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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What Time Is It There? (2001)

The film opens with a medium shot inside a small home, which could be mistaken for a photograph were it not for an old man slowly moving up and down the hallway between his dining room, his kitchen, and his son’s bedroom. He has prepared a meal, and as it sits hot on the table, he calls out for his son, presumably to come and eat. He receives no answer, so he moves beyond the kitchen, onto the patio, and after moving a plant, he gazes out beyond the house.Next comes an immediate cut to his son, Hsaio-kang (Lee Kang-sheng) holding an urn, on his way to bury his father’s ashes. The cut between these two scenes is abrupt, creating a jarring sense of disillusionment that serves this moment of vulnerability well. The father’s gaze has gone unmet, and in this single cut, already there is a palpable sense of loss and guilt over things unsaid. The meaning is created through these scenes occurring one right after the other. Nothing much happens in either scene, yet when brought into contact with one another, the significance of each begins to become apparent.

What Time Is It There?, by director Tsai Ming-Liang is full of these strange juxtapositions, as the edits between scenes create both discontinuity and synchronicity. The scenes themselves contain little dialogue (and sometimes none at all). Often, not much of consequence seems to occur in any single scene. The acting is mostly nondescript, with the character of Mother (Lu Yi-Ching) getting the most opportunity to emote. All of this reminds me of the Bresson films I have seen, especially Au hasard Balthazar.

The story itself is rather simple. After Hsaio-kang’s father dies, he meets a woman, Shiang-chyi (Chen Shiang-chyi) while selling watches as a street vendor. She wants to buy his own watch, which he eventually agrees to, and then she treks off to Paris. Yet in his fragile state, his memory of her is strong, and he finds himself thinking about her quite often. He starts trying to track down French films, and eventually begins resetting clocks he sees to Paris time. She too longs for connection, sitting in a crowded French café alone, listening to her upstairs neighbors walk through their apartment, and so on. Hsaio-kang’s mother also suffers from loneliness, wanting nothing more than to welcome her husband home in his reincarnated body. This film is about going on a journey with these people in exploring certain aspects of the human experience. It is a glorious and beautiful trip, that concludes with a scene of such simplicity and beauty that I find deeply affecting, even if I am not sure what it all means.

A couple of other observations: After the first couple of scenes, as I settled in for long static shots, with little movement and dialogue, I was pleasantly surprised by the liberal use of comedy throughout the film. Often, comedic scenes involve characters going in one direction and for some reason, immediately turning around and going back the way they came. Hsaio-kang creeping into his hallway, or Shiang-chyi following a stranger on her way home come to mind as examples of this.

Second, it seems Tsai is especially concerned with the bodies and the physicality of his characters. It often feels as if the shot is pushing us to look closely at the actors. The nondescript acting and static shots no doubt encourage this phenomenon. I think here of Shiang-chyi’s brief friendship with the woman in Paris (Cecilia Yip). In one scene, Shiang-chyi simply looks at this woman as she moves ever closer to her. Yet the camera is firmly on Shiang-chyi’s face, and we are invited to look at her, to invest some thought and imagination as to what she might be thinking and feeling at that moment. This is a kind of filmmaking that challenges the viewer to engage what they see on the screen. I look forward to seeing more of Tsai’s films.