The Year and Decade in Review, Part 2

Features, FILM
img_tenHow film and television has fared (so far) this century.

The Ten Best Films of the Decade

1. Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 2002)

Ten perhaps summed up what filmmaking could do, or at least should do, with digital technology, the technology that has fundamentally altered cinema this decade. On the surface, it’s a snapshot of Iran from one of contemporary cinema’s greatest filmmakers. However, like much of Kiarostami’s work, it’s also about the constructed nature of film, authorial intervention, the inability for authors and audiences to be truly objective (in spite of this film’s ‘unmediated’ construction), and the weird line between documentary and fiction. It’s also tremendously funny, politically sharp, and joyous about life and cinema. Roger Ebert, in a particular ‘dinosaur’ review, said the film was overrated because anyone could make a film like this. If anyone could make a film as warm, incisive and potent as Ten, then the 21st century is going to be a great time to be a cinephile.

2. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, Japan, 2001)

Miyazaki captures childhood better than any other filmmaker in history. It’s mainly because he never patronises his characters, young or old, and he always manages to see the good in everyone (which can often make his endings a little awkward). despite his clear political and moralistic stories. Spirited Away stood out because it was a film in which his imagination runs crazy. Full of great characters and stunning animation, it achieved that rare feat of appearing truly wondrous while also appearing so human.

3. Hidden (Michael Haneke, France, 2005)

Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke’s ruthless take on collective amnesia, bourgeois smugness, and xenophobia, somehow managed to avoid the sermonising of many other political films. Part of the reason was Haneke’s formal intelligence (the film resembles the jagged cutting style of Dreyer’s Getrud) and his clear-eyed depiction of his characters’ flaws. It also captured the world’s state in the 2000s and the West’s uncomfortable relationship with ‘foreigners’: while the film was about the French massacre of Algerians, there are clear allusions to the ‘War on Terror’. There’s always hope in Haneke’s films, but in this film at least, Haneke proved himself to be one of the world’s most unapologetic social commentators.

4. In the Dark (Sergei Dvortsevoy, Russia, 2004)

Forty-one minutes was all Kazakh filmmaker Sergei Dvortsevoy needed to tell one of the decade’s most heartbreaking tales. The documentary looks at an elderly blind old man who makes bags out of string. However, no one wants to take them, as everyone uses plastic bags anyway. His only companion is his cat, with whom he constantly fights (the cat, unsurprisingly, liked the string). A perfect subject which in its quiet way showed the effect of loneliness and time passing. Almost too devastating to watch, the documentary revealed how the world has simply passed some people by.

5. Turning Gate (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea, 2002)

Hong Sang-soo is the sharpest dissector of romantic relationships and sex working in cinema today, and the noughties saw him in fine form. Turning Gate is a tale which folded in on itself: based on a Korean folk-tale, Gyung-soo finds himself in two symmetrically disastrous relationships which end up playing out the folk-tale outlined at the start. Hilarious, cynical, and perfectly acted, Turning Gate managed to turn the banal into something quite sublime.

6. The Death of Mr Lazarescu (Christi Puiu, Romania, 2005)

Romania was one of world cinema’s hottest destinations for filmmaking over the last decade, so it’s inevitable that it produced one of the decade’s best films. Puiu managed to turn an overweight elderly alcoholic’s Sisyphean quest to get hospital treatment into an existential howl. And while the film was certainly bleak, it also had a rare light of human warmth and friendship (much like another great and depressing Romanian New Wave film, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which utilised a similar friendship). And while it was also very funny, it was an unrelentingly cruel indictment of human relationships, profits, and unkindness. And if you can’t rely on doctors who swear an oath to take care of you, who can you rely on?

7. Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, USA, 2005)

Werner Herzog’s career has been built on the study of deeply flawed megalomaniacs who have varying degrees of power. Timothy Treadwell was perhaps his most fascinating portrait—a bear enthusiast who decided to live with Alaskan grizzly bears, until the inevitable happened. Herzog pieced together Treadwell’s tapes and footage, and created an intensely moving portrait of a deeply flawed individual. Herzog ultimately did to Treadwell what Treadwell did to the bears. Both Herzog and Treadwell tried to learn and capture their subjects, but were ultimately defeated by the mysteries of each. Herzog made a masterpiece out of his experience. Treadwell and his unfortunate girlfriend made a nice lunch.

