No one needs to tell you the sea change in the realm of music videos and how we all consume them in the 21st century. The state of the music video post-YouTube is something like a paradox. The medium itself now operates, by and large, within a frame the size of an index card, a limitation that has tended to take the wind out of the sails of larger-than-life ‘90s stylistic touchstones as Hype Williams and his embiggening fish eye lens. At the same time, the audience for music videos has arguably never been larger or more socio-economically diverse. No longer an arty, niche marketing tool consigned to the few channels available to those who subscribed to cable (channels that had, incidentally, long ago abandoned their playlists in favor of proto-reality TV), the world of music videos is now an infinite, democratic panacea.
That’s for the better and, as anyone who has dared read viewer comment threads, the worse. Standing out from the pack has perhaps never been tougher and, even now, great videos run the risk of being overshadowed by an imitator, fan vid, or even a simple, Chris Crockerian webcam rant. If the focus has shifted from the stimulus to the response (try talking about the hotness of Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” with anyone, and just see if it doesn’t take the other person about three seconds to shift the conversation over to Justin “We’re the dancers” Timberlake), well, at least kit and caboodle are now instantly contextualized in a virally encyclopedic forum (and thus we have Beyoncé’s bumps and grinds immediately compared and contrasted with the choreography of Bob Fosse).
Many of the best videos of the last decade were reflections of that hyperawareness. Others skipped rope with Ted Stevens’s “series of tubes,” willingly acquiescing to the brave new world of call-and-response, self-reflectivity, and view-count canonization. And yet a few other soldiers of the analogue brigade, led by the Man in Black, stood bravely out of time, pondering the ephemerality and mortality of it all. The great thing about the 2000s is that they’re all here, and they’re all a mouse click away. Eric Henderson
Editor’s Note: Head on over to The House Next Door to watch the entire list.
50. Björk, “Triumph of the Heart” (Spike Jonze)
A love letter from Björk and Spike Jonze to the cat ladies of the world, “Triumph of the Heart” is more than just an uproarious collection of sight gags. Making a beeline to a local bar after a fight with her significant other, Björk leaves her sanctuary in a drunken stupor, literally exploding in amorous feelings before her feline hubby picks her up in their car. Letting off steam has never felt so touchingly conveyed as it does in this quirky and unexpectedly poetic rumination on the nature of affection and dependency. Ed Gonzalez
49. The Chemical Brothers, “Believe” (Dom and Nick)
This sweet man-versus-machine clip by vets Dom and Nick suggests a remake of The Host by Mike Leigh or Laurent Cantet, beginning unbelievably and misleadingly with a working-class bloke watching gyrating female hips off storefront tellies before one of the sweaty Jane Fondites tells him to bugger off, her face freakishly distorted. As in the Chemical Brothers’s “Star Guitar” video, image is beautifully rhymed to sound, except in this infinitely more terrifying vision, the beats are antagonistic—almost as if they are equally to blame for its main character’s descent into madness as the dehumanizing drudgery of his workplace. EG
48. M.I.A., “Galang” (Ruben Fleischer)
M.I.A.’s D.I.Y. ditty “Galang” may not soar to the same stratospherically blissed-out heights as MGMT’s “Time to Pretend” clip, which just missed this decade roundup, but is similarly notable for its convergence of an artist’s grandiose political preoccupations with their playfulness of spirit. Against a backdrop of graffitied third-world signifiers—tigers, cellphones, palm trees, tanks, bombs—that awesomely pulsate along to the song’s beats, M.I.A. simply, and coyly, performs a silly little-girl dance, setting up what would become her multimedia M.O. for years to come. EG
47. Death Cab for Cutie, “Grapevine Fires” (Walter Robot)
