Meeting in the Aisles

Films of the Decade – Part IV: No.20 – No.16

Posted in Features by le1gh on December 15, 2009

Part I can be found here.

Part II is twiddling its thumbs here.

And Part III is lurking about over here.

20) CODE UNKNOWN (2000)

Dir & Scr: Michael Haneke

Stars: Juliette Binoche, Thierry Neuvic, Luminita Gheorghiu


Given Michael Haneke’s deserved reputation as modern cinema’s stern professor, a withholding elder prone to doling out moral lessons and punishing the easily satisfied, presumably preferring Code Unknown to his later, designated masterpiece Hidden would be applauded in its perversity of judgment. Of course, in reality Haneke wouldn’t care less; either way, you the audience have to work like crazy to decipher his glacial sociological treatises. Anything less is a waste of time. His time, naturally, not yours.

Code Unknown is no less formally precise and unblinking, piercingly intelligent and utterly remorseless as Hidden. But for me, arguably, there are glimmers of hope, of laughter, of vibrant, spontaneous life here often excluded in Haneke’s minutely calibrated work and, thankfully, a less hectoring tone too. A multi-character (led by the wonderfully unadorned Binoche), multi-strand narrative that’s the polar opposite to the likes of Crash’s neat, tick-boxed, catch-all thesis, the subtitle “Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys” is about as upfront as Haneke ever gets. A series of extended sequences, often in smooth, unobtrusive lateral tracking shots, punctuated by violent cuts to black, it brilliantly exposes modern life’s disconnects, false assumptions and bitter ironies, never better illustrated than in its masterly opening shot. (see below).

Code Unknown Opening Scene:

see also:

THE EDGE OF HEAVEN (2007)

Dir & Scr: Fatih Akin

Stars: Baki Davrak, Patrycia Ziolkowska, Hanna Schygulla


Akin follows up his full throttle debut Head On with a more tempered, but equally enthralling look at the cultural politics of his own German-Turkish background. An interlinked, three-part, dual relationship story – the tragic, foretold deaths of a Turkish woman in Germany and German woman in Turkey – Akin uses his straightforward symmetry to constantly surprise and delve into a pair of fascinatingly unorthodox couplings and the impact felt on those around them. The original German title, “On the Other Side”, more clearly shows Akin’s sensitivity to how two different cultures switch, clash but ultimately, might reconcile through their common humanity.

The Edge of Heaven Trailer:

19) UP

Dir & Scr: Pete Docter  / Bob Peterson

Voices: Ed Asner, Jordan Nagai, Christopher Plummer


America’s greatest movie success story of this (any?) decade, Pixar Animation Studios seems to have it all: a challenging yet nurturing work environment whose “brain trust” of experts still defers to individual filmmakers; cutting-edge technology at the service of inventive, soulful stories; and that elusive ability to continually astound, engross and delight the proverbial kids of all ages.

Not that there aren’t certain formulas in play across Pixar’s output (buddy movies, frantic chase finales), but it’s their successes’ sheer nerve rather than complacency that amazes. Up’s premise – a flying house powered by helium balloons – screams multiplex bonanza. But would anyone else tether this high-concept to the tale of a grumpy old widower bound for Venezuela? Accompanied by a chubby Korean-American boy scout? Decisions like these separate Pixar from the pretenders (and justify the more crowd-pleasing talking dogs and airship pursuits); visually, too, not only is the digital animation ever more fluid, so is the storytelling. The ‘Carl & Ellie’ montage here combines Wall-E’s graceful, silent economy with the emotional wallop of Toy Story 2’s ‘Jessie’s song’ for a true heartbreaker. For anyone else, you’d think it must be downhill from here. For Pixar, you sense, the only way is Up.

Up Trailer:

See also:

ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL (2008)

Dir: Sacha Gervasi

Stars: Steve ‘Lips’ Kudlow, Robb Reiner, Slash


As in Up, here are more old fogeys still doggedly pursuing their dream, though these metalheads raise the roof with amps that go to 11 (and numerous other Spinal Tap-isms – what ya gonna do when your drummer’s called Robb Reiner?!) rather than balloons. Former Anvil roadie-turned-Spielberg screenwriter Sacha Gervasi’s affectionate documentary on his ageing rock idols impresses for how straight he plays things, allowing Lips and co’s own priceless unintentional comedy and puppyish sincerity to finally make it, entertain and, ultimately, genuinely move us. Ideally seen on a double bill with Tap and not embarrassed in such prestigious company.

Anvil! The Story of Anvil Trailer:

18) THE LIVES OF OTHERS (2006)

Dir & Scr: Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck

Stars: Ulrich Mühe, Martina Gedeck, Sebastian Koch

Some of the best German films this decade have confronted their country’s troubled past head on, from Hitler’s Downfall to Goodbye Lenin!’s just-reunified Berlin. In The Lives of Others, the Wall and Communism are still very much in place as writer-director Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck insinuates us into Stasi Officer Wiesler’s head(phones). A devoted implement of the state, Wiesler dispassionately eavesdrops on the GDR’s star playwright Georg Dreyman and his actress lover Christa-Maria Sieland to find incriminating evidence. Slowly, though, he’s captivated by the lives of these alluring, intriguing, disarmingly fragile others.

No mere simplistic morality play, HVD constructs a fiendishly intricate set of interlocking character studies and, alongside Coppola’s The Conversation, captures the definitive take on the illicit thrills and anguish of voyeurism. East Germany’s drab, neo-Orwellian bureaucracy is terrifying in its banality and mirroring its two male leads – both patriots, writers documenting their times, infatuated with the same tragic woman – adroitly shows how oppressive paranoia affects everyone it touches. Unashamedly endorsing art’s healing power and the basic act of ‘doing good’, the film personalises (and so dramatizes) the political through the superbly alert, internalized performance of the late great Ulrich Mühe’s Wiesler, one of modern cinema’s great anti-heroes.

