Having finished this (which took me forever, trying to find enough synonyms for "gorgeous" for Days of Heaven and "bizarre" for Eraserhead), I want to jump forward to contemporary Hollywood, which people can't seem to bemoan enough. It's hard to disagree that the quality of your average popcorn flick has declined dramatically over the course of the last fifteen years or so--glancing over what's playing at my local multiplex, it's harder and harder to find anything that looks remotely worthy of a $10 investment. (And that's without the aforementioned popcorn.) But if the standard, even enjoyably bad, major motion picture has become unwatchably shoddy and brainless, the genuinely great movies have retained their power. I actually think they've improved: wisdom comes from standing on the shoulders of giants, and that great leap forward in the 1970s has had dramatic ripple effects in American film over the successive decades, even if we haven't had quite the same in-your-face, defiantly generational renewal of the art that the likes of Jaws and Taxi Driver represented. Instead, we've seen micro-movements come and go, leaving behind indelible impressions of time and place; as a nation, we've only gotten more acute at capturing something of our spirit and our struggles on screen. Auterism, the director-focused prism that transformed American cinema in the late '60s and through the '70s, has shifted in character from Lucas and Spielberg with their obsessive model design to the more detached, observational styles of Todd Haynes and the Coen brothers and the communal, open-minded essay-films of Spike Lee and Richard Linklater. If the studios have generally entrenched themselves in broad banality, America's finest filmmakers have responded by tunneling into more individual concerns with greater depth, no longer trying to conquer the world so much as examine and plunge into specific pieces of the puzzle.
"Postmodern" is a word that gets thrown around a lot in discussions of the best of modern American cinema, but the kaleidoscopic, genre-melting approach of many of the films below isn't a shallow intellectual prank. These movies are interested in things (a breath of fresh air when so many pictures seem to care about nothing but reaching their own end), and they're interested in investigating and representing those things in as many ways as possible. Truth is a fragmented, many-splendored thing; as Michael Koresky perceptively states here, the definition of the real has always been the defining ontological and philosophical pursuit of cinema, from Bazin to The Blair Witch Project. The late 1990s and the early 2000s saw a renaissance of this kind of restless, inclusive work in American film, driven as much by refugees from the old Golden Age (Spielberg, Malick, De Palma) as by the younger talents mentioned above. That there wasn't much of a broad-based movement sweeping these films into collective prominence makes these works all the braver, raging against a light that isn't dying in the least, but is increasingly struggling to get people to really look at what it's shining on. If there's one thread connecting these disparate films of the modern Golden Age, it's this focus on really seeing what we're seeing, understanding the implications of these images and willing to actively focus on our involvement as spectators with those implications and those images. They resensitize us, rather than assuming that bludgeoning spectacle satisfies all human urges: we should still feel the weight of every glance, every gesture, every event on screen, and it does my cinephilic heart good every time I return to these new classics. (Restricted to one per director, unfortunately leaving out such worthies as Bamboozled, Minority Report and The Sixth Sense.)
1. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg, Warner Bros, 2001)
Lambasting Spielberg, as so many have done, as a pandering sentimentalist ignores the fact that emotions are not tame creatures, nor simple tools. The tears E.T. inspires are genuine and powerful, and should be considered not only an artistic achievement but a philosophical statement. The titular alien's return to life is not a manipulative deus ex machina, but an act of supreme faith, less in any particular deity than in the restorative power of cinema and art in general, as well as in the audience's ability and willingness to follow the director in his search for the ultimate purity of the heart. By the dawn of the new millennium, he'd tested that faith in the fires of the Holocaust, slavery, and D-Day, and won. Yet the moral victories of Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan still seem too easy, too tame, too simple; what is really at stake in these movies? What does Spielberg really risk in his deployment of collective history and the emotional catharsis he reaches? It was in his next project, Stanley Kubrick's inheritance, his greatest and most misunderstood work, that Spielberg truly put his legacy to the test, and in the process gave us the most emotionally fraught, ethically devastating, and philosophically ambitious American film of the young century thus far. Science fiction cinema, even at its most ponderous, almost always panders to contemporary ideas of the cool, which makes A.I.'s utter lack of concern with style all the more impressive, paying more visual attention to opaqueness and fragility. As I argued about Radiohead here, Spielberg is less concerned with how the future will change us than how it will not: how our massive technological advancements will reveal how small we are, and how frail and insubstantial are the guiding myths of the sort Spielberg had been pillaging up through Ryan. This didn't stop people from making fun of the ending, missing the melancholy falseness of little David's rapture; he got what he wanted, but it's nothing but a fleeting image, a momentary respite from mortality. So Spielberg, in Kubrick's name, gives us his 2001: a requiem for humanity, obsessed with who we've been and what we'll leave behind. The myths are finally put to the test, and they finally fail, but they're still as sadly immortal as a robot child in "the place where dreams are born."
2. Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, Warner Bros, 1999)
But to step back to Kubrick...all of the master's films are wrapped up in questions of power and responsibility, tracing the insidious control of institutions and social rituals while implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) asking how the individual is to negotiate, physically, philosophically and morally, with these larger frameworks. This complex relationship, and the ambiguous conclusions that result, is front and center in celebrated mid-career works like Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange, but by his later films, these movements of oppression, corruption, struggle and surrender are increasingly disconnected from concrete institutions, or even tangible actions. Instead, the patriarchy is diffused into the atmosphere, an element of mise-en-scene and elaborate narrative structure more than plot twists (which remain ambiguous) and character motivations (practically opaque). If it's difficult to define the central tension, the core struggle, in Eyes Wide Shut, it's because the enemy is a claustrophobic force of will; as the title indicates, this makes it all the harder to see. It also places even more emphasis and weight on the individual search for truth and redemption, and what makes Eyes Wide Shut such a wrenching, devastating film for all its slow detachment is how utterly incapable its hapless protagonist, Tom Cruise's Bill Harford, is of making sense of his nocturnal journey or doing anything about the casual abuses of power he witnesses (and comes to embody himself). Nights teach hard lessons, but they seem to vanish like vapor in the morning air. Sex is a tantalizing carrot throughout, just as it was in Dr. Strangelove and The Shining, but Kubrick willfully keeps his protagonist and his audience alike from reaching orgasm: a phone rings, a servant steps in, a sacrifice is made in Bill's place. The shocked, uncertain place these movements reach in the audience mind is what Kubrick is after: far from the supposedly taboo blood-and-boobs-bludgeoning of something like Hostel, Kubrick's shock is an uncanny, watchful place, hazy and reflective like the endless mirrored surfaces covering the director's final film. The questions provoked are as difficult to define as the answers; like 2001 (which I can't seem to stop referencing), the experience of it is all.
3. The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 20th Century Fox, 1998)
The same year as Saving Private Ryan saw Terrence Malick return from his beloved wilds with his own take on war and the individual, seemingly born whole from that absorbing moment in Spielberg's film when the sound of rain falling on leaves morphs into the steady rat-a-tat of gunfire. "What's war in the heart of nature?" Jim Caviziel dreamily muses at the film's magisterial opening, as an alligator lazily slips beneath the water. Malick's war is both searingly visceral and quietly contemplative, pushing its myriad characters to the breaking point even as it frames their inner struggles with a strange, loving calm. I used the word "kaleidoscopic" above: The Thin Red Line is practically Joycean in its uncanny channeling of collective consciousness. C Company has a living, breathing identity all its own, and the individual soldiers are leaves to a tree. Their murmured voiceovers and flashes of memory merge into one poetic stream, a fractal of awareness and dreams. Malick's WWII has less to do with America and Japan than it does with the island of Guadalcanal, the film's true protagonist: overflowing with natural beauty in every frame, it contrasts severely with the impressionistic explosions and occasional brutal act of violence that the warriors bring to play. Fear, ambition, homesickness, and surrender are conveyed as if natural forces, surging and receding, taking our lives with them. The film is one long, slow unspooling of a thesis Sean Penn's quietly despairing sergeant reveals early on: "In this world, a man alone is nothing." Any other director would've turned that sentence into pure chest-beating nihilism, but Malick sees revelation, contentment, and even joy in that surrender of the piece to the whole. Character after character are shot as though fragments of the divine, living examples of the unknowable pattern of nature: internally chaotic, but collectively sublime. As with his follow-up The New World, Malick pointedly frames his story of restless (white) foreigners within images of rooted (non-white) natives, but the director's major thrust isn't political, or even historical. Like the wind rippling through the palms and high grass, The Thin Red Line reveals all such lines between us as thin things, evanescent and puny, awaiting full breakdown in the shellshocked crucible of war. That release can be painful, even fatal, but Malick has yet to falter in his reach for the transcendent, and even humanity's worst war is forgiven us in the shadow of a glorious tree.
4. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, Universal Pictures, 2001)
Eleven years on, it's hard to believe that the initial reaction to Lynch's definitive wave of the freak-flag centered on how "difficult" and "confusing" the film was, obsessing over gleaning some readily comprehensible pattern from the dazzling hyperlinked quilt of characters, forces, colors, murders, tensions, transformations, and dreams that make up the film. Lynch has never wielded the building blocks of narrative more expertly, constantly hinting at an all-encompassing answer just before gleefully jumping down another rabbit hole; transcendence, not coherence, is his goal. Our search for information is mirrored by Betty's own, along with the growing fear that some awful revelation is waiting behind the curtain: "He's the one who's doing it," one character realizes early on, uncovering some infernal Creator behind his nightmares. The string-puller is Lynch, of course, yet as the film proceeds, one gets a sense of responsibility deferred, some horrible guilt being hastily covered up in a stream of smiling faces and brightly lit palm trees. Hollywood eats its young, but first it makes them mad: Naomi Watts' true transformation from darling to diva comes not when Lynch's infamous blue box devours the film whole, but earlier, when Betty unleashes her mesmerizing acting ability in a meta-audition that drags her aggressive unconscious into the light. Director as malevolent dreamer, actress as murderous liar, both culpable for this lunatic cautionary tale, and every shot at redemption comes with a caveat. Betty and Rita, both amnesiacs in their own way, come together in Lynch's most passionately realized romance, only to be immediately reminded that it is all a recording, a tape, an illusion: they're living in a movie, after all, and the lights must eventually come up.What begins in the realm of endless possibility, a fever dream encompassing dozens of characters and scenarios, ends in Silencio, all storylines converged on a broken woman lost in the mirror-hall of her own delusion. By the follow-up (and spiritual sequel) Inland Empire, Lynch would next leave film behind entirely, giving us the digital Finnegans Wake to Mulholland's Ulysses, and so Mulholland increasingly feels like Lynch's farewell note to the medium, spiked with both rapture and horror, the last fluttering REM movements before we wake to a new world.
5. 25th Hour (Spike Lee, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, 2002)
Since the mid-1990s, America has been paying less and less attention to Spike Lee; this does us wrong as much as him, as his art has only improved with age. Do the Right Thing was his furious, brilliant line in the sand, and his work since zooms in on various residents of his national-microcosm New York neighborhood. These individual stories, grains of sand, inevitably explode outwards in all directions, seeming to swallow the world whole in their passionate quest for meaning, truth, justice, peace. Bamboozled unleashed the director's passion and rancor at their most unfiltered (and therefore exhilarating), but by the follow-up, Lee could no longer hide the strain, to the film's benefit. Few artists have ever produced a more emotionally wrenching tribute to middle-age exhaustion than 25th Hour, a passionate cry for help from a dog-tired city unsure of who it's been and what it will become. 9/11 hangs like a half-remembered nightmare over the story, whether dominating the view from a penthouse apartment adjacent to Ground Zero or quietly decorating a neighborhood bar in the form of a tribute to firemen lost. Indeed, one could tease an allegory of Bush's belligerently confused America out of this story of aggressive yet impotent men taking out their heartbreak on the world (and each other), but Lee's approach is always more collage than portrait. Witness Edward Norton's explosive direct address, which cuts deeper and more savagely than Do the Right Thing's similar roll-call of racist thoughts aired: Norton spews hate on the whole cast of Noo Yawk characters, from turbaned cab drivers to the "Gordon Gekko wannabes" rightfully under siege today, yet Lee is himself paying tribute to a city he impulsively loves even as he bitterly deconstructs its eternally chaotic melting pot. Norton's (self) hatred is the rotting nightmare, but Lee ends on a wistful dream: as the venerable Brian Cox drives Norton to prison, he envisions an entire Americana life for his doomed son, complete with small town, loving family, and a made-good second shot. But as those closing shots of Norton's swollen, bloody face indicate, 25th Hour is a more mature Fight Club: no longer able to outsource his despairing rebellion to an unreal Brad Pitt, Norton (like his director, his city and his country) is left alone to lick his wounds, as beaten but alive as the dog he saves at the film's beginning, 9/10 forever gone and exile in wait.
