Sunday, January 17, 2010


(not in order of preference)

This was a near-impossible task, selecting only ten films from a decade of immeasurable cinematic prolificity and creativity… so I decided to pick 11. My goal, not to chose an absolute top 11, but simply to create a culturally diverse and challenging swath of dynamic films from the past decade, films that have struck me deeply and sustained their effect over time and multiple viewings, if not enriching over the span.

1. KABEI: OUR MOTHER (Yoji Yamada, Japan 2008)

For 133 min I was a member of the Nogami family. I laughed, smiled, worried, and cried with them. I inhabited the rooms of their house, I ate dinner at their table. I was wholly taken into their lives. This film is as sensitive a transposition as I’ve ever known in cinema. Maybe I just saw it when I was most receptive.

KABEI tells the story of the Nogami family in the years leading up to and during WWII. After Shigeru, the patriarch, is imprisoned for the “incendiary” content of his writing, Kabei (the children’s pet name for his wife, their mother) must carry the family (two daughters) on her own. Toru, a former student of Shigeru’s pays respects to his sensei and becomes a devoted helpful friend to the Nogami’s, developing a deep but secretive affection for Kabei… and her for him. A complex range of Japanese attitudes, in conflict and acquiescence to custom and policy, builds a grand portrait of wartime humanity.

Yoji Yamada is a man of considerable acclaim in Japan, having directed the 36 installments of the Tora-san film series, and most recently reached international acclaim for his Samurai Trilogy (Including the Oscar nominated Twilight Samurai). If there were a living director that one could call intrinsically Japanese; meaning that they can tell a story in the way only a Japanese person could tell it (despite the ubiquity of cross cultural information rendered by the 20th century), it is Yoji Yamada… but perhaps only because his subjects are Japanese. Perhaps his prevailing sensitivity, hints of sentimentality, gentle maturity, and observance of the everyday (all of which bring Ozu to mind) could benefit most any cultural context. After all, where does one culture begin and the other end if culture, like time, is fluid?

2. BABEL (Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu , Mexico 2006)
**BEST SUPPORTING PERFORMANCES OF THE DECADE!** (Rinko Kikuchi and Adriana Barraza)

A sprawling, razing, profound, and accomplished film. Innaritu crafts an arresting proof by contradiction; by exploring the realities of emotional distance through a structural fragmentation, with narrative threads scattered across four continents, BABEL reveals the spontaneous but inevitable weave of causality and sheer humanity that connects us. BABEL reaches a new height in all aspects of cinema, most important and timely being the global scale of its exploration. BABEL is powerful and humbling enough even to dissolve the celebrity of Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchette. (One of the best scores of the decade.)

3. THREE TIMES (Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan 2005)

Hou Hsiao-Hsien (Millenium Mambo,) is one of the most talented filmmakers working today, and yet despite being the most salient of the Taiwanese New Cinema directors to emerge in the mid 1980’s is almost entirely relegated to the festival circuit in the US (save for Flight of the Red Balloon). THREE TIMES explores three pairs of lovers (played by the same principal actors Shu Qi and Chang Chen) in three different time periods of Taiwanese 20th Century history (1966, 1911, 2005). Each couple incurs obstacles toward intimacy; ranging from practical circumstance, social constraint, and the aching indecision of modern freedoms (emotional, professional). But rather than a mere structural decision, THREE TIMES utilizes the nature and conditions of each “time” to inform pragmatically, attitudinally, and aesthetically upon its character’ wills, actions, and facilities of communication. Like all of his works, THREE TIMES moves with a clean breathlessness, a remarkable continuity and elliptical capturing of each moment that allows one to enter completely into its space and time. It is ravishing to behold when you surrender to its patience. And across all three vignettes, Hou evinces a spanning portrait of Taiwan, as if a kind of summation of the generations he has heretofore visited in his catalogue, if not a virtual abstract of his retroactive thesis.

4. TALK TO HER………………….(Pedro Almodovar, Spain 2002)

Almodovar at his absolute height! Full and unforgettable characters, an affecting complex moral scenario, abounding with tones of melodrama, gentleness, urgency, vitality, desperation. Critic Peter Travers said “Almodovar doesn’t just make movies. Almodovar IS the movies.” If Almodovar had only “Talk To Her” to his credit, I’d still be inclined to agree.

5. BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN……….(Ang Lee, USA 2005)

Lee elicits great sympathy through this story rather than simplistic pity, an oft’ confused discrepancy. Sympathy is earned through nuance, authenticity, honesty, and complexity, whereas pity manipulates through broad, forceful strokes that lack in enriching ambiguity. Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) are, in the most helpless and human way, sparking a friction against their context, their time and place, their upbringing. Both of them are equally products of their environments, by degrees wanting to fulfill the tenets of what they understand as being a normal American life and to accept the limits of their potential (Ennis more than Jack). But both of them is charged by a desire (a desire that is only able to reveal itself to them after the isolation and utterly basic existence on Brokeback has worn down their conditioning) that conflicts with their upbringing and especially with the social progress of 1960’s small-town southern US. What makes this story so notable, besides the near primordial and tactile manner in which Lee explores what is truly an existential dilemma, besides the formal excellence of its execution, is that the practical and damaging consequences of Jack and Ennis’ decisions; their increasing waywardness in regards to their families, the damage Ennis does to Jack through his prevailing fear and confliction of learned and intrinsic values regarding their love, and the literal danger they bear in expressing that love in a repressive conservative social arena, are a constant element, a predominating topic in their dialogues and behaviors. Lee creates characters subject to expectation that are fully culpable for their inadequacies, their failures, their anxieties, and broken promises. Because of this complexity, not one stroke of this film speaks “woe is me.”

BROKEBACK calls from the recesses of the “pure self,” the immediate and visceral self, which verges against our means, circumstances, and loyalties always. This vergence rises between the intrinsic and the learned, the inborn and the imposed, the internal (desire) and the exteriorized architectures of society (morals, values, trends, economy, etc). It is in this ultimately primal struggle that BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN is wholly universal. This basic struggle is highlighted, and given a renewed significance by virtue of being a mainstream product involving a homosexual relationship. That slight but impactful irregularity calls attention once again to extremely important and relatable aspects of the human condition.

6. MULHOLLAND DR. (David Lynch, USA 2002)

Speaking mostly of the relationships shared between Lost Highway, Inland Empire, and Mulholland Drive, David Lynch is a weaver of dreams. He understands their modes, their spontaneity, their density of details, and their refracted qualities of space, time, and superimposition, like no other artistic mind. Lynch has also chosen the greatest medium possible through which to explore these anxious, passionate, and frustrated subconscious realms, which he can emulate in an absolutely singular fashion. They are remarkably full experiences, and they can remain just that, an experience, but their bevy of details, layers, and interlaced instruction are far too much to neglect. Whether you want to or not, your mind will draw lines in the constellation he has scattered between frame one and frame last. Mulholland Dr. was my first Lynchian experience. I had no idea what I was getting into, and afterwards… had no idea what I had gotten into. I saw it again the next day, and every subsequent time it’s played at the County Theater. It is absorbed into me. I consider my relationship to this film, and how it enlivens my mind to this day, my greatest cinematic love affair. (Another standout score!)

7. SPARROW…………………….(Johnny To, Hong Kong 2008)

Veteran Hong Kong action auteur Johnny To (Election, Triad Election) creates a vibrant love letter to a rapidly changing Hong Kong, to fraternal loyalty, and unabashedly to the vivacious Hollywood films of the 1950’s and 60’s. Sparrow traces a small gang of master pickpockets who eke out their living in an old quarter of Hong Kong. Their unity, however, is disrupted when a mysterious woman enters into their lives and manipulatively threads them into her own dilemma.

SPARROW, with its bright endearing center, is as close as you can get to a musical without singing, and boasts a cleanly specific, choreographed vision (as is typical with the director). Johnny To has crafted a film that rejoices in the fact that it is a film. SPARROW revels in its movements, framings, and moods, which owe as much to Charlie Chaplin as they do The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. The final pickpocket showdown (slow motion, in the rain, at night… with umbrellas!)…MAGIC! (This film also boasts a light, fluttering, energetic score!)

8. SAMARITAN GIRL……………...(Kim Ki Duk, South Korea 2004)

“Hoping to save enough money to travel through “Europe, teenagers Yeo-jin (Ji-min Kwak) and Jae-young (Min-jeong Seo) enter into a risky trade: Jae-young becomes a prostitute, and Yeo-jin manages their business. After Jae-young is killed, Yeo-jin assumes the role of sex worker to keep their clients happy. But Yeo-jin's father (Eol Lee) discovers his daughter's secret, setting off a chain of events that bring father and daughter to a crossroads.”

Kim Ki Duk has made his name as an uninhibited architect of coarse emotional unravellings, and I recommend any and all of his films for the depths they tap into. Kim is a keen observer of small yet resonant gestures, is spare on words and yet says volumes. His films become universal this way. As inclement and tumultuous as they may seem, they contain undeniable familiarity of feeling and of desire. Kim has a unique understanding of the friction caused when emotion penetrates into the physical realm, when what we want is outside of our reach or understanding, and what it means when words are too obcsure to explain our desires. Actions speak louder than words. SAMARITAN GIRL is perhaps the most challenging and wrenching of his portraits, and stands as the perfect rubric for his utterly singular idiolect. (Kim won best director at the Berlin International Film Festival for this film)

9. THE NEW WORLD …………….Terence Malick (USA 2005)
**BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY OF THE DECADE** (Shared with ‘Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’).

