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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Favorites of 2009

I’ve seen many great films this year, and for the first time in a couple of years, I can happily say I’ve even seen enough to create a list of my favorites for 2009. I’ve also continued the tradition of noting my favorite discoveries from past years, noting my favorite films that were released in 2008 or before. This year closes my first full ten-year period of watching films more seriously. Only in the late 1990s did I begin to seek out a wider variety of movies, a process that continues even to this day. Now more than ten years on, I still struggle with how to balance life as a parent of young kids with the desire to “keep up” to any measurable degree with some of the exciting newer films. I think I’ve gotten close to striking that balance, even as a third child is on its way in a few months.

That said, I am most sorry to have missed the short run of Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles a few weeks ago. I also continue to be frustrated at the overwhelming lack of variety in Dallas’ theatrical lineup (Jia’s 24 City and Bujalski’s Beeswax were both scheduled but never shown). Only Lorna’s Silence (with a one week partial run) and the star-powered Public Enemies showed theatrically in the Dallas/Forth Worth area. Any other films under real consideration for the list had to be acquired on DVD, and the simple fact is that many won’t get a DVD release until into 2010, if at all.

Great films are being made all over the world, and have been made throughout history. I still hang onto the hope that distributors will loosen their purse strings and do a little marketing for good films that might fly under most people’s radar, and that theatrical venues will find ways to broaden their selection of films beyond the typical fare available everywhere. Ok . . . rant over. Let’s get on to the list of my favorite films of 2009 [Thanks to Darren over at Long Pauses for reminding me of James Gray’s 2009 film Two Lovers, which I sadly forgot when I initially published this list. I’ve now remedied the problem.]:


5b. Public Enemies

Michael Mann’s exploration of John Dillinger’s crime spree in the 1930s continues to linger in my mind for its beautiful images and Mann’s willingness to offer something of a psychological portrait of the criminal life within the confines of a genre picture. In his film work, Mann has long shown interest in the criminal mind, including Manhunter in the late 1980s, 1995’s Heat—still his most famous work, and his film Collateral earlier this decade. Mann never seems all that interested in celebrating his criminal protagonists, but rather showing them for who they are—complex human beings with various drives and desires, some good and some not. That continues in Public Enemies. Mann beautifully choreographs his action sequences, but they come off as more cerebral than visceral. This choice creates an opportunity to continue the reflection on the criminal outside the confines of the exciting moments the audience tends to expect in a “bank robber” movie. I like that Mann is headed in this direction, as evidenced in his last couple of films, and look forward to his next project.

5a. Two Lovers

This wonderful film from writer-director James Gray really solidifies him in my mind as a filmmaker to keep an eye on. I saw his second feature, The Yards, back in 2000, and I thought it a strong and understated film. In Two Lovers, Gray shows a great willingness to avoid long and talky sequences in favor of short bursts of dialogue and allowing his actors to communicate with their bodies as well as their words. The writing develops each of the three leads, the ladies a bit less than the man, but enough for them to be full-blooded characters. Gray sets up the narrative well, refuses to give us easy answers and doesn’t avoid meaningful ambiguity-all pluses.

4. Still Walking

Without a doubt this comparison has been made numerous times, but Koreeda’s film feels like an updated and modernized Ozu film, a point which should be taken as high praise for Koreeda. It’s rare that a contemporary film compares favorably with the films of one of the great masters of cinema. Still Walking pays close attention to the simple, everyday details of the Yokoyama family, an elderly husband and wife whose two grown children (with families in tow) come for a weekend visit. Long-standing tensions are revealed in hints and snippets of information throughout the film, but thankfully remain underplayed. Instead of big emotional blow-ups between characters, Koreeda’s camera is more interested in capturing close-ups of food preparation, children playing in the yard, or noting the way nature breaks into their world. Koreeda’s camera always seems well-placed to capture the physical interaction between these family members, implicitly revealing their connection to one another, in spite of the disappointments life has brought. In the end, the film stands both as a warning and a reflection of a hard reality: we must care for people while we still have them with us, because life (and death) rolls along without our permission.

3. Lorna’s Silence

A year after (rather than ‘the year of’) the release of a new Dardenne film is always a treat—since I have to wait more than a year for it to cross the Atlantic. Lorna’s Silence, like the Dardennes’ earlier films, explores ethical issues in modern society through closely observed portraits of its character’s lives. In this case, we witness the moral awakening of an Albanian woman seeking Belgian citizenship by her marriage to a known drug addict. When it comes time for Lorna’s handlers to dispose of her husband, she begins to see that the true cost of her actions goes beyond a simple exchange of money. And it’s that dehumanizing tendency to place economics on a pedestal that seems most in the Dardennes’ view: Lorna begins to lose her humanity as she fights for life against the “sound logic” of where the money leads. Can anyone retain their humanity in such an environment?