This haunting hand-drawn triumph by Walter Robot, which perfectly—if a tad too literally—interprets Death Cab for Cutie’s lyrics, will remain relevant as long as there are forest fires. Full of strange and lovely poetic touches, as in the rain that falls like tears over a picture frame, the video captures a harrowing flashpoint in a boy’s coming of age, during which he watches families, romances, and love affairs torn apart by a horrible, unstoppable act of nature. Rather than scoff at life, accusing it of futility, the video beautifully and poignantly acknowledges the healing power and persistence of memory in the wake of tragedy. EG
46. Queens of the Stone Age, “Go with the Flow” (Shynola)
Inspired by the bold comic book images of Frank Miller’s Sin City, “Go with the Flow” is a combination of live action and rotoscopic animation (the kind made famous in a-Ha’s “Take on Me”). Silhouettes of the band barreling down a desert highway in the back of a pickup truck toward a rival gang of “skulls” are juxtaposed with a blood-red sky and not-so-subtle but still exhilarating sexual metaphors, including a slow-motion collision that results in an explosion of animated sperm cells and a squirting Slurpee. Sal Cinquemani
45. Fionn Regan, “Be Good or Be Gone” (Si & Ad)
Hard to believe anyone in this day and age can still be thrilled by the concept of synchronized sound and image, but Fionn Regan’s unplugged video coasts gently on this fundamental concept. By simply playing his song in myriad different settings and splicing the footage together, preserving the natural audio instead of syncing it up to a studio track, Regan’s video becomes a moving study on the acoustics of acoustic. EH
44. Benny Benassi, “Satisfaction” (Dougal Wilson)
This video, like the girls it features, goes down easy. EH
43. Weezer, “Island in the Sun” (Spike Jonze)
“Island in the Sun” was cute before the cute-animals meme became noxious. It starts with a shot of bucolic hills that look startlingly like the island in director Spike Jonze’s own Where the Wild Things Are, where bears and monkeys frolic with the bandmates in naturalistic splendor. Paul Schrodt
42. Bright Eyes, “First Day of My Life” (John Cameron Mitchell)
Am I a fan of this song? Not particularly. But watching everyone else in this video take in Conor Oberst’s lilting, acoustic ballad on headphones (apparently for the first time) and observing the range of reactions (pensive, playful, indifferent, unborn, canine) makes be a believer anyway. Music does this. EH
41. Justin Timberlake, “Cry Me a River” (Francis Lawrence)
The plot more or less amounts to a TV-PG wash of an episode of Law & Order: Perverts Unit, as Justin Timberlake breaks into his ex’s home, records video of himself and another woman in said ex’s bed, then stalks and leers at the ex as she takes a shower and looks like a dead ringer for Britney Spears. But simply having the means to stage a juvenile— if gorgeously lensed—revenge-prank fantasy isn’t a crime. Jonathan Keefe
40. OutKast, “B.O.B.” (Dave Meyers)
Twenty-some-odd years of hip-hop video clichés are creepily distilled into this apocalyptic ghetto foot-stomper, in which the streets are green, the sidewalks yellow, the grass purple, the beats insanely propulsive, the message soulful. Where are André 3000 and Big Boi off to in such a panic? A titty bar, perhaps, given the mood inside the souped-up cars, but this subversive vision essentially boils down to a celebration of community, like a Tyler Perried version of 28 Days Later, in which blacks young and old are united in their desire to get to church, where rumps shake as emphatically as arms reach for the heavens. The hunger of sexual and spiritual worship has never been so provocatively conflated. EG
39. Sigur Rós, “Glosoli” (Arni & Kinski)
Throw in a couple of giant plush monsters, and “Glosoli” could pass for Where the Wild Things Are. As is, the video casts Sigur Rós’s evocative, sweeping pop within a framework that’s equal parts Peter Pan-style children’s escapist fantasy and Mulholland Drive dream narrative. A critical element of the band’s appeal is that their music is open to interpretation, and the final image of “Glosoli,” of a child performing a cannonball off a steep cliff as his friends swim away through the sky, is wondrous in its ambiguity. JK
38. OK Go, “Here It Goes Again” (Trish Sie)
