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.
Is there a global cinema? The fact remains that, despite living in the 21st century and despite the proliferation of digital cinema tools across the spectrum of filmmaking activities, the access of peoples around the world to the means of making films feels as disparate as ever. The decline in filmmaking among the filmmakers of the African continent is only one signal among many that there is great work to be done in the name of both international and indigenous cinema. One of the more interesting trends in recent American independent cinema, and one for which I am a huge champion, is the rise of the global American indie, a film that subverts the Hollywood “location” mentality in favor of producing stories that speak directly to the culture in which they are made (Munyurangabo, Treeless Mountain and The Pool being among not only the finest examples of this movement, but of American cinema in general in the past few years). This new intersection of storytelling and exploration is still finding its feet and, despite the fine line to be walked between engagement and exploitation, to this point, the emerging American global cinema has served the purpose of supplementing a dearth of indigenous cinema finding an audience here in the USA.
All of these factors combine to make Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner easily one of the most important films of the last ten years, if not of the last quarter century. It remains remarkable not only because of the hope it continues to inspire that indigenous communities will utilize the new democratic tools of the cinema to preserve their history and narratives, but more so because, some nine years after it’s initial festival run, it still feels like a rare and beautiful miracle, an almost impossible movie that combines classic mythological storytelling with the formal techniques of 21st century cinema to spectacular effect.
One of the most disappointing aspects of the proliferation of data and storage in our lifetime has been the way in which, as our access to information has grown exponentially, we have grown dependent on the transfer of our own memories to our devices; and while I no longer remember all of the phone numbers of family and friends like I once had to (thanks iPhone), I worry too that the emotional memory of seeing and experiencing not just film, but life and stories as we live them, has somehow been diminished. We have begun to substitute the gauzy and unreliable texture of our memory for the sensory pleasure of immediate gratification and recent stimulation. Just thinking back nine years to the way an old girlfriend wore her hair, or to things I might have done during those days, I can barely piece it together anymore and compared to the fresh sensations of new memories and feelings, they seem like faded, flickering remnants of a lost time.
But forget personal memory; imagine the feeling of responsibility in trying to preserve the oral tradition of your culture on film. Zacharias Kunuk’s film is ironic in that it uses the modern means of information storage and capture to preserve an ancient story that has never needed any such help before. The first film in the Inuktitut language, Atanarjuat remains a seminal reminder that, for all the handwringing that goes on over the look of presentation formats (video vs film vs digital), the great technological leaps in film production have made great films possible. And yet, there is so much still to be done. Far more than just some abstract example, Atanarjuat stands alone as a great film; all of the classical devices are there– love, betrayal, revenge, violence, passion and, for the record, the greatest chase scene ever committed to film (sorry Bullitt and The French Connection)– and yet, the film still feels incredibly modern.
I think of this movie often, mostly when I am feeling an absence and longing for new voices that can transform cinema with a new way of looking at film narrative, or for brave and daring debut films that seek far more than a foot in the door of the studio system; Atanarjuat remains a beacon for everything that is right about cinema in the 21st century, proof of the notion that art and independent, indigenous and an emerging global cinema can combine to create the necessary conditions for rare and special films. We should celebrate greatness, but also continue to fight so that more artists can find a way to tell their tales. As the old saying goes, if not us, who?
Zacharias Kunuk’s Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner
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
13. Into Great Silence by Philip Gröning