Monday, August 4, 2008

Ten Best Films of 2004

1. Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand/
The 34 year-old Thai auteur's third feature to garner significant international attention, Tropical Malady exceeds its recondite predecessors in virtually every respect, showcasing a form that provides a potential new direction for art cinema worldwide. Apichatpong splits the narrative of Tropical Malady into two parts: the first is a same-sex romance focusing upon a soldier and a small-town young man, while the second is a fable concerning another soldier's hunt for a shaman with the power of transforming himself into animal form. While this cursory description might make it sound as if Tropical Malady depicts two discordant short stories, the fact is that the folkloric second half serves to underscore the paucity of the oblique opening salvo, which in spite of its transparent form, offers a vision of society that is shown to be lacking. Indeed, Tropical Malady is, among other things, a critique of contemporary Asian art cinema, articulating a second way amid echoes of the traditional folk arts. After all, the default objectivity of part one obscures reality no less than the proto-cinematic fable of part two illuminates the same.

2. Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood, United States)
Given the high degree of political acrimony surrounding Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby and its supposed advocacy of euthanasia, it might be difficult to consider the Oscar-winning best picture in terms other than these. Still, it is absolutely necessary in order to get at Eastwood's bigger purpose in Million Dollar Baby: to refocus his viewer's attention on the imperative of faith. That he and writer Paul Haggis frame this politically contentious issue in terms of the male lead's deficient religious belief suggests that it is less the moral implications of the narrative that interest them, than it is the spiritual health of Eastwood's character. In this way then, it is not only the boxing genre that acts as a framework for the picture's deeper thematic interests, but the euthanasia narrative itself. Moreover, it is necessary to isolate a second discursive level that pertains not to the director's intellection but rather to his anxieties. This additional interpretative plane manifests itself not only in the protagonist's spiritual want, but also in his estrangement from his daughter (a theme similarly picked up in the director's 1999 film, True Crime). Thus, it becomes possible to see the film as Eastwood's act of contrition and plea for forgiveness for his own paternal failures. While the narrative offers Eastwood's character a provisional redemption through his assumption of the role of surrogate father to Hillary Swank's fatherless boxer, his own reconciliation with his fictional daughter appropriately remains unsettled.

3. 2046 (Wong Kar-wai, China/France/Germany/Hong Kong)
A film consumed by the memory of Wong's In the Mood for Love (2000), 2046 is more than mere sequel (to a film that itself was the follow-up to Days of Being Wild [1991]) - it is a dissection of the feelings which prompted the earlier masterwork. In fact, 2046 is the very substance of the words spoken into the stone wall by the Tony Leung character (who reprises his role here) at the conclusion of In the Mood for Love: it is the director's reflection upon the relationship between his life and his art. Indeed, the lead's vocation as a writer and the picture's science fiction genre both underscore its reflexivity - that is, each portends the process of producing fiction from the substance of reality. With that said, 2046 retains a number of the director's principle preoccupations, from the evanescence of time to the related persistence of memory: in keeping with the matrix of his earlier film, 2046 is marked by characters living with the weight of the past. It is a film scarred with regret, where "love is a matter of timing" and where "it is no good meeting the right person too early or too late." In this sense 2046 is also a piece with the earlier work in that each are very much documents of a mid-life moment, no less than Chungking Express (1994) and Fallen Angels (1995) inscribe the feeling of being twenty-something.

4. Collateral (Michael Mann, United States)
Like Richard Linklater's fine Before Sunset (also 2004), Michael Mann's Collateral calls attention to its own endpoint: whereas the former film will end "before sunset," as its title surmises, Collateral will conclude prior to sunrise. While both films use a departing flight to narratively justify this conclusion, Mann's film is more dependent upon stylistic logic to reach his finale. In the end, the meaning of Collateral is discernible less through its plot than in the subject of Mann's high-definition digital video camera: the post-modern Los Angeles cityscape at night. Indeed, even when the presentation of this space is not narratively-motivated, Mann finds cause to show the neon glow of the depopulated center of America's second largest city. In this way, Collateral reminds its viewers that film is fundamentally a visual art form. Then again, there still remain novelistic congruences between the subject of this mise-en-scene and the behavior of the characters: Tom Cruise's charming hit man demonstrates a moral relativism that is at home in the postmodern universe inscribed in the architecture of the cityscape. Surely, it is this level of organic integration between style and content that sets Collateral apart from most contemporary works of its genre. At the same, Mann's film lacks for nothing in terms of visceral pleasure, which is often connected to the humor, romance, and pathos of Jamie Foxx's cab driver and even the combination of soundtrack and urban settings that Mann so carefully combines -- but even here, it should be noted that his musical selections signify the characters that they introduce, furthering Mann's multi-cultural program.

5. Los Muertos (Lisandro Alonso, Argentina/France/
One of the best films of an exceptionally rich moment in Argentine filmmaking, Lisandro Alonso's feature harkens back to the simplicity of Vittorio De Sica and Cesare Zavattini (The Bicycle Thief [1948], Umberto  D. [1952]) without succumbing to the melodrama that likewise characterized their 'male weepies.' From the outset, Alonso is concerned with the most quotidian of moments (like shaving or washing his dishes) as a late middle aged man prepares from his departure from prison. Yet, it is not simply that Alonso acknowledges these banal, transitional moments, but that he reproduces them in a simulation of their actual duration, thereby providing an unflinching portrait of a lead who like the rest of us, leads a routine, fairly boring life. Of course, this is also a man with a past: his crime (he committed homicide) is presented in an impressionistic, out-of-focus prologue situated in a sunny grove, which in tandem with the subsequent un-embellished mise-en-scene invites a subjective reading. Second, there is the matter of his daughter, whom he sets off to see upon his release from prison. Still, this is not a film about their reunion at all, but about his journey upriver to see the grown woman; and even then, Los Muertos is not a film about psychological growth or coming to terms with his past, but about the protagonist experiencing life (often in its most quotidian form) in the meantime. It is precisely the sort of work that compels its viewer to observe their own daily routine more keenly, to think about life in aesthetic terms. It is, in other words, a film about life - because it is a life filmed. For Alonso, like so many of his neo-realist progenitors, people are more similar than they are different.

