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.
“I was all right for a while, I could smile for a while/ But I saw you last night, you held my hand so tight/ As you stopped to say “Hello”/ Aww you wished me well, you couldn’t tell/ That I’d been cry-i-i-i-ng over you, cry-i-i-i-ng over you/ Then you said “so long”. left me standing all alone/ Alone and crying, crying, crying cry-i-ing/ It’s hard to understand but the touch of your hand/ Can start me crying.” — Roy Orbison, Crying
Hollywood is an imaginary space. Taking a single step onto Hollywood Boulevard itself is bound to fill you with disappointment about the way in which the iconography of the movie business is realized in the flesh; tawdry, cheap, a strip mall on wheels for people who dream of the symbolic meaning of celebrity. We should all know by now that Hollywood, the actual industry that makes movies, is cloistered on studio lots, behind private gates and guards, homes high in the hills beyond dead end roads, inaccessible to the outside world. That catch phrase on American Idol, you know the one, “You’re going to Hollywood, baby!” perfectly encapsulates the dilemma; there are gatekeepers standing at the doors, pointing and choosing as to which of the hordes of the hopeful will be given the support of a multi-billion dollar industry and launched into the stratosphere of cash, glamour, bling and fame. The dream persists, despite its tenuous link to reality, inspiring people from all over the world to try and ascend the ranks of the chosen, to become famous. It has always been this way; petty and small, a community of images, brands and big business driven to continue to evolve and sell the dream, each mutation creating a newly polished idea of a place that doesn’t exist.
This idea, created and manufactured by publicists, studios and the industry’s media machine, also explains Hollywood’s tenuous relationship to realism. Hollywood’s biographies are often star-studded hagiographies, their “socially conscious” fictions strident and unbelievable, driving people to manufacture conspiracy theories about the industry’s liberalism as being condescending; how do you sell the dream of an imaginary idea and still tether your work to the everyday experiences of your audiences? How to bring realism and escapism together?
One of the reasons that foreign and independent films hold sway over my own imagination is that I do not care much for the particulars of the modern Hollywood fantasy; If I want to escape my own time and condition, I don’t often imagine myself as a super hero or science fiction protagonist, but more a time traveller, using the illusions of Hollywood past– John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder– or the realism of international cinema from Europe and Asia in particular, to get away from the ever-mutating Hollywood dream. It is ironic that my own dreaming is tied to the past or to a cinema made by people from other cultures; I feel more connected to their concerns and, while they often take on the tropes of Hollywood’s storytelling, the result can only end up being ironic and far more powerful than the literalism of the Hollywood movie (more on this when we discuss a certain Romanian masterpiece in the coming days).
So, when an American filmmaker takes down the mythology of Hollywood, whether it be Robert Altman in his terrific The Player or Curtis Hanson in the excellent L.A. Confidential, they end up drawing dark lines under the morality of the business of movies and unsettling our fantasies of the polish and sheen that Hollywood projects. But it is David Lynch, unsurprisingly, and his film Mulholland Dr., that provides the greatest Hollywood takedown of all. It is, simply, one of the greatest movies ever made about the illusory nature of the Hollywood myth.
Mulholland Dr. towers over the decade, both in its prescient understanding of the oncoming tidal-wave of American “aww-shucks” reality celebrity and for the way it parallels the illusions of the Hollywood dream to the act of dreaming itself. Like our dreams, the film is something of a matryoshka doll, a series of boxes within boxes (literally) that unfold in and out of one another, constantly changing the meaning of what came before and shifting the ground beneath what is coming next. Lynch uses the dual images of an amnesiac brunette named Camilla who becomes convinced she is an actress named Rita (Laura Elena Harring) and a bifurcated blonde named Diane Selwyn (Naomi Watts, in the breakthrough performance of a lifetime) who spends half the movie fantasizing about her dream of Hollywood as a star-struck tyro named Betty, to play with the Hollywood iconography of beauty and celebrity, of fame and humiliation, all the while using the narrative structure of the movie to undermine our understanding and sympathies.
David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr.
The pleasure of watching Mulholland Dr. is not only found in the game of trying to assemble a narrative path through the film (a second viewing should do the trick there), but in exploring the texture and depth of Lynch’s filmmaking. The devil is in the details (and at the Diner); just look at the badge on the waitress, watch as it oscillates between the names Diane and Betty. No one loads the frame with more meaning than Lynch, and each shot carries not only a narrative purpose but a clue to Lynch’s intent; the layers of relationships and meanings inherent in dreaming, often unexplained but always understood. Watching him unravel Diane’s mind, her dreams of celebrity and love, is shattering; it is akin to watching someone weave a tapestry in reverse, layer by layer, line by line, peeling away illusions until we’re all left in tatters, wondering how the artist has unmade everything, including the cinema itself. Hollywood, you never stood a chance.
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
12. Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner by Zacharias Kunuk
11. There Will Be Blood by Paul Thomas Anderson
10. Zodiac by David Fincher
9. Beau Travail/ 35 Shots Of Rum by Claire Denis
8. The Diving Bell And The Butterfly by Julian Schnabel
7. Time Out by Laurent Cantet