8. Blissfully Yours (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2002)

An illegal Burmese immigrant in Thailand and his girlfriend set off to the country. They have sex. That’s about it. But in the best traditions of Renoir (specifically, A Day in the Country) or even Chekhov, it’s the simmering subtext underneath which tells a completely different story to the idyllic setting. While Weerasethakul’s films get pigeonholed into minimalism (i.e. they’re ‘slow’) they’re also funny and sharp. And, of course, Blissfully Yours, like his others, was a visual feast.

9. A Ma Soeur! (Catherine Breillat, France, 2000)

Breillat’s characters can often feel like intellectual profiles rather than fully-fledged people. A Ma Soeur!, however, was all too human, and a complete shift away from the coldness of her brilliant (but distant) treatise Romance. Perhaps it was because she defined the two sisters so beautifully—one, the Salieri-esque embittered (but realist) ‘ugly’ girl, and the other, a stunning older sister who you know is going to get burned. The film’s shock ending provoked plenty of discussion, but Breillat’s earlier pointed depiction of the older sister’s romance gave the ending its raw force.

10. Our Beloved Month of August (Miguel Gomes, Portugal, 2009)

Portuguese filmmaker Miguel Gomes has made perhaps the most revolutionary depiction of ‘Otherness’ this decade. The film begins as an ethnographic documentary set in rural Portugal, before the real-life documentary figures end up being characters in a fictional story. Mind-blowing in its results, it’s a film which managed to tell a painfully human story while re-writing the rules of story-telling. 

The Ten Worst Films of the Decade

To me, a bad film isn’t necessarily an incompetent one. Hence, I would never say Crank is a bad film, because it’s too damn enjoyable. However, I do hate films which claim to be great (or have critics proclaim their greatness, when they’re nothing of the sort), or set out to entertain and fail at that simple goal despite using up hundreds of millions of dollars. I find it far more irksome when films pretend to be something they’re not. Spider-Man 2, according to my criteria, is a far superior movie to American Beauty, for example.

img_united931. United 93 (Paul Greengrass, USA, 2007)

I am still yet to see the point of this film. September 11, 2001 was a heinous crime, but its aftermath has seen the event de-contextualised and ahistoricised (e.g. by dropping the ‘2001’, by the War on ‘Terror’). United 93 decided to recreate the events of United 93—by decontextualising and ahistoricising it. Given the visceral, wall-to-wall media coverage, the film shed nothing new on events. Instead, it was insular, racist, and pretty damn conniving. It was however a big box office hit. I guess that was the point the whole time.

2. Crash (Paul Haggis, USA, 2004)

How this film won Best Picture at the Academy Awards is beyond me. While the gongs this decade have gone to some clunkers (Chicago, A Beautiful Mind, Lord of the Rings… actually everything but No Country for Old Men), Crash seemed particularly egregious because it beat two much better films: Brokeback Mountain (beautiful, Heath Ledger’s performance one of the best this decade), and Munich (Spielberg’s best since Jaws, apart from that sex scene). Crash was a cheesy, forced piece of hand wringing, which said nothing about race, and even less about contemporary urban life.

3. Antichrist (Lars von Trier, Denmark, 2009)

Lars von Trier’s turkey seems trapped in-between psychoanalytic feminist theory (and yes, there is no empirical evidence which can justify psychoanalysis and its essentialising is sooo 1960s) and von Trier’s own raving misogyny. Neither of which were particularly interesting. While it was one of the worst films of the decade, it was also one of the best comedies. So every cloud…

4. Irreversible (Gaspar Noé, France, 2002)

Gaspar Noé was responsible for the worst piece of filmmaking committed to celluloid this decade (his contribution to the portmanteau Destricted) but Irreversible is a trite, calculated mess. A true triumph of style over content, if you ignore its formal trickery, its story is remarkably dumb. Homophobic, reactionary, moralising (in spite of it simply ‘showing’ or whatever it claimed to do), the story has been read as being deep without actually having any depth to it whatsoever. For fuck’s sake, it marketed itself on having a ten-minute anal rape scene. 

5. Moulin Rouge (Baz Luhrmann, USA, 2000)

Back in the day when Nicole Kidman wasn’t box office poison, Moulin Rouge was a global hit. It was also remarkably difficult to watch—turgid storytelling and characters, editing that made a Michael Bay film look like Russian Ark, and songs that weren’t particularly memorable. Which is probably not a good thing if you’re a musical.

