I’ve seen top ten lists of everything from best conservative movies, black films, Japanese films, Chinese films, performances, film critics, even Facebook updates–the ubiquity of such decade-ending lists, missives, favorites and cultural touchstones of all sorts makes one’s own list feel particularly small. I would argue that the Internet’s much-heralded democratization of social and editorial space that has happened over the last decade has made people like me–and my views–less necessary. How does one make one’s voice heard among the multitude of voices and tweets? Who cares? Maybe it’s not about being heard, at all, but just about recording one’s own thoughts for posterity and narcissistic satisfaction.
I don’t know what the best films of the decade are any more than the hundreds who’ve come up with similar lists. But here is a group of films, countries and people that for me defined the decade, at least—its social, economic and political upheaval—and for whatever reason, personally, ripped me inside out, either emotionally, intellectually, or in the best of cases, both. I have also restricted this list to foreign-made films, for no good reason really, except perhaps to distinguish my list from others and it’s simplified the task of choosing the “best,” and that these films are probably the most marginalized and tragically underseen on these shores, and yet somehow, more effectively portray our current human condition than anything to come out of the U.S. industry.
I had initially only wanted to write about one film, call it my #1, Laurent Cantet’s 2001 chilly existential masterpiece “Time Out” (L’emploi du temps”). In depicting the excruciating lengths to which one downsized corporate suit goes to keeping his joblessness a secret from his family, from his friends and from himself, Cantet has crafted an enthralling, eerily prescient portrait of unemployment and denial. Veteran stage thespian Aurelien Recoing is the self-deluded Vincent, a half-smiling/half-guilty bourgeoisie grifter, whose wayward S.U.V. journeys into adventure and isolation foretells everything that would go wrong in the decade to come. With its cool veneer of glassy reflections and white expanses, the movie reveals such spaces of clarity and cleanliness as ultimately shallow and paranoid, a perfect visual metaphor for a decade built on the lies of unlimited economic and imperialist prosperity.
This notion brings me to the entire decades’ worth of work of (#2) Jia Zhangke. Beginning with his epic-length “Platform” in 2000, followed by “Unknown Pleasures” (2002), “The World” (2004), “Still Life” (2006), “Dong” (2006), “Useless” (2007) and “24 City” (2008), there is arguably no more important filmmaker to emerge from the past decade. A mixture of the trenchant and the radical, postmodern pastiche and neorealist impulse, documentary and fiction, Jia chronicles his country’s blind rush towards capitalistic excess with a wry, exquisite eye that transcends artistic and national boundaries—and in so doing, has made a body of work that speaks to a global irresponsibility that can only end in collapse.
Jia may be only matched by the (#3) Dardenne brothers’ decade output with “Rosetta” (okay, 1999, but it was close), followed by “The Son” (2002), “The Child” (2005) and “Lorna’s Silence” (2008), all profoundly humanistic, wrenching tales of the pained, conflicted and/or dispossessed, while always paying, detailed, nerve-rattling attention to the daily work that we must do to stay alive.
As long as I’m cheating with the numbers, this is also the decade of (#4) Romanian film. If Jia was the auteur of the decade, the post-totalitarian country was the ’00s national art cinema surprise, exemplified by “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” (2005), “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” (2007) and “Police Adjective” (2009). On the 20th anniversary of the country’s liberation from despotic rule, we can now look back at a grouping of films from a fucked-up land that says as much about them as us: with universal meditations on death, exploitation and oppression both challenging and gripping at the same time.
As long as I’m talking national cinema, I must also give a shout out to another nation that’s recently attempted to uncover its history of lies, civil strife and pockets of political oppression: (#5) Korean Cinema. So many great directors came to our attention: From Bong Joon Ho’s “Memories of Murder” (2003) and “The Host” (2006) to Park Chan Wook’s “Joint Security Area” (2000) and “Oldboy” (2003) to Lee Chang Dong’s “Peppermint Candy” and “Secret Sunshine” (2008) to the ultra-auteur works of Hong Sang-soo, these are films of scathing self-examination, acerbic irony, entertainment value and supreme violence—the spectacle of a schizoid people, caught between West and East, capitalist embrace and critique.
Here are the others:
(#6) Lars von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark” (2000), whose technological innovations and neo-melodramatic formulations miraculously mix together to create a tear-jerking groundbreaker that left me a sniveling mass after seeing it for the first time jetlagged in Cannes;
(#7) Michael Haneke’s “Cache” (2005), a potent mix of new media tropes and post-9/11 politics that taps into the zeitgeist with remarkable acuity and dread;
(#8) Alfonso Cuaron’s “Y Tu Mama Tambien” (2001), a deceptively light-hearted sex romp that has more to say about economic disparity than most contemporary documentaries (I’d add Cuaron’s post-9/11 thrilling dirge “Children of Men,” too, if only that rescue ship didn’t emerge out of the nebulous fog at the end);
(#9) Lukas Moodysson’s “Lilya-4-Ever” (2002), the most transcendent, trenchant movie about child prostitution you’ll ever see, evocatively set against a gloomily beautiful backdrop of Russian concrete and heavy metal music;
(#10) two from Pawel Pawlikowski (whatever happened to him?); his 2000 debut “Last Resort” probes the plight of a refugee mother and son in the wake of post-Communist breakdown, which we all seem to be hurling towards nowadays (see #4 and #8); and “My Summer of Love,” a deceptively intimate coming-of-ager about lies, self-deception, class, and how things like love, money and religion can not save us. That, for me, encapsulates the decade as much as anything.