04 March 2010

...Two Months (and a few days) Later

Inspired by a recent conversation with my oldest friend Dan, I’ve been positively motivated to write what I wanted to but couldn’t, for several reasons, put together for the posting of my list of The Decade List of 100. Tying ideas together successfully has always been the weakest facet of my writing, so the prospect of sifting through ten years of cinema, especially from the perspective of someone who entered those years at the age of 15, felt like an insurmountable task. It still, to some extent, seems outside the realm of possibility, but at least now I can attempt to explain or defend some of what was going through my head while arranging the list at hand.

Before I had a chance to come up with a better name for it, “The Decade List” stuck, serendipitously masking any questionable adjective one might have used to modify “Films of the ‘00s.” Neither “best” nor “favorite” felt like the correct modifier, as I tried to objectively assess the films I chose without completely abandoning some of the personal attachments I’ve developed with them over the years (or, in some cases, over much smaller of a time frame). That 43 of the films were at least partially financed by the French film industry certainly points to one of the personal biases I didn’t try to look past. That only 3 were documentaries shows another, one I’m not exactly proud of. The double (and triple and quadruple) appearances of 17 directors might suggest I didn’t put that auteur inclination aside either, but it isn’t exactly true, as omitting Clean, The Boss of It All, Time of the Wolf, Anatomy of Hell and Last Days was a lot easier than eliminating films whose directors only made a single appearance on the final list.

Though I never properly introduced the project (as I didn’t have a clear idea of where it was headed upon conception), I did establish a single rule for inclusion: the film had to make its international premiere after December 31, 1999 and before January 1, 2010. Considering the nature of the project, that rule might have sounded redundant, but it needed to be clearly stated, as it cancelled out films such as Claire Denis’ Beau travail, Nagisa Oshima’s Taboo, Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher and Laurent Cantet’s Human Resources, all of which officially premiered in ’99 but hit the U.S. within the acceptable window.

It’s hard to decide which of the two grave sins of omission (not defending the list as a whole or not defending the film I chose as my #1) is worse, but I like to think the reason I had nothing to write about Dogville was the best vindication for its placement. No other film I watched for the sake of making this list screamed out, “this is it,” the way Dogville did. The sensation isn’t something I can successfully articulate nor defend in any intellectual manner. That I happened to chose a film that was appearing with some frequency on top of others’ similar lists made the task even more difficult. Do I really have anything new to say about a film that’s been written about as extensively as Dogville, and even if I did make a check-list of all the things it does right, would that come close to defining that seemingly inexplicable feeling I got while watching it?

What I will say, however, was that no other film made me re-examine and eventually adjust my once rigidly negative feelings toward its filmmaker the way Dogville did. Whether a harsh reaction to the emotions von Trier conjured inside of me with Dancer in the Dark, Breaking the Waves and The Idiots or the inability to determine why he was doing so, my hatred for the director vanished midway through watching Dogville for the first time, and by the time the saxophone comes in on “Young Americans,” I was singing a much different song about von Trier. While I still think his motives in Dancer in the Dark are tough to define, Dogville and its world of invisible physical boundaries revealed the man behind the curtain and provided me with a special kind of elation (the sort that comes best from misanthropy).

With regard to Michael Haneke, a filmmaker who seems to be falling out of favor with a lot of people I know (or read), I feel no qualms about having him as the most featured filmmaker on the 100. While I do generally like Time of the Wolf, I think Code Unknown, The Piano Teacher, Caché and The White Ribbon represent the upper tier of his work over the past decade. However, Dan asked me if The Piano Teacher really is better than Caché, and likely, it isn’t, especially when considering Haneke’s oeuvre as a whole and his cinematic obsessions. While I acknowledge that, in terms of Haneke’s career, Caché will likely stand out as his “masterpiece,” The Piano Teacher marked my first experience with Haneke on the big screen and still remains one of my finer theatrical experiences, even though it was still fantastic to see Caché on opening night with an even larger audience. This particular bias is probably more common with albums than films as I can’t think of any other films on the list that would fall under this distinction.

The “well, it was my first time” bias wasn’t the only that was at work when organizing the films. For the majority of the year, I spent more time bestowing praise upon Sébastien Lifshitz, the one filmmaker I knew most people weren’t familiar with, than most of the other directors represented. So on some level, I think I felt it my duty to include either Wild Side or Come Undone in my top 10 instead of judging either of the films against all the rest. A close friend of mine, who also shared my enthusiasm for Lifshitz, sent me an e-mail recently saying he’d rewatched Wild Side and been surprised to have found it to be more ornamental than he’d remembered. As I read that, I knew exactly what he meant and perhaps even thought something along those lines when watching it again in December. In looking at the ten films that follow Wild Side on the list, I recognize now that all ten are better films. Had I not spent so much time absorbing as much cinema as I could over the past decade, I would have preferred naming just the ten best films of the Aughts: ten years, ten films and (likely) ten filmmakers. With that in mind, spot number 10 becomes nearly as important as spot number 1, signifying not the tenth best film you saw so much as the one film you wanted to be sure you didn’t leave off the list. So when dealing with a list of 100, both spots 10 and 100 fall prey to that idea.

