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Archive for December 31st, 2009

It’s always suprising and illuminating to look back upon a decade in reference to the films that were released during that period of time, how they reflected the world in which they were made, and what kind of mark they left upon the entire history of film. If there was any discernable theme that ran through the films released during the ’00s (at least with the ones that I liked the most) was a collective anxiety; a collective anxiety of the unknown, of a tenuous present and an uncertain future. Or maybe it’s just the pessimist in me.

The following are in no particular order.

  

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

After the disappointing Adaptation I was glad to see Charlie Kaufman return to form with this tale of a doomed romance that wasn’t (or was it?). Jim Carrey’s character, Joel wants to erase the painful memory of his relationship with former girlfriend, Clementine (Kate Winslet), but things are never that simple. On the face of it, Charlie Kaufman’s script is fairly cerebral, but it is the stripped-down direction by Michel Gondry and the wonderfully tactile performances of its two stars (yes, I’m actually saying I enjoyed Jim Carrey in a movie), that bring a certain dose of humanity that ultimately grounds this film. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is able to have its cake and eat it too; it is a heartbreaking, moving story as well as a brilliant, postmodern treatise on dating and relationships.

Mulholland Drive (2001)

See my previous essay.

Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

There are so many romantic comedies released every year it comes as a complete surprise when one emerges that isn’t sappy, silly, vapid and that doesn’t pander to the audience in every way possible. If anyone can give this particular genre a much-needed face lift it would be Paul Thomas Anderson. With Punch- Drunk Love he hones his vision down to a mere 90 minutes, focusing on only two characters. Gone is the epic feel, the multiple storylines and dozens of characters. He has returned to the taught, focused filmmaking of his first film, Hard Eight. Most of all Anderson is able to pull an extraordinary performance from Adam Sandler whose characters are usually one-dimensional punch lines that you feel glad to be rid of at the end of two hours. Sandler builds the character of Barry from pure tension. There is tension even in the quietest moments, aided in a big way by a score by Jon Brion that sounds as if it has been tightly wound, like it is about ready to break apart at any moment. Amazingly, Anderson is able to harness this constant anxiety for the duration of the movie; we feel Barry’s anxiety and anger boiling just beneath the surface in every scene that he is in (it is only in the final scene that there is a feeling of release, of relief). And the chemistry between Sandler and Emily Watson is genuine, funny, and tragic; in a word, it feels immediate.  For me, this might be one of the most memorable films of the decade; it is surreal and tender and terrifying and awkward all at once.
 

Lost in Translation (2003)

Yes this “indie” film received a lot of hype upon its release, but unlike another over-hyped “indie” film,  Napoleon Dynamite, it actually deserves all of the allocates it received. Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson are wonderful to watch as two lonely people desperate for connection. There is ennui here, there is melancholy, but none of it feels forced. Sophia Coppola’s second film after the nostalgia-kissed Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation is certainly a love story, but it is also the story of a friendship between a man a woman, something of which is rarely seen in movies, especially American movies.

Swimming Pool (2003)/ Under the Sand (2000)

François Ozon might arguably be the true cinematic descendant of Luis Buñuel and Alfred Hitchcock. His films, especially Sitcom and See the Sea are dark, blacker than night, highly controlled excursions into the human psyche. His output in the ’00s was sometimes hit and miss, but both Swimming Pool and Under the Sand are such strong, fascinating films that I was hard pressed to choose one I like better. Under the Sand is far more controlled, far more restrained, but its emotional impact is greater, while Swimming Pool remakes the standard thriller with the wonderfully sultry Ludivine Sagnier at its center.

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

Wes Anderson’s first three films exist in a world of their own, one that doesn’t feel derivative, that doesn’t feel like a copy of anything else out there. “Original” is a word that gets thrown around a lot when it comes to directors, but I would argue that in this case it fits. Bottle Rocket, Rushmore and The Royal Tenebaums are all utterly sincere, and really funny, their characters broken, vulnerable, but still trying to make connections in a world that is often indifferent at best. The Royal Tenebaums feels like the culmination of a singular, purposed vision. From the soundtracks, to the staged framing, to the title cards, everything is specific, nothing is random or left to chance, and yet it all feels effortless and genuine.

Ghost World (2001)

Comic book adaptations are hard to get right. Maybe it’s because most are from source material that has to do with men and women running around in capes and tights and when these characters are erected into live action forms, the artifice that works on the printed page competently falls flat on the screen. With Ghost World this pitfall is avoided due to the subject matter’s lack of superheroes and its grounding in the “real world”. Also, the film is co-written by the original author, Dan Clowes the brilliant satirist behind the comic magazine Eightball from which the serial Ghost World was taken, so the story is ultimately treated with the respect it deserves. Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson manage to stay true to the source material as two sarcastic teenagers who slowly drift apart from one another the summer before adulthood. It is a bitter-sweet, sometimes truly sad film, with an ending that is strange, unsettling and moving.

