How mysterious is the Lord that he amuses himself with such strange creatures! –Janos, Werckmeister Harmonies
Bela Tarr’s magnificent Werckmeister Harmonies offers a beautifully bleak portrait of the narrowness of modern life. The film opens with Janos in a barroom at closing time, prepared to illustrate for the drunken men the workings of the cosmos. Using the men as models, Janos shows them how the earth rotates around the sun while the moon at the same time orbits the earth. The scene’s oddity is strangely moving, as the single shot serves to unify the disparate group and strengthens the coherence of their actions. Tarr brings the camera both near and far, allowing us access to the men but also retaining the fundamental strangeness of the scene.
The simplicity of the scene endears the viewer to the men, yes, but more so to Janos. What kind of man would think up such a scheme? As the film follows Janos through his travels in the village over the following two days, we quickly discover a man captivated by a sort-of-circus that has come to town boasting the “largest giant whale” in the world. For Janos, this whale represents the creative possibilities of God (the quote above being Janos’ response to seeing the creature), and as such he encourages people to see it. Indeed, in the whole of the village, Janos seems to be the only one who actually sees the animal.
Janos seems to possess a quality that no one else has: reverence. When he sees something grand, he humbles himself before it. As such, we see him constantly on the move, serving other people, older people who he seems to respect and appreciate. Tarr’s typically lengthy “walking shots”—where a character or characters simply walk in an extended tracking shot—underline this fundamental aspect of Janos’ character: his reverence for the O/other has profound implications for how he lives his life.
That Tarr’s film ultimately illustrates the ways in which the abuse of power in the modern world—either through destructive riots or draconian rule—squelches such reverence makes the portrait no less beautiful. Indeed, the tragic ending draws us back to that opening sequence. As Janos directs the three drunken men in their “Dance of the Cosmos,” he suddenly stops them, the moon directly between the sun and the earth—an eclipse. Darkness has come, but only for a time, Janos tells them. The light will come again, and bring life with it.
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:
You Can Count on Me
In the Mood for Love
Funny Ha Ha
13 Conversations about One Thing
All or Nothing
When the Levees Broke
Lars and the Real Girl
Best of Youth
2005 has been a year of changes for me – most significantly, the birth of my son, who has pretty much rearranged all my priorities. I now am less able to get to the theater, which means I see less that’s current. That results in a pretty minuscule list. Yet (and this is one of the other changes), I was noticing that even before he was born, my wife and I were less interested in the theater anyway, and not because I don’t like the theater. I list watching a film in a crowded theater as one of the more pleasurable activities in life.
Instead, as I reflected on our reasons for avoiding the theater, I hit on a single thing that dampened our enthusiasm: the dearth of interesting options available to us here in Dallas. First, neither of us gets too enthusiastic about big blockbuster, epic kind of films any more. Neither are we generally interested in the weekly horror, action, or comedy offering. Thus, we tend to seek out more complex fare. Let me illustrate our problem: in the city limits, we have three “arthouse” theaters (two Landmark, one Angelika). Currently, one of the Landmark theaters is screening Narnia on two of its screens, with The Producers on the third. The other has Brokeback Mountain on three, Capote on one, and Good Night, and Good Luck on one. I cannot see how any of these films justify Landmark’s little opening, played before every film (“The language of film is universal”). Rather, it appears the language of film is English. The Angelika is not faring much better, currently showing the likes of Munich, Casanova, Pride & Prejudice, and Match Point, all of which can be found at the local megaplex (which is not to say any of these films isn’t necessarily worthy). But where’s the unique programming? What about traveling retrospectives, classics, smaller films, or a steady diet of important contemporary international film? These are too few in such a big and diverse metropolitan area.
All of which leads to my year end list. It’s going to be shorter than in years past, reflecting the fewer number of films I’ve seen. But I note it includes three heavily dramatic pieces (1, 3, and 6), along with four films that have a strong comedic sensibility (2, 4, and 5). Finally, to compensate for the shorter list, I’d like to offer a list of older films I’ve seen for the first time, all of which surpass virtually everything new I’ve seen this year. The rankings in both lists are not meant to reflect quality, or which film is “better” than another, but rather, which films I am most looking forward to revisiting and spending some quality time with.
