Blissfully Yours (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2002, Thailand/France)
Winner of the Un Certain regard prize at Cannes, structuralist-trained filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Blissfully Yours can be read fruitfully in terms of its binaries, both thematically and formally - male/female, city/country, civilization/savagery, medicine/superstition, driving/walking, old/young, employed/unemployed, Thai/Burmese, objective/subjective, index/sign, on-screen/off-, shot/reverse - yet it is those moments, the odd, apaque gestures and modernist excesses that truly capture our attention: from the endless traversals of the semi-urban and rural landscapes, to the credit sequence inserted forty-plus minutes into the film's run time (a threshold over which the film's second half can be intuited) to an unexpectedly vivid sexual encounter on the edge of the Thai jungle. In light of recent Asian art cinema, in fact, Blissfully Yours, in its occasional indecipherablity, emerges less as modernist than post-modernist with an emphasis on the "post." Apichatpong's total breakthrough, to put it succinctly, represents the arrival of the 21st century art cinema, highlighting the new century's distance from late 20th century European-influenced modernism as practiced by its greatest practitioners Abbas Kiarostami and Hou Hsiao-hsien.
Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2007, France)
In remaking Albert Lamorisse's 1956 French children's classic The Red Balloon, the Taiwanese-based Hou has created the year's most multi-layered mediation on its subject: namely of the melancholic content of the source material and its process of reproduction in Flight of the Red Balloon. This is a work where each formal element retains a narrative and thematic significance, whether it is the piano score that conveys the young boy's psychology or the camera movements that transit between the spaces in front of and behind the Taiwanese puppet stage (thus doing the formal work of de-mystification). In other words, The Flight of the Red Balloon is one more masterpiece from a filmmaker who has been making nothing but for the past two decades.
Goodbye Dragon Inn (Tsai Ming-liang, 2003, Taiwan)
Goodbye Dragon Inn represents 2003's most distinctive example of a filmmaker recreating the language of the medium in the image of his or her subject matter. In this case, Tsai manipulates film time (the long take) and film space (the long shot) for the purpose of communicating the loneliness of a group of movie house patrons and employees on the day of a theatre's closing. Though Tsai's film succeeds in maintaining a comic tone throughout much of the work - be it somebody chewing too loudly in the theatre, or standing in the urinal immediately beside the only other person in the bathroom - there is a deep and undeniable undercurrent of unhappiness that imbues the work. Finally, people are alone, with little hope for remedy: in Goodbye Dragon Inn, characters hoping for a meaningful romantic connection constantly miss one another. One of the most beautiful examples, for instance, is the burning cigarette that the crippled theatre employee finds on missing her coworker again. A second is the film's first lines of dialogue, occurring nearly one hour into the work: a young man approaches another for a tryst, only to discover, ironically, that the other gentleman does not even speak the same language. Moreover, its location is not incidental to its theme: that the narrative occurs in an old movie palace awaiting closure broadens the film into a critique of the current inadequacy of film culture -- few remain in the seats for King Hu's 1966 classic, Dragon Inn. And at the same time, the space becomes the perfect platform for Tsai's thought: here is a place where people find themselves in close proximity, even as they fail to interact with one another.
I'm Going Home (Manoel de Oliveira, 2001, 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 re-acclimates 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.
Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001, 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.