The Dark Knight (2007)

I usually don’t bother with blockbusters, plus the other movies in this franchise have been fairly awful, completely missing the mark (even Batman Begins was at times droll and lifeless), so I was completely caught off-guard with The Dark Knight, the second film in Christopher Nolan’s re-imaging of the character. I actually enjoyed this film, really enjoyed this film. There are at least three movies packed within this turduken of a film, but it all works, the unrelenting pace never giving the viewer a chance to catch their breath, or question how ridiculous it all becomes. Disregard Gary Oldman’s silly speech at the very of the movie and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s stilted and awkward performance, and you’ll be left with an adaptation that finally gets Batman right. Nolan’s nihilistic vision of a Gotham City self-destructing and a Batman that is bordering on fascism in his vision of “justice”, is actually thrilling to watch.

Y tu mamá también (2001)

A film that is at once intimate and expansive, Y tu mamá también is a sex-charged coming of age story without the crass, snickering infantilism of movies like Porky’s and American Pie; it actually treats sex in a frank, uncompromising way that is both exhilarating and tender. Directed in a cinema verite style by Alfonso Cuarón, the film is often interrupted by a narrator that gives further background to events or characters that the main storyline runs into, illuminating a bigger social-political context that is woven into the film.

Inland Empire (2006)/Dogville (2003)

OK, I’m cheating here again, but I like both of these films and found it hard to leave one out of the top ten. Inland Empire is a sprawling, frustrating, often impenetrable mélange of ideas that, like Eraserhead, stands as the closest example of pure surrealist cinema that Lynch has created (save for a handful of short films). What does it all mean? I’m not sure, and frankly I don’t really care. It’s always a truly visceral experience watching a David Lynch film and Inland Empire is no exception.

Dogville— the first film in a proposed trilogy— is like a version of Our Town that has gone horribly, horribly wrong. Admittedly, I have a love/hate relationship with Lars Von Trier. Stylistically, he is one of the most ambitious filmmakers in the last thirty years. Element of Crime, Zentropa and the Kingdom series are so different from one another, so varied in their approach, that you would think that were made by three different directors, which, in this case, is a good thing. However, it is his seemingly mysongisnitic bent that makes viewing his films, at times, an uncomfortable experience (this is the same reason I have issues with some of Sam Peckinpah’s films). Dogville,  in many ways, feels like a return to form (I wasn’t a particular fan of the Dogma95 film The Idiots or Dancer in the Dark). The subject matter is still as bracing as always, but shedding the often cumbersome and sometimes pretentious confines of the Dogma95 rules, Lars Von Trier creates a highly controlled film, a set piece really (well, literally, it all takes place on a soundstage), about good and evil in America.

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Mulholland Drive (2001)

Director: David Lynch

(WARNING: Contains spoilers) In a recent poll, more than 100 film critics and bloggers voted David Lynch’s enigmatic Mulholland Drive  as the best film of the decade, which I found, admittedly, a bit suprising.  I say suprising because Lynch films are often met with sharp divisions of love and hate, usually with no middle ground to speak of, so for a film of his to gather this much universal acclaim is certainly noteworthy.  I am, in the end, happy Mulholland Drive was named the best film of the decade since I come down on the side of loving his films (OK, he’s my favorite director next to Luis Buñuel so maybe I’m a little biased). To me this unified declaration proves, decades into an amazing career, Lynch is still making deeply personal, and highly charged films that continue to burrow under the collective skin of film goers the world over.

Mulholland Drive along with Lost Highway (which shares many similar ideas on doppelgangers, alternate narratives/universes (see my previous review of Lost Highway) are two of my favorite Lynch films, although they were not always so. I enjoyed Lost Highway enough, but wasn’t struck by it like I was when I first saw Blue Velvet. A few years later when Mulholland Drive came out my response was pretty much the same. I had also been following the history of the film so I knew that it was originally a pilot developed for ABC which the network declined to accept for various reasons. Once Lynch got the rights back he shot more footage and expanded it into a movie. I think my knowledge of this clouded my initial response which was this: that the first hour was amazing and the second half not as engaging. In other words it felt like a pilot that was reworked into a feature film. There were plotlines and characters that felt like dead ends (even more so than the usual Lynch film), and I was left wishing this had actually been made into a series (I still do, just a bit).

