Thursday, December 31, 2009

2000s: the decade in books

For the moment at least, most of us still read books that take up physical space. Scanning our libraries to recall a decade’s reading requires movement. We walk from shelf to shelf in search of that terrific title that nearly slipped our minds. I’ve always sensed a kinship between walking, writing, and reading, the steps taken from one word to the next, the meditative spell we’re placed under, the small choices that lead us farther from home, or deeper into story. I’m going to write about my most treasured books of the century’s first decade as I find them, slip them off the shelf, flip through the pages, and remember.

The late W.G. Sebald was very much the walker/writer, crafting unclassifiable books we’ll call novels for ease. He meets a man in Antwerp, an architectural historian concerned “with the shape and the self-contained nature of discreet things.” Their friendship develops over decades of accidental encounters. Slowly we learn Austerlitz’s story. He was an infant refugee on a kindertransport from Czechoslovakia. He was raised by a Calvinist preacher in Wales. Slowly Sebald unravels one of the most singular of Holocaust narratives, an immensely engrossing tale of memories recovered. And Sebald’s prose moves not ponderously but one step at a time, stopping to take note of faces and places, objects, voices, hidden spaces, the palimpsest and residue of history. As you read him you sense that the book could go anywhere, yet in the end it only goes where it was meant to all along.

Here is Where We Meet
Did John Berger ever run into Sebald on one of his walks? It could still happen. In the first chapter of
Here is Where We Meet Berger encounters his mother while wandering through Lisbon—he recognizes her by her walk. She’s been dead for 15 years. Now in his 80s, Berger remains one of literature’s great nomads. Moving from city to city, meeting or remembering people from his past, this is his most visionary writing of the last decade. To read him is to feel as though you're touching something, smelling something. He gives us back the sensual world like few writers can.

The Body Artist
“You know more surely who you are on a strong bright day after a storm when the smallest falling leaf is stabbed with self-awareness. The wind makes a sound in the pines and the world comes into being, irreversibly, and the spider rides the wind-swayed web.” Don DeLillo ended the 20th century with a mammoth masterwork. He started the 21st with this compact, fragmentary novella. I for one think it's been vastly under-appreciated. The first part describes a domestic morning with startling clarity, a couple, moving in the same space, sometimes listening to each other, sometimes blinded by routine. Someone dies. Soon after a ghostly visitor appears. The titular protagonist interprets the whole experience into something essentially wordless, yet her performance is hauntingly described through DeLillo’s prose.

Tree of Smoke
Denis Johnson’s the patron saint of fuck-ups. He renders lyrical the depths of human folly. This sprawling epic about Americans embroiled in grotesque misadventures at home and abroad is a blackly comic history of Vietnam, among other things. A CIA operative whose uncle is some goofy 20th century Colonel Kurtz; the Houston brothers, familiar from Johnson’s
Angels; a Canadian aid worker and Seventh Day Adventist: these are our sherpas along the mountain. Misunderstandings, dubious ambitions, and fraught friendships forged with Southeast Asians line an unruly tale both hilarious and appalling.

What to make of the posthumous English-language celebrity of Roberto Bolaño, so eerily in keeping with the morbid enigmas buried in his stories?
The Savage Detectives would have been enough to cement his reputation, but then we got this. He wanted this last work divided into five novellas, so as to accumulate more royalties for his children after his death. This request was thankfully denied—I hope his kids are eating well. The colossal power of 2666 lies partly in its sustained tonal focus, which tethers together the stories of adventurous young European scholars, an American journalist, an elusive German novelist, a lonely single father, and a number of disparate Mexicans linked to the murder of hundreds of women in Santa Teresa, Bolaño’s fictionalized Ciudad Juarez, into a global geometry of trauma, longing, and obsession. It’s one of the most exhausting and harrowing books I’ve ever read. At times I felt nausea. I can’t wait to read it again.

Cloud Atlas
David Mitchell’s eloquently structured Russian doll novel cradles within it science fiction, a Grishamesque corporate thriller, and letters, spanning the 19th century to the post-apocalyptic future. Tales within tales, each one read by a character in the next, build upon one another until they pass through the mirror in the book’s centre. The individual narratives are mostly simple to describe, but the book as a whole defies synopsis. Sorry.

