Below, in descending order of preference, are what this morning I have determined to be the ten best films of the past decade; and while on some other day I might select different titles, I am fairly certain that the first entry would remain unchanged. Dear, dear, dear Jean-Luc!
1. IN PRAISE OF LOVE (Jean-Luc Godard, France, Switzerland, 2001). The former enfant terrible of the nouvelle vague, Jean-Luc Godard has made more brilliant films than anyone else. At seventy, he achieved his masterpiece: Éloge de l’amour.
The film is divided into two parts. The first centers on a filmmaker’s project about a love affair. It is filmed in luxuriant black and white (cinema past). Shifting to two years earlier, the second part is videographed in saturated color (cinema future). The order is accurate; past follows present here because it is the filmmaker’s memory, in this instance triggered by the suicide of a young woman whose grandparents also are suicides.
The French intriguingly investigate memory as part of people’s intelligent lives. Italians, by contrast, mine the nostalgic—the emotional—properties of memory.
Reflections from the first part: History has been replaced by technology; politics, by gospel. “There can be no resistance without memory of universalism.” In the second part, the grandmother, a Resistance fighter during the Second World War, recalls that money then was a means, not an end. Her and her husband’s story is now being bought by Hollywood. Because they have no memories of their own, Godard reminds us, Americans buy the memories of others.
Haunted shot after haunted shot encapsulates the idea of memory. Scenes of nighttime Paris, besides evoking memories of futuristic ones in Godard’s earlier Alphaville (1965), seem to enter the dominion of memory. Here is a film saturated in memory—memory as a force that participates in inventing current reality. Here is a film in which the tone of a woman’s voice “brought ideas to life.”
Memory is omnipresent. “You can think of something only if you think about something else,” something familiar.
We’re creatures of habit—creatures of habitual memory.
2. SUPPLEMENT (Krzysztof Zanussi, Poland, 2002). One of the most moving films ever made, Supplement is writer-director Krzysztof Zanussi’s deepening of Life as a Fatal Sexually Transmitted Disease (2000). Recycling the three most important characters, it covers the same period, hits several of the same scenes from the lives of these characters, including Dr. Tomasz Berg’s death, but opens up, with new disclosures in some cases and in much greater detail in others, two aspects: medical student Filip’s interior struggle to know the will of his God, and the course of his romantic relationship with Hanka. Supplement—or Suplement—also adds Filip’s relationship with an annoying though loving brother and closes on an overwhelming scene of lovemaking on a mountain ledge.
Filip’s monastic retreat hasn’t helped him decide whether God wants him to serve Him directly, as a priest, or indirectly, as a medical doctor. Deeply religious, Filip feels he must resolve this matter, which means putting his relationship with Hanka at least on hold. If he chooses a life of devotion, of course, Hanka will be permanently dropped from the queue of his concerns, along with other people. Frustrated, Filip becomes a solitary wanderer up a mountain, a haunt to which his brother has introduced him. It is his brother who retrieves Filip, whose end might otherwise have come about. Filip decides that “plain ordinary living is the most important thing.” His crisis of confusion and ambivalence resolved, he must again win over Hanka, who feels she has already waited too long for him.
Darkness often bathes the characters, but we find them by their light and ours. Zanussi explores how we differently balance spiritual, practical and other claims on us, showing again, in a different context, the sparkling friendship between old Tomasz and young Filip, the atheist and the believer.
3. MULHOLLAND DR. (David Lynch, France, U.S., 2001). Spectral, deeply mysterious, writer-director David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. charts the consumption of hopeful innocence by experience and betrayal in a shifting dream landscape that measures each disappointment against an atmosphere of perpetual possibility, which deepens the disappointment. Dream eventually becomes harrowing nightmare. The dreamer commits suicide, and still the nightmare continues. Fluent and terrifying, Mulholland Dr., like Dreyer’s Vampyr (1931), is a work of sinister enchantment.
All but one of the lead characters shift identities. One of these, Diane (Naomi Watts, phenomenal), has come to L.A. as Betty in search of stardom. Girls and boys in two speeding cars careen down Mulholland Drive and smash into another car, killing the children and ejecting from the third car a woman, setting her off on an amnesiac adventure that crosses her path with Diane/Betty’s—until, that is, it turns out that their paths had already long since meshed into a single path across which their identities have exchanged.