Mystic River (Clint Eastwood, 2003, United States)
Like Unforgiven (1992) more than a decade earlier, Mystic River functions as a career-summarizing masterwork, coalescing the director's principle preoccupations into a single, classically-composed narrative. The film opens with three young boys carving their names into fresh concrete. Before one of them has finished, two police officers catch the young vandals in the act. The pair haul away the young man and proceeded to sexual molest him. Flash ahead to their adulthood, where the victimized child is now a mentally and emotionally crippled adult (played brilliantly by Tim Robbins). The incomplete vandalism thus becomes a metaphor for this child robbed of his youthful innocence -- a major theme in many of Eastwood's best, including his 1993 masterpiece, A Perfect World. Sean Penn also stars as the second grown child, now a small-time crime boss. As the story moves forward, his teenage daughter is raped and brutally murdered. Enter Kevin Bacon, the third of the three young men, who has since become a Boston police officer. As the investigation progresses slowly, Penn, unwilling to wait for justice to be meted, sets off to avenge his daughter's death. This provides the moral of Mystic River, the unintended consequences of vigilantism, which also confers upon the film its self-consciousness: provided that Eastwood is famous for his 'Man with No Name' and 'Dirty Harry' personas, it would seem that he is now asking what if any role his creations play in the proliferation of violence in American society. The somewhat contentious final scene indicates his complicity. Mystic River thus joins the very best of Hollywood past in enjoining a taut classical narrative and a procedural self-consciousness.
Russian Ark (Aleksandr Sokurov, 2002, Russia/Germany)
The fact that Russian Ark is comprised only of one 96-minute shot may give one the wrong impression about the film: that it is primarily a technical tour-de-force. While of course this unprecedented formal accomplishment is the most striking feature of its form, it is all-the-same a formal strategy subservient to its broader thematic concerns. With Russian Ark, director Aleksandr Sokurov has forged an ark of his own out of the world's largest museum, St. Petersburg's Hermitage, filling it thus with time. As the director moves his DV camera through the historic space, one moment in time collapses into another as Sokurov shuttles his spectator through three hundred years of Russian history. Consequently, multiple historical moments manifest themselves within the space of a single frame, provided that there is no cutting to delineate separate moments in time. In this way, it becomes clear that the film image is both time and space, though conceptually, it need not represent a single unity of the two. Time is thus spatialized in the image, as a single frame may contain at once multiple moments in time; a structure as old as the Hermitage is thus the perfect environment for the film, given its long history and succession of events. Pursuant to this grand history, Russian Ark becomes a film about the decline of European civilization, concluding in the emotional sweep present in the ultimate ball sequence (and subsequent exodus of the costumed revilers). With their departure, what remains is Russian Ark itself, an aesthetic object preserving Europe's high-art tradition as it targets not only its modern-day viewers, but also those in centuries to come.
Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, 2002, France/Iran/United States)
With Ten, Iran's greatest filmmaker has simultaneously forged a work that is thoroughly consistent with his corpus, even as it signifies a new direction. Here, Abbas Kiarostami's "half-made" cinema serves a relatively new purpose: sociopolitical change. As always, Kiarostami forces his audience to work in their interpretation of his film, prompting his viewer to create an aesthetic object from the ideas and questions included therein. (Certainly, there is an analogy between Kiarostami's framing and his view of cinema's relation to the broader world: in both cases, that which is presented is far less than that which isn't.) Indeed, Ten is less a political statement per se than it is a series of questions and problems that Kiarostami implores his audience to address. In the case of Ten, each of its open-ended interrogations relate to the role of women in Iranian society, whether it is divorce or motherhood that is at issue. Yet, as admirably as Kiarostami maintains a space for disagreement within the narration of his film, he does seem to give a sense of where he stands with Ten: the emblematic image of the woman removing her veil to reveal her shaved head no doubt communicates a concise political viewpoint. However, it is still a film that demands the viewer to interpret the issues in their own way, no less than Kiarostami's radical limitation of space demands the viewer to fill in the off-camera space that his mise-en-scene elides. In this way, Ten extends the director's aesthetic into this new subject matter, even as it remains the simplest of all the director's films: the camera leaves the space of the car only once to show a prostitute at work. This paring down of the film's visual content is facilitated by his use of digital technology for the second time. His previous venture, ABC Africa (2001) thus appears to be the transitional work in his corpus -- both for use of this technology and its social content.
Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr, 2000, Hungary/Italy/
"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.
Yi Yi (Edward Yang, 2000, 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.
Note: In the original incarnation of this list, The Headless Woman was included to Ten's exclusion. Upon a subsequent viewing of Ten, I have made the change - which in no way changes this writer's high regard for Martel's outstanding film, still one of the decade's best.