Sunday, January 03, 2010

The Best Films of the Decade: 10 - 1

So here it is, the final countdown. This decade review project has been the culmination of months of re-watching films from the past ten years, and the ten listed below are the ten that have etched themselves most vividly in my mind and in my heart. Some of these films are here because of their technical expertise, some of them are here for their emotional impact, others are here because they have a sense of mystery about them that keeps me coming back for more, and some combine all of these factors. To simplify, they are all here because they are extraordinary works of cinematic art, and they are the work of hugely talented filmmakers who will hopefully manage to emulate or surpass these achievements in the decade that lies ahead.

See 20 – 11 here.

10 – Code Unknown (Michael Haneke, 2000)
Michael Haneke's Code Unknown is an intellectually challenging but hugely rewarding piece of filmmaking, which is one of the defining films of the decade for the way it captures how we communicate with each other, or how we don't, in multicultural Europe at the start of the 21st century. Consisting of a series of loosely connected vignettes – each filmed in a single take – it is a stunning feat of direction, with Haneke displaying a masterful command of composition, and imbuing so many sequences with the threat of violence, even though no violent acts are shown on screen. The film's ideas are presented in an oblique fashion, with the viewer being invited to piece together the fragments of narrative that Haneke presents, and while the stories are ambiguous and open-ended, they demand our attention thanks to the emotional immediacy the flawless cast bring to every moment. Many of the actors are unfamiliar, but they all convince in their roles, and Juliette Binoche, who has to carry a number of emotionally complex scenes, gives what may be her finest performance. In the years since it has been released, Code Unknown now appears even more impressive and it repays repeated viewings magnificently. Haneke's film is subtitled "Incomplete tales of several journeys", and that sense of randomness, that idea that we are only glimpsing a small part of these individual experiences, is what makes the film so absorbing, and so thrillingly alive.

9 – Amores perros (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2000)
In each of his pictures to date, Alejandro González Iñárritu has displayed a cinematic sense that marks him out as a hugely talented film artist, but he has never recaptured the blend of kinetic energy, engrossing storytelling and deep humanism that was evident in his debut. Amores perros was our introduction to Guillermo Arriaga as well, the screenwriter who later recycled this multiple-narrative structure, but in a far more schematic and less involving fashion. Here, the three stories are imaginative and individually compelling. We are introduced to a young man (Gael García Bernal) who dreams of starting a new life with his brother's girlfriend; a beautiful model (Goya Toledo) whose life is shattered by a car crash; an elderly tramp (Emilio Echevarría) who works as an assassin. All of the characters are convincingly drawn, and superbly played by the exceptional cast, and they bring an emotional power to the film that underpins Iñárritu's bravura filmmaking technique. With aid of Rodrigo Prieto's pulsating camerawork, and the brilliant soundtrack, he brings an irresistible flair and urgency to his direction, and weaves together his various narrative strands with remarkable skill. It stands as the electrifying pinnacle of South American cinema's vibrant new wave.

8 – Irréversible (Gaspar Noé, 2002)
I can still remember how I felt when I staggered out into the daylight after watching Irréversible. I was emotionally spent, I had a throbbing headache, and I felt physically sick, but I was also charged with an extraordinary sense of elation at being so deeply affected by this audacious work of art. Gaspar Noé is a filmmaker who will use whatever tools are at his disposal to ensure his work impacts upon the viewer in a visceral way, and this film is a directorial tour de force, with Noé utilising extravagant camerawork and invisible editing techniques to create the illusion of a film shot in impossible single takes. The combination of his ceaselessly swirling visuals and the low, dissonant rumble the director incorporates into the soundtrack will at worst make you ill and at best fill you with a deep sense of unease – and that's before we even get to the film's violence. Irréversible's two scenes of brutality are genuinely horrifying; we first see Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and Pierre (Albert Dupontel) savagely beating a man's head to a pulp, and then we see the rape of Alex (Monica Bellucci), which the pair are out to avenge. Both scenes are hard to stomach, but the nine-minute rape – during which the camera never looks away – is one of the most difficult viewing experiences I have ever had. So why recommend this almost unwatchable film? Because beneath the shocking imagery and dazzling technique, it is a profound, moving and moral piece of work. The reverse chronology adds a heavy sense of sadness to the final scenes, as Marcus and Alex make plans for their life together, unaware of the events that are about to destroy them. This is a vicious, confrontational nightmare of a film made by a bold and brilliant talent. Once seen, it is never forgotten.

