The top ten for the decade – or, as the more observant will notice, a top 12 – a miscalculation resulted in there being more left at the end than I originally thought. But none of these films could be left out and there’s no obligation to stick too closely to the rules. So here they are, and 12 films that everyone with an interest in either cinema or the contemporary world should see. Happy Christmas to all and a very Happy New Year too. See you all in 2010.
11. Still Life and 24 City - (Jia Zhang-Ke - China, 2006 and 2009)
Now that Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige have given themselves over to the impasse of heritage cinema and martial arts movies, Jia is now the foremost Chinese director, providing a much more nuanced and interrogative look at China’s industrial boom. He is also the greatest geographer in contemporary cinema. Still Life follows a woman searching for her long-lost husband in a city that is in the course of being dismantled by its inhabitants before being engulfed by water to make way for the Three Gorges Dam. Hauntingly beautiful, it makes excellent use of sound and a bleached-out visual aesthetic that reinforces the ghostly nature of the passing of history and the way it affects ordinary people.
24 City continues Jia’s familiar blend of drama and documentary. It charts the closure of the former chief munitions works in the southern Chinese city of Chengdu, which in its day employed 50,000 people. It is due to be turned into a luxury hotel and apartment complex. The film features interviews with people who have passed through the factory, some of them real workers, some of them played by actors. And Jia’s sense of history is palpable. A middle-aged woman is interviewed about her youth, when she was nicknamed after a Joan Chen character she resembled; in a deft stroke of inspiration she is herself played by the middle-aged Chen. And the most heartbreaking moment in the film comes when a couple who arrived from the north in the 1960s to work in the factory tell of losing their child at a port-stop on the way, resigning themselves to the loss as the ship, symbolizing the future of China, could not dally.
10. Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman – Israel, 2008)
It might seem crass for an Israeli film about soldiers serving in the IDF in the very offensive that facilitated the massacres of Sabra and Chatila, to dwell on the after effects concerning the soldiers themselves. But Waltz with Bashir has its logic nonetheless. It testifies, like other recent Israeli films such as Avi Mograbi’s Z32 and Eytan Fox’s The Bubble to how the comprehensive militarization of Israeli society has blurred the line between military service and leisure activity. Israeli soldiers have full responsibility and no responsibility. Youngsters on military service increasingly use the opportunity to humiliate and poke fun at Palestinians and peace activists alike. IDF casualties are miniscule compared to those among Palestinians yet all military funerals are televised and the dead honoured with Wikipedia entries.
Folman builds on his own experiences of serving as a conscript in the Israeli Defence Force in the invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Unlike some of his former comrades he cannot remember anything from the time so he interviews others, fellow soldiers, military commanders and journalists to piece the personal history together. The film is a harrowing, yet matter-of-fact exploration of the war that veers from hallucinogenic phantasmagoria to moments of keen psychological observation. Folman’s blocking out of his memories is undoubtedly linked to the guilt of the Israelis guiding the Christian Phalangist militias – with flares - to the refugee camp of Sabra and Chatila, where they massacred thousands of Palestinian civilians. The film closes with real footage of the slain bodies, which provides an uncomfortable jolt after the stylised animation of the previous hour and a half. And even if the film might have the distasteful feel of self-indulgence in the face of the slaughter of thousands of civilians, Folman is being honest in his recollections of a military campaign remembered almost as if it were a gap year, but underneath which lie the sordid and disturbing truth of an army that deliberately stood by and let evil take its course.
9.Two Lovers (James Gray – USA, 2008)
With two superb films in recent years James Gray might well be the true heir to the great Scorsese of old that we have seen so little of over the past twenty years. All his films have been set in Brighton Beach in Brooklyn and are steeped in the atmosphere of that musty down-at-heel neighbourhood. Gray also reminds you of many of the finer forensic observers in the history of cinema, the Bergmans, the Rossellinis, the Ozus.
Two Lovers is a departure from the crime films of Gray’s previous work, being a simple yet psychologically sophisticated love story involving a young man with a troubled past. Joaquin Phoenix is superb as Leonard Kraditor, jilted for his medical history and who struggles to rehabilitate himself having moved back into his parents. His parents encourage him to start a relationship with Sandra, the daughter of another Jewish businessman, and she is all game. But the irrational call of love incites him to look elsewhere, towards Michelle, the glamorous blonde who has moved in upstairs. She finds him charming, indulges him but is ultimately uninterested. It’s a banal tale of unrequited infatuation that will be familiar to everyone, but Gray films it with the same tautness as he did his tales of hoodlums and hard-nosed cops. It is one of the most psychologically plausible love stories ever to have been put to film and Phoenix’s performance is such that you hope his current retirement from acting will be only temporary.
8. Climates (Nuri Bilge Ceylan - Turkey, 2006)
Following on his hugely impressive second feature Uzak, which was a prizewinner at Cannes four years ago, Turkish director Ceylan cast himself and his wife (along with his own parents) in this melancholy domestic drama charting the break-up of a relationship between a sullen architectural lecturer and his younger girlfriend. Like Uzak, Climates is beautifully paced and each frame is rich with the tautness of minor human dramas. There is an echo of Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy in the film’s impassive retelling of a rupture. What makes it all the more striking is the unsympathetic nature of Ceylan's own character, the greatest directorial self-abasement since Fassbinder in Fox and his Friends.
