This tumultuous decade saw an international array of incredibly innovative and profound films about desperate lives, questionable, identities, hidden histories and the power of imagination and human resilience. Here in alphabetical order is the Emory Department of Film Studies selection of best films of the decade. Faculty raters include Matthew H. Bernstein, chair of film studies, along with lecturers William Brown and Eddy Von Mueller.
AMOROS PERROS (2000) Roughly translated as “Love is a Bitch,” Alejandro González Iñárritu’s first feature follows characters from three social strata in the harsh cauldron of contemporary Mexico City. Their lives are connected (each involves a dog) and thrown into disarray by a random car accident. Iñárritu achieves a sometimes disturbing, but ultimately emotionally engaging, sense of realism by using documentary film techniques. We seem to swim in the world of characters as the hand held camera shakes and moves through an urban landscape miles from the mannered stagings of a Hollywood film. It’s a remarkable debut film by a major international director. (WB)
CACHE (2005) Michael Haneke’s work combines the best traditions of mystery thrillers with art cinema (ambiguous characters, camerawork and editing). When a literary TV talk show host and his wife and teenage son receive anonymous bloody drawings and surveillance videotapes of their home and themselves, their utter vulnerability is exposed and their family IS badly shaken. The father’s efforts to determine who is so quietly unnerving their lives takes him on an investigation that uncovers suppressed aspects of his childhood, and France’s history, that reverberate through the present. (MHB)
CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS (2003) The Friedmans of Great Neck, N.Y., are hardly the only family to have extensive video and 8mm documents of their family life recorded over decades. But the Friedmans, as we learn in director Andrew Jarecki’s excellent documentary, are anything but normal. There are accusations of child molestation against the father, Arnold, and his 18-year-old son. The prosecutor’s case is based on the testimony of family friends who attended the father’s computer lessons in the basement of the Friedman house.
But Jarecki refuses to play the Nancy Grace moral outrage card. When talking about the film, Jarecki says he has no idea if Arnold Friedman is guilty. And the evidence is hardly definitive. As revealed by the home recordings and interviews, there is confusion on all levels. Jarecki has the courage make a film without clear answers, without the pat moral judgements we are pounded with on a 24/7 basis by television news. (WB)
CITY OF GOD (2002) Based on a novel by Paulo Lins, who grew up in the slums of Rio De Janiero, the story is told through the eyes of Buscapé, a fisherman’s son. Buscapé aspires to become a photographer and his camera becomes our point of view as the protagonist hustles his way through the violence and corruption of a particularly brutal urban housing project. Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund’s film is pure narrative cinéma vérité that tells us what we are watching is a true portrayal of life in the housing project known as City of God. There is no authority, no rule of law, no support system, and very little hope. Buscapé’s triumph isn’t about success or happiness. It’s about the fact that he survives long enough to tell the tale. (WB)
DIVINGBELL AND THE BUTTERFLY (2007) Based on the best seller by Jean-Dominique Bauby, this film recounts Baudy’s nightmare affliction known as locked-in syndrome. Baudy maintained full consciousness but had virtually no control over his body other than the ability to communicate via a kind of morse code by moving one eyelid. This is not a promising premise for a film. But we lose our pity and come to admire Bauby. His mind is as active as ever. His desire, humor and self-reflection in the face of such a catastrophic condition becomes heroic. Baudy’s dogged will to live and communicate while trapped in a useless body make this film by painter Julian Schnabel that rare thing, a true story that reveals a vibrant consciousness speaking from the depths of an unimaginable physical prison. (WB)
ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (2004) Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s most moving among his many ingenious mind-bending scripts combined here with Michel Gondry’s striking, artful direction resulted in a fascinating “puzzle film” that is unusually, highly romantic. Via the premise of a couple breaking up (Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet) who patronize a small business that erases unhappy memories, this bittersweet story explores the irreparable connections between memory and identity and sorrow and joy. (MHB)
IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (2000) Hong Kong’s dean of film art, Wang Kar-wai, may yet make a better film than “In the Mood for Love,” but it’s hard to imagine how: this exquisitely paced, achingly nostalgic sort-of love story about a man and a woman whose absent spouses are cheating on them is darn near perfect. Don’t fret the subtitles, either. The visuals alone, lensed by long-time Wang collaborator Christopher Doyle, are rich enough to win this film a spot on the honor roll and near the top of your Netflix queue. (EVM)
LIVES OF OTHERS (2006) Winner of a best foreign film Oscar, “Lives of Others,” by first-time director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, is the story of Gerd Weisler, a functionary in the Stasi, the East German secret police, who is assigned the task of spying on Georg Dreyman, a successful playright. It is a beautifully rendered story of a man who finds his humanity in the nightmarish world of political surveillance. The brilliance of this film lies in von Donnersmarck’s complex characterizations and deep understanding of the totalitarian mindset. “Lives of Others” is ultimately about the triumph of freedom, but it follows a crooked road with plenty of corruption and pain before it arrives there. (WB)
THE LORD OF THE RINGS (2001 – 2003) Not three films but a single gargantuan production released in three parts, Peter Jackson’s monumentally ambitious, awesomely imagined and wildly uneven stab at bringing J.R.R. Tolkein’s paradigmatic fantasy trilogy to the screen is unquestionably one of the game-changers of 21st century cinema. Only an adaptation of the Old Testament, perhaps, would be more doomed to disappoint some devotees, but Jackson’s efforts mainstreamed aesthetics, techniques and technologies that will dominate blockbuster filmmaking for decades. (EVM)
MEMENTO (2000) Smart, tart and deliciously twisted, Christopher Nolan’s Mobius strip of a movie about an mnemonically challenged man searching for his wife’s killer may be the new millennium’s most original thriller to date. The film also manages to maintain its central conceit – a bold manipulation of time in which the story unfolds more or less in reverse – without becoming either dramatically muddled or artily pretentious. (EVM)
SPIRITED AWAY (2001) One of the finest films by one of the grandmasters of animation, Hayao Miyazaki’s surreal story follows a withdrawn adolescent girl who inadvertently slips from suburbia into a world of monsters, demons and gods. Like many of Miyazaki’s movies, “Spirited Away” is evocative of traditional Japanese art, mythology and folk culture. Disney peddled a dubbed version voiced by second-tier American stars; stylized dialogue in the subtitled original keeps the film’s rhythm better. (EVM)