6. Innocence (Lucile Hadzihalilovic, Belgium/France/United Kingdom)
2004's best first feature - and perhaps French language cinema's best debut in some time - Lucile Hadzihalilovic's Innocence sets to allegorize the experience of female adolescence in the place of a boarding school where the young girls arrive in coffins and wear bold-colored bows coded on the basis of age. As this cursory description makes it sound, Innocence presents a world determined entirely by the shape of the film's allegorical content, but one which nevertheless displays a rare graphic sensibility - particularly for Hadzihalilovic striking utilization of contrasting colors - as well as for her eye for the surreal, as in the case of the electric street lights which illuminate the forest. Her evocation of the surreal however does not connote subjectivity but instead a world composed of the unreal, which at the same time shows itself to be rigorously measured to the size of this experience. While the film may make some uneasy for its depiction of pre-pubescent and pubescent girls shirtless, its female director's treatment of the material reinforces rather than belies the title. This is a film about the innocence of girlhood which shows itself to be deeply ambivalent to the specter of womanhood. A truly singular cinematic experience.

7. The World (Jia Zhangke, China/Japan/France)
Continuing to chronicle China's ongoing integration into the global economic community, The World finds an analogy for China's approach in the place of an Epcot-style amusement park, glibly named "The World." Here, national exhibits featuring such famed landmarks as the Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and the Twin Towers ostensibly present China's bourgeoisie with the possibility of "seeing the world, without ever leaving Beijing." In reality, what 'The World' portends is less a large-scale educational venture than a cheap imitation of global culture trading on the economic rewards inherent in the co-option of the West. If The World signifies an abnegation of traditional Chinese culture (the subject of his 2000 masterwork Platform), this is met with ambivalence by China's increasingly Western, though alienated twenty-something's, who are themselves being weaned to think only of their own radical self-interest. At the same, China's aimless young are often unsuccessful in finding their place in the larger global order, just as China's integration remains tenuous. In this way The World stands as a piece with Jia's previous Unknown Pleasures (2002). However, as that film is constructed according to a spatial logic wherein the viewer is continually reminded of a distinct off-camera space for which the character's pine, here the world beyond the frame - the world beyond 'The World' - is China itself. As such, the allegorical dimensions of the narrative are brought back into a slightly different focus: 'The World' is an inauthentic space in contrast to the reality outside its boundaries.

8. Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, United States)
In Linklater’s film, the picture's preordained endpoint becomes its subject, both in terms of Before Sunset's content and also by virtue of its form. This certainty of duration refocuses the drama on how the film’s newly reunited couple will spend their brief and passing moment together (though never straying too far from the question of whether or nor the pair will end up with one another). In formal terms, the specificity of the film’s time is presented in a facsimile of its actual duration, which reaffirms the immutability of time’s passage and thereby confers upon the picture its particular gravity. Before Sunset matches its masterful prequel and emerges as one of 2004's best American films along with Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby and Mann's similarly themed Collateral.

9. Kings and Queen (Arnaud Desplechin, France)
As is true of his 1996 opus My Sex Life... Or How I Got into an Argument, the first quality of Arnaud Desplechin's neo-Hellenic epic that comes into focus is its startling ambition - from an opening quotation that situates the film within the sphere of Greek drama, Desplechin seems intent upon colliding the categories of comedy and drama into a film that finally contains not only these but also musical numbers, flashbacks, fantasy sequences and every other narratalogical variation that strikes the director's fancy. It is in a word a "free" film, finding its overstuffed shape in the accumulation of forms rather than in their pairing down. For this reason, it might be easy to ignore Desplechin's accomplishment, alongside the year's many other, tighter masterworks. Yet, to do so would be to deny one of 2004's most visceral successes and one of the year's finest Francophonic works; in a lesser year, Godard's strong Notre Musique or Rohmer's corpus-defining Triple Agent would have been easy choices for a top ten. Yet next to Desplechin's fleet-footed giant, they seem almost slight by comparison. This is certain to be remembered as one of his greater works.

10. 13 Lakes (James Benning, United States)
James Benning's 13 Lakes contains exactly what it promises: thirteen lakes. Each is filmed in an identical ten minute take, which Benning composes statically, with equal portions of sky and water filling the frame. As this is one of the lone aesthetic variables - at least visually - allowed by his minimalist matrix, it may be possible to judge the value of 13 Lakes by the considerable beauty and richly-evoked textures of these audio and visual landscapes. Then again, it is less for its sensory merits than for the didactic consequences of 13 Lakes that Benning's should be viewed as a major work of art. Indeed, few recent films have so fully elucidated Andre Bazin's thesis that the frame serves to mask reality rather than to simply give shape to a filmic proscenium. It is little wonder that Benning achieves an effect similar to that of the Lumière's L'Arrivée d'un train à la Ciotat (1895) for its creation of space exceeding the limits of the frame -- within which the camera exists.

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