7 – Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002)
Not only is Todd Haynes Far From Heaven set in the 1950's, it feels like it has been made in the 1950's. The camerawork, the score, the production design and the style of performance all look like they have come straight from a Douglas Sirk picture – but look closer. While Haynes captures the surface details of that auteur's cinema, his vantage point as a 21st century filmmaker allows him to explore the themes of sexuality and prejudice with a greater frankness than directors of an earlier era were allowed. The result is arguably the most unlikely masterpiece of the decade, a film that satisfies Sirk fans and cinephiles while also offering an accessible experience for anyone coming to it fresh. The story presents us with the parents of a perfect family, Cathy (Julianne Moore) and Frank (Dennis Quaid), whose life looks like it has come straight from the pages of a magazine. Haynes gives us the flawless surface, and then spends the rest of the film stripping it away; Frank's secret homosexuality is exposed, and the only person Cathy can turn to is her black gardener (Dennis Haysbert), which sets tongues wagging in a local community that barely bothers to conceal its racism. Far From Heaven is beautifully written, and Haynes, with the invaluable assistance of Edward Lachman, crafts every shot immaculately, with some stunningly expressive lighting being particularly praiseworthy. The score provided by Elmer Bernstein mimics the style of the time while capturing the film's fluctuating emotions gloriously, and that's the tricky balancing act the whole film manages to pull off with such miraculous grace. Far From Heaven is a tribute to the films of Douglas Sirk but, unlike some films of this nature, it never feels like a cheap parody or pastiche; it has a life of its own, and it would be considered as one of the great films whether we're talking about 1956 or 2002.

6 – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)
I have lamented elsewhere the pitiful demise of the romantic comedy in this decade, so thank God for Charlie Kaufman, who made a masterpiece of the genre by completely rewriting the rules. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind manages to fragment time and turn a traditional narrative inside-out, but it also has a clear and true emotional through-line that goes straight to the heart. The film begins with a high-concept idea – jilted lovers having the memory of their relationships erased – and it uses this device to explore the fabric of relationships, and the way we love another person for their flaws as well as their virtues. As Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) undergoes the procedure that will permanently remove Clementine (Kate Winslet) from his thoughts, he suddenly has a change of heart, when he realises you can't lose the bad memories without losing the good – it's all part of the same experience. The bulk of the film takes place inside Joel's head, with him and Clementine desperately trying to cling on to each other as previous experiences are deleted around them, and this is where Michel Gondry works his magic, finding brilliantly inventive ways to bring Joel's mental anguish to the screen, and keeping the action moving forward at a breakneck pace. But this film ultimately belongs to Kaufman, who finds the same balance between madcap surrealism and honest emotion that distinguished Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, and simply takes everything to another level. The story of Joel and Clementine is superbly intertwined with those of the expertly acted supporting characters (Kirsten Dunst has never been better), and the film builds to one of the most perfect endings I've ever seen to a romantic movie. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a true original; magical and unforgettable.

