THE DECADE IN REVIEW:
2000-2009, VOLUME I
Ten years ago I was at a real turning point in my life. I was in my last year of college. I got out of a relationship and started seeing the girl who would become my wife. I moved four times in one year but ultimately made New York my permanent home. In the time since, I've become a first-time filmmaker (pending project completion), a father, and a staff writer for this wonderful website. I also managed to see somewhere between three and four thousand movies, at least a third of them new releases, which both informed my list of accomplishments and probably played a hand in them being less impressive than they should have been. Looking back, I make no excuses. And in retrospect it seems like 2000-2009 made for a particularly strong movie decade, although not without its disappointments. Some years (2003, 2005, 2008) were notable highlights. Others (2006, 2007, 2009) not so much. But I found things to love in the good films and the bad. I decided to celebrate the last ten years with a look back highlighting my 50 favorite movies - and recognizing others for various achievements. In this monthly column, I will re-watch and jot down a few thoughts on 5 of those 50 films. This "Best of the Decade" list is in no particular order, except the last two entries, which will focus on my personal Top 10.
I apologize that it took me a while to get started on this. I had a great time writing a "Best of the Decade... So Far" list in 2005, in which I picked 50 of the best movies from the first six years of the decade, and planned an ultimate "Best of the Decade" list for the beginning of this year, but to be honest then every film writer in the world got the same idea. I started to get tired of "decade's best" lists and considered canceling my own project because of them. But ultimately I love this kind of thing, and it was a lot of fun to revisit these titles and take something new from them. Ok, let's get started...
BEST OF THE DECADE: VOLUME I
The Gleaners and I.
(2000, Agnčs Varda)
I'm forced to suspect the moment where Agnčs Varda stops at a flea market and just happens to find the painting of the women gleaning in the fields that led her to this project in the first place. Did she really just happen upon the painting, completely by chance? Surely its discovery was staged by the director? But the reason I question it is that Varda herself questions it, insisting that it was no movie trick or documentary set-up but a kind of miraculous instance of kismet in the middle of her kind of miraculous film that starts with such a broad and abstract topic and somehow finds an indelible connection between her subjects that scales it all down to something identifiable. And there's really no difference between her happening upon the painting and the force that leads her from one person to another, in Paris and the French countryside, whose treasures are everybody else's trash.
There's arguably never been as authentic a connection between documentarian and subject as with Varda and her gleaners, the way she gets them to open up after initial embarrassment over their habit has passed and seem to realize for the first time what it means in the larger scale of their life. What she herself gleans from them is no less a universal theme than what we want and what we need and how the materials of the world, natural and manufactured, are used. She explores the sanctioning of mass waste and the reinterpretation of discarded products, creating parallels between the people who throw away and the ones who pick up. The difference comes down to what these items mean to them. Is there less significance to a potato somebody eats than the heart-shaped spud Varda finds in a field? Are the chucked vegetables of a giant rubbish heap the population of a trailer park rely on to survive more vital than the handless clock Varda happens upon in a flea market that she simply has to have? Is there a difference between the people shown in her film and Varda herself, gleaning the gleaners for her own elegant patchwork of images? Like Chris Marker, she relates what's interesting about her subjects to what she herself finds interesting, thus gleaning and filmmaking become synonymous; the disposable becomes indisposable. Her essay of images make up, as collage artist Louis Pons describes the process of gleaning, "a cluster of possibilities."
The Piano Teacher.