6. The Passion of the Christ (Mel Gibson, USA, 2004)

Before Mel Gibson was blaming Jewish people for starting all the wars (a big call if you count the Aztec Conquest or the Goguryeo-Sui Wars), he was blaming them for killing Jesus Christ. And how. You could feel Gibson getting turned on by the torture, but apparently it was also expressing Mel Gibson’s faith. Still, thanks to some people wanting kids to see it in New Zealand, we’ve got far laxer censorship than before.

7. Star Wars: Attack of the Clones (George Lucas, USA, 2002)

I don’t think anyone expected this film to be any good. And, it wasn’t.

8. Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, UK, 2008)

Poverty porn.

9. The Matrix Reloaded (Andy & Larry Wachowski, USA, 2002)

Fresh from slaying the box office with the Baudrillard misusing of The Matrix, the second part of the trilogy failed to do what the first one did: entertain. An ungodly mess, the trilogy was not helped by a remarkably bland finally to the franchise.

10. Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly, USA, 2001)

Sometimes films just aren’t meant to be revisited. If you re-watch this film, you will realise that it’s nowhere near as profound you thought it was when you were eighteen. Great soundtrack though.

The Five Best Television Shows of the Decade

img_theoffice1. The Office UK (2001-2003)

No show captured the zeitgeist as well The Office. Sure it’s funny, outrageously so. (And unlike Gervais and Merchant’s follow-up Extras, the jokes drive the narrative, rather than stand alone as set-pieces.) But it’s also a philosophical howl: with its key themes of social conformity, our celebrity-driven culture, the constructed nature of documentary and film, and trying to gain meaning when life is a mere Sisyphean routine. Flawlessly acted, it also features some of the greatest characters ever to appear on the small screen—from the sad and pathetic David Brent, to the trapped and cowardly Tim Canterbury, to the ambitious sycophant Gareth Keenan. And even if the Christmas Special offered a faint glimmer of hope, the show is ultimately a highly quotable, brutal indictment of our working life.

2. The Wire (2002-2008)

The Wire has turned into a word-of-mouth phenomenon, the type of show people talk about in hushed whispers and with religious zeal. And it’s surprising the success it has had: a ratings disaster, a cast with no names, ‘too much’ diversity for mainstream programming, complex social commentary and characters, argot which frequently needs subtitles to decipher, and storylines which are novelistic not stand alone. Its success also demonstrates another thing: there are plenty of people who would rather watch intelligent, ambitious, exciting television rather than what is usually passed off during primetime.

3. Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000-)

Larry David is a horrible, horrible person. Which makes all the bad stuff that happens to him all the funnier and more painful. But the scariest thing about Curb Your Enthusiasm is that you end up agreeing with his misanthropy.

4. We Can Be Heroes (2005)

Chris Lilley would be a global superstar if he was American or British. Instead, his two series, We Can Be Heroes and Summer Heights High, have to settle for cult status. We Can Be Heroes stands out for the empathy he shows his characters, even if they’re incredibly flawed and grotesque individuals. It’s also utterly hilarious, and Lilley’s acting performances are really quite something.

5. The Simpsons (1989-)

Of course, today’s Simpsons doesn’t come close to the The Simpsons of the nineties, which was one of the highpoints of 20th Century art. But the show remains effortlessly funny, and as pointed as ever. It also left its competitors in its wake—the nihilism of Family Guy and South Park, while funny at times, never actually make you to care about the characters, or imbue the social commentary with any warmth. Granted, anything animated comedies tried to do in the noughties, The Simpsons had already done it.

The Ten Best Films of 2009

  1. Our Beloved Month of August (Miguel Gomes, Portugal, 2008)
  2. The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, Germany/Austria)
  3. Tony Manero (Pablo Larrain, Chile, 2008)
  4. Birdsong (Albert Serra, Spain, 2008)
  5. Still Walking (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan, 2008)
  6. Ponyo (Hayao Miyazaki, Japan, 2008)
  7. Bluebeard (Catherine Breillat, France, 2008)
  8. Brüno (Larry Charles, United States)
  9. The Class (Laurent Cantet, France, 2008)
  10. Blind Loves (Juraj Lehotsky, Slovakia, 2008)

Films I deeply regret missing: Paper Soldier, Tulpan, Teza, 24 City.
Also highly recommended: 35 Shots of Rum, Dogtooth, Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl.
Best revisit: Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.