01 January 2010

Best of the Decade

We've concluded what might have been a just so-so decade for film but it was nevertheless the decade in which WTT came of age. I know this best loved list is a bit tardy but I had to make sure no 2009 films slipped past me, right? (Colin Firth in A Single Man, Werner Herzog for Bad Lieutenant--you were almost there!) In trying to come up with an inherently flawed system for categorizing my picks, I immediately thought of the Oscars. I also made the choice to recognize as many different films as possible (e.g. instead of nominating everyone involved in No Country for Old Men, I just nominated it for Best Picture...and there are several exceptions to this rule, naturally). I've found that I overlap with the Academy more than I would have thought. As such, the nominees and winners are as follows...


Ben Kingsley Sexy Beast
Christopher Mintz-Plasse Superbad
Brad Pitt The Assassination of Jesse James
Luis Tosar Miami Vice
Owen Wilson The Royal Tenenbaums

I like remembering where I was when I saw the nominees for Best Supporting Actor. Walking out of a Seattle theatre in smoke grey dusk, I could hear Pitt's Jesse James cocking the trigger behind me (he delivers perhaps the best one-liner of the 00's in regards to Casey Affleck's desire to go pee in the night--"you think you do, but you don't"). I was still contemplating the utter perfection of Luis Tosar's beard in Miami Vice as I descended back into a neon-bright Vegas casino--upon further reflection, it was the detachment of his drug kingpin that made the performance so persuasive. For all the attention on performances like Pacino's in Scarface and Chase's in Medellin, Tosar captured Michael Mann's true "don't have anything in your life you can't walk out on in 30 seconds" ethos. Starting as soon as I left mall theater in Santa Barbara and continuing to the present, I've done terrible impressions Owen Wilson's Eli Cash saying "wiilldcat" in The Royal Tenenbaums. A fake Cormac McCarthy can still be a real inspiration. An ill-timed San Diego burrito and McLovin made my gut ache all through Superbad--you can say it's a minor comedy but how many actors have created an icon, as Mintz-Plasse has? If you were to see my high school self driving up into the hills to see Sexy Beast with my cool film buff friend, you might comment on certain physical resemblances between myself and Mr. McLovin. I was a little bit scared to see the film since, even as Gandhi, Ben Kingsley terrifies me. And, of course, his animalistic Don Logan would terrify anyone. Because it has to be done, my favorite passage: "Shut up, cunt. You louse. You got some fuckin' neck ain't you. Retired? Fuck off, you're revolting. Look at your suntan, it's leather, it's like leather man, your skin. We could make a fucking suitcase out of you. Like a crocodile, fat crocodile, fat bastard. You look like fucking Idi Amin, you know what I mean?" Unforgettable.


Amy Adams Junebug
Penelope Cruz Vicky Christina Barcelona
Emmanuelle Devos A Christmas Tale
Rosemarie DeWitt Rachel Getting Married
Zhang Ziyi 2046

As many immediate fond memories sprang to mind for Best Supporting Actor, I had nothing besides Amy Adams excited explanation that her favorite animal was the meerkat for Supporting Actress. The Oscar noms are no help at all, strange lists of children and the middle aged in overrated films. So I nominated people for perhaps inconsequential reasons: Amy Adams for the aforementioned line, Rosemarie DeWitt just for being so much better than Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married and Penelope Cruz managing to steal every scene from the Bardem/Johansson smolder in Barcelona. I guess that leaves Ziyi, who Wong Kar Wai transforms into an unlikely sophisticate in 2046 (probably her pervasive bubbliness was leached out by his tendency to use 40-50 takes for most of her scenes), and Emmanuelle Devos who excels as the still point in the insane universe of the Vuillard family in A Christmas Tale. When she leaves on Christmas Eve, and takes her radiant temperance with her, the train goes right off the tracks. (And it's an official WTT goal to note all great supporting actress roles as they happen in the 10s).


