Thursday, December 24, 2009

Top Films of the Decade: #2 In the Mood for Love

In the Mood for Love

My heart can't quite endorse this ranking. It believes In the Mood for Love is no less than a gift from heaven. It considers this movie infallible, perfect, beyond criticism. It gets violently defensive when people put it down, be they critics or message-board trolls. It palpitates at the sound of this movie's score. It bathes in its quixotic images. It shatters and dissipates at its ending. With dogged romanticism, it cannot fathom a better movie from this decade, or really any other.

My heart, you see, can get carried away. Especially when it sees pretty things.

Wong Kar Wai's seventh feature lingers with me like no film I've seen. From the striking compositions to the elegant costumes, In the Mood for Love is all about, well, mood. Its every detail seems fashioned to evoke sweet, lasting sorrow. Like unconsummated love itself, the film stays with you. It perverts your thoughts the longer it stews, taking on a seismic sense of importance. The film loiters in the mind, forcing you to ponder the what-ifs of an unfulfilled romance. It understands that we, as humans, have an unyielding urge to romanticize what we don't have. A love that never begins can never end. It goes on forever, looping in your head. A mental security blanket for the realities of modern living. A trumped-up splinter of perfection. A go-to thought for the emotional masochist in you. What if, what if, what if. If only, if only, if only.

In the Mood for Love presents a romantic, almost twee vision of love. In real life, things would probably play a lot crasser. The film's protagonists would meet, flirt, fuck, and deal with the consequences. Alcohol would likely be involved. But In the Mood for Love has no interest in realism. It uses fantasy to arrive at truth. In this way, it embodies cinema's most primal appeal: seeing our desires acted out in an idealized world.

To depict this world, Wong and cinematographer Christopher Doyle craft images that look beamed in from some faraway dreamscape. You can't oversell In the Mood for Love's visual gorgeousness. The film repeats shots, gestures, and songs to mimic the rhythms of a lingering love that won't go away. It circles around this love like a jazz composition infatuated with one blistering riff. Wong uses cinema's everyday tools (slow motion, montage) to capture obsession and loss, leading to a climax of almost unbearable beauty.

That climax, set to a devastating composition from Michael Galasso, moves me like no other moment in cinema. If the first nine-tenths of In the Mood for Love exist in a dream world, one in which coy would-be lovers exercise inhuman restraint, then the film's final minutes show the harsh awakening to reality. Our protagonists may have won the moral victory by shunning infidelity, but that doesn't make them any less alone. One disappears from the film; the other releases his love into the ether. Wong refuses to give us gratifying closure. Instead, he leaves our wounds open, so that we may feel like his characters: helpless; our heads filled with dreams of an ideal love that never was. We relish in fantasy, just as we do most nights when we go to the movies.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Top Films of the Decade: #3 Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Few films capture the funny/sad cycles of romantic relationships like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Like the two remaining films on this list, Eternal Sunshine tells a love story both moving and cerebral. It toys with cinematic norms to showcase the rhythmic ways humans love and hurt one another -- over and over again. The film wrings emotional trauma for laughs, forcing us to smile at the neurotic ticks that make relationships crumble. It, in short, ranks alongside Annie Hall as the most insightful romantic comedy ever made.

The comparison to Woody Allen's film comes easy. Both Annie Hall and Eternal Sunshine present an epic romance in jumbled chronology. Both feature flighty, borderline-manic female leads. Both depict relationships as an inescapable folly, as something "totally irrational and crazy and absurd," despite their magnetic appeal. A direct lineage links Woody and Eternal Sunshine; the film's screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, "aspired to be like [Woody]" as a young man entering showbusiness.

Most striking, Annie Hall and Eternal Sunshine end with scenes of remarkable beauty and truth. In Woody's film, his protagonist famously concludes that humans endure relationships because they "need the eggs." Most of us know -- from experience and elsewhere -- that relationships often end in turmoil, but that doesn't stop us from swan-diving into them, if given the chance. Meeting someone new tends to pulverize our cynicism. This one won't be like the others, we tell ourselves. I've learned, I've grown. This time will be different.

In Eternal Sunshine's closing moments, Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet embody Einstein's theory of insanity: They're ready to do the same thing over again, expecting a different result. The entire movie exists to service this scene. Kaufman has two budding lovers hear the awful things they'll come to say about one another. Imagine, for a second, how terrifying that would be. Imagine returning from a dizzying first date, only to hear your tape-recorded voice from the future, muttering hostile complaints about your object of desire. Could even such an impossible scenario as this convince you of love's folly? Could your future self rein in your early-relationship euphoria? My guess: Not a chance. Nothing at that point -- not even material proof of your eventual misery -- could lower your high. That's the beauty, the irrationality, of human love, crystalized for all time in one movie moment.

