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The 100 Best Singles of the 1980s

Do you know why VH1 produced more installments of I Love the ‘80s than any other decade? Because there was simply more to love.

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The 100 Best Singles of the 1980s
Photo: Warner Bros. Records

Do you know why VH1 produced more installments of I Love the ‘80s than any other decade? Because there was simply more to love. Many would argue that other recent decades surpassed the ‘80s for diversity of musical expression, for production innovations, for ebullience and personality, for political honesty. In fact, by nearly every individual measure, the ‘80s probably take a backseat to some other era. So why do we still deify those 10 years? Probably because the decade’s best songs offered some of pop history’s finest simple pleasures, which is why you won’t often find humorless rockists making arguments on its behalf like they do for the ‘60s, ‘70s, or even the ‘90s. Sure, there were plenty of tunes that cut deep into the blackest heart of the Reagan era, but some of the most prominent came in such a deceptively sunny disguise (the Boss’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” for example) that they were mistaken to be part of the status quo. In the ‘80s, Public Enemy was the outlier and flourished because of it. Michael Jackson was showing signs of paranoia, but still mostly wanted to rock with you. Madonna was mostly espousing the joy of taking a “Holiday,” and even when she embraced a more militant attitude (“Express Yourself”), she was still arguing on behalf of embracing the pleasure principle. And that’s the way we like it. In so many other arenas, we’re still paying for the mistakes of the ‘80s. But when it comes to the decade’s music, we feel no compelling reason to feel bad about feeling good. Eric Henderson


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NHywdqH3F6Y

100. David Bowie, “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)”

For the title track and third single from what’s widely considered to be David Bowie’s last truly great album, the singer’s delivery is closer to that of a low-budget horror movie’s demented narrator than the dynamic rock showman that shot to megastardom in the ‘70s. Bowie spins a yarn of a young girl falling victim to her own fears and insecurities in his tried-and-tested “mockney” accent, and heightens the air of sheer menace further still with a violent percussion section and the sound of dogs barking. Robert Fripp’s guitar work here is tremendous too, an exemplary exercise in frenzied crosspicking that adds urgency and suspense to Bowie’s deranged psycho-thriller narrative. Huw Jones


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AIOAlaACuv4

99. Tracy Chapman, “Fast Car”

As hopeless and heartbreaking as any song that’s ever topped the pop charts, Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” couches its social commentary in deeply personal revelations and confessions. As the city lights flash by Chapman’s narrator and the song’s arrangement gathers momentum, there’s a palpable desperation in the way she sings, “And I had the feeling I could be someone” Because in that moment, having tried and failed to escape the poverty she was born into, she’s not expressing a sense of optimism that her station in life will improve, but conceding that she was foolish to have ever thought it could. Jonathan Keefe


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9vQaVIoEjOM

98. Public Enemy, “Don’t Believe the Hype”

“Don’t Believe the Hype” is an invitation to question everything, up to and including Public Enemy’s then-growing reputation. It’s the kind of sneakily self-congratulatory gesture that plays as self-deprecation while also being a bit boastful, affirming that there is indeed some hype that needs to be ignored in order to appreciate the group’s second album. Whatever the meaning, the track is indicative of the always probing, never accepting nature of the Chuck D-helmed outfit, his harshly forceful rhymes echoed by the cornucopia of grating sound effects sourced by the ever-resourceful Bomb Squad. Jesse Cataldo


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RJcCzWcgPsY

97. The Replacements, “I Will Dare”

“I Will Dare” marks the most accessible and radio-friendly moment for a rowdy Minneapolis four piece that, with a reputation for notoriously wayward live shows and a staunch belief in the punk ethos, was to this point always a million miles away from what one would consider accessible or radio-friendly. Upon its release in 1984, Paul Westerberg spoke of how the band was tired of playing “that noisy, fake hardcore rock,” and there can be no disputing that “I Will Dare” is all the better for reigning in the anarchy and chaos that underpinned their previous work. It’s about as close to pop music as the band could get, flaunting a sweet mandolin arrangement and a typically jangly guitar solo from R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, and perhaps it’s no coincidence that this is their best single by some stretch. Jones


