Pukahontus: Werckmeister Harmonies
The mandatory choice of the artsy fartsies deserves it. Bella Tarr’s films often contain scenes that seem to be drawn directly from Al Bundy’s conception of critically acclaimed foreign films, and I think they can be fairly ridiculed in such instances. It’s healthy to check yourself when your head starts to nod at really, really, long black and white takes of people from a backwater country not doing much or worse, speaking profoundly. But Tarr is still awesome. To start with, he is almost offhandedly, absurdly clever in this film. The climax features a mash up of North by Northwest and Through A Glass Darkly that seems so effortless and so much Tarr’s own that I didn’t even notice the allusions (if that’s what they were) the first time I saw it. And it culminates in this weirdly funny moment that is a lot like a Jarmusch movie, though the time lines suggest this is coincidence, rather than allusion. Regardless of how he got there, being able to manage a barely noticeable fusion of Jarmusch, Bergman and Hitchcock on their level of quality is… good. Maybe that is also a testimony to a purely great film: that you don’t sit there thinking “oh yes, an allusion to whateverthefuck” and “this is clearly a symbol for fuck” because you are directly engaged by what is happening onscreen.
Still, the alignments in the story that are suggested by the title are there. We open with our protagonist, an educated, rural paper boy–kind of an Ichabod Crane figure–explaining the phenomenon of total eclipse to a bunch of drunk rubes, funnily using them as the Nerf balls of various size in his barroom science fair diorama. Later, a traveling freak show comes to town with a whale (the sun) a midget seen only in silhouette (the moon) and the same kind of mass hysteria once caused by a total eclipse is unleashed. There’s probably some parallel to Hungarian politics as well–a satellite state separated from it’s primary and set into temporary chaos. We can skip pretending to give a shit about Hungarian politics, however. I won’t even pretend to fully grasp the film and will forgo wild theories about how the shot captured above pictures a sun in the center of a solar system, then moves to a shot of a whale’s dead eye, the dead eye of the god, in similar composition, then to the eye of man and like… whoa, dude.
It’s not that I suddenly thought it was good when I noticed these intricacies. But I’m a believer in the notion that these kinds of symmetries and layers of meaning work most importantly at a visceral level, like the composition of a painting or… harmonies. On first viewing, I found the The Prince (the circus midget) and his nihilistic rhetoric captivating on their own. And maybe it’s serendipitous if rural Hungary really is that much of a miserable shithole where people lead such meager, miserable lives, but the sparseness of Tarr’s films makes them so captivating to the outside viewer: those of us who possess the easy and luxurious lives that allow us to watch such films at all. When the story is centered around a car, in a Tarr film, there is exactly one car. And in this case, old fashioned can openers and coal burning heaters can dominate scenes in a way that is oddly cozy if you are the sort of person who wishes that matches still served some practical purpose. Whatever cleverness is afoot, his filmmaking is just beautiful in such cases. Like Goddard, Tarantino or Park, at some point you can toss all ideological objections to the side and point to the screen. If it were a commercial for adult diapers, wouldn’t there still be something great up there? Maybe some secondary award should be handed out to the intelligentsia. You might remember some time when there was this buzz about a guy making long ass movies that you couldn’t see and if you tried to download them on limewire, it would take a week of stopping up your connection before failing. It was natural to assume that the artsie fartsies were just being exclusionary assholes, and that may well have been their intention, but they were still right.
“Romcom” that almost makes up for the proliferation of the word “romcom:” Intolerable Cruelty
When I started making this list, I thought of a bunch of filmmakers whom I felt must be included. Any list without Mike Leigh would just be stupid, for example. But it quickly became evident that going this route would lead to a paint by numbers list and I might as well run off a bunch of Oscar winners. However, if there was any doubt as to who the best filmmakers of the recent past are, it seems like a best of decade list, from any perspective, that excluded the Coens would be silly, doesn’t it? Whether you were trying to be “Ain’t it Cool” mainstream, or “Captain Jonathan Rosenfinkle, lord of the shit nobody has seen yet” it would seem like you were trying to meet some sort of agenda if you didn’t touch upon the Coens. And, at risk of falling into the latter category, this doesn’t have much to do with No Country. I mean, yay for Hollywood/Oscar for randomly pulling their heads out of their shit pipes before the Coens were 30 years past their primes, but if you think that No Country is the best Coen film, you are a moron and I will fight you. Any time. Anywhere. Marquess of Queensberry rules. It was basically just a very, very well made Terminator or Halloween movie. So, for me, this boils down to two films that were Lebowski level works that did not receive the ultimate Lebowski recognition. Like Lebowski, The Man Who Wasn’t There and Intolerable Cruelty were not massive hits with critics or customers upon initial release, perhaps because of their generic titles which I still sometimes struggle to remember. But unlike Lebowski, neither was ultimately recognized as a masterpiece. The Man Who Wasn’t There was perhaps the best noir of the decade, boiling catastrophe down to decisions that seemed sensible, given the time and place. But Intolerable Cruelty doubled down on that. Not only did it run with a hand off from bygone genius (The Coens’ most direct crib from Preston Sturges), it took what has become the most poisonous of genres, the “romcom” and made something great. Really, I should say they “remade” something great. Carey Grant, Sturges and many others were unqualified geniuses working in the genre. It’s only because the marketing geniuses have zeroed in on their target demographic– vacuous women and the hand bags passing as men who they drag along to the theater– that artistry has been squeezed out to make way for fantasies about illiterates with bejeweled dog food bowls outsmarting everyone at Harvard. Whether it is a disgrace or a triumph that only the Coens could make a film deserving of a place among the classics of the genre, it is a reality.
