Inglourious Basterds is probably smarter; it’s certainly more complex. But dammit, it’s just not anywhere near as fun as Tarantino’s loving, epic-length tribute to, and parodic indictment of, the trash he grew up watching, the spaghetti Westerns and blaxploitation and kung-fu pictures which must have made living near a grind house in the 1970s such a heavenly experience (DVDs are so… clean!). He uses the tools of cinema as a private toy box like never before or since in his eminently playful career, with an end result that has its cake and eats it too: mountains of delirious cartoon gore intermingle with a subtle thread of “yes, and then what?” anti-revenge commentary that even the director seems to have missed in his fanboyish enthusiasm; thankfully, Uma Thurman (in a miraculous, deceptively profound performance) seems entirely in on the joke, grounding the high-wire act all around her with real, vital humanity.
69. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
(Andrew Dominik, 2007, USA / Canada)
Another one of those damned neo-Westerns, this one perhaps the most excellently “neo” of them all: thanks to the dry narration by an offscreen Hugh Ross, Roger Deakins’s distractingly stylised cinematography, and Domink’s absolute refusal to spend time inside his characters’ heads (even with Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck at their very best) when he can avoid it, The Assassination etc. ends up being both myth and counter-myth, rendering one of the key events of the American Western legend strictly as a narrative event, removing us from the events we see to such a degree that we can only possibly regard it as an artificial construct. This could be gruesomely academic, except that Dominik then uses this artifice as a scalpel, cutting his way into the concepts of “The Western” and “The Historic West” and revealing all the ways that American mythology isn’t what we think it is. (Reviewed here)
68. The Gleaners and I
AKA Les glaneurs et la glaneuse
(Agnès Varda, 2000, France)
An effortless combination of autobiography and social commentary with a layer of pixie dust on top, courtesy of a filmmaker long prone to ignoring the rules of “how cinema works” that she doesn’t like, and who’s not looking to change at the start of her eighth decade on this planet. Taking a close look at a marginalised culture – gleaners, people who rescue usable material from what the rest of us would regard as waste – Varda does a yeoman’s job bringing their story to life, but in the end this is less about a certain subset of French society than about being endlessly fascinated by the unexplored corners of life. Hence the attention paid to the treasures of Varda’s own life of “gleaning”, or even just her entranced delight at using her video camera to capture images. It’s charming and maybe twee, but filled with obvious, infectious joy.
(Pete Docter, 2009, USA)
Pixar’s films are justly famous for their easy, genuine appeal to both adults and children; their delightfully unexpected protagonists; their masterful “pure cinema” use of color and shape to be just about the loveliest animated films out there right now. In all these ways, Up is just par for the course. But even given the studio’s equally well-known ability to shift moods without a hitch, have any of their other movies – have any other American movies in recent memory, period – drifted so quickly from farce to sentiment to tragedy and back so quickly and so successfully? In the span of a minute, it jumps from the heartbreaking story of an old man whose reason to live died with his wife, to the hilarious yammering of a talking dog, and both of these polar opposites are equally engaging, moving and real. If that’s not genius, what is? (Reviewed here)
66. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
AKA Moartea domnului Lăzărescu
(Cristi Puiu, 2005, Romania)
By this point, pointing out that the Romanian New Wave was the world’s most exciting national cinematic movement in the last ten years has passed from “obvious” to “desperately trite”, but let me do it anyway. And then let me add that the most characteristic of these Romanian films is Puiu’s dazzling satire of the health care industry: too unremittingly grim to call it a comedy, too cosmically absurd to call it anything else. So instead of trying to stick a label on the film, let’s just praise it as the singular thing that it is: a film that never gets so black that it can’t find scraps of human sentiment lying around here or there, and at the same time a film that refuses to lie about the nasty truth in its beating heart: sometimes, unpleasant old people die because of bureaucracy, and the world doesn’t give a shit. (Reviewed here)
(Olivier Assayas, 2002, France)
