Monday, August 4, 2008

Ten Best Films of 2002

1. Russian Ark (Aleksandr Sokurov, 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.

2. Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, 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.

3. Blissfully Yours (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 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.

4. Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (Wang Bing, China)
The first of three Mainland Chinese films on this list, the nine-hour Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks has proven generative of the next decade-and-a-half of non-fiction filmmaking by China's most vital chronicler of its marginalized citizens, Wang Bing. West of the Tracks indeed contains the seeds of Fengming: A Chinese Memoir and 'Till Madness Do Us Part among other major work, charting the collapse not just of factories, but of an entire economic system. A masterpiece of the early twenty-first century cinema.

5. Talk to Her (Pedro Almodóvar, Spain)
Understatement is not generally a quality associated with Spain's most infamous provocateur. No doubt, the baroque hyperbole of Pedro Almodóvar's art -- formally and thematically -- accounts for much of its international success. It is interesting therefore to consider the case of Talk to Her, perhaps his greatest accomplishment. In yet another film about sexuality, Almodóvar is famously homosexual in his preference, the director adopts a narrative that engages the issue via the topic of loneliness. Here, Almodóvar creates a series of characters whom all suffer from this emotional baggage for all or part of his work. Thus, when Marco moves into the apartment of friend Begnino, literally seeing what the latter saw before committing an act of unspeakable perversity, the former (like the audience itself) learns to understand the source of Begnino's psychosis. After all, he is no less lonely. Likewise, Almodóvar renders gender as something which is fundamentally fluid: Begnino is a nurse, Lydia a female bullfighter, and Marco, though masculine, weeps when seeing Lydia. In these ways, the director provides an argument for sexual tolerance without succumbing to heavy-handedness. In fact, it is the film's quality of metaphor which is perhaps its most striking feature: when it looks as though Marco's loneliness will be finally satiated at the end of the film, Almodóvar represents the emotional beauty of this connection in the visual of a series of couples dancing on stage. This after all is what the film is about.

6. The Son (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, Belgium/France)
The Dardenne Brothers third film is a Christian allegory that modifies the art of Robert Bresson to accommodate the epistle of James' theology: in The Son, a faith with works is, as the books says, dead. Olivier Gourmet (in a flawlessly intractable performance) plays the father of a murdered teenager. When his son's teenage killer is released, Gourmet's character accepts the young man as an apprentice carpenter (another instance of allegory, of course). When finally he confronts the boy with his identity, the boy responds with a sort of nervous violence. However, the moral of the allegory is forgiveness, which is necessary even in this most extreme of cases. What makes the film Jamesian is the expression of his forgiveness through his actions, whether it is initially taking the boy on his apprentice or his response after the latter gives him every cause to sever their relationship. In narrative terms, the fact that the Dardennes' devote so much attention to the training of the boy in his new vocation likewise belies the particular shade of the Brother's Christian allegory. Stylistically, the camera's tight, over-the-shoulder framing of Gourmet's foreman, presented in long take, emphasizes the physicality of his labor. It also strips the film's visual space of everything but the fact of the labor, thereby reinforcing the film's principle preoccupation. In this way there exists in The Son an organic consistency in the relationship between the film's style and its religious content.

7. Friday Night (Claire Denis, France)
Friday Night opens with an apartment littered with boxes. A woman is leaving her Parisian flat to move in with her boyfriend. In the next scene, following images of a nocturnal Paris, the woman is shown in her car, stuck in horrendous traffic. It would seem that the city has been shutdown by a monumental transit strike. A man knocks on the window and she immediately locks the doors and pulls away. The woman then calls her boyfriend Francois and shortly thereafter offers a handsome young man a ride. He declines. After making eye contact with another, Denis cuts to a beautiful blond, applying lipstick in her adjacent automobile -- surely the man whom she had just glimpsed would prefer this gorgeous woman to herself. However, the gentleman does approach her and the pair sit beside each other in the protagonist's vehicle. Denis shoots point-of-view shots of the man's body, his hands, his breathing chest. To be sure, this is a film where the gender of its female director is absolutely essential to its style, which revises the male-privileged gaze. Ultimately, the pair will spend the night with one another, before parting the next morpresumablymeably never to see one another again. But this is not the point. In fact, a strong case could be made that this romantic coupling does not occur at all, but instead represents the woman's desire (and latent anxiety) on the occasion of moving in with her boyfriend. Denis certainly encourages this interpretation both in the associations that her editing elicits and in the male objectification of her mise-en-scene. Certainly, there is no regret in Denis' film. Yet, this is less Denis' moral than it is a confirmation that Friday Night is nothing more than it pretends to be: a film. In this way she remains very much a student of her former boss Jacques Rivette.