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1XV5_WagxZg

96. Chaka Khan, “I Feel for You”

What I previously wrote about “one of the most intoxicating singles in pop history,” a state-of-the-art example of sampling craft, still sums it up. “’I Feel for You’ had enough blockbuster tricks to bury any lesser talent: ultra-hip vocal cutting techniques, a blazing Stevie Wonder harmonica solo that damn near tops anything on his own records, no less than four synth-keyboard players, and a scintillating, shifting beat from Arif Mardin” For someone who allegedly disliked the memorable hip-hop riffing Grandmaster Melle Mel bookended the track with, Chaka interacted beautifully, making this one of the most compelling crossover tracks ever. Henderson


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cY_Ee01_0Ss

95. Extra T’s, “E.T. Boogie”

Even if he really did send a cabal of Hazmat-wearing lawyers after Extra T’s for cribbing lines from his 1982 blockbuster E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, it’s easy to imagine Steven Spielberg bopping this head to the dance-funk delirium of this underground classic. Not exactly the enviro-friendly, “fax orgy”-wanting otherworldly being of Deee-Lite’s imagination, this alien hero hungers only for home. And that’s all right. Such single-mindedness, matched by the “held-together-by-paperclips 808 beats,” per our own Eric Henderson, is always rewarded. The bassline is all cherry-on-top rush, a call to arms for people who live, Busta Rhymes would say, for movin’ around. Ed Gonzalez


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sFvENQBc-F8

94. Michael Jackson, “Smooth Criminal”

For such an apparently gentle soul, Michael Jackson repeatedly displayed his dark side with songs like “Beat It,” “Thriller,” “Bad,” and “Smooth Criminal” This is, after all, the same guy who once sang about his close friendship with a telepathic rat. Accompanied by a killer synth bassline, staccato beats, and a frenzied vocal performance from Jacko himself, “Smooth Criminal” rather unambiguously tells the heartwarming story of a home invader who chases a woman named Annie underneath a table and into her bedroom, where he ostensibly bludgeons her to death, leaving “bloodstains on the carpet” Sal Cinquemani


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sV7w5TaYjRA

93. Kate Bush, “The Big Sky”

Not many people could make a song about watching clouds into an epic rumination on living life to the fullest. But that conflation of silly juvenilia and introspective weight is what Kate Bush does best, and “The Big Sky” consequently grows into its own thriving world of weird skyborne shapes, full of wacky asides, cascading handclaps, odd voice inflections, and guitar solos. It testifies to the ephemeral nature of all things while also celebrating the teeming abundance of the world, a quality shared with Bush’s music, which is always spilling over with passion and ideas. Cataldo


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yG5e1oaen-M

92. Leonard Cohen, “Everybody Knows”

It may not be Leonard Cohen’s most famous song (a fact that grows more regrettable with every ponderous, overwrought new version of “Hallelujah”), but “Everybody Knows” is the song of Cohen’s that best captures both his knack for writing a pop hook and his pitch-black sense of humor. But it’s the combination of his deep baritone voice and deadpan performance that makes “Everybody Knows” so funny and so absurd: Cohen sounds nothing if not inconvenienced as he delivers a scolding lecture with the bleak message that “everybody knows that the good guys lost” Keefe


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ocQeP1UOwss

91. Violent Femmes, “Blister in the Sun”

It’s a testament to Gordon Gano’s affable everyman charm that the truth as to whether “Blister in the Sun” is indeed an open ode to masturbation or whether it’s a blithe summary of heroin withdrawal is as irrelevant as it is unclear. It’s a fantastic single, even though it took a spot on the Grosse Point Blank soundtrack almost 15 years later for mainstream consciousness to actually take notice of this stellar bout of unplugged folk-punk. Now, “Blister in the Sun” is instantly recognizable from its introduction alone, where balmy lo-fi acoustic guitar meets hand-me-down snare drums and a bassline that swaggers and struts rather than merely walks. Jones