As always with the Coens (and Sturges) the dialogue and the character actors in this film near perfection. And the George Clooney= Carey Grant case has its best evidence here. Catherine Zeta Jones is the goddess of her own universe, like Brigham Young. Each is physically flawless, with rapid fire wit and refinement that couldn’t actually exist. The combination is so tantalizing that we are rendered a bunch of polymorphously perverse cups of Jello. Charles Bronson would pay to jerk off Clooney and Richard Simmons would suck on CZJ’s no fly zone until she begged for mercy. Neither can be matched, outwitted, more desired by another, or more justifiably conceited. It’s Mayweather vs. Pacquio, but less erotic. This film took some heat for being “light” or mainstream, but the signature Coen contempt for us all is plainly there. Humanity is a busload of idiots, bouncing along in happy idiocy towards a cliff. The smartest of us are able to outwit the rest and land seats in the front of the bus. And these two, our total superiors, divinity made flesh, get to ride on special thrones strapped to the top of the bus.
Best movie that is pretty cliche, which ironically means I can’t think up some dumb ass category for it: Man on a Train
I liked Man On A Train so much the first time I saw it that I awarded it a prized slot on my year end top 2 list. I watched it again for this list and up until about a half an hour in, I still couldn’t remember why I thought it was so great. Though very well-crafted, this is a story of conflicting archetypes, in the vein of As Good As It Gets, or “Perfect Strangers.” Not that there is anything wrong with “Perfect Strangers.” But about five minutes into this one, you feel like you’ve already seen the whole movie. Rough criminal rolls into town, circumstances compel him to spend time with a fruity teacher and they connect. Even though they seem like total opposites! There are moments that are arguably too contrived, and the actors play their roles almost too well, especially given that each looks like a puppet designed for the part. The film comes on pretty strong, but I think it’s supposed to because each man represents a pole that very few actually reach, but most of us are pulled by. Milan is a bank robber, the ultimate gambler. A man who simply takes what he wants, but who is nearly certain to wind up empty handed. Monsieur Manesquier is a small town teacher with inherited money who lives in total security, but is nonetheless easily startled and intimidated. Each realizes he might be very near the end of life, and can look to the other as the path not taken, and each is a signpost for almost every fork in the road that you have faced, assuming you are part of our 103.7% male readership. At the same time, it’s clear that the decisions these characters make and have made are products of their nature. Your path in life isn’t determined by a spin of the wheel that could land on “join MS-13” just as easily as “go to Vassar.” Other people sense your nature too and most, from the first girl you pursue to a bakery clerk you have never met, will have you pegged right away and begin boxing you in. Any program designed to transform you into an A+ student, a great negotiator, or a pick-up artist will either fail or have you constantly in a ridiculous costume. So while these men fancy walking in each others shoes a bit and face some final regrets, it’s clear enough that they could not have traded places. The two men wind up considering, and in large part regretting, who they fundamentally are, and that hits with a lot of force. Whether it’s never bringing down that bully, or breaking an honest heart to chase a succubus, we want to say “if only…” differentiating our decisions from ourselves when nothing could be more intrinsic to us. When we pretend to regret decisions, we are only fooling ourselves because we really regret who we are. A sassy waitress and an AIDS patient are not going to swoop into your life and coax forth the better person who has always been somewhere inside. We follow the same patterns till death and either continue self-delusion about “could-have-beens” that could not have been, or wish we could have been someone else entirely, which really amounts to “us” not existing at all. There’s also a flipside to this story: that accepting your nature and making the best of it can make a life well worth living, which is nothing to sneeze at. These guys don’t wish they’d never been born, they just wish they could have been more. Another bit of optimism comes from the fact that taking a small step outside of our nature can be a exhilarating joy, like a career criminal trying on house slippers. Besides, as we come to appreciate each character, including their strengths and weaknesses, it’s clear life would be as unbearable as a Helen Hunt movie if we were all the same, which is what makes our flaws and limitations so critical. Perhaps people who don’t hate themselves would even find the Man On A Train uplifting. For me the greatest solaces offered by the film are the moments when the adventurer and the petit pedant share simple pleasures, like a good meal with some cognac. Their sporadic connections are among these pleasures and the even the extreme paths of each man fortunately cover some common ground. These points of commonality don’t involve revelations or conversions and are more comforting for their authenticity and rarity.
