Monday, August 4, 2008

Ten Best Films of 2000

1. Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr, Hungary/Italy/Germany/
"What they think is ridiculous. They think because they are afraid. He says he likes it when things fall apart." Werckmeister Harmonies represents one of Béla Tarr's clearest yet distillations of his worldview: the world was created and ordered, but ever since, things have been falling apart, disintegrating. The picture opens with the arrival of a carnival in a bleak rural Hungarian community. The principle attraction of this traveling show is a dead whale, which Tarr will come to bestow with metaphorical significance, even if he refuses to define what precisely that significance is. Indeed, as things begin to break down, the audiences is compelled to ask whether the arrival of this creature has some sort of causal connection to burgeoning chaos. Yet, as the opening dialogue makes clear, Tarr refuses to grant myth any sort of authority in explaining the decaying order. Concurrently, Tarr adopts a visual strategy to accentuate this philosophy: his extended traveling takes often begin with a maximum degree of visual clarity and conclude with a spatial uncertainty to underscore the moral one. When Tarr does offer a rare point of clarity, it serves to undercut the false assumptions that the viewers may have developed toward his narrative -- as when a helicopter appears late in the film to shatter the illusion that this is a work situated at the turn of the last century, which Tarr may suggest through the backwardness of his village, but which he never states directly. Importantly, this is a work of the fin-de-sicle to be sure, but it is the post-communist end of this century rather than the previous one.

2. Yi Yi (Edward Yang, Taiwan/Japan)
Winner of numerous international awards, including the 'Best Director' prize at the Cannes international film festival and the National Society of Film Critics' top award -- the first foreign-language film to receive this honor in 15 years -- Edward Yang's Yi Yi contains more than virtually any other film ever made. What is meant by more is not excess, but rather the full scope of existence: comedy and tragedy, happiness and sadness, feeling and empathy, the physical and the metaphysical, art and life. Indeed, Yi Yi represents nothing more than it does a prayer, offered on the part of its maker for its many characters who continue to make the same mistakes in their lives, generation after generation. After all, the literal translation of the title is 'One One,' intimating precisely this sort of repetition, which is likewise picked up in the names of the younger generation's protagonists, Ting Ting and Yang Yang. The latter, a clear stand-in for the director, becomes a photographer in order that he might show people the half of life that they do not normally see: in this case, the backs of their heads. His engagement is thus art, as his older sister, who repeats the same romantic mistakes as her father, chooses to speak to her comatose grandmother, who thusly becomes a stand in for god. At one point she even breaks from her coma (her silence) to comfort the young girl, even if it remains unclear as to whether this represents a literal occurrence. Either way, Yang's is a film that intentionally confronts as much of life as possible, offering open conclusions to the eternal questions it raises.

3. The House of Mirth (Terence Davies, United Kingdom/France/
Germany/United States)
Without question, The House of Mirth is a significant formal departure for cinema's most Proustian director: Terence Davies' film is defiantly objective in its refusal to break from a mimetic (shown) reality. At the same time, Davies' hyper-externalization succeeds in a continually referencing the sub-surface, thereby evoking his most consistent subject -- the internal life of his characters. Here, his subject is Lily (Gillian Anderson), a turn-of-the-century socialite who is recalcitrant in her desire to marry for love rather than social standing. However, Lily's world does not abide such choices, countenancing instead her tragic fate: once her beauty is gone, any opportunity at happiness that her youth may have presented her is forever lost. In the unimpeachable narrative logic of Davies' world, he thus creates a work to equal that of cinema's grandest tragedian, Japanese master Kenji Mizoguchi, to whom he also aspires in his masterful direction of his lead actress. Indeed, The House of Mirth is above all else a work of directorial precision, allowing each facial expression, every gesture the time demanded by it in order to convey its associative psychological meaning. This is a work again where everything is communicated through meticulously modulated surfaces, thereby producing a masterpiece of objectivity to stand beside his subjective master works, Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992), even as they all take the same internal life as their subjects.

4. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong/
In the Mood for Love signals the beginning of a new phase in Wong Kar-wai's work: middle age. Throughout the 1990s, Wong created some of the clearest expressions ever of what it meant to be twenty-something -- think Chungking Express (1994) or Fallen Angels (1995) -- where it could be said that any moment, everything was possible for its young protagonists. This to be sure is not the same world on screen in In the Mood for Love. In the director's profoundly Bressonian description of romantic desire, Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung play the spouses of an off-screen pair of adulterous lovers. They never do succumb to their mutual passions, not necessarily because they choose to respect their marital vows, but rather by virtue of something deep in the recesses of their personalities that prevent them from uniting as a couple, even if this might mean their happiness. Whereas the end of one relationship inevitably foretold of the beginning of another in early Wong, here, his lover's time had passed before they even met. Indeed, it is not simply that Wong creates works that are specific to singular moments in his character's lives, but moreover that their fates are determined by where they find themselves in life. Presumably like the artist himself, Wong's narratives have gradually awakened over time to the possibility that life does not always afford one a second chance.