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yi8paEMdVgU

90. Connie Case, “Get Down”

This unfortunately un-famous call to the dance floor, a grandiose hybrid of house and acid influences, suggests the theme to the greatest movie never made: a space-age Blaxploitation film starring Pam Grier. In it, she stray-cat struts down sidewalks to fat-as-her-ass beats that spit, dribble, and fall around her like molasses, ducking behind a car to sex up some Puerto Rican honey for a spell before resuming her mosey-on-down-the-road through sheets of rain that shatter into crystals as they hit the ground. Her name is Connie Case, and the insanely domineering bassline that soundtracks her every want is her promise: to treat you right, hold you tight, and make you get down. Gonzalez


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9SOryJvTAGs

89. The B-52’s, “Love Shack”

The retro-tinged celebration that runs throughout “Love Shack” is both a refuge and renaissance: a bright, blinking abode that served as a last party stop before the long, dark highway of ‘90s grunge, and, perhaps more importantly, the mainstream rebirth of the B-52’s, who, by 1989, had fallen into obscurity. The group is at the top of their beehive-primping game here, celebrating wonderfully oddball imagery with a bevy of clean Stratocasters, brassy horns, and Fred Schneider’s jerky-voiced interludes. True to their roles as hosts, the B-52’s remain the ecstatic drivers of this rainbow-hued vehicle; the rest of us are just along for the sparkly, neon ride. Kevin Liedel


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eZqZschnrxM

88. N.W.A., “Straight Outta Compton”

While it always had a conscience, hip-hop grew increasingly political as the end of the ‘80s drew near, its subject matter gradually expanding to cover the ills of urban existence. “Straight Outta Compton” tapped into the frustrations and anxieties of poverty-stricken L.A. neighborhoods, and remains a startlingly cutthroat look at the bleak, Darwinian realities of a gang-addled city. Apart from the coldblooded warnings of Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and MC Ren (with references to Charles Manson, no less), the production itself—including those humming, monotonous samples and bristling beats that chop at every verse—drives home the inevitability of these youth’s callous plight. Liedel


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=phOW-CZJWT0

87. Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock, “It Takes Two”

It’s not that “It Takes Two” was either the single best or the single most influential of all the late-‘80s songs that cross-pollinated the history-minded elements of hip-hop’s first dynasty (that “Hoo! Yeah!” from Lyn Collins’s “Think,” the use of which quickly became a prerequisite for all hip-house jams) with the futurism and metallurgy of early techno and the juicy thwomp of house. That it qualified so damned highly on both the “best” and the “most influential” lists, though, has ensured it a permanent place in the canon. As fusty as that position makes “It Takes Two” sound to the uninitiated, most unassailable fixtures should “rock right now” this hard. Henderson


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OJWJE0x7T4Q

86. Peter Gabriel, “Sledgehammer”

One of those songs that’s been partially overshadowed by its inventive music video, “Sledgehammer” highlighted the possibilities of a new visual medium while also signaling the end of Peter Gabriel’s most creative period. Coming nine years after his exit from Genesis, the song sounds more mainstream than much of his earlier work, with its processed trumpet sample and trilling keyboard line, a fact that doesn’t suggest any hewing to convention as much as the modern landscape having caught up with his innovations. The video hews to the track’s theme of mutability, but by this point Gabriel’s skill for transformation was waning, a fact that makes this last shot even more compelling. Cataldo


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q-gu1KETjVY

85. Janet Jackson, “The Pleasure Principle”

The penultimate single from Janet Jackson’s Control was the lowest-charting to that point, but has enjoyed arguably the longest shelf life. And its contradictory message to be aware of how pleasure can cloud your judgment—this against some of the hardest skittering beats in her back catalogue—is still converting people today, like me. A few years back, I protested the emerging consensus that “The Pleasure Principle” should be one of the songs we included on our 100 Greatest Dance Songs list. “I won’t be happy with [‘The Pleasure Principle’] as the song sounds like someone vomiting into my mouth and telling me I’m a fun-hatah for spitting it out,” I emailed. Which only goes to show the dangers of giving into the short-term pleasure of snap judgments. Henderson