The Ongoing Moment
Geoff Dyer’s best work since his truly sublime jazz chronicle
But Beautiful is a paragon of associational rigour. (Mostly) American photography is his vast subject, though it's wonderful when he makes room for Hiroshi Sugimoto, say. A disciple of Berger, whom he wrote about when very young, Dyer’s guided from image to image by impulses founded in history, biography, art criticism, conjecture, and the labyrinth of magnetic details in the photos themselves that catch his magpie eye.

Kafka on the Shore
Haruki Murakami is always fun, always extravagantly imaginative, always sequestering his heroes in some sort of wilderness—that’s usually when the weirdness starts. A teenage runaway and an aging simpleton share a destiny. Guidance is gleaned from cats and rocks. There’s a murder mystery enveloping this coming of age novel, among the most ambitious in Murakami’s oeuvre.

The Fortress of Solitude, Then We Came to the End
They came from Brooklyn, but only the first, Jonathan Lethem’s quasi-fantastical, pop culture-addled, semi-autobiographical epic, is a remembrance of Brooklyn past, a story of interracial friendship founded in music, graffiti, art, comics, and broken families. Oh yeah, and a super-powered ring. Joshua Ferris’ insightful, very funny novel, a terrific debut, written in first-person collective, is actually set in a Chicago advertising agency. It’s about work, but it’s also about fleeting forms of togetherness.

Miracles of Life
J.G. Ballard is the third author in this little library walk to have died sometime in our new century’s first decade. (Oddly enough he had a special kinship with Jean Baudrillard, who also died, back in 2007, and whom I’m still getting around to reading someday. And speaking of kinships, that David Cronenberg chose to adapt Ballard’s
Crash for the screen surely marks one of the most uncannily apt collaborations between two complimentary sensibilities in the history of art.) Whether through science-fiction or merely something like it, Ballard did so much to make us look differently at our minds and bodies, at our memories and our social strategies, at our technologies as extensions of ourselves, at our cities and buildings and boundaries, at our fantasies, perhaps most of all. But his final book was a memoir, and while he published a number of excellent novels in the 2000s, all of them variations on the same, deeply compelling narrative, this memoir somehow seems to me the greater accomplishment. (Is this the case as well with David Thomson? I treasure his writing on film more than almost any other critic, and The Whole Equation is now among my favourite books about Hollywood ever. But Try to Tell the Story, in which he recalls his postwar London childhood and his father's double life, awakens his readers to something altogether different in his prose, something to do with his ability to connect with the sense of loss and wild ambition he writes about with regards to Orson Welles, for example.) From Miracles of Life, I remember especially how he wrote about the corpses he would dissect in medical school as palimpsests of experience, how he wrote about Saskatchewan, where he spent some time in his youth, how he wrote about coping with the loss of his wife and the mother of his children, whom he had to raise on his own while trying to maintain a career as a writer. It’s so strange when writers die. They only existed for most of us on the page, and on the page they live still. Somehow I can still hear Ballard’s voice.

Paul Auster—another Brooklynite!—has been on fire as of late—seven novels in ten years. He works diligently on stories that tumble into other stories, testaments to the fact that every one of us is a storyteller.
Invisible may be the best of his recent work—in any case it’s the latest. (He’s but one of a number of novelists who churned out one solid book after another in the 2000s. I think of so many good ones from César Aira, Cormac McCarthy, Horacio Castellanos Moya, José Saramago… But I’m trying to draw this to a close here.) A man recalls a turning point in his youth, when he met a Satanic scholar and his lovely, younger wife, who endow the youth with knowledge of eros and death. This story, the first part of the book, is sent to an old friend, a professional writer, who then assumes the authorship of what we’re reading, and delves into still more perverse secrets in the first man’s past. Both of these men, the authors of the first and second parts, have much in common with Auster, but these commonalities highlight the trickster in Auster above all. Divided into four parts, Invisible shifts from place to place, from author to author, from first to second to third person, and then to the form of a diary. Some of these shifts seem designed as coping mechanisms; some imply crucial discrepancies. These discrepancies prompt the question: when does the past become fiction? Is it not happening every moment? And is storytelling not the most durable balm against our histories being swallowed into the fog?