Director Michel Gondry gives life to Kaufman's musings, crafting the film as a flurry of gorgeous visual fragments. Eternal Sunshine is one of the great achievements in special effects, digital or in-camera. Gondry's aesthetic trickery propels the narrative and creates a unique, dreamlike world; he never lets style usurp the film's emotional core. Every virtuoso flourish helps posit the movie's primary question, one first proposed in another Woody Allen film: Are memories something you have or something you've lost?

Monday, December 14, 2009

Top Films of the Decade: #4 Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds

"If I reach high points with Inglourious Basterds, it is partly because Paul [Thomas Anderson] came out with There Will Be Blood a couple years ago, and I realized I had to bring my game up." (full clip)

Quentin Tarantino, like the films he makes, is nothing if not self-aware. He must have known something was off in 2007. Paul Thomas Anderson, his dear friend and competitor, unleashed There Will Be Blood as he drooled out Death Proof, a masturbatory and insular B-movie homage. One was an instant classic; the other a Tarantino-dialogue vehicle, this time with chicks. To some, the movie marked his "creative death." By 2009, Tarantino didn't just need to bring his game up. He needed a veritable game-changer.

Inglourious Basterds, his almost unclassifiable WWII picture, was that and so much more. A European art-house film. A revenge crowd-pleaser. A slap in the face to self-serious cinema. An uncompromising thriller. A joyous slice of entertainment. A Leone-style western. A men-on-a-mission throwback. A substantive tale on the powers of myth-making. Not to sound cute, but it might just be his masterpiece.

Inglourious Basterds is a postmodern movie about the importance of images in society. In almost every scene, characters broadcast images and conceal true aspects of their real selves. They lie, exaggerate, and hide in the name of escaping death (if on the defensive) or spreading fear (if on the offensive). Some, like Goebbels, use visual media to propagate myths about themselves and their enemies. Others, like Brad Pitt's Lt. Aldo Raine, take a viral approach. They roam the woods, terrorizing Nazis, and leaving survivors to speak of the horrors. Both share the same goals: rallying supporters and scaring the shit out of foes. At its core, Inglourious Basterds unfolds like a murderous PR battle. No surprise, Tarantino uses the film-within-the-film to quote another piece of cinematic propaganda, Battleship Potemkin.

In two of the film's show-stopping scenes, characters appear under direct interrogation. They sit in countryside cabins and basement barrooms, crafting false images to survive. Characters must lie, and convincingly. Here, the movie's preoccupation with image-building plays on a person-to-person level.

Tarantino hints at his themes everywhere. Just look at these two stills, which echo his obsession with the difference between truth and image-level deception:

The first shows truth. That man is a real Nazi, and you can see it in his skin. The second shows a simulacrum. That man isn't Edgar Wallace. He's a fake, a copy. But, as postmodern theorists argue, in a society inundated with images, The Truth and The Image become indiscernible. It's all "real" if you can convince people it's real.

I've taken a pretty academic approach here because, well, most of this movie's pleasures don't take much analysis. This movie is fist-pumping fun. Tarantino's dialogue remains as vibrant as ever. His characters speak in artful, memorable rhythms ("Au revoir, Shosanna!"). Scenes come equipped with satisfying payoffs. Villains possess disarming charisma. Bizarre titles and freeze frames intentionally shatter the film's tone for laughs. Brad Pitt talks in a funny accent. Nazis get killed. These delights -- of which there are many, many more -- don't take much to appreciate.

Lastly, Tarantino's love of Jean-Luc Godard and the French New Wave registers here in powerful ways. Just as Godard and others rejected the stuffy "quality films" of their elders -- the so-called "Cinema de Papa" -- for a youthful, of-the-moment approach to filmmaking, Tarantino mocks self-serious period films through a barrage of devices to distance viewers. Where a film like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button does everything it can to immerse viewers in A Serious Movie, Inglourious Basterds prefers a self-aware approach. Tarantino sprinkles his story with randomly-timed Samuel L. Jackson narration, David Bowie interludes, and other self-conscious devices to distance us. Like Godard, he wants us to know we're watching a movie. Unlike Godard, he actually cares to entertain. Tarantino brings postmodern filmmaking (and, with Inglourious Basterds, theory) to a wide audience.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Top Films of the Decade: #5 No Country for Old Men

No Country for Old Men

Image #1: Close up. A hand clenches a loaded revolver. Its index finger begins to squeeze the trigger.
Image #2: A flock of birds rise in unison, leaping into flight.

