Meeting in the Aisles

Films of the Decade – Part II: No.27 – No.25

Posted in Features by le1gh on December 6, 2009

Part I can be found here:

27) DOGVILLE (2003)

Dir & Scr: Lars Von Trier

Stars: Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany, Lauren Bacall

Some artists react to critical contempt like vampires to crucifixes. Puckish Dane Lars Von Trier, however, obviously revels in it. With the boredom threshold – and, often, subtlety – of an ADD toddler, his catalog of cinematic pranks, abusing – purportedly – Bjork (Dancer in the Dark) the mentally-challenged (The Idiots) or the entire female race (genital-snipping Antichrist) usually leave me cold. Which makes Dogville, effectively a three-hour invective on man’s bestial nature, shot on a bare bones, chalk-marked soundstage, all the more astonishing.

You can – and many did – skewer VT for more casual, sneering misogyny and anti-Americanism (a country he’s never set foot in). But his neo-Brechtian, Thornton Wilder-esque satire of a small Colorado town that cheerily takes in, then ruthlessly takes advantage of Nicole Kidman’s fugitive Grace, is a fascinating, utterly effective experiment. It not only flips his traditional ‘sacrificial-waif’ narrative, but its blank canvas daringly posits his grim tale’s oppression as universal as it is depressingly familiar, while a fearless Kidman’s towering performance cocks a hind leg over the intentional artificiality. Ending with an inciting, David Bowie-scored middle finger salute to America’s historical treatment of its disenfranchised (two years pre-Katrina), for once the Dane’s audacious barking matches his bite.

Dogville Clip: Grace is Punished

See also:

RUSSIAN ARK (2002)

Dir: Alexander Sokurov Scr: Sokurov, Anatoli Nikiforov

Stars: Sergei Dontsov, Mariya Kuznetsova, Natalya Nikulenko

Whereas Hitchcock had to keep ducking behind furniture to maintain the illusion of a continuous take on 1948’s Rope, Alexander Sokurov ‘only’ had to choreograph a single, continuous 96-minute digital shot. As an unseen narrator (Sokurov himself) accompanies a mysterious stranger on a gliding journey through St. Petersburg’s vast Hermitage Museum and Russian history, the dizzying high-wire experiment grips as much for what’s onscreen as the presumably frantic behind-the-camera adjustments. Russian scholars may feel even more resonance but who can watch the teeming, climactic royal ball without experiencing overwhelming melancholy for time’s inexorable passage; and wonder at Sokurov’s landmark virtuosity.

Russian Ark: Trailer

26)            REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000)

Dir: Darren Aronofsky  Scr: Aronofsky & Hubert Selby. Jr

Stars: Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly

There’s an argument that no great film, no matter how bleak, can be depressing as the sheer artistry on display always one-ups the downward trajectory. To which I’d simply respond: watch the last fifteen minutes of Requiem for a Dream as its four lead characters’ various drug addictions spiral them ever deeper into personal hells – sexual degradation, festering amputation, madness – and tell me how perky you feel. I’m pretty sure any elation at the sheer mastery of Darren Aronofsky’s visceral, virtuouso filmmaking was utterly trumped by the unbearable misery on display. I’d double-check for you but I don’t know that I could endure it again.

Adapted from Hubert Selby. Jr’s habitually grim novel, Aronofsky weaves perhaps the densest and most apposite audio-visual patterns ever spun, truly plunging you into the heart of addiction: the relentless, ritualistic cycles of explosive highs – flaring match-heads, pinpricked pupils – and desperate lows until the medium itself embodies the corrupted state of mind where the American Dream is the real, delirious pipe dream. It’s a staggering, as-yet-unmatched achievement, though Clint Mansell’s magisterial score has been pilfered for any number of subsequent movie trailers and sports montages. Seems theft, too, is a hard addiction to break.

Requiem for a Dream Trailer:

See also:

KEANE (2004)

Dir & Scr: Lodge Kerrigan

Stars: Damian Lewis, Amy Ryan, Abigail Breslin

Speaking of tragedies, Lodge Kerrigan’s tale of a mentally-ill, down-and-out trudging around New York trying to find his missing daughter is right up / down there. Kerrigan’s first version with Peter Sarsgaard was irreparably ruined by damaged film negatives. Thankfully, second time out, Damian Lewis gives one of the decade’s great performances, teetering on the edge of total disintegration on his impossible quest, the jittery Dardennes Brothers-style camera tailing him unrelentingly in every scene. Harrowing viewing but hugely empathetic and, finally, in Keane’s touching relationship with a pre-Little Miss Sunshine Abigal Breslin, even open to the faintest hope of redemption.

Keane Trailer:

25)            PAN’S LABYRINTH (2006)

Dir & Scr: Guillermo Del Toro

Stars: Ivana Baquero, Maribel Verdú Sergi López

My original review from the late, lamented BBC Collective website: “Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro’s labour of love is quite simply his masterpiece. A stunning merging of history and fantasy, young Ofelia, stepdaughter to a brutal army captain, refracts the Spanish Civil War through a subterranean dreamworld where magic and imagination and a half-man-half-goat god might just be a match for fascism. The lovingly rustic visual effects put Hollywood’s CGI-sheen to shame, and the power of the imagery only confirms Del Toro’s belief in the power of fable. Truly a-maze-ing.”

That horrible final pun notwithstanding, I stand by every word. Not since the genius of Victor Erice’s 1973 allegory Spirit of the Beehive has fantasy been so artfully employed as trenchant political commentary (on the same War, no less!), though Del Toro comes from more muscular, spectacle-driven stock. A truly adult fairy tale, with gruesome violence and genuinely creepy episodes – the eyeless Pale Man for one – it only confirmed Del Toro as one of the decade’s breakthrough talents, equally adept at Hollywood blockbusters like Hellboy or his own more personal projects. Now given the reins of mega-franchise The Hobbit, it’s hard to imagine how he can possibly top this.

Pan’s Labyrinth: The Pale Man

See also:

THE ORPHANAGE (2008)

Dir: Juan Antonio Bayona  Scr: Sergio G. Sánchez

Stars: Belén Rueda, Fernando Coya, Roger Princep

“Presented” and produced by Del Toro, this Spanish ghost story is arguably the most affecting spine chiller of a decade in which horror lurched from lazy remakes (once Hollywood finished with Asian titles, it greedily cannibalized its own) to the repulsive sadism of the Hostel or Saw series. A stately, Gothic tale, which with the excellent Belén Rueda’s spooked heroine, echoed other genre touchstones like The Haunting or The Others, The Orphanage conjured its own brilliantly orchestrated atmosphere of foreboding mystery, while showing enough humanity to make you mourn as well as dread the dead, like the best horror should.

The Orphanage Trailer (sadly with cheesy American voiceover):

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4 Responses

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  1. claudia said, on December 7, 2009 at 11:32 am

    The orphanage trailer is very spooky – brrrr. No film for me. But l love your countdown – can’t wait for more to read and see!

    love c

  2. […] Part II is here: […]

  3. […] Part II can be found here. […]

  4. […] Part II is lighting the lights up here. […]


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