Friday, September 3, 2010

The Better of the 'Oughts

Nobody knows what to call these past ten years, either as a decade or a personal experience. All we can be sure of is that they were troubled. This column is not going to get in to that trouble; we all saw it. But nobody will know what to call the films that came from the oughts (as some prefer to say), either. From the short distance we are at, we can say some looked a little bit like a rehash of sixties cinema without the freshness or sincerity, while others remained trapped in the all-is-irony mode that filmmakers--at least in America--don't plan on escaping from any time soon. In the purely mainstream realm, technological advancements including more and more CGI animation and 3-D movies diluted the moving image instead of enhancing it. Equally distressing as it was sometimes marvelous was the continuation of static-take driven, music-absent, "contemplative" cinema. This kind of cinema could come off as a cheap reaction against the perceived junk of Hollywood cinema, thereby defeating its own integrity.
If this opinion on the past decade sounds bitter, that's because no decade is a geyser of fantastic cinema and the majority of films produced will always fall from our memories in due time. So as a way of showing the bright side of the decade-- the decade as a whole, why not-- here is a personal list of the memorable parts from five of its best films. At nine months in to 2010, the distance is good enough to make a foggy judgement.

1. Cache (2005): In what theater did audiences not leap out of their seats when the coldest, most nonchalant most shocking suicide scene in film history occurred? While Daniel Autiel paced back and forth, the dead body slumped against the wall with a streak of blood behind it, we were as directionless as he was. We waited for him to leave that room, knowing that he wouldn't, with the static camera that may or may not have hidden recording it all for us.
2. Tropical Malady (2004): This was a film where watching  the structure develop was more rewarding than any single image. But that structure-- a two part film, first a contemporary narrative, then a jungle folk story-- gave us its greatest distance with a shot on top of a sunny hill overlooking the Thai jungle. The hunter (the boy)stepped to the top and surveyed the scene, pausing for some moments as if finally wondering, like us, just what kind of story he belonged in.
3. There will be Blood (2007): The sight of something gushing uncontrollably has long been one of the most dizzying and perverse images a film can offer. It happened with blood in The Shining and it happened with oil in The Wages of Fear. Here, it happens literally with oil and figuratively with blood.
4. Werckmeister Harmonies (2000): At the dawn of the decade, before we thought anything cataclysmic might happen, Bela Tarr knew better.
5. In this World (2002): This is one of the better films of the past ten years, though most people wouldn't know it. Part of the reason is that its director, Michael Winterbottom, makes so many films, that he has lost us by now. This one--sentimental at just the right times, a quintessential journey film, a sly blend of fiction and documentary, and a truly worldly movie-- is one that he shouldn't have let us forget. Jamal shoving his way through a nighttime crowd of refugees, staged to middle eastern vocal music, is one of the better shots Herzog never captured.