The Back Row Manifesto’s Incredibly Personal, Completely Subjective List of the Best Films of The Decade (2000-2009) will be unveiled over the course of the month of December. Think of it as a sort of misguided advent calendar without the little chocolate surprises. Either way, thanks for reading and please check back every day over the next few weeks for the full list. The introduction to the list can be found here.
While assembling this list of my favorite films of the decade, the issue of how to handle documentaries presented an immediate challenge. My list so far only features three; Jonathan Caouette’s life-altering Tarnation, Yung Chang’s amazing Up The Yangtze and here now, Philip Gröning’s unfathomably great Into Great Silence. So, I guess I should be clear; I could create an entire list of the best films of the decade populated solely by non-fiction, easily and with pleasure. But I also have to be honest with myself; because of the way so many documentaries are made, I often feel a diminishing passion for them the further I get away from viewing them. There are vast numbers of exceptions to this generalization, but in the same way one might look back upon an old science fiction film and smile at the way in which the special effects seem out of date, so too many documentaries feel so alive in their moment only suffer upon reflection. They are victims of the passing of time, of problem solving and innovation in real life, of great social victories and progressive human endeavor; yesterday’s outrage is today’s history lesson. In figuring out for myself which films continue to cast a spell on me, I found myself returning again and again to a select few documentaries, and the one that kept suggesting itself as a true masterpiece of the form was Into Great Silence.
Cinematic time is one of the great dilemmas of film love, both in the way that movies utilize time to tell their stories, but more problematically in the way that time in the movies intersects with the real time experience of watching them. I have ranted often, both here and among friends, that the minute someone mentions the run time of a film, I know we have a problem; I’m just the type of person to take offense when someone mentions a films real time length as some sort of obvious pejorative against its quality. For me, someone who thinks about these types of things, it is clear that it is the presence of dissonance in the relationship between real time and cinematic time that creates an issue; millions of people have stayed in their seats, comfortably engaged throughout movies of various length without raising an eyebrow. Why? Because they were engrossed in a good story; cinematic time and real time were synchronized for the viewer and, generally speaking, it is only when they diverge, when the movie allows you to be pulled back into an awareness of real time, that the feeling of a movie being “too long” begins to arise.
But what if the subject of your film was the relationship between real time, real life, and eternity? How could anyone possibly undertake the idea of a film that encapsulates years, decades, centuries of contemplation? How could an audience endure the slow passing of days, the rituals and routines? In the case of Into Great Silence the answer is found in the grand documentary tradition of observation. Here is a film with no traditional “narrative”, no characters, no arc, no score, no voiceovers, no interviews, just a catalogue of days spent among the monks of the Grande Chartreuse monastery, pressed into the form of a feature length film. As Andrei Tarkovsky wrote in his seminal Sculpting In Time:
“Time printed in its factual forms and manifestations: such is the supreme idea of cinema as an art… If time appears in form and fact, the fact is given in the form of simple, direct observation. The basic element of cinema, running through it from its tiniest cells, is observation.”
If Tarkovsky was building sculptures in time, Gröning has undertaken the construction of an entire monastery.
One of the great stories that accompanied the film upon its release was that of Gröning sharing his interest in filming at the Grande Chartreuse back in 1984, only to be met with a reply informing him that the monks “would get back to him”, which they did, sixteen years later. This is exactly the perfect metaphor for the film itself, a pure and moving attempt to use cinema to reproduce the temporal experience of monastic living. Gröning uses the rhythms of the monk’s lives to pull you in and out of contemplation, to sync the viewer with the rhythms of the monastery, to draw us into the experience of feeling the irrelevance of time as a ritual concern. The effect was staggering for me, and not only did the film draw an old atheist like me completely into the cycles of monastic living, but it made me confront the absence of real time in the most pleasurable ways imaginable. Watching the monks pray, think, eat, walk and sing, I completely lost track of myself and, while the film makes the brilliant choice of not trying to ascribe meaning to the meditations– it isn’t a spiritual film as much as it is a physical, earthbound document of human endeavor—Gröning instead creates space for the mind to absorb the experience of life stripped of time itself.
Into Great Silence remains criminally underappreciated as a document of human experience but even more so as a masterpiece of cinematic art that delivers an integrated, coherent vision of the power of temporal observation. Gröning has transformed the cinema into a cathedral, and Into Great Silence deserves a place at the altar of this or any decade.
Philip Gröning’s Into Great Silence
23. Quiet City by Aaron Katz
22. Mutual Appreciation by Andrew Bujalski
21. Frownland by Ronald Bronstein
20. Marie Antoinette by Sofia Coppola
19. Up The Yangtze by Yung Chang
18. Platform by Jia Zhang-Ke
17. Tarnation by Jonathan Caouette
16. Lilya 4-Ever by Lukas Moodysson
15. Far From Heaven/ I’m Not There by Todd Haynes
14. Sideways by Alexander Payne