Best recompense for those painfully unfunny “Fire Marshall Bill” sketches: Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind
You know that, at the time, there was someone screaming “Homer ain’t shit! Derestrepidies is where it’s at!” And maybe he was right, but we’ll never know because Derestrepedies has long ago been erased. While it’s not precisely the same scenario, I thought about that kind of mechanism while re-watching Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine. Popular and critical wisdom both have it that Tom Hanks is the comedian who made the successful transition into dramatic roles, even though all of his dramatic roles have been in fucking stupid shit like The Da Vinci Code and Forrest Gump. Yet Carey, a comedic genius who can amuse with no more than a frantic flailing of the limbs, after initially Hanksing one in The Majestic, has played the dramatic lead in two excellent and arguably great films: this one and The Truman Show. It’ll be interesting to see whether or not those films work their way past Forrest Gump before I die, though maybe six months isn’t a fair time table. On a related note, I found myself thinking of this as the “Charlie Kaufman” slot, which embarrassed me and made me realize that I’m not really any different from the people who believe Hanks is the comedian who made the switch. Not that Kaufman isn’t great, but the fact that I think of him as the one screenwriter who must be accounted for almost certainly means that I am just an ignoramus and you should only read me with the faint hope of a good joke. Unless he is the greatest man of our time, it is certainly true that Kaufman is unique in his recognition, rather than his ability. I mean, fuck, film reviewers from Ruthless on up to the top of the nerdisphere consistently give credit for cinematography to the director, even thought there’s a guy specifically called the cinematographer. And sure enough, I couldn’t tell you who wrote most of the other films on this list, let alone who shot them.
Nonetheless, I give Kaufman much of the credit for how this film perfectly represents all of the self loathing and self-doubt with which all psychologically healthy people are consumed. Maybe this is the perfect male/female story. The only thing you despise more than yourself is her. You can’t live with you, with her or without her. Carey is the downtrodden rationalist, joyless and covetous, then satiated and joyless. Winslet, doing some of the best actressing of the decade, is irrational, desirable, a butterfly who seems impossible to capture but who could be a source of warmth in Carrey’s otherwise cold existence. She sees a man she can fix, but in a good way. She can help him to blossom, to have a life with some happiness and her as his muse. Then, once he is enticed and she is captured, and they are trapped together in his jar, both begin to suffocate. Until they realize once again how much they once wanted each other and how ordinary they’d be without each other. At which point, they re-embrace, probably making each other newly miserable, hopefully with a new (of course, temporary) understanding as to why that misery is preferable to the alternative misery of loneliness. Maybe the strength of this film, and the solution to this big problem, is the focus on memory and looking back, rather than forward. In the immediate pain of separation, the deletion of memories seems to be the cure because it erases the moments of mutual cruelty, regret and suffering. But in reality, it is those memories and idealizations that are our reward for enduring the conflict of the mating ritual. Remember how fun she was? Remember that time you bought live lobsters and they got loose because you were both too squeamish to cook them? Remember that fantastic fuck? Could we bring it all back with someone new? Probably not. “Why don’t we talk anymore?” Because the memories are the sweetest bit and won’t be equaled, especially because we don’t really recognize the best moments of a relationship ’till after the fact. Traveling back into those memories and fighting to keep them might be the best love fantasy put on film. Maybe Kaufman really is that good. And that’s all I have to say about that.
Best movie that, regardless of age or liberalism, would be a nightmare to watch with your mom: Visitor Q
Visitor Q can be erotic, like when a man pays his hot, teenage daughter to fuck on video; hilarious, when she makes fun of his premature ejaculation (“early bird!”) or depraved and revolting, as in depicting a middle aged woman with an active libido. I listed some of the more eye catching moments of the film in my original review, but the highlight is arguably when the father of this family fucks a corpse and his dick gets stuck due to the onset of rigor mortis, mid-boink. The punch line is that his wife helps free him with a shot of heroin and the corpse assists by expelling… some lubrication. Now there’s a whole discussion to be had about the “shock” cinema that peaked in this decade ranging from Irreversible and Antichrist, to all but one of Ki Duk Kim’s 800 films. My advice is to forget any overview and just enjoy the good ones and toss out the bad. That’s my advice in general. I mean some films might be categorized as ’00s “shock cinema” and some other films begin with the letter “G,” while others were released in October. Who gives a shit? Try to find the good ones, try to avoid the bad ones. Miike is a good man to support this view because he is generally entertaining and one of the funniest filmmakers working. He just happens to deal in mass murder, perversion and making you want to throw up. A lot of his stuff is thought provoking. My opening to this review wasn’t just hilarious. You could make the case that he is toying with the viewer’s sexuality. On the one hand he’s pushing the envelope on what you will admit to being turned on by. On the other, he’s tearing apart eroticism to reveal the oozing sacks of shit underneath it all. You’ll find something to think about with most of his movies if you try hard enough, but that is really just a fringe benefit. The real pleasure is in Miike’s pleasure at tearing everything apart. Not to replace it with true communism, or to dethrone the patriarchy, but just for fun. Everyone is an idiot. Everything is bullshit. Film is the ideal medium to act out these sophomoric realizations as an adult. Very often, Miike starts with a conventional premise and then grafts on developments that seem dreamed up by a teenage metalhead who isn’t getting laid, and uses these “twists” to destroy everything. To these round eyes, Visitor Q is, at least partially an “ALF” style sitcom. Instead of a wise-cracking plush alien, the novel figure who brings a fresh perspective to the family is a fucking maniac. The dysfunctional family is restored with the sudden injection of an outsider: a Japanese guy with an afro and a funny shirt who imparts healing wisdom– in this case, smashing family members in the face with rocks and milking the mother to orgasm. They kill, rape and maim everyone in their path and cohere into a death squad. Sha-na-na-na.
