Memento

The Best Films of the Decade

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Yes my friends, I took a hiatus from blogging for a while. Between end of the semester grading and other professional commitment, as well as my family’s raucous Chrismakkuh celebrations, there simply was not any time. These are my excuses, anyway, for producing a “best of the decade” list weeks after you ceased having the desire to read such arbitrary lists. My bad, ya’ll.

Still there? Okay then, before you read, you should know a few things:

1. I spent much of the 2000s with my DVD/VHS player, dutifully watching non-contemporary films as part of my Film Studies degree. Consequently, I did not see nearly as many new releases as I would have liked.

2. I am not a big fan of blockbuster/franchise films, so I refuse to put any of The Lord of the Rings films on a “best of” list.

3. I favor films with a melancholy bent because I enjoy a good cry.

Now here, in no particular order, are my favorite films from the last 10 years:

Brokeback Mountain (2005, Ang Lee)

To me this is a near perfect film. Flawless cinematography (I am thinking of long shots of white sheep running up the side of a green slope), intelligent mise en scene (the slow death of Anne Hathaway’s sexuality is marked by her ever-blonder coif and increasingly talon-like nails) and a spare script. And then there’s the cast. Everyone in this film was wonderful, but the stand out was, of course, Heath Ledger, who plays Ennis as a man whose desires are so tamped down that he literally swallows his own words before uttering them. When Ennis embraces Jack’s denim shirt in the film’s final scene, it’s a moment that rips your heart apart. Timely, beautiful, perfect. Fuck Crash (2005, Paul Haggis). Yeah, I’m still bitter.

Amelie (2001, Jean-Pierre Jeunet)


Overly precious at times? Sure. But it’s irresistable in its preciousness. One of my favorite sequences occurs early in the film, when the narrator explains the little things in life that Amelie enjoys: “Plunging her hand deep into a sack of grain, cracking creme brulee with a teaspoon and skimming stones on the Canal St. Martin.” Here we are treated to a dizzying, high angle shot of the canal which sweeps over Amelie (Audrey Tautou) as she squats on a bridge to skip stones. Little moments like that take my breath away.

Memento (2000, Christopher Nolan)

Trapped in the head of Leonard (Guy Pearce), who lost his short-term memory after the traumatic murder of his wife, we experience life as he does — en medias res. We, like Leonard, find ourselves in the middle of situations — at one point Leonard finds himself running and doesn’t know if he’s being chased or the one doing the chasing — that only make sense when we move backwards and retrace our steps. Luckily, Leonard has a “system”–tattoos, notes, reminders placed around his abode. Yes, it’s a gimmicky concept for a film, but what always grabbed me about Memento is how it provides such a useful allegory for the mourning process. Leonard’s unceasing drive for revenge is a sublimation of his desire to work through the trauma of his wife’s death. At one point Leonard explains “I don’t even know how long she’s been gone…I lie here not knowing how long I’ve been alone. So how can I heal? How am I supposed to heal if I can’t feel time?” See, now I’m all shivery.

Once (2006, John Carney)

I’ll be totally honest: this movie could have been total crap and it would still be on this list as long as it retained its glorious, haunting soundtrack. But thankfully, Once isn’t crap. On the one hand it’s standard musical fare:  a heart-broken guy (Glen Hansard) and a lonely girl (Marketa Irglova) have a meet cute (he’s singing on the streets, she needs her vacuum cleaner fixed) and discover that they make beautiful music together. Really, really beautiful music. What is wonderful about Once though, is how seamlessly musical numbers are woven into the fabric of the diegesis. Every time the guy and the girl (they are never given proper names) open their mouths or tickle the ivories, it makes perfect narrative sense. And when they sing “Falling Slowly” in the middle of a piano store, their voices tentatively coming together for the first time, it’s absolutely magical. I’m talking full goosebumps. I should also add that, next to this year’s Up in the Air, Once contains one of the most realistic and refreshing conclusions to a love affair that I’ve seen in years.