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TxrwImCJCqk

84. The Bangles, “Hazy Shade of Winter”

The Bangles didn’t just remove the indefinite article from the title of Simon & Garfunkel’s “A Hazy Shade of Winter” (no surprise, since they often remove the article from their own name), but they excised a reference to drinking vodka, added a dreamy, harmony-rich intro that, in many ways, is even more S&G than the original, and transformed the rest of the track into a rollicking tribute to each band member’s chops on their respective instrument (including a brief solo vocal turn by Susanna Hoffs). Aside from those minor details, though, the Bangles’ rendition of the folk duo’s 1966 hit, produced by Rick Rubin for the Less Than Zero soundtrack, is remarkably faithful. Cinquemani


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGVZOLV9SPo

83. Pat Benatar, “Love Is a Battlefield”

Pat Benatar was pushing 30 when she recorded “Love Is a Battlefield,” a song that speaks to the pangs and virtues of youth. But she and her team of writers and producers still managed to capture the heightened melodrama that accompanies young heartache. Benatar comes roaring out of the gate, taking to the frontline of the metaphorical battlefield on behalf of an entire generation, proclaiming their unity during the spoken introduction and then employing her classically trained pipes to declare their collective strength and obstinacy. While the song might seem cheesy or dated nearly three decades later, Benatar sells it like ice on a hot day. Cinquemani


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j_QLzthSkfM

82. Devo, “Whip It”

Widely misinterpreted at the time of its release as an ode to masturbation or an anthem for BDSM, Devo’s “Whip It” isn’t about anything more subversive than the idea of bettering oneself through dedicated effort. While that sentiment may have been at odds with the trickle-down politics of the day, its fundamental optimism goes a long way toward explaining how one of the band’s founding members, Mark Mothersbaugh, has gone on to have a lucrative career in children’s entertainment: Yo! Gabba Gabba!, it turns out, is far more hospitable to a genuinely oddball POV than the pop charts are. Keefe


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=25waL5oTWDI

81. Gang of Four, “Outside the Trains Don’t Run on Time”

Blending lock-step militarism with unruly, seditious noise, Gang of Four creates an ordered system infected with a pronounced undercurrent of chaos. To wit, the bassline and drumbeat on “Outside the Trains Don’t Run on Time” exist in one sphere: martial but placid, with every note in its right place. The guitar work, which is layered on top with the consistency of messily sprayed icing, is a distortion-heavy tangle of jagged transitions and meandering dead ends. The resulting dichotomy suggests the volatility of totalitarianism, evoking the larger image of a world caught between two dissimilar styles of rule. Cataldo

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Interview: Mary Kay Place on the Emotional Journey of Kent Jones’s Diane

The actress speaks at length about the little pieces of herself that she sees in her character.

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Mary Kay Place
Photo: IFC Films

Diane, the eponymous character of film critic, programmer, and documentarian
Kent Jones’s narrative directorial debut, provides Mary Kay Place with a rare leading role that the character actress inhabits with customary nuance. Diane is a woman grappling with countless burdens, none bigger than her struggle to bridge the gap between herself and her son, Brian (Jake Lacy), who’s battling addiction. Place is in every scene of the film, and she’s mesmerizing in each one, for showing how Diane’s routines, from volunteering at a soup kitchen to caring for a dying cousin, takes some kind of toll on her mind.

Place has delivered many memorable performances throughout her long career, most notably in The Big Chill and Manny & Lo. She became reliable for playing folksy, no-nonsense women—often mothers—who’re predisposed to putting others first and leading from the heart. Maybe that’s why Diane felt like a perfect fit for the actress. Throughout Jones’s film, Diane drops by houses and hospital rooms, looking to stay “only but for a minute.” But her business masks a deeper pain and loneliness, and the film allows Kay to bring to the surface certain rhythms that she hasn’t often been allowed to channel in her previous work.

In a recent conversation with Place about Diane, the actress spoke to me at length about the little pieces of herself that she sees in her character, how she expresses her own anger, and why she considers herself a “kitchen dancer.”

Diane is selfless, lonely, ashamed, tough. Do you see yourself in her?

Yes, because she lives in a small community, and my parents came from small towns in Texas, and because I went to these towns my whole life to visit my grandparents with my family. The casserole exchange, and the experiences that take place in small communities—they resonated with me. Many of us in our families have addiction issues; we can all relate to that aspect of Diane. And many of us have said things we regret or feel ashamed about and hold on to, though maybe not for as long as Diane does. As members of her family pass away, that family loss is an initiation into a new dimension of your life. I could relate to that as well. She takes a turn into a deeper exploration of her own needs and wants because she has time to reflect.