Put a gun to my head and force me to put one movie into a time capsule on death row on a desert island, my number one film of the 00’s: You Can Count On Me
I am a sucker for a lot of things, as is evidenced by this list. The relentless, cheap jokes in OSS 117 and Tarantino’s dazzling array of gimmicks and cleverness are only two examples. But nothing is more impressive (and, not coincidentally, list-making wise, more difficult to write about) as a simple story without a grand point, executed to perfection. It’s very difficult to say why The 400 Blows is better than Citizen Kane, or any other film ever made. It’s very difficult to say why You Can Count On Me is better than the 500 similar movies that came out over the decade, and all of the dissimilar ones too. The best insight I’ve heard comes from Kenneth Lonergan himself on the DVD commentary track. Remember when people watched movies on DVDs? Those were the days. I think he was talking about the inclusion of the first scenes, when Terry and Sammy, as children, learn about their parents’ deaths, when he says the scene was there to show that they “are just kids who grew up,” like all of us.
Sammy and Terry are so sympathetic, not in the cheese-bomb way of being wholesome and “characters you can root for”, but because of they’ve hung on to that piece of youthful authenticity. Maybe people who really and truly become adults have become substantive fabrications, day-to-day versions of the carefully patched together Rose Parade floats wheeled out for display on “Meet The Press,” always trying to make you feel serious and comprehending. Or, if we’re being a little too honest, we would compare these real adults to almost every character in almost every film, even some of the best ones, like Punisher: Warzone. For anyone who is “real”, or who has the bad habit of integrity, and who does not deny their past, the magical transformation never quite happens. Sammy becomes a church going professional to provide for her son. Terry is a drifter who runs into problems. They’ve been forced to adapt to the circumstances of adulthood, more than become masters of their domains. But they cut through each other’s bullshit as siblings can, with a simple “I remember when you…” Yes, that delinquent buffoon, that wallflower who stammered around boys or girls… whoever you used to be. That is still you. But hopefully you’ve learned to adjust and maneuver, and to balance presenting highly modified versions of yourself when the situation requires, which happens so often for Sammy, and keeping it real, like Terry does a bit too often. As Sammy’s fatherless son looks up, we see the need to present one’s self as something to be looked up to if there are children in our life. Maybe that doesn’t mean being 100% honest. There is a place for pretending to be a real adult, even when you are just a kid who grew older. But sheltering phonies are not ideal role models either, and Terry’s harsh and clumsy lessons do some good, along with the harm. Maybe there’s a big, “conservative” theme here about how kids need role models and teachers, not buddies or even some radical fascist contention that boys look up to men. If so, conservatives are right on this one. But obviously this is not a film meant for a sub-nation of dead eyed Palin or Oprah supporters who pretend to work themselves into a panic over “how to talk to their kids” about realities such as 9/11 and Janet Jackson’s partially exposed breast. And if you ever think that Amy Taubin, perhaps the worst critic of the decade, should ever be taken seriously on any subject, you need only look at her authentically moronic review of this masterpiece to correct such misconceptions.
Everything comes back to earth in perhaps my favorite scene of the decade when Terry whips out a joint and shares it with Sammy, for a guilty indulgence. This is everything right with the being human, even after adulthood has tried to ruin it. It is a meeting point between abusive irresponsibility and sweet relief from relentless responsibility. So, of course, the tantalizing, perfect moment is interrupted by adulthood. Sammy might be a roughly conservative figure but she isn’t a soulless ghoul in the Dr. Laura vein. It’s an almost forgotten, little joy brought back to life. “Remember when I…” And there is a real family values message of the film, one of intimacy and connection, not repression and conformity. It made me think of little transgressions with my rural cousins, even though we’ve now grown up and I voted for Kang and they probably voted for Kodos. It’s about a shared connection to the freedom of youth. Even with parents out of the picture, we still sneak indulgences that would make them disapprovingly shake their heads. For Sammy, smoking a d00b with her brother on the porch is only one of a few such moments left coming to her. That is what makes it so sweet. And the older you are, the more that scene will hit you because you realize the scarcity of those moments. “How many more of these will I have? Three or four? Maybe this will be the last one.” Or, in Terry’s case, “will I ever get my life together to the point where smoking a joint feels like meeting The President?”