THE NEW WORLD is a story written on the truth of a dream, one that leaves the trace of soil and breath upon the acres of our skin, that wets with its rains, soaks into the heart, and then warms with the beat of its rays, saying "I will find joy in all I see." Never has a film so entered into me as though through my fingertips or my lungs, so subverted my orientation as though a transposition by its wholeness and grace and movement. I am transformed by the wistful yet rejoicing remembrance, the poem of textures, of senses, of thoughts, and of conflicts that is THE NEW WORLD! And lets face it, any time Emmanuel Lubezki touches a camera he should be handed an Oscar.

10. LOVE EXPOSURE……………Sion Sono (Japan 2009)

“Having grown up in a devout Christian family, Yu (Takahiro Nishijima) has always been a well-behaved kid. After his mother dies, his priest father is seduced by a woman who breaks his heart, causing him to torment Yu by forcing him to confess his sins on a daily basis. Of course, being a fairly normal kid, Yu has no legitimate sins to confess. To appease his increasingly demanding father, Yu is determined to become a true sinner, eventually training to become an expert at sneak upskirt photography. Pornography being the one sin no priest can overlook, Yu gets the attention he s been so desperately seeking from his dad. One day while hanging out with his fellow sinner pals but dressed like Sasori as punishment for being on the losing end of a bet Yu meets a beautiful girl named Yoko (Hikari Mitsushima). Their first meeting is a glorious one, beginning with an all-out street brawl and ending with a kiss. There are only two problems: she thinks he s a woman and a devious cult leader named Aya (Sakura Ando) is carefully manipulating both of their lives.”

Little can be said of this film before it is seen. It is a singular, varied and unmitigatedly hilarious experience. And even after seeing it, words seem to fall radically short; though "revelatory" "ambitious" "epic" spring to mind first. LOVE EXPOSURE is a cinematic experience imbued with such vibrancy, complexity, spasticity, absurdity, honesty, and observance; that one cant help but feel revived of life afterward. Though writer / director Shion Sono (Suicide Club) builds so many ideas, threads, and tones, what resonates deepest is its feelings; heartfelt, ironically innocent (considering some of its rather coarse specific content), and utterly full! What stands tallest is Sono’s exploration of how externalized perceptions and unknowing misconceptions inform upon our individual processes of identity building. In a world that is now staggeringly connected, and where information is so ubiquitous it requires actual effort to be avoided, Sono’s curiosity seems most relevant.

Though lasting 4 hours, each frame is brimming with a vital energy that defies its duration, and is somehow able to remain startlingly intimate in defiance of its grandeur. As was said at the introduction of this film on its NY premier... "it’s the shortest 4 hour film I've ever seen." It goes by in a flash!

11. THE WAR (Ken Burns, 2007)

Though made for television and episodic in design, THE WAR is most certainly a film. Enormous in scope, thorough but captivating in its historical detail, an unfathomable feat of editing, garnering a fair and fantastic range of perspectives (unafraid to highlight the US’s own missteps and poor wartime practices, alongside the strides of progress and generosity).

THE WAR is historical yet radically personal. While a documentary of mostly archival materials, it feels more tactile, visceral, if not elemental, to me than even a film like Saving Private Ryan. Perhaps that is a quality earned through its combination of mediums, modes of storytelling, and the textural artistic processes involved in drawing a vast narrative with existing and new materials; the amalgam of which feels potently direct, and is given ample space to accumulate its affect across a 15hour feature. THE WAR also strikes me as a technical milestone for editing and sound design.


-Hayao Miyazaki.. all of them
-Wes Anderson… all of them
-Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola 2003)
-Inglorious Basterds (Tarantino 2009)
-Brick (Rian Johnson 2005)
-Atonement (Joe Wright 2007)
-21 Grams (Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu, 2003)
-Assassination of Jesse James (Andrew Dominik 2007)
-The Wind that Shakes the Barley (Ken Loach 2006),
-Lust Caution (Ang Lee, 2007),
-Autumn Ball (Veiko Ounpuu 2007, Estonia),
-A Bittersweet Life (Kim Ji-woon 2006, South Korea),
-3-Iron (Kim Ki-Duk, 2005 South Korea),
-The Dreamers (Bernardo Bertolucci, 2003),
-CHE (Steven Sodorbourg 2008, USA),


-BULLFIGHTER AND THE LADY (1951, Budd Boetticher) Director's Cut, restored to its full 124min length

-EROS PLUS MASSACRE (Yoshishige Yoshida, 1969) Shown in NY and Boston in 2008

-THE EXILES (1961, Kent MacKenzie) Rediscovered and restored within the past two years.