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Panic, Despair and Revolution

The Dark Knight

And so another year comes to an end, and with it a decade (Gregorian contrarians notwithstanding) in which the answer to the question “What is cinema?” underwent more radical transmutations than in any comparable period since the dawn of moving images.

There was panic on all fronts: production, distribution, exhibition, criticism. One minute, movies were being pronounced dead; the next, inexpensive digital technology was heralded as their savior and great democratizer.

“I think that the best writers really are the ones we came to know as the best writers over the past hundred years, but the best filmmakers are not necessarily the ones that we’ve come to know as the best ones of the century,” Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami told me in a 2001 interview — the year that he himself gave up working on film in favor of video. “Because of the requirements of the 35mm camera and the mode of production that comes with it, there were a lot of people who just couldn’t afford to use it,” he continued. “Now this digital camera makes it possible for everybody to pick it up, like a pen.”

True to Kiarostami’s words, the ’00s witnessed an explosion of microbudget filmmaking and new distribution platforms that gave voices to the heretofore voiceless — even if, as in the concurrent self-publishing revolution, it was highly debatable how many of them deserved to be heard.

The numbers indicated that more movies than ever — more than 600 annually — were making their way into U.S. cinemas, while Hollywood’s enthusiastic reports of record-setting box-office take, thanks to steep ticket prices, belied a flatline in attendance, and a steep decline in movies’ cultural currency. Although films of the past 10 years account for nearly three-quarters of the highest-grossing titles ever released domestically, when those numbers are adjusted for inflation only The Dark Knight, The Passion of the Christ and the Lord of the Rings trilogy seem like bona fide zeitgeist-altering phenomena.

At least you could still get a movie like The Dark Knight, with its comic book pedigree, made in a risk-averse, brand-conscious Hollywood, where serious dramas for adult audiences continued to go the way of the Western. Perhaps it is an inevitable side effect of the larger cultural tolerance of arrested adolescence, as also seen in the increasing numbers of ostensible grown-ups wearing pajamas in public, living at home past 30 and abetting the popularity of subliterate teen fiction.

Even a venerable institution like Clint Eastwood met with resistance from his longtime patron Warner Bros., which sent the septuagenarian director hat in hand to beg for international co-financing for his Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby, both of which went on to rank among his biggest earners. Indeed, Eastwood and his unapologetically low-tech portraits of American life then and now were the exception that proved the rule in a decade when elaborate fantasy (the stolen election, the foreign-born president, death panels, Avatar) regularly trumped reality at the box office and the newsstand.

That tension between the real and the reel beat at the heart of Peter Watkins’ La Commune (Paris, 1871), an enormous work of the socially conscious imagination that reconstituted France’s century-old working-class uprising as a live television broadcast, hosted by two reporters who become accomplices to the events they are covering, and practitioners of the art of disinformation.

The relativism of image-making was also the subtext of Eastwood’s Iwo Jima diptych, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima, which dismantled the heroic myth of World War II while casting a pitiless gaze on the cult of celebrity and warfare as theater.

In interviews, Eastwood referred to the false Iwo Jima flag-raisers as the “first reality-TV stars,” just as a new generation of Warholian fame whores (Jon & Kate, Balloon Boy’s dad) were readying for their close-ups. So too were the characters of zombie maestro George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead, a YouTube-era Medium Cool in which the videographer protagonists define reality not by what they see with their eyes, but by what passes before the camera’s lens.

The decade began with a literal bang in the form of the 9/11 attacks, an extracinematic event whose surreal, movielike proportions were commented upon by just about everyone, in no small part due to television’s incessant looping of the day’s horrifying images at all speeds and from more angles than even Michael Bay could envision. At first, Hollywood played the role of solemn mourner, digitally excising the World Trade Center from some upcoming movies and postponing the release of others.

It wasn’t long, though, before 9/11 allegory became the new disaster-movie lingua franca (War of the Worlds, Cloverfield), terrorism porn a subgenre unto itself (Body of Lies; Day Night, Day Night; Rendition).

Another set of filmmakers seized the moment to piously heal the wounds in our fractious global village, resulting in a strain of polyglot, pan-global social melodramas (Babel, Crash, Crossing Over, Mammoth, The Visitor) far more hazardous to your health than H1N1. Eminently preferable visions of village life were offered up by Lars von Trier (Dogville) and Michael Haneke (The White Ribbon), whose novelistic small-town fables — complete with punishing gods, avenging angels and petty, malevolent people more likely to stab thy neighbor in the back than embrace him — seemed far closer to the world as we actually knew it at the dawn of the 21st century.

 

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.

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.

 

 

Best Films of the 2000s (in Chronological Order)

The Wind Will Carry Us(2000). Screened in festivals in 1999 but not released in the U.S. until the next year, this fin de siècle/millennium fable by the great Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami follows an “engineer” (who turns out to be a kind of filmmaker) as he travels to a remote Kurdish village with the intent of photographing the funeral rites of a dying 100-year-old woman. The witty, haunting, poetic film that follows is about his — and Kiarostami’s own — struggle to capture something of real life on film without violating its essence.

 

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.

Ratatouille(2007). Not just — and maybe not even — for kids, Brad Bird’s philosophical comedy of talent at odds with mediocrity and art at odds with ego represented the full creative flowering of one of the most inspired and imaginative storytellers at work in American movies. A slow-food movie for a fast-food nation, capped by an episode of involuntary memory borrowed from Proust. Bon appetit!