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

2000s: the decade in movies

top to bottom: numbers 2, 29, 28, 5, 10, 6

31 films to remember from the first decade of our 21st century. The number is arbitrary, but from such arbitrary elements we forge our lists, striving to bring some order to the recent past. If one thing is certain about the last decade in movies, it’s that no amount of industry tumult—the ungovernable internet; the vagaries of home video; the strikes; the ostensible death of cinema-going which thankfully never happened—hasn’t had the slightest effect on our capacity to make great movies. What has changed is our ability to get great movies seen. The studio juggernauts, with their advertising budgets equal to the gross national product of numerous small countries, have arguably never been worse, while the best independent and foreign releases became only more confined, not just to art houses but often only to festivals. Clearly, as we look to the future, those of us passionate about movies are placing our hopes that all these new delivery systems will somehow make great movies easier to discover, and that the digitization of theatres might make bringing small movies to big screens more economically feasible. In any event I'm voting to keep us all going out to the movies.

top to bottom: numbers 7, 9, 26, 19, 17, 22

But enough industry—let’s talk about the work. Frankly, the below list wasn’t so much finished as abandoned. Even as I build this post I keep thinking of titles that I can't believe I've forgotten. But after a while I simply couldn’t keep mulling over my hundred-strong short list any longer without going into a trance. A trail of masterpieces lies beyond these 31. I decided to allow only one movie per director, simply so as to cover more ground, which meant the decade’s best filmmakers—Almodóvar, David Cronenberg, Claire Denis, Michael Haneke, Werner Herzog, Lucrecia Martel—could have just as easily had another title on this list. Some wound up without a movie included at all, despite the fact that the last decade of movies from Gus Van Sant (see the previous post), the Dardenne Brothers, Aleksandr Sokurov, or the deliriously prolific Steven Soderbergh was sometimes revolutionary and in every case consistently impressive—it’s this very consistency that made it so hard to pick one film that stood out.

top to bottom: numbers 4, 16, 24, 15, 13, 31

Great movies can do so many things, from entertaining to beguiling us, from enlightening to devastating us, from blowing our minds to re-awakening our senses. Some of the movies on this list—see, for example, numbers 5, 7 and 10—do many of these things at once with exhilarating verve. Some of them, we might argue—see, for example, numbers 19 and 28—do only one or two of these things but do them so gloriously as to tower above other movies that merely do countless things deftly. There are plenty of critically lauded crowd-pleasers I could have put on my list that more of you would surely have recognized, just as there are plenty of ultra-severe, verging on alienating works I could’ve listed out of sheer admiration for their audacity and perverse rigour. I hope the titles you know provoke you to reconsider, and that the ones you don’t provoke you to track them down. In the end I chose the movies I chose because they usurped the choicest real estate in my imagination and still haven’t moved away; because they continue to fascinate me even after the initial dazzle faded away; because they continue to move me long after first catching me off guard; because they thrill me shamelessly; because they make me afraid of the world while still wanting to fight for it; because they make me in love with the world even when it seems to love no one; because they allow me to keep dreaming, even when I’m wide awake.

top to bottom: 11, 21, 23, 12, 3, 25

(Incidentally the ranking of these titles, a practice I don't usually subscribe to, is also arbitrary. I did it mainly because there's too many titles here not to organize. The first five or six definitely feel like they're in the right place, and the subsequent 11, say, feel like they're grouped accordingly. But really, what the hell is difference between 22 and 28?)

number 1

In the Mood for Love (Wong, 00)
Mulholland Dr. (Lynch, 01)
Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong, 06)
Code Unknown (Haneke, 00)
The Holy Girl (Martel, 04)
The Intruder (Denis, 04)
Zodiac (Fincher, 07)
Summer Hours (Assayas, 08)
There Will Be Blood (PT Anderson, 07)
A History of Violence (Cronenberg, 05)
Silent Light (Reygadas, 07)
The New World (Malick, 05)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Gondry, 04)
Wendy and Lucy (Reichardt, 08)
Fat Girl (Breillat, 01)
No Country for Old Men (Coen, 07)
Volver (Almodóvar, 06)
Encounters at the End of the World (Herzog, 08)
Goodbye Dragon Inn (Tsai, 03)
George Washington (Green, 00)
Birth (Glazer, 04)
The Royal Tenenbaums (W Anderson, 01)
Brand Upon the Brain! (Maddin, 06)
4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (Mungiu, 07)
Children of Men (Cuarón, 06)
Colossal Youth (Costa, 06)
I’m Not There (Haynes, 07)
The Limits of Control (Jarmusch, 09)
Three Times (Hou, 05)
Werckmeister Harmonies (Tarr, 00)
Before Sunset (Linklater, 04)

2000s: our prolific poet of death and wonder

Unless you’re capping out at, I don’t know, say 200, there comes a point in assembling these best-of-the-decade lists when it feels like you’re just blithely eliminating one masterwork after another. You get giddy. You get guilt-wracked. Another publication I did one of these lists for also asked me for a list of the decade’s best filmmakers, which made the process somewhat easier. There are those prolific artists whose work is so solidly masterful, who provoke us, move us, and entertain us so consistently, it becomes tough to determine which of their movies deserves championing above the rest. In the end, rather than any one movie, it’s the body of work that seems important.