6. Femme Fatale (Brian de Palma, Warner Bros, 2002)
The divine comedy to Mulholland Drive's tragedy, Femme Fatale's utter refusal to take its glorious, endlessly self-referencing loop-de-loop of deception, doppelgangers and dreams seriously does not mean the film itself should not be taken very seriously. This is the usual rule with Brian de Palma, whose giddy obsessions with blood and breasts has never dulled his innate understanding of the medium, nor his ability to bend it to whatever ends he damn well feels like. By the new millennium, his style had passed through decadent and baroque, right through to sublime. Femme Fatale is a gorgeous hall of mirrors--misted glass and overflowing water provide the backdrop for a set of objects in motion, animate and otherwise, that are never what they seem even as they burst off the screen with such stunning physicality. I don't want to play spoiler, and simply recounting the plot would be the furthest thing from the point, so I'll just fixate on two scenes that capture the whole in all its shivery glory. The first is one of De Palma's classic split-screens, establishing and shattering space, piling as much pure Event on as possible, but this one's self-aware: a paparazzo (Antonio Banderas) snaps a shot of the titular femme (Rebecca Romijn), and as she ducks into church, gets mistaken for another woman, and runs for it, he busies himself uploading, printing and preparing his photo, the relentless forward motion of the film captured briefly, to be maintained and admired. This is De Palma's own image-making in action, his heroine's identity in constant flux even as she is memorialized in an instant. Of course, that's about as detached as the director gets. Later on, as the mutual seduction between the characters reaches its peak, Romijn offers a French stranger a striptease as Banderas jealously watches from outside. The camera ogles her body even as she teasingly refuses all of her audiences (including us) consummation; the Frenchman leaps at her to make the image real, but Banderas rushes to the attack, and their shadows dance on the wall like Plato's cave as Romijn laughs, giddy like her director with the casual ease of her power. It's horniness-as-philosophy, a film utterly seduced by itself even as it hangs back with a wry smile, constantly mocking its own hard-on. Thank Lucifer for dirty old men.
7. Waking Life (Richard Linklater, Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2001)
When the cinematic histories of this era are written, may Richard Linklater be recognized, not as a stolid craftsman or a generational flag-planter, but as a master, as essential a voice as American cinema has ever seen. Ironically, it's his own art that stands in the way of such recognition: his focus on community, his ability to plant, grow and sustain bonds among the wandering groups of curious souls that make up his films, his devotion to an inclusive philosophy that, in itself, becomes a staggering philosophical statement. He may dull his own auterist gleam by taking on genre projects, but it's always remarkable how much humanist fervor he gleans from such potentially neutral material (Before Sunrise, Dazed and Confused, School of Rock). Waking Life, then, is his definitive play for individual recognition, a gorgeous, shape-shifting testament to the powers of communication and imagination. The resurrection of characters and scenarios from older films of his (especially Slacker) would seem to indicate that we're wandering through the dream-bound corners of the director's own mind, but the brilliantly mobile animation emphasizes the possibility wrapped up in every scenario, and the intuitive, free-floating approach Linklater takes to his Rolodex of material. The film's primal scene remains "The Holy Moment," a passionate discussion of Bazin's religious approach to the cinema: every event on screen is a moment of God's creation captured, and Linklater revels in his ability to capture even animated unreality with the same spiritual tug. As the film's boundless energy indicates, Linklater was on something of a creative roll at the turn of the century, completing another film that same year. Tape, shot on grimy video, concerns itself with objectivity, constriction and barriers (across space, time, and people). Consider them duelling philosophical statements from Linklater: Tape is the bitter waking reality, but in Waking Life's collective (and thereby eternal) dream, there is no handrail, as the breathtaking bookend images indicate: the only choice is to let go, and drift.
8. Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, Focus Features, 2002)
With his fourth feature, wunderkind Todd Haynes broke the code: Far From Heaven is a fervently deconstructive, intellectually committed statement that stops the heart and sparks tears from everyone it touches. It's detached and visceral, personal and collective; even as it keeps a respectful distance from its protagonist (Julianne Moore, resplendent, brilliant) and the environment through which she moves, it burns with such empathy that it leaves me gasping, every time. Its claustrophobic frames, bursting with overripe color, betray the utter unreality of the too-perfect '50s pattern, which makes the breaks in the wall all the more important: the unexpected flash of a camera shutter, a flask pulled out of a desk, a bruise that can't quite be covered up. With the perspective of time, the points Haynes makes about gender and sexuality, race and perception, are immediately familiar. Yet even as the director provides distant perspective, his drama emphasizes the unfamiliar and the new, breaking points and times of intense change. The overly gorgeous world, shot with alacrity by Edward Lachman, seems to dominate every frame, but Moore is caught up in the beauty of a Miro painting. Her new gardener/soul mate (Dennis Haysbert) comments that abstract art "picked up where religious art left off," pointing us toward some divine revelation by way of lines, colors, and shapes. Moore's Cathy Whitaker is charged by her director with finding her way to that revelation in spite of the lines, colors, and shapes bracketing her in; it's her struggle toward what seems to us, with the benefit of time, so obvious is the source of the movie's heartbreak. Haynes, himself gay, commits himself utterly to Cathy's story (an act of intense artistic empathy) rather than that of her newly out-of-the-closet husband (Dennis Quaid), yet he pays tribute to the latter's struggle in the opposite fashion. As Quaid follows another man up a set of cinema stairs, Lachman's camera hangs back. Like any good 1950s movie, Far From Heaven leaves a lot to the imagination, but Haynes' reticence is philosophical; he respects the man's privacy, leaving him to his new world while Cathy stands alone at the end (imperiled/empowered), waiting for her train to come in.
