In March 2002 I woke up one morning in a trailer in the south of France, near the city of Carpentras. I worked on a fully organic farm (nothing mechanical, horse-drawn tills). There were no entertainment devices, save a transistor radio that picked up a plethora of European and Russian stations at night before evaporating during the first hour of sunlight. Though glad of the break from the tyranny of media, I knew it was still Oscar night in Los Angeles and I switched on the BBC to hear if someone Robert Altman’s Gosford Park or Todd Field’s In the Bedroom had beaten Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind for the grand prize. They didn’t.
In fact I hadn’t seen Altman’s latter-day masterpiece yet. But I had caught the other two American films that made 2001 into an incredible year for American film. Three masterpieces released within two months of each other. It reminded me of the glorious seventies when Nashville, Barry Lyndon, Dog Day Afternoon and Jaws made 1975 a very imposing year.
I begin my list with the three from 2001: Todd Field’s In the Bedroom (the first film he ever directed), Altman’s Gosford Park and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.
Lynch’s LA story I rushed to see twice, once in Germany and then in Vienna (viewing a new print of Blue Velvet the next day as part of a tribute to him). Recently I saw Mulholland Drive again and it has lost nothing. The humor sticks out more, Watts’s performance awes (even more so that they shot the first 2/3 of the film a good year apart from the last 1/3-it was going to be an ABC TV series but the bigwigs said no after they saw the pilot episode), and every performer from the Cowboy to the leather-skinned homeless man behind Winkies is perfectly realized. Lynch continued the abstract last 1/3 of Mulholland with its companion piece, Inland Empire 2006, a very worthy successor. Here the film director is summoned to meet the Cowboy in the Hollywood hills. All of his money has disappeared and he is losing control of casting his new film.
Gosford Park moves like a ballet. At a country estate the camera flows around the rich and poor characters, seeking foibles and humor. And there is a healthy dose but in the end Helen Mirren breaks down in the arms of her sister–an elusive fact for most of the film. She wails about her lost son, another servant, who came to the weekend to kill his father–the lord of the estate. But Helen Mirren, who years ago was the Lord’s sex toy and birthed this orphan (now a thirty-something Clive Owen bent on revenge) kills the Lord first. But Clive still kills a dead man and thinks he has indeed killed him. Got it? It’s the best murder-mystery in cinema history and it’s funny as hell. Here the one Irish servant, played by Kelly McDonald, finally realizes the truth about the situation.
In the Bedroom is the most serious film of the three–to my memory there are no laughs. This film should be a primer on how to adapt a short story (by Andre Dubus). Field wrote the screenplay and added a good deal that seems to have been channeled from Dubus. I am a-okay with him being behind the helm of the upcoming Blood Meridian. Despite the critical accolades for Sissy Spacek, it is Tom Wilkinson’s film–he plays the grieving father. The scene where he thinks before turning a gun on his son’s killer and eventually shooting him is so quiet and effective it reminds one of De Niro in Taxi Driver.
The films I choose for the best of the decade jolted me in the theater. I sat aghast, sweaty and yearning to remember my identity before being exposed to these runs of celluloid and sound. Dancer in the Dark (2000) by Lars Von Trier is that. I would equally place his Dogville (2003) on the list but Dancer makes me foam at the mouth a bit more. A musical with murder and execution? There can’t have been many of these. And call Von Trier a misogynist, a fascist–he produces some of the most powerful images of any director working. Added bonus: Bjork singing. In this scene, Bjork’s character comes upon her neighbor, a policeman (played by the great David Morse) blackmailing her out of the money she has been saving for her child’s operation on his malformed eyes. Things take a little turn…
The only foreign language film is Michael Haneke’s Cache. It is a thriller in the style of Antonioni’s Blow-Up. Many things are happening, we don’t see them all, but then we see something we’ve never seen before. In this case it’s when the Algerian man (Majid), who George (Haneke’s ubiquitous name for most of his male protagonists) thinks is tormenting him with videotape footage of his house, tells the taller Frenchman that he called him to his apartment to see something. Then Majid pulls out a knife. What follows sent the theater I saw it in (Sunshine-Houston St.) into gasps and grunts.
Finally Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead 2007. Overshadowed by the rock ’em, sock ’em No Country for Old Men and There Will be Blood on release, it is another tragedy in the mode of Shakespeare and it has Philip Seymour Hoffman’s greatest performance. Lumet’s camera bears in on his actors and every minute of this film gets ratcheted into a more combustible state. The opening scene should shake you up if you were expecting the same old white over black titles.
This long take (begin at 2:36) is stunning. I love it because it doesn’t explain anything. It is very matter of fact. Hoffman’s character has just taken some money out of his safe and he goes into one of Manhattan’s towers. Lumet lets it play out in one shot.
Murder is central to every one of these films. It’s something most people don’t experience day to day. Does this account for the fascination? But these aren’t slasher films, they are high tragedies. These filmmakers have mastered image storytelling. It’s quite a grip.