If I thought really hard about it, I could probably come up with predilections for about half, in addition to factors working against about a fourth of them. As I don’t care to do so, I’ll simply point out the ones that came to mind first. Time certainly didn’t work in the favor of In the Mood for Love, allowing its director to commit a giant fuck up with My Blueberry Nights, which wouldn’t have been as damning if it didn’t share the thematic and stylistic traits that defined the rest of his works. And while the same could be said for Michael Haneke and his Funny Games remake, he at least had the chance to redeem himself (in my eyes) with The White Ribbon. Time didn’t seem to work in the favor of Mulholland Drive in the ranking either, as it had nine years to lose some of its luster from being analyzed/decrypted to death and failing to retain the magic of seeing it for the first time in its subsequent viewings. Time did work in the favor of There Will Be Blood, however, and the fact that I only watched it twice with my opinion of it growing exponentially the more I thought about it.

A couple of people seemed surprised to see not only how high I’d ranked Sex Is Comedy but that I’d placed it above the rest of Catherine Breillat’s other films. For reasons I’m not exactly sure, several films got knocked down in the rankings for containing scenes or moments I couldn’t defend intellectually or artistically. For Fat Girl, I couldn’t justify Breillat’s need to violently murder two of her characters. For Inside, I couldn’t see the explanation of why Béatrice Dalle was terrorizing Allyson Paradis as anything but a lame cop-out. For Mysterious Skin, I kept hearing that awful line Joseph Gordon-Levitt screams in the middle of the film. For Trouble Every Day, I’m still not even sure. None of Breillat’s other films really came to life the way Sex Is Comedy did on repeat viewings. Of course, I had always regarded Sex Is Comedy as a lesser film in Breillat’s canon, so finding out that I was wrong placed it in favor of discovering that I wasn’t truly satisfied with one of Fat Girl’s consequential elements.

In reviewing the annual Best Of lists I’ve written for this blog, I’ve called some truly worthless films (like The Boys and Girls Guide to Getting Down—Christ, drugs must have been involved) the best of their given year, as well as films that ultimately weren’t anything special (like Pan’s Labyrinth and 2046). With that said, I’ll probably recognize at least one or two of these films as being shitty after some time passes, even though I spent a lot more time on this than any of annual run-downs.

I suppose the sort of defense for my ’00 list that would make the most sense (much more so than overanalyzing my own prejudices and miscalculations) would be one where I explored the commonalities between the films I ranked highest or what I looked for when ordering them (I won’t pretend to make some sort of hyperbolic umbrella statement about the decade in cinema). Malheureusement, I can only come up with some really facile descriptors like “bold” and “obstinate” to connect the films, and those will do about as much justice to the films as forcing some loose, interlocking theme would. I made the list because I thought I would enjoy doing so, and I did… some of the time. Ultimately though the whole thing was simply a way for me to hopefully introduce films and/or filmmakers to others—the exact reason I started a blog, only in project form. If I happened to succeed on that level, then the self-inflicted exhaustion and frustration was (probably) worth it.


Simon said...

In regards to The Piano Teacher...it's regarded as the best, I think, because it's safest, in comparison to his other films. Funny Games (US especially) is a close second. But that's kind of obvious, isn't it?

And you don't have to justify a movie, you let the filmmaker do that. And you don't have to justify why that movie's on your top 10(0) list, because if they don't like it, they can make their own fucking list.

That's my two cents...good article, etc.

Joe said...

Thanks, Simon.

I don't know that there need be "justification," but I felt like I kinda copped out by not introducing the list as a whole or even mentioning the film I placed at Number 1.

Jordany said...

Your exhaustion and frustration was certainly worth it. I wouldn't have known a lot of the films/filmmakers I know about today if it wasn't for you and your blog.

I realize now why Sex is Comedy is ranked higher than Fat Girl. I agree that the violence in Fat Girl evokes curiosity and with Sex is Comedy Breillat puts just as much turmoil in the film without bringing in violence. I never decided whether Fat Girl is better than Sex is Comedy but I don't want the violence to be justified. It's brings in a rhythm to the film. I don't think you have seen Bluebeard yet but it was far from synchronized in this aspect. The violence which it shows, to me, didn't work with the rest of the scenes. As for Anatomy of Hell, the violence (in terms of her unapologetic deconstruction of man's personal ideals and evocation of power in woman sexuality & bodies) gives it it's mysticism. Don't you think?

Anyway, I think your list was one of the best I read. Not only in film placement but also in the films it mentioned. Also, what greater way is there to put a list together? Take the films you were most impressed by and debate whether they deserve number one placement. You learn a lot from it and I'm actually glad Dogville was first because I feel the same as you do about it.

iheartsubtitles said...

In total awe and admiration of this endeavor, my queue only got longer --- the next decade list will be a lot easier - I assure you.

psychonappy said...

THE PIANO TEACHER? Safe?? I don't know what film you're watching, but it's the least safe film of the decade. Honestly, it's Haneke's CACHE that is OVER-praised by every critic, because it's exactly that, safe...it stays in unemotional territory. It's simply another emotionless puzzle to solve.


Another thing. I get tired of the overpraise for Dogville, when MANDERLEY is far superior. And again, NOT safe. In all the talk about Dogville from Von Trier enthusiasts, they say little about Manderlay. I doubt they've seen it or understand it.

Joe said...

I didn't quite understand why anyone would use the word "safe" to describe The Piano Teacher either.

And I quite like Manderlay (again, yes, NOT safe), but it doesn't really start to work for me until Grace becomes overwhelmed with her lusty instincts.