9. Unbreakable (M. Night Shyamalan, Touchstone Pictures, 2000)
My quixotic quest to redeem the savaged reputation of my beloved Night Shy is centered on The Village, a staggering masterpiece I've defended as such once or twice. I wouldn't be so committed to the cause, however, if he only had the one trick up his sleeve, and I'm astonished that this questioning, disturbing follow-up to the seismic The Sixth Sense has vanished so quickly from our collective memory. The decade since has seen a glut of superhero films, many eager to be seen as dark meditations on society, etc. without actually doing the heavy lifting: merely adding a layer of grit to your film's visual palette, or killing off all your secondary characters in increasingly sadistic fashion, does nothing to elevate your work to the level of philosophy or social statement. Unbreakable is the real thing, situating its superhero in the real, recognizable world and building the tension gradually, geared less around explosions than slow-burn revelations. Take, for example, the scene in which Bruce Willis' recalcitrant security guard decides to directly test his seemingly limitless strength. Night Shy patiently watches, camera unblinking, as our hero adds weight after weight to his workout bar, eventually adding on some cans of paint as well. Without any fast-cut montages or pump-up soundtrack, the scene becomes a quiet miracle, the possibility of infinity revealing itself before our eyes, mirrored in the astonished expression on his son's face. It's practically Bazinian, focused firmly on physicality and the potential of the non-enhanced flesh, harking back to an incredible early shot in which Willis comes to in a hospital, untouched by a train crash, as a body heaves blood and gives out in the foreground. Equally tactile, and even more spiritually resonant, is the film's central sequence: decked out in his signature poncho, Willis walks into a train station and slowly stretches out his hands. Smiling people brush by, and he catches the briefest glimpse of horrors they've committed. The furthest thing from misanthropy, this sequence emphasizes the true, terribly cinematic burden of the superhero: to bear witness, to see the ugliness beneath the surface, hidden in the corners of our collective soul. As the director's stunning-as-usual finale indicates, the guardians of good and evil may be powerful, but they may also be less free than any of us.
10. The Big Lebowski (Joel and Ethan Coen, Working Title Films, 1998)
Take another hit and reflect: The Big Lebowski isn't so much a stoner movie as it is a stoned movie, indulgent and operating only by its own internal compass, but impossibly generous and immediately absorbed in everything and everyone it touches. "Jackie Treehorn treats objects like women, man," The Dude mutters at one point, inadvertently touching on one of the central totems of the Coens' exceptional career: they treat objects with fervent reverence, resulting in films defined by the menacing powers of space and physicality (Blood Simple, Miller's Crossing, No Country for Old Men) and/or their characters' fetishes and obsessions, mirroring the brothers' own (Barton Fink, Fargo, A Serious Man). These films condemn and trap their protagonists in increasingly grim, calcified worlds, denying them that which they unconsciously seek, and so the brothers get regularly tagged as misanthropes. Yet nihilism "must be exhausting," and like Linklater's Dazed and Confused, another perpetually pot-hazed classic suffused with and elevated by the director's loving humanism, The Big Lebowski is all about the rueful affection sprawled out in every frame. The bemused attention paid to every character and scenario is almost parental. The Dude's keep-the-dream-alive slackerdom and Walter's purist nostalgia for Vietnam (and Judaism, and his ex-wife), contrasted with the pompous Mr. Lebowski and the constant background allusions to the first Gulf War, create a collage of generational warriors utterly, hilariously unable to communicate. Conversations build up, slip sideways, explode, fall apart. The goofy conspiracy at the film's center turns out to be full of fakes: the girl was never kidnapped, the money was never there, Lebowskis are endlessly confused for one another. So in the end, there's nothing to "learn" here, just an endless array of textures to surf. Roger Deakins films a bowling alley like it's the Vatican for a rent-shirking, White Russian-guzzling StonerPope. I've heard Lebowski compared to the Grail myth, yet the detritus of American pop culture (porn, cowboys, performance art, Branded, the fuckin' Eagles) that the film so lovingly curates speaks to an audience right at home in a state of perpetual decline, epitomized by the Dude, our anti-establishment Jesus (whom nobody fucks with). And He doth abide: rugs are pissed on, cars stolen and set on fire, money gained and lost, but fuck it, Dude. We'll all float on all right.