Adaptation (2002, Spike Jonze)

Adaptation is a film about, well, adaptation: cinematic, biological, and social. Charlie Kauffman (Nicholas Cage) is asked to adapt Susan Orlean’s novel, The Orchid Thief, into a splashy screenplay and it is his struggles to do so that create the fascinating film we watch. A skewering of Hollywood,  a meditation on passion (and its absence), and, weirdly, an action adventure story, Adaptation is Kauffman’s most inventive script to date. And as a result of his performance in this film Nic Cage has an eternal free pass to make shit, which he continues to do with impunity.

Half Nelson (2006, Ryan Fleck)

In his best screen performance to date, Ryan Gosling plays Dan Dunne, an idealistic Brooklyn teacher trying to teach History to his primarily African American and Hispanic middle school students. Dan cares about teaching and about his students. Dan believes he can make a difference. Sound like a cliché yet? Oh right, there’s one more thing: Dan’s got a wicked crack addiction. When a favorite student, Drey (Shareeka Epps), catches him smoking crack in a school bathroom, the two form an unlikely alliance. Drey wants Dan to stop doing drugs and Dan wants Drey to stay out of the drug trade. Both ultimately let each other down. The film is equally effective as a parable about the frustrations and despair of the political Left and as a portrait of America’s failed  school systems.

Royal Tenenbaums (2001, Wes Anderson)

There are so many things to love about this movie: the deadpan narration by Alec Baldwin, the quirky cast, the soundtrack. But best of all is the mise en scene. Every shot in the film is crammed with details — Henry Sherman’s fastidious bow-ties (Danny Glover), Margot Tenenbaum’s (Gwyneth Paltrow) bookshelves crammed with slim plays,  and the endless rows of Richie’s (Luke Wilson) framed drawings, dutifully hung by his adoring mother (Angelica Houston). Yet despite it’s loopy surface, the film is filled with moments of deep human connection. One of my favorite scenes in the film is an exchange between Chas Tenenbaum (Ben Stiller) and his future step-father, Henry. Over the course of the film we learn that Chas reacts to his wife’s untimely death, not by mourning, but by keeping his two young sons on a short leash — expecting the next disaster to strike at any moment. Rather than break down, he takes control. On the day of his mother’s marriage to Henry, a union Chas has opposed through much of the film, Chas is confused to discover that Henry has an adult son named Walter (Al Thompson). Henry has to remind Chas that he has been married before and that his wife died. He is a widower. As Henry, Walter and Richie adjust their ties in the mirror, Chas approaches the group of men and begins to adjust his own tie as well. He then announces, as if the news were completely new, “You know, I’m a widower myself.” Henry pauses, turns towards Chas, and places his hand on his shoulder  “I know you are, Chas.” It’s a simple exchange, a throwaway moment, but it grabs me every time.

Old Boy (2003, Chan-wook Park)

If someone kidnapped you and kept you imprisoned in a bland apartment for 15 years with only a television for company and the same dumplings to eat day after day, you’d be pretty pissed off, right? Old Boy follows Oh Dae-Su (Choi Min-sik), businessman-turned-martial arts expert, as he seeks revenge for his years of imprisonment, and boy is he mad! The film is riddled with graphic violence but my favorite scene by far is the infamous “hammer scene” in which a wounded Dae-Su fights a horde of men with nothing but a hammer. Here the fighting is lugubrious and painful, men groan and creep and fall. And the best part is that Park films it in one long take like a slow, bloody waltz.

Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003, Quentin Tarantino)

I have always been critical of Tarantino’s reluctance to engage in the necessary task of editing his films. For me, Inglorious Basterds (2009) was long and flabby. Kill Bill: Vol. 1, on the other hand, felt just right to me (perhaps because Tarantino had to cleave the film into 2 volumes?). I suppose I’m a sucker for films in which women are given meaty, kick ass roles. How can you not love a film in which Uma Thurman informs the survivors of a massacre created by her own hands, “Those of you lucky enough to have your lives, take them with you. However, leave the limbs you’ve lost. They belong to me now.” Kick. Ass.