Despite arguments about the nature of internet commerce that don’t quite play the same way they did when the film was new, Assayas’s heady attack against globalism and the soul-destroying tendencies of unchecked international capitalism remains tremendously unsettling. Arguments that mass media dull our moral faculties have existed ever since mass media has, but it’s a rare work that comes along with quite this much ice-cold blood in its veins, and such a frankly mean-spirited refusal to coddle the audience in any way. The filmmaker frames his story of a trade deal to get hyper-violent Japanese porn to a world-wide market with a single-minded intensity of vision that gives the viewer no room to escape, and even at its most extreme absurdity, the scenario never goes so far afield from what every habitual internet user can recognise in the abstract that any of it ever becomes implausible. (Reviewed here)
64. A Christmas Tale
AKA Un conte de Noël
(Arnaud Desplechin, 2008, France)
The director’s ecstasy in finding new ways to warp the fabric of cinema around his scenario like space-time bending around the event horizon of a black hole is contagious enough that it’s easy to forgive how frequently his ideas come just shy of cohering – and easy to ignore how potentially depressing is this story of a family that starts out with everybody hating everyone else, and ends with everybody not particularly liking anybody else, but having found some way to more or less function in despite of that. So, no Hollywood concept of Christmas cheer is this; but even so, Desplechin’s erratic, idiosyncratic approach to narrative and imagery ends up finding all that is beautiful and moving even in these miserable bastard people. The cast is a who’s-who of essential French character actors, spearheaded by fiery performances from the great Catherine Deneuve and Mathieu Amalric. (Reviewed here)
63. The Five Obstructions
AKA De fem benspænd
(Lars von Trier and Jørgen Leth, Denmark / Switzerland / Belgium / France)
Alack, that even I, who has essentially no use for Danish shit-stirrer Lars von Trier whatsoever, was not able to keep him away from my Best of the Decade list. The documentary that he co-signed – it is a film that positively buggers any attempt to otherwise place authorship – deserves it, though: not only does von Trier seem delighted to play up his persona as an unmatched asshole, forcing his alleged mentor Leth to jump through a bizarre series of hoops in re-devising his 1967 short The Perfect Man, but the film that came about from that experiment asks a heady number of questions about the process of filmmaking, cinematic authorship, and the distance between an artist’s intent and the actual meaning of the object he creates. More about the inquiry than the answers, this is one of the most challenging films about filmmaking ever created.
62. Spirited Away
AKA 千と千尋の神隠し (Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi)
(Miyazaki Hayao, 2001, Japan)
Whatever can I say about the film that finally forced anime into the dead center of the U.S. mainstream, 13 years after Akira, that hasn’t been said better elsewhere? There’s a reason why Miyazaki’s name always comes up in conversations about the greatest fantasists in cinema, which is that he’s one of the greatest fantasists in cinema, and this massively personal revision of the “Alice in Wonderland” scenario will likely always remain the argument in favor of his boundless imaginative genius. While the story beats are a bit arrhythmic, anyone with eyes is almost certainly too busy watching in goggle-eyed awe at the cornucopia of marvelous creatures and richly-detailed settings that make up this genial, beautiful nightmare world to care about nitpicky script notes. Very little can match it as a movie of the noblest kind: it creates a perfectly coherent world that could not possibly exist outside of cinema. (Reviewed here)
61. Bloody Sunday
(Paul Greengrass, 2002, United Kingdom / Ireland)
Perfecting the aesthetic that he’d later use more famously in United 93 (to much degraded effect, to my thinking), Greengrass’s docudrama about the events of 30 January, 1972 in Derry, Ireland remains his finest work, and one of the great films yet made about the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Despite a remarkably consisted, un-inflected visual grammar, which follows a number of characters from a detached perspective, the movie ends up being a full-throated, deeply passionate primal scream against the violent injustice done by the British Army against unarmed protesters; and even as it is made up of a laundry-list of particulars about that day, gleaned as much as possible from primary sources, it achieves a feeling of universality in its depiction of the chaos of the massacre itself, to become a great statement against any power which would use force indiscriminately and lazily.