With all due apologies to Tay Zonday’s “Chocolate Rain” and Alanis Morissette’s “My Humps,” OK Go’s clip for “Here It Goes Again” stands as the definitive example of how viral marketing and the DIYouTube accessibility of media have changed the way that people view music videos over the course of the last decade. JK
37. The Knife, “Pass This On” (Johan Renck)
Or “Sympathy for the Tranny.” The Knife’s 8-bit calypso number is the appropriately fragile/brazen soundtrack for this video’s simple but elegant moment out of time. A flaxen haired, spider-limbed female impersonator takes the mic in a rustic chalet. A woman in the small audience gets up out of her seat. Is she leaving? A glaring thug approaches the stage. Is he going to end her song by force? No, they’re both moved by the music, and soon everyone is dancing. Except for one young woman, whose blank stare closes out the video on a question mark. EH
36. Kanye West f/ Syleena Johnson, “All Falls Down” (Chris Milk)
Kanye West is now so far up his own ass as to be lost forever, but this video, a touching stolen moment in which Kanye’s POV tries to make a moment last forever before his girl just barely catches her flight out, stands as a testament to the moment in his career when his focus could be believably trained on something other than his own legacy. EH
35. Sigur Rós, “Hoppípolla” (Arni & Kinski)
A twist on Arni and Kinski’s previous videos for the band, the innocence of youth and the cruel cyclical nature of aging are highlighted in Sigur Rós’s “Hoppípolla,” in which a group of elderly pranksters ring doorbells and run, shoplift, and pick a fight with a rival gang in a graveyard. Sweethearts steal a kiss. An old man gets his nosed bloodied. The pranksters claim victory. The clip’s sole flaw is, perhaps, that there are a few too many shots of the old folks jumping into puddles, but after all, the song’s title is Icelandic for—you guessed it—“jumping into puddles.” SC
34. Justice, “DVNO” (So-Me, Yorgo Tloupas, and Machine Molle)
I’m sorry I ever accused Justice of being a thinly disguised Threadless.com ad. Though their video for “D.A.N.C.E.” indeed revealed an unhealthy obsession with graphic design, at least the Scanimation delight “DVNO” reveals the breadth of that obsession. Serious eye candy for anyone who watches old VHS tapes and gets nostalgic at the bumper animations. EH
33. Erykah Badu, “Honey” (Erykah Badu and Chris Robinson)
Who else but the “analogue girl in a digital world” could pull this off so comfortably? Erykah Badu’s tribute to the physical artifacts of old school music—in which she establishes roll call by jumping into the cover art of Honey, Paid in Full, Perfect Angel, and Maggot Brain—is Sherlock Jr. for the bin-scanning set. Other artists made iTunes playlists available for you to download. Erykah made this video and told you to get your ass down to the record store. EH
32. Fatboy Slim, “Weapon of Choice” (Spike Jonze)
An unresolved question from the aughts: Was it the video for “Weapon of Choice,” in which he dances quite nimbly around a hotel lobby, or the Blue Oyster Cult sketch on Saturday Night Live, in which he thrust the phrase “More cowbell!” into the lexicon, that Christopher Walken turned into the Christopher Walken of today? JK
31. Scarface, “On My Block” (Marc Klasfeld)
A baby is born on a front lawn and we’re taken on a tour of several decades on the South side of Houston, through the civil rights movement, block parties, poverty, gang violence, and police brutality. Hip-hop was Brad Jordan a.k.a. Scarface’s meal ticket out of this ghetto, but he returns to witness the cycle of violence, life, and love continue through another generation. SC
30. Robbie williams, “Rock DJ” (Vaughan Arnell)
It isn’t hard to figure out why Robbie Williams, one of the decade’s biggest international stars, never caught on in the United States, where people prefer their pop stars to seem grateful for their celebrity until they’re inevitably crucified or cast aside. The video for “Rock DJ,” however, reveals Williams’s complicated relationship with his fame in both a figurative and hilariously literal manner, as he flashes a Cheshire grin, strips naked, and then flings his skin and viscera at a battalion of disinterested models. Justin Timberlake and John Mayer simply don’t have anything this subversive in them. JK
29. Battles, “Atlas” (Timothy Saccenti)