2005 Favorites: 1. Saraband: Bergman’s final (?) film, and easily the best thing I’ve seen this year, a sequel to his earlier Scenes From a Marriage. I was struck by two things: First, Bergman’s attention to emotional detail. Second, the surprisingly hopeful and brilliant ending. It both ties the rest of the film together thematically, and provides some basis on which to go forward. Beautifully done. 2. Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation: Funny Ha Ha, like Saraband, is actually a couple of years old, but received a theatrical release just this past year. Writer/Director Andrew Bujalski injects his film about an aimless 23 year old college graduate with humor, dramatic conflict, and a kind of pathos that really is endearing. The latter film is actually Bujalski’s effort from this past year. Shot in b&w with the same intimacy as his previous effort, Mutual Appreciation builds on the earlier work in humor, characterization, and his excellent taste in music. 3. The New World: Malick’s creation is one of my favorites from this year. It has all of the lyrical quality I’ve come to expect from him, but this one offers a subtle critique of the Eden presented early in the film. It’s almost as if the film grows from adolescent to adult before our eyes. 4. Look at Me: Co-Writer/Director/Star Agnès Jaoui has improved upon her debut, The Taste of Others. She has a way of taking a pretty standard story and giving it great dialogue, an emotional core, and the subtlest of pointers toward what might be a better way of being. 5. Howl’s Moving Castle: Miyazaki’s glorious film, which is visually so inventive and interesting that I can’t help but include it here. And yet another heroine for us to connect with. 6. Capote: Subtle and conflicted, with a standout performance by Phillip Seymour Hoffmann, long a favorite of mine. The rest of the acting is top-notch, and I especially appreciate director Bennett Miller’s willingness to give the film a more meditative quality.
Other 2005 Films I Enjoyed: Up and Down; Broken Flowers; 2046; Good Night, And Good Luck
Still to See: L’Enfant, Caché, Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow, The Best of Youth, The Wayward Cloud, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Tristram Shandy, Hell, Hawaii Oslo, Tony Takatani, The World, Grizzly Man, The White Diamond, Duma, 3-Iron, Me and You and Everyone We Know, L’Intrus, The Squid and the Whale, Wallace and Gromit, A History of Violence, Syriana, Munich…
Older Films I Loved: 15. Close-Up (1990): Kiarostami’s half drama, half documentary. The interplay here between truth and reality was fascinating, though the director wisely keeps us connected with the central character. 14. More Miyazaki [Nausicaä (1984)/Porco Rosso (1992)]: I finally caught up with these older works of my favorite animator. I loved in ingenuity of Nausicaa, and the central characters in Porco Rosso. 13. The Flowers of St. Francis (1950): Beautiful, strange, funny, and heartfelt. Simple faith on display. 12. All or Nothing (2002): Mike Leigh at his best, intimate family drama. Wonderful stuff. 11. Sanjuro (1962): Maybe the funniest Kurosawa film I’ve seen, not to mention clever, and Mifune at the height of his powers. 10. The Searchers (1956): John Ford and John Wayne, maybe the best Western I’ve ever seen. 9. The films of the Dardennes [La Promesse (1996)/Rosetta (1999)]: Caught up with some of their earlier work, which is wonderfully rewarding, especially Rosetta. I’m still waiting for a chance to see their newest effort, L’Enfant. 8. Time of the Wolf (2004): Disturbing, (mostly) restrained apocalyptic vision from director Michael Haneke. 7. A Renewal of My Appreciation for Alfred Hitchcock [The Wrong Man (1956)/The Birds (1963)/The 39 Steps (1935)]: Caught a few of his films this year, and these were all wonderful. I’m learning to love the power of suggesting inherent in his films. 6. More Ingmar Bergman [Fanny and Alexander (1982)/The Virgin Spring (1960)/Scenes from a Marriage (1973)/Persona (1967)]: I especially connected with the first couple here, though I appreciate all of them on different levels. 5. Stalker (1979): Having seen most of Tarkovsky’s work once, this is the one I connected with most on a first viewing. I was mesmerized all the way through. The rest of his work is in need of another go around. 4. The Films of Tsai Ming-liang [Rebels of the Neon God (1992)/What Time is it There? (2000)/The Skywalk is Gone (2002)/Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003)]: I’m guessing Tsai’s films are going to become even more significant for me in the years to come. The meditative pace is refreshing, and Tsai seems to have his finger on where modern society is or is headed. Looking forward to seeing his other stuff – Vive L’Amour is next. 3. The Apu Trilogy [Pather Panchali (1955)/Aparajito (1957)/The World of Apu (1959)]: Beautiful series of films from the late Satyajit Ray following the life of Apu, from boyhood, through adolescence, to adulthood. Sensitive, moving stuff. 2. Late Spring (1949): Just saw this film from Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu. It’s such a beautiful portrayal of family, getting older, and post-WWII life in Japan. The complexity of the emotional content snuck up on me as I neared the end. Wonderful. 1. Werckmeister Harmonies (2000): This is another of those disturbing apocalyptic visions, but is filmed in stunning black and white. The music sets the tone for what really amounts to film as poetry for director Bela Tarr. It’s enigmatic, troubling, and wondrous. One of the best films I’ve seen in the last several years.
Other Older Films I Enjoyed (in no particular order): The Twilight Samurai (2002); The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926); Gertrud (1964); The Great Dictator (1940); Cool Hand Luke (1967); Buffalo ’66 (1998); Control Room (2004); The Lost Weekend (1945); Dersu Uzala (1974); Days of Heaven (1978); Open City (1946); At Five in the Afternoon (2003); The Elephant Man (1980); Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989); Sansho the Bailiff (1954); Metropolitan (1990); The Celebration (1998), Born Into Brothels (2004), Intimate Strangers (2004)