Kings & Queen
The Squid and the Whale
Y Tu Mama Tambien

The 00s were filled with films that revisited and recycled classic films and genres. A great example of old tropes put to new purpose is the script for Brick, where Rian Johnson borrowed all the best film noir accessories in dialogue and costume. In some ways it's funny how the characters talk but I found myself paying much closer attention. Looking up from his Rubix cube, The Brain says: "But I bet you, if you got every rat in town together and said 'Show your hands' if any of them've actually seen The Pin, you'd get a crowd of full pockets." Usually when you hear about a well-reviewed, "serious picture" from Hollywood, it's a crime (often perpetrated by Steven Spielberg). That's why I'm glad to call out Syriana for attention. It's a great unraveling of best-laid American plans and I love the sequence with the trained hawks where Matt Damon, bereaved and greedy (he's lost a child in a poolside mishap at the elaborate palace of an oil baron), negotiates a deal for cooperation. When the sheik offers him millions, Damon replies, "Great. How much for my other kid?" My mouth dropped open and I thought of Yeats' "The Second Coming"--"Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer; / Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold..." If nothing else, I credit Noah Baumbach, via The Squid and the Whale, for making anyone who uses the term "Kafkaesque" look like a complete ass. The film is stocked with snobby gems (about Welles, Godard and even Monica Vitti) that warm my snobby little heart. Plus, at 81 minutes, it's probably the pithiest film I know from the 00s. The best extra credit school assignment I ever had was going to see Y Tu Mama Tambien and writing a 100 word response en espanol. Not only is it hilarious and raunchy, it remains one of the best examinations of young male friendship ever. It's easy to be BFFs when you're in the supermarket claiming you need condoms fit for giant salamis but it's much harder when you find out how your mutual insecurities have led to all sorts of betrayals. When Julio and Tenoch just walk away from each other in the end, it feels completely true. Kings & Queen collects the hardware though. As WTT established in an earlier post, Arnaud Desplechin wove together the most complicated and rewarding collection of verbal tics, insults, sweet nothings, rants and speeches I've ever heard. It is the speeches near the end I want to call out again. The out-of-leftfield, raging letter (read aloud) from a dying father to his daughter is shattering--one wonders if we can recover--and the talk between a bipolar father and his young son is gorgeous, believably flawed, and restorative. You won't find monologues like these in other films--you'll find them in Shakespeare.


The Fall
Far from Heaven
Miami Vice
A Single Man
Transformers I

For the Best Cinematography category I tried to focus on films that create their own, internally logical, worlds and I came up with quite a mix. The Fall wins me over with its go-for-broke visual grandstanding, its willingness to make butterflies and desert islands one and the same. While Tarsem's vision might seem more related to Fantasia than Far from Heaven, I see similarly lush matching cuts in both films. While Todd Haynes pays blatant homage to Douglas Sirk, I loved every minute of retro Technicolor. When people say Tom Ford's A Single Man is like watching two hours of a Vanity Fair photo shoot, I can only ask if that's a bad thing. There's advanced work with color, as shots that start out in flat monochrome brighten as characters give each other pink and red hot flashbacks. Not to mention in a filmic fashion shoot, you get to enjoy actors who are more or less cutouts of Brigitte Bardot and James Dean. From the third row of a packed theater I saw cinematic technology perfected in Transformers I. It was no illusion--those giant robots were actually fighting on the freeways of Los Angeles. You can argue about the value of such a film but I saw the science fiction flawlessly. It's fitting that the robot called Megan Fox is also featured--she gives us the Marilyn Monroe moment of our time under the hood of a talking late model Camaro. The winner though is Miami Vice, Michael Mann's best vehicle yet for digital technology. The camera picks out everything perfectly: the trashy pink-black Miami nights, the greased bleach-blond coils of Colin Farrell's hair, the soft mountains of South American styrofoam and cocaine, the coolly barren condo interiors everywhere. The cinematography is not Don Johnson's 1986 slick; it's the cruel, metallic stare of our time.


Abbie Cornish Bright Star
Isabelle Huppert The Piano Teacher
Scarlett Johansson Lost in Translation
Naomi Watts Mulholland Dr.
Reese Witherspoon Walk the Line

