Monday, August 4, 2008

Ten Best Films of 2001

1. I'm Going Home (Manoel de Oliveira, France/Portugal)
Nonagenarian master Manoel de Oliveira's I'm Going Home is the most perfect final film made, with one caveat: it would not be the director's last. Following his performance as a 400 year-old king in Ionesco's "Exit the King," Michel Piccoli's lead is informed of his wife's death by messengers waiting just off stage. In a stroke, Oliveira has thus established the two principle themes of his work -- mortality and the relationship between theatre and cinema. In each case, the director develops his thesis before deconstructing the logic upon which it is built. As to the former, after an elided period of bereavement, Piccoli's character slowly reacclimates himself to the everyday, becoming once again a man of vigor, whether it is in his play with his grandchildren or in his acceptance of a part in an English-language film adaptation of Joyce to be directed by John Malkovich's filmmaker. However, during the course of the production, Piccoli's character wearies, finally walking off set with his declaration, "I'm going home." As he steps out costumed into the Parisian sunlight, Oliveira suddenly eviscerates the distinction he has spent the duration of the film constructing -- namely between theatre, the space of art, and cinema which is equated with life. Nonetheless, in this single, concluding gesture, the director shows the separation to be artificial, thereby reestablishing his on-going belief in cinema as open-aired theatre. Thus, I'm Going Home can be read as a film about its medium, which can be read similarly in the film's slow integration of sound, thereby allegorizing the medium's own early transition. Surely this is a fitting subject for Oliveira, the cinema's last remaining silent filmmaker -- and a fitting subject for the great final film that never was, thankfully.

2. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, United States/France)
Begun as an American television pilot, David Lynch's Mulholland Drive certainly would have been the most surreal program ever to grace this country's small screen, had it not been cancelled prior to its premiere. As it stands, Lynch's supreme masterpiece distinguishes itself from its latter-day Hollywood counterparts for its thorough integration of dream-inspired logic into the structure of the narrative. Said differently, everything in Mulholland Drive is a dream, or better yet, a nightmare. Lynch's 'City of Dreams' is truly nightmarish, a company town whose system destroys its wide-eyed newbies. Then again, Lynch's victims are not quite as helpless as this cursory description, or the opening passage of the film would suggest. Naomi Watt's Betty is not the naif that we are initially led to believe; she is instead a performer intent on using Los Angeles to achieve her ultimate purpose, stardom. To be sure, Lynch's work allegorizes the star system, but truly it is more than this. Following Jacques Rivette's lead in Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), Mulholland Drive is a meditation on the nature of performance in the film medium: actor is divested from role via the characters' conscious creations of their identities (the amensiac Rita takes her name from a Gilda poster) and later in Lynch's reversals and denials of said identities. As such, Lynch calls attention to the gap between character and performance, thereby revealing the scaffolding of his work.

3. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, Japan)
Japan's all-time box office champion, Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away is at once supreme art and superlative entertainment. That it is the subjective latter is relatively incontrovertible, provided its unprecedented domestic box office. As to its stature as great art, Spirited Away's success is similarly dependent upon its facility to reach not only an audience, but indeed multiple audiences simultaneously. On a primary level, Miyazaki's picture addresses ten year-old girls as they prepare for adolescence, chronicling their many anxieties: what would happen were my family to move? What if I'm left to fend for myself? What will it be like to have a job -- can I handle it? Can I trust boys? In each of these, Miyazaki articulates an understandable fear before giving this specific audience cause for hope. Alternately, for those persons outside his targeted audience, Miyazaki provides a glimpse into what it is like to be a young woman. Moreover, the master animator's film also allegorizes Japan's economic crisis of the prior decade (placing within an abandoned amusement park -- a typical reminder of the economic bust). Similarly Japanese-specific is the picture's Shintoist description of a world inhabited by scores of kami, which its animated form gracefully depicts, making no distinction between human and spirit, lend each the same degree of verisimilitude.

4. The Lady and the Duke (Eric Rohmer, France)
Always the most Bazinian of the New Wave directors, Eric Rohmer's DV The Lady and the Duke is a period film that preserves only those elements which can be replicated in a work of cinema: namely, the costumes, the furniture, the gestures, the language, and the patterns of speech -- that is, everything which remains under the director's control. At the same time, Rohmer eliminates signifiers of time and place, which themselves cannot be reproduced with shattering the film's purportion of reality. As such, Rohmer calls attention to the illusion inherent in period work, producing a cinema that is profoundly literal in its conscription of the real: the film's eighteenth century cityscapes are depicted by matte paintings, digitally incorporated into a typically dialogue-intensive work (for the director). Then again, The Lady and the Duke does retain something else of the period: its anachronistic, royalist politics. How many politically anti-French Revolution pictures are there? In this manner, Rohmer does not succumb to the near-universal tendency to bring one's own time into the period described. Hence, one could even say of The Lady and the Duke that it is authentically eighteenth century; had there been cinema during this epoch, Rohmer's film may well be what it would have looked lime.