RR(2007). James Benning’s stirring 16mm ode to trains and the wide-open spaces they travel through. It is Benning’s farewell to film, to the West and to a mode of transportation largely incongruous with the pace of modern society.

There Will Be Blood(2007). A 21st-century Citizen Kane, Paul Thomas Anderson’s freewheeling adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s Oil! was a fever dream about the American dream, charting the infernal entanglement of money, power and religion on an arid stretch of California land at the dawn of the 20th century. American movies rarely dream this big anymore, and with the wholesale shuttering of the studio-owned “specialty” divisions, it may be quite some time before they do again.

Zodiac(2007). An obsessive’s portrait of obsession, David Fincher’s storage locker–claustrophobic crime drama focused on the collateral victims of the eponymous San Francisco serial killer, the cops and reporters who allowed the case to consume (and in some cases destroy) their lives.

Gran Torino(2008). The ne plus ultra of Clint Eastwood as actor, director and cultural icon, this ostensibly ass-kicking comeback vehicle neatly inverted the revenge politics of Dirty Harry and Unforgiven while entertaining a more honest dialogue about race, economic disenfranchisement and the fog of war in America than any other movie in recent memory.

The White Ribbon(2009). See Best Films of 2009.

 

Best Films of 2009

1.The White Ribbon. Michael Haneke explores the roots of German fascism — and, by extension, all forms of paranoid groupthink — in this masterful, World War I–era sociological drama that brought the Austrian filmmaker his long-overdue Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. The ribbon of the title, a symbol of innocence and purity, is one that Haneke gradually unravels as a schoolteacher in a rural German village homes in on the ritualistic cycle of domination, submission and humiliation churning beneath the town’s placid Protestant surface.

2.Inglourious Basterds and Police, Adjective. Two extraordinary (and extraordinarily funny) films about the politics of language: In Quentin Tarantino’s exuberant World War II burlesque — the best subversive war comedy since MASH — the silver-tongued SS Colonel Hans Landa uses words as a weapon of wartime as valuable as any firearm. In Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu’s pitch-black institutional satire, a beat cop on a futile mission challenges his superior only to have conscience and morality literally spelled out for him.

3.The Hurt Locker. Kathryn Bigelow’s electrifying body-shock war movie about a U.S. Army bomb squad stationed in Baghdad matched its intricate sensory architecture with an equally detailed map of the modern soldier’s psyche.

4.Public Enemies. Like Bonnie and Clyde 40 years earlier, Michael Mann’s digital John Dillinger biopic was a period gangster movie that scarcely felt period at all, filmed in jagged swooshes of handheld HD video. It was also a movie about movies, culminating in a remarkable sequence in which Dillinger watches something like his own life (albeit with Clark Gable in the lead) flash before his eyes in Chicago’s Biograph Theater.

5.Avatar. A genuine game-changer from a filmmaker who has consistently redefined the way we see movies. Avatar was more than a decade in the making, and it will take Hollywood at least that long to catch up to it.

6.District 9 and Invictus. Clint Eastwood steered well clear of sanctimony and obvious Obama parallels for his characteristically reserved, perceptive chronicle of South Africa during the first year of Nelson Mandela’s presidency. For the unofficial sequel, there was native South African director Neill Blomkamp’s ingenious apartheid-as-alien-invasion allegory, which catches us up to a present where Mandela’s dream of a just “rainbow nation” has devolved into something closer to a nightmare.

 

7.24 City and Up in the Air. Two symbiotic portraits of economic transformation, made roughly 7,000 miles apart. In Jason Reitman’s recession-era parable, George Clooney’s freelance hatchet man floats in the rarefied air above a contracting America, while Jia Zhangke’s latest bottled message from the world’s most rapidly developing nation (i.e., China) takes us to a state-owned aerospace factory about to be razed to make way for a modern, high-rise apartment complex. In one film, capitalism wanes, while in the other it waxes. Both directors cast real workers to freely intermingle with professional actors, creating a democracy of images that gives each movie its soul.

8. Fantastic Mr. Fox and Where the Wild Things Are. Two uncommonly astute, richly imaginative adaptations of children’s literature by two of the most original American filmmakers of their generation. Could it be that turning 40, as both did this year, prompted Spike Jonze and Wes Anderson to reflect on the agony and ecstasy of pre-adolescence, and to contemplate, in refreshingly unsentimental terms, the nature of family?

9. The Headless Woman. A middle-aged dentist hits something with her car — a dog, she thinks — early on in Argentine director Lucrecia Martel’s willfully disorienting, what-really-happened head-scratcher. The woman’s family and friends — a collection of bourgeois grotesques — keep assuring her that everything is fine, but before long we too begin to feel that we aren’t quite ourselves, and that we are sharing in Veronica’s dark, private, altered state.

10. The Beaches of Agnès and Passing Strange and Tyson. Three virtuoso performance pieces, rooted in memory and centered around three incomparable artists: the octogenarian filmmaker and gallery artist Agnès Varda; the singer-songwriter Stew; and the boxer Mike Tyson. Varda’s is an auto-portrait; Stew’s a Broadway concert deftly filmed by Spike Lee; and Tyson’s a piercing snapshot taken by his friend James Toback, a fellow traveler on the path of obsession and desire who gives us Iron Mike in all his monolithic multitudes and allows us, for a brief moment, to peer alongside the fallen champ into his existential abyss.


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