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The Decade in Film: The Ones That Last

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If you watch two films in close proximity to one another, it’s pretty easy to tell which one you liked more. Watch three, and you can still tell pretty easily, but it’s more subject to change. Watch films on a regular basis for about a decade, and it becomes nearly impossible, not to mention pointless and kind of reductive to try and rank them in the way you would sports teams. If you’re in any way engaged with the world, your opinions and attitudes will change somewhat over that course of time, and to try and reduce that entire expanse of time into a trite little list is, well, why would you want to do it?

I’m not going to argue that these films are the absolute best of the decade (though I think that a case could be made for several of them, and I’ll say so where that’s the case), nor are they simply my favorites. They are, simply put, the films that I remember, and that I want to talk about, and do not remember my opinions echoed by other reviewers in print.

There were a few others that I liked just as much that I couldn’t find anything new to say about (The Aviator), as well as a number of films that have shown up on these lists that I feel like an awful film critic for not having seen (Cache, Grizzly Man), but that’s the great thing about movies: there’s always another decade waiting to make up for lost time. I have, however, come up with as round a number as possible, and tried not to waste any of your time just so that I could hear myself talk.

• • •

 

Traffic (2000)

This being the first decade of the post-9/11 world, it’s only natural that several of its defining films be "problem" films, the output of Hollywood types struggling to get their two cents in on the social struggles of the era. It’s ironic, though, that the absolute best and most intelligent of these films was actually released the year before, which probably says something about what happened to critical thinking of all political persuasions during the Bush administration.

While many critics love to say that films are truly unbiased, I guess that this is one of the few where I’m actually compelled to believe it. Whenever Tim Robbins (not to single him out, because this applies to just about everybody in Hollywood) picks up a camera, no matter how polished or stylish the final product is, you have a pretty good idea of where he’s coming from, and you’re rarely if ever surprised by the conclusions that he comes to. What makes Traffic so special is that Soderbergh is not by nature a political film-maker (for further confirmation of this, check out his Che), and thus does not approach this situation in political terms. He views it as a realist, showing us players in a very complicated game with their own agendas, biases, and need to keep the War on Drugs going exactly the way that it is, regardless of the devastating consequences that it might have on both the United States and Mexico. That he manages to do this while addressing the unapproachable terms of victory of the war without minimizing the deprecating effects of the trade makes the achievement all the more notable.

 

 

 

The Lives of Others (2006)

When a book on the cinema of this decade is finally written, there will hopefully be at least one chapter devoted to a seemingly innocent but nonetheless troubling trend; that of filmmakers using other eras to make comments about our own (I hope that it’s called Arthur Miller Doing It Doesn’t Make It Right). Sure, there’s truth to the saying that those who don’t study history are condemned to repeat it, but there’s also something to be said for films that confront problems directly, instead of framing them in an era where are all of the principal characters are dead (Good Night and Good Luck) or yet to be born (V For Vendetta). This German film, however, bucks that trend because it never tries to make you think that any of its characters are stand-ins for modern day figures, nor does it lay in oblique references to relevant buzzwords ("Homeland Security" name dropped in Children of Men). In a way, that makes it more radical, because it’s relevant here, and in other parts of the world, and it will still be when I make a new list in another decade.

In Richard Corliss’s review of The Fountain, he opens with the trenchant (and fairly accurate) point that critics are more likely to give a pass on films with largely negative worldviews than with positive ones. That didn’t make Fountain any more engrossing for me, but it’d be hard for me to come up with a better explanation of why Lives of Others is so unique. Since formerly urban niched nihilism has gone mainstream (how else do you explain The Dark Knight?), it’s almost shocking to see a film that suggests, let alone realistically defends the principle, that we should place our trust in strangers, even when they are charged with destroying us. It’s a bold move, but it’s one that pays off in spades, especially later on, when you watch something with no hope of release (like No Country for Old Men) and it ends up feeling false.

 

 

 

United 93 (2006)

Last culturally relevant one, I promise. This one is here simply because absolutely no film ever has moved me like this one. And I don’t mean "moved" in that it caused me to don a turtleneck sweater and sit in a rocking chair while looking reflectively out the window while late afternoon seeps in on gentle beams. I mean that I was crying, my face was red, and I was babbling incoherently to characters on screen as if what I was saying might actually influence what would happen. Granted, I’ve watched the film several more times and not had the same reaction, but I really couldn’t go without mentioning this.

