Favorites of the Decade

The prospect of creating a list of favorite films for the decade both excites and terrifies me. I am certainly a compulsive list-maker, but with the number of films I’ve seen, and loved, from 2000 through 2009, the task seems a bit like choosing a favorite among my kids or deciding whether Crime and Punishment or The Brothers Karamazov is my favorite Dostoevsky novel. Either it just can’t be done—as is the case with my kids—or one day I might feel a stronger connection to one, only to see my loyalties shift the next day. Today, it’s Crime and Punishment.

That said, the first five entries on the list were shoe-ins. I couldn’t imagine them ever falling off. I’ve seen each of them multiple times (they hold up—an important qualification for making a list like this), and their artistry is without question. The other five might be replaced by films like Spirited Away, Punch-Drunk Love, Persepolis, Take Out, When the Levees Broke, or The Royal Tenenbaums, but in the end I have to admit a certain level of comfort with the list.

I am most pleased by its diversity—3 films from Europe, 3 from the U.S., 2 from Asia, and 2 from Iran. (And honest, I didn’t plan it that way.) I am most disappointed with the lack of animation—Linklater’s Waking Life was important in pushing my personal boundaries as to what films could do on levels beyond plot mechanics and narrative development.

I suspect this list to change as time goes on, not so much because I think these films will fade in my estimation, but because I expect a great number of other films made this decade could rival many of the titles on this list. Here’s where it stands today:

10. Mutual Appreciation (2005)

The final film on the list comes from American indie director Andrew Bujalski, whose first film, Funny Ha Ha, treads some similar ground as Mutual Appreciation. However, where the former film focuses primarily on the romantic trials of a single young woman, Mutual Appreciation expands that palette to include three separate people, each looking for friendship and love while trying to make it on their own. Mutual Appreciation comes across as an unassuming film—it looks like nothing is happening. But on careful reflection, the lives of its three leads are slowly changing, learning to live with and rely on one another. That Bujalski is able to slide this under our noses in such an understated manner while rooting his characters in an all too real world makes this one of my favorite films of the decade.

9. Ten (2002)

Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten is something of a formal experiment, but one that succeeds precisely because it doesn’t lose the hearts of its characters inside the confines of its technical achievements. The film holds its loose narrative threads together throughout the film, bringing them closer and closer together as the successive conversations progress between a female driver and various others—a son, a sister, a pious woman, a whore, and a young single woman. Kiarostami’s film humanizes the “unseen” of Middle Eastern culture, providing a way into the hearts of women and children through the everyday concerns of life: weakening marriages, the aftermath of divorce, parent-child relationships, sex, and prayer.

8. What Time is it There? (2001)

Tsai Ming-liang’s greatest film finds a strict balance between slightly surreal events and the realistic feeling of apathy, loneliness, and confusion among Taiwanese youth. Tsai’s lengthy, often static shots, his frankness about the sexual dysfunction among youth, and the absolute yearning for the mysterious and beautiful other in this film combine to create a strangely affecting cinematic experience.

7. Offside (2006)

Jafar Panahi’s energetic and impassioned film takes place during a World Cup qualifying match between Iran and Bahrain, as a young woman attempts to disguise herself as a man to gain entry to the stadium. Panahi films the scenario during the actual match, bringing a level of documentary realism to a film that has important observations to make about the role of women in Iranian culture. He creates several compelling young characters that evidence the diversity of opinion even among Iranian teenagers. Panahi’s stirring conclusion celebrates his country’s better instincts, even as it indicts the official, lawful position of the government officials.

6. Summer Hours (2008)

Oliver Assayas directs this brilliant, understated film about the effects of a global society on a contemporary French family. As the matriarch passes away, her grown children are faced with the prospect of completely uprooting themselves from their family home, as cares and concerns drive them to the four corners of the globe. The camera persists in quiet observation as each of the children struggle to balance the demands of the immediate family with the concerns of the extended family. Assayas makes that family home the most vibrant and interesting location in the film, a move which effectively creates space for the kind of tension the family feels as they make difficult decisions. And rather than leave the film on a note of simple tension, Assayas offers a five-minute coda that brings the film to a stunning conclusion, one that points to a future with its own pitfalls and hopes.

5. Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

Speaking of sublime, the opening scene of Bela Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies pictures a beautiful dance of drunken men as they mimic the motions of planets and stars in the solar system. This mysterious image of an imminent cosmos brings a grand scope to the apocalyptic narrative that follows. That said, we can only use narrative in the loosest sense, as Tarr’s purposes are more focused on the fear, the judgment, and the puzzlement of the Hungarian people in the face of inexplicable and tragic circumstances. The film, like Tarr’s other work in the past two decades, encourages contemplation and reflection on the spiritual and ethical realities that always seem just outside the reach of a clear and persuasive articulation.