7. La Graine et le mulet (Adbelketif Kechiche – France, 2007)
Adbelketif Kechiche didn't exactly come from nowhere with La Graine et le mulet - his previous film L'Esquive also won best picture at the Césars three years ago previously - but the jolt felt by this marvellously ambitious and inventive feature was such that you had a sense of seeing cinema entirely anew.
Kechiche started off as an actor in the films of André Techiné and he has inherited his mentor's astutely deft handling of ensembles and his clear-eyed humanism. The film tells the tale of Sliman, a Maghrebin sexagenarian living in Sète in the south of France, who after being laid off his job renovating boats in the town's harbour, decides to do one up himself and open a couscous restaurant on it. So far so banal, this hoary old tale is given extra pertinence for the fact that its protagonist is so firmly outside the French system that simple scenes such as visiting the bank and the local authorities are invested with unbearable tension and discomfort. Sliman is assisted by Rym the daughter of his common-law partner, a resourceful young woman, who works the system, herself half in the dark as to its labyrinthine intricacies.
Everything about the film ought to work against it; Kechiche uses non-professional actors and improvises heavily, he shoots long takes and lingers on small dramatic details. And the simplicity of the plot would be hard to get past most producers in this day and age. But Kechiche pulls it all off, mainly because he understands so well how cinema works, how much it is a fusion of the kinetics of human drama and the strange fabric of familiar everyday life. The film's magic is a fine balancing act between sociological observation of an immigrant community and dramatic exploration of a group that fleshes the characters out as the film develops.
The film's resounding success in France, where it did very well at the box office for a low-budget film without any stars, and also won Kechiche another brace of Césars, was even more remarkable. It also introduced Hafsia Herzi, a 22-year-old law student from Marseille, in the role of Rym. She herself won a César for best female newcomer and is likely to become a star, having stolen the show with a belly dance (which she put on 6 kilos to perform) that marks the film's dizzying climax. Internationally its success was not so great, hampered by a lack of big names and the awful title 'Couscous' but it’s a film that will last.
6. A History of Violence (David Cronenberg - USA/Canada, 2005)
Cronenberg’s was the comeback of the decade. After a period in the shadows in the 1990s when he made films of varying artistic success, he hit form again with his 2002 adaptation of Patrick McGrath’s novel Spider. But it was a comic-book adaptation that gave him one of his finest film’s yet. Viggo Mortensen plays a man with a hidden violent past that comes to light when he is hailed as a hero for killing two violent assailants in his diner. His Philly gangster brother, played by Ed Harris, tracks him down and tries to gain the pound of flesh he’s been looking for since Viggo’s absconding years earlier. The film, like Cronenberg’s next one Eastern Promises is shot in a deceptively crude Hollywood style. It looks like a contemporary B-movie without the jokey self-referentialism of a Tarantino or a Robert Rodriguez. But the A History of Violence, despite its outer simplicity, is the work of a master at the height of his powers. Cronenberg’s interrogation of violence goes beyond the merely gorely or visceral. Many people will find disturbing the reactions the film provokes in them, I for one found it creepy that the sudden collapse of Mortensen and Maria Bello’s marriage gave me more of a jolt than the rising body count or the conjugal rape. It’s not a pleasant feeling to have and Cronenberg knows how to supply it.
5. Avenge But One of my Two Eyes (Avi Mograbi – Israel, 2005)
Mograbi is a giant among dissident filmmakers. The Israeli served time in the 1980s for refusing to serve in the IDF’s occupation of Southern Lebanon, a move that has since been replicated by his teenage son. He has been a constant thorn in the side of the IDF and the Israeli authorities, even if his own susceptibility to the charm of Ariel Sharon – whom he has no hesitation calling a war criminal – led to his disgusted wife leaving him after his 1995 documentary How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Ariel Sharon. Of course Mograbi never did actually love Sharon but the film was an indication of the ambiguity inherent in political struggle on the Israeli left.
Avenge But One of my Two Eyes is the greatest documentary of the decade. The more straightforward parts of it show Mograbi filming the daily humiliation of Palestinians at check-points and at the Israeli ‘security barrier’ in the West Bank, Mograbi, a great big bear of a man, regularly intervenes and berates thuggish recalcitrant soldiers by reminding them ‘you work for me’. Mograbi also corresponds with an Arab friend by telephone in a series of illuminating conversations where the Palestinian’s resigned sense of outrage and refusal to condemn suicide bombings tests Mograbi’s own hopes for peace and justice. The more offbeat part of the film looks at Jewish suicide cults currently popular in Israel based on the histories of Samson and Massada. The clear suggestion is that Israel can hardly expect to disregard the injustice that drives Palestinian suicide bombings while continuing to valorize their own such suicide drives. The title itself comes from a rock song sung by a band affiliated to the far-right Orthodox Kash. It’s a chilling, bewildering detour into the fringes of settler fascism, but Mograbi is in no doubt that such extremists are a functional cog within the greater wheel of Israeli expansionism and triumphalism.
