I was going to begin the following list quite simply by saying that Cinema is dead. However, the declaration of the death of any art form, and/or its generic constituents, has become such a redundant exercise in the past ten years that the assertion might not be worth the effort.
So given that Cinema might indeed be so long dead that its funeral came and went perhaps even before I was born; I present you with ten exceptionally rare occasions in which, for an average time of about one hundred and twenty minutes per incident, Cinema came thrusting back to life again in all its previous glory. Enjoy.
10. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004, USA)
If one individual deserves a nod for best screenwriter of the decade it might just be Charlie Kaufman. With films such as Being John Malkevich and Adaptation Kaufman has shown that one can apply all of the standard rules of narrative cinema and break them all at the same time, which he does in Eternal Sunshine with finesse. Kate Winslet is unrecognizable and Jim Carrey is superb as a loner who discovers that his ex girlfriend has had her memory of him erased and so decides to do the same.
9. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006, Spain)
In-between fantasy and historical drama, between tragedy and dream, between a child’s excited imagination and the darkness of war is the groundbreaking territory which is Pan’s Labyrinth. Set in Spain during the Civil War in the 1940’s, its protagonist, a young girl, named Ofelia discovers that she is the princess of an underground kingdom filled with monsters, magic and enchanting spells. Or at least that’s what she seems to think. If what she has discovered is true, how will she enter that world and escape her wicked step father Captain Vidal? Pan’s Labyrinth is a gothic fairy tale which provokes the emotions with its spectacular lighting and awesome visual effects.
8. Hunger (2008, UK)
A strange thing happened the first time I watched Hunger. Although I was enthralled by its sense of visual poetry and its gripping story, I discovered that there was one other element of the film which had affected me more deeply than all the others, and without me realising it at the time. For about an hour after switching off the DVD player I found that doors squeaked open louder than they had before and the sound of plates crashing as I put them in the sink rang in my ears like an alarm.
With its masterful sound effects and sound editing, Hunger had briefly altered my sense of hearing. The debut feature by celebrated conceptual artist Steve McQueen is a depiction of the events which occurred in Maze prison, 1981, Northern Ireland where paramilitary prisoners are protesting the British Governments refusal to grant them political status. Here is a film that doesn’t allow for objective viewing, but instead drags its audience into its frame with startling images and exquisite editing.
7. Old Boy (2003, South Korea)
If master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock was reborn in the body of a South Korean and force fed a diet of Japanese Anime comics and then told to direct a contemporary thriller, I can quite happily surmise that that movie would turn out to be Old Boy. In short; a man is kidnapped, his wife murdered, he is imprisoned in a room for 15 years and then told he has five days to discover the reason these events have occurred, otherwise disastrous consequences will follow. What then proceeds is an exhilarating and mysterious quest for meaning and, of course, revenge, in which it is discovered that knowledge is not always power and the accumulation of revenge can merely lead to abject disappointment. Excellent plotting, great acting and some wonderfully choreographed fight scenes.
6. Mulholland Drive (2002, USA)
Somewhere in Los Angeles a man emotionally confesses to a friend that he has had a nightmare set around the corner from the diner where they are eating. Afterwards the same man goes around the corner and has a seizer at the sight of a burnt vagrant. Also in LA, Adam Kesher, a movie director, learns that a group of conspirators led by a megalomaniac midget have secretly seized control of his film. Meanwhile Betty, an aspiring actress who has just come to town for an audition, discovers a naked woman in her hotel room who doesn’t remember her own name.
And so it goes, in director David Lynch’s maddening and mysterious masterpiece, Hollywood is not the place where fantasies are realised, escapism is found, or success is won. It is quite simply a location where dreams occur. But Lynch’s point seems to be that dreams can corrupt, confuse and destroy. And for the above residence of the dream factory, this is pretty much what happens.
Lynch’s first audacious move was to project such an anti-Hollywood message through a Hollywood style film, and his second was to mutilate the story structure at least forty five minutes before the end, thus throwing the viewer into a narrative paradox from which there is no escape. Despite his numerous successes in the 1980’s and 1990’s (including The Elephant Man, Twin Peaks, Lost Highway and Blue Velvet) Mulholand Dr is Lynch’s most accomplished moment on film.
5. In the Mood for Love (2000, Hong Kong)
Despite being a photographic art form, there are very few films that make you want to put down your popcorn get out of your cinema seat and kindly ask the projectionist to reload the last reel because the shot you just witnessed was so sublime that you had to see it all over again. In the Mood for Love is one of those few films.
Although it was written and directed by Wong Kai -Wai the film’s aesthetic achievements belong just as much to its cinematographer Christopher Doyal, who paints 1960s Honk Kong in hues so rich, vibrant and intense that it’s a wonder he doesn’t leave staggering splashes of colour on the mind of its viewers.
The story is simple enough; a man and a women who are both married and living in the same apartment suspect that their respective partners are having an affair with each other, and so the two of them flirt with the temptation of having a romance of their own.
Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung play the couple with an astoundingly physical discipline that makes it seem as if their characters are constantly performing an opaque dance which is choreographed merely by their ardent longing for each other.
