Wednesday, May 11, 2011
A Life in Movies
A meme initiated by Fandango Groover called "A Life in Movies" has been going around and the task is to choose a favorite film from every year since you were born. It's an interesting experiment because I have never thought about films in such a way. Of course I've thought about my favorite films from various years, but never specifically within the timeline of my own life. The only parameter I set for myself was that I couldn't choose more than two films by the same director (or else I could fill this thing up with a small handful of directors). So that's it. Here's my picks:
1991: Slacker (Richard Linklater)
The year I was born was, fittingly, also the year of the film that awakened both my critical interest in film as well as my desire to make films myself. Richard Linklater's Slacker, just barely edging out Kieslowski's Double Life of Veronique for the mere sake of personal significance, proved to me that something extraordinary and original could be fashioned from a small budget and nonprofessional actors, not to mention something plotless and semi-autobiographical. This is still one of the most enjoyable movies I know to watch, simply in the name of snappy philosophical dialogue and elegant tracking shots, and it's an indelible example of a filmmaker so effortlessly establishing a firm sense of time and place.
1992: Last of the Mohicans (Michael Mann)
One of Michael Mann's simplest and most poetic films, and in a genre (historical epic) not familiar to his oeuvre, Last of the Mohicans is a fascinating and timeless fairy tale about love, violence, and nature. It's The New World before The New World, with nearly equal levels of woodsy rapture and an added injection of testosterone philosophizing. Every one of the film's action set pieces manages to simultaneously make the violence thrilling and revolting, with Mann's visceral, impressionistic filmmaking at its finest. There's probably some more complex films from this year - Kiarostami's Close-Up would certainly qualify as such - but none are quite as much of a euphoric adrenaline boost, and absolutely none boast the winning feature of intense mid-battle Daniel Day-Lewis expressions.
1993: Naked (Mike Leigh)
David Thewlis' showstopping portrayal of foul-mouthed drifter Johnny is still the most memorable in Mike Leigh's long line of larger-than-life anti-heroes, and it makes most contemporary stabs at a similar kind of brutish figure look tame in comparison. His spit-fire dialogue dominates nearly every scene so that the moments when he stops talking are loaded with immense contemplative power, which Leigh has a way of drawing attention to in his compassionate, probing close-ups.
1994: Satantango (Bela Tarr)
How does one do justice to such an ineffably moving film that is not two or three long hours but in fact seven, and whose every hour is so immaculately constructed that not a minute comes across as uneven? Well, one way to try is to do a series of posts on it attempting to grapple with its imposing beauty, but even then it seems beyond the scope of analysis. This is without question one of the finest works of art of the nineties, and it fully deserves your willingness to cover the windows (as the drunkard doctor does in the finale of the film) and watch it for a whole day.
1995: Before Sunrise (Richard Linklater)
The latter half of this rich and intelligent duo of films (Before Sunset) might be the wiser, more complex of the two, but Before Sunrise is a burst of old-fashioned romantic energy that feels fully genuine and never devolves into fake sentimentality (plus, I have a hard time not lumping them together as one film, a kind of Resnaisian experiment in the fracturing, distancing effect of time on love and kinship). I've never witnessed a more honest and open testament to spontaneous romance, one that is able to capture both the ecstatic energy and the crushing melancholy of it simultaneously.
I don't know if it's just the paltry output of films this year or simply my lack of exposure to a whole gamut of foreign releases (Kiarostami, Panahi, Hsiao-Hsien, Godard, Rivette, Von Trier, and Ming-Liang all released work this year), but I have nothing amazing to say about it. Fargo, widely considered the strongest American film of the year, is in my estimation the Coens' weakest film. Maybe Mars Attacks!?
1997: Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami)
Between Lost Highway, Ossos, The River, and The Ice Storm, 1997 was a fantastic year for cinema, but Taste of Cherry, as a rigorous meditation on mortality (and, like any good film about death, it's also inevitably about life), is absolutely devastating. I find the "epilogue" - its aesthetic "statement" aside - just a tad too much of a mood-killer to really be useful, but the film proper builds with quiet, sublime intensity, and Kiarostami knows exactly when to stay nondescript with his visuals and when to release something vast and metaphorically suggestive. The shot of Mr. Badii's shadow obscured by falling dirt at a desert construction site is perfection.
1998: The Celebration (Thomas Vinterburg)
Thomas Vinterburg's Dogme creation The Celebration is the epitome of what the short-lived "movement" strived for: a lean, gripping, no-frills production gaining all of its momentum from the rigor of its performances. The tale of an unveiling of secrets at a countryside reunion and the ultimate dissolution of the family in question, Vinterburg ratchets up the tension in grimy, humid interior sequences that give a mansion the feel of a claustrophobic tool-shed.
1999: Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick)
Kubrick's final film, much to the feverish skepticism of some critics, is as mesmerizing and tactful as any of his great landmarks and it is attached to a concept that is uncharacteristically humanistic and intimate. The vision of New York City as a neon holiday fever dream is unmatched and Tom Cruise brings to the table one of his finest performances, an accumulation of subtle tensions and grievances that culminates in the notorious and haunting orgy sequence.
2000: Werckmeister Harmonies (Bela Tarr)
Quite simply one of my favorite movies - not to mention the inspiration for this blog - Bela Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies somehow manages to one-up even the director's colossal Satantango with its bleakly gorgeous imagery and spare, apocalyptic narrative. It's a welcoming invitation to allegorical reverie, one of the most tantalizing films to dissect even as it maintains a blunt experiential force that belies intellectual detachment. Tarr creates an entire world that is separate from ours yet is figuratively relevant, and that is special.