Grizzly Man (2005, Werner Herzog)

Using the 100 hours of footage that Timothy Treadwell, aka, the “Grizzly Man,” left behind after his brutal death, Herzog attempts to make sense of the man’s seemingly insane desire to live among wild bears. Was Treadwell crazy? Probably. But this is not the only message of the film. Treadwell was also a man filled with passion and love. The film could have been exploitative, but it’s not. It’s simply sad.

Up in the Air (2009, Jason Reitman)


Critics have been stumbling over each other to praise this movie, but for once the praise is deserved. As so many have already noted, Up in the Air is a timely portrait of today’s dire economic climate. As I sat in the darkened theater, listening to real Americans explain how losing their jobs was going to impact their lives and their families, I couldn’t help but think of all the people I know right now who have lost their jobs, have had their hours cut or who simply cannot find work. But then,oddly enough, the film also soars as a romantic comedy. The rapport between Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) and Alex (Vera Farmiga), two commitment-phobes addicted to air travel and impersonal hotel rooms, is honest and funny. And can we talk about George Clooney for a minute? Every look, every gesture, every half-smile was perfect. Take the scene at Ryan’s sister’s wedding reception. In a few dialogue-free shots we see Ryan’s walls come crashing down. We can actually see him falling in love (0r what he believes to be love) with Alex. And then there’s Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), who was truly wonderful as a smart, ambitious young woman who realizes, as most of us do around the age of 23, that the “grand plan” we had for ourselves in college doesn’t really translate in the real world. Finally, the film’s ending (I promise, no spoilers here) was the perfect balance between realism and idealism, despair and hope. It’s the kind of film that makes you appreciate your own very heavy backpack.

And the rest:

Lost in Translation (2003, Sofia Coppola)

Thank you Ms. Coppola, for not letting us hear what Bob (Bill Murray) says to Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson).

American Splendor (2003, Shari Springer Berman)

Paul Giamatti is a god.

District 9 (2009, Neil Blomkamp)

A science fiction social problem film turned explode-y action adventure film. I was literally on the edge of my seat throughout the entire film. Then I bawled like a baby. I’m not sure that’s ever happened before.

City of God (2002, Fernando Meirelles)

This film is noteworthy for its  stunning cinematography and kinetic editing alone, but it’s translation of the classic gangster formula to the slums of Rio de Janeiro is what makes this one of the stand out films of the decade.

There Will Be Blood (2007, Paul Thomas Anderson)

Dirty, greasy and bloody. If movies had an odor, There Will Be Blood would smell like sweaty men and rust. I drink your milkshake!

Children of Men (2006, Alfonso Cuaron)

OK, I’ll admit it: My husband and I watched this one with English sub-titles  because we found the British accents too difficult to understand. And we still loved it. So there.

Talk to Her (2002, Pedro Almodóvar)

You have to love a film containing a beautifully shot, black and white silent film, “The Shrinking Lover,” depicting a tiny man and an enormous vagina. Enough said.

Brick (2005, Rian Johnson)

Sure, you all fell in love with Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 500 Days of Summer (2009, Marc Webb).  But I fell in love with him here, spouting hard-boiled lines like “Throw one at me if you want, hash head. I’ve got all five senses and I slept last night, that puts me six up on the lot of you.”

Shaun of the Dead (2004, Edgar White)

Genre mixing at its finest.