Distilled down to roughly five minutes, Cube might have made for a nifty short film instead of an original premise squandered on unspeakable acting and misapplications of B-movie tropes. Battles finally made good on that trapped-in-a-Skinner-Box premise in their video for “Atlas,” a single that sounds, appropriately, like it was recorded only after its individual parts had echoed and ricocheted around a glass box for a few laps. JK
28. Snoop Dogg, “Sensual Seduction” (Melina and Steve Johnson)
Big Boi and André 3000 were cute and energetic in 1962, but I’ll take Snoop’s chill 1981 model any day. From the moment the VCR dub’s “Play” pops in the upper corner, “Sensual Seduction” is the best kind of pastiche: the kind that respects but doesn’t lionize its source material. Snoop’s Roger Troutman lovefest, complete with star wipes and a color scheme that’s just starting to shake off the ‘70s, is rendered with the sort of attention one would had to have lived through to replicate. EH
27. The Chemical Brothers, “Galvanize” (Adam Smith)
An uncannily realistic video for the duo, “Galvanize” follows three would-be krumping Spanish kids who put on their clown makeup and sneak out of their parents’ apartments late at night. Director Adam Smith subversively toys with the viewer’s assumptions: The black-and-white intro has all the trappings of a youth-violence PSA (when the kids board a bus, a nearby couple looks on apprehensively), but when they sneak into a nightclub, the image rapturously turns to color. Following the lead of the song, “Don’t hold back,” Smith suggests that it’s when these kids are dancing that they get to show the world who they really are. PS
26. Gary Jules, “Mad World” (Clive Richardson)
Unlike Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko, which popularized Gary Jules’s lovely cover of a 1983 Tears for Fears song, this video clip by Michel Gondry actually holds up after repeat viewings. While Jules drones the lyrics of his song from a school roof, a group of black-clad performance artists—the glee club, no doubt—create very distinct shapes with their moving bodies: a face, car, boat, bird, dog, a person running. The sadness is earnest to an almost grotesque fault, but Jules and Gondry’s artistry perfectly harmonize, and what emerges is a dreamy ode to that distinctly frustrated adolescent desire for escape—to be anywhere in the world but here. EG
25. Goldfrapp, “Happiness” (Dougal Wilson)
We’ve all seen that person walking down the street with a wide grin on her face or a bounce in his step and wondered what he or she was so damn happy about. Goldfrapp’s “Happiness” takes that premise to the extreme, as a floppy-haired young man in a white suit literally bounces through the streets to the bemusement and annoyance of passersby. Inspired by the “Street Scene” number from the musical Small Town Girl, the clip is stitched together like one long take, with Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory making various cameos throughout. The bouncing man possesses a childlike whimsy with which everyone else in town—save for the children, some teenage bikers, and a jumping dog—seems to have tragically lost touch. SC
24. Kenna, “Hell Bent” (Mark Osborne)
What ever happened to Kenna? When New Sacred Cow came out, the artist was bold enough to do something like use the stop-motion short More as the video for his first single, “Hell Bent,” a mini narrative epic in which a dejected laborer turns his dreams into mass-market “Bliss” goggles, only to find his soul missing as a result. Judging by the more mainstream sound of his follow-up album, it’s a Faustian bargain with which Kenna is all too familiar. PS
23. Vitalic, “Poney Part 1” (Pleix)
I’ve always wondered why man chose to domesticate the canine. That is, until I saw this half-cute, half-unnerving mutt (er, hybrid) which suggests Chris Cunningham remaking BBC’s Planet Earth as a Revlon commercial for flea collars circa 1983. These bitches’ coats bounce and behave in extreme slow motion, the poodle remains nature’s most terrifying beast, and the physical act of shaking off the rain finds the common ground between 2001 and Flashdance. EH
22. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “Maps” (Patrick Daughters)