Diane’s well-meaning is an attempt to compensate for her failures. Why do you think Diane is the way she is, so hard on herself?

Because some people just are. She’s a sensitive person. She busies herself with lists to distract her from thinking about the things she carries around as a burden. But as the film moves on, she has more time for reflection and goes through a transformation in small, tiny ways.

Much of your performance as Diane is internal. Can you describe your process in playing those moments?

It flowed naturally because of the script. There was an inner dialogue going on and that was reflected on my face. I was aware of subtext. Even though it wasn’t written, my imagination found the rhythm and flow that occurred. Once you get into shooting, being in every scene helped that development. There was an inner and outer dialogue. We go through this whole time period and as she has more time alone and once her son gets sober—that’s a huge weight off her shoulders—she doesn’t know what to do with herself.

Diane’s relationship with her son is interesting. He lies to her, he bullies her, and at times she stands up to him. She’s no-nonsense in dealing with him. I’m curious to know your personal thoughts about this dynamic of their relationship?

She’s definitely codependent and enabling her son by doing his laundry. She doesn’t know how to let go. Maybe she’s never been to an Al-Anon meeting—or has and rejected it. So, they have this dynamic, and they feed off each other. They’re hooked in. She’s not able to break free of it.

How do you personally cope with the ups and downs of life?

Well, I do centering prayer, and mindful meditation, exercise. I think the prayer and meditation have always been important coping mechanisms.

There’s a scene in a bar where Diane goes drinking, puts on the jukebox and dances. It made me remember your dancing in the kitchen to “Handyman” in Smooth Talk.

I’m a big kitchen dancer—with other people or by myself. I have all kinds of playlists and I love to dance. I really wanted to do that bar scene. I picked the song—Leon Russell’s “Out in the Woods”—because it’s fun to dance to, and the lyrics were appropriate for Diane. Kent was game for that. It showed another side of Diane that we hadn’t seen. It was from when she was at a simpler time in her life and didn’t have shameful thoughts and was just out having fun.

We see what makes Diane come undone. So I guess I’m also curious to know what makes you lose your temper or patience?

I come from a family that doesn’t hold things in. We let the freak flag fly and then it’s totally over and done with. Explosions and then we’re through! I lose patience with people being oblivious to the feeling of others, and I have no tolerance for meanness. None. I might lash out, depend on the circumstances—and I can if called upon—but I generally don’t.

Diane appears to be a creature of habit, living a life that consists of routine. Are you in that mold, or more peripatetic or free-spirited?

I’m “both/and” instead of “either/or.” I get real orderly and then I get real spontaneous and have to start all over again. Diane’s driving connects the scenes and shows that monotony that she experiences. Oh my God, we’re back in that car again driving to someone’s house! It’s not a walking community. And it’s a different rhythm driving on country roads than in L.A.

We also see how patient Diane can be. Where do you think she gets that quality, and do you share it?

Sometimes she’s not patient. I strive to be more patient. I can be patient and sometimes I can be very impatient. Once again, it’s a “both/and” kind of thing.

Your career has been as an in-demand character actress. This is a rare leading role for you. Watching Diane, I kept thinking: “It’s long overdue that you were the star!”

Thank you for saying it’s long overdue. I enjoy every minute of it, but I love ensemble work. It’s interesting to find a rhythm and exchange words and movement with other people. It’s fun. It’s been interesting to have this leading part, but I love the other work as well.

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Interview: Jia Zhang-ke on Ash Is Purest White and the Evolution of China

Jia discusses what he likes about digital video and how Zhao Tao helped bring her role to life.

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Jia Zhang-ke
Photo: Cohen Media Group

Unshowy yet unshakably self-assured, sincere but with glimpses of a sly sense of humor, and unhesitatingly frank even about touchy topics like the Chinese government’s censorship of his work, Jia Zhang-ke comes off in person just as a fan of his films might expect. Ever since his 1997 feature debut, The Pickpocket, and 2000’s Platform, in which young people struggle to adapt to China’s increasing Westernization, Jia has been creating a kind of unofficial history of his homeland, quietly defying his government’s determination to erase its tracks as it barrels along by doing things like rewiring the economy, rewriting the social contract, and depopulating whole cities and erecting new ones in a matter of months.

