Notable Films of the Noughties

18 12 2009

Walking the walk. 'Elephant'

And so here, with all of the usual caveats, and in no particular order, is a list of films that have moved, excited and inspired me over the last ten years.

The Great

Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003)

A long, lazy stroll around the scene of a gathering storm, Elephant uncovers both the very particular, private world of the American teenager and the kind of wider social malaise that finds an outlet in the occasional high school massacre. It’s an angry film in some ways, but also by turns calm, dreamlike, and level-headed, and filled with unforgettable moments (that scene with the bulimic girls: need I say more?).

Syndromes and a Century / Sang sattawat (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2006)

I’ve said it elsewhere on this ‘blog recently, but to my mind Apichatpong Weerasethakul (or ‘Joe’ to his friends) is one of the few contemporary film-makers who’s genuinely interested in finding new and exciting possibilities in cinema. This 2006 film tells mirrored stories of love in a rural and an urban Thai hospital, and is my favourite of his. Like all of Apichatpong’s work, the film is split into two halves, with scenes that unfold with a gentle, unforced naturalism, and much to think about once you’ve left the cinema. If you let it (and you should) Syndromes… will hypnotise you. In a good way, of course…

Hidden / Caché (Michael Haneke, 2005)

A thriller of sorts from everyone’s favourite Bad Santa Michael Haneke. Here the subject matter is class and colonial guilt, and the director’s gaze has never been harsher. Juliette Binoche is intense and French, Daniel Auteuil is conflicted, and the film itself is a veritable puzzle box for the unpicking. Also contains possibly the most shocking cut (so to speak) in Noughties cinema. Ouch!

'Hidden' ('Caché')

Russian Ark / Russkiy kovcheg (Alexander Sokurov, 2002)

If, like me, your interest in cinema is only slightly more intense than your love of a good night in with Simon Schama or Tristram Hunt, then this is the film for you. Shot in a single take on a wintry St. Petersburg afternoon, Sokurov’s film goes deep into Russian history as its formless narrator takes a wander around the ghost-ridden corridors of the Hermitage Museum. Poetic, seamless and bloody difficult to shoot.

There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)

A story of oil, greed and religion in the early 1900s, that inexplicably managed to strike a chord with a mid-Noughties audience. Daniel Day-Lewis all but chews the scenery in a performance that is as deranged, over-the-top and brilliant as Jack Nicholson in The Shining. “I drrrrink your milkshake!” Give that man an Oscar!

The Son / Le fils (Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne, 2002)

Simplicity is very hard to do in the cinema. So is a hopeful but non-clichéd ending. Here, the Dardenne brothers manage to pull off both in one go, with a story of crime, redemption and, erm, woodwork, set in provincial Belgium.

Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2005)

The tragic, noble, deluded life of Timothy Treadwell, who trekked into the wild to ‘protect’ grizzly bears and ultimately lost more than just his pickernick basket. Werner Herzog’s documentary uses Treadwell’s story to revisit some of the director’s favourite themes: the lone individual on a mission; the thin line between inspiration and insanity; and the savage indifference of nature.

'Grizzly Man'

Silent Light / Stellet Licht (Carlos Reygadas, 2007)

OK, so it rips off Dreyer’s Ordet. And it’s very slow. And the performances by its non-professional actors are eccentric to say the least. But I’d still argue that Silent Light is one of those rare films that is so complete and perfect in itself that it would be almost impossible to take away any one part of it without the whole thing falling to pieces. For those of you who haven’t yet seen it, Silent Light tells the story of a Mennonite farmer in rural Mexico who betrays his wife by falling in love with another woman. And it rocks! (In a slow-moving, cumulative kind of way.)

The Piano Teacher / La Pianiste (Michael Haneke, 2001)

‘Oh my God no!’; ‘She’s doing… what?’; ‘No, not the knife!’ Just a few of the thoughts that ran through my mind while watching Haneke’s chilling character study for the first time. A Right Royal Romp, as The Sun reviewer probably didn’t say.

The Man From London / A Londoni férfi (Béla Tarr, 2007)

Is it perverse to rank this slightly ahead of the same director’s Werckmeister Harmonies? Possibly so. The Man From London is certainly a much simpler film; a noir of sorts based on a Georges Simenon novel. But then noir seems to be the perfect material for Béla Tarr. Here he gives us almost a silent film, leaving chracteristically wide gaps in screen-space and screen-time for the audience to fill. His main character is a deeply compromised railway signalman who fishes a suitcase full of money out of the harbour of the small French town where he lives. What’s incredible about this film is how much we learn about the main character just from watching the people around him. I may have had a couple of beers beforehand, but I left the cinema feeling like I’d been transported to Tarr-land for a couple of hours. And it wasn’t a bad place to be neither.

The Very Good

The Return / Vozvrashcheniye (Andrei Zvyagintsev, 2003)

A stark film about fathers and sons. I could tell you more, but what more is there to say?

Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)

If Mulholland Drive feels a little episodic, then that’s because it was originally conceived as a TV series. Nevertheless, there’s plenty of good stuff in this, the second of Lynch’s three (so far) ‘metamorphosis’/split personality films. There’s the Burnt Man of course (brrr!), there’s The Cowboy, and there’s also possibly the best coffee scene ever shot.

The Intruder / L’intrus (Claire Denis, 2004)

It’s incoherent, it’s overlong, it makes absolutely no sense and it loses all of its momentum in the last half hour. How then does this typically enigmatic film from the typically enigmatic Claire Denis make the list? Well, firstly it’s my list, so I can do what I want and, secondly, I’ve rarely felt so excited and alive to the possibilities of cinema as I did during the first hour or so of L’intrus. (I know, I lead a pretty boring life.) As David Thomson, who’s a much smarter cookie than I, has written, Denis almost wilfully rummages through her cinematic toolbox here, setting up multiple plot strands only to discard them entirely and replace them with other suggestions of other plot strands. The result is a tangled, hallucinatory narrative that mirrors, in an abstract way, the heart transplant undergone by the film’s shadowy main character. Cinema as an adventure!

"Where's my 10%, bitch?" 'Etre et Avoir'

Être et Avoir (Nicolas Philibert, 2002)

Doing it for the kids, French-style! A beautiful and truthful documentary about the process of education. (Best to forget about the mutual litigation that followed though.)

Sideways (Alexander Payne, 2004)

Who wasn’t charmed and tickled by Sideways? Nobody – that’s who. The best easy-going buddy movie of the decade.

Werckmeister Harmonies / Werckmeister harmóniák (Béla Tarr, 2000 )

A bit like Jaws in Hungary. Except with a whale instead of a shark. And a town of paranoid inhabitants who are easily roused to violence instead of a Cape Cod beach full of tourists. Actually, not much like Jaws at all.

The Saddest Music in the World (Guy Maddin, 2003)

Sleep-walkers! Amnesiacs! Beer-filled legs! Isabella Rossellini! And the song contest to end them all.  If you don’t like Guy Maddin’s films, you should probably punch yourself very hard in the face. Now.

'The Saddest Music in the World'

Couscous / La graine et le mulet (Abdel Kechiche, 2007)

Like many others on this list, Couscous is a film of two halves. The first half tells, in ambling, realist mode, the story of a sixty-year-old immigrant shipyard worker in the south of France who seems destined to be forced into early retirement. The second half, in an abrupt shift of gear, becomes almost a thriller, as Slimani (for that’s his name) struggles to realise his dream of opening a North African restaurant. Never has so much tension hinged on a pot of couscous!

Atarnarjuat: The Fast Runner (Zacharias Kunuk, 2001)

I’m working from memory here, but in 2001 I was blown away at the cinema by this contemporary retelling of an Inuit legend. The film has recently been released on DVD in the UK, so I’ll have to reacquaint myself with it soon, and remind myself what all the fuss was about.

Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009)

This one has divided audiences a bit, particularly here in the UK, with much debate about where and how it fits into the British ‘realist’ tradition of socially-conscious film-making. Well, for a start I don’t think that Andrea Arnold set out to make any particular political or social point with Fish Tank. Her main characters may live on a sink estate, but the film is much more concerned with cultural and spiritual poverty than it is with physical poverty. And secondly, regardless of the genre that it falls into, Fish Tank explores themes that are fairly universal: the process of growing up, the need children have for a father-figure, and the desire to escape the everyday. I, for one, was completely swept up in the story of Mia, the outwardly aggressive teenager at the centre of the film, and felt that there was a rare degree of freedom and honesty in the way that Arnold allows her narrative to unfold. Great performances all round too, particularly from the kids.

Tropical Malady / Sud pralad (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004)

Blissfully Yours / Sud sanaeha (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2002)

Two more from everyone’s favourite experimental Thai film-maker, both of which blew my metaphorical socks off. (Although I wouldn’t recommend that a newcomer start with Blissfully Yours – it’s pretty sparse.)

'Blissfully Yours'

The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007)

I must admit, I have a big soft spot for revisionist Westerns. In this one, director Andrew Dominik blends three parts Terence Malick with one part Sam Pekinpah to give us a strikingly contemporary tale of outlaws, betrayal and celebrity worship on the frozen plains of Kansas. Casey Affleck turns in a great performance as the self-conscious, grand-standing youth whose fate is to kill his idol, then re-enact the deed nightly on the New York stage.

Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2008)

Unrelated (Joanna Hogg, 2007)

Garage (Leonard Abrahamson, 2007)

Three recent films – two British and one Irish – that are low-ish on budget but big on ideas, poetry and all that stuff. All three have inspired me a lot, and I urge you (yes YOU) to see them.