Knocked Up (2007, Judd Apatow)

Debbie (Leslie Mann): I’m not gonna go to the end of the fucking line, who the fuck are you? I have just as much of a right to be here as any of these little skanky girls. What, am I not skanky enough for you, you want me to hike up my fucking skirt? What the fuck is your problem? I’m not going anywhere, you’re just some roided out freak with a fucking clipboard. And your stupid little fucking rope! You know what, you may have power now but you are not god. You’re a doorman, okay. You’re a doorman, doorman, doorman, doorman, doorman, so… Fuck You! You fucking fag with your fucking little faggy gloves.
Doorman (Craig Robinson): I know… you’re right. I’m so sorry, I fuckin’ hate this job. I don’t want to be the one to pass judgment, decide who gets in. Shit makes me sick to my stomach. I get the runs from the stress. It’s not cause you’re not hot, I would love to tap that ass. I would tear that ass up. I can’t let you in cause you’re old as fuck. For this club, you know, not for the earth.
Debbie: What?
Doorman: You old, she pregnant. Can’t have a bunch of old pregnant bitches running around. That’s crazy. I’m only allowed to let in five percent black people. He said that, that means if there’s 25 people here I get to let in one and a quarter black people. So I gotta hope there’s a black midget in the crowd.

Note: thank you to the poster on IMDB.com who transcribed this wonderful exchange from Knocked Up so I didn’t have to.

I would love to hear your thoughts on your favorite moments from these films or about any glaring omissions.

Time Jumping TV, aka, the Most Annoying TV Trope of 2009

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Whenever I screen Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1929) for students one aspect of the film that we invariably discuss (in addition to the infamous eye-slicing scene), is the way that the filmmaker plays with time. The film opens with an intertitle “Once upon a time” and is followed with such erratic markers of time as “eight years later,”  “around three in the morning,” “sixteen years earlier” and finally, the cryptic  “in spring.” 

"Sixteen years earlier..."

"Eight hours later..."

I enjoy Un Chien Andalou‘s defiance of temporality because it makes sense in the context of a Surrealist film; Surrealism  aims to disturb the viewer through the irrational pairing of images — ants crawl out of a hole in a man’s palm, an androgynous young woman pokes a severed hand with a stick, etc. The film’s temporal disjunctures further add to the viewer’s unease — we cannot orient ourselves in time and are therefore wholly at the whim of the filmmaker. This kind of playing with time is not limited to Surrealist films. Films as diverse as Pulp Fiction (1994, Quentin Tarantino), Run Lola Run (1998, Tom Tykwer) and Memento (2000, Christopher Nolan) jump around in time, as do television shows like Lost. Recently, programs like One Tree Hill  and Desperate Housewives decided to shift their narratives to  four and five years in the future, respectively, a bold move which ultimately revived the lackluster storylines of both programs. 

When Desperate Housewives jumped ahead 5 years, Gaby and Carlos suddenly had a family.

However, it appears that television has become especially fond of this trope as of late. Usually it is employed in this way: the episode opens with a dramatic scene  — someone is in the hospital, a formerly in love couple is on the brink of divorce, a small airplane is about make crash landing right on Wisteria Lane! — which compells the viewer to wonder: How did this happen? Why are they fighting? Why are the residents of Wisteria Lane so goshdarn unlucky? This scene of high emotion will then cut to a more peaceful scene as an onscreen title announces “8 hours earlier” or “3 days before.” The remainder of the episode then  serves as an explanation for how the characters wind up in such a predicament — all of the events we see seem fated. No matter what, that airplane is going to make a crash landing on Wisteria Lane and this knowledge colors how we read every event that transpires in the episode.
It seems that ever since programs like Lost started with playing with time, placing the viewer in the present, then the past, then the future, television writers realized the dramatic potential of narrative time travel. Unfortunately, this approach to plot, much like the overused mockumentary style of the contemporary “comedy verité,” loses its efficacy with too much repetition. My husband and I actually groaned aloud when Monday’s Gossip Girl opened with a car crash (“The Debarted”) only to jump back in time eight hours, because we had seen the same narrative structure on Sunday night’s Desperate Housewives  (“Boom Crunch”) and on the previous week’s episode of Modern Family (“Fizbo”). 

The best thing about that car crash is that THIS car crash of a relationship is finally over.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy this narrative structure (even when it’s overused). I just hate when writers use this trope to make an otherwise uninteresting story appear more interesting. To show you what I mean, let’s look at two recent examples of narrative time-jumping, one that worked and one that failed.

