Wednesday, December 2, 2009

2000s: the decade in debuts

What follows was co-authored my friend and Vue Weekly colleague Brian Gibson, who's been hard at work since the start of 2009 on surveying the decade's movies in a variety of ways. Thanks to Brian for suggesting this piece... not to mention tracking down all those clips!

The Return

From the evidence of Andrei Zvyagintsev’s first film,
The Return (2003), winner of the Golden Lion, there’s a lot to hope for. An astonishing debut with an ominousness as chilly as the lake the two boys and their father cross near the film’s end (tragically, one of the young actors in the film drowned in another lake nearby soon after the film was shot), The Return, shot by Mikhail Krichman, is a little like a small-scale Russian epic if it were made by Terrence Malick. From the beginning, Zvyagintsev manages to combine a curiously restrained visual flair (especially with nature shots) with a uniquely paced rhythm of seething psychological suspense, perhaps filtered from his own experience—his father disappeared when he was six. His next film, The Banishment (07), adapted from a novel by William Saroyan, received more mixed reviews, but has yet to appear here, even on disc, while a segment for New York, I Love You that he directed was cut but will appear on the DVD. Will the incredibly bright light of his debut become more dimly diffused in the coming years? (BG)

Syndromes and a Century

I still haven’t seen most of the work of prolific Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and very likely neither have you. But just speak these titles aloud:
Mysterious Object at Noon (00), Blissfully Yours (02), Worldly Desires (04), Tropical Malady (04). The spell begins even before the lights go down—we are in the hands of one of those rare artists who recognize the movies as a medium perfectly fit for such things as sensuality, eros, fecundity, mystery, and, indeed, bliss. Syndromes and a Century (06), which Brian reviewed, rooted in the story of the director’s parents and their early careers as physicians in a semi-rural Thai hospital, seemed ripe for a breakthrough, but it seems we still need to wait for the right conditions to allow Apichatpong’s vision to reach a wider audience—Syndromes didn’t even play domestically in Thailand due to Apichatpong’s refusal to cut scenes for the national censors. (JB)

The Taste of Others

After working with co-writer and husband Jean-Pierre Bacri on scripts for others, Agnès Jaoui set them off on their own in 2000 with her directorial debut,
The Taste of Others (clips and an interview with Jaoui can be found at 25:05 of this Charlie Rose episode). Apart from the awkwardly translated title, this is an utterly smooth, slow-building comedy of, well, not manners so much as discrimination—discriminating tastes and class assumptions. Jaoui and Bacri’s great skill lies in turning us away from the most obviously flawed and hypocritical characters to make us see how everyone in the film is unconsciously compromising themselves (including the characters she plays). Jaoui happens to reveal Woody Allen as a pale shadow of his former self in her light, yet unblinkingly honest, examinations of upper-middle-class self-absorption, as further proven by her second film, Look At Me. Her third, Let’s Talk About The Rain, has yet to be released over here, though it’s already screened in Europe. (BG)


On this side of the Atlantic, another partnership had a stunning debut in the 2000s. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck wrote 2006’s
Half Nelson, with Fleck directing the tale of an inner-city school teacher, Dan Dunne. Ryan Gosling anchored the film as Dunne, but Shareeka Epps was just as good as Drey. Next came the even more understated Sugar (08), carefully studying a Dominican ballplayer trying to make it to the big leagues. Boden and Fleck are ingenious at offering a kind of unassuming-ness in their films, simply slipping into small, everyday situations and then tweaking them ever so slightly for a taut dramatic narrative. Half Nelson was more carefully scripted, especially its tender playing with pairs throughout the film, and more viscerally grounded in one place. But between the two of them, and their two films, Fleck and Boden show all the makings of at least two more superb films in the next decade. (BG)

The Holy Girl

At the time of writing, I’ve seen one utterly mesmerizing, unforgettable movie and one pretentious, self-absorbed piece of twaddle from Lisandro Alonso—
Los Muertos (04) and Fantasma (06), respectively—so I’m reluctant to comment on whether Argentina has two new filmmakers deserving of the title of the decade’s best new directors**, but I don’t hesitate for a moment to say she has at least one in Lucrecia Martel. Martel’s breakthrough was The Holy Girl (04), and this may still be her undisputed masterpiece—so far. That movie, which I wrote about upon its Canadian release, placed a mother and daughter in a hotel where a medical convention is being held and one of the guests is making advances on both. The daughter blurs normally separate notions of what constitutes a vocation, and her religious and sexual education fuse into a deliciously strange and often quirkily humorous drama. La Ciénaga (01) and The Headless Woman (08) are more overtly linked to one another in that both are immersed in the daily lives of upper-middle-class Argentine families and the gulf that exists between their lifestyles and perceptions and those of the indigenous people who often work as their appallingly underappreciated servants. These are stories characterized by humour and haunting dreamlike episodes, interrupted by death and prompting questions of responsibility. (JB)

