End of the Decade: Alien Nation 

Notes on unseen masterpieces, great performances, and movies as a form of solitary confinement

Wednesday, Dec 9 2009

Editor’s note: The first in a series of essays looking back at the films and filmmakers of the past decade.


What happened at the movies in the 2000s? There must be thousands of ways of answering that question, and I’m not sure how many of them are cheerful. On the one hand, there was a retreat from the theatrical experience of film that I hate and regret — yet I know I betray my stance every week, by watching so much on the small screen, at home and nearly always alone. That trend can only accelerate in the next 10 years. As I write, it is being announced that Comcast (a cable provider) is buying what remains of Universal. In 10 years’ time, will new movies go straight to on-demand television?

click to enlarge The Piano Teacher
  • The Piano Teacher

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On the other hand, I have been unable to be anyone but myself in the last 10 years, and as I look back, I recall the occasions on which I have been deeply moved by small, modest, humane, novelistic movies which still had an immense reach. I am ready for that kind of thing, in part because I had promised myself at this age to try to write more fiction. So I rejoice at the last 10 years and especially at the profusion of female characters who seemed to stimulate my own hope of writing. This is very personal, of course, and it has to admit the virtual absence of big mainstream events — great entertainments — that might renew our link with the tradition of the movies. You can’t have everything. So there’s a handful of small movies I want to propose and suggest you see. I find that too few people have seen many of them.

For instance, the other day at a table of film buffs, I was the only one who had seen Jonathan Glazer’s Birth, and thus the only one who believed it is a masterpiece. Yes, of course, I am vulnerable here, for it is a Nicole Kidman film (and she is extraordinary in it) — and, because I wrote a whole book about her, I am sometimes supposed to have gone senile. I can’t rule out the possibility, but senility is more interesting than you think, and Kidman is a great actress (when she settles for that), though in truth, the best female performance in Birth — the most mysterious — is that of Anne Heche. Anyway, see it: It’s about a woman whose husband dies. Ten years later, she agrees to marry another man. But at the engagement party, a 10-year-old boy appears. He tells her he is her husband. Take it from there.

Talking of the debilitated mind, I’d like to recommend Away From Her, the first film by the young Canadian Sarah Polley, in which Julie Christie plays a woman in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Not a pretty subject and such a pretty woman. This also gives me the chance to say that I think Sarah Polley is one of the best things of the last 10 years. I hope she will continue to direct. But don’t stop acting, when the acting is as good as she manages in My Life Without Me and The Secret Life of Words (both directed by Isabel Coixet, who also did Elegy).

Another actress I have taken to tracking — in the nicest way — is Samantha Morton. I know she has many fans, but one of her best works may have escaped you, because it was an HBO movie. It is Tom Hooper’s Longford, the story of the odd friendship that developed between Lord Longford (Jim Broadbent), an eccentric do-gooder, and Myra Hindley (Morton), one of the most noxious criminals Britain has ever produced. It’s a brilliant, unnerving film, the best thing Peter Morgan has written, and not just for Morton. Andy Serkis is hideous as her partner in crime, Broadbent is painfully human and humane.

Let me celebrate actors, too: There are two men who, it seems to me, have cast aside doubts and mannerisms in the last 10 years and come into richer life and playing. First is Frank Langella, so awkward for so long, but now so brilliant that hardly anyone noticed. I loved his Nixon; I even reveled in his gentleman caller in the very silly The Box. But in Andrew Wagner’s Starting Out in the Evening, he plays an elderly midlist novelist (I’m a sucker for this) who is surprised late in life by a young woman. You want to see more from Mr. Wagner, and you want to see Langella in the great parts his seniority deserves.

The other actor I have only lately come to relish is Tommy Lee Jones. For years, it seemed to me, he settled for being a bit of a bully and a shouter. Well, he has felt the sadness of the world now and he is more hushed. We saw this in No Country for Old Men, but the film I really enjoy is one that Jones also directed, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, which is a little bit like a Peckinpah film redone by William Trevor. Well, try it.

I hope, early in 2010, on the IFC network, you will watch the trilogy of English films with the collective title Red Riding. These come from novels by David Peace, and they are the story of a serial killer and the serial brutality of the local police. It is as good as anything I saw in the 2000s, and the trilogy includes some remarkable acting.

If you can find it, see Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, another trilogy of films about the same characters (all from books by Patrick Hamilton), directed by Simon Curtis, one of the best new directors around. These stories are set in the ’30s and they use a color scheme that often seems black-and-white — have you noticed this happening with color movies?

What rates for me as the movie of the decade? Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, with Isabelle Huppert, from the Elfriede Jelinek novel. Impossible to be comfortable with it, but impossible to forget it. Yes, I know, cinema is dying (for the second or third time), but these great experiences do not stop. So recently, our movies were great public parties, and now they are like the gestures of a resistance movement — for America is occupied by aliens.

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