4. Before Sunset (2004)

A number of the films on this list I discovered after the fact, due to word of a few well-chosen mouths. However, in 2004-2005, director Richard Linklater had long been a known quantity to me. That meant that Before Sunset was my most enjoyable theatrical experience of the decade, minus of course the woman next to me who insisted on asking her husband for explanations of the action all through the film. It also helped that Linklater had already introduced the characters to us in his more than capable previous foray into the world of these characters, Before Sunrise. While similar in structure, Before Sunset is the better film of the two, both in its stricter use of real time, and in its matured and in certain ways, chastened characters. Several moments throughout the film resonate with the pains and desires and failures of relationships, and of course, with the music of Delpy and Nina Simone, this film boasts the most sublime ending of any on this list.

3. The New World (2005)

Terrence Malick’s resurgent film career these last ten years is one of the most encouraging things to happen in the American cinematic landscape since the decade he stopped making movies: the explosive and inventive 1970s. Malick’s The New World carries a much stronger narrative line through its runtime than its more unwieldy predecessor, The Thin Red Line, which only enhances, rather than takes away from Malick’s trademark use of voice-over narration and his propensity for elliptical editing. The film deftly weaves together numerous seemingly disparate strands as it barrels ahead from Smith to Rolfe, from the new world to the old and back again. In the process, we gain both a sense of the intense joy associated with discovery intertwined with the tragic loss that occurs through the change that inevitably follows.

2. Still Life (2006)

In the interior of China, Jia Zhang-Ke films this dual storyline of two deserted spouses (a man and a woman) each looking for their significant other after many years apart. They each tramp through a slowly disintegrating city, one that is being demolished brick by brick to make way for a massive new dam on the nearby river. The setting evokes thoughts of loss, regret, and forgetfulness, even as Jia’s camera sees its deep and resonant beauty. The emotional stakes continue to rise as Jia’s protagonists discover their respective spouses, offering a window of insight into the tradition of an old China giving way to the promise of a new one. The film sticks in my memory as the most beautiful achievement of the decade, with awe-inspiring images, shocking in their magnificence.

1. The Son (2002)

The Dardenne brothers were my greatest discovery of this decade, so it’s only appropriate that their masterful film, Le Fils sits in the top spot on this list. The themes of the film resonate because of their complexity and immediacy in the world where people actually live out their lives. Who hasn’t tried to dig into the difficult ground of forgiveness or wade through the murky waters of a questionable relationship? The film thankfully eliminates false distinctions between ethical problems, spiritual poverty, and relational needs so popular in a strictly rationalist society. Instead, the brothers Dardenne root their film in the intimate and often mundane details of its character’s lives, revealing an intense emotional immediacy and a mysterious sense of the transcendent.

Other films I loved this decade, in no particular order whatsoever:

Spirited Away
Half Nelson
Punch-Drunk Love
Saraband
Persepolis
Gosford Park
Royal Tenenbaums
You Can Count on Me
In the Mood for Love
Funny Ha Ha
The Child
13 Conversations about One Thing
All or Nothing
Crimson Gold
Take Out
Three Times
When the Levees Broke
Lars and the Real Girl
Yi Yi
Best of Youth
25th Hour
Monsoon Wedding
Waking Life

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Still Life (2006)

I first discovered director Jia Zhang-Ke through a recommendation from Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, who expressed his fondness for Jia’s 2004 film, The World. An engaging, invigorating, and formally captivating film, I looked forward to learning more about this up and coming filmmaker.

His follow-up to The World was 2006’s Still Life, a meditation on the effects—personal, societal, and environmental—that occur during the building of the magnificent Three Gorges Dam across the Yangtze River in central China. As the dam moves closer to completion, more and more water is held back, meaning that low-lying communities close to the dam will soon be underwater. Therefore, a massive “deconstruction” project is underway in these communities, moving people out and tearing down old buildings and ancient neighborhoods.

The beautiful setting amidst a lush, green valley contrasts strongly with the piles of gray rubble scattered throughout the area. And this contrast in the physical world mirrors the contrasts taking place in the two stories Jia weaves together throughout the film: change and stasis, breaking down and putting back together, life and death.

These two stories, simple in their conception and careful in the way they reveal themselves, involve a man and a woman looking for their respective spouses. Neither couple has been together in years. The reasons for leaving remain unclear for most of the film, yet we know that each of these people wants nothing more than to find that spouse—for what, we can only presume.

That Jia allows these stories to develop slowly and makes close observation of their mostly fruitless searching imbues each character with a humanity that rings true. We know these people, or at least people like them—people with hopes and regrets, foibles and virtues. And as the events unfold, as the characters move ever closer to their respective goals, Jia records moments of such purity and poetry that the film strikes at the deepest chords of what it means to be human, summing up the film’s themes and ideas in images that bring contrasts together: out of rubble comes hope; out of death springs life.