Silent Light

Amores Perros (00) launched the Mexican decade with an adrenaline shot of urban desperation, a tripartite weave of neo-pulp fictions that imposed poetic unity on the disparate socioeconomic subsections of the country’s teeming capital. Yet a decade and two features later, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s debut now looks far less significant either historically or artistically than Carlos Reygadas’ Japón (02), in which a middle-aged man leaves Mexico City behind in search of some remote place to end his life, a journey that finds him communing with the elderly and magnetic lady of the mountains, Magdalena Flores. It says a lot about Reygadas’ peculiar vision that, even while wearing his influences on his sleeve—the overall approach to narrative and mise en scène in Japón leans heavily on both Tarkovsky and Kiarostami, while Reygadas’ use of actors is clearly indebted to Bresson—his films remain absolutely singular, mysterious, and beguilingly incomplete, each leaving the viewer with numerous puzzling questions. Teetering on the edge of the thriller genre with its story of high-class prostitutes and child kidnapping, the very strangely erotic, image-laden and politically charged Battle in Heaven (05) was an even more provocative and adventurous follow-up, while Silent Light (07), which sensitively chronicled a love triangle set amidst Chihuahua’s Mennonite community, found Reygadas already producing work of the sort of maturity we associate with artists entering the autumnal phase of their careers. (JB)

George Washington

There’s still a case to be made for David Gordon Green as the American decade’s most funky, distinctive, and resolutely innocent, indigenous new voice. If you have a hard time figuring out how to place the sweetly sublime rural reveries of George Washington (00) with the stoner bromance hi-jinx of Pineapple Express (08), you probably haven’t spent enough time with either movie. Green’s voice, however employed, is pretty unmistakable. Green’s career—the previously mentioned titles were bridged by youthful romance in All the Real Girls (02), “Deliverance for kids” in Undertow (03), and wintry small town despair in Snow Angels (08)—consistently encircles commercial viability while never quite embracing unabashed populism. With George Washington—still his most personal and wondrous film—critics had pegged Green as the wide-eyed inheritor of ’70s transcendentalist Terrence Malick’s always almost-aborted career, but the real question now seems to be whether Green is going to settle instead for being the new Michael Ritchie. There was always something of The Bad News Bears (76) imbuing Green’s strongly regionalist sensibility—which isn’t necessarily bad news at all. (JB)

Shotgun Stories

Arkansas native Jeff Nichols showed his own remarkable maturity, developed through six short films, with his feature
debut. Just 26 when he wrote and directed Shotgun Stories, in 2004, it was produced by none other than David Gordon Green and released in 2007. The film reinvents the cliché of Southern revenge, sliding into the pickup’s passenger seat alongside a small town’s working class before retribution skids out. The South’s a place of almost self-suffocating, low-level tension here, its folk struggling to get on in spots and corners stripped of much opportunity. Nichols looks to continue his run of talent with Goat, from a script by Green. (BG)

Down in the Valley

Californian David Jacobson hit the Midwest in 2002 with his second film, Dahmer, effectively his debut after the little-seen Criminal (94). A remarkably unsensational look at the notorious serial killer, the film entered the creepy ordinariness of the man’s job and city (Milwaukee) and featured Jeremy Renner as Dahmer, slipping away from all sense of himself with every murder. It’s a film that soars beyond its seamy subgenre. Edward Norton then starred for Jacobson in Down in the Valley, a fascinating Western take on Taxi Driver that reworks the American-rebel film, even in this scene, where ingénue meets cowboy. This new take on old tropes mirrors the mix of freshness and revisionism that infuse Jacobson’s work, tinged as they are with loss and hope, nostalgia and anger, with looking back but trying to always get ahead. (BG)

** Okay, the night after I wrote this I saw Liverpool (08), Alonso's most recent film. It's absolutely beautiful, and that makes two points for Argentina!

1 comment:

Bunched Undies said...

I'm still rummaging through your blog's electronic crevices. Wonderful selections and analysis. Syndromes was probably my favorite of the decade - certainly of 2007 - followed closely by Roy Andersson's bizarre collections of set pieces.
I attempted a review of Liverpool on my blog.

I don't write as good as you so please don't chortle.

I'd be curious as to your thoughts on the film.