By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
In Vanda’s Room(2000). A breakthrough for Portugal’s Pedro Costa on par with Jackson Pollock’s discovery of abstract expressionism. Filming alone over two years, entrenched in a Lisbon housing slum, Costa emerged with a masterpiece of stillness and patience — a movie of lives suspended in time, and that rare film about the underprivileged to treat its subjects with dignity rather than false compassion.
La Commune (Paris, 1871)(2000). At a key moment in Peter Watkins’ low-fi epic, he begins to draw parallels between the issues faced by the members of the commune — xenophobia, women’s rights, capitalist oppression — and those facing contemporary French (and global) society. He destroys the cinematic fourth wall, interviewing his own cast members — in costume but out of character — about the process of making the film and about how they might react given a similar rebellion today. And before long, he asks the same of us.
Platform(2000). The crowning achievement of the world’s most consistently exciting and original filmmaker, Jia Zhangke’s Platform traced two decades in the lives of a provincial music troupe from Jia’s hometown of Fenyang. As always in Jia’s work, politics invade the personal sphere, the optimistic lyrics of the troupe’s repertoire standing in sharp relief to the reality of their proletariat lives and the many false promises of the Cultural Revolution.
Yi Yi(2000). The late Edward Yang’s majestic study of three generations in a modern Taiwanese family, seen through the eyes (and the lens) of a boy photographer, who photographs the backs of people’s heads so as to show them that which they cannot see themselves. For those of us in the audience, Yang’s film does much the same.
Japón(2002). The prodigious talent of Mexican enfant terrible Carlos Reygadas was already on full display in this haunting opera prima — a succession of abstract, nearly wordless tableaux about a man brought back from the brink of a suicidal abyss by his odd romance with an elderly widow.
The Son(2002). Hard to pick just one by the Belgian brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, whose series of neo-neorealist postcards from the Belgian industrial town of Seraing qualify as one of contemporary cinema’s major bodies of work. In The Son, the life of an unassuming carpentry instructor (the brilliant Olivier Gourmet) is conveyed via unexplained fragments of grief, suffering and solitude — until those fragments begin to coalesce into an airtight drama of vengeful impulses at odds with fatherly benevolence.
Dogville(2003). As technology made it possible for filmmakers to work on bare “green screen” stages and insert all the particulars later, Lars von Trier turned back the clock by setting his starkly postmodern morality play on a bare stage with no CGI enhancements — just actors’ faces, shrouded in darkness and the weight of moral judgment.
Los Angeles Plays Itself(2003). CalArts instructor Thom Andersen’s exhaustive, acerbic essay film about how films shot in Los Angeles (mis)represent our fair city has enjoyed a clandestine existence due to copyright issues, but it ranks as a major work of contemporary film and social criticism — a movie that changes the way we think about movies.
Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks(2003). Before making Fengming: A Chinese Memoir, director Wang Bing burst onto the scene with this nine-hour nonfiction chronicle of a decaying factory town in Northeast China and the freight railway that runs through it. With Jia’s Platform, the definitive film about the competing forces of tradition and change in the People’s Republic.
Star Spangled to Death(2004). A half-century in the making, avant-garde image forager Ken Jacobs’ nearly seven-hour mixed-media diegesis was the decade’s key work about the buying, selling and selling-out of America.
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu(2005). Equal parts ER, Paddy Chayefsky and the “direct cinema” documentaries of Frederick Wiseman, Romanian director Cristi Puiu’s tale of a dying old man’s last night on Earth was an absurd and unbearably tragic human comedy — maybe the human comedy — about how we are so often alone in life but for the kindness of strangers. It is also the spark that ignited a national film renaissance that continues to this day.
Tropical Malady(2005). Before Avatar, there was this interspecies, enchanted-jungle romance from the Thai-born, Chicago-educated Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul, in which a forbidden passion sparks a retreat into a primal realm where the separations between man and beast fall away like water cascading off a leaf.
Inland Empire(2006). David Lynch’s homespun, self-promoted whatsit follows a faded Hollywood starlet (the amazing Laura Dern) on a hallucinatory, identity-shifting odyssey that begins on a studio soundstage, detours through Poland and maybe Pomona, and climaxes on Hollywood Boulevard. In between, Lynch spins a Tinseltown fable as dark and dissonant as any by Nathanael West or Horace McCoy, about how and why we are all drawn to that pulsating light, like moths to the flame and buzzards to the kill.
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