Code Unknown / Code inconnu (Michael Haneke, 2000)

The White Ribbon / Das weiße Bande (Michael Haneke, 2009)

Two more from Haneke. The White Ribbon has been fêted by some as his best work yet. This is possibly true, but as I saw the film with a couple of whispering, sweet-rustling Brummies sitting behind me, I fear that another viewing is needed for a fuller appraisal.



11 responses

19 12 2009

The movies I have watched from this selection, I love too… So I will do my best to watch all the in the list that I have missed.
I would add:
La Stanza del Figlio (The Son’s Room)
Entres Les Mures (The Class)

20 12 2009

I agree, ‘The Class’ was very impressive. Haven’t seen ‘The Son’s Room’ yet, but it’s on my list of DVDs to rent!

25 12 2009
Claudette Flint

Sorry but because I’m French I can’t help correcting your mistake. It is a funny one. “Entre les Murs” means between the walls. (in a classroom) But “Entre les Mures” means between the blackberries.
Having say that, I agree with most of your films.

26 12 2009

thanks Claudette for the correction 😉 I find French spelling to be really complicated 😉 and I know Mures and Murs both are pronounced the same 😉

22 12 2009
David H. Schleicher

Awesome list…plenty I have seen (and agree for the most part…though I didn’t care for Wreckmeister Harmonies’ pretentions and arduous pacing) and also some I have not seen that I can Netflix. Thanks for the recommendations!

(And I see here you have seen “White Ribbon”)

23 12 2009

Hey, thanks for posting a comment on my site.

You have some fine choices here. Great to see Elephant, Hidden or Cache as some might prefer to say, Sideways and There Will Be Blood on the list.

Have to admit that there are still some choices on your list I have not seen. Contemporary foreign cinema is still a area I need to pick up on. I’m dying to see Hunger. I’m gonna have to wait for the Criterion release next year.

24 12 2009
Paul Wiseman

I agree with all your films in ‘the great’ category apart from Silent Light and The Man From London, which I haven’t seen but are now on my internet dvd rental list.

‘The Very Good’ I’m not so sure. Atarnarjuat: The Fast Runner or Fish Tank just didn’t do it for me though I’m not able to articulate why because I’m not as clever as you but it’s something to do with the soul and honesty (maybe). Couscous rocked though.

Hunger I could leave or take. It was a predictable, artist trying to do arthouse cinema, and didn’t impress me whatsoever.

Happy Crimbo

24 12 2009

Thanks for taking a look at my ramblings, Mr. Wiseman. And Merry Crimbo to you too! I haven’t seen ‘Atarnarjuat’ for nine years now, so on second viewing it might well prove to be a pile of Inuit pants. I just remember being really impressed when I saw it on the big screen. It’s on my Lovefilm list anyway, so we’ll soon see…

24 12 2009
Sam Juliano

Classy list and presentation.

I agree that Van Sant’s ELEPHANT is one of the greatest films of the decade without question, as is CACHE, and to a lesser extent SYNDROMES.
WERCKMEISTER, TROPICAL MALADY, JESSE JAMES, THE FAST RUNNER, MULHOLLAND DRIVE, THE RETURN, THE SON, THE PIANO TEACHER, THERE WILL BE BLOOD all very fine choices. I love Sokurov, but oddly I liked his RUSSIAN ARK least, but I’m in a severe minority there. I love SIDEWAYS too, though I’ll admit I found pretension in that Reygades film in some comparing it to Dreyer.

I will assemble my own list at the very end of the month after I get my Top Ten of 2009 in order, but the films that will definitely be there that you don’t have would include:

Far From Heaven (Haynes, 2002, my favorite film of the entire decade)
Son Frere (Chereau)
Talk to Her (Almodovar)
The Lives of Others (Von Donnarsmarck)
In the Mood For Love (Kar-Wei)
2046 (Kar-Wei)
The Fountain (Aronofsky)
Bright Star (Campion)
WALL-E (Stanton)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Gondry)
Dogville (Von Trier)
Downfall (Hershbiegel)
Atonement (Wright)
Once (Carney)
35 Shots of Rum (Denis)
Summer Hous (Asayas)
A. I. Artificial Intelligence (Spielberg)
The Hours (Daldry)

Thanks for the terrific list and for the DVD of your films which arrived a number of weeks ago, for which I was amiss for not mentioning to you, my friend.

24 12 2009

Hi Sam. Glad you got the DVD. Thanks for taking a look at the list and for your comments. The Hours, The Lives of Others and Eternal Sunshine… would certainly be on my list of good films of the decade… but that would be a very long list indeed, so I decided not to do it. Once inspired me a lot as a low-budget film-maker, and I thought it was a nice little feel-good movie, but other than that I would argue that it’s been perhaps a little overrated. I still haven’t seen 35 Shots of Rum or Bright Star yet, but I have high expectations of both and will certainly be tracking them down soon. Happy Holidays!

30 12 2009

Once inspired me as well. Carney used non-professionals just like Van Sant. I need to see Elephant, I love everything else I’ve seen by him so far. Glad to see Sideways and Mulholland Drive made the list.

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