My Decade in Movies, Part II

The second half of my “Decade in Movies” list (go here for part one) reflects a deepening interest in documentary and, eventually, in do-it-yourself (DIY) cinema, leading to the rise of the Mumblecore phenomenon and many other filmmakers ready to take up their mantle (pretend the list starts with the number 13).

  1. I admired Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset when I saw it in 2004 and deeply enjoyed revisiting it with my girlfriend a few months ago.  It successfully recreates the characters of Jessie and Celine as older, wiser, and slightly more cynical adults while retaining much of the romance of the original film.  And it made me want to revisit them again in 2014.
  2. Michel Gondry’s playful experiments with storytelling, subjectivity, and cinema, whether working with Charlie Kaufman or on his own managed to balance self-conscious quirk with broader philosophical themes.  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind may be one of my favorite films of the last decade–it’s among the first to find its way to my Intro to Film syllabus–but I also quite liked Be Kind Rewind, especially due to its romantic celebration of the power of creativity (as discussed by Jason Sperb in this fantastic blog essay).  I was ambivalent about Kaufman’s directorial debut, Synechdoche, New York, but Roger Ebert’s recent comments on the film sold me on it.
  3. Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know had a powerful impact when I saw it at the Atlanta Film Festival many years ago.
  4. My year in Washington, DC, gave me access to more independent and documentary films than most other locations.  Jia Zhangke’s The World offered a sharp, moving analysis of globalization through the lens of workers at an amusement park that sought to simulate, albeit partially and incompletely, tourist sites from the rest of the world.
  5. On a related note, Jem Cohen’s Chain, a hybrid documentary-narrative feature offered a powerful portrait of consumer sprawl, using as its setting locations in several cities, states, and even countries to create a powerful sense of displacement (in multiple senses of that term).  The film, inspired in part by Walter Benjamin’s powerful critiques of the Paris Arcades, Chris Marker’s cinema essays, and Barbara Ehrenreich’s descriptions of retail work, is probably my personal favorite of the decade and, in fact, inspired a short essay I published in Art Signal.
  6. When I lived in DC, I also began to develop an awareness of the Mumblecore filmmakers and their achievements with DIY cinema.  My favorites:  By chance, I happened to catch Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha at a special screening at the AFI Silver, and I was immediately impressed by Bujalski’s ability to capture the awkwardness of young adult romance.  The Duplass Brothers’ Puffy Chair played soon after at the E Street Theater.
  7. One of the most influential DIY films of the decade was Four Eyed Monsters.  Arin Crumley and Susan Buice helped create some of the more successful models for promoting and distributing films online, through video podcasts and YouTube and Second Life screenings.  Much of what they did informed my own thinking about DIY cinema in Reinventing Cinema and beyond.
  8. Another important DIY film: Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues, an imaginative re-telling of a section of The Ramayana mixed with Annette Hanshaw blues numbers and visually realized through a pastiche of animation styles.  Paley, like Buice and Crumley, turned to web distribution and used Creative Commons licenses after running into problems with clearing rights to Hanshaw’s songs.
  9. Like Sita Sings the Blues, Waltz with Bashir used animation to powerful effect, in this case to retell a traumatic massacre of Palestinians by Israeli soldiers.  The film explores the Israeli soldiers’ feelings of complicity with the massacre, as well as their inability to remember fully what happened or what they saw at the time.
  10. Like Roger Ebert, I’ve continued to be impressed by the work of Rahmin Bahrani, who made three powerful films over the last decade, Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, and Goodbye Solo.  If I had to pick a favorite, it would likely be Goodbye Solo, if only because I saw it on the big screen in Cary, soon after moving up to the Research Triangle.  But all three films are small, intimate, observant stories about outsiders.  On a related note, Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy and Old Joy struck a similar chord.
  11. Barry Jenkins’ Medicine for Melancholy mixed Richard Linklater’s penchant for showing two characters wandering aimlessly through city streets while deep in conversation (in this case, San Francisco) with some astute observations about race and class and their relationship to indie culture.
  12. Once is one of the few musicals that worked for me, a film that incoroprated Glenn Hansard and Marketa Irglova’s music perfectly into the grubby streets of Dublin in a bittersweet romance between The Guy and The Girl.

Any observations? Objections? Omissions?  I’ve certainly not pretended that my list is definitive.  I missed many quality films, of course, but I hope these two lists tell us something about the decade we’ve just endured and about the movies that helped make it a little better.

3 Comments »

  1. Dylan Said,

    January 4, 2010 @ 3:25 pm

    I wasn’t sure how I felt about Synechdoche, NY (and am rarely sure how to spell it), but I just new that I’d been extremely affected by it. It’ll sound weird, but the last time I’d felt as weighted down (not a pejorative) by a movie might have been when I saw Vanilla Sky (which also included, oddly, some nausea).

    But the more I thought about S,NY the more I realized that that affecting nature is mostly the point. For a lot of “mood” films, that can be tedious or a cheap trick, but it feels relatively well-grounded in S,NY.

    And, one film in, it’s a quintessentially Kaufmannian film.

  2. Jason Said,

    January 5, 2010 @ 12:54 pm

    Hey, Chuck, thanks again for the shout-out. You might like to know that I cite your work on BKR in ‘Reinventing Cinema’ liberally in this new essay I’m trying to finish (I’ve been looking up blogger comments on the film as well, which is how I stumbled upon this entry). I am determined to reclaim Gondry’s film for posterity!

  3. Chuck Said,

    January 5, 2010 @ 1:08 pm

    Dylan, that’s an intriguing comparison. I could only view Vanilla Sky as a (highly-Americanized) remake of Abre los ojos, a brilliant Spanish film that, I believe, also stars Penelope Cruz. That’s not an insult to Vanilla so much as a commentary on Crowe’s reimagining of the film as a commentary on American perceptions of fluid identities. But Synechdoche, in retrospect, seems to be doing fascinatingly similar work, albeit with a more sustained focus on authorship.

    Jason, I’m glad that my work was helpful for your reading of BKR. I think it’s an underrated little film, in part because of unfair perceptions of Jack Black and I hope the essay gets out there. I especially like it as a companion to Son of Rambow, as both films tweak nostalgia, copyright, and creation in interesting ways.

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