5. Platform (Jia Zhangke, China/Hong Kong/Japan/France)
Jia Zhangke's international art cinema breakthrough, Platform charts the transformation of itinerant performers Fenyang Peasant Culture Group into the All Star Rock and Breakdance Electronic Band, over the course of a decade. Commencing as Maoist propagandists, the group's mutation into the latter incarnation figures China's development from an archaic collectivism to an uneasy melding of Communism and Capitalism. Through this transmutation, Jia shows modernity's price: the dissolution of institutions such as the family and a slackening moral hygiene. Moreover, the the latter incarnation belies a cheap aping of Western style befitting the performer's constant curiosity with all things Western. Indeed, Jia's style is shaped by this very concern, constructing a world beyond the frame that is far more expansive than the often visually unintelligible space on-screen. In particular, Jia effects this analogy by his extensive use of off-camera sound. Ultimately, this off-screen utopia -- referenced early on by a postcard which reads that "the world outside is great" -- is brought into the frame as Chinese society liberalizes, and as it has been noted, the results are anything but positive.

6. Eureka (Shinji Aoyama, Japan)
Shinji Aoyama's Eureka opens with great tragedy: all but two passengers on a bus -- and the driver -- are executed by a man before he turns his gun on himself. When the two young survivors are orphaned two years later, they are effectively set adrift in a world in which they are by no means prepared to cope. Enter the bus driver, who has himself suffered from the emotional burden of this horrific event. Gradually, he accepts the role of surrogate parent for the two dumb children, being joined by their cousin in short shrift. However, their constitution of a replacement familial unit is mitigated by a suspicion that one of their members is guilty for a series of killings that has begun to haunt the local community. In clarifying this mystery, Aoyama skillfully establishes a reason for the violence that finds its source in the initial killing: that acts such as these belie a feeling of powerlessness, which is only to be overcome in mankind's love for each other. Yet, as humanistic as this might sound, Aoyama's work is decidedly transcendent in its longing, established most succinctly in the penultimate visual of the young girl wading out into the sea. When the bus driver yells to her "let's go home," its clear that he means something more than the physical home that they have come to inhabit.

7. The Circle (Jafar Panahi, Iran/Switzerland/Italy)
Jafar Panahi's third feature opens with a birth, which because it is a girl is an occasion for sorrow, not joy. From here, Panahi follows four different women through the labyrinth streets of Teheran, preserving a facsimile of real time, as the camera passes from one protagonist to the next. Spatially, Panahi's cinema juxtaposes his frequent close-ups and rigorous identification with a much larger off-camera sphere emulating his master Abbas Kiarostami's adoption of a Bressonian sound aesthetic. And like Kiarostami, Panahi's schema confirms an interest in involving the viewer in the creation of the work. However, where Panahi departs Kiarostami is in the explicitness of his social critique: whether it is the film's opening salvo or the closing existential camera movement that spatially equates all of the film's female protagonists (in a narratively impossible 360 degree pan) Panahi makes clear the dire position of the female in Iranian society. Indeed, the film's title, The Circle serves suggests precisely this condition, showing that the concluding imprisonment is no different that the opening birth. What happens next, of course, provides the film with its revolutionary political message.

8. Wonder Boys (Curtis Hanson, United States)
Following the enormous critical success of L.A. Confidential (1997), director Curtis Hanson opted for the story of a writer struggling to replicate the popularity of his earlier novel, which is to say he has created personal art. Or, at the very least, Wonder Boys invites comparison to the director's own situation in the aftermath of the earlier film. Yet, if Wonder Boys represents a departure into autobiographical territory, it remains unmistakably similar to the earlier film in both its style and its content. As to the former, Wonder Boys adopts a supremely Hawksian classical decoupage form, assuring that the technique never detracts from the story being relayed. As to the message, Hanson's picture manifests the same moral relativism as the earlier work: after breaking up with his wife, Michael Douglas' writer/professor impregnates the married school chancellor, becomes an accomplice in the shooting of her husband's dog, and then spends the weekend in a marijuana-induced haze rather than making the decisions his situation demands. However, Hanson refuses to make martyrs of his characters, maintaining instead a consistent good-humor, providing the film with its undeniable emotional core. In the end, Wonder Boys' importance rests in its autobiographical subject matter and emotional depth, which is to say in the qualities of a personal art which is exceedingly rare in modern-day Hollywood. Wonder Boys is also Curtis Hanson's best work to date.

9. Songs from the Second Floor (Roy Andersson, Sweden/
Roy Andersson's Songs from the Second Floor, the director's first feature in near twenty-five years, is the finest Swedish film since Ingmar Bergman's Fanny & Alexander twilight - though it only marginally edges Liv Ullmann's similarly impressive, oxymoronic redemptive Bergman Faithless from this same year. (In a less exceptional year, both would easily rate among the year's best.) Andersson's über-formalist, long-take - and near plotless - comedic narrative is equal parts Luis Bunuel and Jacques Tati, formulating one of the most remarkable dystopian fin-de-siècle visions in the contemporary European art cinema. A very welcome return for the director of the estimable A Swedish Love Story (1970).

10. Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)
The third of Korea's leading art house filmmaker Hong's features, and the second of his bifurcated, "twice-told" narratives, Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors reinvents cinematic subjectivity by tracing its character's interiority in two, objectively-veiled parts, rather than by establishing said perspective through a more conventional point-of-view editing. In luminous black-and-white and with the director's trademark wry comic sense, Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (a reference to Marcel Duchamp's similarly gender-focused work of the same name) rates as a minor masterpiece for Hong, and a very strong entry into the Korean New Wave - alongside Lee Chang-dong's equally structuralist, reverse-narrative Peppermint Candy (2000).

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