Jia’s films operate in metaphorical deep focus, surfacing the ways that these sweeping societal changes affect individual lives and relationships by zeroing in on sensitively detailed portrayals of two lovers, or of a group or pair of friends, while just as clearly portraying the socioeconomic backdrops to their stories. And often at the center of his films is Zhao Tao, his wife and longtime muse. In Jia’s latest, Ash Is Purest White, Zhao reprises the role she played in 2002’s Unknown Pleasures: Qiao Qiao, a strong-willed woman from Jia’s hometown of Fenyang, this time over a span of 17 years that starts when she’s the young lover of a gangster and ends with her in charge of the gambling den he once ran.

In a conversation before Ash Is Purest White’s debut at the New York Film Festival, Jia explained what he likes about digital video, how Zhao Tao helped bring her role to life, and how he deals with his government’s suppression of his work.

The music in your films is always an important part of the story. Can you talk about how you picked the songs for this one, starting with “Y.M.C.A.”?

Since I wanted to set the story starting in 2001, I wanted to find a piece of music that can trigger that particular era very authentically. And back in the day, in 2001, the younger generation, they didn’t have a lot of sources of entertainment. They might have had a disco club and karaoke, and that was about it. Two songs very popular at that time were “Y.M.C.A.” and “Go West” [the Pet Shop Boys song that was a motif in Jia’s Mountains May Depart].

The reason that we liked “Y.M.C.A.” was not because we understood the lyrics or understood who sang them or who was involved in the production. We had no idea what they were singing about. But we did enjoy the rhythm, the melody, and the beat, which is matching the heartbeat of the young people. It really got you going and brought up the energy of the room.

Another song that is particularly important in the film—you hear it again and again—is “Drunk for Life” by Sally Yeh, a Cantonese pop singer. This is a song I listened to when I was in junior high. At the time, young people tended to hang out in the video arcade, and this was one of the songs heard there. It was also a theme song for John Woo’s The Killer. That film, in the triad genre, is very similar to the John Woo motif that I want to evoke in this film.

The third song in this film is “How Much Love Can Be Repeated?” This sequence was actually shot 12 years ago in Three Gorges, when I made Still Life. I think the reason why I wanted to use it was that it could create this interesting contrast between what was happening on stage and Zhao’s character off stage, when you see her reaction watching this performance. Mind you, the on-stage part was shot 12 years ago, but Zhao’s part was shot last year. Hopefully, you cannot tell that these two footages were from two different times and spaces.

Was any of the other Three Gorges footage shot for Still Life, or shot when you were making that film? I know you shot a lot of documentary footage there at the time.

Only that particular clip was shot 12 years ago. The rest, we went back to the same location and tried to capture what we did in Still Life. But, unlike in other parts of the film, where we tend to use digital video, for the Three Gorges part we use film stock. That’s why it gives you a sense of nostalgia, evoking what happened in the past.

You’ve worked in digital video for a long time, partly because it allowed you to bypass processing labs, which would not have developed your films because they weren’t government-approved. Digital video also made it much easier for your films to be copied and disseminated in China when they weren’t being played in theaters. Are there also things that you prefer artistically about using digital video, especially now that it can do so much more than it could early on?

Starting in 2001, using DV to shoot Unknown Pleasures, I didn’t think of it just for practical purposes. DV as a medium has its own aesthetics that I can really explore and develop. Using DV you can create a close proximity between the camera and the actors and actresses, a kind of intimacy that cannot be done through the traditional camera.

The other thing is, things that happen unexpectedly can be easily captured with DV cameras. With cameras that use film stock, things are usually highly scripted in a contained, particular environment. With DV you tend to have a lot of spontaneity and a lot of impromptu happenstances that can be easily captured.

It’s so important for people to share their stories and learn from history. To me, one of the most important forms of disruption in China since Mao is the way people have been barred from telling their stories, or made to alter what they say to fit some official narrative. So you’re performing an important service by writing history with your films, recording the story of the present and the recent past for the people of tomorrow.