4. Requiem for a Dream (2000, USA)
Generally speaking, the noughties have been a successful decade for Horror movies. The Saw franchise ran and ran, storming the box office with each of its six instalments, while films such as 28 Days Later, Paranormal Activity and The Ring made it clear that there is still a gargantuan market for gore and the uncanny on screen. In spite of this, there was one film (not categorised as Horror however) that I found more frightening, more disturbing and more harrowing then all of the above put together. That film was Darren Aronofski’s often overlooked Requiem for a Dream.
A cautionary tale of sorts, in which four characters from the same dilapidated New Jersey neighbourhood decide to pursue the American dream and in doing so unlock a surfeit of nightmares. There’s Harry (Jared Leto), his girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly), his best friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) and his mother Sara who is played brilliantly by Ellen Burstyn. The former characters attempt to make a fortune selling drugs, but are overcome by their compulsive urge to use them, while Harry’s mother succumbs to a diet of fat burning pills so she can audition for a TV show. By the end of their perilous pursuits one character is prostituting themselves, the other in prison, one in a mental institution and one with a severed arm.
The monsters in Arnofski’s brand of realist Horror are not super natural beasts or psychopaths with sharp objects; they are merely the characters’ own fierce addictions and earnest desires. If films are generally supposed to mark the conscious and bruise the eye then Requiem for a Dream does its job more efficiently than one can recount.
3. No Country for Old Men (2007, USA)
Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men is reminiscent of post 1970’s slasher horror fiction. However, I doubt the plot has much to do with it. After a drug deal has apparently gone wrong in a Texas desert, Llewlyn Moss happens across a briefcase full of cash and before he gets the chance to spend a single dime a contract killer is on his trail ready to retrieve the money for the local drug cartel involved. What results is a conglomeration of cheap motels, bad haircuts and blood baths galore. In other words a period gangster flick turned chase movie.
Yes, on paper it may sound like a cliché, but there was something about this movie that makes it stand out above the rest – and it was not just the sumptuous soundtrack, nor the watertight plot, but more than that it was the texture as a whole, which radiates mostly from somewhere in-between the raw colours commanded by cinematographer Roger Deakins and Javier Bardem’s clinical performance as contract killer Anton Chigurh.
At his best Chigurh is meditative and darkly ponderous. At his worst he is a malevolent murder addict with a ridged body of chivalric codes which he kills by. Perhaps it is he who adds that tinge of slasher horror to the film. After all he is a little like a methodical ‘Leatherface’ and as hard to kill as Arnie’s ‘Terminator’. In fact he proves so hard to kill that one begins to wonder if he is really the god of the fictional death-world that this strange, unsettling and sombre film inhabits.
2. The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003, New Zealand, USA)
A quick confession: I can’t stand book adaptations. Most books don’t want to be turned into films. The words that are written in them are happy, I’m sure, to stay just as they are; words sitting comfortably on pages, awaiting readers who will imagine entire worlds merely by making meaning out of them. But as with any rule there are exceptions and to this one The Lord of the Rings is it. Not only did Peter Jackson manage to reproduce the feel of the book with compliant accuracy, he also reinvented the Fantasy genre for a generation in which realism was the chief aesthetic.
In the fictional world which is Middle Earth, the discovery of a powerful ring suggests the coming of a great war which will involve all of its creatures, including: Men, Elves, Orcs, Trolls and Hobbits. The only certain way to end this war is the destruction of the ring in the fires of Mordor where its maker the evil Sauron resides.
One of the film’s outstanding features is its majestic, powerful and instantly recognisable music, composed by Howard Shore. Another is its competent use of the New Zealand country side as a sumptuous and rich backdrop. The Lord of the Rings bares many filmic examples of sacrifice, humour, kinship and courage, while also commenting on the importance of faith in dark times, thus making for rewarding (though sometimes arduous) viewing. It was also, to some degree, the only real ‘event movie’ of the decade.
1. City of God (2002, Brazil)
City of God does not top the list because it has the best costumes, the most fabulous sets, the most thrilling action, or the most expensive lighting, but because it has the one thing any decent movie should have, and in large doses. That thing is story, and this film has one which is universal, honest, intelligent and, believe it or not, based on real events.
Set in a small area of Rio de Janeiro in the 1970’s and 1980’s, it tracks the rise of crime lord Lil’Ze through the innocent photographic perspective of aspiring local journalist Rocket. As gang warfare continually threatens to pervert and destroy the neighbourhood, Rocket embraces adolescent musings such as how to win friends, get high and lose his virginity.
Daniel Rezende’s playful editing defines the film’s sharp non-linear structure, while director Fernando Meirelles leads a cast of non-professional actors with verve, authority and class.
City of God owes much to American film makers of the 1990’s, such as Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone, and also to post-World War two films from Europe like Rome Open City and The Bicycle Thieves. But where those films and film makers failed City of God has succeeded, because it is not just a film for World Cinema fans, Art House viewers or film buffs. It is a film for anyone who cares to be enthralled by its easily likeable characters, its charming vision and a soundtrack which is ripe with soul.
–Compiled and written by David Mensah