5 – Lilja 4-ever (Lukas Moodysson, 2002)
The first two films he directed established Lukas Moodysson as a filmmaker with a strong streak of optimism and compassion. His third film, Lilja 4-ever, retained that sense compassion, but all of the optimism has been thoroughly drained away in this bleak but magnificent film. Lilja 4-ever is a shot of pure, heart-wrenching emotion. From the opening minutes, when a bruised and battered Lilja (Oksana Akinshina) runs through the streets to a cacophony of heavy-metal music, we start to care about this girl's terrible fate. "Mein Herz Brennt" roars the soundtrack, and Lilja 4-ever is a film that will indeed make your heart burn. The central character is an ordinary teenager from Russia who is abandoned by her mother and left to a life that eventually slides into degradation. Her only companion is Volodya (Artyom Bogucharsky), a young boy who is also an outcast, and their friendship is enough for both of them to get through the misery, until Lilja is offered a chance of a new life in Sweden. We can see what is coming, even if she can't, and by this point in the film we are so emotionally involved with this character, we are practically pleading with her to not go, but what choice does she really have? Moodysson's film deals with the issue of sex trafficking, but it is not an "issue movie". He makes us care about the subject by making us care about Lilja, and we are with her on every step of her journey. This is in part thanks to the astonishing acting offered by the two young leads, but it is also due to Moodysson's impassioned and vigorous direction, and the brilliant decision to bring a spiritual element into play late on, which leads us into the heartbreaking and transcendent climax.

4 – There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
An immense piece of cinema soaked in blood and oil, Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood is a one-of-a-kind epic. Anderson disregards any standard narrative structure, opening the film with a twenty-minute sequence containing no dialogue, and subsequently playing the film at exactly the pace that it needs to be played at. As in the director's earlier Punch-Drunk Love, he keeps us constantly on edge, the film's odd rhythms and the discordant tones of Jonny Greenwood's sensational score imbuing the film with a constant sense of tension, and ensuring we never quite know what direction it's going to explode into next. A staggering performance from Daniel Day-Lewis holds the film's emotional centre steady, and creates in Daniel Plainview a character both larger than life and richly, fascinatingly human. One of the most surprising things about There Will Be Blood is the way in which its scope is simultaneously epic and intimate. You can read it as a symbolic tale designed to suggest the times we live in (the film is driven by oil, capitalism, religion and greed), or you can see it as a character study, and a simple battle between two very different men; the monstrous, misanthropic prospector (Day-Lewis) and the weedy, self-righteous and petty preacher (Paul Dano). It succeeds on every level because Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the most naturally gifted filmmakers currently working in cinema. He understands the need for quiet moments to set alongside the attention-grabbing set-pieces, he composes and cuts with breathtaking depth and intuition, and he has the talent required to pull off his most ballsy decisions. This is the man who rained down frogs on Magnolia, and his climax to There Will Be Blood is every bit as adventurous, but in his hands it feels like the only natural conclusion; the final explosion of violence and madness that has been threatening to erupt for the last two hours. For the film to end, Daniel needs to achieve his goal of being alone, of cutting his ties with every ally and competitor; only then can he, and Anderson, finally say "I'm finished".

3 – The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007)
It is a sad fact of life that on the rare occasions when a major American studio produces a distinctive work of art, they are generally rewarded with mixed reviews, public apathy and a pitiful box office return. Such a fate befell Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a film that languished on the Warner Brothers shelves for almost two years while they haggled over the editing and tried to figure out what the hell to do with the strange beast they had on their hands. Eventually, it was dumped into cinemas, barely making back half of its production costs, but thoughts of such failure will gradually be forgotten over the years, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford already looks like a masterpiece for the ages. I was captivated by the film from its opening moments, with Roger Deakins' stunning photography and the wistful narration immediately announcing this as a special piece of storytelling. Andrew Dominik initially presents us with the legend of Jesse James (Brad Pitt), as we view him through the awestruck eyes of young Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), but as Ford's relationship with his hero alters, sliding into disillusionment and resentment, the film gradually deconstructs the myths of the era. The view of the old west that the film gives us is one that feels authentic and evocative while resonating with today's culture, and the classical story it tells, of a love that turns to hatred, is played out in a gripping fashion. Dominik makes so many unusual choices in terms of his editing, his visual style, and the mood of the whole piece, but all of these choices pay off. Everything in The Assassination of Jesse James just feels right, from the best cinematography Roger Deakins has ever produced, to Nick Cave and Warren Ellis' lyrical, mournful score, and the stunning ensemble work. It may not have been a hit, but sometimes that's the price you have to pay for making a masterpiece, and the legend of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is surely destined to grow in stature as time marches inexorably forward.

