique and creative than a lot of the other lists I’ve seen floating around. Some flicks you didn’t mention I would have included:

    – Cache: possibly my favorite film of the decade (it’s fighting it out with No Country for Old Men), I get some sort of sick joy out of watching Michael Haneke mess with his audience
    – Man on Wire: An already compelling story told in an even more compelling fashion, it’s to see tales like this that I watch movies
    – Brick: Gimmicky as hell for sure. But the gimmick works perfectly for a modern noir
    – Grizzly Man: I’m a Werner Herzog fanboy and therefore obligated to list this movie
    – A History of Violence: Just so much better than Eastern Promises. So much.
    – Children of Men: You hear all about the flashy cinematography, but it’s so ingrained in the film that it’s impossible not to be impressed. Also I’m a sucker for anything ridiculously bleak.
    – Talk to Her: Even with the ridiculousness of the situation Almodovar drops his characters in, he manages to get reach a lyrical emotive nature here that I’ve never seen him match, nor has almost any contemporary of his

    • Dan Sullivan Says:

      Seeing as how you love “Caché” and bleakness, I think it’s safe to say that you’re going to fall head-over-heels for “The White Ribbon” (which I just returned from seeing this afternoon in New York). Here’s hoping that Sundance or the Orpheum (or WUD Film?) gets its mitts on Haneke’s most intellectually satisfying work yet. A laugh riot it is not.

  4. Getting excited about “Greenberg” « CineMadison Says:

    […] counted Baumbach’s “Margot at the Wedding” (2007) among my 50 favorite films of the past decade, so I fully expect “Greenberg” to be a really sad […]

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