No single movie from Gus Van Sant made my best-of-the-decade list, but Van Sant himself sure as hell ranks high on my list of the decade’s best filmmakers. Have a look at this chronology:
Gerry (2002) Elephant (03) Last Days (05) Paranoid Park (07) Milk (08). The first three supposedly constitute some sort of “Death” trilogy, the second and third of which dramatizing real-life events still fresh in our collective memory—the Columbine shootings and the suicide of Kurt Cobain, respectively. Yet the fourth also revolves around trauma and life lost, and also plays games with our sense of memory and chronology, with that tricky notion of time’s arrow flying in a single, steady direction. Even the fifth tells the story of the pioneering, openly gay San Francisco politician Harvey Milk as though it were a heady escalation of events inevitably leading to a shocking and untimely demise. All of these films are death-haunted, yet all of them burst with life, colour and humour, with youth and friendship, with erotic discoveries and woozy mysteries, with the pleasures of losing oneself in the rumbling undulations of skateboarding toward the crest of a half-pipe, or the overwhelming rush of an alliance of previously neglected or oppressed mass having their voice heard loud and clear for the first time.

Van Sant’s rare among American filmmakers in that from fairly early on he’s managed to straddle the increasingly disparate trajectories of highly personal, challenging filmmaking and mainstream filmmaking—only Steven Soderbergh, who gave us movies ranging from
Che (08) to Ocean’s Eleven (01) over the course of this last decade, and Richard Linklater, who slid seamlessly from Waking Life (01) to School of Rock (03) to Before Sunset (04), seem equally capable of playing both ends of the system with flair. What distinguishes Van Sant from even these esteemed peers is the dexterity with which he’s able to make these transitions and the extremes he embraces, from the incorporation of avant-garde formal play to the unapologetic populism of the triumphant biopic. His work defies our cynicism about Hollywood and the ever-looming death of the movies. May his next decade be even more dazzling.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

2009: the year in movies

Let me first confess that I still haven’t seen at least one movie that I predict I’m going to adore. It's been a busy winter! Fortunately, I don’t think there’s any lack of love out there for
Fantastic Mr. Fox and it’ll surely be heartily celebrated elsewhere. This may not be case however with my first pick for the best of 2009, which barely screened anywhere in Canada but is now at least available on DVD. In fact so many of my favourites didn’t hit theatres or had only limited runs that I’ve decided to comprise my list from anything that debuted in theatres or on DVD in 2009. This is hardly news of course, but given the current state of exhibitors, unless we all get to attend major festivals we need to look to screens of all sizes if we’re to embrace the spectrum of what’s exciting in movies these days.

The Headless Woman
A hit and run occurs. We don’t see the victim, but neither does the driver. We see the driver work through her decision not to look—the process is oddly transfixing. We then see her do many strange yet finally instinctively logical things in response to the accident. We’re dream-deep in noir territory, but the author of this beguiling movie is Lucrecia Martel, who made
The Holy Girl, so along its periphery are unforgettably peculiar, unnervingly funny details, and troubling questions of class solidarity and willful blindness. María Onetto gives an immensely absorbing performance, like Gena Rowlands on Quaaludes.

Summer Hours
A final family reunion precedes a matriarch’s death. Her adult children, now spread across the globe, must reconvene to sort out mother’s legacy. Olivier Assayas’ most emotionally rich work is about things, “bric-a-brac from another era,” the residue of a life, its memories and secrets. It offers a sobering sense of mortality, followed by the consolation of renewal: the last characters we see are the matriarch’s teenaged grandchildren, whiling away the summer hours at grandmother’s old house one last time, before it becomes the property of someone else.