The One that Worked: Modern Family‘ s “Fizbo”  

“Fizbo” opens with various members of the Pritchett clan pacing anxiously around a hospital waiting room. Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) refers cryptically to an “accident” while Jay (Ed O’Neill) wonders how it might have been averted. Their faces are grave. At this point in the show the viewer is in the dark about who has been injured, how s/he has been injured and how serious the injury is. The show then jumps back in time to reveal Phil’s (Ty Burrell) decision to host an elaborate birthday part for his son, Luke (Nolan Gould). 

Phil's extreme clown phobia could be a possible cause of the "accident."

This use of time jumping is effective  in “Fizbo” because the viewer is given double duties. First, we are watching the episode’s narrative — about Luke’s over the top birthday party (a moon bounce! a reptile lady! a clown!) — unfold. But we are also searching for the cause of the horrible accident. As a result, every new element introduced to the story becomes a suspect:  Jay gives Luke a crossbow as a present, a zipline running through the middle of the party seems destined to cause a concussion for some unlucky child, and one of the reptile lady’s poisonous scorpions is set loose by a jealous Haley (Sarah Hyland). Without the time jumping narrative structure the series of bizarre events occurring at Luke’s birthday party would be just that — bizarre. But knowing that one of these dangers will be the cause of the hospital visit we witnessed at the beginning of the episode serves to tie these disparate elements together. In fact, the more bizarre the element (i.e., the crossbow), the funnier the episode becomes. 

Is the cross bow to blame for the terrible accident?

We eventually learn that Luke is the one in hospital and that he broke his  arm after slipping on some beads from the craft table his mother set up. This is the great punchline of the episode because the craft table was the most banal aspect of the party but ultimately, the most dangerous. I’ll never look at comb sheaths the same way again. 

The One that Didn’t Work: Gossip Girl‘s “The Debarted”  

“The Debarted” opens with Serena (Blake Lively) and her milquetoast lover, Tripp Vanderbilt (Aaron Tveit), who I like to call Waspy McWasperson, engaged in a lover’s quarrel. The source of their tension is, I presume, supposed to be mysterious to the viewer. But given that the characters on this program fight with each other constantly, making up and breaking up and swapping lovers and eloping and divorcing in a nonstop carousel of terrible plotting, I was not all that intrigued. Then, out of nowhere, three wolves appear in the middle of the road (seriously!) and poor old Waspy swerves to avoid hitting them (animal lover that he is) and his Range Rover plows into a guard rail. Nooooo! Despite my lack of interest in why Serena and Congressman McWasperson were fighting and who was hurt, the episode jumped back to “eight hours earlier” to explain the whole mess.  

Poor little rich boy.

The reason “The Debarted”‘s use of time jumping fails is that it is entirely arbitrary. The big event that the episode is supposed to lead up to — the car crash — only involves two characters and so, when the time jump occurs, all of the other character’s storylines remain unaffected. Knowing why Serena and Waspy were fighting has little bearing on the far more compelling storyline involving Chuck  (Ed Westwick) and his inability to mourn his father (the Bart referenced in the episode’s title)  on the one year anniversary of his death. Eventually Chuck ends up at the hospital to see Serena, which leads him to finally break down and cry, but the episode needn’t have opened with the car crash in order to bring about Chuck’s change of heart. The episode also focuses on a “secret letter” that Lily (Kelly Rutherford) is keeping from Rufus (Matthew Settle) (YAWN!), but the car accident has very little to do with that story. The fact remains that “The Debarted”‘s narrative and its impact on the show’s characters would have remained unchanged if it had moved forward chronologically. Time jumping in this episode is simply a gimmick, a crutch for the show’s lazy writers. In fact, it is my personal opinion that Gossip Girl is penned by two monkeys throwing their poop at a keyboard. But that’s just my opinion.

So what do you think? Are you sick of time jumping TV? What other prgrams are doing this right now? And who is using this tope successfully and who is failing? I would love to hear your comments.