Alfonzo Cuaron, Tthe director of Y tu mama tambien and Children of Men.
Living in the aughties
By Don Simpson
The first decade of this new millennium brought us bigger and louder cinematic spectacles than ever before (Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy was the best; Michael Bay’s two installments in the Transformers franchise were the worst) as production budgets continued to skyrocket even as economies worldwide plummeted. The decade also marked the resurgence of low-budget dialogue-driven dramas (a movement deemed, for better or worse: “mumblecore”) focusing on the substance of situations rather than worrying about details like film stock, clean audio tracks, and marquee actors (noteworthy “mumblecore” films: Baghead, Hannah Takes the Stairs and Old Joy).
The following is an alphabetical listing of the 12 films theatrically released in the United States between January 1, 2000 and December 31, 2009 that I enjoyed the most.
Amélie (Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain) –- While partnered with Marc Caro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet created two of my favorite films of the 1990s: Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children (La cité des enfants perdus). Upon parting ways with Caro, Jeunet dove into the unfortunate disaster of Alien: Resurrection, but Jeunet promptly redeemed himself with the delectable Amélie. Contrary to the menacing and mysterious worlds of his previous efforts, Amélie is as twee and saccharine as cinematic cotton candy can get. Wide-eyed Audrey Tautou is perfectly cast as Amélie Poulain, a young woman who approaches the world (and romance) with the naïvely innocent wonderment of a young child. The story and dialogue are dutifully strong, while Jeunet visually reveals the wondrous world as only Amélie sees it.
Children of Men –- Director Alfonso Cuarón’s prodigious grasp of the cinematic medium is mind-blowing with his fervent conveyance of political, social and philosophical messages while artistically pushing visual and narrative boundaries. Set in 2027, Children of Men skillfully discusses issues of today -– pollution, immigration, violence, poor diet, drug abuse, etc., -– as the seeds for human infertility, anarchy (in the U.K.) and global devastation in the very near future. Cuarón provides a glimmer of hope that humankind’s existence may not cease, we will just have to suffer through hell on earth if we do not start making better decisions for our future today.
Donnie Darko –- Literally riddled with mind-blowing philosophies about reality, time travel, literature, teen angst and numerology (just to name a few), Donnie Darko ranks as one of the most challenging films of the decade. Writer-director Richard Kelly’s ear for great dialogue and music melds flawlessly with his cinematic eye. Unfortunately for Kelly, his low-budget science-fiction debut set a very high bar, which he has been unable to match. Southland Tales and The Box were no less ambitious in terms of their mental gymnastics, but they lacked the overall theoretical cohesiveness and clarity of Donnie Darko.
Far From Heaven –- Equal parts Douglas Sirk and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Far From Heaven is superficially a product of 1950s cinema (thanks to Elmer Bernstein’s classic soundtrack composition and the gorgeous cinematography of Edward Lachman) but the content of Todd Haynes’ film would have been much too taboo to be portrayed quite so frankly back then. In critiquing the opinions of homosexuality and mixed-race relationships maintained in American suburbia in the 1950s, Haynes reminds us that we have not progressed very far in our cultural openness. (Proposition 8 anyone?) Sure homosexuality and mixed-race relationships are much more commonplace on television and the silver screen, but in the reality of some sectors of our modern society (primarily the God-fearing population) they are treated as pure evil. If Haynes would have had the forethought to throw a Muslim into the mix, that could have made Far From Heaven even more meaningful and appropriate in this post-9/11 world.
Gosford Park –- One of the greatest wrongs in Oscar history is that Robert Altman never received a Best Director or Best Picture Oscar (he was given an Honorary Oscar in 2006, eight months before his death at the age of 81), despite being one of the greatest directors in the history of cinema. (Gosford Park shamefully lost to Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind in the Best Director and Best Picture categories at the 2002 Academy Awards.) Set in 1932, Gosford Park brilliantly compares and contrasts the lives of the upper class guests (living upstairs) and the lower class servants (living downstairs) during a party in a country house in England. The last great film of Altman’s career (followed only by the mediocre The Company and the disappointing A Prairie Home Companion), Gosford Park is a thoroughly intense yet sardonically comedic study of British class structure intertwined with a classic murder mystery.