The Limits of Control
“As I descended into impassable rivers, I no longer felt guided by the ferryman.” The opening Rimbaud quote says it all: surrender to the drift, the buoyancy of the texture, mystery and playfulness will carry you along. Thus unmoored, Jim Jarmusch made one of the loosest, most chimerical and, it would appear, most divisive works of his career. Smartly suited Isaach De Bankolé slips across Spain, meeting with shadowy figures, deciphering cryptic messages, drinking twin espressos and even enjoying some after-hours flamenco on his way to complete a sinister mission. Pitched somewhere between
Point Blank, The Passenger and Jarmusch’s own Ghost Dog, this is a cinema of wanderlust and hypnosis, far more concerned with architecture, atmosphere, jokes, musical logic, naked ladies, sensation and sensibility, than it is about, say, espionage. My second viewing was approached very skeptically. I still loved it completely.

Inglorious Basterds
Here’s some synchronicity for you: 17 years after
Reservoir Dogs Quentin Tarantino finally goes completely bananas and reaches the peak of his maniacal, pastiche-frenzied craftsmanship at the same time. Who else could have made this insanely verbose, over-the-top epic about resistance in war-torn Europe that fantasizes both a scalp-collecting Jewish revenge squad and the complete annihilation of the entire Nazi elite in one explosive screening at a Parisian movie palace? I rest my case.

35 Rhums
This was Claire Denis’ entrancing and moving tale of a closely bound father and daughter gradually finding their individual paths after years of living together. Denis’ touch is so light as to seem weightless, her exposition so minimal as to seem neglectful of plot, yet no one makes movies like this, so alive, so warm and sometimes funky and funny, so sensitive to everyday rhythms and nuance, so trusting in story to reveal itself once nurtured. I could curl up on a rug and drift away with her films for ages.

A Serious Man
Remember the story of Job? Well, this is funnier. A physics professor’s wife leaves him. His brother is arrested. He could any moment be accused of taking a bribe from an alarmingly deadpan student from Korea. He’s inexplicably hounded by the Columbia Record Club. This is the Coen Brother’s vision of the universe, set in the Minneapolis suburbs, circa 1967. A tornado might come along and kill everybody. Uncertainty is the only certainty. There’s no comfort in religion, though it’s kind of fun to look for it anyway. As the Korean student’s dad advises, “Accept the mystery.”

Two Lovers
Speaking of Jews in trouble. A Brooklyn dry cleaner’s son trying not to be suicidal, Joaquin Phoenix loves the sweet girl his family has implicitly selected for him. He also loves Gwyneth Paltrow, who’s clearly bad news but is so much more exciting. He also loves his mom, who happens to be Isabella Rossellini. James Gray is a master storyteller, and this is his best work, a vision of the abyss we traverse when we surrender fully to romantic longing, and of those harrowing moments when compromise wollops us upside the head until out ears ring.

The first part of Steven Soderbergh’s portrait of Ernesto Guevara is a puzzle made of trial and error while the second arm-wrestles with The Thin Red Line for the title of Most Hypnotic War Movie. The whole thing eschews Guevara the T-shirt icon, yet it doesn’t hoist phony biopic vulnerability on him either. It’s by turns lyrical and strategic, a manual on armed revolution and a consideration of violence as a tool for social change.

Miguel ‘Sugar’ Santos is hardly a revolutionary, but his story provides us with much insight into the uneasy alliances that span the Americas. Recruited to play ball, he leaves the DR for the US, discovers French toast and TV on the Radio, as well as the simultaneous warmth and cool conservatism of the semi-rural Midwest. So much more than a sports movie—though the baseball is rendered excitingly—Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s follow-up to
Half Nelson is a beautiful, profoundly resonant tale of the unpredictable paths that characterize the immigrant experience.

Wendy and Lucy
One needn’t be an immigrant however to understand how riddled with obstacles American life can be. Kelly Reichardt’s neorealist story of a young woman stranded in Oregon, trying to find her dog and get to Alaska, uses the simplest of narrative elements to forge both a lament for the outsider in the ostensible land of plenty and an ode to the kindness of strangers.

A sailor goes ashore in Argentina. He says he wants to visit his home, a tiny village in the mountains, to see if his mother is still alive. It's winter, and the sailor drinks, swigging off a bottle he keeps in his small bag. But it may not only be the cold that he's bracing himself for. Lisandro Alonso's rigorously observational approach is employed with special elegance here, gradually gliding away from the protagonist to someone else, someone he's forgotten, until we rest on the image that explains the enigmatic title, and offers up some touchingly subtle gesture of things passed along from one generation to another.

Maybe not quite as good but still very good:
Hunger, The Hurt Locker, Let the Right One In, Pontypool, The Road, Tulpan.