My top ten of the decade, in order of preference:
1. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000): Cannes competition. This is my contribution to the Film Salon series. Here’s my review that ran in indieWIRE out of Cannes.
2. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu, 2005): Cannes, Un Certain Regard. Structured as a Beckettian farce of a man’s final dissolution, this extraordinary second work of Puiu is infused with a black, morbid, distinctly Eastern European humor. Ion Fiscuteanu’s slovenly, prickly performance is the finest of the decade. Here’s my interview with the gifted, beautiful Monica Barladeanu, who plays a crucial secondary part in the film.
3. Platform (Zia Zhang-ke, 2000): This is the finest piece by the most consistently interesting, demanding and artistically audacious filmmaker of the decade. Because I did not attend any of the fall festivals it showed simultaneously at Venice, Toronto and New York, I never saw the original 198-minute version. Jonathan Rosenbaum and others have argued persuasively the 155-minute version is superior. Zia brilliantly draws on a Rivettian theater collective to ruminate on and provide a dialectical narrative on Chinese identity, politics and culture. All of that, and it swings.
4. Regular Lovers (Philippe Garrel, 2005): Toronto. This is my review that appeared in Screen International.
“French director Philippe Garrel makes unclassifiable movies that play to highly discerning tastes. His exquisite new feature, Regular Lovers, a three-hour black-and-white meditation on love, passion and the personal and political ramifications of the events of May 1968, is a strikingly original and challenging piece of work.
Even with its Venice best director prize it is unlikely to expand Garrel's cult following or change his detractors' negative opinions about his work. The very qualities that render it so commercially restrictive also underline its aesthetic revelations.
Most of the director's workis strongly autobiographical. In Regular Lovers, he makes the personal implications explicit by casting his son, Louis Garrel, as Francois, a poet, which deftly echoes a role Louis played in Bernardo Bertolucci's recent TheDreamers.
The director's father Maurice Garrel (Kings And Queen) contributes a startling, seemingly improved sequence, and he strategically uses a song by Nico, of the Velvet Underground and his former companion and muse.
Constructed in three major movements, the movie functions as a summation of Garrel's stylistic andnarrative concerns. His early experimental films were highly influenced by German expressionism and silent cinema, and the opening section begins fantastically with a virtuoso 30-minute sequence of Francois and his friends participating in the ferocious street battles with French security authorities in May 1968, strikingly staged against a charred landscape of fire-engulfed cars, social disruption and human partitions.
The middle sequences are looser and more relaxed, given a musical flow with Francois and his friends seeking escape by partying, dancing, smoking opium and hanging out with beautiful women in the vast Left Bank apartment inherited by his friend Antoine (Julien Lucas).
One night Francois makes a connection with Lilie (Hesme), a beautiful, gifted sculptor who supports herself as a factory worker, and they quickly initiate a relationship. Lilie is clearly attracted to Francois, though she is also restless and anxious for different experiences. Her sexual experimentation with other partners and her developing friendship with an older art patron and mentor sharply impactstheir future together.
The incomparable William Lubtchansky won a special technical achievement award at Venice, and his luminous, breathtaking images are wondrous and beguiling. Every shot carries avivid, sensuous grasp of pleasure and excitement. The highly textured,expressive photography meticulously evokes contemporaneous French cinema from the period - from Jacques Rivette's Paris Belongs To Us to Jean Eustache's The Mother And The Whore.
Emotionally the movie is steeped in a mournful, plaintive sadness that Garrel regards as an unavoidable consequence of attraction and desire. The typical concerns of narrative moviemaking, plot, characterisation, dramatic revelation, remain outside his prickly, inscrutable point of view. Garrel is interested in imagery, in the suggestively erotic power and tragedy of actors' faces and bodies.
There's not enough plot to sustain a short story, much less a three-hour movie. But the movie has a density and rhythm that is intoxicating. Louis Garrel has an extraordinary face, at once tender, vulnerable, tough and hard. With Regular Lovers thosequalities are brought home with a vengeance.”