2 – Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)
From the remains of TV pilot, dumped by a confused ABC, David Lynch created a hypnopompic masterwork that intrigues and confounds in equal measure. The film is set in Hollywood, but it is as much the Hollywood of our dreams and our nightmares as it is the real thing. This is where an aspiring actress named Betty (Naomi Watts) arrives with her eyes on screen stardom, but she becomes drawn into a mystery when she meets the amnesiac Rita (Laura Harring), who has stumbled into her life with a bag full of money and vague memories of a car crash. The mystery is never satisfactorily resolved, with Lynch throwing in a number of red herrings along the way (what does that scary creature behind the diner have to do with anything?), and we are left to wonder if some of these storylines would have been fleshed out and clarified in the completed series? Perhaps, but given that this is David Lynch we're talking about, I suspect they would have only led to even deeper and more perplexing puzzles. Whether or not we understand Mulholland Drive on a storytelling level is ultimately unimportant. It is a film driven by dream logic rather than narrative logic, a film we feel rather than comprehend, and it works because Lynch taps directly into our emotions and plays them like a master. On some level, Lynch is dealing with the disappointment of dreams, the pain of betrayal, and the agony of unrequited love; themes that every audience member can understand and empathise with, whether the film makes sense to them or not. Even as the movie turns itself inside-out and characters begin switching identities, we remain compelled by Mulholland Drive, and I think the film retains this endless fascination because it somehow suggests that the key to the mystery is in there somewhere, sitting just out of reach. We re-watch the film repeatedly, being moved and surprised by it in new and different ways, and every time we wonder if this will be the occasion when we finally unlock the dark heart of Mulholland Drive, but David Lynch's masterpiece continues to have the final word. Silencio.

1 – The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005)
The New World is not a film that I simply watch. It is a film that I can completely immerse myself in and come out on the other side feeling as if I have been transported to another time and place. In the story of John Smith's encounter with Pocahontas, Terrence Malick found the material for his greatest masterpiece, the ultimate depiction of his fascination in man's relationship with the natural world, and our inability to see the beauty that is all around us. The New World is partly about seeing, and it expresses a sense of discovery, of witnessing something strange and new for the first time, better than any film I can think of. Consider the first encounter between the colonists and the natives, who share a cautious curiosity with each other's odd clothing and rituals, or the later scenes, when Pocahontas and a group of fellow natives come to England. In a gorgeous and haunting scene, one member of her party wanders through an ornamental garden, staring with puzzlement at this alien land with its carefully sculpted trees. There is a moment halfway through the film, when Smith returns to the English camp, having spent a considerable amount of time with the natives, learning their ways and losing his heart to Pocahontas. He finds sickness, starvation, filth and madness there, and the shock is so jarring – like a cut from Heaven to Hell – that we realise we have been drawn as deeply into the Native American world as he has.

The New World has that ability to cast a spell over the viewer, causing you to forget all other distractions as you are lulled by its visual and aural splendour, and its strange rhythms. Some critics scoff at Malick's propensity for cutaways to disconnected shots of trees or water, but this is simply a core part of the director's cinematic language, along with his luminous cinematography (achieved with natural light only), ruminative voiceover, and boldly unconventional editing patterns. He places equal emphasis on telling us a story and on letting us experience the world in which the story is taking place. The strong performances from Colin Farrell and the amazing Q'orianka Kilcher as Smith and Pocahontas ensure the film has a strong emotional centre, but it's Malick's filmmaking that really moves me. The film's beauty is staggering, and the sublime way in which Malick assembles his picture reaches its zenith in the breathtaking closing sequences of death and rebirth; the camerawork, music and editing being combined to produce an overwhelming emotional force. More than any other film on this list, more than any other film made in this decade, The New World is pure cinema.