You know the drill: This year was or wasn’t the best thing to happen to cinema since Thomas Alva Edison. The scent of revisionism was in the air: Last year’s Abercrombie & Fitch gay porn (Beau Travail) gave way to this year’s revolutionary feminist polemic (Baise-moi) and the drugs (Amelie, Moulin Rouge) were easier to come by though none had the haunting lull of yesterday’s Aronofsky speed. There were two bona fide masterpieces though no film out-pitched Yi Yi’s humanism. The provocations came threefold: mannered (Fat Girl), preposterously funny (Bully), and, well, just preposterous (L.I.E.). With Hollywood currently in propaganda mode, catch David Lynch’s assault on the dream factory if you can still find it in theaters, where it’s probably best enjoyed.
Waking Life (Richard Linklater)
While Richard Linklater’s latest, Waking Life, is a work of profound originality, how is the director to reconcile the fact that many will undoubtedly construe his animated metaphysic as a mere pot-stoked fantasia? More importantly, is it even possible that anyone other than stoners and fans of writer/director Caveh Zahedi (I Was Possessed By God) will even care? Shot on video, the film’s images were animated using computer software and a machine called the Wacom Tablet. The effect is hallucinatory as filmic space is turned into a plane-shifting realm of free-floating ontology; whether it’s a product of stoic contemplation or reefer madness, Linklater’s waking life becomes an elusive, one-way vehicle to God.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson)
In The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Peter Jackson emphasizes the territorial nature of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth by fascinatingly playing with lines of division. Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) and Sam Gangee (Sean Astin) flee from the Shire with the Great Ring in tow. Sam stops, noting that with his next step he’ll be at the furthest point he has ever been from the Shire. A scarecrow looms over the proceedings and Frodo guides Sam into the rocky terrain of the unfamiliar. Jackson understands the purity of home and the escalating terror that befalls the Fellowship the further it rides from the Shire. For fans there is the joy of recognition, that mushrooms will bring the Hobbit group that much closer to the Prancing Pony Inn. There is also the pervasive sound of trotting, the fear that every crossing path will be blocked by Black Riders and that every echo will carry with it the blood-curdling screech of the Rider’s horses.
Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly)
Sure the cartoons were great (He-Man, Thundercats) but Richard Kelly knows that some folks actually liked the bad music (you know, the kind besides the Cyndi Lauper/Eurythmics variety). Kelly probably wouldn’t trade his experiences for the world; who knows where Gen Xers would be had our libidos matured in the AIDS-ignorant late ’70s/early ’80s. Donnie Darko, though, is no relic. Sure, if Molly Ringwald were in it she’d be snorting coke rather than wearing pink but how valid is the film? Gyllenhaal’s Darko narrowly avoids death when a plane’s engine falls into his house and through his bedroom. This is Everytown, America, where girls who don glitter and dance to cheesy ’80s pop (think Stacy Q’s “Two Of Hearts” performed during your little sister’s school talent show) receive more applause than a loner girl’s introspective dance of the pained soul.
Fat Girl (Catherine Breillat)
Catherine Breillat’s fat girl, Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux), says what’s on her mind. Her sister, the gorgeous Elena (Roxane Mesquida), is a tart in the making. “You reek of loose morals,” Anaïs says to her. While Elena and her Italian boyfriend do the control/sex thing, Anaïs silently admonishes from afar. She is already familiar with the games boys will play to snag a girl’s love, however credible their performances may be. His is a good one, which means that Elena falls for it. Anaïs watches because she sympathizes with her sister’s naïveté while entertaining her own curious, sexually burgeoning self. She is witness and studied prognosticator. She knows the first time should never be about love, which makes the film’s infamous rhetorical shift play out simultaneously as a ghoulish wish fulfillment and apt consummation ritual.
Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff)
Terry Zwigoff successfully transitions Ghost World from graphic novel to film, maintaining Daniel Clowes’s singular obsession with small-town adolescent loneliness and the fear associated with adult responsibility. Enid (Thora Birch) is a woman warrior, contemptible but nonetheless sympathetic. She and her best friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) believe themselves to be victims to a society that champions cultural homogenization via commercialism. Thus Enid and Rebecca fight to stay sane by reacting to the world around them. Their outré taste in clothing and affinity for pranks are just some of the ways they try to make their lives more interesting. The “ghost world” in question is a nameless town inundated by mini-malls, coffee shops, movie theaters and people desperately and hopelessly trying to get rid of yesterday’s knick-knacks. Sad but true-and funny to boot.