What happened here? Well, we know loud sounds startle birds, and we know guns make loud sounds. Therefore, we deduce that someone fired a gun. Yet we never see the trigger pulled, the gun fired, or the bullet reach its target. And, because these shots stem from The Docks of New York, a 1928 silent film, viewers don't even hear the gun go off. But the images make perfect, intuitive sense as a pair. The first shot informs the second to create a concrete idea in our heads: Someone fired a gun. The filmmaker conveys this information cinematically, not literally. As art critic Rudolf Arnheim wrote in 1933, "What is particularly noteworthy in such a scene is not merely how easily and cleverly the director makes visible something that is not visual, but by doing so, actually strengthens its effect."

Joel and Ethan Coen continue this tradition like no other directors working today. I call it the Cinema of Smoke. If a house burns to the ground, most directors show you the fire; the Coen brothers show you the smoke. We see the consequence (smoke) and deduce the action (fire). The duo make the most of the medium; they use images, sounds, and the clashes between them to tell stories in inventive, uniquely cinematic ways.

No Country for Old Men is the apotheosis of this style. At every turn, Joel and Ethan Coen either visualize the unvisual or leave visuals implied off screen -- all in the name of mastering suspense. Here's just one example of the former: In this instant-classic scene, watch how the filmmakers visualize an abstract idea (a long pause within a conversation of mounting tension) with, of all things, a plastic wrapper (jump to the 2:37 mark).

Here's the opposite effect at work. In this scene, the directors convey narrative information (the death of a hotel clerk) not by showing his death on screen, but by the dim, evocative ringing of an unanswered phone (58-second mark).

Imagine the tension this scene would lose if it began with a shot of Anton Chigurh murdering the clerk.

Even the explosions in No Country for Old Men appear in the periphery.

These stylistic choices all speak to the Coens' careful control of image and sound. Nothing appears accidental in No Country for Old Men. Cameras don't shake in the name of realism. Characters don't mumble inanities to capture how people talk "in real life." Instead, the Coens fully embrace artifice; they're out to craft the most compelling, heart-stopping thriller they can.

Aside from its formal delights, No Country for Old Men offers the decade's great movie villain in Anton Chigurh. Like Hannibal Lecter in the '90s, Chigurh is a mythical, quotable machine. He grounds the film's foggy nihilism in one frightening bowl cut.

No Country for Old Men plays best as a straight-up suspense film, one designed to reflect an era of anxiety and panic. If you find a stronger genre movie from this decade, please do tell.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Top Films of the Decade: #6 Distant


The men of Distant lead lives of quiet desperation. One drifts through life, guided by apathy, married only to his meaningless daily routines. The other, a villager displaced in Istanbul, floats around town, ogling women and hunting for work. His neuroses (and illiteracy) render him unemployable and unattractive.

Like the other Nuri Bilge Ceylan film on this list, Distant shows the stuff of everyday life. It's a film of small moments, detailing how two introverted men long for external joy yet remain shackled by inertia. The film captures that unfortunate truth: Human beings will always fear change, no matter how mundane their circumstances. Things could always get worse. Rejection and failure lie one misstep ahead. The day-to-day institutionalizes us, until we act not out of desire, but out of sheer habit.

Ceylan arrives at these themes through Mahmut and Yusef, an odd couple living together in Istanbul. The guys watch a lot of TV. They bicker about cleanliness. They debate the proper way to terminate pests. In short, the men interact on autopilot. They speak only when necessary, sidestepping human interaction for the easiest exit to their respective bedrooms. They remain alienated from the people and places around them. Fitting "The Individualist" personality type described by The Enneagram Institute, Mahmut and Yusef "long for someone to come into their lives and appreciate the secret self that they have privately nurtured and hidden from the world." That's the sad way many of us live. We seek genuine interaction yet recoil at its onset.

By showing a friendship that never sparks to life, Ceylan articulates the absurd ways we choose to pass the time. Mahmut and Yusef, like so many of us, live life like a losing team running out the clock. In the end, one man makes a bold decision, while the other sits on a park bench, alone, fantasizing about a life he'd never dare lead.