Terry sticks to the path of nonconformity and when Sammy worries about what will happen to him, he answers, probably accurately, “nothing too bad.” But probably nothing too good either. Trust me on the latter point. But, as with Man on The Train, the sweet spot is that commonality. Terry comes over to Sammy’s side and falls in love with her son. He won’t be a proper father figure, but he is already looking forward to pinch hitting again. Sammy attempts to share Terry’s blissful joint. Love, connection and authenticity exist together. For a brief moment, I do not hope that a meteor hits the earth tomorrow.
Arguably the Best Casey Affleck movie: Gerry
I have a tendency to compare everything to Kobe Bryant, but Gus Van Sant is like Kobe Bryant. Not only in his penchant for sodomy, but in that I feel like he’s gone out of his way to build a resume that demonstrates how great he is and the media response has kind of been like, “look, we won’t have our hand forced, and maybe this bid for greatness is too contrived, so we are going to give you slightly less recognition than you deserve.” Kobe scored 81 points in a game, he won multiple championships with two completely different teams, he took over games, he tried to step back and facilitate teammates, he wanted to meet every criteria for greatness. Yet he he has one MVP, just like Dirk Nowitzki. While I certainly don’t know his motivations, I think Van Sant’s body of work is similar. He made an excellent, feel good, box office success with Good Will Hunting. He made an artsy, true crime story with To Die For. He’s experimented with his Psycho remake, which I intend to watch and judge fairly one day, and he caps things off with his “Death trilogy” headed by Gerry, which stylistically feels like the film Von Trier was trying to make during those Dogma years because the time flies by as we watch two, simply filmed guys pretty much just walk around.
I’m certainly not alone in that the open road fascinates me, as do the vast expanses of still-unsettled territory in the American West. So I can only imagine that to foreign viewers, who all live in countries the size of New Hampshire, these themes are even more intriguing. If you’ve driven across the American expanse (next gas, 38 miles), you’ve imagined being lost in it. “My God, if my car broke down and I walked 800 feet in the wrong direction, nobody would ever hear from me again.” As with many great films, you wonder how nobody successfully acted on this scenario before. Van Sant captures the beauty of the dessert, or maybe these are plains or prairies. But that sparse, fruitless wilderness that still occupies so much space, and bears a harsh unfriendliness to modern humans, even those who know enough to build a fire. Consequently, the film is goddamned terrifying from about the ten minute mark on. Yeah, maybe it seems obvious that we mortals are confronted with physical realities that will extinguish our selves, and that there’s no way around it. Like, we are all trapped in the desert, man. We are all looking for water. We all exist in a world full of beauty that cannot sustain our consciousness for more than the blink of an eye. We are all putting off the inevitable with half baked theories and false hopes. As the process progresses, we only become crazier and more wrong. It seems blunt and obvious, but excellence often does, like Kobe drilling a three pointer in someone’s eye at the end of the game. But if it’s so simple, why is nobody else is doing it?
“Where are you going?”
“I dunno. Wanna help?”
Best evidence that French film will continue to be vital until the country is eventually taken over by Muslims: A Christmas Tale
When I made a section for our reviews of Christmas movies, Alex and I had a little “great minds think alike” moment when he offered to write a review of A Christmas Tale for the section. I’d been thinking of doing a review as well, but the movie was simply too sophisticated for me to tackle without repeat viewings, so I was happy to hand it off to him. Eventually he wrote me back to say that he was sorry, but the film was just too complex for him to shoot from the hip and it required several viewings. Now, that is not to say that the film is some impressionistic maze of symbolism. In fact, I would contrast it to Desplechin’s Kings and Queen by saying that, while Kings and Queen is just slightly too affected, A Christmas Tale is two tons of pure substance.
Speaking of national cinemas, this is an example of the virtues of doing it how you do it. Visual geniuses like Godard are anomalous and the next one might pop up in Hungary or Thailand or even The United States. So you can’t bank on that. But there is some sweet spot about Talking Frogs that can be hit again and again. The beauty of the language is one factor. Also, speakers of Romance languages tend to prattle on not only endlessly, but very directly compared to their Germanglo counterparts. As a person of Northern European heritage and tradition, even after years of exposure to less subdued cultures, I was still shocked by some of the directness in this “family” film. “Well, I’ve had similar feelings, but I thought you were supposed to hold them in for twenty years, then blurt them out when everyone was drunk, and then use the drunkeness as an excuse for pretending nothing ever happened, even though you know they know and they know that, so mission accomplished!… ?”
Have I said a word about the film itself yet? Truthfully, there is not that much to say, other than that it is masterful. Director, writers and cast execute a convoluted family drama flawlessly. By the 2:06 mark you should be hooked. It is “Dallas” with the arts and madness and these graphic titles separating each segment which are simple but extraordinaire. It is overseeing the perfection of such details that makes the greats. What else is there to add? There is a labyrinth of familial relation, founded upon a child conceived only to unsuccessfully provide a bone marrow transfer to another child. There is a black sheep deemed mad. Then there is a real black sheep, left stranded and broke. There are May/December romances headed into January. The virtuosity of the film lies not with its symbolism or allusion, but with it’s careful, tight packing of story and character. More critically, complex familial stories are drawn out by several expert hands and, though nobody will agree, I found the multi-technique and multi-perspective approach approach of the film to be Tarantinoesque. I grimaced a bit at the casual privileging of artistic and intellectual figures, particularly in France, which is the bastion of phony philosophy. But if I can look the other way for Woody and his belief in Freud, I can look the other way here. I’m regretting my failure to find a place for Mike Leigh on the list more than ever, but Desplechin is a monstrous talent as well. Even if he really thinks drawing sketches of Greek myths makes you better than everyone else.