5. The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, United States)
The mid-1990s witnessed the emergence of a new generation of highly talented American filmmakers, including P.T. Anderson, Spike Jonze, and Alexander Payne. However, it was another, Wes Anderson, who would be responsible for the most idiosyncratic vision of their generation, even as he arguably conformed most fully to the period's intellectual zeitgeist. His is a postmodern art, emphasizing style for its own sake and manifesting an ironic sense of humor, each of which are commensurate with this movement's implicit nihilism. Yet, like any world view, Anderson's possesses its own tenor, which in his case can be seen in his sense of the tragic and corresponding redemptive thesis. In the case of The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson presents a world, a heterocosm, populated by persons of genius, who nevertheless destruct after their early rise; the three Tenenbaum children were childhood proteges who find themselves incapable of translating this talent into latter-day success (a very American subject, to be sure). Yet, The Royal Tenenbaums does offer a probationary solution in the reconstitution of the family, making Anderson's work something of a reverse Ambersons. If Welles's work is thus American tragedy -- with its perfunctory happy ending -- then Tenenbaums remains comedy in its most classical sense, where its lesser characters still find a grace.

6. La Libertad (Lisandro Alonso, Argentina)
Providing a viable direction for international modernist art cinema in the years immediately following the Abbas Kiarostami-dominated 1990s, mid-twenty-something Lisandro Alonso's first feature seems to fall outside of the fiction-documentary divide altogether, given both the extreme facuality of the scenario and the want of information that would, in the latter case, seem requisite for the documentary form. Alonso instead provides a robust portrait of his male lead Misael as he fells trees, cooks over an open flame, buys petrol, slaughters an armadillo and defecates in the weeds, with sheets of tissue paper clutched in his hand. Utilizing long compositions and equally long takes, La Libertad succeeds particularly in communicating the tactile sensations of Misael's daily routine, as well as the enveloping loneliness of his solitary existence.

7. Millennium Mambo (Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan/France)
From Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996) onward, Taiwanese great Hou Hsiao-hsien has structured his films around a single, repeated motif: in that film it was rhythmic movement of the omni-present passenger trains, while in the subsequent Flowers of Shanghai Hou replicates the experience of smoking opium in one of the titular houses. Here, in a picture located ten years into the future, the film's structuring characteristic is its ubiquitous techno music, which fills the discos that Vicky (Qi Shu) and her fellow young adults frequent. Like the music itself, repetition is the guiding trait in these youth's lives -- they continue to make the same (unwise) decisions time and time again. When finally the music does stop, on the occasion of Vicky's visit to Hokkaido, Hou briefly implies that perhaps she will break free from the holding pattern in which she finds herself. However, the music soon recommences, as do the same mistakes, thereby denying the character any progress. Ultimately, Hou remains skeptical of growth, placing his faith instead in the tragic passage of time, from which no one is immune.

8. Pistol Opera (Seijuin Suzuki, Japan)
Some artists become more classical as they progress in their craft, while others move in the direction of abstraction. Given the pinnacle of incomprehensibility that Seijuin Suzuki reached in his late 1960s B-movies (such as Tokyo Drifter [1966] and especially Branded to Kill [1967]) one would think that the only direction that Suzuki could move would be toward classicism, as did fellow provocateur Nagisa Oshima in Gohatto/Taboo (1999). Nevertheless, Pistol Opera represents an even greater level of abstraction than his notoriously indecipherable earlier work. Here, Suzuki refashions his Branded to Kill narrative -- replete with its famed hitman ranking system -- that initially got the director fired from his studio. In this saturated color remake, Suzuki ups the abstract ante by severing the casual connections between individual shots, thereby calling attention to the imagistic construction of film art. In other words, Suzuki dispenses with the illusion that one is watching a coherent universe represented over a specific duration. Rather Pistol Opera is narrated by a series of indelible images which are ultimately the source of the film's visceral pleasure, whether it is in their compositional grace or in the immense physical beauty of the picture's lead, Makiko Esumi.