5. A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin, 2008): Cannes competition. What I wrote in my Stop Smiling dispatch:
"French director Arnaud Desplechin’s extraordinary new work, A Christmas Tale is the festival title most likely to be judged a masterpiece a decade from now. Interestingly, both films are linked by the lingering and unresolved emotional pain of the death of a child. I saw my first Desplechin film — his second feature, My Sex Life … or How I Got Into an Argument — at Cannes in 1996, and I’ve been an admirer ever since.
Desplechin’s previous work, Kings and Queens, was the strongest French feature of the last five or six years. That film borrowed the structure of John Cassavetes’ Love Streams. Every shot of the new work is electric and enthralling and reaches a musical buoyancy and novelistic density. Stylistically, the film is so imaginatively conceived and constructed: The story, character detail and emotional force are conveyed through a collage of dovetailing flashbacks, iris shots, family photographs, musical interpolations, direct-address confessions and a shadow puppet précis of the family’s tragic past.
The story, set in the director’s hometown of Roubaix, is an anthropologically precise dissection of family dynamics and social anguish structured around a tense reunion in the days around Christmas. The exquisite Catherine Deneuve is the matriarch of the Vuillards. She’s unfortunately burdened by the same rare and fatal genetic affliction that resulted in the death from of her first-born son nearly four decades earlier. That death haunts and divides the surviving family members. The amazing Mathieu Amalric is the family screw-up whose irresponsibility has left him estranged.
The encounters between Deneuve and Amalric are marked by currents of guilt, envy, power and control that their bruising exchanges are like chess masters. Deneuve’s daughter, the vivid, beautiful Chiara Mastroianni, delivers her most revealing and impressive work to date as the daughter-in-law caught in an equally slippery space, a character worthy of Proust who subtly contributes to the contentious group dynamics.
Desplechin wrote the script with his frequent collaborator, Emmanuel Bourdieu. The structure seamlessly negotiates time and space, allowing just enough character exposition and behavioral detail to amplify the bruised feelings and nearly unbearable pain. The use of music — interweaving classical, American jazz and French hip-hop — is also bravura act of layering and expanding on the ideas and expressions of the movie."
6. Time Out (Laurent Cantet, 2001): Venice, New Horizons. I’ll never forget staggering out of the screening in Venice. Here’s indieWIRE review.
7. Werckmeister Harmonies (Bela Tarr, 2000): Cannes, Directors’ Fortnight. I saw it three times in a very short span, twice at Cannes and once in Paris. The score is absolutely mesmerizing, seductive, intriguing, and unsurpassable; the black and white cinematography is astonishing. Tarr adapted the novel, The Melancholy of Resistance, with his frequent collaborator, Laszlo Krasznahorkai. It stands with Satantango and Damnation as the height of his artistry.
8. I’m Not There (Todd Haynes, 2007): Toronto. My interview with Todd Haynes appeared in Stop Smiling’s 20 Interview issue. (I hope to publish a longer version in a special book collection.) Just as Haynes’ previous feature, the marvelous Far From Heaven, is a skillful, fascinating act of cultural appropriation, riffing on the sublime Hollywood works of Douglas Sirk, this meditation on the contradictory, impulsive and fascinating identities and personas of Bob Dylan is not just a foundation myth but a sharp, funny, sad and revealing look at the cultural, political, social and cinematic forces of Dylan’s time.
9. Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas, 2008): Cannes market. Not sure if there’s anything left to be said, but I was thrilled so many of my colleagues that participated in the indieWIRE critics’ poll also hold the film in such high regard.
10. Yi Yi (Edward Yang, 2001): Cannes competition. Another work of infinite sadness, beauty and maturity: it opens with a wedding and ends with a funeral. In between is a summation of joy, wonder and fragility of life. This was the final work of a supreme artist who left us much too soon. My Filmmaker Magazine interview with Edward is unfortunately not available on line. I would welcome anybody to seek it out.