The Lives of Others Clip: Wiesler’s Turning Point:

See also:

THE DREAMERS (2003)

Dir: Bernardo Bertolucci  Scr: Gilbert Adair

Stars: Michael Pitt, Eva Green, Louis Garrel


Paris, Spring 1968. Revolution’s in the air but for three giddy cinephile adolescents (French siblings and an American interloper) in Bernardo Bertolucci’s sensual, explicit celebration of cinema, sex and youth, the true cause is movies. [From my original BBC Collective review] “Aren’t the supposed sexual politics merely sex instead of actual political engagement? …the film’s point is how the threesome avoids direct confrontation with the real world by taking refuge in fantasy – until the revolution literally comes crashing through the window. Less a wake-up call to today’s apathetic youth, more a ravishing trip down memory lane, it’s dreamy stuff, nonetheless, and Bertolucci’s best in decades.”

The Dreamers Trailer:

17) A SERIOUS MAN (2009)

Dir & Scr: Joel & Ethan Coen

Stars: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed


A prolific if variable decade from arguably today’s pre-eminent US filmmakers ends with their most personal – i.e. Jewish – and, for me, finest achievement since 1990’s Miller’s Crossing (and given interim brilliance like Hudsucker, Fargo, No Country etc, that’s some going). Featuring the late-60s Midwest suburbs of their youth, it’s another black comedy that mines outrageous mirth from the sort of cringe-making indignities that would sustain a dozen domestic dramas. Yet, as with the inner-ear / Jefferson Airplane shot near the beginning (you’ll know it when you see it), it feels that the Coens are really inside their characters’ pain this time and not just giggling down from on high. It’s serious laughter.

The image composition, editing, evocative use of sound and music are predictably immaculate, but what makes this film even more fascinatingly addictive is the use of Jewish mysticism as both question of genuine faith and Borscht Belt punchline. It’s a daring gambit but succeeds because of the refined absurdist humour and stellar deadpan performances from a cast of lesser-known stage veterans, chiefly Michael Stuhlbarg as their befuddled suburban Job. All-powerful and unknowable, the Coens are arcane and unyielding gods – but seriously, do we worship any other kind?

A Serious Man Clip: “I’ve Tried to be a Serious Man.”

See also:

ADAPTATION (2002)

Dir: Spike Jonze  Scr: Charlie Kaufman

Stars: Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper


…or another desperately serious man trying to flourish in a cold world. After 1999’s insanely inspired Being John Malkovich, where else would Spike Jonze and screenwriting genius Charlie Kaufman go other than ponder Being Charlie Kaufman? With two great Nicolas Cage performances as tormented artist Charlie and (fictional) sweet-natured sell-out twin brother Donald navigating Hollywood’s straitjacket storytelling, it’s another bravura act of mischievous, self-reflexive, narrative knotting whose gear-changing third act somehow honours clichéd conventions whilst still subverting them. All this and note-perfect tragicomic turns from the sublime Streep and Chris Cooper, Adaptation only confirmed Kaufman (and Jonze) as true originals.

Adaptation Clip: The Beginning

16) À MA SOEUR!

Dir & Scr: Catherine Breillat

Stars: Anaïs Reboux, Roxane Mesquida, Arsinée Khanjian



Having endured 1999’s Romance, French provocatrice Catherine Breillat’s tediously explicit, near-pastiche of po-faced sexual theorising, her follow-up on the exploitation and youthfully deluded expectation of adolescent girls wasn’t exactly on the must-see list. But nothing could prepare for the icy, confrontational brilliance of À Ma Soeur! in which Breillat operates on teenage fantasy like a surgeon doing a heart transplant. Only Breillat takes hers out.

Two young siblings, chubby pre-teen Anaïs and fifteen-year-old nymph Elena, holiday with their parents. They bicker, taunt each other’s appearance, but they’re blood sisters and at night in their bedroom, Anaïs bears witness as a lothario Italian student tries to bed Elena. It’s a remarkable extended scene that shows up seedy male manipulation but has nothing on the film’s shocking climax (and dread-soaked approach), which gives previously stated desires a horrific twist. Breillat snakes the typically romanticized coming-of-age saga into something savage and primal; and though her tendentious body politics are not for everyone, the film’s corrosive ideas scar your reeling mind for days. One last thing: the film’s English-language title Fat Girl peddles the pseudo-rabble-rousing that Romance served up; yet its cheap label can’t disguise the potency of this penetrating, genuinely disturbing feminist masterwork.

À Ma Soeur! Trailer:

See also:

MY SUMMER OF LOVE (2004)

Dir & Scr: Pawel Pawlikowski

Stars: Nathalie Press, Emily Blunt, Paddy Considine


Polish-born Pawlikowski’s last feature to date is a peculiarly timeless British coming-of-age fable that ambitiously aims at so much – class, sexuality, spirituality – and hits every target. Based on a Helen Cross novel, Pawlikowski and lenser Ryszard Lenczewski’s febrile images steep the Yorkshire Dales in a hazy glow that reflects, even triggers, the fevered, intense relationship between scrappy orphan Mona and privileged bohemian Tamsin. While viewers are seduced into this dangerous world of lyricism and lust (with tender yet erotic love scenes), Pawlikowski remains clear-eyed and tough on the deceptions we all cast, eliciting sensuous star-making performances from Press and Blunt.

My Summer of Love Clip: ‘Edith Piaf’

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  1. […] And Part IV is dressing up right over here. […]


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