Saturday, November 21, 2009

My 100+ Favorite Films of the Aughts: 60-51 [Fanboy Edition]

60.) ATONEMENT (dir. Joe Wright)

i imagine this pick is going to be greeted with a healthy dose of WTF. but methinks this film got a bit of a bum rap. the first section - set entirely on the grounds of the luxurious english manor where the roots of the plot are hashed out - is some of the most flawless adaptive work a modern novel has ever been afforded. a stocking tugged over the lens to evoke the idyllic haze of a land before time and before The Fall, Joe Wright nails the excitable, portentous tone of the opening act while the credits are still rolling. dario marianelli’s score absorbs the clacks of that typewriter into the music itself, which throughout the film does more to unobtrusively inform the action rather than merely dress it. the pieces come together without an ounce of fat - flashbulb moments that will prove to define entire lives are framed iconically yet surrounded by a rush of action… and in this story of memory and the means by which the narratives people create recast the past and decide the future, the disparity between images too exact to forget and the dangerously vague and inviting sights around them is of supreme importance. the film is admittedly a bit muddled in its middle stages, particularly when a blank teenaged version of saoirse ronan’s character makes you wish she had never grown up. but the vanessa redgrave monologue which closes the film - so perfectly adapted to the format of a tv interview - almost negates some of the jumbled moments that proved too difficult to transpose. her mannerisms and hair perfectly in line with those of the actresses who played younger versions of her character… redgrave’s speech hints at a childhood forever stunted by fictions, desperately trying in her dying days to atone for the story of her life with one last narrative. a technically masterful film with a touching payoff almost as sad as the fact that joe wright followed this film with The Soloist, Atonement is a great film in which it’s easy to mistake the forest for the trees.

59.) HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS (dir. Zhang Yimou)

zhang yimou seems to be the one thing that the chinese government and i can agree upon… heartening news for them, i’m sure, as they’ve desperately been seeking my love for quite some time. with efforts like Raise the Red Lantern and To Live, Yimou spent the 1990s proving himself among the finest filmmakers to emerge from Beijing Film Academy’s “fifth generation”… a reputation he spent the brunt of the aughts soiling not with trash, but with films considerably less vital or challenging than those of jia zhangke and the likes of the “6th generation.” his relationship with the government uncommonly agreeable for the likes of a contemporary chinese artist, his recent works have either been merely lovely (Happy Times) or beautiful in spite of their problematic messages (Hero). but with House of Flying Daggers, Yimou happened upon a blissfully simple story with the broad grace of an established legend, the politics of which serve only to arbitrarily divide the characters rather than preach to the viewer. stunning wuxia action sequences buttressed by CG but anchored with dazzling choreography frame the simple love triangle at the heart of the story… substituting beauty and feeling for character (a natural trade for any director working with Zhang Ziyi), this gorgeous piece of work is lithe and air-tight where similar films have become lost in their own bloated tales. and the ending… a tragic and lovely last shot equaled in the Aughts only by Cache in the amount of information it giddily gives the viewer to pick apart.

58.) THE PIANIST (dir. Roman Polanski)

ugh, roman polanski… why must you force me to write about you? that always ends poorly. i mean, this is one of his best films… and among the very few of his recent efforts good enough to suggest that his incarceration is a serious detriment to the film world. another, particularly harrowing meditation on the function and value of art (i seem to like those), this one using established holocaust narratives as the scaffolding from under which it escapes to fresh territory. polanski employs the tragically tired tropes of established holocaust cinema only as a place from which to depart… not only does the well-worn territory of the opening hour amplify the degree to which adrien brody’s eponymous lead finds himself suddenly isolated from his fellow survivors and the trajectory we expect him to travel, it also - eventually - induces a direct assessment not with the means by which the holocaust has been recounted, but the absolute need for it to be recounted at all. as my agnostic family rehashes every year when the high holidays roll around, the embattled Jewish faith is often practiced not because of a strict belief in scripture, but because certain stories have to be told. here is the story of a man saved by his art, descended from a people saved by their stories.

