Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Best Films of the Decade: 20 - 11

This was hard. In compiling a list of the decade's best film, I set myself the rule of having only one picture per director, but even that didn't make it any easier, and I ended up losing a lot of films that would have certainly merited a place among such a collection. Here are a few that came very close to making it: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World; Atanarjuat; Yi Yi; The House of Mirth; Silent Light; Miami Vice; Ghost World; In the Mood For Love; Lantana; The Aviator; Bloody Sunday; Springtime in a Small Town; The Return; Time Out; Y tu mamá también; Ten.

That's a pretty good selection of films, but they ultimately weren't quite good enough, and here are the ones that did make the cut.

20 – Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004)
This is the best sequel of the decade. Nine years after they shared a brief encounter in Before Sunrise, Ethan Hawke's Jesse and Julie Delpy's Celine were reunited in Paris for this perfectly judged film. Unfolding in something close to real time, the film follows the two characters as they walk and talk, discussing that night in Vienna, cursing the time they have lost, and wondering if this chance encounter means they really do belong together. Linklater's direction is fluid and unintrusive, allowing Hawke and Delpy to carry the picture, with both actors being entirely comfortable in their characters' skin. Their unforced performances and tangible chemistry is the film's engine, and the conversation they share is witty, touching and true. At just 80 minutes, there isn't a wasted moment, and it grows unexpectedly compelling as the end draws near – will they finally take this opportunity to be together, or will they allow fate to dictate their futures once more? There is scope for a third Sunset film, but it's impossible to imagine how Linklater, Hawke and Delpy could improve on this film's perfect ending.

19 – Memories of Murder (Bong Joon-ho, 2003)
Given that it is based on the grisly true story of South Korea's first serial killer, it's not surprising that Memories of Murder is a dark, violent and twisted tale, but it's also really funny. That's the miracle of Bong Joon-ho, the young Korean filmmaker who has shown a peerless ability to blend disparate styles and tones into a single satisfying whole. Memories of Murder follows the ultimately futile investigation led by Detective Park (Song Kang-ho), a local cop facing his first big case, and Detective Seo (Kim Sang-kyung), who has been despatched from Seoul to lend his assistance. The characters are richly drawn – not brilliant detectives, not bumbling clowns, but something in between, something more real – and despite the foregone conclusion of the investigation's failure, Bong manages to develop a powerful sense of tension, which he occasionally deflates with some well-timed slapstick. It is effective as a thriller, as a comedy, as a social satire, and finally – most powerfully – as a study of ordinary people driven by an obsession that can never be satisfied; an obsession that is beautifully encapsulated in the film's stunning final shot.

18 – The Heart of the World (Guy Maddin, 2000)
The longest film on this list is almost three hours long, while the shortest is a mere six minutes. Guy Maddin made The Heart of the World for the 2000 Toronto Film Festival, as a short to play before the main features, but when the festival was over, his film had made a bigger impact than most of the full-length works that followed it. A marvellously inventive tribute to Soviet silent cinema, the film is densely packed with incident from first frame to last, as state scientist Anna (Leslie Bais) discovers the world is dying of heart failure, leading to outbreaks of orgiastic hysteria, and prompting two brothers (Caelum Vatnsdal and Shaun Balbar) to fight for her love while there's still time. Maddin orchestrates all of this in his usual frenetic fashion, and it's hard to resist the flow of amazing imagery as he builds towards a genuinely rousing finale – Kino! Kino! Kino! I could have selected any of half a dozen Maddin films for a place on this list, but The Heart of the World is just such an exhilarating work, and it feels like the purest concentration of the Guy Maddin experience.

17 – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000)
Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon takes a little while to get going, but when it takes off, it really takes off. The first time a fight sequence is interrupted by one of the participants leaping up a wall and dancing across the rooftops is a truly majestic moment, and throughout the film, Lee's direction is as light and clever as his characters' footwork. His film is anchored by strong central performances from Chow Yun-fat, Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi (her breakthrough role, and she's never been better), and by two parallel love stories, and that solid centre allows him to adorn the story with a series of breathtaking action scenes. Lee's handling of the film's action has not been matched by anything that came afterwards; it is simultaneously thrilling and graceful, and each encounter plays a part in shaping our understanding of the characters and the story. It is a truly wonderful piece of filmmaking.

16 – Belleville Rendez-vous (Sylvain Chomet, 2003)
I spent some time trying to decide which of Pixar's many fine films should earn a place on this list, but then I remembered Sylvain Chomet's magnificent French oddity, which instantly leapfrogged the animated competition. Years before Pixar cast grouchy old Carl as the lead character in Up, Chomet built his story around a little old lady with a clubfoot; a most unlikely hero for a most unusual tale. As she embarks upon an epic quest to rescue her kidnapped son, Chomet dazzles us with his unique and beautiful visual style, his deadpan humour, and a macabre streak that adds a real sense of danger to the plot (one scene is quite horrifying). The film is mostly silent, but Chomet compensates with a hugely expressive visual style and a catchy soundtrack, while his animation of the main characters is wonderful. The tiny old lady, her faithful fat dog, the horse-like son, the oblong mafia – these figures are painted in broad strokes, but we are instantly fascinated by them, and we quickly begin to care deeply about their adventure.