Some people have accused WTT of only being interested in "hot chicks" and to them I can only say...the nominees in this category will not help my case. I did refrain (barely) from nominating Kate Bosworth for Blue Crush though! Abbie Cornish gets the nod for taking on Fanny Brawne (a quintessential Kate Winslet role) and showing off great stitchery and sass. She grounds Ben Whishaw's Keats and ensures Bright Star won't just float away--in the end, her art on cloth seems as worthwhile as Keats' poetry. Naomi Watts deserves to be here for what I like to call The Scene. When Watts starts purring at the orangeish actor of a certain age in the audition sequence, it's like someone flipped on the lights in a blacked out motel room. Lynch sets it up perfectly with Watts giving a brutal pre-audition run through, only to blow the doors off later. No matter how many times I see the film, I always have to watch The Scene twice because I just can't believe it. I adore Reese Witherspoon's June Carter for the same reason I adore Grace Kelly's characters--she's more or less playing perfect person. From the first time I saw the trailer and watched her say, "baby baby baby baby baby!" I knew it was Oscar time. I thought there would be Oscars already for Scarlett Johansson too but I can settle for her pitch-perfect Charlotte, the Yale-trained philosopher who doesn't know what she's doing. It's still a mystery to me how she was persuasively world-weary at only 17 but that's acting, I suppose. I award the prize to the grand dame of the group, Isabelle Huppert in The Piano Teacher, because she maintains for two hours a trainwreck intensity most actresses only touch a few times in their careers. Aside from the pervasive masochism so black it becomes laughable, the shot that stands out in my mind is the one of Huppert's face as she walks away from her screaming student, whose hands she's ruined by placing broken glass in the pockets of her coat. The expression is totally serene but we can also feel the horrifying tumult of thoughts surging through her head. I don't know how she does it.


Daniel Day-Lewis There Will Be Blood
Ryan Gosling Half Nelson
Tony Leung 2046
Mark Ruffalo You Can Count On Me
Michael Shannon Shotgun Stories

This is a loaded category but also the easiest decision on the board. Michael Shannon is brilliant as all the Corleones at once in Shotgun Stories; Mark Ruffalo is fantastically caustic (and a model for too much of my own behavior) in You Can Count on Me; from his brow to his cartoonishly large (and probably self-cobbled) boots Daniel Day-Lewis is the most fantastic bully you'll ever see and a very bad companion at campsites or bowling lanes in There Will Be Blood; Tony Leung (and his half-mustache) goes on being the closest thing we have to Cary Grant in 2046. But none of these great performances do more than approach Ryan Gosling in Half Nelson. His Dan Dunne is unshakable in every frame. With every beautifully realized, terrible nuance to his performance I sank deeper into my own, much less-interesting, flaws. Unlike Dunne, I teach no one--isn't his way of fucking up the way I should be fucking up? And so I wrestle with Half Nelson in a way I don't wrestle with any other film. I feel sweaty and spent with Dunne on the floor of the girl's locker room; I feel hurt but unsurprised when his neglected cat winds up dead. The real life is troubling too--Gosling delivered the performance of the decade but what's he doing now?


Robert Altman Gosford Park
Laurent Cantet Time Out
Terrence Malick The New World
Fernando Meirelles City of God
Bela Tarr Werckmeister Harmonies

This category has turned into a repository for foreign directors and directors who hardly seem American at all. That Gosford Park is so at home in the English countryside is a credit to Altman, who could make anything work. Watching the film I had the feeling that he let his brilliant cast, well-calibrated script and gorgeous set lap against each other like water. So hard to make it look so easy. City of God probably has a few too many stylistic tics piled on by Meirelles but it is full of real verve--it seems every whip pan runs smack into another brazen young face you can't help following. I love the way the favelas (and the drug culture) are right on top of Rio: humid, violent and going nowhere. Cantet's Time Out deserves another go around in theaters--it's a prescient recession film with a huge-hearted performance by the physically (but not emotionally) unemployed Aurelien Recoing at the center. His walk from the car to a brightly-lit home after a long time on the road is my favorite filmic evocation of family, that heartrending mix of love and terror. If nothing else, just watch the first shot of Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies--it's about ten minutes long and reveals the power we still have to move each other, as gravity moves moons around planets. And now I want you to imagine a great, visually stunning film about a strange white man in an alien land full of people with seemingly superhuman powers. Imagine his difficult adjustment to their ways and his inevitable love for their most beautiful female. Imagine the horrible clash when the white race wants to exploit the natives for their natural resources... See, Terrence Malick's The New World sounds just like Avatard, minus a couple billion in ticket sales. Where James Cameron focused on 3-D camerawork, Malick provides depth of characterization. I've still astonished by his ability to personify Indians horizontally (the fields, the plains, the patience) and Englishmen vertically (the ship masts, the forts, the aggression). The sight of Pocahontas trapped in a starched collar amongst the topiary is a much more moving indictment of Western culture than screeching pastel pterodactyls dodging missiles. Perhaps this WTT Oscar is more of a lifetime achievement award, but Malick deserves something for being the best natural filmmaker alive today.


