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Panic, Despair and Revolution 

Yet from industry turmoil, great films arose

Wednesday, Dec 30 2009
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Or maybe that’s just how it felt if you happened to be working in the newspaper business.

Speaking of which, as print journalism came to seem ever more an ossified appendage of a dying civilization, with the Internet and blogosphere steering the course of public thought, the phrase “everybody’s a critic” evolved from folk wisdom into a veritable axiom. In new and old media alike, considered opinions were discounted in favor of populist enthusiasms, much of them expressed by pundits who assumed that anything they didn’t know wasn’t much worth knowing. Ironically, the Internet simultaneously became a haven for some of the best and most intelligent political and cultural writing out there, even if those voices often seemed to be in conversation primarily with themselves. All of which is a roundabout way of saying that a number of the films mentioned here and on the accompanying “best of decade” list will be alien quantities to many readers, and perhaps for that reason held in suspect regard. Some were little exhibited outside of a few major cities, and little seen in those engagements. Others were hardly discussed in the mainstream press, except to be debunked as the pet causes of a few elitist intellectuals. Those factors alone should serve neither as proof of their worth nor grounds for their dismissal. But at the end of the ’00s, there appeared a widening chasm between those given to dismissing the challenging and the unknown out of hand, and those equally unwilling to engage with anything that carried a whiff of the popular.

Indeed, many of the decade’s standout achievements hailed from the margins, where the most fruitful adopters of the new technologies saw, in digital, the possibility to create highly personalized objects that pushed the collaborative art of movies closer to the solo expression of painting or poetry. That was certainly true of David Lynch’s deeply interior Inland Empire, a self-distributed magnum opus that began life as a series of disconnected shorts, gradually taking shape in Lynch’s mind the way a sculptor might chisel away at a block of marble until he has found what he hoped to reveal.

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Similarly, after making several conventionally produced films in the 1990s, the Portuguese renaissance man Pedro Costa decided to go it alone for In Vanda’s Room, a three-hour immersion into the life of a methadone addict living in a Lisbon housing slum that was a landmark in the new cine-minimalism and the further blurring of the line between documentary and fiction. (It was also hardly the decade’s only epic one-woman show, bookended in 2008 by director Wang Bing’s Fengming: A Chinese Memoir, which spends an equal amount of time in the presence of an elderly Chinese widow whose life story becomes a microcosm of the entire 20th-century history of her country.)

Back in Hollywood, directors like David Fincher (Zodiac) and Michael Mann (Public Enemies) employed the full bandwidth of the digital paint box to tell period crime stories in which the CGI enhancements were all but invisible to the naked eye. Always a solitary figure, the landscape artist James Benning also bid adieu to his beloved 16mm with two lyrical portraits of the American West (RR and Casting a Glance), before pushing the digital pedal to the metal in Ruhr, which features a single, 60-minute time-lapse shot that would have been inconceivable using analog technology. Ironically, the decade’s most accomplished new, young filmmakers, including Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Mexico’s Carlos Reygadas and Argentina’s Lisandro Alonso, favored working on old-fashioned celluloid. Eh, kids today.

Nowhere, however, were all of the decade’s irreconcilabilities — art versus technology, IMAX versus iPod, passive spectatorship versus active participation — encapsulated more succinctly than by James Cameron’s Avatar. As personal a work of auteur cinema as Inland Empire, no matter the quarter-billion-dollar price tag, it gave us a protagonist who, like the cinema viewer himself, slips on an alternate skin and hurtles through a parallel reality, until the lights come up and he returns from the waking dream. But in the final moments of Cameron’s film, which arrived at the eleventh hour of this last year of the decade, the man merges with the medium, permanently reborn in his avatar body, his blue eyes opening wide and filling the giant screen. What he sees may well be the future of movies. Long live the new flesh.

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