15 – The Man Who Wasn't There (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2001)
The Coen brothers' tribute to post-war film noir features a group of talented craftsmen working at the very peak of their powers. As Ed Crane, the barber who finds himself mixed up in murder, Billy Bob Thornton gives a performance of remarkable understatement, barely displaying a flicker of emotion and yet remaining a fascinating protagonist. Behind the camera we have Roger Deakins, the great cinematographer, whose black-and-white work here is staggering, making brilliant use of light and shadows, and turning every shot into a singular work of art. But the greatest talent on show here, of course, is that of the Coen brothers, who produced an amazingly eclectic body of work in this decade. The Man Who Wasn't There is my favourite of these films for its rich atmosphere, the hilarious deadpan humour, the wonderfully eccentric supporting performances (Tony Shalhoub and Jon Polito) and the surprising emotional undertow that reveals itself towards the film's climax. Quite simply, it displays everything I love about their work.

14 – 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007)
The most gripping thriller of the decade, Cristian Mungiu's film brilliantly evokes the paranoid, claustrophobic atmosphere of life in Ceauşescu's Romania. Mungiu involves us in the drama immediately, as the arrangements made by Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) and Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) for Gabita's abortion begin to go awry, and he never loosens his grasp on the film's unremitting tension. It is a technically superb piece of filmmaking, with the director crafting his film through a series of expertly composed, beautifully paced long takes. The film is responsible for one of the decade's most memorable villains in Mr Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), who pounces on the girls' first signs of weakness and indecision to exert his power over them, but the acting honours are taken by Anamaria Marinca. She makes us feel every emotion that her character experiences, from the agony of a protracted dinner party to the overwhelming fear of a late-night dash through the dark, threatening streets.

13 – Dogville (Lars von Trier, 2003)
A three-hour film that takes place on a single soundstage, with the sets only existing as markings on the floor. It shouldn't work as cinema, and yet Lars von Trier's bizarre experiment turned out to be one of this mercurial director's greatest achievements. Divided into chapters and narrated by a droll John Hurt, Dogville tells the story of Grace (Nicole Kidman), a young woman who arrives in the eponymous town and asks for shelter. She is initially taken into the community, but her innate goodness is eventually exploited in a vicious fashion by the townspeople, and this is where the point of von Trier's unusual set design comes into play. As Grace is raped behind an invisible wall, it becomes a metaphor for the way people willingly turn a blind eye to those in need around them, and Dogville becomes an incisive study of human nature. Many critics derided this first instalment of von Trier's USA trilogy as an anti-American piece of work, and while his more specific follow-up Manderlay was a mistake, I believe Dogville is far more universal in its outlook. The film is superbly directed, with von Trier making great use of his surroundings and staging a number of hugely imaginative sequences, and the performances from the ensemble couldn't be better, with Kidman giving one of the many great acting displays she provided in this decade.

12 – Nobody Knows (Hirokazu Kore-Eda, 2004)
Nobody Knows views the world through the eyes of the children at the centre of its story. The four siblings are abandoned by their irresponsible mother early in the film and left to fend for themselves. Why did she leave? We don't know, because they don't know. For a while, they manage to get by on the money they were left with and the strength of the eldest Akira (Yûya Yagira), who takes control of the situation as best he can. Kore-Eda's direction is leisurely and the film has an unusual rhythm to it, in tune with the way the children's experience changes over time. There are moments of humour and sunny playfulness in the first half of the movie, but then it transpires that there is to be no happy ending for this family, and we are watching their slow slide into destitution, as the money runs out, the water and electricity is cut off, and food supplies begin to diminish. It is unbearably sad to watch, but completely compelling and full of humanity. Kore-Eda's keen eye for detail and observational style is perfectly matched to this material, and he gets heartbreakingly authentic performances from his young actors, especially Yagira, who won Best Actor at Cannes for this film.

11 – The Son (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2002)
Throughout much of The Son, the camera is perched just behind Olivier Gourmet's shoulder, peeking around his ear, and it stays there as he goes about his business. Olivier is a carpenter, who has taken a particular interest in Francis (Morgan Marinne), a young offender who has been sent there for rehabilitation. The relationship that exists between these two characters is gradually revealed over the course of the Dardenne brothers' masterpiece, and by the end of the film, we feel like we know Olivier, and we can understand all of the conflicting emotions he has been through. This is a serious study of guilt, sadness and the thirst for revenge, and the film's deep emotional complexity is handled by the Dardennes with masterful subtlety. Their typically direct approach draws us into Olivier's life, to the point where we are almost breathless with anxiety about the course of action he is going to take at the film's close. Few filmmakers deal with weighty themes with the adroitness of the Dardennes, and they are aided here by performances that are so natural and believable that you simply forget you're watching actors at work. An amazing piece of art, and a profoundly moving achievement.

See the next ten here.