Inland Empire –- David Lynch made two of his career best films in the aughts: Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire; and while I would have liked to discuss both films on this list, there is just not enough space. So I am opting for the more cohesive and mature of the two. Inland Empire is a labyrinthine meditation on the Hollywood moviemaking machine. As one of the pillars of surrealist cinema, Lynch relies solely on free association and dream logic to link the scenes and characters of this nightmarish narrative. Inland Empire is the film that Lynch has been preparing for throughout his cinematic career as it perfects many of the artsy eccentricities of his early work (Eraserhead, Elephant Man and Blue Velvet) and fine-tunes the unbridled mind-fuck of his later work (Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr.).
In Praise of Love (Éloge de l'amour) -– Mentally-stimulating and arguably Jean-Luc Godard’s best film since the early 1970s, In Praise of Love is half a classically poetic homage to love and the creation of art shot in stunning black and white; and half an oversaturated colorized critique of American (and Hollywood) imperialism told in flashback. Godard puts forth questions such as: what is an “American” and why does the United States purport to be the sole proprietor of the “American” moniker? What right does Hollywood (more specifically, Steven Spielberg) have to steal someone’s identity in order to make millions? Throughout his oeuvre, Godard has cleverly used images to convey his messages. In Praise of Love is proof that he is still the unparalleled master of the image.
Lost in Translation –- Purely a meditation on that certain brand of loneliness one experiences while alone in a foreign country, the story within Lost in Translation is translated primarily via images and music. Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray’s performances –- primarily their expressions, reactions and movements –- are so convincing that Sofia Coppola could have easily conveyed this story as a silent film. Reminiscent of Jacques Tati’s Playtime, the dialogue exists more often than not as a means to complete the space between the silences. I predict Lost in Translation will go down in history as Coppola’s masterpiece.
Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi) –- I never expected Hayao Miyazaki to make a more sublime and enchanting film than My Neighbor Totoro, but he did it with Spirited Away. Marketed primarily as a children’s film, the plot is light years more complex, sophisticated and intelligent than anything Disney or Pixar have ever realized. Miyazaki’s stream-of-consciousness brand of storytelling meshes naturally with his seemingly LSD-induced hallucinatory animation. On the surface a strangely nonsensical surrealist dream, the fantastic Spirited Away turns out to be more like a Buddhist prayer focusing on environmentalism, class structure and love.
There Will Be Blood –- Paul Thomas Anderson’s breathtaking epic is a film that is destined to go down in cinema history as a true masterpiece. Explicating that even in its infancy oil was quite a menacing commodity, There Will Be Blood overflows with unlikable characters (from evangelicals to oil men to the poor and uneducated people that are unnoticeable speed-bumps along the highway to the greater success of Christianity and capitalism). Daniel Day-Lewis’s pitch-perfect performance as oil tycoon Daniel Plainview is as dastardly as the devil himself. The cinematography (Robert Elswit), editing (Dylan Tichenor) and soundtrack (Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood) seem avant-garde in comparison to anything modern but they all work in faithful worship of the great masters of cinema’s past. (The film was dedicated to Altman.)
Waking Life –- An intense immersion into the world of philosophy as experienced within a lucid dream, Richard Linklater brings out all of his heady heavy artillery in Waking Life. A talkie in every sense of the term, the characters in Waking Life never pause for a breath as they tirelessly ruminate upon the notion of existence and being. Bob Sabiston’s groundbreaking animation is a head trip at every turn and it makes what could have been deemed Slacker Part II into something new and completely different.
Y tu mamá también –- I remember my first viewing of Alfonso Cuarón’s Y tu mamá también as vividly as my virginal foray into the world of Godard (Breathless, of course). Equally poetic, political and social study, Cuarón’s unadulterated playfulness with the cinematic medium harkens back to the French New Wave. Y tu mamá también has withstood the test of at least 15 viewings, and I still find something new and exciting within –- whether a line of dialogue, music cue, camera angle or edit. Of all the films of this decade, this is the one that means the most to me.