(2001, Michael Haneke)
Sometimes I think film writers mistake Michael Haneke for his characters...then I realize those writers actually misunderstand the characters themselves. Just like Benoît Magimel's Walter Klemmer, they misunderstand Erika Kohut, a character who is popularly pegged as a cold, emotionless, perverted victim-cum-victimizer. She is really une femme pičge, desperately trying to tear herself from her own life when her self-imposed facade becomes impossible to maintain. There wasn't another movie this decade as concentrated on its central character - I'd say at least 1/3rd of the shots are close-ups of Isabelle Huppert's face. As Chris pointed out in his excellent summary of the film's final scene, the movie seems to hinge on its lead actress' expressivity, or rather the regard she emits for the things around her. What is most prominent around her is music, its uncompromising demand for perfection which creates in her a punishing exigency. Consider this the opposite of uplifting films about music - how it positively effects and transcends - being instead about music's crushing hold and unbearable intimacy. The attempt to find a way to tap into its beauty and not be consumed by it is what she admires in Schubert, the great master (an Austrian, like Haneke) who conveyed suffering through his work. Erika learns how to suffer, and in doing so how to exist outside herself. What is significant in the final scene is the gesture of her not entering the venue and denying herself the music within, the knife itself becoming almost an imagined symbol. Discovering pain is her escape, and after mauling her pupil - undeserving of the music or the beautiful young man Erika has fallen in love with - she has turned the reparation against herself. "It's being aware of what it means to lose oneself before being completely abandoned," she describes the ideal emotion of playing the piano.
The character's sadomasicism comes from her natural instinct to control trying to relinquish that control. There's a reason the first sexual contact between she and Walter Klemmer takes place in a bathroom, the place where control and loss of control is most casual and consistent. Haneke approaches this theme with remarkable cinematic verve, from the great shot inside the elevator after Erika has denied Walter entry and he keeps up with her by running up the stairs (catching her at every floor on the way) to Erika fleeing through a door to escape humiliation onto the overwhelming white of an ice rink, an unstable floor of dearth. Haneke and Huppert have both called the film "a parody of melodrama" which I don't like myself (although recently I've realized the word "melodrama" comes with the loosest of definitions), but if that's simply a reference to the extreme shifting of power - particularly in scenes with Huppert and Susanne Lothar's overbearing mother - and the film's slant on goofy seduction the term fits. It was certainly an incredible decade for the director, and this was a significant achievement.
(2002, György Pálfi)
Think of it as a Carpathian Slacker... one with a lot less dialogue*. It opens with a new morning and continues into the night and the following day. One character follows another - no names are given, the reason the camera is following them is oblique. Different parts of the town they occupy are revealed, and a larger picture begins to take shape. In Linklater's feature debut we had a Madonna pap smear. In Pálfi's, characters and creatures eating and being eaten in a progression of nature that owes its visual inventiveness to Svankmajer and thematic montage to the naturalism of Central European and Russian cinema harking back to the days of Dovzhenko (the geography of the village as realized by its inhabitants he owes to fellow Hungarian Bela Tarr... and, yeah, Richard Linklater.)
The film itself is a mystery, a scattering of scenes with characters whose voices have been taken away by the filmmaker; all the better to lessen the distraction to the director's meticulous sound design and editing. Pálfi's camera is one of limitless freedom, following a ill-fated mole burrowing underground, a fighter jet soaring overhead that plunges to earth to whip across a brook, a fishing line sinking into a tranquil scene underwater where a dead body rests undiscovered. It's the appearance of the latter that begins to bring pieces of the puzzle together. Is it connected to the death of the cat? Is there something in the paprikas? Are the ominous lyrics of the young girls' wedding song even more sinister than we know? The more we see, the more layers are removed from the surface like the sudden chest x-ray we're allowed of a man eating his meal. I saw a lot of films in the last ten years where the vulgarity of displaying the warts-and-all reality of non-actors became irresistible to the director, but here there's a humanism reached through connecting them all to each other and their environment. One leads to the next, and one more part of the experimental narrative is linked to that which has come before. Though avoiding the outright absurdism and grotesqueness of his follow-up film Taxidermia, Pálfi's exciting debut never fails to provoke.
* That's something Hukkle shares with It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books.
Memories of Murder.
