Better late than never, I suppose…
Ten years of cinema is quite a bit to ponder at once, so perhaps I should’ve started earlier. Narrowing it down to a definitive twenty “best films” seemed like a frivolous effort at this point, especially since any number of equally slanted, questionable and Slumdog Millionaire-touting lists already exist on the web and in print.
In the end I simply decided to comment on a sampling of twenty-or-so that I personally found more memorable, unique and compelling than most other offerings, both big and small in scale. So, without further ado:
Oldboy [Oldeuboi] (South Korea, 2003) – This decade saw a stateside craze over many emerging horror, thriller, sci-fi and exploitation films from Asia. Finding popularity in both theaters and through home media (largely due to distributor Tartan, who coined the “Asia Extreme” moniker now so widely used), they also gave way to many an unfortunate remake and wannabe. One film recently spared of its long-discussed American remake (the Spielberg/Will Smith project was, thankfully, abandoned late last year) is Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy. Divergent from the steady stream of supernaturally themed imports, it’s the second film in Chan-wook’s “Vengeance Trilogy”—a manga-based, tragedian revenge flick: dark, bloody, perverse and a little bit nutty. Its comic book histrionics aren’t always successful, but moments like the devouring of a live octopus, and the notorious seventeen-against-one corridor brawl (captured in a long take lasting over two-and-a-half minutes) teem with a brutal vitality more memorable than most films of the recent Asian invasion.
The Royal Tenenbaums (USA, 2001) – Wes Anderson’s Salinger-esque dysfunctional family history (along with his previous Rushmore) may have largely influenced the quirky hipster formalism oozing from so many indies (and currently marketable studio indies) that followed. Yet few recent films of a similar ilk seem to fully match the auteurish eloquence found in Anderson’s third feature, a unique and urbane display of many of the filmmaker’s continuing fascinations: precocious failures, minutia, exotic travel, natural sciences, high and low art, literature, pop rock of the 60s and 70s, cinephilia. With an Oscar-, BAFTA-, and WGA-nominated screenplay (co-written by frequent collaborator Owen Wilson), Tenenbaums is perhaps the best crafted, most complete-feeling work Anderson has made all decade.
Elephant (USA, 2003) – As one of the first films in its aftermath to depict a Columbine High School-style massacre, I found Elephant’s atypical, hypnotically foreboding narrative unexpected and unforgettable. Van Sant’s approach also came as a surprise since the most recent of his works I had seen upon Elephant‘s release were two uncharacteristically hammy, feel-good projects (Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester) and his perplexingly unnecessary shot-for-shot, color remake of Psycho. One thing Van Sant may have indirectly gleaned from Hitchcock however, was Hitch’s belief that “if you want to be universal, you have to be specific.” Van Sant uses prolonged tracking shots (borrowed from English director Alan Clark’s own similarly themed short Elephant), and combines them with the techniques of parallel storytelling trademarked by Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr (in which chronologically overlapping events unfold from various points of view). In a portentous panorama, viewers are forced to roam the halls in real time with an ad-libbing, largely amateur cast of teenage archetypes, mundane and completely unaware of the startling events to follow. The result is both heartbreaking and provocative.
Bronson (UK, 2008) – Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn is best known for his Pusher trilogy, bleak dramas that explore different tiers of Copenhagen’s criminal underworld. The eponymous anti-hero of his recent Bronson is a similarly disreputable fellow. Based on Great Britain’s “most violent prisoner,” the film is an unconventional biopic of notorious inmate Michael Gordon Peterson (nicknamed Charles “Charlie” Bronson). A considerable departure from the Pusher trilogy in tone and style, Bronson more closely echoes the celebratory cynicism and satirical artifice of A Clockwork Orange, whose plot is also referenced. Peterson’s first-person narration is rendered in an interesting choice of voice-over, onstage theatrical interludes to an indeterminate audience, and direct address to the viewer. These devices, along with some pretty inspired soundtrack cuts, create a cartoonish surreality and viewer fondness for the dubious protagonist. But it’s above all the runaway bravado of Tom Hardy’s title performance that is the film’s most revelatory achievement. Hardy inhabits the character with an iconoclastic, unpredictable charm as perfectly as the young Malcolm McDowell’s Alex in A Clockwork Orange.
49 Up (UK, 2005) – In spite of what has comprised reality television in the 2000s, many of its fundamentals date back to the late 40s with Allen Funt’s Candid Camera, and the new game shows of the 50s. In the 60s Michael Apted created the Up Series, a human interest program that has spanned almost six decades and ranks among the most engrossing and historically significant of documentary projects. Beginning with 1964’s Seven Up! and revisited every seven years thereafter, fourteen British children (starting at age seven) from different socio-economic backgrounds have agreed to have their respective, sometimes intersecting lives indefinitely examined, chronicled and publicized. Now middle-aged adults, each installment of their collected, ongoing life experiences has included its share of successes, failures and unexpected detours. Equally interesting however, is the recently revealed hostility towards the filmmaker—and his continued probing—by subjects who have come to regret their involvement in such an invasive, long-term project.
Brand Upon the Brain / The Heart of the World (USA and Canada, 2006 / Canada, 2000) – “The past, the past, into the past!” Guy Maddin’s films are funny, frenzied pastiches of grainy silent- and early sound-era aesthetics, melodrama conventions, ersatz autobiography and self-conscious, Freudian neuroses. Indeed three of his features are full-blown silent films, featuring a musical score and onscreen intertitles in lieu of actual recorded dialogue. The first of these was a presentation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, as adapted and performed by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. With his more recent Brand Upon the Brain, the ever peculiar Maddin extended this intersection between film and live performance another dimension: its theatrical screenings were accompanied by an eleven-piece orchestra, a five-piece foley troupe, one castrato and a guest narrator (from a long and impressively varied list). I was able to attend one of four Chicago screenings at the befittingly historic (and befittingly haunted!) Music Box Theatre, narrated with freakish glee by Crispin Glover—an experience of cinematic and sensory resplendence I won’t soon forget. However it’s Maddin’s six-minute short, The Heart of the World, that arguably remains his work of finest éclat; essential viewing for any modern cinephile.