Best cinematic equivalent to a Fifteen song, including age-inappropriate sexual implications with somewhat plausible deniability: Pan’s Labyrinth
I feel like the only one who “got” this movie, which basically means I had a heavily subjective and 100% correct interpretation of it. I strongly object to those critics who went out of their way to deem this powerful, old school fairy tale as being too strong for kids. Maybe it’s not in step with current pablum, simplified to the demands of dim mothers who invest the entirety of their own value in the quality of the babies they made and who therefore insist upon boilerplate meant to build entitlement irrespective of virtue, but hey, it teaches Spanish, just like Dora! And it’s not like anybody blows a fucking horse in the movie. It is intense, it can be scary and it is powerful for all of the right reasons. But is there anything in this film more “inappropriate” than the death of Bambi’s mother? Only if you regard children as mylar Care Bear balloons. The protagonist is a little girl who finds herself swept, along with her mother, into the home of a literally fascist patriarch. He demands acquiescence and she denies it. The Spanish Anarchists, who are obviously doomed to fail even if you don’t know history, put up a fight against her step dad, a right wing goon captain. Our hero is a little girl who buys the fairy tales, favors picture books to hard truths and is rewarded by being stabbed to death by a sadistic monster.
It’s one of the most honest films about being on the left, or to be more neutral, on the side of principle and social justice instead of whoever has the most power. The film is Spanish, but maybe it rings most true for the American in Dick’s big decade of rape. We lost every time (and will continue to). The sadists and the cash money perverts win every time. What is the value of being in the right, instead of grabbing for the shiny things during your short life? Well, the moral of this story is that life is all about your story, or in extreme cases, fairy tale. Ofelia, obsessed with her stories, perhaps well past the point of madness, demands that her own life measures up them.
Suppose they do win in the end, as they almost invariably do. 100 years from now, you’ll be dead either way. Regardless of whether it is ever retold, what will your story be? Did you capitulate and cower for a modest remuneration while ignoring the fact that others suffered? Or did you bear down and fight and go out like a fading champion? Maybe the oddest thing of all given that this is a male filmmaker and I am me and I am writing for Ruthless is that I find this to be the rare feminist film that is actually inspirational, rather than condescending or only saved from being condescending because the source itself is so stupid that it lacks the capacity to condescend. No blithering idiotically about how fashion is high art and how half wits who discuss nothing but clothes, babies and gagging on dick represent a mere difference in tone from those of us who can name a Supreme Court justice. But we have a heroine hemmed in by ageism, sexism and rightism who refuses to capitulate. Accuse her of wanton subjectivity, but, again she listens to her heart, writes her own story and destroys her chosen target, not by overpowering him, but by resisting his will until it snaps, and this fits best with a female character, whereas when I say “toady,” “cronies” or “goon,” you first imagine men.
Best political thriller: The President’s Last Bang
Yep, another spot for South Korea. And it could easily have been a couple more. Call me a trendy fuck, but I agree with the herd that the Koreans kicked ass this decade. I wonder how these little clusters of artistic achievement happen. There’s an economic phenomenon called agglomeration. It basically means that as the an industry thrives in an area, each of the component parts of that industry feed off and facilitate each other until one day, there’s no porn like the porn from the San Fernando Valley, though I think my textbook focused on the manufacture of small airplanes in Wichita, rather than T.T. Boy plugging Jill Kelly, as was the fashion at the time. With something as subjective as filmmaking, maybe you also need a vanguard of obvious brilliance, in the case of South Korea, that would be Park. Perhaps a champion from the mainstream, like Tarrantino. Then the more subtle talents are granted a world stage and everyone enjoys the cultural nuances that make a national cinema. Eventually, every one is like, “I get it, Koreans are insane and exist on a switch that moves back and forth from from utter repression to explosive catharsis. I wonder what Pakistanis are like.” Who knows? It’s certainly interesting how these little bubbles in places like Hong Kong, Romania, South Korea and even France ebb, flow and maybe burst. Malcolm Gladwell should write a half-assed book about it that I won’t read but will enjoy getting the gist of from an NPR interview. I can tell you a couple of things for sure, though. Many, probably, most of the SK films that have been celebrated in the West deserve the acclaim they received and probably more. Whatever your tastes might be, there were at least a few SK films this decade that would be just as much sure fire home runs to you as a hanging Chan-Ho Park pitch is to any competent major league hitter. The agglomeration was swinging and you’ll find many well constructed, acted and shot movies in many genres. However, investigating some of the domestic box office hits that didn’t quite make it to the West reveals that the dumb and bad in Korean film still holds a “Sabado Gigante”/”The King Of Queens” relationship to the dumb American film. I’d rest my case on My Boss, My Hero, which is a total turd that has seventeen sequels over the course of four years.