I think that’s also why I rely a lot on DV. I joke that only the pace of the evolution of DV equipment can keep up with the pace of the development of China. For me, this film is very much about how, in this time span of 17 years, human connections and human emotions—the interpersonal relationships between people—evolves and changes as a result of all that. On the surface, you can see very clearly the changes pre-internet era and post-internet era, [things like how] in the past you had slow trains and now you have high-speed trains. But that is on the surface level. What I’m interested in exploring is what happened in terms of the inner world of those people in this particular historical context, how their relationships evolved or dissolved and the reasons for the dissolutions and the evolutions of their relationships.

You’ve said you like working with your wife partly because she becomes a kind of second author of your screenplays, adding detail to what you have written. Can you give an example of what she brought to this movie?

When she was in the cabin of the boat and the lady in black [a cabinmate] came in, she just, almost as a kneejerk reaction, stood up, suddenly and immediately. She was trying to capture what it would be like for someone who has been in prison for five years, how she would have reacted to a security guard entering the jail cell and how she would react the same way when this lady in black entered her cabin.

I see her training as a dancer a lot in the physicality of her acting.

Yes. Another example would be the water bottle in this film. It was used to evoke this same character in Still Life, and she carried that water bottle there too. It makes sense because of the weather; it was very hot so she would need to drink. But the water bottle also came in handy to enhance the mood I was trying to create. Zhao Tao took this on and really went for it. She used it as a weapon, she used it as a way to stop the door from closing,

And to avoid holding hands with the man she met on the train.

Exactly. She was using this bottle as a kind of third character in the film, thinking about how this can be expanded and explored.

Your work has faced such strong resistance from the Chinese government. What is the government’s response to your films these days, and how does that affect how you work or how your films are seen?

I make films based on my own ecology, my own tempo and rhythm. I don’t really think too much about whether or not the film can be shown in China. Of course, I would love if my film could be shown in China, but that’s not the only reason why I make films. The most important thing for me is to understand that that’s not the end goal, so I don’t need to somehow sacrifice and change the way I make films in order to be shown in China.

I will make the film I want to make, and if it can be shown in China, great. If not, so be it. That’s the way I interact with this particular censorship system. But I have to say that the situation has improved in terms of the communication channels. Those have opened up a lot more, so after I finish the film, I will do my best as a director to communicate to the censor bureau why this film should be shown in China. That I am willing to do. But I will not compromise the quality or any subject matter.

Translation by Vincent Cheng

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Every Cannes Palme d’Or Winner of the 2000s Ranked

There’s a certain formula that often defines the recipients of Cannes’s most prestigious prize.

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Every Cannes Palme d’Or Winner of the 2000s Ranked
Photo: Wild Bunch

There’s a certain formula that often defines the recipients of the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious top prize, the Palme d’Or. These films, in recent years especially, tend to have a sense of importance about them (Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11), frequently due to their sociopolitical awareness of the world (Laurent Cantet’s The Class), or of specific societal ills (Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days). Very occasionally, the Palme d’Or goes to a bold, experimental, and divisive vision from a well-liked auteur (Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), but more often it’s awarded to a film in the lineup that the most people on the Cannes jury can probably agree is good (Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake). And in less than three months, we’ll see if Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s jury will follow any sort of predictable formula when it announces its winners.

You’ll find us on the Croisette this May, covering most of the titles in Cannes’s competition slate. Until then, enjoy our ranking of the Palme d’Or winner from the 2000s. Sam C. Mac

Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on May 1, 2018.


The Son’s Room

19. The Son’s Room (2001)

Halfway through The Son’s Room, director Nanni Moretti shifts the rhetoric of his narrative away from an exaggerated view of happy domesticity and into a realm of weepy melodrama. Psychiatrist Giovanni (Moretti) is a perfect father and husband: he helps his daughter with her Latin homework (perducto means “without hardship you will be guided”—wink, wink); allows her boyfriend to exalt grass (when high, the boy says he’s “looking at the universe”); and initiates group lip-synching during the family’s car trips. Nicola Piovani’s score grotesquely heightens the joy behind every smile, meaning disaster is inevitable. As Moretti delves deeper into Giovanni’s work, focus is shifted away from the family arena. Though the film blooms when Paola (Laura Morante) and the family seek deliverance from their pain by connecting with a girl their deceased son, Andrea (Giuseppe Sanfelice), met at summer camp, Paola remains a cipher throughout. Cue Brian Eno’s “By This River,” which blares from a car radio as the family stands near the sea that killed their Andrea: “Here we are stuck by this river/You and I underneath a sky/That’s ever falling down, down, down.” In this one stoic moment, not only does the family seemingly escape their grief but also the Rob Reiner soap opera Moretti trapped them in. Ed Gonzalez