Lynch intuitively addresses one of the core issues of our time: given our heightened self-awareness, the problem of identity. Moreover, he pursues it in a context that suggests its lack of possible solution; for life has become a replaying tape, an illusion, he flat-out declares at the Club Silencio, a theatrical club where musicians play and a singer sings her heart out—only, all the music is prerecorded: a poignant, fatalistic touch. Identity, too, is an illusion; at any moment our identities may shift, or seem to shift, poising us in the direction of our becoming strangers to ourselves and each other over and over.
Mulholland Dr. recalls August Strindberg’s late expressionism and Luigi Pirandello, and resembles a darker version of Jacques Rivette’s intricate, magical film Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974). It is also unlike anything else.
4. LA COMMUNE (PARIS 1871) (Peter Watkins, France, 2000). Fiction yielding to documentary; documentary, to fiction: British filmmaker Peter Watkins, on this occasion working in French, achieves an exhilaratingly elastic result with his ten-hour La Commune (Paris 1871), of which only a version shortened by four hours has been exhibited outside France.
In this film about the doomed Parisian commune that popularly arose during the last gasps of the Franco-Prussian War, a huge cast of nonprofessionals playing the communards slip out of their historical roles to reflect on the state of France and of the current world, engaging in citizen discussions—in their period costumes!—that (like so much else in the film) stress the connections between past and present. Frames interrupting the action provide, moreover, a wealth of relevant written information, not to mention shafts of irony, as the past and the present each becomes a lens through which we apprehend the other. Watkins, then, has fashioned an eclectic work that captivates by capturing a number of levels of flux, interaction, analysis, self-reflexivity.
Although he is scarcely known for merriment, Watkins wrings wry humor from his present-tense disclosure of the past by interjecting into it modern televised media coverage of the unfolding events, thereby comparing accounts that differ according to the reporters and commentators involved—that is, according to their independence or allegiance to the state.
Shot in thirteen days, in and about an abandoned warehouse, using visually rich, black-and-white Beta Digital videotape, this film allows viewers to feel that they are entering history, which here has an immediacy that makes the tragic end of the Paris Commune devastating to watch.
This people’s film reflects the feelings of working-class men and women who want to better their own and their children’s lives, and details the reactionary forces arrayed against their hopes.
5. SHADOW KILL (Adoor Gopalakrishnan, India, 2002). In early-1940s Travancore, Kaliyappan is the Maharajah’s hangman—considered holy, often deep in prayer (to Kali, Mother Goddess of creation/destruction), the ashes from burned portions of whose used ropes (which hang from a miniature noose) presumably cure the sick. Kaliyappan lives, secluded, with his affectionate family: wife Marakatam, son Muthu, 13-year-old daughter Mallika. An older daughter, married, lives nearby. Someone he executed Kaliyappan knows was innocent. Could hanging an innocent man be blamed on the executioner?
An execution awaits. Sick with dread and alcohol Kaliyappan tries begging out; but the State won’t budge. Journeying to the appointed place, Kaliyappan enters the dark night of his soul. “The condemned man cannot sleep [the night before the execution],” one of those accompanying him remarks, “so neither should the hangman.”
A story now told Kaliyappan, which we see as he envisions it, takes on a postmodern twist, casting Mallika as a rape-murder victim, Kaliyappan’s son-in-law as the predator, but Mallika’s gentle boyfriend as the one who pays. Tomorrow morning Kaliyappan will hang the boy, the storyteller explains, thus conflating both unjust hangings. Kaliyappan, overcome, collapses and Muthu is ordered to fill in—which he does, although as a Gandhian he is non-violent. As with Prince Hal upon becoming Henry V, Muthu must complete his father’s work.
Writer-director Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Nizhalkkuthu indicts the pernicious ethos of individual responsibility, arguing instead for social responsibility, community, shared identity. (There is no moral “division of labor.”) It is a film of rituals, such as that marking Mallika’s entry into womanhood after her first menstruation. Gopalakrishnan finds humans resorting to religious faith to unburden themselves of the weight of personal responsibility that power structures have foisted upon them. The film distinguishes between authentic and illusory freedom, between dependency and independence, including national independence.