So I think this one is a case of a film that is made and seen because of the buzz around the national cinema. Not that director, Im Sang Soo isn’t a swinging dick. Not that the movie isn’t gorgeously shot and brilliantly executed, which is a big part of why it made the list. But it’s a movie about historical events that you are, at best, vaguely aware of and you sort of have to wiki it to really know what is going on. It is about how, in 1979, the dictator-ish president of South Korea, Park Chung-hee is assassinated by a small cell within his security team, led by his friend, who is director of the KIA. The film is often touted as a “black comedy,” which is an angle I think critics generally overplay because it makes it seem like they are getting something that you are not. But, while sardonic in tone, this is much more a historical, political thriller for me than a comedy. It’s fascinating on a few levels. South Korea wasn’t exactly a banana republic at the time, (largely thanks to this President’s efforts) and it was a major cold war front, so it’s pretty wild, just as an event unto itself, to watch this little group decide to assassinate the president and then, just do it. Though the motivations have been brewing, the decision and action are almost spontaneous (the best approach, if you think about it). The crime is meticulously recreated, from every angle. We get a look inside of the heads of everyone involved. The secondaries who are surprised by the assassination order, trying to man up and carry it out. The imported floozies who suddenly find themselves in the middle of a blood bath and spend hours hiding, wondering what the fuck is going on and if they are about to be killed. The high officials of the government who must react to this shock and decide how to handle it on the fly. Based on my own extensive research, The President was roughly a Thatcher/Reagan figure, using right wing measures with the ostensible aim of national prosperity, while himself, living la vida Kennedy. This makes it even more interesting that the KIA would play a role in bumping him off. Usually, it’s the guy who wants to nationalize the copper mines who gets snuffed by the military/intelligence community, with a bit of outside encouragement. And, indeed this was a domestically driven move. Was it a blow for South Korean Democracy? Was it something more personal, in that the President’s overindulgence in women and booze, coupled with his repression of dissent simply meant that he, as an individual, was becoming more king-like and less fit to govern, regardless of his place on the political spectrum? Well, that implication led to a successful defamation suit against the producers, to the tune of $100 million. Given that 95% of the people reading this haven’t seen the film, I’d sell it this way- a top shelf director is telling you the story of one of the great crimes of the century that you probably don’t know much about. Imagine a more politically laden Zodiac, with little to no foreknowledge of the the case and, yeah, a bit more humor. Also, it starts a bit slowly. Give it fifteen minutes.
Five Parting Shots:
Since I posted the first half of my top twenty, I’ve seen several other groups and critics copy my idea of a best of decade list. I’ve noticed that these shoddy imitations often feature films that, though they may have some outstanding qualities, do not belong on any such list. If you must copy me, at least wait until I release the correct answers and copy those. Don’t embarrass yourself by claiming that any random film that was halfway OK is one of the decades best.
Can I make another point? Yes, I can. Most of you are aware of this boneheaded cliche that persists among ignorant, limited, female writers who manage to grind out a living by labeling themselves as feminists. “Why are actresses awarded for playing either whores or hurderrdurrdurrmmmmm?” “Whore,” is the chosen word of the “feminist/scholar,” mind you. So, as someone often labeled a misogynist, I would like to point out that at least four of these latest ten films alone would not have even sniffed the list without great, strongly female characters and performances. And these characters were neither prostitutes, nor women who won the gold medal in men’s heavyweight boxing. Maybe the reason that there were so many more actresses who could carry box office in years past, is that they had great roles as women. No, no, surely the path forward is to cast Rebecca Lobo as the next Batman.
The top 3 “meh”s people are trying to pass off as the best films of the decade.
Why is it interesting to watch famous actors ramble on about new age bullshit and “I’ve never actually read a work of philosophy” philosophy? Linklater’s Slacker was good because we knew that the ramblings came from a collection of fools, weirdos and radicals. It was fun. Waking Life is supposed to be good because it used rotoscope animation. Seriously, I read several reviews trying to decipher the praise for the film at the time, and it came down to “lucid dreaming, trippy mayne!” and “Animationz!” The films’ reputation has grown like a mushroom in shitty dark and now it’s bandied about as one of the best of the decade. If that’s the criterion we’re going with, I think it’s only fair to agree that one of the best films of the decade is Charles Schwab Commercials. It’s been proven in study after study that top flight financial prognosticators can’t beat the dart board. Why pay for anything more than basic advice on distributing risk? The best case scenario is that you are being duped into paying for pure guesswork. The worst case is that you’ll be swindled by a Madoff. This seems more useful to me than Ethan Hawke wondering what it would be like to be a goldfish. The Schwab commercials are also in rotoscope.
Would that it were so!
