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.
After Todd Haynes made, in my opinion, one of the greatest movies of the 1990’s with his incredible Safe, expectations were high that he might emerge as one of the most important American filmmakers of this generation. I would argue that he has. In fact, I consider Todd Haynes one of the greatest American filmmakers of the past twenty or so years, and his two movies of this decade, Far From Heaven and I’m Not There prove again the range and depth of his understanding of not only American cinema and celebrity, but of the fractured relationship between our cultural expectations and norms and the deeper, much more complicated emotional realities that exist in opposition to them. And while Far From Heaven powerfully equated the cultural taboos exposed by sexual, class and racial identity in the context of a mid-century suburban melodrama, I’m Not There utilized the life of the great Bob Dylan to demonstrate a literal fracturing of the self, casting different actors as different facets of Dylan’s complex (and profoundly American) life.
This, it seems to me, has been the subject of Haynes’ inquiry all along, and his oppositional reading of the straight lines of American life have lead him to create a formally rigorous body of work that stands head and shoulders above most American independent cinema of this era. From the diffusion of the AIDS crisis into horror (Poison) to his use of an unnamable, socially awkward environmental disorder to strip away the layers of self-delusion and dependency in Safe, to the sexual awakening of a journalist set against the bi-sexual pleasure dome of the glam rock movement in The Velvet Goldmine, the crisis of the self has always been the source of Haynes’ inspiration. In the 2000’s, he undertook the task of showing the opposite side of the same coin; the power of social transgression to re-imagine the self. Sitting astride Haynes’ politics are the sumptuous visuals and brilliant performances he brings to the movies, from Julianne Moore’s taut turn as a wealthy housewife who finds comfort in an African American handyman to a myriad of excellent performances, from the late Heath Ledger to the brilliant Cate Blanchett, as the transmogrified Bob Dylan, from that beautiful crane shot that draws us down the side of an autumnal tree in Far From Heaven to the amazing historical recreations and nods to the cinematic texture of the 1960’s and 70’s in I’m Not There.
While Haynes was thrust into the spotlight for his work as a leader of the New Queer Cinema of the early 1990’s, his subsequent work has never been anything less than formally ambitious and deliriously thought provoking, each film after the other forcing a new assessment of the pervious works, all combined to provide rivers of meaning and proof Haynes’ philosophical consistency and genius behind the camera. While the world continues to play catch-up with the great movies he has made, one can’t help but worry about how Haynes can find a way to keep making films. Each is a spectacular reminder of the power of personal imagination to maintain the visually daring heartbeat of great independent cinema.
Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven
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