Still from Tsai Ming-liang’s I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone (2006) courtesy the Film Reference Library.
In the critical community, moving into a new decade means one thing: lists. Best albums, best singles, best novels, best political snafus, best sports bloopers, best TV shows, and, of course, best movies.
To their credit, TIFF Cinematheque’s new series, “Best of the Decade: An Alternative View” (which runs from January 21 until February 23 at Jackman Hall), eschews the tired rundowns. Instead, senior programmer James Quandt surveyed over sixty critics, festival programmers, critics, and other discerning cineastes for their picks of the best cinema of the aughts.
Looking at the list, you’re not likely to find the more commercial films that dominate the “best of” list of someone like Peter Travers at Rolling Stone (no Mystic River, Children of Men, or Lord of the Rings here). But if you’re looking to explore films you haven’t already seen on cable a dozen on times (or at all), TIFF Cinematheque has some truly exceptional offerings.
Dissecting the Cinematheque’s alt-inventory, a few trends become apparent. Anyone who lost interest in Asian cinema when John Woo came across the pond to make Face/Off may be surprised to see the strong support for Thai, Chinese, and Japanese filmmakers. Though South Korea’s Bong Joon-ho seems glaringly absent from this decidedly most-arty of parties, Asian masters like Wong Kar-Wai and Hayao Miyazaki appear on the list, with In The Mood For Love (2000) and Spirited Away (2001), respectively. Also leading the pack with three films is indie Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhang-ke, whose Platform (2000), Still Life (2004), and The World (2006) are all being screened as part of the series. (And, as an added bonus, Jia himself will be introducing Platform this Friday, January 22, and Still Life and The World Saturday, January 23.) But Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul dominates the list, with his 2006 feature Syndromes and a Century voted the film of the decade.
What’s also apparent is the marginalization of commercial cinema. Now, granted, the whole mandate of a series like this is to bring attention to great films that may have been caught in distribution limbo since debuting at festivals across the globe, or otherwise went largely unseen. (“Dare to see something different,” and all that.) But it seems like the trade-off for this “alternative view” is a lot of doleful, glacially paced films, at least in the first few weeks.
Take for example Syndromes of a Century, an admittedly beautiful piece of fugue-state cinema that defies easy description. But the best film of the decade? It seems more like the type of film that scores of critics can trump up as “brilliant” because they lack any other terms for talking about it. And including Gus Van Sant’s Gerry (2002) on the list? Did anyone even like this movie? And who needs warmed-over Béla Tarr worship in a programme that already includes Béla Tarr’s excellent (that is, much, much better than Syndromes and a Century) Werckmeister Harmonies?
There’s a great scene in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Distant—which, incidentally, screens next month as part of the Best of the Decade series—in which a languid artiste and his working-class comrade are watching a movie so self-consciously artful it might as well be the one they’re in. As the upper-crusty photographer Mahmut shifts around in his chair, his houseguest Yusuf nods off to sleep and eventually removes himself to his bedroom. As soon as he does, Yusuf (who had previously professed a fondness for the films of Andrei Tarkovsky) pops in a porno. It’s a poignant scene in a great film, and one that says a lot about the ways in which patterns of film viewing are splintered across class lines. It also speaks to a set of problems posed by a series such as TIFF Cinematheque’s “Alternative View.”
Does a series like this just provide an opportunity to see some of the decade’s best films that flew under the radar? Does it further serve to stratify arthouse and megaplex audiences? Would we rather be watching porn (or Avatar, and anyway what’s the difference?) than napping through one of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s enigmatic “masterpieces”? Questions like this will always hang over polls that come out in favour of the international art film. Even Quandt’s programming notes make a point to put down straw man rumours that those surveyed constitute a “confederacy of mandarins intent on showing off their credentials.” Mandarin or not, many of these are difficult (read: “boring”) films that the unseasoned cinephile may find inaccessible (read: “unenjoyable”). The programme seems aimed at veteran Cinematheque-goers to be sure, and the curious or dilettantish among us are just as likely to be delighted by some hidden gem as disaffected by all the highbrow critical kerfuffle.
Still, despite the patent disinterest in (or contempt for) what popular audiences may consider good movies, there are a lot of great films playing in this programme. In the first few weeks alone, films by non-Asian masters like Claire Denis (Beau Travail, L’Intrus), Terrence Mallick (The New World), Michael Haneke (Caché), and Roy Anderson (Songs from the Second Floor) screen at Jackman Hall.
There’s no doubt that’s there’s a lot to see, provided you can stay awake.
And for list-making’s sake, here’s Torontoist’s Best of the “Best of the Decade,” in no particular order:
- Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, USA/France)
- Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr, Hungary)
- Heart of the World (Guy Maddin, Canada)
- Beau Travail (Claire Denis, France)
- Le Fils (Dardenne Bros., Belgium/France)
- Caché (Michael Haneke, France/Austria/Germany/Italy)
- Dogville (Lars Trier, Denmark/Sweden/UK/France/Germany)
- 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, Romania)
- Distant (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey)
- In the Mood For Love (Wong Kar-Wai, Hong Kong)
For more info on TIFF Cinematheque’s Best of the Decade series, click here. And stay tuned to Torontoist for more coverage on TIFF Cinematheque’s “Best of the Decade: An Alternative View,” as the series unfolds into next month.