Fahrenheit 911

18. Fahrenheit 911 (2004)

A mediocre director but a master PR man, Michael Moore is the father of the Happy Meal documentary: big fonts, quick-fire montages, celebrity cameos, causing elaborate scenes. Fahrenheit 9/11 is no less an attention-grabbing stunt than his Bowling for Columbine, but what a scene it is. At the time of its release, Moore’s compilation of the Bush I administration’s bamboozling of the American public in the wake of 9/11. More than 10 years after its release, though, what lingers most about the film is Moore’s self-aggrandizement and forced sanctimoniousness (he rah-rahs from the sidelines when an interviewee says something he agrees with, and you sometimes get a sense that he wouldn’t call a dying man an ambulance if it meant getting the money shot of the guy croaking). At least it’s some kind of mercy that he spends very little time on screen. Gonzalez


Amour

17. Amour (2012)

There’s a deceptiveness lurking deep within Amour, an insincerity that colors the drama, recasting it as a ploy. Whereas across earlier films Michael Haneke’s predilection for deceit served a high-minded, if still somewhat suspect, intellectual purpose (an interrogation of privilege and meaning in Caché, the deconstruction of genre in both versions of Funny Games, and so on), here his disingenuous approach is not only unwarranted, but is actually at odds with the tone and tenor of the drama. This suggests two possibilities: Either Haneke has attempted to shear his sensibility of trickery and failed to do so convincingly, or he has made an experiment in manipulation and feigned empathy so exacting and oblique that nobody has understood its real purpose (I wouldn’t put the latter past him). Either way, Amour intends to dupe us, to feed on our own pain and suffering. Moved to tears or scared to death, we’d all lose our dignity in the end. Calum Marsh


I, Daniel Blake

16. I, Daniel Blake (2016)

English stand-up comedian Dave Johns brings the sort of spontaneous energy to his eponymous character that’s consistently made Loach’s films worth keeping up with. But Blake’s storyline veers from its emotionally grounded setup and into grandstanding displays like the Michael Moore-worthy stunt from which I, Daniel Blake takes its title. Both principal actors have a strong enough sense of their characters, even as they’re pulled into increasingly harrowing places, to make the film a more successful one than Loach’s last few, but it’s still schematic and predictable, and it aggressively stacks the deck against Blake and Kattie (Hayley Squires) in a way that makes it more effective as social activism, and less so as drama. The Loach of two or three decades ago, who made intimate, naturalistic films about the working class, like 1969’s Kes and 1994’s Ladybird Ladybird, is distinctly different from the Loach of today—and the soapbox-prone I, Daniel Blake reaffirms how unlikely it is for that to change. Mac


The Class

15. The Class (2008)

When a plot finally emerges, it’s all about the quandaries of privileging principle (and principal) or empiricism, duty or personal preference, questions that have been implicit all along, even in kids’ protests that they’re always being picked on or favored. As a clever late twist suggests, the interactions themselves are almost all riffs on Socratic debates—usually, the teacher seems to be asking students to verify their claims so he can give himself time to rebut—and as director Laurent Cantet said at The Class’s New York Film Festival press conference, the school’s a place “where democracy is at stake.” Instead of the usual righteous monologues, this is a film of dialogue and dialogues, in which the bickering teachers’ conferences begin to echo the kids’ troublemaking and skepticism but for the adults’ pretense of understanding and decorum (everyone, in any case, has their reason and handily states it in close-up). It would make a perfect, though not particularly good, double feature with Frederick Wiseman’s documentary State Legislature or Advise and Consent. David Phelps

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