6. MOOLAADÉ (Ousmane Sembène, Senegal, Burkina Faso, 2004). “The father of African cinema,” Senegal’s Ousmane Sembène, was 81 when he made Moolaadé, a movie both elegant and incendiary. Its topic is tribal female circumcision; its theme, tradition clung to in order to maintain the status quo, in this instance, male supremacy. The action takes place in Djerisso, a tiny, impoverished village in Burkina Faso, in East Africa. Female circumcision, however, is practiced throughout Africa, in thirty-eight countries.
A marker of the village is its bizarre, irregular mosque, which is patterned after the adjacent termite hill. Showing male elders emerging through its arched doorways, dark, irregular gaping holes, Sembène applies a satirical spin to their humorless demeanor and reactionary activities.
The protagonist is the village chief’s wife, Collé Ardo, who refused to have their daughter, Amsatou, cut because her own genital mutilation cost her two babies in childbirth. Collé is publicly whipped by her husband for her declaration of Moolaadé, that is, “Protection,” for four girls who have fled their parents and taken refuge with Collé rather than be cut. During Collé’s beating, one of the mothers kidnaps her daughter from the protected compound, thereby ending the Moolaadé, and has her daughter cut. The girl dies as a result. Now radicalized, the mother joins Collé in opposing the practice of female cutting and in confiscating the circumcision knives from the women elders who use them.
Sembène’s finely judged distancing techniques gradually dissolve; their disappearance following their use makes all the more powerful the representation of reality that remains. Intended as the middle part of a trilogy begun with Faat Kiné (2000) and yet to be completed [and now, because of his death, not to be], Moolaadé is stark, humane and radical, as befits an artist who studied under Mark Donskoi (the Maxim Gorky trilogy, 1938-40; The Rainbow, 1944), no less, in Moscow.
7. Final Segment, 11’09’’01 (Shohei Imamura, Japan, France, 2002). For 11’09”01 (the DVD here is titled September 11), eleven filmmakers, each from a different country, were invited to contribute an eleven-minute film responding to the 2001 attack on the U.S. Shohei Imamura’s Japanese contribution is brilliant.
World War II continues. Outdoors, a snake is slithering on the ground. On the floor of a family hut, a man wearing an army cap is also slithering. Not using his hands, he drinks water out of a container on the floor. “He fought for his country,” a relation notes. In addition to compassion, Yukichi’s family feels disgust. In becoming a snake, Yukichi has shed his human skin; humanity now, for him, is identified with war’s inhumanity. But it is precisely for field combat that Yukichi was trained to crawl on his belly.
He devours a large rat, head first. Yukichi’s blank eye shows he is dissociated from the act, much as he attempted to dissociate himself from what was happening while in combat; but dissociation from his home environment, ironically, implies Yukichi’s entrenchment in memories of war.
Imminent humiliating defeat has transformed the villagers’ impression of the war. Yukichi’s reduced state now reminds them of their reduced state. Driven out of his home, Yukichi is hunted as a criminal—a scene out of Imamura’s beautiful Ballad of Narayama (1993).
“What does the Holy War mean to you?” Yukichi asks a comrade-in-arms in a flashback. An image of humility because he is close to the ground, Yukichi now seems human, sacred. We see a pristine waterfall in the moonlight and trees animated by wind. Yukichi crawls into the river.
Is it Imamura’s voice we hear reading aloud the script that appears on the left side of the screen? There is no such thing as a Holy War.
8. FIVE LONG TAKES DEDICATED TO YASUJIRO OZU (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, Japan, France, 2003). Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami’s tribute to Japan’s Yasujiro Ozu engages such Ozuvian themes as separation, longing and acceptance while arranging Nature, behind the guise of purely objective documentary videography, the better for us to perceive it with fresh eyes, fresh ears.
The film consists of five shoreside segments, ostensibly shot in the course a darkening day. A piece of driftwood is on the beach. Under a cloudy sky, waves advancing and withdrawing provide the only sound. Each advance towards the camera seems another attempt by the sea to gather up the piece of driftwood and carry it off. Eventually the sea’s force breaks off a fragment and carries off the main piece. All the sea’s attempts to gather up the fragment, however, fail.