May God damn the soul Cameron Crowe, the A+ student of the film world, to the unrelenting suffering of hell. Yes, he’s really good at producing uninspired, boring tripe that tells middle aged, boring people what they like to hear. I’m sure that, as an actual student, he could churn out a great paper that regurgitated the teacher’s views on Hamlet’s sanity and he’s been churning out the same shit ever since, receiving accolades for products that feel like they should ultimately be pinned to his mom’s ‘fridge. Special thanks for inflicting a decade of Kate Hudson on us, which was justified largely with her portrayal of a historically bullshit character: a cum dumpster who is really an angel… but then she is not quite an angel. How real and bittersweet! You’ve taken a character who, in real life, would have a reservoir tip on top of her head, tried to sell us on the idea that she’s actually interesting and virtuous, but then taken a “realist” turn in revealing that she’s a little bit tainted after all. I’m going to puke. On you. After ingesting poison. Hopefully, there will still be enough poison in my system to kill me.
This one really pains me, because Silent Light has some of the most gorgeous scenes of the decade. I really hate hyperbole about this shit, because when I tell you that the opening ten minutes are among the most astonishing pieces of film I’ve ever seen, it sounds like I’m bullshitting. But I speak the troof. Every scene looks like a dream made of candy bars. I don’t know how or why one movie looks so great compared to the others, but let me redress one of the wrongs I attributed to reviewers, including myself, earlier in this piece. The cinematographer, whatever his name is, not the director, Carlos Reygadas, is the genius here. This film is so gorgeous that it almost deserves the top 10 spots it’s getting. But the reasons it does not deserve this acclaim are equally clear. Too much is contrived. I’d kind of like to peer into the world of Mennonites for real, but I’m not so interested in them as a trump card in the game of “look at the minorities I can tolerate!”As pretty as it was to look at, I winced at the contrived, overlong kiss between the the simple, blue-eyed farmer who looked kind of like the Pillsbury Doughman and his aquiline mistress. At some point, maybe eleven or twelve minutes into the forced kiss, The Saw Nose vs. The Soft Eyes resembled a Godzilla movie. Also, if you are a casual film enthusiast you should always be on the lookout for the “anything that is kind of like a Tarkovsky film is genius!” fad. Don’t be duped. While I’d encourage everyone to see this film, and the other two in this category are barely worth seeing at all, I feel like somebody had to say something.
1 very strangely not given it’s due: ABC Africa
ABC Africa is great. I honestly value the cinematic pseudo-intelligentsia. It’s easy enough to blast them for their stupid conformity and their attempts at academic legitimacy through embracing the exclusionary. But on the other hand, if everything were left up to the top newspapers, we would probably not know who Kiarostami is and Sea Biscuit would be on this list. One thing I like and agree with the pretend-geniuses of this decade about is their eagerness to privilege films that give us a look into unknown corners of the world, like Jai’s rural China. This pseudo tourism is the most underrated aspect of seeing foreign films. It is what ABC Africa pushes, and I am buying.
So now that too many know the name, Kiarostami’s film is dismissed as a mere home movie. It is not that, but let’s pretend it is- what is wrong with one of the world’s greatest filmmakers creating a visual travelogue? Are you curious about the rest of the world? Do you wonder what the rest of the world thinks about the rest of the world? If you answer “yes,” this film can only be regarded as a treasure. A man from an alien culture, who happens to be a great filmmaker, tools into a far less fortunate culture that is alien to him and us and he shoots the results. He plays with the of filming people, who play with being filmed. We get the feeling of a vicarious visit, and of the world through another person’s eyes. Not interested? Here, I have a ball. Perhaps you’d like to bounce it. I found it more intriguing than the “Paris” and “Tokyo” compilations and hope that those types of talents move instead, to emulate ABC Africa. I’d jump at the chance to see Breillait’s “home movies” of Saudi Arabia. I want to see my city of Los Angeles through the “home movies” of Wong Kar Wai. And the phrase “Soderbergh’s ‘home movies’ of Shanghai” makes me drool. Charitable motivations appreciated, but not required.
Number 21: Bad Santa
I’m just going to have to fall into critical cliche here. One reason Bad Santa is so good is its realism, and it’s willingness to look at the realities that the characters face. It would be easy enough to make a film about a drunkard Santa who throws up on kids and is totally out of control! In fact, that might even be a pretty fun movie. But Bad Santa and Billy Bob manage to hang on to that aspect, and balance it with the realities of depressive alcoholism. Having Billy Bob beat the shit out of a band of bullies in their early teens was one of the most fun and overdue scenes of the decade. And if he’d he’d fucked them up proper to the tune of missing teeth and broken noses, the film would have cracked the top 20 easily. That’s fun, but the movie only really clicks if you click with Billy Bob fantasizing about being dead. The writing is accurate enough, that I’d imagine whoever is responsible is dead by now. “You’re an emotional fucking cripple. Your soul is dog shit. Every single fucking thing about you is ugly.” I’m pretty sure you can only write something like that with yourself in mind. Maybe an exaggerated version of yourself, wallowing in pessimism. But that only makes it better.