8. Spider (David Cronenberg, Canada/United Kingdom)
David Cronenberg's Spider represents one the Canadian director's signature accomplishments. Spider stars Ralph Fiennes, whose character has been recently dispatched from a London asylum. He finds himself in an East End halfway house, situated in a postindustrial wasteland. In consultation with an unnegligible diary, the title character begins to explore a childhood where it seems as though his father killed his mother in order that he might live with the local tart. Interestingly, in many of the memories, both the adult and childhood 'Spider' are present; in the one's concerning the murder, however, it is only the adult incarnation. As such, the intimation that this is memory begins to break down, lending credibility to an alternative interpretation where Fienne's fantasies are instead extrapolation. Ultimately, when the director clarifies what actually occurred that day, it becomes evident that 'Spider' is suffering from schizophrenia. As a result, Cronenberg suggests that 'Spider' was incapable of differentiating conflicting feelings that he possessed towards his mother (played by actress Miranda Richardson). Without revealing too much of the plot, suffice it to say that the film is almost anti-Freudian in its ill-ease with the Oedipal conflict: 'Spider's' mental illness ultimately belies the problematic at the core of Freud's understanding of the relationship between mothers and sons. Moreover, the title character's mental illness also structures the picture's narrative form, providing a form to match the director's long-held ideas and preoccupations. Ultimately, the strength of Spider rests in its success in universalizing the basic conflict characterizing the film's narrative, even as the film's protagonist is non-universal in his psycho-pathology. As such, Spider also succeeds in illuminating many of the director's early works, lending them a scope not immediately evident in their narratives.

9. 25th Hour (Spike Lee, United States)
The ultimate post-9/11 film, Spike Lee's 25th Hour, his masterpiece at the time of its release, is the most ecumenical, and for this writer emotionally impactful effort of his career. Recounting the final day of Edward Norton's (Monty's) freedom the day before his sentence on a drug charge begin, 25th Hour builds its narrative discourse around the tragic incarceration rates inflicting America's black male population. Complete with an anxious nod to the forbidden subject of male-on-male prison sexual assault, 25th Hour hurdles toward one of the cinema's most extraordinary counterfactual sequences - Monty's, and the community he stands in for, life recounted sans the injustice of the fate that awaits. Of course, this same counterfactual also applies to those who lost their lives in the World Trade Center bombings, a subject that transformed the production and meaning of Lee's film. And there is the aforesaid ecumenical spirit: while we as always have the tropes of Lee's dialectical art, the director ultimately opts for the love of all his fellow New Yorkers, an expression of human solidarity that lasted for an all-to-brief moment after the attack. 

10. Springtime in a Small Town (Tian Zhuangzhuang, China/Hong Kong/France/Netherlands)
A remake of perhaps the greatest Mainland Chinese film, Fei Mu's 1948 classic Spring in a Small Town, Tian's update does not simply evade the inherent problem of remaking one of the all-time great works of world cinema, but further serves as a model of filmmaking at its best, which is to say filmmaking at its most exact. The beauty of the director's long-awaited follow-up to his immensely powerful indictment of China's Cultural Revolution, The Blue Kite (1993) - which coincidentally got Tian banned from filmmaking for nearly a decade - rests in the precision with which Tian controls his character's gestures and in the careful modulation of his mise-en-scene. To the former, it is the director's exacting use of a furtive glance or a stolen caress to communicate character psychology. With reference to the content of his images, Springtime stands as a very detailed evocation of a postwar world, where, apropos of the original (as Tony Rayns noted) a feeling of defeat in victory pervaded. Here, as in Fei's work, the collapsing homestead is a visual analogy for the failing marriage. With the arrival of an old friend of the couple's, the woman's dormant desire is again woken, having been rendered dormant consequent to her husband's suggested impotence. Add to this triage the teenage sister of the husband, who herself has a crush on the guest, and what results is a stage upon which the pains of unconsummated love are worked out through the film's very careful gestural construction. While none of this would seem to suggest the radical matrix of his best-known earlier works, The Blue Kite and the anti-authoritarian Horse Thief (1986), the very fact that Tian emphasizes the personal rather than the political, a revolutionary statement in its own right, reconfirms Tian as the most courageous of the Fifth Generation filmmakers.

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