9. The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat) (Zacharias Kunuk, Canada)
There may be no greater contemporary argument for the primacy of narrative cinema than Zacharias Kunuk's The Fast Runner. The feature, the first ever produced in the Inuit language, forms the ideal pair with Robert Flaherty's epochal documentary Nanook of the North. Whereas, Flaherty's film was ethnographic in its purpose, Kunuk's successful inscription of culture is a second-order function. The Fast Runner is first an attempt by Kunuk to forge Inuit myth, presumably under a project of identity-building. In the case of this work, the hieratic narrative focuses upon infidelity, jealousy, and revenge -- all transnational signifiers of myth. Where it accumulates its particularly Inuit flavor is one in its reference to the spirit world, and two in the exigencies of the place. Regarding the later, it is indeed Kunuk's mise-en-scene that determines the interpersonal dynamics that lead to the ultimate tragedy: the tight interiors spawn the sexual infidelity, while the expansive exteriors threaten the title character's survival. In this way, then, the film's spatial organization is the vehicle through which the myth's cultural specificity is conveyed. Beyond Kunuk's DV camera work, his sound likewise adds to our experience of Arctic culture: the roar of the dogsled tracks cutting through the ice communicate a great deal to the non-Inuit viewer. This might be only a detail and not the subject of 'Fast Runner, but it no less than construes an identity every bit as much as Flaherty's film does.

10. La Ciénaga (Lucrecia Martel, Argentina/France/Spain)
Lucrecia Martel's very impressive first feature can in some respects be viewed as an impressionistic counterpart to the European fin-de-siècle cinema of Roy Andersson and Béla Tarr, with Martel forging a mise-en-scène that is as uncertain as the picture's narrative content. Of course, La Ciénaga's registration of psychology is anything but indistinct thanks to its use of framing, blocking and lighting to connote an essential anxiety. Similarly clear are the implications of Martel's incestuous upper-class critique, which found an unfortunate confirmation into 2001's Argentine financial crisis. La Ciénaga however, alongside Alonso's aforementioned La Libertad, provided unmistakable evidence of the Argentine cinema's health, in addition to (similarly) introducing another of the key figure's of that cinema's nascent renaissance.

3 comments:

Erik said...

Out of curiosity have you ever performed in your life?

As a professional actor with a degree in theater it doesn't seem that you have a cursory understanding of drama. It seems, like most film majors, that you look at it from a literary perspective.

But seriously, have you ever performed before?

Michael J. Anderson said...

Dear Erik,

To answer your question, outside of a single student movie - and a third grade play - I have not performed.

Also, your criticism that I don't seem to have a cursory understanding of drama may be accurate, but I am not entirely certain that it is something that can be inferred from this post (or really any of the posts on this site). In reality, I say next to nothing about performances, which certainly signals an omission, but does entail a misunderstanding. Let me put it this way, I would ask how you know what I understand about something I don't talk about (or in other words, about which I do not offer my understanding - limited though it might be in reality)? You see the problem I suspect.

Ultimately, this site may not be for everybody - such as for those who include "Willow" among their favorite films and number "Jaws" among their favorite books. A different kind of taste is at work on this site.

Erik said...

The problem with this is pretty basic: Commenting on films without having a sense of concept of what makes drama work or what makes a performance work is like commenting on food and being unconcerned with taste.

Mulholland Drive for instance, is the film that convinced me that David Lynch is no longer the same guy who directed Blue Velvet. It's a masturbatory output without any semblance of pace, climax or dramatic tension. I'd go further but I'm pretty sure I'd convince you of nothing. It's like arguing with an English major over what makes Shakespeare special. The English major would argue that it's his amazing use of iambic pentameter while I would say that the gripping silent conflict between Hamlet and Claudius makes the play. Unfortunately performers don't have a voice in film reviews, the English majors do. This strikes me as odd since when I watch a football game the commentators are former players. When I see a cooking competition the judges are chefs. When I listen to the people talk about the stock market on the radio, they are investors. Yet film is somehow the only medium that has escaped this.

Quite honestly, I haven't read the rest of the site and based on your picks for 01, I can't imagine we'd ever agree. Yet by making fun of my taste in films (which I'm assuming you're getting from some sort of blog account I have, I can't remember creating one in at least five years so I'm not sure how recent it is) you do nothing to disprove my argument. I love Willow. Is it a flawed film? Of course, but I can't help but enjoy it. As far as books go, I'm sure you'd rather see me put a David Sedaris title there but once again, quiet snobbery doesn't mean what I have to say is wrong.

In any event, everyone's entitled to their opinion, I've certainly voiced mine.