In the second segment, people walk in either direction on a railed boardwalk, oblivious to the sea just beyond. In the third, distinctions between hazy sky and sea disappear and the image becomes progressively more abstract. There is a whiting out, although a remnant of the motion of waves remains. The third segment is hilarious, as a stream of ducks make their way screen-right before reversing course and stampeding screen-left. It is dusk.
The final segment, perhaps black-and-white, brings the film to dark, mysterious fruition. It’s nighttime, and we hear a storm brewing. A full moon becomes visible—not in the sky, though; rather, we see its wavering reflection on the water’s surface. Amidst a cacophony of animal sounds, the reflected moon vanishes behind clouds and reappears. The image grows abstract and segmented—another image of separation. Flashes of lightning; the screen bursts with a thousand flickers of rain. Darkness yields to dawn. Reflections of birds fly across the reflected sky—trains of transience. The Spirit of Ozu is everywhere.
9. ALEKSANDRA (Aleksandr Sokurov, Russia, France, 2007). Aleksandra, an elderly Russian woman (Galina Vishnevskaya, magnificent), rarely admits to frailty or weakness. When she is asked if she is tired, right before nodding off she emphatically states, “No.”
Widowed, estranged from her daughter, who finds her domineering, Aleksandra takes an arduous trip to an army camp in Chechnya, where her grandson, Denis, is an officer. Feeling close to death, she wishes to see the boy again. However young is he, and younger still those who are under his command, Aleksandra may outlive them. Indeed, ethereal lighting and other elements suggest the possibility that we are witnessing either Aleksandra’s or Denis’s dream—and, if the latter, possibly the dream of a dead man.
Writer-director Aleksandr Sokurov’s wondrous Aleksandra treads a fine line where fiction seems to translate into documentary. Aleksandra keeps losing her way around the camp—a projection of how lost the young draftees feel away from home. (Many seem to have adopted Aleksandra as their grandmother because she represents a bit of home.) She wanders about, in effect interviewing the boys (Aleksandra = Aleksandr?), who share their feelings and reveal raw youth. One shows off by playing with his gun as if it were a toy. He may be wishing it were.
Aleksandra exits to bring back cigarettes and cookies for the boys. At market, she befriends an elderly Chechen who invites her home for tea. Malika enlists a teenaged neighbor to walk Aleksandra back to camp. The boy, though respectful, asks: “I know it isn’t up to you, but can’t you leave us so we can be free?”
Tenderly, Denis braids Aleksandra’s hair—and deftly, as though benefiting from prior experience. One is reminded of Sokurov’s Mother and Son (1997). In both films the son or grandson carries the older woman effortlessly.
10. DARWIN’S NIGHTMARE (Hubert Sauper, Austria, 2004). Hubert Sauper’s documentary provides an inside-out view of globalization, focusing on a fishing community in the East African nation of Tanzania. Mwanza depends for its livelihood on Lake Victoria, the origin of the Nile River. The lake once sustained the Bantu inhabitants with its flourishing fish, but its ecological system was destroyed by the introduction into it of a predatory fish as a “scientific” experiment in the 1960s. Today, Mwanza’s industries are catching, processing and packaging the predators so that boxfuls of cans can be flown to Europe and Japan, where they inexpensively appear on supermarket shelves. Sauper’s film documents the cost to locals; Lake Victoria identifies the new global economy with earlier forms of European colonization of Africa as effortlessly as the Nile perch, which eats other fish and its own, exemplifies Darwin’s “survival of the fittest.” Sauper’s bold images are as hallucinatory as they are indisputably real.
Famine is widespread. Locals make do with scraps of fish that the plant discards. We see a “killing field” of these scraps: heads and eyes, tails, bits of flesh stuck to skeletons—an expanse of waste swarming with maggots.
In exchange for the fish, the West exports arms to Africa, helping to keep the continent embroiled in national and regional conflicts.
Meanwhile, local workers are paid sub-subsistence wages, but the Europeans there to manage and secure the processing plant and to direct the arms/fish exchange have endowed another industry: prostitution. Exploitation having undermined and undone the local social structure, sexual promiscuity abounds, and AIDS and HIV are rampant. With only fish scraps to eat and nothing else to do, boys knock themselves out outdoors by melting the plant’s discarded boxes and sniffing the resultant chemical glue: children ripe for sodomization.
This is only part of the nightmare.
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