In a meta music-video-inside-the-music-video, Karen O is the lead singer of a band playing in front of a camera and a small crew. Studio lights cast her lipstick-smudged face in a neon flow, a garish pop-art flourish that evokes Godard and does justice to her ridiculous over-performance, which includes a dramatic “Stop!” hand gesture to the audience. If nothing else, she should be cast in a Dario Argento film. PS
21. Björk, “Wanderlust” (Encyclopedia Pictura)
Sometimes you have to worry about Björk’s sanity. Other times you just have to enjoy the ride. “Wanderlust” could be an art installation inspired by the immersive power of video games, which is to say it’s whacked-out and stunning. She travels on a Nintendo dragon’s back and down a hyper-CGI waterfall abyss. I’m just going to say it: It’s better than Avatar. PS
20. Björk, “Declare Independence” (Michel Gondry)
Michel Gondry’s videos come in two subtly distinct flavors: strictly arithmetical but nevertheless breathtaking in their mind-boggling execution (think “The Hardest Button to Button”) and arithmetical but inextricably bound to the human condition via narrative or allegory. Björk’s “Declare Independence” falls into the latter category, the singer’s kaleidoscopic rage coloring the threads of a giant bass guitar via a megaphone while soldiers with the flags of Greenland and the Faroe Islands emblazoned on their shoulders declare their independence via rainbow-colored graffiti. SC
19. Madonna, “American Life (Director’s Cut)” (Jonas Akerlund)
When announcing her decision not to release director Jonas Akerlund’s original cut of the “American Life” video, Madonna claimed that she did not “want to risk offending anyone who might misinterpret” its meaning. It seemed like spin control back in 2003, but that statement reads today like a damning indictment of the reactionary groupthink that gripped the nation in the early days of the Iraq War. It isn’t like either the video’s message about viewing war as a form of popular entertainment or its striking, loaded images leave much room for misinterpretation. Prescient? Yes. Relevant? Surely. Subtle? Not so much. JK
18. D’Angelo, “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” (Paul Hunter and Dominique Trenier)
Not unlike Fiona Apple’s “Criminal,” the video for “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” made its star an unwitting sex icon. It’s also aesthetically liberating—an unabashed attempt to inverse MTV’s erotic gaze, turning it on a ripped black man. The single, continuous shot travels up and down the contours of D’Angelo’s body, doing for the artist what he does for his music: stripping it bare. PS
17. Kanye West, “Flashing Lights” (Spike Jonze and Kanye West)
“Flashing Lights” could be Spike Jonze’s letter to Quentin Tarantino: “Hey, I can do that too.” In a glorious, slow-motion tracking shot, a Jackie Brown-like buxom woman strips to her lingerie, bludgeons her captive to death with a shovel, and burns the evidence. His fetishized violence is also shot better than anything Tarantino has done. (Watch as a double bill with Beyoncé’s “Diva,” which puts everything into delirious post-feminist context.) PS
16. The Avalanches, “Frontier Psychiatrist” (Kuntz & Maguire)
The Avalanches’s music is a dizzying cavalcade of obscure samples. Their videos are in a more blissfully retarded vein, with their “Frontier Psychiatrist” essentially reinventing Hee Haw for fans of ‘50s educational films, Sonny and Cher, The Gong Show, John Waters, Blake Edwards, and the Kuchar brothers, featuring a drum-playing granny, a chorus of ghosts, some donkey ass-slapping, music-playing skeletons, kazoo-wielding black cowboys, and people in chicken and monkey suits. The comically literal interpretation of the song deepens one’s understanding of the Avalanches’s approach, though mostly the clip is best appreciated as—to quote iAMtheWALRUS6 from YouTube—“the tweakest thing ever while stoned.” EG
15. Röyksopp, “Remind Me” (H5)
The Norweigan duo’s electronic music may err on the synthetic side, but at least they appreciate good design. The brilliantly schematic video for “Remind Me” diagrams a city’s everyday workings, from the banal (a woman eats a burger) to the environmental (the meat manufacturing plant where it was made), a meticulously aestheticized Sim City unfolding before our eyes. PS
14. Beyoncé, “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” (Jake Nava)