4. The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke – Germany/France/Austria, 2009)
Haneke won the Palme d’Or with his first period drama, set in the twelve months preceding the outbreak of the First World War. A series of violent incidents violate the peace of a seemingly bucolic feudal domain in Northern Germany. It is never made exactly clear who is responsible for the outrages but there are indications as to the culprits. But Haneke is concerned more by the violence itself than by who was responsible for it. The acts of the locals suggest a greater fracture and social dysfunction than is presupposed at the start of the film. And though it would be a bit too much to read in it the roots of Nazism it is significant that the menacing brood of children would be just of an age to later enact the cruelties and atrocities conceived by Hitler. As ever with Haneke it’s a wonderfully mounted piece – shot in black and white, which lessens the distraction of the period detail – laden with dark premonitions.
3. The Wind Will Carry Us (Abbas Kiarostami – Iran, 1999)
Kiarostami at the peak of his career. Having just shared the Palme d’Or in 1997 (with Shohei Imamura) for the excellent Taste of Cherry, he bettered it with this intriguingly gnomic piece about a camera crew that arrives in Iranian Kurdistan to film the local waking rituals of a woman about to die. The film has the usual geometrically precise images of a Kiarostami film and there’s also gentle satire of the cosmopolitan Tehran elite. But the overall intent and ambience is profoundly humanistic. Kiarostami takes his title and much of the inspiration throughout the film from a poem by the late celebrated poet Forrough Farrokhzad, a particular bugbear for the Islamic regime. Kiarostami seems to have got bored with cinema in recent years, channeling most of his creative energies into art installations and photography. There are still films here and there but they seem more spin-offs than freestanding projects. Good as these are, it would be nice to see a string of new films from the man many consider to be the greatest filmmaker alive.
2. The Death of Mr Lazarescu (Christu Puiu – Romania, 2005)
Christu Puiu took the Un Certain Regard sidebar award at Cannes in 2005 for this brilliant comic drama about an ailing sexagenarian alcoholic's passage from one Bucharest hospital to another one autumn night. The self-confessed hypochondriac Puiu used his experiences in the city's hospitals to create this drama in which the splendidly-named Dante Lazarescu undergoes a nightmarish journey, entirely beyond his control as he lies semi-conscious on a stretcher, aided only by a sympathetic brow-beaten female paramedic. The state of the Romanian health service is abysmal and Lazarescu is successively misdiagnosed, rediagnosed and at one point turned away by a megalomaniacal doctor intent on punishing him for his drinking. Mr Lazarescu is redolent of the 'little man' in many a Central European novel and even while prostrate for much of the film he is a beguiling presence. The final, protracted scene where his dead body is washed and dressed is almost unbearably moving, all the more so in the light of the fact that the actor portraying Lazarescu, Ion Fiscuteanu himself passed away two years after the film. Puiu intends this to be the first of a sequence of six films, inspired by Éric Rohmer's Moral Tales; somebody ought to keep the chequebook open indefinitely for him if this stunning film is anything to go by.
1.Dogville (Lars Von Trier – Denmark/Sweden/Germany/France, 2003)
There are simple-minded folk that think Lars Von Trier is an inveterate misogynist and anti-American bigot. A close look at his films, where the trope of misogyny is practically a clinical control – and an enormous red herring – and the complex portrayal of a grieving mother in Antichrist should disabuse any sensible person of the previous illusion. As for the supposed anti-Americanism, if one supposes Dancer in the Dark and Dogville to be savage critiques of the United States, one must think likewise of Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. If one persists in those nonsensical ideas about Von Trier, there’s very little that can be done, save perhaps watch The Five Obstructions, the film he made with his ‘hero’ Jørgen Leth and which lays bare his modus operandi and his outrageous provocation.
As for Dogville, well it’s not about the US, stupid, despite LVT’s bombast at press conference and despite the needling in the final credits. Von Trier’s real theme is the corruption of public discourse. The mountain village turns on Nicole Kidman’s Grace in a savage way but far more significant is the rhetorical justification for it proffered by the villagers themselves but also by the film’s epicentre of villainy, Thomas Edison (a fine name) played by Paul Bettany. This is why Dogville is the film for a decade, which was marked by a criminal invasion of a middle-Eastern country justified on pseudo-humanitarian grounds, and where jackals such as Blair, Berlusconi and Sarkozy protested innocence while they were engaging in acts of political garroting, a decade where Israel murdered 1400 Palestinians in a three-week offensive – a death toll of a ratio of 1000 to 1 – all the time claiming to be the ‘most moral army in the world’. Von Trier is a far more serious filmmaker than his press conferences suggest and he is possessed of a savage indignation worthy of Swift himself. He doesn’t always get it right – such was the case with the second film of the Grace Mulligan trilogy, Manderlay – but the man raised by dogmatic communists is rightly suspicious of both groupthink and the bullying consensual rhetoric of public relations. He’s the right cynic for our times, one we all deserve.