George Washington
In the Bedroom

Lost in Translation
No Country for Old Men

Even as I look at this list of nominees I ask myself, this is all there was? Certainly a much better decade for foreign films but, still, where have you gone Scorsese, Soderbergh, Lee, et al? To be clear, I have no idea what happens in Primer but I give a ton of credit to Shane Carruth for making the premise and performances in the film totally realistic. From everyone's white collar suburbia emerges a film of time travel verite that's more plausible than anything by Clint Eastwood. In George Washington and In the Bedroom, David Gordon Green and Todd Field do justice to the idea of American filmmaking--their films are rooted in place, well-written and movingly acted. George Washington is beautiful circling of small town North Carolina with naturalistic voiceovers--how refreshing to see a young director taking cues from Malick instead of Tarantino. Field likewise focuses on the rooms, houses, roads and bridges that subtly confine his characters In the Bedroom of New England--it's a film with architecture to it. Not to mention poetry! When Tom Wilkinson's poker buddy starts into "A boys will is the wind's will..." my allergies always kick in right at that moment. Speaking of places, how about Lost in Translation? It makes sense that the defining film for American millennials takes place in Tokyo, where there's even less question that humans are drowning in technology. Sofia Coppola casts us adrift, overeducated and uneasy, looking for answers somewhere, getting them (perhaps) in inaudible whispers. If this film is too slight, so are we. Leave it to the Coen brothers to give us back some swagger, even if nihilistic. No Country for Old Men is the domestic picture of the decade because it delivers in so many ways. It's a great period piece (I still lust after Moss' truck). It's a stocked with great lines that are hilarious and horrifying ("Supposedly, a coyote won't eat a Mexican," dozens of others). It's loaded with great performances in just the right proportions (you're always excited to see a character when they reappear, even the cranky mother-in-law). It gives a screen debut to an entirely new murder weapon. And it features a twisty but realistic plot that comes at you hard as a pitbull down a river, without the bizarre tangents that sometimes undermine the Coen Bros.' work. For those who want more conclusion to the film, I ask where is the conclusion to any of the violence we see around us? That shot dog Llewelyn sees at the beginning looks like he's smiling but really he's dying. The Ed Toms of the world cannot stop Death by themselves--all we can hope for is peaceful dreams.



The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Kings & Queen

Talk to Her

It might say something about differences in cinema that the domestic selections are mostly centered on death and the foreign mostly on love. The intersection of both poles is most apparent in Michael Haneke's investigation of terror and reality programming, Cache. The director's rictus grin is behind every static second of film sent to the blackmailed couple. It's appropriate that the VHS tapes they receive are so boring--why are we so interested in every day banality? Cache strikes me as the natural offspring of The Battle of Algiers--it's still verite style, there's just nothing to see. There's nothing strictly realistic in Talk to Her, Pedro Almodovar's most successful display of melodramatic color. While I'm easily distracted by the reds, pinks and mustards of the bullring and the blacks and greys of the ballet, there's a lingering question in the film that I still play with: if you violate someone to restart their live, is the act then acceptable? While impressive, the claustrophobic shots of a man with "locked-in syndrome" aren't what make me admire The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. It's all the frustrating and fleeting vignettes Schnabel gives us of pre-stroke Jean-Do that make the film great: tenderly shaving his aged father, swanning through a self-congratulatory photo shoot, having a very bad weekend with his lover amidst provincial madonnas. It must be the warmth of the camera that makes him so irresistible. Mathieu Amalric (the WTT actor of the decade) also dominates his half of Kings & Queen and it's a great credit that Emmanuelle Devos that she gives him no quarter. I guess there's not much more to say besides Desplechin gave us the most perfect film on the 2000s. And how can you pick against the most perfect film? Remember, these are the WTT Oscars, where the most loved can beat the best. So the award goes to the single piece of art from the 00s I most wish I'd made: 2046. It's a different story every time--who's to stay where it starts or ends? Wong Kar Wai has called it a coda for In the Mood for Love and this is a helpful description. While The Great Gatsby is the most perfect novel, I'm a Tender Is the Night guy because it has everything in it, every idea Fitzgerald needed to explore in the eight years it took him to write the book. 2046 jams the best of Kar Wai's preoccupations on screen--there's heavily-textured single rooms, Nat King Cole's voice, slow motion tracking shots, perfectly made up actresses (whether whores or cyborgs), and an man's grim charm guarding the wreck of his heart. Even if you can't come back from 2046, you need to get on the train.

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