Sure, it’s the decade’s Ground Zero for YouTube imitations. But if on-point choreography and hotness were the only qualifying factors here, “Single Ladies” would only be running a close second to this among distaff trio production numbers. What makes Beyoncé’s Three Leotards one for the ages is the fact that there’s actually a fourth dancer running rings around everyone: the flawlessly pirouetting camera. “Single Ladies” is Max Ophüls funkily reincarnated. EH
13. Kelly Osbourne, “One Word” (Chris Applebaum)
This surprisingly good dance single didn’t do much for Osbourne’s singing career stateside, but in the elegantly shot black-and-white video she fulfills a precocious childhood fantasy of starring in Godard’s Alphaville. As an undercover operative, Osbourne sashays fiercely through a narrow hallway and lies on a silk-covered bed, taunting the camera, “One lie tells a thousand stories/The greatest stories that were ever told.” PS
12. Bat for Lashes, “What’s a Girl to Do?” (Dougal Wilson)
Natasha Kahn convincingly apes a David Lynch film by way of Sleepaway Camp in “What’s a Girl to Do,” in which she rides her bike down an empty stretch of highway, where funny things go bump in the night, including BMX riders in bunny masks. PS
11. The White Stripes, “Fell in Love with a Girl” (Michel Gondry)
It isn’t just that the animation in “Fell In Love with a Girl” makes for a jaw-dropping stunt (particularly impressive to those of us who were never able to get their Lego constructions to turn out quite right), but it’s that the use of Legos is an inspired choice of medium, in that their primary colors and sharp lines find a contemporary analogue for the De Stijl art movement that has been an influence on the White Stripes’s image and aesthetic from the very beginning. It’s a triumph of form-meets-function in every sense. JK
10. Sigur Rós, “Untitled #1 (Vaka)” (Floria Sigismondi)
To say that the MTV Video Music Awards lost all credibility during the last decade wouldn’t be hyperbolic. While MTV was awarding pieces of crap like Britney Spears’s “Piece of Me,” however, MTV Europe was showering accolades on acts like the Avalanches, Röyksopp, and Sigur Rós, whose “untitled #1 (Vaka)” won Best Video in 2003. The Floria Sigismondi-directed clip opens with the sullen faces of grade school children being inspected before rushing outside for recess donning gas masks (a post-9/11 pop-culture fixture). Disease (and dis-ease) is rampant in this post-apocalyptic future where ash falls like snow from scorched skies, and peace, like a white dove shown decaying on the ground, is dead. SC
9. Christina Aguilera f/ Redman, “Dirrty” (David LaChapelle)
Aguilera commissioned photographer David LaChapelle to direct “Dirrty,” a not-so-subtle fuck-you to her innocent teeny-bopper image, resulting in one of the director’s more heady mainstream collaborations, not to mention a strange queering of the booty-shaking genre. The singer descends into a lovingly art-directed boxing ring surrounded by muscle-bound men seemingly borrowed from a Bruce Weber shoot, and later gets hosed down in a men’s bathroom. LaChapelle’s high-gloss, fetishized aesthetic is uniquely suited to a video about, well, fetish—an underground meat locker where pop music’s subconscious resides. PS
8. Madonna, “Hung Up” (Johan Renck)
Madonna may be wearing Karen Lynn Gorney’s thrift store hand-me-downs and dancing for her own sake, but I’d like to see John Travolta or anyone else dare to ask her if she’s in training to be anything other than the yoga-flexible, parkour-and-krump co-opting, ass-cleave-baring, DDR-oblivious, beatbox-humping trooper she is and always will be. EH
7. The Chemical Brothers, “Star Guitar” (Michel Gondry)
The Chemical Brothers’s song offers only raw undulating sensation, and Michel Gondry responds accordingly, with a bullet train trip through a countryside enchanted by landscape choreography. With each beat, each synth effect, each dynamic shift, Gondry’s window-gazing camera picks up a new bit of beat-wise serendipity. The entire world appears to be humming along. EH
6. Johnny Cash, “Hurt” (Mark Romanek)
Country music videos have a tradition of literal-mindedness that rarely involves them in any discussion of the music video as a legitimate art form, but Johnny Cash has rarely adhered to the conventions of country music. The vulnerability and frailty Cash puts on naked display throughout his video for “Hurt” transforms his somber, melancholy Nine Inch Nails cover into an evocative meditation on mortality that found the Man in Black exploring his iconic image literally into his last days. JK