Little Otik (Jan Svankmajer)
In Little Otik, a town seemingly toys with a middle-class couple incapable of conceiving: Jan (Karel Horák) is judged by the cardboard cut-out of a pregnant woman; the streets are filled with women pushing baby carriages; and a grocer sells a newborn to an expectant mother after being pulled from a vat of water, wrapped in newspaper and placed into a shopping bag. Jan Svankmajer’s use of repetition evokes Jan’s burgeoning madness. He stares out the window of a gynecologist’s office only to see his doppelganger waiting to purchase a child. Infertility madness erupts during Jan’s weekend trip to the country when he confuses a tree stump for a baby boy. Just when he learns to accept little Otik into the family, the wooden child develops a deadly appetite that challenges the love of his parents. Svankmajer offers us the scariest, funniest satire this side of The Simpsons.
The Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr)
In Béla Tarr’s surreal epic Werkmeister Harmonies, a nameless European town becomes the mournful center of a ceaseless cosmic struggle. Tarr’s precise yet effortless command for the long take is so transcendent it suggests the presence of God. Every stoppage point within each shot becomes a heavenly composite of the film’s collective whole. Gabor Medvigy’s camera delicately traverses Tarr’s mise-en-scène, collecting light and shadow like a farm hand collecting grain from the countryside. Janos Valushka (Lars Rudolph) steps into a local bar and perpetuates an abstract game of order with the bar’s pawn-like patrons: The drunken men circle somberly around each other, aping the movement of the Earth and Moon around the Sun. Drowned by an impenetrable yet hopeful darkness, this silent entity of a film is the purgatory between progress and complete an utter self-annihilation.
The Royal Tennenbaums (Wes Anderson)
Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums unfolds like a regal fairy tale. A king has been thrust from his makeshift home and hopes to claw his way back into the family kingdom. Anderson’s respect for individualism carefully isolates one Tenenbaum from the other; all are colorful and singular composites of a remarkable higher order, dignified by the director’s stunning attention to detail (like the family’s weather-beaten banner that waves gently atop their townhouse). Royal Tenenbaums is a film of rare beauty, its humanity alive with joy and crippling sadness. It earns its laughter because Anderson can make an otherwise ancient cliché crackle as if it were new. Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) may be tactless but his love for his family is absolute; he’s the distant father who’ll conspire for your love but earns it with a simple kiss on the cheek, “Thank you my sweet boy.” At its simplest, Anderson’s masterpiece can be seen as a paean to second chances.
In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai)
In the Mood for Love is Wong Kar-wai’s ravishing evocation of a unconsummated romantic relationship put through an emotional and cultural ringer, a retread of sorts through Happy Together territory, this time without the kinetic patchwork of jarring film stocks that have become Wong trademarks since Chungking Express. Chow Mo-Wan (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) move in next-door to each other in the same apartment building. He’s a journalist who dreams of publishing martial-arts novels. She’s a secretary at a shipping company. They choose to remain loyal to their spouses and through Wong’s glorious masterstrokes, they come to resemble butterflies caught in a rainbow-tinted industrial web. Wong’s use of the interior space is impeccable, recalling Max Ophüls’s obsession with background planes as prisons. Desire is fabulously displaced into the film’s mise-en-scène. Li-zhen must descend a staircase on her way to the local market. Mo-Wan frequently passes the woman on his way up the stairs. This constant ascension and descension looks like performance art but feels like sex.
Mulholland Drive (David Lynch)
David Lynch is a selfish director, unapologetic and uncompromising. He makes the spectator work. Yes, admittedly, it took a second look to fully sort out and appreciate all of Mulholland Drive’s fabulous pieces. It’s all there, perfectly structured as a two-hour dream followed by a waking-life denouement. Betty is Diane and Rita is Camilla. Diane is the struggling actress who pays top dollar for the little black book that will bring her that much closer to becoming our generation’s answer to Rita Hayworth, Hollywood’s It Girl, the one that snags all the parts in town. Diane is victimized by a Tinsletown she can only own in dreams; her Camilla becomes the full-bosomed “Rita” that welcomes love without regret. Not only does Mulholland Drive make The Player’s Hollywood blows seem glib by comparison, it boasts one of the most pained and beautiful love scenes in the history of cinema. Diane’s dream Hollywood is a tawdrier and more god-like version of the real thing; she may lie crippled below Camilla’s star but the messianic Betty is Hollywood incarnate. The film’s themes (jealously, desperation, muted desire) are hauntingly evoked via a meta narrative that showcases Lynch’s deft understanding for the rhythm of dreams. The film takes a heartbreaking swan dive from the safety of dreams to a reality where death becomes an ironic wish fulfillment. In the end, Betty’s waking life becomes difficult to distinguish from her imagined world not to mention her own death. Either way, someone please tell Coco that Lynch’s masterpiece is anything but horse puckey.