2001: Mulholland Drive (David Lynch)
Lynch's best movie encapsulates every one of his favorite themes - identity, desire, Hollywood, dreams - in a spellbinding yarn that is superficially convoluted but really rather simple and universal. In an attempt to cope with our perceived and often real inferiority, we duck into the idyllic luxuries of our desires, usually in a feverish flight from reality. Naomi Watts makes that transformation palpable and powerful, and Lynch's nightmarish imagery and brooding sound design completely alter one's perceptual basis for processing the world.
2002: City of God (Fernando Meirelles)
The only worthwhile film Fernando Meirelles has made is City of God, a tense and gritty work about the trials and tribulations of violent gangs in Rio de Janeiro that is sandwiched in between a handful of hyperbolic, manipulative, and overwrought globetrotting dramas. What's so poignant about the film is the way that it handles its vast scope - the story spans decades and covers a multitude of touchy subjects - with such intimacy, never drowning under the weight of its many stories and characters.
2003: Elephant (Gus Van Sant)
Nowadays, I tend to fluctuate between Elephant and Gerry as my favorite Gus Van Sant film, but I figured that the former should get the billing because of the sheer impact of my first encounter with it. Gerry took a while to really hit home for me; Elephant wrecked me right away many years ago and was probably one of the most aesthetically striking films I'd seen up to that point. Van Sant's rigorous day-in-the-life-of structure is the perfect marriage for this harrowing build-up to high-school tragedy, an aggregation of details so precise and beautiful that when they are extinguished suddenly in the final outburst of violence, it's enormously devastating.
2004: The New World (Terrence Malick)
Having just seen The Thin Red Line (which I'll write about soon), I can say with conviction that The New World remains Malick's crowning achievement (although of course I can't speak for The Tree of Life, which I await like a giddy schoolboy). This is because Malick seems to grow as an artist with each picture, not simply exploring a new theme each time but adding more expansive inquiries to his ever-evolving rotation of concerns, and as such The New World is naturally his most jam-packed yet. It's a film that will speak eloquently to me every time I revisit and it seems that its tale of discovery and renewal is the ideal counterpoint for Malick's polyrythmic stylistic approach.
2005: Cache (Michael Haneke)
A comfortable bourgeois family. A mysterious tape. Violence and voyeurism. These are primal ingredients for a great thriller and they are the ones that are built into the fabric of Cache. But Michael Haneke, a filmmaker of evolving intelligence and subtlety, does not assemble them in quite the way the viewer would expect. The mystery is broadened and made metaphysical rather than concrete, turning the narrative away from sensationalism to psychology and politics. It's an extremely slight and organic maneuver that Haneke manages, but it ultimately allows Cache to be the thought-provoking meditation that it is as opposed to the taut and agreeable thriller it could have been.
2006: INLAND EMPIRE (David Lynch)
Heavy anticipation and ultimately heated debate surrounded the release of David Lynch's fascinating digital experiment INLAND EMPIRE in 2006, much of the discourse dealing with whether Lynch's employment of shoddy prosumer cameras was a valuable artistic progression from the warmth of 35mm. It's tough to say, yet, if in the long run the answer will be yes, but certainly for INLAND EMPIRE the decision was extraordinary and unique, allowing Lynch to better adapt to the grimy illogic of his abstract narrative collage. To this date, it still strikes me as the most alarmingly effective use of the digital medium, a strategy that aims not to recreate filmic slickness but to embrace the ugly murkiness of bad pixellization.
2007: There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson)
There Will Be Blood is undoubtedly a new American classic, its immense cultural influence as a Kubrickian, postmodern western already rubbing off on a plethora of diverse films from The Road to Meek's Cutoff, not to mention spawning an irritating slew of parodies. But Anderson's actual film remains, obviously, the finest of all the spiritual antecedents and imitations, an epic vision of the open West as a corrupted arena of consumerism, a place where the powers of industry - of both oil and religion, which are treated as two sides of the same coin - have sculpted and degraded the pure majesty of the landscape.
2008: Hunger (Steve McQueen)
Most installation artist-to-director transformations lead to stylistically innovative films loaded with so many ideas that they fall apart somewhat as satisfying full-lengths (think Julien Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which is periodically beautiful but cumulatively insignificant). Steve McQueen's Hunger is a different story: an unflinching visual poem chronicling the IRA Hunger Strike in British prisons in the 1980's, the film is so assured and complete as a narrative, thematic, and aesthetic statement that it stood up winningly against most conventional "director films" in 2008 (of course, this being a fruitful year with films like Summer Hours, 35 Shots of Rum, Revanche, The Wrestler, and Still Walking). Hunger is gorgeous, revolting, and mesmerizing all at once.
2009: Liverpool (Lisandro Alonso)
The strongest effort to date from Argentinian minimalist Lisandro Alonso, Liverpool is a moving contemplative chronicle of one enigmatic, seemingly shattered individual that generously allows the eye to wander around the tactile, nondescript compositions. Alonso slips you into an unremarkable world and asks you to take it or leave it. I took it, and the rewards were immeasurable.
2010: Le Quattro Volte (Michelangelo Frammartino)
Frammartino's magical yet plainly down-to-earth and unsophisticated cycle of life essay met my eager eyes at the beginning of this year to knock Martin Scorsese's ecstatically enjoyable career comeback Shutter Island out of its top spot for 2010. Any regret or skepticism now a few weeks away? No, not really. This is an utterly delightful film that has a cosmic sense of humor and acceptance, and its eye-opening command of non-human performers suggests that there must have been something supernatural going on during the production. Perhaps they were slipping church dust into their water?
Be sure to check out Jake's list over at Not Just Movies too!