5. Sigur Rós, “Viðrar vel til loftárása” (Arni & Kinski)
Sigur Rós’s longing masterpiece is the zero-gravity tone poem of adolescent gender identity Billy Elliot only pretended to be. With langorous, De Palma-worthy slow motion visuals and an insistent sensitivity about not only two schoolyard boyfriends but the community that will likely choose not to suffer their burgeoning love, “Vidrar” stands shoulder with the absolute best feature-length gay movies the decade had to offer. EH
4. R.E.M., “Imitation of Life” (Garth Jennings)
Using a pan-and-scan technique, director Garth Jennings zooms in on different corners of a looped video of a suburban pool party. This painterly mosaic reorients the way we normally watch videos and interrogates the sunny, feel-good surface of his crowded frame: A man lights himself on a barbecue pit fire, a woman throws a glass of water in someone’s face, and a couple leaves the festivities to screw in the backyard. PS
3. The White Stripes, “The Hardest Button to Button” (Michel Gondry)
Michel Gondry’s videos are often reducible to mathematical equations, a metaphor for his complicated filmmaking process. In “The Hardest Button to Button,” the drum sets and amps multiply in sync with the song’s bassline. Filmed in New York City with a digital camera, it looks like a dirt-cheap student art project, which is part of its charm. PS
2. Jay-Z, “99 Problems” (Mark Romanek)
Mark Romanek’s best music videos are montages of found socio-cultural artifacts, like a black boy’s head jutting from behind his father’s penniless pockets in Janet Jackson’s “Got ’Til It’s Gone,” suspending a community’s images of itself in time. For “99 Problems,” Jay-Z collaborated with Romanek on a video shot near the Bed-Study housing projects where the rapper grew up, and for each man, it seems like the work he was born to make. Jay-Z is hassled by cops who want to look inside his trunk, a day-in-the-hard-knock-life that he narrates while walking along the Brooklyn Bridge, intercut with a rapid-fire succession of scenes from the neighborhood: drooling fight dogs, prisoners being hosed down, motorcyclists doing wheelies in slow-motion. In the end, Jay-Z is shot full of bullet holes as a group of hoochie mamas soap up their bare legs, a bold critique of hip-hop culture, but Romanek’s ecstatic black-and-white images are ultimately life-affirming—a record of street life as it’s really lived. PS
1. Kylie Minogue, “Come into My World” (Michel Gondry)
Ballsily referencing Zbigniew Rybczynski’s Oscar-winning masterpiece Tango, Michel Gondry’s equally fantastic clip for Kylie Minogue’s “Come Into My World” is an invitation to existential discourse. Not quite as slapsticky, I think, as Armond White has heralded, it is most definitely a remarkable deconstruction of artistic identity and technique. The choreographic precision of the clip is dazzling, with Kylie multiplying on screen in unison as one more buttery, Minnie Moused version of herself springs forth from her being on the song’s seductive chorus. As in Rybczynski’s innovative short film, the subject is the negotiation of space but also a consideration of how the self is refracted through media. EG
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
Every Marvel Cinematic Universe Movie Ranked
On the eve of Captain Marvel’s release, we ranked the 21 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Most of Marvel Studios’s films are the cinematic equivalent of breadcrumbs, which have been dropped into theaters strategically so as to keep one looking for the next sequel or crossover, when the endless televisual exposition will eventually, theoretically yield an event of actual consequence. Occasionally, however, a Marvel film transcends this impersonality and justifies one’s patience. Weird, stylish, and surprisingly lyrical, Ant-Man, Iron Man 3, and Doctor Strange attest to the benefits of the old Hollywood-style studio system that Marvel has resurrected: Under the umbrella of structure and quota is security, which can bequeath qualified freedom. Chuck Bowen
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on April 25, 2018.
21. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
The aesthetic dexterity and psychological depth of Ang Lee’s Hulk is corrupted by Marvel’s “reboot” of the superhero franchise, Louis Leterrier’s intermittently kinetic but depressingly shallow The Incredible Hulk. In response to complaints that Lee’s unjustly excoriated 2003 effort was too talky and slow, Leterrier swings the pendulum to the opposite side of the spectrum, delivering a slam-bang spectacle so lacking in weight that, until the impressive finale, the film seems downright terrified of character and relationship development, as if too much conversation or—gasp!—subtextual heft will immediately alienate coveted young male fanboys. Nick Schager
20. Iron Man 2 (2010)
Upgraded with the latest CGI hardware but also more shoddy screenwriting software than its system can withstand, Iron Man 2 is an example of subtraction by addition. For a sequel designed to deliver what its predecessor did not, Jon Favreau’s follow-up to his 2008 blockbuster piles on incidents and characters it doesn’t need while still managing to skimp on the combat that should be this franchise’s bread and butter but which remains an element only trotted out at sporadic intervals and in modest portions. Schager
19. Captain Marvel (2018)
As another of the character-introducing MCU stories existing mostly to feed new superheroes into the Avengers series, Captain Marvel looks like something of a trial run. You know the drill: If the film lands with audiences, then you can count on Captain Marvel (Brie Larson)—like Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and even Ant-Man before her—getting her own series. But if not, then, hey, she’s at least assured of being asked to pop by the game room at Stark Industries for a kibitz in somebody else’s franchise down the road. Based on what’s on display here, Captain Marvel could well get her own star turn again at some point, but hopefully it will be with a different crew behind the camera. Chris Barsanti
18. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
What is this, a crossover episode? After 18 films, the overlords at Marvel Studios have gathered almost all of their indentured servants, er, star-studded stable together into the ever-crashing, ever-booming, and ever-banging extravaganza Avengers: Infinity War. Whether you look at this whirling dervish and see a gleefully grandiose entertainment or a depressing exemplar of the culturally degraded present moment will depend on your investment—in all senses of that term—in Marvel’s carefully cultivated mythos. The film is all manic monotony. It’s passably numbing in the moment. And despite the hard-luck finish—something an obligatory post-credits sequence goes a long way toward neutering—it’s instantly forgettable. Strange thing to say about a film featuring Peter Dinklage as the tallest dwarf in the universe. Keith Uhlich
17. Thor (2011)
With some notable exceptions, Marvel Studios-produced films usually plateau at a glossy but totally indistinct level of mediocrity, and Thor continues the trend of weakly jumpstarting a franchise based on a Marvel comic with an adequate but instantly forgettable origin story. Kenneth Branagh’s film is reasonably well put-together, but unlike even his worst films, it has no internal life, instead feeling like an impersonal, assembly-line product. The film’s most notable feature is that it serves as a continuation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe set up by the Iron Man movies. Characters from those films pop up during Thor’s main narrative and after the end credits, living up to Marvel’s commitment to populating their films with the same bland versions of perfectly acceptable characters. While Thor is certainly competent, that’s just not enough. Simon Abrams
16. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
A spectacle of star-spangled superheroics, Captain America: The First Avenger gives sturdy big-screen treatment to Marvel’s square-jawed—and square—jingoistic military man. With Joe Johnston delivering pyrotechnical action-adventure in a period guise, à la The Rocketeer (which was similarly fixated on its female lead’s buxom chest), this costumed-crusader saga is a capable, if somewhat unremarkable, affair beset by the same origin-story shortcomings that plagued another U.S.-virtue-via-army-weaponry fable, Iron Man—namely, a bifurcated structure in which the introductory first half exceeds, in compelling drama and kick-ass thrills, the latter fight-the-baddies combat. Schager
15. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
While writer-director Joss Whedon takes considerable strides to make Avengers: Age of Ultron’s narrative feel more nuanced and personal, his few sublime scenes of expressive melodrama are drowned out by the massive amounts of exposition and backstory that make up most of the dialogue and subsequently make the film feel overworked. When the talk isn’t about the intricate plot and the characters’ mythology, it’s a whole lot of dick-centric jabs. In cases like the competition over who can pick up Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) hammer, there’s a vague sense that Whedon is in on the joke, but then there’s a plethora of other exchanges that don’t seem so tongue in cheek. The bro-isms that underscore these interpersonal relations might explain why Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff strikes up a romance with Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), a.k.a. the Hulk, the only male Avenger who isn’t consistently preoccupied with the size of his…ego. The growing relationship between Romanoff and Banner is the tender heart of Age of Ultron, and Whedon clearly thrills in the cheesy but heartfelt melodrama that builds between them. Unfortunately, as the film has approximately another half-dozen or so plotlines to tend to, this section of the story barely makes up a sixth of the narrative. Chris Cabin
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