I’ve been waiting a long time to mention a phrase that I coined in a review, and it looks like I might have finally found an opportunity: "piggy-backing," referring to a film or book deriving emotional impact from events that are, on their own, really sad, rather than earning it through development of plot or character. Think about it: were you moved by Hotel Rwanda because you were really invested in the characters, or because the Rwandan genocide is just really sad? United 93 manages to avoid this less than five years after the fact, and it does so by voiding the film of any and all political context or images that we later associated with the event, instead presenting a straight-forward depiction of the morning, placing us shoulder-to-shoulder with people as they were gradually finding out what was happening. Whether or not this will affect future generations in the way that it got me remains to be seen, but in its clarity, it remains the closest thing that we have to a pure artistic document of what that day meant, and why everyone afterwards reacted in the way that they did.

 

 

 

The Triplets of Belleville (2003)

Even though this was the decade of Pixar (and they deserve extra credit for getting people outside the industry to call it their favorite studio, a designation that perhaps no one has ever cared to call a studio before), Triplets of Belleville was the animated film that stuck with me the most. Granted, I fell asleep the first time I watched it, but on the second try, I really, really liked it, and more over, I felt like giving it the meager honor of placing it on this list.

It’s a little too trite to leave it at "you can do things with animation that you can’t do with live action," but there’s definitely more potential to develop aesthetic character, and Triplets takes full advantage of that. Every shade of color, every bounce of motion, every transition is just filthy with Sylvain Chomet, the writer and director of the film. You know how you can tell a Tim Burton or Wes Anderson just by looking at it? Same sort of thing here, except imagine a director combining the joy of discovering a style and the coolness of mastering it in a single film. Triplets is kind of like that.

 

 

 

Yi Yi (2000)

Rah-rah All American as I might be in other facets (I’m really only half-kidding when I start chanting "USA! USA!" to defend American rock, but I must concede the following point: in the prior decade (and the one before that, and maybe the one before that) we haven’t produced a family drama half as involving or sincere as Yi Yi. Scratch that. Make that interpersonal drama of any kind. I fear that I’m revealing myself to be tremendously inarticulate here, but that’s the risk of talking about something you care about; sometimes there’s really no good answer other than that you really enjoyed it.

This could be entirely incorrect (and some one tell me if it is), but I suspect that foreign film markets, since they are that much smaller, are able to play to a nationally-based demographic as opposed to an age or income based one like we do over here. As a result, they don’t have to play generations against one another in the way that Americans have been doing ever since American Beauty, with either the free-spirited kids rebelling against the stodgy parents or the crazy youth threatening to destroy the stable home life. Yi Yi isn’t really like that, but instead manages to balance the problems of several generations of a Taipei family almost perfectly, without ever stretching them out beyond the breaking point, or pushing them to make you feel something that you’re not naturally inclined to feel. To a fine point, it’s an epic on a miniature scale, the only great expanse that of time and experience between the characters.

 

 

 

Zodiac (2007)

It’s never really discussed, but film audiences are a lot like film directors: they have their preferences, and they happen to run a whole lot deeper than genre alone. Example: when producing Day of the Dead, George A. Romero had to decide whether he would produce an R-rated version for seven million dollars or an unrated version for half that budget. A better realized environment, or more intense violence? It’s a tough call, and either choice would be respectable, but those kinds of choices are the ones that define the differences between filmmakers. In turn, audiences respond differently to those sorts of decisions, and those responses define, ultimately, what makes something someone’s favorite film.

For my own part, I love detail. If I can watch something repeatedly and not say, "Boy, the staging of this scene is awkward"or "That end table isn’t historically accurate," then I’m sold. I admit it, I’m a class A nitpicker and I will be until the day I die, which is why I’m willing to forgive the shortcomings of films like The Good Shepherd, which oozes technical craft while lacking most other positive qualities. It’s probably also why I define most of these films by their not doing things that I hate (I just noticed that now).

Which brings me to Zodiac. If I had to pick both a favorite and best film of the decade, this might be it. In a year that was critically regarded as one of the one of the stronger ones of the decade (There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men), it was easily my favorite film, possessing the confidence to eschew nearly all flash and pomp (which both of those other films had in spades) and reduce its style to a fairly basic wide shot-medium shot-close-up format, and to do it for almost three hours. That takes serious guts. Me being me, I naturally figured that it was too good to be true, and went into it again looking for an awkward line reading or an edit that could have been cleaner. I never found it. In short, Zodiac is the one film that has come out in this decade that has been able to support the level of scrutiny that I naturally go for. For that, I kind of have to give it the top slot.

 

 

Jan
02
2010
Anders Nelson • Associate Editor

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