It was only after talking to a friend at length about the film, his impressions of it, what he thought the ending meant, how it related to the rest of the story etc., that I rented and watched it with fresh eyes. I’ve watched it many times since then, and I have grown to not only admire this film, but really count it among my favorite in the Lynch cannon.  This renewed interest prompted me to see Lost Highway again, and again and again, each time admiring both films that much more.

Unlike Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart, both of which struck me immediately, I needed more time warming up to Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway; the narratives that turn into themselves again and again, the endings that are really not endings but beginnings, they are two films that are more challenging, in the same way that Eraserhead and Inland Empire are challenging. They are not immediately accessible; they don’t reveal themselves upon first viewing; they are dense mysteries that may never be penetrated, and that’s OK because they may not need to be, they are often simply what they are upon first discovery: unabashedly bizarre, disconcerting, hypnotizing, utterly visceral experiences. Its languid pacing lures the viewer into a false sense of understanding which is routinely undermined by diversions and distractions of the main plot-line. The visuals are luscious and lurid as usual, a phantasmagoric welling of Technicolor seediness that often boarders on madness. Mulholland Drive is the perfect culmination of ideas that Lynch started with in Lost Highway, sans the overwhelming menace of the latter. True, there is menace here, just under the surface, but there is also joy and sadness, and a strange sense of calm that envelopes Betty in the final scene of the film. There is redemption in Betty’s face, she is full of promise, echoing that of the beginning of the film. 

The story of starry-eyed, aspiring actress, Betty (Naomi Watts) and the mysterious, amnesiac, Rita (Laura Elena Harring) trying desperately to discover her real identity, has all of the hallmarks of classic Lynch: absurdly naive characters; brutal explosions of violence that emerge from seemingly mundane surroundings; dialogue that is at once kitschy and mysterious, a cadence that lends itself to the entire filmic artifice which evolves in rapidly organic and frightening ways over the course of the movie; detours down the dark alley ways of film noir; an approach to filmmaking that is timeless, but also immediate, of the times in which it was created. Mulholland Drive  is a sort of love letter to Hollywood and filmmaking, a more twisted version of Sunset Boulevard. It is a waking dream about dream-making, it plunges you into the city that drives all of this, exposing the monsters that skulk around in the shadows, that move about in the golden, smog-infused sunlight. From the bungalows to the back lots, the diners and houses on hills, Lynch is gives the audience a journey around L.A., his L.A., the reality, but also that one that exists in dreams and nightmares. Like Chinatown and L.A. ConfidentialMulholland Drive evokes a by-gone Los Angeles of gloss and crime, while giving us a strange preview of the present and future, one that is only fully glimpsed by Lynch himself.

And there are many memorable scenes; Betty’s reading at a casting call that recalls, in some strange way, the scene in Wild at Heart between Lula Fortune (Laura Dern) and Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe) in the motel room; Angelo Badalamenti‘s hilarious turn as a mobster who is just trying to get a good cappuccino; Betty and Rita in a climactic scene at the mysterious Club Silencio with vocalist Rebekah del Rio singing an a capella version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” in Spanish to the weeping lovers. The whole scene is strangely moving and the last time we see them together before their relationship collapses and is reborn into another storyline and pair of characters.

Of course, like Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive has been written about at length, so anything I add will be just short of redundant, and possibly border on the mindless drivel of a Lynch fan (of course this didn’t stop me from putting together a previous “review” of Lost Highway). There have been much better, far more articulate overviews of Lynch and his films, the best of which very well might lie in the late David Foster Wallace’s article for Premiere magazine*.

In the end Mulholland Drive, is probably the most heart breaking of Lynch’s films. It is a tragic love story at its core. Lynch even called it a “love story in the city of dreams”. The moments between Betty and Rita are some of the most intimate, sincere of the film (especially so in the lovemaking scene; yes it is meant to be titillating, but it is also tender, one of the most honestly moving scenes Lynch has ever filmed). There is a sort of naked honesty present in many scenes between the two women, the same kind of moments Lynch conjured in the underappreciated Straight Story. Eliciting this sort of raw emotion proves that Lynch is not just about being “weird” for weird’s sake as many of his detractors would argue; he is also a director deeply interested in the human condition, about how it feels to be alive.

Perhaps Mulholland Drive makes perfect sense as the film of the decade, the first decade of the 21st century, if only in the eyes of a bunch of critics and bloggers. In many ways it reflects the times we live in, the dangerous uncertainties of a new century, and for lack of a better word, the surrealism of many events that left their indelible mark upon the decade.

* David Foster Wallace’s essay is not only a fascinating portrait of an artist at work, but an appreciation of that artist’s career, and how that career affected his own writing (you can also find this in his amazing collection of essays A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again) .

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