Hannah Takes the Stairs (USA, 2007) – A new, fashionably unfashionable and critically divisive genre, mumblecore often echoes the DIY spirit of the Nouvelle Vague and the work of such early American independents as Jarmusch and Linklater. Its 21st-century inception and evolution is largely linked to the decade’s increased accessibility of digital filmmaking equipment and editing software, and the recent paradigm shift in independent film distribution (which is itself tied to the Web 2.0 explosion of user-uploaded content and social networking). Joe Swanberg is one of the earliest and most prolific filmmakers associated with the movement. A provocateur from the get-go, his feature debut includes a now notorious, unsimulated onscreen cumshot delivered by the director himself, while his ongoing web series, Young American Bodies, follows an ensemble cast in an array of intercourse-laden urban romances. Less concerned with candid sexuality, Swanberg’s breakthrough feature, Hanna Takes the Stairs, is an unpretentious and charming comedy of manners; a collaborative and largely improvised piece concerning a young production intern and her revolving door courtships with three men in her radius. Mumblecore muse Greta Gerwig delivers her quintessential performance as Hannah, a cute and clever coquette that—despite her fickleness and neuroses—has a palpable charisma that is difficult to resist. The film is as poignant in its improvised depiction of twenty-something, post-collegiate capriciousness as it is in its many moments of uncomfortable silences and awkward non sequiturs.
The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief (UK, 2006) – Destination, Stylish Café Rakkyo: a male host club in the Minami district of Osaka, Japan. Part of the city’s Mizu shōbai (“water trade,” or the nighttime entertainment industry), Café Rakkyo is allegedly the number one club of its type. Owned by Osaka’s top host (think a Japanese version of The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas, see?), the twenty-two-year-old Issei, and several other attractive young hosts—cartoonishly made over in androgynous glam couture—sell many willing young women their “dreams” and provide emotional “healing.” Their services can cost hundreds to several thousand dollars an evening. Jake Clennell’s documentary explores a small slice of underground culture, and how it serves (and even further, what it demands from) the young, wealthy and profoundly lonely. Including surprisingly intimate interviews with both the hosts and their clients, and footage from the club’s raucous all-nighters, the film is an at once fascinating, otherworldly, oft-humorous yet abysmally throwing experience. Despite some disturbing insight from the interviewees early on, the most unexpected and morally baffling revelations come later in the film. The high-priced escort psychology of Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience seems quite shallow by comparison.
Inside [À l'intérieur] (France, 2007) – Despite showing more promise over the current and more popular (but mostly lame) American torture porn films, the new wave of French horror has unfortunately proven to be a bit of a mixed bag itself. Yet my general disappointment in the lot of their offerings is easily abated by the singular existence of Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo’s Inside, arguably the best horror film of the decade; one that I haven’t stopped thinking about all year. In the wake of an auto accident that killed her husband months earlier, a pregnant young woman named Sarah is home alone on Christmas Eve. Still grieving, she also awaits the delivery of her unborn child the very next day. Roused later that evening by an unexpected knock at her door, Sarah encounters an unfamiliar voice waiting impatiently on the other side. The voice claims to know Sarah, and demands to be let “inside”. What follows is genuinely shocking and unmatched in its cruelty, extremely gory without feeling unnecessarily exploitative. Working in a few clever, plot-functional references to classics like Blow Up, Rear Window and Aliens, the first time filmmakers don’t try to reinvent the genre. However they remain notably aware that, despite the impressive mileage they get out of that big, impossibly sharp pair of scissors, even a full-scale splatterfest still benefits from artful pacing and halfway developed characters.
The Taste of Tea [Cha no aji] (Japan, 2004) – At one point in animator and filmmaker Katsuhito Ishii’s third live-action feature, a teenage boy describes the jingle that his mother, uncle and grandfather studio-recorded: “It’s more cool than weird, and it stays in your head.” Using this line to describe the rare and memorable film itself would only be half accurate. The Taste of Tea is, perhaps above all other descriptors, a work of remarkably pervading weirdness. Its uncontrived, almost matter-of-fact offbeat nature will likely resonate with anyone who’s ever felt the slightest bit abnormal. Moreover, the film is a thoroughly charming, hilarious and touching experience. With hints of Ozu minus the melancholy, the film follows the ongoing experiences of the Harunos, an extended family of six residing in a beautiful, idyllic prefecture just outside of Tokyo. Structured as loosely related vignettes, the Harunos (both individually and as a family) manage to observe, participate in and create a series of offbeat and magical realist occurrences, in spite of their quiet and meditative environs. The awkward and lovesick teenage son, Hajime, is a frequent witness to the wildly dysfunctional relationships of adult strangers, while his introspective younger sister, Sachiko, is haunted by a giant doppelgänger that only she can see (at one point their cool, young uncle also recalls his own boyhood experience involving a yakuza ghost, who would inexplicably appear with a fresh turd resting on his head). The hypnotherapist father and manga animator mother manage to be a grounded and less quirky pair, especially compared to the grandpa, Akira, a lively virtuoso of impromptu nonsensical acts (singing an ode to his bath water, striking manga battle poses). A rewarding, lovingly handled family portrait.