(2003, Bong Joon-ho)
In the opening shot of Bong Joon-ho's masterwork of a police procedural, a child in a reed field sneaks up on a cricket and captures it between two fingers. If this seems an obvious foreshadowing of the terrifying ease with which a serial killer will later pluck passing victims off the road from his hiding place in the tall grass, it's doubly a contrast to the police's futile attempts to capture the murderer. Because while the thriller side of the film is expertly handled (the first attack has all the suspense of the classic scene of the young girl stalked by an escaped jungle cat in The Leopard Man), its main concern is the artifice and frustration involved with criminal investigation. Personified by Song Kang-ho's selfless performance as the worst kind of cop whose underhanded techniques give in to actual policework under the influence of meticulous city officer Kim Sang-kyung, Bong's deconstruction of why an investigation falls apart, how crime scenes are contaminated and the wrong people arrested, is weighed against the awful leisure of committing murder and getting away with it. The killer is never clearly shown, so expert his ability to materialize and disappear as if abeted by nature itself, carrying off his targets who, tressed up with their legs bound at the knee, kind of resemble human crickets. And the cops have their own victims, particularly the poor retarded kid they torment with accusations and torture ("I beat you because I care for you," the sadistic interrogator assures him.) But Bong's world isn't one of predators and prey so much as it is one of the powerful and the powerless; any kind of resolution is going to elude those who demand it, only the ruthlessly heedless will be rewarded.
So much can be appreciated visually in the film. The killer's compulsion and the cops' obsession with stopping him are correlated through Bong's carefully laid motifs: the slipper goes over the foot that's later amputated - a casualty of the investigator's obsessive search - just as the panties go over the head of the victims. The sense of injustice as Kim watches the band aid being pulled off the schoolgirl's body, or of humanity when Song looks at his prime suspect after saving him from Kim's frustrated vengeance and asks "Do you get up each morning too?" are unforgettable moments. And no movie this decade offered such tranquil bookends as Song approaching the drainpipe in the field and peering into it on either end of 15 years, the disquieting presence of a child in both instances, what he does and does not find - and how the memories have changed him.
(2004, Lucile Hadzihalilovic)
New girls arrive in tiny coffins. Color-specific ribbons are assigned based on age. Older students disappear in the evenings for some sort of shady activity overseen by the two mysterious headmistresses. Released the same year as M. Night Shyamalan's The Village, Lucile Hadzihalilovic's parable of (literally) innocence, sequestered and nourished in a surreal compound fenced off from any semblance of society, is a much better presentation of intangible fear set in a tenebrous utopian prison. This is a different kind of Wonderland, sepulchral and hermetic, tinged with dread yet innocuously nourishing. There are odd noises in the woods; students are warned to stay on the path - in the best tradition of European fables, the allegoric and the symbolic come from nature, with immersion in water being a particular recurrence. These elements surround the students like something that is fully grown and unfluctuating guarding over that which is fragile and credulous: a stone wall that seems to have seeped out of the ground, trees so encompassing it's sometimes hard to know whether it's day or night.
The film's tendency towards expressionism harvests the same kind of romantic darkness from Wedekind's original novella as Pabst did adapting the writer's play Pandora's Box, and like that silent classic often wordlessly relates that obscure vulnerability of youth. Allegations of under-aged salaciousness against the film aren't entirely unjustified - this is probably the closest we'll probably ever get to a Vivian Girls movie - but the girls' introduction to the mysteries and dangers of sexuality in the setting of a school is treated with no less latency than in Picnic at Hanging Rock and Suspiria, two masterpieces the film resembles visually and thematically (considering the abundance of natural locations and presence of the ballet teacher, I doubt it's accidental.) Moving them uniformly through the discovery of friendship and jealousy, from naivete to maturity, Hadzihalilovic clearly sets herself in a position to commiserate with rather than torment her characters, making this a rare case of a female auteur successfully depicting blossoming womanhood (sorry, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.) With its dark, fantastic visuals - paths lit by suspended lights, the haunting image of a flooded rowboat - beautifully lit by Benoît Debie, the film feels as timeless as its enigmatic setting.
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