2. Munyurangabo

A powerfully understated tale of revenge in modern, post-genocidal Rwanda, this film stands out from the pack of “Rwanda films” in examining the lasting impact of the genocide that took place there in 1994. The titular character, shortened in the film as Ngabo, sets out on a journey with his friend from Kigali to the countryside where he means to revenge his father’s death. Old tribal divisions, questions about the meaning of justice and lasting peace, and the short tempers of young men create tensions that only grow as Ngabo inches closer to carrying out his plan. Rather than rely on typical narrative tricks to enhance the drama, first-time director Lee Isaac Chung instead aims for a more poetic rendering, allowing his camera to linger on faces, hands, and feet as people proceed with the largely mundane tasks of their lives. This ultimately enhances the power of the film, eschewing immediate reaction and emotion for something more lasting and thought-provoking.

1. Summer Hours

Assayas’ Summer Hours also made it onto my best of the decade list, and it stands as my favorite film of the year, though the top three are tightly bunched in my mind. Set in contemporary Paris and an outlying village, the film both reflects and offers an opportunity to contemplate our increasingly global society and its effects on families. As a kind of flip side of Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake, Summer Hours looks at the home base of a family, and the effects of globalization on their family as various members drift further and further from one another, both in their geographical locations, but also in their relationships with one another. This is a film that evokes the tragedy of traditions passing away with the death of valued family members, the pain of physical locations losing their significance as places that inspire deep connection with others, and the mystery of life that continues on in new ways when the old has passed away.

Now to turn our attention backward in time, here are my favorite discoveries of 2009:

5. La jetée (1962)

The final film on this list is probably best known to modern filmgoers as the inspiration for Terry Gilliam’s 1998 film 12 Monkeys. However, La jeteé, a thirty minute short film which tells its tale entirely in still pictures, is a much better and more interesting film. The film takes place in some kind of post-apocalyptic future, where we meet a man who vividly remembers a shooting he witnessed as a boy. He desperately wants to return to that moment, and when he is chosen for a time travel experiment, he sees his opportunity. The power of the film comes in the mystery of the photographs, which with the spare dialogue tell just enough, but not too much. It’s really a beautifully chilling film.

4. The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

On the face of it, the film seems a recipe for disaster: an existential drama stuffed inside the confines of a cheap science fiction picture. However, because of the close union between the central idea of the movie (that a man is being lost within the ever increasingly terrifying modern world) and the science fiction angle (a man mysteriously shrinking making him unsafe even in the protective world of his own home), the film works brilliantly. The focus of the first half of the film is on the set up and the initial loss of size. However, it’s in the latter half, when the shrinking man finds himself trapped in the basement with a tarantula, when the film really takes off. And because of the investment in the character, the film even manages to wring a few truly creepy moments out of its plot. A great movie for goofy fun and for thought provoking post-film conversation as well.

3. The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

One of the holy grails on the cinematic landscape, Turner Classic Movies in the U.S. ran Welles’ star-crossed film one day early this year. It would certainly be number one on the list were it in its original form, but the studio enforced ending is so terribly and obviously tacked on that I couldn’t justify placing it at the top. However, the film as a whole is nothing short of magnificent, with the typical Wellesian energetic camera and editing in evidence throughout. The film is a grand spectacle, on the scale of Citizen Kane, and probably even beyond it due to the number of primary characters within the Amberson’s world. If you can track down a copy of this excellent film, don’t miss out.

2. Ballast (2008)

Director Lance Hammer’s debut film, Ballast follows the lives of three poor African-Americans scraping by somewhere near the Mississippi Delta. Hammer’s use of the handheld camera seems a questionable choice early in the film as it follows a boy running through a field. However, he settles in admirably. With limited dialogue and a camera that lingers on its subjects, Hammer is clearly of the school that show is better than tell. The director creates a number of memorable moments by, as John Ford once said of his own films, letting the pictures do the talking. But it’s the combination of Hammer’s style with the particular milieu that makes for such an effective picture. The film encourages the viewer to engage the world of these unfortunate people, portraying their lives as something worth looking at, people worth thinking about. Hammer concludes with a fine moment—a single sweep of the camera through a moving car that beautifully ties together the narrative in a most satisfying conclusion.

1. Manhattan (1979)

I am up and down on Woody Allen, but his poetic, Gershwin-drenched paean to New York City was a revelation, and not just for its musical interludes. Allen tends to have a self-effacing way about him, but I can’t say I’ve ever seen it portrayed on screen as artfully as he did here, particularly in the film’s Cabiria-esque conclusion. Of course, where Fellini’s Cabiria has troubles that are almost entirely inflicted upon her due to a certain naiveté about the modern world and men in general, Allen’s lead character here suffers from largely self-inflicted wounds. Manhattan reveals a world grown small, where characters struggle to see beyond themselves, even in the hustle and bustle of a city like New York. That it’s presented with such attention to beauty—accompanied by the aforementioned Gershwin and gorgeous black and white photography—offers a striking contrast to Allen’s limited perspective that underlines the fundamentally comic tone of the film.

Other films I appreciated in 2009: In Bruges; Dance, Girl, Dance; Paranoid Park; Doubt; I am a Sex Addict; The Exterminating Angel; The Player; The Station Agent; sex, lies, and videotape; Greed; Silent Light; I Walked with a Zombie; My Man Godfrey; Nanook of the North; The Immigrant