57.) 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, AND 2 DAYS (dir. Cristian Mungiu)

another romanian film shot by Oleg Mutu (the DP behind the camera for The Death of Mr. Lazarescu) in which the poised and unblinking camera - in absorbing every detail - damns by omission the government’s concern for its people. the grim saga of a young girl seeking an abortion procedure during a time when the then-communist state made such acts in which citizens expressed autonomy over their lives and bodies illegal, Mungiu’s film is far less concerned with the question of abortion than he is how people live in a totalitarian state where they aren’t free to decide to answer for themselves. most of the interiors are captured in linger, static shots in which run-down rooms quick become prison cells… every building is presented as if systematically designed to oppress its occupants, and through the dichotomy between indoor spaces and the few spastic scenes set outside, mungiu establishes an unpleasant short-hand for spiritual subjugation. the fetus never has a chance… but the dehumanizing process the girl is forced to endure to ensure the inevitable termination of her pregnancy suggests that the suppression of free will is a destructive force capable of begetting tragic ugliness the results of personal liberty could never match.

56.) THE WORLD (dir. Jia Zhangke)

china’s most significant working filmmaker makes a major film in every way as vital as his breakthrough 2000 film, Platform. a state of the nation set largely on the grounds of a real rundown edutainment theme park in Beijing, synopsizes the vibe of the entire country in a fantasia of wonderfully animated text conversations (invariably between a man and a woman, sexual dynamics again used by zhangke exclusively as a conduit) and grim, increasingly surreal bits that coldly chronicle the real lives of those who make the place dance and flash. a film that offers endless fodder yet refuses to resolve itself into an easily understandable whole, methinks The World may not be zhangke’s most fondly remembered work, but as an artifact it might be his most important.

55.) MEMORIES OF MURDER (dir. Bong Joon-Ho)

the film that put bong joon-ho on the map, Memories of Murder is a procedural much in the same vein as Zodiac, but where fincher’s film prizes details and process above all else, bong’s take on korea’s most infamous string of unsolved murders is more concerned with ends than means. chilling, darkly comedic, and sadly poignant… Memories of Murder is the account of what happens when protocol is subsumed by more basic drives… confidently composed and featuring a classic performance by the indomitable Song Kang-Ho, this is one of the defining masterpieces of the Korean New Wave.

54.) KILL BILL (dir. Quentin Tarantino)

53.) OFFSIDE (dir. Jafar Panahi)

this marvelous, warm, and shrewdly focused gem about a bunch of girls independently sneaking into an iranian world cup match in a stadium where their gender is decidedly unwelcome is the most fun of the great jafar panahi’s invariably splendid films. the tension between the trespassers (disguised as boys to mixed effect) and the apathetic guards simply fulfilling their required military service is wonderfully gentle and resigned, and panahi - wisely understanding that the brunt of his audience need not be convinced that the girls are being discriminated against - is more involved in the ladies’ ultimately poignant individual concerns than any sort of canned message. the final, slowed moments are moving to the extreme, and the suspense generated by a soccer match that goes entirely unseen by the viewer is seriously impressive. see this movie - you’ll love it like barack obama loves interrupting To Catch a Predator with some bullshit from China. and trust me, he loves that. ugh. you may have saved this country from sarah palin, barack, but you just ruined my sunday night.

52.) TROPICAL MALADY (dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

common wisdom suggests that weerasethakul’s best film is his justifiably beloved Syndromes and a Century, but Tropical Malady is unabashedly my favorite. a thai soldier meets a local boy and kicks up a charming little romance that introduced me to the song “Straight,” by Fashion Show (a.k.a. the catchy thai pop song that melted my face off Raiders of the Lost Ark style and incited an epic internet quest to download). oh, but then about 50 minutes in it turns out that it’s a weerasethakul movie, and the narrative is sharply bifurcated into two wildly dissimilar halves. one of the lovers wanders off into the night, the viewer is treated to a second set of opening credits, and then the remaining duration of the film recasts the love story (with the same two actors) as the mythical tale of a lone hunter journeying deep into the woods to find a missing villager. along the way the hunter is tormented by a tiger spirit (played by the local boy from the first portion) and becomes hopelessly lost. divisively esoteric as it lovely, Tropical Malady is perhaps more by consumed by narrative refractions and memory as any weerasethakul film this side of A Mysterious Object at Noon. much like its lovers, the film flirts with love’s beguiling nature only fo so long as it can stave off being consumed by the infection.


sorry, but i’ve gotta run and see rob marshall’s Nine in a few hours… didn’t allow myself enough time for these wee things. are we at the top 10, yet? those are my favorite. ha. see ya tomorrow, when magicians, balloons, and Mennonites collide.


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